On Star Wars and the Moral Decay of the Jedi Order

“Let me level with you: you might not think of yourself as a Jedi, but you act like one – or at least how I want them to be.”

  • Rafa Martez to Ahsoka Tano, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, “Together Again”

I’m not the biggest fan of Star Wars.

Don’t get me wrong – I like it well enough. The original film trilogy had its compelling moments, even if it never resonated as strongly with me as it obviously did with others. So did an ineptly-told prequel trilogy, though more as an unintentionally absurd masterpiece than anything else – and especially in comparison to the bland and uninspired sequel trilogy that mercifully drew to a close last December. Despite all the attention George Lucas and others devoted to constructing a detailed Star Wars mythos, I’ve never really felt the films lived up to the narrative potential inherent inherent in the fictional universe.

But while were all mesmerized by a lackluster sequel trilogy, Star Wars slowly and stealthily began to fulfill its potential in television shows like The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian. When judged by quality, over the past decade Star Wars has become much more successful on television than in its original cinematic medium. It’s only when the Star Wars mythos moves our of its own shadow that it’s found sufficient room to grow and evolve in compelling ways.Indeed, shows like The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian have added much-needed emotional and moral depth to a fictional universe previously guided by a quite frankly baffling ethical framework.

There’s much to criticize in the Star Wars canon as it exists – starting with the quite frankly reactionary ethos that emerges in the very first film. Too often, the main cinematic entries in the series embrace mysticism and irrationality as unalloyed goods. “Let go your conscious self and act on instinct,” the aged Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi advises his young charge Luke Skywalker halfway through the original film. Characters good and evil alike are constantly advised to use or search their feelings throughout the series, not to think or reason for themselves. This mishmash of mysticism reflects the fact that Star Wars is at its heart an indulgent romantic fantasy more than anything else. 

For me, at least, the fundamental appeal of Star Wars lies in our captivation with the Jedi Order as a noble cadre of warrior-monks who adhere to a strict moral code that governs their individual conduct. “For over a thousand generations,” Obi-Wan tells us in the original film, “the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the old Republic.” In truth, the Jedi resemble nothing so much as the romanticized impressions of the Knights Templar and Japan’s medieval samurai that still inhabit our modern popular imagination. It’s no surprise, for instance, that legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and his samurai epics exerted a strong and clear influence on Lucas and almost certainly the idea of the Jedi.

Likewise, the Knights Templar of medieval Europe and what the historian Christopher Tyerman calls their “combination of charitable purpose, religious discipline, and armed violence” provide another recognizable historical analogue for the Jedi Order. When we first learn the basics of the Jedi Order from Obi-Wan in A New Hope, for instance, he calls attention to the ideals and commitments that supposedly set Jedi Knights apart – and his remark that he and Anakin Skywalker went off to fight in “some damn fool idealistic crusade” all but gives the parallel away.

In the end, however, it’s the moral decay at the heart of the Jedi Order that makes Star Wars intriguing. Audiences see a chasm open up between the romantic ideals we project onto the Jedi and the fictional reality of what stares back at us from our screens. It’s hard to say that this message was intentional on the part of the creatives behind the films; the main lesson Lucas appears to want his audiences to draw from the fall of the Jedi Order seems to be that power inevitably leads to a blinding hubris.

But throughout the series – and especially in the prequels and The Clone Wars – we see obvious flaws in the Jedi Order and its members. It’s not simply a matter of hubris or even hypocrisy, as Luke Skywalker insists in The Last Jedi. The rot goes much deeper: the Jedi Order may proclaim certain ideals and values, but it lacks the conviction and sense of purpose necessary to live up to them. As its noble guiding philosophy wastes away into a set of empty platitudes, the Order ultimately collapses under the weight of its own moral decay. Almost in spite of itself, Star Wars manages to raise basic questions surrounding our own philosophical commitments and the failure of institutions to measure up to their own declared creeds.

It’s these questions that make Star Wars more than an indulgent fantasy of space knights with laser swords facing down the almost-cartoonish forces of evil. They’re most clearly visible  when looking through the eyes of Ahsoka Tano, one-time apprentice of Anakin Skywalker and a central character in The Clone Wars computer-animated television series. Ahsoka is the prism through which viewers can grasp the fundamental flaws – as well as the elemental appeal – of the Jedi Order. Better still, her character and The Clone Wars as a whole do much to rectify the baffling morality of the Star Wars universe, in which genocidaires like Darth Vader and Kylo Ren find easy moral redemption in their final acts after lifetimes spent drenching the galaxy in blood.

Ahsoka’s story exposes the gap between the idea of what she – and we – believes the Jedi stand for and the reality of the Jedi Order as an institution, drawing out the contradiction between the Order’s stated principles and its uninspiring reality to its fullest. She helps us look beneath the gleaming, entrancing surface mythology of the Jedi and tackle the fundamental human questions at stake in the Star Wars universe as a whole: how to reconcile a person’s own dedication to a certain philosophy of life when the institutions meant to uphold it fails to do so? How do you hold to that commitment even in dark times?

Over the course of the initial five seasons of The Clone Wars, we see Ahsoka grow from an inexperienced young apprentice to a mature and capable Jedi warrior. She comes of age and takes command of dangerous missions on her own, from advising guerrilla groups to training Jedi younglings. Though she develops a steadily more complex outlook on life, Ahsoka maintains the fundamental decency and compassion at the core of her character. Unlike the Order itself, Ahsoka’s a true believer in the Jedi ethos: as she herself puts it in the last episode of the show’s original run, “The values of the Jedi are sacred to me.”

In other words, we see Ahsoka as the very model of a chivalrous Jedi Knight. Despite her dedication to the ideals of the Jedi, however, the Order abandons Ahsoka when she’s framed for a crime she didn’t commit. When she’s exonerated, a less-than-apologetic Order invites her back in – but she refuses and leaves of her own volition, contrary to the pleading of her old master. Ahsoka’s departure provokes severe doubts about the Jedi Order: if they manage to convince an inherently good person like Ahsoka that she has no place with them, what good are the Jedi themselves?

After walking away from the Order, Ahsoka becomes a masterless Jedi akin to many of the ronin characters played by Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s samurai epics. In a recent arc in the ongoing revival of The Clone Wars, she tries to hide her past as a Jedibut no matter how hard she tries she cannot escape her own character and sense of self. “In my life, when you find people who need your help, you help them – no matter what,” she responds when asked why she’s helping a pair of down-on-their-luck sisters from the lower levels of the capital planet of Coruscant. “I guess it’s just who I am.” 

Later on in the chronology of the Star Wars universe, Ahsoka reappears in the now-concluded Star Wars: Rebels as a spymaster for the incipient rebellion against the Galactic Empire. Assisting a newly-formed rebel cell, she comes face-to-face with Darth Vader – and her duel with her former master possesses far more emotional resonance than any similar confrontation in the entire Star Wars saga. Haunted by the lingering feeling that she abandoned Anakin right before he needed her, Ahsoka vows not to leave Vader even as their surroundings collapse around them while they fight. 

This conflict between Ahsoka’s own notions of what a Jedi Knight should be and the reality of what the Jedi Order is in reality reflects a more universal tension between the duties required in maintaining to an individual’s own ethical commitments while remaining part of well-meaning but rudderless institutions. Cynicism would provide an easy out for Ahsoka, as it does for so many in the real world. But in the fictional universe of Star Wars, Ahsoka remains true to her own moral code and the ideal of a Jedi Knight embedded both in her own mind and ours. Unlike her former master Anakin Skywalker, she doesn’t “see through the lies of the Jedi” or adopt a jaundiced and suspicious sense of morality after her own experiences – though she recognizes the Jedi Order as a failed institution when she asserts, “I am no Jedi.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that Ahsoka’s journey adds moral weight and emotional depth to a story told half-heartedly and ineptly by the prequels. Her story subverts the distorted ethical calculus of the Star Wars films and replaces it with its own, more nuanced sense of morality. Unlike the convoluted and baffling ethics of the film trilogies, Ahsoka confronts thorny moral dilemmas and works them out in humane and compassionate – if not always successful – ways. Jedi or not, she adheres to her own moral principles and ethical commitments no matter her circumstance. In that respect, Ahsoka Tano is the one true hero that can be found in the entire fictional universe of Star Wars.

Nonetheless, she’s got some stiff competition from the titular protagonist of The Mandalorian – though that should come as no surprise since both shows share essentially the same creative DNA. The surface similarities between the Jedi and the Mandalorians are striking: both involve societies of lone warriors guided by a strict code that governs an individual member’s actions. But the title character isn’t simply a mercenary gunslinger with a heart of gold; his decision to rescue the adorable Baby Yoda from the clutches of shadowy and nefarious elements springs directly from personal commitments that go beyond the Mandalorian Way.

There’s much more to be said about The Mandalorian, starting with obviously strong influence of Westerns on its aesthetic. But most of all, The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian serve notice that it’s still possible to tell compelling human stories in the fictional Star Wars universe. To do so, however, these shows have had to leave well behind the overly indulgent romanticism, reactionary ethos, and inept storytelling that weighed down the three main film trilogies and the overall mythos. 

Taken together, both showstake the core universal appeal of the fictional universe and open it it up for dissection. Ahsoka’s narrative exposes the failings of the Jedi Order without succumbing to the sort of easy cynicism audiences might understandably expect. Amidst the moral decay of the Jedi Order, her refusal to become unmoored from these philosophical commitments stands out. She lives up to the ideal image of a Jedi Knight we’ve all built in our own minds, that of a warrior-monk dedicated to a moral code that guides her actions. 

When institutions and individuals detach their stated values and purpose from their words and actions, they enter a spiral of moral decay that’s very difficult to arrest. That’s the warning Star Wars delivers to us, almost despite itself. It’s not necessarily an obvious point, much less an explicit or intended one. But it’s a message that comes across clearly through the character of Ahsoka Tano and her path through the Star Wars mythos. She reminds us that even when we become disillusioned, it’s best to keep faith with ourselves and our principles. After all, what’s truly up to us are our own judgments and act or not to act – and that’s all that really matters in the end.