It’s easy to see, and not hard to hear, why Disney deemed Ahsoka Episode 5, “Shadow Warrior,” worthy of screening in select theaters. It’s the best-looking and best-sounding episode of this series so far, and it may be the most sumptuous episode of any of the Mandoverse’s Volume-produced series. Sabine, Baylan, Shin, and Morgan may have gone intergalactic last week, but the OG Star Wars galaxy’s hottest setting is Seatos. This place has everything: Picturesque landscapes. Mysterious standing stones. Space whales. Visions of the World Between Worlds, including lightsaber duels, de-aged Hayden Christensen, and flashbacks to the Clone Wars. Visually and aurally, “Shadow Warrior” is so classically cinematic it makes me wish once again that there were still such things as Star Wars movies.
Visual inventiveness, a mystical sense of wonder, and prequel nostalgia make a potent trio. But a massive screen and sound system aren’t just the best ways to absorb Episode 5’s aesthetic delights; they’re also the best ways to distract yourself from its narrative unevenness. Last week’s strong installment set up a potential touchdown on Tuesday night, and though “Shadow Warrior” doesn’t drop the well-placed pass from “Fallen Jedi,” it doesn’t get the greatest yardage after the catch. (Yes, the NFL season just started.) “Shadow Warrior” accomplishes two important storytelling tasks. First, it forces Ahsoka out of her funk, and second, it puts her back on the Pathway to Peridea, after last week’s climax left the titular protagonist stranded a galaxy away from her goal. Thus far, neither of those developments feels fully earned. “Shadow Warrior” isn’t all style, no substance, but it favors the former enough to make it merely an immensely entertaining episode, if not the unalloyed moment of triumph that some fans (and, perhaps, writer/director Dave Filoni) foresaw.
Much of “Shadow Warrior” is split between the search for Ahsoka on Seatos (conducted by Hera, Jacen, Captain Teva, and the droids), and an extended encounter with Anakin—or Anakin’s spirit, or Ahsoka’s projection of Anakin—wherever Ahsoka’s consciousness is. The former scenes aren’t bad—in fact, they contain a few of my favorite lines from the episode—but because our focus is firmly on Ahsoka, they can’t help but feel a little like unwelcome interruptions that tear us away from the main event. The episode could have benefited from a little less exploration of the seas of Seatos and a little more plumbing of Ahsoka’s emotional depths. We know she’s not going to get rescued until she learns what she needs to learn, and the back-and-forth structure stands in the way of extra “training” that might have helped sell her metamorphosis two-thirds of the way through the episode.
When we left Ahsoka last episode, she’d just awakened and addressed her old master in what appeared to be the World Between Worlds, once described by Darth Sidious as a “mystical realm [that] connects all of time and space, creating a conduit between the living and the dead.” It’s easy to surmise why Filoni went back to the World Between Worlds well, after introducing the concept in Rebels: It’s the perfect framework for his primary mission as a Star Wars storyteller. In 2022’s Disney Gallery: The Book of Boba Fett, Filoni laid out his and Jon Favreau’s philosophy of “making this feel like one big, connected galaxy. That’s what Star Wars is. Where all the stories come together.” That sentiment echoed his 2018 explanation of the narrative purpose of the World Between Worlds: “One of the things I wanted to do was find a way to tie together all of the Star Wars films and animated series in one place, so that people get this idea that this is all a connected thing.” In “Shadow Warrior”—a recycled Clone Wars title, and another Kurosawa reference—he does that again, joining the Mandoverse to the prequels, The Clone Wars, and Rebels via Ahsoka’s interactions with Anakin—the ghost of conflict past.
In Rebels, Ahsoka says, “When you think you understand the Force, you realize just how little you know.” With her humility in mind, we can’t be confident in exactly what we’re seeing in this episode or where it’s taking place, but I suspect Ahsoka isn’t really in the realm she and Ezra visited in Rebels. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to function the way the World Between Worlds on Rebels did: Ahsoka doesn’t enter or exit via a gateway, or overhear voices from outside her personal experience, or view events through portals that depict different times. She simply appears, and then flits between scenes in dreamlike fashion. Also, Chopper detects her body in the water before her visions end, which suggests that at that point, at least, her physical form is on Seatos.
Of course, Force-sensitive Jacen “hears” the sound of Ahsoka’s lightsaber clashing with Anakin’s, which might indicate that their showdown is transpiring somewhere outside her head. Then again, which is more likely: that he’d be able to eavesdrop on a run-in in another realm, or that he’d sense a nearby Ahsoka’s thoughts and powerful emotions? I lean toward the latter. (At the start of Episode 2, Ahsoka seemed to eavesdrop on Sabine’s dreams.) Similarly, I suspect the Anakin that Ahsoka sees is an amalgamation of memories and fears conjured by her mind, not her old/young master in the flesh or in his post–Return of the Jedi incorporeal form. It wouldn’t be the first time Ahsoka’s mind has tormented her with an imaginary Anakin, prompted by proximity to a place that’s powerful in the Force.
Fascinating as Force metaphysics may be, it ultimately doesn’t matter that much whether these scenes are set in the actual World Between Worlds or in Ahsoka’s mind (if those locations are even mutually exclusive). What matters most is what happens, and how she grows. Wherever and whenever she is, Ahsoka seemingly learns something of the utmost importance in her meeting with her master, but the message is muddled enough that it’s tough to pinpoint precisely what it is.
Ahsoka’s scenes with Anakin are bookended by two prequel-esque duels: one in which her former master is still in his pre-fall form, and one in which his eyes and blade are Vader-red. Between those two showdowns, Ahsoka relives multiple battles from her formative years, as her younger self (played by Ariana Greenblatt, a.k.a. young Gamora from Avengers: Infinity War and Sasha from Barbie). The first flashback takes us to either the Battle of Teth—one of the first conflicts of the Clone Wars, as seen in the Clone Wars film—or the Battle of Ryloth, where Ahsoka wrestled with remorse after losing much of the first clone squadron under her command. The second flashback is certainly Ryloth, as signaled by the Twi’lek bystanders. (This conflict, and the part Ahsoka played in it, were previously covered in a three-episode arc near the end of the first season of The Clone Wars, though Ahsoka and Anakin’s participation in the fighting on the ground wasn’t shown.) The third flashback—which features a cameo by Clone Wars/Rebels legend Captain Rex, in his live-action debut (voiced by Temuera Morrison)—features the Siege of Mandalore, the centerpiece of The Clone Wars Season 7.
In all of these vignettes, Ahsoka reckons with her guilt about her history, brought back to the surface by Baylan’s assertion in Episode 4 that “Your legacy, like your master’s, is one of death and destruction.” Anakin informs her that he’s here to finish her training with an existential lesson: “Live … or die.” Ahsoka says she won’t fight him, to which he responds, “I’ve heard that before.” And just like Luke on the second Death Star, Ahsoka must ignite her blade in self-defense when Anakin/Vader attacks. (This retort may be the best argument that the Anakin that Ahsoka talks to isn’t only in her head: Unless Luke has told Ahsoka about his final showdown with his dad, Ahsoka wouldn’t know about that line.)
On Ryloth, young Ahsoka holds the hand of an injured clone, bringing him (and herself) some solace. But Anakin disrupts that peaceful impulse, insisting that the battle isn’t over. “I’m teaching you how to lead, how to survive, and to do that you’re going to have to fight,” he declares. Ahsoka asks, “What if I wanna stop fighting?” Anakin’s answer echoes the Emperor’s to Luke, and Darth Maul’s to Ezra, and Vader’s to Obi-Wan: “Then you’ll die.”
Ahsoka doesn’t want to be solely a warrior. She doesn’t want to have nothing to teach her padawan except how to fight. And she doesn’t want to be part of a lineage of “nontraditional Jedi,” if her part of that legacy is “death and war.” Anakin reminds her she’s more than that, as he was; he did, after all, temporarily bring balance to the Force. But first he fell to the dark side and slaughtered countless innocents, and Ahsoka could have that potential too. “Within you will be everything that I am,” Anakin says, a warning masquerading as reassurance.
When Ahsoka frets about her own inner Anakin, Anakin scolds her—“You’ve learned nothing”—and adds, “Back to the beginning,” hearkening back to his repeated order, “Again,” when she failed her training test on Tales of the Jedi. This time, he looks like the post-Order 66, pre-Mustafar Anakin who accepts his Sith name and slaughters the younglings. “I gave you a choice: Live, or die,” Anakin says. Ahsoka rejects that binary, just as she’s rejected the binary paths of lightness and darkness, Jedi and Sith. And then she forges her own path. “Time to die,” Anakin says, and disarms her. But Ahsoka slips past his defenses, grabs his saber, and holds it to his neck, as Anakin did to Count Dooku in Revenge of the Sith. Unlike Anakin, she doesn’t decapitate her helpless foe; she deactivates the blade, tosses it away à la Luke, and says, “I choose to live.” Anakin’s eyes lose their red tinge; he smiles, nods, and offers a pat, “There’s hope for you yet,” before disappearing. She’s passed the test: Not really his test, but her own.
I like a lot about these scenes. The way Ahsoka’s lightsaber changes—from single white to single green to double blue to double white—convey her personal evolution like a color-coded time-lapse film. The way Anakin’s footfalls sound like the clump of Vader’s boots, and his frame and voice flicker between unencumbered body and mechanical monster. The way Ahsoka’s hazy surroundings on Ryloth and Mandalore—in addition to covering for the Volume’s limitations—evoke the fog of war and the nebulous nature of dreams and memories. The acting of Christensen, Rosario Dawson, and Greenblatt, and the fact that Disney’s digital de-aging technology is largely up to the task of making Christensen look like his prequel-era self. “You look old,” Anakin says to Ahsoka, echoing Rex’s greeting when he reunites with Ahsoka in Rebels. Ahsoka responds, “Well, that happens.” Unless you have some help from the VFX department!*
What I like less is that the lesson seems as murky as those Ryloth skies. Sometimes it seems like Anakin is teaching Ahsoka. Sometimes it seems like she’s teaching him. (Though if this Anakin is Ahsoka’s subconscious, those amount to the same thing.) She starts the scene by refusing to fight him and finishes it in a similar place. Did it take a new round of faux fighting to teach her that she doesn’t have to fight? Was this tour of the childhood traumas that shaped her a means of convincing Ahsoka to give herself a break? Was Anakin’s insistence that “I haven’t taught you everything yet” just Ahsoka’s self-doubt speaking? Is the lesson that Anakin actually didn’t have anything left to teach her—that her training isn’t inadequate just because she walked away from the Jedi? (“Anakin never got to finish my training,” Ahsoka told Hera in Episode 1, recalling her own desertion of Sabine and evincing some of the same misgivings about her mentoring skills that Anakin may have later revealed when he joked, “Teaching’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”) Did her decision to let dream-Anakin live give her the conviction she’d lacked about her own capacity to resist giving in to anger? (Understandably, in light of her hurling Shin into a rock last week, and her earlier veiled reference to extracting information from Morgan.) Maybe she knew it was possible to live without killing, but didn’t know it was possible for her?
“Come on!” Anakin yells on Ryloth. “Forward!” Were these brief exchanges all it took for Ahsoka to move on from her past? Letting go of her anger, guilt, and grief about Anakin was a crucial step, but didn’t “Shadow Warrior” let the Emperor’s right-hand more-machine-than-man off a little easy? It would be one thing if this dip into the watery World Between Worlds were just the first step on Ahsoka’s path to personal healing—a route as fraught as the Path to Peridea. If dream-Anakin had said, “Well, that’s our time for today” and scheduled a follow-up appointment for the following week, the therapy session in “Shadow Warrior” would have been a promising first step. But considering that we’re more than halfway through the first season of a series that’s not necessarily slated for a second, and given the imagery that accompanies Ahsoka’s rescue, it seems like this is supposed to stand alone as the big, transformative moment that separates the old Ahsoka from the new.
First, there’s the figurative baptism and rebirth as Ahsoka is pulled out of the water and toward the light of the waiting New Republic ships. Second, there’s the new, white cloak she dons after arising from her long sleep. This is seemingly Ahsoka the White, the Gandalf-inspired final form—or, at least, leveled-up version—of the character who appeared in the epilogue of the Rebels finale and was retconned back to gray when the Ahsoka premiere reenacted the same scene. All that’s missing is her hood and staff. (The new cloak color goes great with her head-tails and facial markings, by the way.)
Third, there’s the way Ahsoka acts after her return. Last week, I speculated that Dawson’s portrayal of Ahsoka during the first half of the season was extra-restrained to create a contrast with the post-catharsis character. And there does seem to be an immediate change after her psychological load is lifted, as seen in her animated conversation with Jacen, her rapping on the T-6 cockpit’s canopy to get Huyang’s attention, and her excitement as the purrgil prepare to jump. (Not to mention the psychedelic space whales and beautiful blue skies.) “You want me to be more serious?” Anakin asks. Maybe Ahsoka has accepted that when the situation is serious, a little levity goes a long way—and also that she can learn from Anakin without following in his bootsteps.
I welcome the new Ahsoka, but her arrival seems a bit abrupt, and the lessons it took to ease her mind seem slightly facile. When Ahsoka says “I don’t understand,” Anakin says, “That’s your problem.” When a TV viewer doesn’t understand, it could be the viewer’s problem—but it may be an issue with the show.
When Ahsoka emerges from her chrysalis dressed unfashionably for after Labor Day, she uses her newfound psychometry skills to treat us to a second collection of clips from last week’s episode, which leads her to conclude that Sabine left on the Eye of Sion. I don’t know how or when Ahsoka developed a knack for exhuming memories from inanimate objects, but this is the second time in this series that she’s used this previously unacquired or unexpressed skill. Psychometry entered canon in The Clone Wars, and existed in Legends stories before that, but one gets the feeling that Filoni played Jedi: Fallen Order and thought Cal Kestis’s knack for feeling Force echoes was a good trick. As Anakin says, “One is never too old to learn.”
Sabine’s departure creates a dilemma: How to follow the Eye of Sion without a map? “We have to go after them,” Hera declares, but Ahsoka says, “I’m afraid … it’s not that simple.” Actually, it is! Right on cue, a pod of purrgil fly overhead, which gives Ahsoka a brilliant idea. “I know how to follow Sabine,” she announces, after a very abbreviated brainstorming period. Her plan to follow Sabine to Ezra’s galaxy is … to do exactly what Ezra did. Eureka!
Look, the purrgil are enormous; stately; majestic. Somehow they have gravitas despite being space whales/squids—a ridiculous but strangely common sci-fi trope—that can navigate through vacuum, glow, and leap between galaxies. But the beauty of this interspecies collab is undercut a bit by how easy it is, and hence, how odd it is that it wasn’t Plan A. All Ezra’s friends had to do was flag down the nearest purrgil and tell it to “Follow that whale”? It didn’t occur to anyone to try this at some point in the decade or so since Ezra disappeared? (Remember: Jacen was born after Ezra left.) There was never any need to capture and interrogate Morgan, find and decode the map, and so on?
If we want to be charitable, we could say that Ahsoka the Gray couldn’t or wouldn’t have persuaded the purrgil the way Ahsoka the White can. (Earlier in the season, Ahsoka the Gray stepped out onto the T-6’s hull to do battle with enemy fighters; the more peaceful Ahsoka the White steps out to talk to whales.) But wouldn’t Sabine or Hera have had the idea? Without some acknowledgement that in retrospect, this was an obvious solution—and without enlisting the aid of Jacen, Grogu, or anyone else who could have been brought in as a whale interpreter—this solution is a little less than satisfying. (Granted, Ahsoka has been soothing savage beasts since she was a baby.)
A few final notes:
- Anakin’s allusion to Luke summoned Return of the Jedi to mind, but much of the episode made me think of The Empire Strikes Back. The search for and eventual retrieval of Ahsoka reminded me of the search for Luke on Hoth. Sadly, Ahsoka didn’t have to stay warm inside the carcass of a creature that smelled bad on the outside—though she did end up inside a purrgil. Speaking of which, the view from inside the purrgil’s baleen-lined mouth evoked the space slug from Empire’s asteroid field. And the waterlogged Ahsoka’s muttered “Anakin … Anakin …” echoed Luke’s “Ben …” after his vision of Obi-Wan on Hoth. Plus, this episode ends with our hero about to mount a desperate rescue attempt. What could be more Empire than that?
- In some respects, this episode—like every Ahsoka episode—felt like fan service for longtime lovers of the Filoniverse, who recognize Clone Wars Anakin as the best Anakin. But it was also stuffed with some not-very-cleverly-camouflaged exposition for the benefit of Filoni noobs. Ahsoka saying “This is the Clone Wars!”; Teva asking “What am I missing?” and eliciting an explanation of Jacen’s parentage and Force sensitivity that, like a lot of non-Rebels heads, Teva couldn’t care less about; Jacen helpfully alerting the audience that the purrgil transported Ezra and Thrawn to a galaxy far, far, far away, and that they might do the same for Ahsoka. It wasn’t subtle, but hey, sometimes hands have to be held. And Filoni still snuck Rex into the episode in such a way that the Easter egg could thrill fans of the character without confusing anyone else.
- I gave short shrift to the non-Ahsoka portions of the episode on Seatos, but I want to shout out one of my favorite moments of the series: the melding of the surf and the lightsaber sounds, set to the Force Theme. An absolutely sublime sonic demonstration of Yoda’s quote about the Force being everywhere and Obi-Wan’s quote about it binding the galaxy together. And Hera heard the saber sounds too, another example of Ahsoka reframing the Force as something that doesn’t require a high midi-chlorian count to sense in some ways.
- I don’t want to shortchange the droids, either. Chopper saved Ahsoka (with a big assist from Jacen), and Huyang remains in the driver’s seat of the series—literally, and sometimes figuratively too. In an episode that was all about Ahsoka-Anakin nostalgia, Huyang had two of the most poignant lines. One of them applies as well to Ahsoka and Sabine as it does to Ahsoka and Anakin (or Anakin and Obi-Wan, or Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon): “I told them to stay together, but they never listen. They never listen.” The other brought warm feelings to my heart, and to Hera’s: “You do things your way because you care. This is why people like you.” Huyang even had the biggest laugh line of the episode, when he bluntly told Jacen that he wouldn’t train him or help him build a lightsaber. Star Wars droids are undefeated, even during the Disney era. Huyang prequel, please.
- We get our first Leia mention in the Mandoverse this week, as Teva tells Hera, “Senator Organa says she can only give us cover for so long.” It’s another in a long line of links to the sequel trilogy, foreshadowing Leia’s break from the complacent New Republic and leadership of the Resistance. With Hera presumably venturing to Coruscant to face the music (and the Senate) and try to avoid punishment for going AWOL, we may be in for more Mon Mothma, if not the ex-princess herself. However, Hera’s New Republic plot line has felt a tad extraneous as it is; one could cut her and Teva (and, obviously, the absent Zeb!) without losing the spine of the series’ story. With Ahsoka, Sabine, and the villains in another galaxy, it may be difficult to keep Hera’s upcoming appearances from feeling like a sideshow. (If she’s even on the show at all.)
- How will Ahsoka the White maintain her more pacifistic stance as she goes after Morgan, Baylan, Shin, and Thrawn? Will she relapse, violence-wise? Or is she OK with some killing, now that she’s less stressed about turning into Anakin? (Everything in moderation; fighting a few dark side wielders to prevent Thrawn’s return doesn’t seem like a slippery slope.) And how will she approach her wayward apprentice, now that she’s come to terms with some of the psychic scars from her own apprenticeship?
To borrow a phrase from Hera, “Shadow Warrior” was about chasing ghosts—in the Ghost, and inside Ahsoka’s soul. The pursuit was largely thrilling, if a bit bumpy. As the space whales soar past the Republic’s whale-like cruisers, there’s a sense that both the series and its eponymous protagonist have cast off their constraints. In the first episode of the series, Ahsoka mused, “Sometimes even the right reasons have the wrong consequences. What do we do then?” At the time, her answer seemed to be, “Stop making choices.” After all, some choices lead to destruction—your own destruction, or worse, the destruction of others.
Now, with a great weight removed, she’s up for anything. “We’ll just see where it goes,” Ahsoka tells Huyang, as the purrgil charges up. The prudent droid answers, “It could go anywhere.” And Ahsoka responds, “But that’s better than going nowhere.” As Andy Dufresne said, less violently than Anakin, “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” Ahsoka may not know where she’s going, but for the first time in a while, she’s not standing still.