If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that I’d wind up writing not one, not two, but three pieces on Star Wars, I’d have told you that you’re nuts. But here I am, drawn back to a galaxy far, far away and a long time ago by the first live-action appearance of one of my favorite characters, Ahsoka Tano, in a recent episode of The Mandalorian – and, of all things, a Twitter conversation. It was claimed online that the Star Wars saga failed to adequately address fundamental questions of pain, loss, and suffering that occur in its allegedly absurd fictional universe.
That’s true enough as far as the nine main Star Wars films go. Neither the preposterous prequels, the classic original trilogy, nor the offensively dull sequels ever really contend with the loss, suffering, and mass death that seems to permeate and define in the overallmythos. Though it goes largely unnoticed and unremarked upon, our Star Wars heroes inhabit a fictional universe that’s extraordinarily dark and despairing.The examples are legion: the extermination of the Jedi and the fall of the Republic, the destruction of Alderaan and the general barbarity of the Empire, and rampant criminality bordering on anarchy across the galaxy.
It’s no exaggeration to say that we’ve seen the inhabitants Star Wars fictional universe experience one massive trauma after another. But there hasn’t ever been any attempt in the core narrative to engage with any of the myriad atrocities portrayed on screen in any real way. If anything, we’ve seen the movies brush away mass murder as a waypoint on the road to redemption for villains like Darth Vader and Kylo Ren.
Other, similar fictional universes have done a much better job dealing with loss, pain, and suffering at both the individual and narrative levels. The emotional fallout of Spock’s death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for instance,reverberated across the subsequent two movies for Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the starship Enterprise. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we see Tony Stark grapple with the personal repercussions of his own actions and those of the Avengers across a number of films over the span of a decade. Likewise, loss and suffering stand out as central thematic and emotional concerns for the characters and narrative of Avengers: Endgame.
All the same, it’s wrong to say that Star Wars hasn’t confronted basic human concerns of pain and loss – it has, just not on the big screen. Not in the vapid koans offered by Yoda and the like about fear, anger, and suffering, but in characters like Ahsoka, the Mandalorian, and Grogu (the character formerly known as the Child and Baby Yoda) that populate television series like The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian. The further we travel from the narrative arc of the three main film trilogies, the more compelling Star Wars becomes and the more we’re able to dig into its themes. These series and characters manage to subvert the shallow, perfunctory morality established in the main series without succumbing to an equally banal shades-of-grey moral ambiguity in the process.
That’s fairly clear when it comes to the title character of The Mandalorian. We learn in the show’s first season that Mando himself was orphaned during the Clone Wars and taken in by a fanatical Mandalorian sect, a backstory that doubtless exerted a critical influence on his own decision to save the Child from the clutches of the erstwhile Empire. Likewise with the Child himself, who survived the fall of the Jedi Order and was hidden for his own protection. Ahsoka tells us that his memory then becomes dark, with Grogu seeming “lost” and “alone.” As the series progresses, we’re almost certain to hear more of the Child’s history and watch Mando continue to evolve as a character.
But it’s through Ahsoka more than any other character that we see and experience the pain, loss, and suffering inherent in the fictional Star Wars universe – and the necessity of staying true to ourselves in spite of it all. She’s certainly endured more than her fair share of profound hardship: a personal loss of faith in the Jedi Order after it callously abandoned her, betrayal by her clone comrades-in-arms during the Jedi purge at the end of the Clone Wars, and the fall of her former master and friend Anakin Skywalker to the dark side of the Force.
As a result, it’s not hard to detect a subtle yet deep undercurrent of sadness the older Ahsoka we encounter in The Mandalorian. That’s apparentwhenever she references the past, whether warning that she’s seen what fear and anger “can do to a fully trained Jedi Knight – to the best of us,” informing Mando that “the Jedi Order fell a long time ago” (and in more ways than one, as she well knows), or sadly noting that “there aren’t many Jedi left.” Rosario Dawson’s fine performance conveys a wisdom earned through harsh personal experience. But what’s more noticeable and noteworthy is just how often Ahsoka smiles after everything she’s experienced – and even under less-than-ideal present circumstances.
From her very first appearance in the Star Wars mythos, Ahsoka has stood out out for her basic humanity and fundamental sense of decency. She welds an ironclad sense of resolve and determination to an intrinsic compassion and concern for others. Ahsoka consistently adheres to a set of core moral and ethical commitments throughout her story, demonstrating a constancy of purpose that governs her actions and behavior. When we meet up with her again in The Mandalorian, she’s neither world-weary and pessimistic nor blithely optimistic about the state of the galaxy or human nature. In an ethos at odds with the superficial moralism and high politics of the nine main Star Wars films, she does what she can where and when she can. In the end, Ahsoka knows that she doesn’t need to alter the course of galactic history to do good and make a positive difference – even if that just amounts to liberating a small town on a backwater planet from the cruel despotism of petty tyrant.
That’s apparent from the the moment she encounters Mando and the Child. After a brief skirmish that ends with Mando telling her they need to talk, Ahsoka looks at Baby Yoda and says, “I hope it’s about him.” She and the Child bond quickly, with Ahsoka smiling as she and Grogu silently sense each other’s thoughts. Tugging on a thread running back to the final episodes of The Clone Wars, Mando insists she train the Child since “He needs your help.” But it’s out of concern for the Child himself that Ahsoka refuses to train him as a Jedi, vowing that she will not start him down her one-time master’s dark path – and why she provides an alternative that allows Grogu to stay with Mando at the end of the episode.
Ahsoka’s humanity also comes through in her attitude toward attachments. We’re told across movies and television series that attachments are forbidden to Jedi: as an oblivious Yoda unhelpfully explains to Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith, “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.” While Ahsoka doesn’t reject this line of reasoning outright, she’s clearly a person who cares deeply about others and values her friends. In the final episode of The Clone Wars, after all, she took pains to bury the clone troopers who had just been trying to kill her. She refuses to train Grogu, moreover, not simply because he’s formed a strong attachment to Mando but because of the fearful nature of that attachment.
Indeed, Ahsoka displays an attitude toward attachments and relationships that’s almost Stoic in nature – one that recognizes that the impermanence of our lives and the ultimate transience of our connections with others are what make them truly valuable. In marked contrast with the unfeeling and uncaring detachment promoted by the Jedi Order, Ahsoka understands that non-attachment and compassion are not just compatible in theory but mutually reinforcing in fact. Her commitment to her moral and philosophical ideals allows her to remain true to herself in otherwise grim circumstances.
In the end, Ahsoka’s story reminds us that pain, suffering, and loss don’t need to break us, much less define us as individuals. Despite her own personal history of loss and suffering, Ahsoka maintains her basic humanity and decency in the face of a brutal and indifferent universe. As she makes her way through the galaxy, Ahsoka makes clear that it’s how we handle hardships and setbacks that matters in life – and whether we remain true to our own moral and ethical commitments – not simply whether or not they occur.
Whatever the faults of the rest of the Star Wars fictional universe, its television incarnations give us much raw material to work with and chew over. Indeed, The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian amount to an implicit critique of the shallow moral narratives of the nine main films – but without dishonoring or disrespecting them. They build on, deepen, and further explore the Star Wars mythos in intriguing and fascinating new ways while giving us memorable new characters like Mando, Grogu, and Ahsoka.
If Star Wars is to have a future, this is the way.