This week Disney+ launches its much-awaited new series Ahsoka, which follows the adventures of fan favorite Star Wars character Ahsoka Tano and friends Sabine Wren and Hera Syndulla as they attempt to thwart the return of their nemesis, Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Thrawn is a legendary Star Wars villain, and seeing him presented for the first time as a live-action character is a very big deal. But for many viewers, including myself, the most exciting part of this new series is the hoped-for exploration of Ahsoka’s status as a Jedi. Having started as a loyal and talented padawan to Anakin, over the course of Star Wars: Clone Wars, Ahsoka Tano ended up leaving the order after they mistakenly threw her out.
Since then fans have referred to her as a 'Gray Jedi,' someone who has finished their training yet decides to use operate outside the regulations of the Jedi Council. While that term comes from Star Wars books and video games, thus far it has not been used in any work considered canon. (Having said that, usually any time we meet Ahsoka since then — including in trailers for the series — she’s wearing gray.)
In trailers for the series we’ve learned that at some point Ahsoka began to train Sabine to be a Jedi, which itself begs all kinds of questions about how Ahsoka understands herself. And I have to say, I’m thrilled at the possibilities. As heroic as they seem for much of the original trilogy, over the course of the Star Wars Saga the Jedi are revealed to be a disaster of an organization. Ahsoka Tano offers a better way forward.
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda were not what they seemed
Listen, I love Obi-Wan Kenobi. I wish he were my uncle living in the desert imitating dragon song and occasionally driving my parents crazy with stories of his insane adventures. I am here for that.
But as kindly and protective as he seems toward Luke in the original film, over the course of the trilogy we learn that he and Yoda have actually been training Luke to kill his father, and don’t seem terribly motivated to reveal that crucial detail about Vader’s identity. You can understand Ben not wanting to reveal the truth about Anakin in A New Hope; it’s baby steps for Luke at the start. But when we get to Luke leaving to rescue his friends near the end of Empire Strikes Back and Yoda and Ben still won’t tell him what’s what, you start to wonder.
Even that famous line, "There is another," which Yoda says when Luke flies away, proves to be a way of saying, If this kid goes south, we've got a spare. It's a strategic comment that treats Luke as a piece in a greater plan.
In a sense these two only get worse after Luke does learn the truth, insisting if he doesn’t kill his dad literally everything will be lost. And they are absolutely wrong about this. In fact, if Luke had followed their instruction, no one would have stopped the Emperor and the Empire would have curb stomped the Rebellion out of existence.
Given just how wrong they got it, you might expect at least a beat of Ben and Yoda at the end acknowledging Luke’s greater wisdom and their own blindness. But instead all we get is them shimmering happily in the background alongside the man they wanted to have murdered by his own child, Anakin Skywalker.
It’s a happy ending, sure, but it begs an awful lot of questions about the Jedi.
The prequel Jedi are exactly what they seem (and that is worse)
When Episode I was announced, the promise was that we were going to get see the Jedi at their height and watch all the incredible things they could do. And there are definitely some pretty cool fights in the prequels.
But mostly what we’re presented with over the course of that trilogy is a monolithic organization so smugly confident in its own policies and procedures it has no compunction about ignoring the humanity of its members or anyone else. The way Qui-Gon Jinn uses Anakin to get off Tatooine, and then also takes him away from his mother, while she remains a slave is straight-up horrific. And the Jedi Council proves no better. They interrogate that little boy like he’s on trial, and seem almost intent on shaming him.
The movies that follow only paint the Jedi worse—more cops with laser swords than wisdom figures, clueless as to how they’re being manipulated and mired in their own bureaucracy. There’s almost something cathartic in Anakin finally refusing to keep playing by their rules and joining the Emperor. The Dark Side may be bad, but organizationally the Jedi seem soulless. In the end the non-Jedi Padmé is the only one who seems to see things clearly: She’s the only one that calls out Qui-Gon for using Anakin, and the only one that recognizes that there’s still good in Anakin at the end.
Luke and Rian got it right, but no one listened
I’m a believer in The Last Jedi ending to the saga, which argues you don’t have to have a be a part of some special family in order to be a Jedi, and confronts for the first time the obvious problems of the Jedi as a group. Luke’s great sin, that he contemplated killing his nephew after discovering the boy was being drawn to the Dark Side, is exactly the same temptation that his mentors Obi-Wan and Yoda fell into. But where they never faced their mistakes, Luke drives himself away. He recognizes the danger that this Jedi way of thinking poses.
Obviously the movie doesn’t leave him there, but it’s notable that he only comes to a renewed openness about his own life as a Jedi once the Force-Yoda destroys the library of Jedi texts, symbolically wiping out every trace of that organization. Rather than trying to force himself into a model that he never lived and that in part messed him up, he gets to consider his vocation on his own terms. And right away he does something that no Jedi has ever been able to do.
Unfortunately, these ideas didn’t last very long, as the Rise of Skywalker dragged the series back to a place where being a Jedi is about being the descendant of a great family. And even as Rey goes back to Luke’s childhood home on Tatooine to bury Luke and Leia’s lightsabers, as though she herself is closing the book on that chapter of the universe’s history, in the end she can only understand herself by re-embedding herself within the old categories, insisting in the final line of the movie that she’s “Rey Skywalker.”
Ahsoka Tano shows what a future freed from the Jedi can be
Introduced at the start of Star Wars: Clone Wars as Anakin’s padawan, Ahsoka Tano becomes over the course of the first five seasons of the series pretty much the ideal Jedi. She’s dependable to a fault, hard-working, creative, encouraging, and beloved by pretty much everyone. Even though she’s Anakin’s padawan, she’s also very clearly his main support system, the one person he has in the Jedi that isn’t constantly telling him what to do or treating him like a pupil. She’s also the only Jedi who seems to notice how sad the war has made Yoda.
And yet when the Temple’s hangar gets bombed and she gets framed, none of that counts for anything. She’s expelled from the Order and put on trial. Once again, we see the same fundamental Jedi mistakes cropping up: a lack of loyalty and care for their own people; and a profound capacity for misjudgment.
But just like Luke after the Jedi books have all been burned, once Ahsoka leaves the order she only becomes that much greater a force for good. The Jedi refused to help free Mandalorians from the rule of Darth Maul. Once on her own, Ahsoka liberated the planet. In the aftermath of the Emperor’s purge of the Jedi what few remained went into hiding. Meanwhile Ahsoka became the point person for the Rebellion’s entire intelligence efforts.
And when she finally comes face to face with her old master, though she begins from the assumption of Anakin’s evil that Ben and Yoda will insist on later, by the end she’s come to the same belief as Padmé and Luke: this man still has good within him. She actually chooses to leave her friends and stay with Anakin in a collapsing temple rather than abandon him, even as he tries to kill her.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that Ahsoka’s capacity to be this incredible paradigm-defying Jedi is a result of her overall training in the order. But that’s what makes the idea that she was training Sabine so thrilling to explore. While Jedi start as children living and learning together, the fundamental relationship and formative experience is that between the teacher and the student. You don’t need a massive bureaucratic institution to have that. In fact the great Luke Skywalker never had that himself. And yet, with time spent learning how to commune with the Force, he ended up seeing things his teachers could not, and saved the whole universe.
We'll see where the series takes all this. Perhaps Ahsoka's reluctance to train Sabine will prove to be a function of her own fear of becoming like the mentors and order who failed her. Certainly the series seems poised to try and suck her back into the role of soldier, which proved so disastrous for the Jedi.
But at her heart what makes Ahsoka Tano so special as a character is not her loyalty to an organization but her ability to see beyond classifications and procedures to the needs and struggles of the beings that she meets. For all their good desires and good deeds, that's an area in which the Jedi of the Star Wars Saga have persistently failed.