Watching The Mandalorian often felt a little unsettling, because it was so overwhelmingly my thing. Not that I was being targeted, but that the people who grew up around the same time I did had finally been put in charge of Star Wars productions. The closing credits really drove the feeling home, feeling simultaneously like a call out to the concept art by Ralph McQuarrie that I had hanging up on my bedroom wall, and TV series from the 1970s like The Wild Wild West that had a near-subliminal impact on my aesthetic.
Ahsoka was not that. It was completely, unapologetically, made for fans of The Clone Wars and Rebels, rewarding them for their loyalty with live action versions of their favorite characters.
I didn’t dislike those series, and in fact there’s a lot of aspects about them that I love, from the stylized character designs reminiscent of Thunderbirds, to the storylines that delivered on jetpack-wearing Mandalorians totally kicking ass years before The Mandalorian season one. But I could never really get into the series, either. Several times I’ve attempted to get caught up on both of them, but I never last more than a few episodes.
As a result, I could recognize a lot of what Ahsoka is doing, but I spend the whole time extremely aware that it’s not speaking to me as it would a super-fan.
(I’m also not a fan of the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn, I don’t get the appeal at all, and I pretty strongly disliked the almost universally-beloved Heir to the Empire series of books that introduced him).
The only reason any of this is relevant is because it gave Ahsoka the series a very slow start, as the rest of us got caught up with the super-fans. That’s too bad, because a ton of fantastic, moody set design and character design got kind of lost or pushed to the wayside to make room for guest appearances, character reunions, or references. Some of the characters just didn’t need to be there, and they would’ve been cut as extraneous if this series hadn’t been built on the legacy of two others. It felt as if it took a few episodes to stop being Rebels and start being Ahsoka.
It was only in the last few episodes that I could appreciate how much new stuff was going on while the series was so insistent on playing with its old stuff. If you look at the stills gallery on the show’s official page, it’s a reminder of some of the exotic and evocative images: oh right, this show had sword fights in misty woods filled with red-leaved trees, and fantastic star maps, and multiple flavors of ancient ruins, and impossibly huge statues, and a forbidding fortress, and a coven of witches, and a stormtrooper captain with a golden face. Plus green magic!
I wish the series had spent more time with Baylan Skoll and his apprentice Shin Hati, two characters not quite like any others that I can remember seeing in Star Wars. It felt as if Ahsoka only took off once it had gotten out of the known galaxy and started telling its own story.
And one thing I really liked about the series, once it started telling its own story, was how often it managed to feel weighty while still having the scope of a TV series. Any of us who’ve ever had to tell a story with a strict budget has learned how to come up with in-world explanations for why there aren’t more people around, or why the main characters can’t travel to more locations. Sometimes it’s subtle enough to feel seamless; most of the time, it’s not.
Ahsoka does feel small when it tries to suggest the New Republic as a galaxy-spanning bureaucracy with a huge fleet; you can really tell that it’s just a few actors and some stressed VFX artists. I rarely have any complaints about the Volume, since I think the look of it genuinely adds to the aesthetic of The Mandalorian, making it feel exactly like Star Wars On TV. Like so much of VFX, it’s only an issue when it’s being used for something it’s not well suited to do.
It does a lot better with a desolate planet of exile and death, where it seems as every living thing has abandoned it to live elsewhere. An ancient and forbidding fortress. The fanatical but barely-surviving remnants of an Imperial infantry. A wasteland populated by small groups of bandits and great statues dedicated to civilizations long vanished. It all rarely feels like a cop-out, because it lets the action stay focused on just a few people.
I don’t know enough about the behind-the-scenes of the productions to know what happens next; are there plans for another series, or is the cliffhanger to be resolved in the promised “Mandoverse” movie? (From what I’ve heard, I believe it’s the latter). We’re obviously due to get some kind of pay-off to Baylan Skoll’s quest, which was frustratingly drawn out with vague promises of Interesting Plot to Come Later. RIP to Ray Stevenson who did such a good job of suggesting a complex and interesting character that I’m afraid he’s irreplaceable.
Regardless, it’s somewhat reassuring to be caught up (more or less) with the even-nerdier fans and be relatively confident that whatever happens next is going to be new to all of us. I just hope that however this story continues, the storytellers remember that it’s almost always better to have something that feels epic but focuses on a few characters, instead of something that tries to show us the full spectacle rather than just suggesting it. After all, Star Wars‘s best finale is the first attack on the Death Star, which it’s never been able to top after decades of throwing in more spaceships, more battle droids, and hell, why not a thousand Star Destroyers that all have planet-destroying laser guns?!