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‘Star Wars’ Is Fixated on Fixing Its Sequel Trilogy

Even though the ‘Star Wars’ sequel films have frustrated fans, practically every ‘Star Wars’ Disney+ series has attempted to connect the dots leading up to that trilogy, for good or ill

Lucasfilm/Disney/Ringer illustration

Ahsoka sometimes seems like an amalgam of two separate series. Like the head-tails of its disparate plot lines’ primary protagonists, these tendrils connect to the same base but barely touch. In the main, mythical, emotional narrative, Ahsoka Tano, Sabine Wren, and ancient Jedi droid Huyang travel to a distant galaxy to rescue Ezra Bridger, alternately opposed and abetted by a congeries of Force users and exiled Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn. In the politics-infused secondary story, Hera Syndulla tries and fails to persuade the New Republic to help Ahsoka and Sabine; tries and largely fails to assist them herself; and then faces the music solo as her friends reunite a galaxy away. One could edit out most Hera scenes and still follow Ahsoka’s story. This week’s installment, “Dreams and Madness,” may have been the best example yet of Ahsoka’s imperfect union: The episode starts with Hera’s seemingly extraneous court-martial proceeding on Coruscant, then cuts to a scattered cast of characters on distant Peridea for the rest of its run time.

Ahsoka sometimes seemed pulled in different directions, because in terms of the timeline, it is: The series is tethered to both the beginning and end of the Skywalker saga. It’s a sequel to Dave Filoni’s animated triptych of The Clone Wars, Tales of the Jedi, and, especially, Rebels. It’s also a spinoff from The Mandalorian, which ported Ahsoka and purrgil to live action and introduced Republic pilot Carson Teva and Thrawn’s minion Morgan Elsbeth. But like most on-screen Star Wars stories these days, Ahsoka is a prequel, too. Even as the series reaches decades backward to Ahsoka’s Clone Wars past, it’s planting seeds for the sequels still decades in the future. As Filoni said in March, “I whiteboard everything and have timelines. They always start back with The Phantom Menace and they always go out to The Rise of Skywalker.”

Ahsoka’s efforts to straddle discrete points on the Star Wars timeline illustrate a paradox at the franchise’s center. On the one hand, Lucasfilm and Disney have treated the divisive and ultimately disappointing sequel trilogy like a Superfund site—a toxic, contaminated region roped off until it’s less radioactive. Each entry in the trilogy declined at the box office and sparked increasingly acrimonious reactions. By the end, the vibes were so bad that it seemed for some time as if Disney might mothball the whole era until the kids who caught the Star Wars bug through that trilogy were old enough to get nostalgic and inspire a prequel-esque reappraisal. Not until this spring, three and a half years after The Rise of Skywalker, did Disney announce a follow-up film featuring Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Even that upcoming movie—which is years away from release and has already suffered some creative turbulence—is set 15 years after The Rise of Skywalker, making it more of a (merciful) fresh start than a continuation.

Yet even as Lucasfilm largely steers clear of the sequel era, it’s doggedly laying the groundwork for those much-maligned movies. Almost every Star Wars series from the past few years ties into the third trilogy, if only loosely. The Book of Boba Fett began the construction of Luke’s Jedi school, later glimpsed in The Last Jedi. Obi-Wan Kenobi helped explain why Leia names her son in the sequels “Ben.” Even Easter-egg-averse Andor name-dropped Jakku, Fondor, and Hosnian Prime, three planets that either appear in The Force Awakens or play a part in shaping the state of the galaxy when the sequels start.

Three other series—The Bad Batch, The Mandalorian, and now Ahsoka—are much more intent on setting up the sequels. Each of those shows is, at its heart, about the relationships among its core characters: Omega and her Bad Batch brothers, Grogu and Din, and Ahsoka and the Spectres, respectively. But when it comes to more macro events, all three are, to great degrees, devoted to explaining the rise of the First Order and/or providing the detail lacking in Poe Dameron’s infamous pronouncement, “Somehow Palpatine returned.”

Jon Favreau and Filoni, who between the two of them created (and in some cases collaborated) on The Bad Batch, The Mandalorian, and Ahsoka, have long acknowledged their interest in fleshing out the sequels’ backstory. In 2019, before the release of The Rise of Skywalker, Favreau mused, “What could happen in the 30 years between celebrating the defeat of the Empire and then the First Order? You come in on Episode VII, [the First Order are] not just starting out. They’re pretty far along. So somehow, things weren’t necessarily managed as well as they could have been if [the galaxy] ended up in hot water again like that.” There’s that word again: somehow.

In 2021, Favreau said, “The Mandalorian inherits a great deal from existing Star Wars stories, and when I write, that context is always a consideration. It became clear that, within the established continuity, certain things were likely to transpire.” He also added, “Dave Filoni and I are in constant discussion regarding how each story choice is impacted by, and would impact, existing Star Wars material.”

Last year, Favreau talked about telling stories with the sequels in mind, noting that “there is a lot of preparation done in broad strokes with how do these storylines that we’ve established culminate, but we’re doing that within the confines and parameters of what’s preexisting in canon.” And earlier this year, he said, “There are certain markers that we have—it’s almost like studying ancient history, where you kind of know a few things that happen, but there’s a lot of murkiness in between, and we just don’t have archaeological evidence in the real world to know exactly what happened, so we kind of connect the dots.”

Hence we have The Bad Batch highlighting how the Emperor’s secret facility on Mount Tantiss continued the Kaminoans’ cloning program, possibly leading to the creation of Snoke and clone Palpatine. We have The Mandalorian depicting that program’s continued research under Dr. Pershing’s leadership, showing Snoke-like clone bodies in Moff Gideon’s base on Nevarro, establishing and reiterating that the Republic is overstretched and rife with Imperial loyalists, and unveiling the Shadow Council, featuring Armitage Hux’s daddy, Brendol. And we have Ahsoka further exploring the theme of the New Republic’s incompetence, complacency, and corruption, while also supplying the means for Thrawn to return to the fight.

This ongoing preoccupation with the sequel trilogy—which Filoni played at least some small part in planning—could pay dividends in some respects. For one thing, there’s a lot to like about those movies, though the trilogy is less than the sum of its parts. The first two films were critically acclaimed, a one-two combo of fun, familiar scene-setting followed by dazzling, transformative risk-taking. The Rise of Skywalker was so unsatisfying, though, that its aftertaste soured the entire trilogy, retrospectively making The Force Awakens seem even more derivative and Rian Johnson’s vision for The Last Jedi seem even less in step with J.J. Abrams’s underdeveloped plans for his first and third acts. The films’ philosophies were so discordant that almost everyone profoundly disliked at least one of them, though which one(s) varied depending on the person’s point of view.

Ignoring the sequels wouldn’t make them go away, and confronting and clearing up the confusion they caused could help people appreciate their virtues. Yes, some of the questions about how Luke lost faith in the Jedi, how the First Order arose, where Snoke came from, and how Palpatine returned have been addressed by the dozens of books and comics that composed the “Journey to Star Wars” campaign, the Rise of Skywalker novelization, and other publications that followed the films, but many casual Star Wars fans don’t do the reading. There’s something to be said for presenting a consistent, coherent, on-screen account of how the New Republic’s promise unraveled, and for making the Skywalker saga seem more like a unified, interconnected narrative.

Filoni certainly thinks so. In 2018, he stated his ambition 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.” And last year, he declared that he and Favreau were committed to “making this feel like one big, connected galaxy. That’s what Star Wars is. Where all the stories come together.” Many fans of Filoni’s work on The Clone Wars credit him with fixing, redeeming, or improving the prequels. Who’s to say he can’t rehabilitate the reputation of another lackluster trilogy?

That’s the optimistic take. The pessimistic stance says that Lucasfilm’s (and Filoni’s) fixation on setting up the sequels is less like restorative reconstructive surgery and more like a dog licking a wound, which can cause infection and delay healing. The streaming series’ reliance on allusions to the sequels are reminders of movies that many Star Wars fans have little fondness for, and although The Bad Batch and the Mandoverse shows—along with Filoni’s climactic crossover movie—are revealing new tidbits about the Republic’s dissolution and the First Order’s ascendance, there’s only so much suspense about where all these threads will lead. As Favreau admitted in 2022, “We all know where everything’s going to end because of when the time period ends.” We don’t know what will befall the characters we care about, and it sometimes seems counterproductive to ditch Din and Grogu or Ahsoka and Sabine so side characters can seize the spotlight to foreshadow the First Order or the Emperor’s clone comeback. Plus, explaining how Palpatine returned may not make his return more fulfilling.

One major difference between the way The Clone Wars approached the prequels and the way the current Star Wars shows engage with the sequels is that The Clone Wars took place during the trilogy it gave a glow-up to. That series’ extensive catalog enabled its audience to spend more time with the prequels’ prominent personalities and better understand the toll their combat took. In many minds, The Clone Wars’ portrayal of Anakin became the definitive version of the character. That’s one reason why the live-action shows’ flashbacks to the prequels—via Grogu’s memories of Order 66, Obi-Wan’s recollections of sparring with Anakin, or Ahsoka’s visions of her former master in the World Between Worlds—hit so hard.

The Mandoverse series are set more than 20 years before The Force Awakens, so by necessity, they deal only indirectly with the sequels’ characters and conflicts. Central figures in both eras, like Luke and Leia (whom Lucasfilm has been reluctant to recast), can’t appear sans CGI de-aging—or, in Carrie Fisher’s case, digital resurrection, a thorny enough dilemma that this week’s Ahsoka conspicuously sidestepped the problem by tasking C-3PO to appear in her stead. And the constant signposting of the growing threat the Imperial remnant poses has already grown a tad tedious. After Pershing’s run-in with Elia Kane, Captain Teva’s fruitless visit to Colonel Tuttle, and Hera’s squabbles with Senator Xiono, it’s abundantly clear that some elements of the Republic are out of their depth, overly confident, and susceptible to sabotage. How many more ways will these series seek to emphasize this point?

Perhaps that repetition is a sign that Star Wars could stand to break through its temporal guardrails, just as some of Ahsoka’s characters have ventured beyond the borders of the galaxy. Granted, all narrative roads don’t have to lead to preexisting sequels: When The Hollywood Reporter asked Filoni what Grogu is doing during the sequel trilogy, he said, “I’ve learned that there’s expansive room in this galaxy for us to tell stories and have characters doing things. … It’s possible it would never even have to cross over with what we saw [in the sequel trilogy] if the story has us somewhere else.” In practice, though, it seems inevitable that the franchise’s inter-trilogy tales will be a bit hemmed in by events that can’t be budged. Maybe Rey’s movie, James Mangold’s movie about the origins of Force use, and next year’s High-Republic-era The Acolyte will spring Star Wars from its prequels-to-the-sequels storytelling rut.

Speaking of sci-fi sequels: In Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two, the monolith-altered Dave Bowman has HAL broadcast a warning. “All these worlds are yours—except Europa,” the message says. “Attempt no landing there.” For four years, Lucasfilm has been sending a similar memo pertaining to Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. But if landings are off-limits, long-range surveys seem to be required. For better or worse, this is the dot-connecting dichotomy that has dictated the direction of the franchise, and that will likely continue to on TV. Star Wars wants nothing to do with its polarizing sequels. But it can’t quit them, either.