Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: Tales of the Empire.

Recent installments in the Star Wars franchise have incited no small amount of heated debate. Live-action shows like Andor and The Mandalorian have rightly received critical acclaim. However, I believe a few of the animated series—Clone Wars, Bad Batch, Rebels, and the anime-style Visions, specifically—have been the greatest additions to the Star Wars grand narrative in the past decade.

Tales of the Empire continues this trend. Released as part of this year’s “May the Fourth” celebration, Empire is a follow-up miniseries to Tales of the Jedi (released 26 October 2022). Both miniseries consist of six short episodes which provide background to some iconic Star Wars heroes and villains. Though brief, these miniseries pack a potent emotional punch. Jedi traces, on the one hand, Count Dooku’s descent from Jedi knight to Sith lord and, on the other, the rise of disenchanted Jedi padawan Ahsoka Tano.

Elsbeth is driven by fear and insecurity into the jaws of the dark side.

Empire adopts the same structure. We are presented with two characters: one falls into the dark side, one learns to resist it. First, we see the increasing bitterness and hatred of Morgan Elsbeth, witch-mother of the planet Dathomir. We then follow the troubled story of Barriss Offee—also a disenchanted Jedi padawan.

Elsbeth’s descent begins with tragedy. As a youth, her home planet is attacked by the Separatist General Grievous. Her mother and sisters are killed and her home is burned. She is rescued by the neighboring Mountain Clan, which offers her sanctuary and a path toward inner peace.

Instead, Elsbeth chooses to pursue vengeance. She recruits a few members of the Mountain Clan into a selfish plot for revenge, playing on their newfound fears of security. This plot is foiled by lingering Separatists, however, and Elsbeth is once again rescued by the Mountain Clan’s chief. However, the daughter of the Mountain Clan’s chief is killed.

Rather than asking for forgiveness, Elsbeth flees Dathomir to the planet Corvus, where she helps build up a fledgling village. As she attempts to help Corvus, she unwittingly exposes it to the greed of the burgeoning Empire. This understandably turns Corvus’s population against her. Once again, instead of asking for forgiveness and offering protection, she falls into her prideful resentment and turns on the people she once strengthened. She offers her technological and magical skills to the Empire, effectively enslaving Corvus’s people and violently stripping away its natural resources. Elsbeth ends her Empire arc perpetuating and intensifying the cycle of violence begun by Grievous: an invader burning the home of the innocent.

It would be easy to conclude that Elsbeth chooses to embrace the dark side simply out of vengeance. She admits as much herself. The calculating Admiral Thrawn, conversing with Elsbeth, notes that many men . . .

Thrawn: [J]oin [the Empire] out of greed and self-interest, others out of fear, all with ambitions of power. . . . Why do you seek Imperial favor?”

Elsbeth: Revenge.

However, she knows there are deeper reasons:

Years ago my people were all but destroyed. Our culture, our beliefs, are fading into memory. Yes, I seek power to ensure my future, to destroy my enemies. My anger gives me strength. It is that strength I offer to the Empire.

The episode titles of Elsbeth’s arc are “The Path of Fear,” “The Path of Anger,” and, finally, “The Path of Hatred.” Star Wars fans will recognize this allusion Yoda’s wise counsel to Anakin Skywalker in both The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” The Jedi’s perennial solution to this problem is characteristically Stoic: detachment. In Attack of the Clones, Padmé asks Anakin:

Padmé: Are you allowed to love? I thought that was forbidden for a Jedi.

Anakin: Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi’s life. So you might say that we are encouraged to love.

Anakin rightly understands true love as unconditional. The unfolding narratives, however, demonstrate that it is a wrong understanding of love and attachment which leads to sin. Anakin loves, but in a way inappropriate to his state in life, and it is this which drives him to the dark side. In his attempts to save Padmé’s life, he turns to evil means to achieve a good end.

Likewise, Elsbeth is driven by fear and insecurity into the jaws of the dark side. She too gives into her anger which, as she knows, gives her strength. This anger is only possible if it is preceded by a prior love. St. Thomas Aquinas notes this: “love must precede hatred; and nothing is hated, except through being contrary to a suitable thing which is loved. And hence it is that every hatred is caused [indirectly] by love” (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 29, a. 2). In Elsbeth’s case, it is because she loved her family and home that she falls into hatred. St. Augustine understood evil as merely the absence of a good thing (Confessions, VII). It is this evil—this fear of losing more—which drives Elsbeth into anger and, eventually, into hatred.

We see this play out visually. As episode 1 closes, the Mountain Clan chief, grieving her daughter, offers Elsbeth some parting words: “It appears your path is set, Morgan Elsbeth. I pity you, for I can see what is to come.” We see the Mountain Clan walking away from Elsbeth, distraught and lost, surrounded by flames. Episode 3, in turn, closes with a very similar image. Elsbeth, utterly determined in her hatred, orders the Corvus village burned. We see her surrounded by flames, resolutely striding towards the viewer: while once she was driven by the flames of fear, she now owns her fear and inflicts the flame of her anger and hatred on others. She cannot see it, but we must not forget the final words of Yoda’s counsel: “hate leads to suffering.” Sooner or later, Elsbeth’s flames will consume her and burn away any love she once had. Evil burns away the good that ought to be present.

Lest we walk away from Empire in despair, the series ends with a tale of redemption, as episodes 4–6 relate the story of Barriss Offee. For those who have not watched The Clone Wars series, a bit of background is needed here. Barriss was good friends with fellow padawan Ahsoka Tano. However, as the Clone Wars raged on, Barriss, like Dooku, became disgusted with the Jedi order and believed it was responsible for the ongoing conflict. In revolt, she bombed the Jedi Temple, framing Ahsoka:

I did it because I have come to realize what many people in the Republic have come to realize, that the Jedi are the ones responsible for this war, that we’ve so lost our way that we have become villains in this conflict, that we are the ones who should be put on trial, all of us! And my attack on the temple was an attack on what the Jedi have become, an army fighting for the dark side, fallen from the light we once held so dear. (“The Wrong Jedi”)

Barriss is apprehended and imprisoned. Her Empire arc picks up after the Jedi Order is nearly wiped out entirely at the end of Revenge of the Sith. She is released by the new Empire and is recruited by an old Jedi friend, Lyn, into a new order of Inquisitors, a special Empire task force whose mission is to hunt down the few remaining Jedi.

Despite all she has suffered, we see the seeds of goodness still remain. Episode 4 follows her Inquisitor training, in which Barriss is forced into a fight to the death with a fellow recruit. She initially refuses but fights for her life when her fellow attacks her. Barriss eliminates her competition and becomes a full Inquisitor.

In the course of their work for the Inquisition, Lyn leads Barriss to an unnamed planet in search of a Jedi. The pair proceed to question a village about the Jedi’s whereabouts. While Lyn resorts to intimidation, Barriss homes in on a scared-looking child. Unlike Lyn, Barriss treats the child with dignity; she slowly, gently asks the child to share what he knows. The child relents, divulging the intel. Even after obtaining the required intel, however, Lyn proceeds to slaughter those who refused her information. Barriss protests:

Barriss: As Inquisitors we bring order, not chaos.

Lyn: Rebellion creates chaos. Eliminating it brings order.

Barriss: But creating fear will turn the people against us.

Lyn: They were already against us. Now those who witness our strength will respect it.

Here we see the parallels to Elsbeth’s arc. Elsbeth’s fear to drove her into anger and hate. This anger and hate was used to dominate others: “My anger gives me strength. It is that strength I offer to the Empire.” Barriss also sees the trajectory of fear into anger, then hate, then oppression. However, she will choose to reject this cycle.

The way these two miniseries are structured—pitting two similar characters against each other—highlights the significance of the characters’ very different choices

We also see Lyn justifying an evil means by appealing to a good end: order. This is the moral logic of the Empire: all means are licit if they produce a good end. (This is merely a front, however, for the puppet-master Emperor Palpatine, Sith Lord Darth Sidious. Sith have no moral logic and are obsessed with gaining power at any cost.) Lyn, like Elsbeth, is ultimately driven by fear: “those who see our strength will respect it.” By means of oppression, Lyn hopes to protect her own self—she forgets, however, that people are driven not only by what they fear. They are also, and primarily, driven by what they love, as Aquinas and Augustine knew.

Lyn and Barriss smoke the Jedi out of hiding. The Jedi initially defeats Lyn but is bested by Barriss. Barriss offers the Jedi mercy, but Lyn cuts down the Jedi in cold blood.

This episode is titled “Realization.” After seeing the depths of Lyn’s cruelty, Barriss turns on Lyn, and throws in her lot with the Order she once betrayed: “you have one Jedi left to deal with.” Barriss throws Lyn off a cliff and heals the wounded Jedi. The episode closes to a hauntingly hopeful melody, as Barriss drops her Inquisitor helmet off the very cliff Lyn fell down.

The final episode shows us the path Barriss chose to make for herself. She lives a semi-reclusive lifestyle as a healer. A family comes to Barriss seeking counsel regarding their newborn child. The Empire, they say, seeks the child, but they do not know why. Barriss is able to tell them it is because the child is strong with the Force—Inquisitors wish to eliminate the child. Sure enough, an Inquisitor arrives not long after, and it is none other than Lyn. The family flees to a ship hidden in a cave, a maze made entirely of ice. The two old friends confront one another.

Lyn: Of course it’s you. How ironic that when I am not seeking you, I find you at last.

Barriss: You should leave, Lyn.

Lyn: I have been sent for the child.

Barriss: Is this who you have become? Chasing down innocent children for your Empire?

Lyn: You’re a traitor. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.

Barriss: You’re correct, Lyn. I do not.

Lyn proceeds to attack Barriss. Barriss, having found inner peace, evades Lyn’s strikes easily and gracefully, exhibiting an astonishing calm, despite being unarmed. She tells Lyn that “your anger makes you predictable.” Barriss allows Lyn to pursue the family into the cave but tells her,

Barriss: I warn you not to follow the child into that cave. You do not know the path. And if you go in, you will not come out.

Lyn: Fear is my ally, not yours.

Barriss: You choose your allies poorly.

Lyn chases after the family but soon loses herself in the cave. Again, we see the interior state of our characters portrayed visually. Lost in a maze of ice, Lyn strikes out at her own reflection—lost within herself, imprisoned by the fear she thought was her ally.

In a disembodied voice, Barriss calls out to Lyn. The exchange resonates powerfully with anyone who has struggled with some sort of ongoing sin.

Barriss: You’re lost. I warned you.

Lyn: Enough of your trickery!

Barriss: This is no trickery. I don’t want you to die in here. Lay down your weapon, and I’ll show you the way out.

Lyn: Do you know what they’ll do to me for my failure?

Barriss: It seems fear is not your ally, but your master. . . . I am here. Let me help you.

Lyn, continuing to lash out, stabs Barriss (who seems to have suddenly appeared, but has in reality been present all along).

Barriss: I forgive you.

Lyn: I don’t want your forgiveness. I want you to show me the way out.

Barriss: You know the way out. You just have to accept it, Lyn.

Lyn: There is no way out.

Barriss: That’s what the Empire wants you to think.

The love of the Father, manifested in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, comes to the one stuck in his own pride (which is incapable of humbly asking for forgiveness), his own sin, his own self. This final episode of Empire, fittingly titled “The Way Out,” ends on a realistic yet hopeful note. Lyn picks up the wounded Barriss, leaving her weapon behind. Far outside the cave, we see two figures emerge, slowly, from the scar of darkness to the outer light.

Just as Jedi and Empire mirror each other, so too do the show’s characters mirror each other. As Dooku and Elsbeth fall, Ahsoka and Barriss rise. There is both similarity and dissimilarity in this mirroring. Dooku, Ahsoka, and Barriss all fell from the Jedi Order because it did not meet the ideal standard they felt the Order ought to have upheld. Dooku and Barriss turn to the dark side in their attempts to fight injustice; they thought the Jedi weak because they refused to resort to evil means. To cave into this moral logic—to employ evil means for any end perceived as good—is to adopt the kind of “morality” advocated for by Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche contends there is no good or evil—there is only power. There is, then, no reason not to exploit any means whatsoever for any end.

While Dooku dies a villain, however, Barriss (and, we hope, Lyn) learns to reject an amoral cosmos defined by power struggles. This requires first refusing to succumb to fear. The Jedi are able to overcome this fear by appealing to a power greater than death. The Jedi Code puts it this (characteristically Buddhist) way: “There is no death, there only the Force.” The Christian says: “Christ has defeated death and reigns for me. He is the way, the truth, and the life which sets me free from my sin.”

Juxtaposing Jedi and Empire and their characters demonstrates to us that we are defined far more by our choices than our circumstances or abilities. The way these two miniseries are structured—pitting two similar characters against each other—highlights the significance of the characters’ very different choices. In another, different way, Empire suggests we are first meant to pity and forgive, not fight, our enemies; and that we are meant to pity not the dead but those who live without love.

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