"The Acolyte" follows the Thread to tell a tragic Jedi story from the witches' perspective

"Star Wars" introduced witches as evil, magical women. This episode shows them as a people persecuted by the Jedi

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 12, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Star Wars: The Acolyte (Lucasfilm Ltd. / Disney+)
Star Wars: The Acolyte (Lucasfilm Ltd. / Disney+)

The following contains spoilers from "Star Wars: The Acolyte" Episode 3, "Destiny"

Star Wars” spirituality revolves around dichotomies – good and evil, light and the Dark Side, the Jedi and the Sith. Some characters exist on the spectrum, but we mainly learn about the ones who align with the holy knights of this mythos.

With “Star Wars: The Acolyte” series creator Leslye Headland uses a standard vengeance tale to expand the audience’s view of one of the more irksome designations in George Lucas’ expanded canon: witches.

Primarily explored in official “Star Wars” novels and comic books, witches are the “magic users” in a mythology where magic is presented as an extension of The Force. Predictably, most of its wielders are women — evil, evil women known as the Nightsisters, Dathomir witches who ally with the Dark side, as seen in “Ahsoka,” and through Asajj Ventress’ arc in “The Clone Wars.” 

But the galaxy is full of beings from cultures that aren’t monolithic, as Headland reminds us by introducing another coven, the one that twin sisters Mae and Osha (Amandla Stenberg) come from.

These witches, led by Mother Aniseya (Jodie Turner-Smith) made their home on the planet Brendok, a place beyond the High Republic’s jurisdiction. That’s a vital detail to understanding the severity of the sin for which Mae has decided four Jedi must pay for their lives, a vendetta that began with her murder of Carrie-Anne Moss’ Master Indara.

"Destiny," the third episode, written by Jasmyne Flournoy and Eileen Shim flashes back 16 years to the incident that made Mae an assassin and briefly set Osha on the path to mastering the Jedi arts. Understanding the enormity of what happened means seeing what was lost.

Osha and Mae’s backstory shows how similar the core of coven’s faith is to that of the Jedi save for different terminologies – to them, the Force is known as the Thread – and practices. “The galaxy is not a place that welcomes women like us, witches who have the abilities we do,” Aniseya tells her children. 

Those abilities, as we come to find out, are expansive.  Osha and Mae don't have a father. Their other parent Mother Koril (Margarita Levieva) carried them, and hints in passing that the Jedi would frown upon the circumstances of their conception.

“The twins are not normal children,” Koril warns Aniseya, but we already know that. One hundred years after these events, another pair of twins will save the Republic from the Empire that presumably rises from the seeds of whatever is being planted in this era.

Star Wars: The AcolyteStar Wars: The Acolyte (Lucasfilm Ltd. / Disney+)

In the High Republic age, since this coven is considered to be dark and unnatural, Osha and Mae would be viewed that way too. But the audience only sees a loving group that protects their youngest – the only children in their group — and spoils them with sweets called spice creams. (Not much imagination goes into inventing creative terms for the smallest accouterments in “Star Wars,” alas.)

Anyone who despises encountering feminist themes in their “Star Wars” stories already hates “The Acolyte.” But "Destiny" contains deep links to the discourse, some alluding to widely critiqued elements of modern goddess worship in white feminism. Calling the witches' power source The Thread may be inspired by the Muses or by the myth of Arachne, in which a skilled weaver defeats Athena, who responds by transforming her into a spider.

(Left out of this rudimentary description is that Arachne is from an outsider culture, and her winning tapestry depicted all the times male gods forced themselves on human women. Arachne was right. But she didn’t represent the Olympian patriarchy and therefore had to be punished.)

“The galaxy is not a place that welcomes women like us."

The coven’s cloistered stronghold is a peaceful place where Mae and Osha's elders try to keep them hidden in the hours leading up to a ceremony called the Ascension. This is the coven’s version of a confirmation ceremony, only in addition to officially taking their faith, Osha and Mae agree to inherit their mother’s power.

Mae is enthusiastic to undergo this rite of passage. Osha has doubts, especially once she learns that four Jedi are searching for the twins – Indara, Sol (Lee Jung-jae), Torbin (Dean-Charles Chapman) and a Wookiee named Kelnacca (Joonas Suotamo).

Star Wars: The AcolyteStar Wars: The Acolyte (Lucasfilm Ltd. / Disney+)

Osha has internalized the dominant messaging about the Jedi, which is they’re the arbiters of goodness in the universe while witches are evil. Jedi law prohibits the training of Force-wielding children by any other than their Order, making Osha question whether the culture in which she’s been raised is wrong.

Many interpretations of “Star Wars” spirituality cite Christianity and Buddhism as Lucas’ main influences in creating the Force. But in 1999 Lucas told journalist Bill Moyers (who was also an ordained minister) that he included the Force in “Star Wars” “to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.” 

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Later in that Time magazine interview, Lucas said, “I didn’t want to invent a religion. I wanted to try to explain in a different way the religions that have already existed. I wanted to express it all.”

At the time, he may not have imagined how Headland, through Flournoy and Shim’s script, would interpret that.

Star Wars: The AcolyteStar Wars: The Acolyte (Lucasfilm Ltd. / Disney+)

The family Mae and Osha were born into comprises women from many races and worlds who look to Aniseya, a Black woman, for leadership and guidance.

Anyone who despises encountering feminist themes in their “Star Wars” stories already hates “The Acolyte.” But this episode contains deep links to the discourse.

Casting Turner-Smith in this role nods toward matrilineal societies that existed for centuries on the African continent, among the Americas’ Indigenous peoples and in Asian societies. Explorers’ interactions with these cultures fueled Europe’s so-called “civilizing missions” to correct what they viewed as upside-down societal structures.

When Aniseya establishes the terms of the coven’s conflict with the Jedi by explaining that it isn’t about which side is good and which is bad, but that “this is about power and who is allowed to use it,” the “Acolyte” writers paint the Jedi as a colonizing force.  

Only in recent “Star Wars” films and TV shows have other systems come into play, like the Way of the Mandalore or even the concept of being Force-sensitive. But the witches on Brendok exist outside the Republic’s political system and therefore ostensibly beyond the jurisdiction of its spiritual warrior class.

Presumably, Lucasfilm only allows its writers to take their sociopolitical parables point; we can’t leave the audience thinking that the Jedi might not be the good guys all the time, merely that mistakes were made.

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Thus, the fire obliquely referenced in previous episodes that was presumed to have killed Mae and the rest of the coven is shown as having been started by . . . Mae. Before that, Aniseya reluctantly gives Osha's choice her blessing, absolving Indara, Sol and the rest of any kidnapping charges. (Ventress, as “Clone Wars” viewers know, was not so lucky.)

The Jedi were trying to do what they thought to be the right thing, which is often the first defense among those who overreach and end up hurting people. “The Acolyte” also allows Sol and Torbin, at least, to show enough wisdom and humility to know they’ve done wrong and try to atone in some way.

That pushes them into the moral range between the certainties or one or the other, which is the best part of the most provocative spiritual and narrative journeys. This show may end up falling short, but with "Destiny" it fulfills a guiding objective of its universe’s creator by inviting viewers to question a dogma long ago accepted as righteous.

New episodes of "Star Wars: The Acolyte" stream Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/ 6 p.m. PT on Disney+.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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