‘The Acolyte’ Episode 3 Recap: The Witching Hour

A flashback sheds a little light on the series’ central mystery—from a certain point of view

Getty Images/Disney Plus/Ringer illustration

Obi-Wan Kenobi once said, “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” In that scene from Return of the Jedi, the master’s disembodied spirit explained to Luke Skywalker why a more corporeal Kenobi, back in Episode IV, had declared that Luke’s dad was dead when he was, in fact, inside the suit of Darth Vader. The real reason is that when George Lucas was making the first Star Wars movie, he hadn’t decided that Vader and Anakin Skywalker were one and the same. In universe, though, the line is more revealing than even Obi-Wan knew. Yes, from one perspective, Obi-Wan’s original contention to Luke was technically correct. But it was also comforting for Kenobi, in hiding on Tatooine (except for that one time), to think that his former Padawan was dead. He was deceiving himself as much as he was twisting the truth for his new protégé. As Kenobi told Ezra Bridger in Rebels, “The truth is often what we make of it. You heard what you wanted to hear, believed what you wanted to believe.”

The same principle seems to apply to Episode 3 of The Acolyte—and this time, too, those squirrely Jedi are directly involved. Last week’s two-part premiere reunited Mae and Osha, two Force-sensitive twins who hadn’t seen each other since a childhood calamity destroyed their settlement and family, leaving each one believing that the other was dead. “Destiny,” a roughly 40-minute flashback that begins and ends at the poisonous but beautiful bunta tree, takes us back to Brendok, where that incident transpired 16 years earlier. (In contrast to last week’s two-word titles, this week’s has one, presumably because the twins are still together.) If we accept the episode’s version of events, there’s a lot about the twins’ backstory—and the series’ central mystery—that doesn’t add up. Perhaps, then, what we’ve seen is simply a certain point of view, one just as skewed by motivated reasoning as Obi-Wan’s was.

Last week, I wrote that in light of Mae’s vendetta, Master Torbin’s Barash Vow and subsequent suicide, and Kelnacca’s off-the-grid digs, “the Jedi’s sins must be worse than the order’s standard cradle-robbing recruitment process.” Yet this week’s installment would have us believe that the Jedi on Brendok did nothing worse than thousands of other Jedi have done with thousands of other potential trainees. (Which, to be clear, is super sketch, but not something most Jedi seem to feel bad about.)

In the middle of the Ascension ceremony that will mark Mae and Osha as full-fledged witches of their mothers’ coven, Indara, Sol, Kelnacca, and Torbin burst in to politely request strongly suggest pointedly demand that the two girls take the Jedi entrance exam. Mae, who quite reasonably wants to be a witch and doesn’t want to leave her family forever, flunks on purpose. Osha, who wants to see the galaxy, tells the truth, passes the audition, and prepares to set off for Coruscant. In response, a seemingly sociopathic Mae decides to kill her sister rather than let her leave. She sets a fire outside Osha’s room that soon spreads and destroys everyone, save for Mae herself and Osha, whom Sol rescues.

Which, well, doesn’t make much sense. Not to be all “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” about this, but it doesn’t track that a stone sanctuary would go up in flames. Or that the blaze would kill a whole clan of Force users. Or, for that matter, that Jedi with nothing to hide or flee would leave a bunch of bodies lying on the ground and whisk Osha away without trying to help anyone. This is Star Wars, so all of the above may be sloppy storytelling. But that seems unlikely, considering creator Leslye Headland’s repeated references to the Rashomon effect. “We started to get really influenced by Rashomon, and the themes of the show started to rise to the top of duality, seeing things from different points of view,” she told Entertainment Weekly in an interview about “Destiny.” “So it made sense to me that when you did go back in time, there are a lot of different ways to interpret an event that happened.”

Frankly, this series wouldn’t be very interesting if it turned out that the takeaway was that Mae was a monster who always wanted to Force pull the wings off a Brendok butterfly. (As we saw in the first scene, Osha briefly placed the winged creature in Force stasis, too—which might be why she reacted so strongly when Mae displayed the same impulse.) Nor would The Acolyte break any new narrative ground if it solely concerned the unintended consequences of kindly looking, well-intentioned but entitled Jedi taking immaculately conceived kids away from their moms. (See: the Star Wars prequels.) There must be more to the story.

There are plenty of downsides to “Destiny,” which was directed by Kogonada and written by Jasmyne Flournoy and Eileen Shim. Aesthetically speaking, The Acolyte looks like Andor in its on-location establishing shots—Brendok’s vistas rival those of Aldhani—and The Book of Boba Fett in its interiors. The latter look fine by broader small-screen sci-fi standards, but a bit cheap for big-budget Star Wars; instead of giving “galaxy far, far away,” its sets scream “soundstage somewhere in England.” (I’m the “They Can’t All Be Andor” guy, but compare the witches’ ritual to the Eye of Aldhani.) The extended flashback’s pacing and dialogue are uneven, and despite strong work from Jodie Turner-Smith as Mother Aniseya, the episode suffers from its reliance on child actors—two actors, a departure from the two-for-one approach to Amandla Stenberg’s adult twins—to sell its emotional moments. And though the Nightsister-inspired coven is conceptually cool, there’s something sorta hokey about the witches’ chants and gesticulations. Han Solo would say that the Jedi are hokey, too, but an underrated aspect of lightsabers is that they give you something to do with your hands. Moving your arms in circles to generate VFX-supplied power sometimes looks a little silly. (Just ask Benedict Cumberbatch.)

For now, though, I’m reserving judgment about the big beats that triggered my “Wait, why—?” response. I prefer to watch Star Wars series week to week when I’m recapping, so unlike a lot of critics, I haven’t seen Episode 4. I’m not saying I want the next chapter to be a full recounting of the same events from Mae’s POV—though if that’s what’s in store, they could call it “From My Point of View, the Jedi Are Evil”—but I’ll give it a week or two for the pieces to fall into place. (Give me more Kelnacca!)

Even though the truth remains murky by design, “Destiny” does convey a clear point. Although we’re watching primarily through the Jedi-pilled Osha’s 8-year-old eyes, the “deranged monks” (in Mother Koril’s words) come off as creepy cops. Lee Jung-jae makes it tough to root against the Qui-Gon-coded Sol, but consider what the character is doing when we first see him in this episode: skulking around a forest as he spies on little girls. The Jedi then slice the platform to coven HQ so that they can crash the witches’ sacred ceremony. They cite Republic law that doesn’t obtain on Brendok to justify their actions and dubiously claim that they thought the planet was uninhabited. (If that’s the case, what brought them there?)

On the surface, their visit is peaceful, but the subtext is clear. “Mother Aniseya, you cannot deny that Jedi have the right to test potential Padawans,” Indara says, but what gives them that right? Maybe might makes right: The implicit threat in her words is hardly leavened by her hasty “With your permission, of course.” (Especially since Sol insists on Mae taking the test against her will.) When Sol takes out his lightsaber, it seems for a second that he has violence in mind. The reality might be more disturbing: He’s using this “elegant weapon for a more civilized age” to tempt Osha away from her family. If that’s what she wants, so be it, but Sol may as well be handing out candy to kids to entice them into an unmarked van. (Children, don’t take sabers from strangers.) And then there’s Torbin, who takes a blood sample without warning or consent. There’s something almost vampiric about the Jedi’s descent on Brendok to harvest its young—except that, unlike vampires, the Jedi don’t ask to be invited in. At least the negotiations were short.

And hey, ever wonder how the witches wound up in exile? As Mother Aniseya says, “We were hunted, persecuted, forced into hiding, all because some would consider our power dark. Unnatural.” Hunted by whom, one wonders. Think the Jedi may have been among the multispecies coven’s persecutors? “This is about power and who is allowed to use it,” Mother Aniseya says. And though the witches are the ones chanting “the power of many,” the Jedi wield it.

If anything, this is all an overdue dragging of the Jedi MO: We’ve seen plenty of wholesome scenes—and one not-so-wholesome scene—of younglings in the Temple, but The Phantom Menace aside, we haven’t seen any on-screen depictions of how they get there. Sure, some families might see it as an honor to send a high-midi-chlorian-count kid to Coruscant, or they accept that the order will give their kid a better life than they can. But it can’t be the case that every Jedi’s parents handed over their kids without being coerced. And how many younglings do you know who would willingly leave their homes with cloaked visitors, never to return?

Granted, in light of their past wars with the Sith, it’s understandable that the Jedi would still be a tad sensitive to dark side–adjacent techniques. And unlike the Jedi, the coven seems comfortable dwelling in the gray. (Witness the witches’ mental takeover of Torbin.) The mysterious practices surrounding the twins’ birth may be forbidden fruit. “What happens if the Jedi discover how you created them?” Koril asks Aniseya. That question, and Aniseya’s allusion to the fact that “some” consider the coven’s power “unnatural,” echo Palpatine’s tale of Darth Plagueis the Wise.

In the now decanonized Legends timeline—which Headland is well versed in—Darth Plagueis and his apprentice, Darth Sidious (a.k.a. Palpy), inadvertently cause Anakin’s creation by messing with midi-chlorians to bring about life. (Mae and Osha mirror Anakin so closely that The Acolyte is starting to seem like a dry run for Episode I; “they have no father” is almost word for word what Shmi Skywalker said, and their Force screening is the same as Anakin’s.) If Aniseya performed a similar “miracle,” it’s hardly surprising that Osha and Mae would be of such interest to the Jedi and Sith. Remember, the prophecy from the prequels—which refers to a Chosen One “born of no father”—is an ancient one, and though this era appears peaceful, balance is easily lost.

It’s suspicious that before the Ascension, Aniseya and Koril seem to sense a disturbance—possibly a saboteur?—in the vicinity of the coven’s power core, which just as suspiciously explodes soon after Mae sets a small fire. (The fire suppression system must not have been OSHAba-dum tsh—compliant.) I’m not necessarily saying that Brendok was an inside job; maybe Mae was framed by the Jedi or Sith in an effort to spirit the twins away. This may mean nothing, but there are two hooded figures who don’t blend in with the witches—a master and an apprentice?—behind Aniseya at the ceremony:

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Most suspicious of all: At the end of the episode, Torbin is visible in the background, bearing a fresh wound that will turn into the scar he sported in Episode 2. We haven’t seen how he got hurt, but the fire didn’t do it. Maybe the Jedi jumped to conclusions because of their bias against the coven—or were goaded into rash action by the Sith or Koril (whose body wasn’t shown).

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Despite the “witch” terminology, the “mother” honorifics, the bows and arrows, and the presence of a zabrak, Aniseya’s followers are not the Nightsisters. There’s plenty of precedent in canon and Legends alike for groups that have different conceptions of, and names for, the Force. This clan calls it the Thread, and they say they don’t see it as “a power you wield” (although they sure like to talk about power). That difference may be mostly semantic because the Jedi and the coven are aligned on the fundamentals of the Force: that it links all living things and binds the galaxy together. Aniseya’s council even consists of 12 members, just as the Jedi Council does. More connects them than divides them, yet they’re hopelessly separate—not unlike the two twins who revolve around each other, like the blue and red celestial bodies in Brendok’s sky (which line up less and less as the twins’ paths part).

Speaking of intractable differences: That this franchise has become a culture-war battleground muddies discussions of any new release’s quality. As I write this, the IMDb user rating for “Destiny” is 4.0. However one feels about child actors, lackluster sets, and the flammability of stone, that number undoubtedly has more to do with the episode’s diversity (and lack of white dudes) than it does with any problems with the production or plot. (As Mother Aniseya says, “This is not about good or bad.”) Aniseya also says, “The galaxy is not a place that welcomes women like us,” which sounds like an accurate commentary on some portion of the Star Wars audience. Naturally, the trolling, harassment, and review bombing from that toxic quarter not only prompt righteous condemnations, but also, perhaps, elicit some overexuberant rave reviews intended to balance out bad-faith attacks. All of which makes it more difficult to assess the sentiments of viewers who approach this prequel without preconceptions.

Less online Star Wars watchers are probably blissfully unaware of this discourse, just as Mae and Osha were unaware of each other’s survival. These fans will watch, or they won’t; get engaged, or be bored; theorize, or write off the rest. Thus far, I think it’s OK to come down in the middle, much as the series so far ranks near the midpoint of recent Star Wars extremes. The Acolyte is neither a misfire nor an unalloyed narrative triumph. It’s neither another entry in the franchise’s traditional time frame nor a drastic departure from its typical content. I want to watch more of it, but I also want more out of it. Fortunately, five weeks remain. “You will never feel like this again,” Sol promises Osha. Maybe I’ll feel less ambivalence soon.

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