‘The Acolyte’ review: Just what Star Wars needs

The Acolyte is everything I’ve wanted from a Star Wars series since Disney began releasing its live-action shows.

Unlike other Star Wars TV outings like The Mandalorian or Ahsoka, The Acolyte doesn’t rely as much on connections to prior material in order to coax investment from audiences. (Andor remains the exception to the rule.) Instead, creator Leslye Headland (Russian Doll) takes advantage of The Acolyte‘s new time period, building out a tense thriller in a chunk of the Star Wars timeline that most viewers won’t be too familiar with.


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The Acolyte transports us to the High Republic Era.

Master Sol from "The Acolyte" stands in a town square in his Jedi robes.

Lee Jung-jae in “The Acolyte.”
Credit: Christian Black

The new time period in question is the High Republic Era, a stretch of peace roughly a century before the events of The Phantom Menace. While there are several multimedia projects set in the High Republic Era, including novels and graphic novels, The Acolyte marks the first time we see this period onscreen in live action. That offers Headland a greater amount of freedom to build something original. The Acolyte is stronger for it, all while remaining an undeniably Star Wars story.

Of course, there are still familiar Star Wars elements on display in The Acolyte. The series focuses on the Jedi Order, so get ready to venture back to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, witness lightsaber battles, and hear all about how emotional attachment can make a Jedi weak. (Oh, and you know there’s a “may the Force be with you” or two in the show’s future.)


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But while we’ve seen variations on these storylines and set pieces before, The Acolyte‘s High Republic setting lends them all an entirely new context. As the series opens, the Jedi are at the height of their power, keeping peace all across the galaxy. They prefer to fight hand-to-hand, resulting in stylized martial arts sequences that set The Acolyte‘s combat apart from works that come later in the Star Wars timeline. A lightsaber is a last resort against a formidable foe — a far cry from the colorful flashing Jedi battles we’re more accustomed to, and a telling detail about the peaceful state of the galaxy.

Yet that peace may soon be at an end. Dark forces gather against the Jedi, among them young warrior Mae Aniseya (Amandla Stenberg, Bodies Bodies Bodies). Her mysterious master — sporting a black helmet carved with a wide, spooky smile — has tasked her with killing key Jedi Masters from her own past. It’s not long before word of Mae’s murder spree reaches the Jedi Order, where Jedi Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae, Squid Game) will assemble a team to hunt her down.

To reveal much more about The Acolyte‘s plot would be to spoil its biggest — and most rewarding — bombshells. But for all its twists and turns, The Acolyte‘s first four episodes (all that were made available to critics) never once drag out a predictable surprise, trusting the audience with secret after secret, while still promising several down the road.

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The Acolyte dives deep into the Light side of the Force — and the Dark.

Yord, Jecki, and Sol from "The Acolyte" rush into battle in a dark forest, their lightsabers aglow.

Charlie Barnett, Dafne Keen, and Lee Jung-jae in “The Acolyte.”
Credit: Christian Black

On top of being an enthralling thriller, one of The Acolyte‘s greatest strengths is how it deepens our understanding of the Force — its uses, its boundaries, and who gets to wield it.

Early on in the series, we encounter a coven of Witches on the planet Brendock. While they are what the Jedi would call “Force sensitive,” they certainly don’t refer to themselves as Jedi. Nor do they even conceptualize what we think of as “the Force” in the same way. Their community is just one of many fascinating worldbuilding details that color The Acolyte‘s views on the Force: What happens when the Jedi butt heads with people who have a totally different take on the power that binds the galaxy together?

These kinds of confrontations may chafe against some viewers’ ideas of the Jedi, and it’s clear The Acolyte relishes that complication. The Jedi we meet — an ensemble that includes Charlie Barnett, Dafne Keen, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Dean-Charles Chapman — all have vastly different relationships to the Order. Some are the most devout of rule followers, relishing the Order’s strict structure. Others have left the Jedi entirely, only to return when needed.

The Acolyte‘s characters’ varying ties to and perceptions of the Jedi create vast grey areas for them to navigate, bookended (naturally) by the Light and the Dark. While the ensemble is great across the board, it’s Stenberg’s performance that most embodies this conflict, zipping up and down the Force’s legendary gradient at a moment’s notice. At times chilling in her determination, at others charming in her interaction with allies, Stenberg delivers an instantly memorable Star Wars anti-hero. (Or maybe even a hero?)

Characters like Mae (or Sol, or Keen’s Jecki, or Barnett’s Yord) are perhaps The Acolyte‘s greatest gift. These are new people to meet, with new inter-personal relationships to explore. Why does Sol feel a strange regret and obligation to Mae? What lengths will Jecki and Yord go to to serve the Jedi? What turned Mae to the Dark Side in the first place? The Acolyte fleshes out these questions — and then some — to deliver a strong ensemble. And the fact that this ensemble is new is just what Star Wars needs.

Star Wars is not about how many times Luke Skywalker can pop up unannounced, or about how many Easter eggs you can cram into an episode. It’s about the many denizens of the galaxy answering the call to fight for what they believe in, as messy and daunting as it may seem. Whether they serve the Jedi or the Dark Side, every one of The Acolyte‘s characters have answered that call in a way that feels specific and real and propulsive. They are definitive proof that Star Wars series shouldn’t be drawing time and again from the same well of nostalgia, that they should be willing to try something new and complicate what came before. Star Wars encompasses an entire galaxy, after all! The Acolyte proves you reap the rewards when you actually explore that vast expanse.

The first two episodes of The Acolyte premiere June 4 at 9 p.m. ET on Disney+, with a new episode every Tuesdat at 9 p.m. ET.


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