Star Wars: The Acolyte Is the Deepest Dive Into Sith Canon Ever

Exclusive: The Acolyte showrunner Leslye Headland tells us what makes the Sith of her new Star Wars live-action series so unique.

Amandla Stenberg in Star Wars: The Acolyte
Photo: Lucasfilm

This article appears in the new issue of DEN OF GEEK magazine. You can read all of our magazine stories here.

“At last, we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last, we will have our revenge,” Darth Maul says to his shadowy Sith master in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Twenty-five years after that prequel film set the stage for the rise of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, the new live-action series The Acolyte will show us the origin of the Sith plan to destroy the Jedi once and for all. That story actually begins 100 years before the prequel trilogy, when the Sith were thought to be all but extinct. 

Heading up the Disney+ show billed as a “mystery thriller”—a genre first for the space fantasy franchise in live action—is showrunner Lesyle Headland, the creator of the absolutely brilliant Netflix series Russian Doll, about a woman stuck in a messy time loop that kills her each and every go around. The protagonist of The Acolyte, a character named Mae, played by rising star Amandla Stenberg, is a former padawan-turned-warrior trapped in a different kind of loop, the oldest one in the galaxy far, far away: the never-ending war between the light and dark sides of the Force. That eternal struggle is baked into the show’s protagonist.

“The character of Mae was rooted in a very early idea I had, even before we had her character, which was: do the Jedi have a monopoly on the Force?” Headland explains to Den of Geek magazine. “Or are there Force users that exist in the galaxy, who are either dealt with and disposed of, or do they have to keep themselves hidden? Are they good guys or bad guys?”

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We know very little about Mae—while we see her trying to kill Carrie-Anne Moss’ Jedi Master Indara with a dagger, it’s unclear whether she’s actually the Sith acolyte in question. Headland coyly describes the character’s motivations as “personal.” What we know for sure about Mae is that she was trained as a Jedi by Master Sol (Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae) until she left the Order, that she’s now tied up in a murder investigation led by Sol and his apprentice, the half-alien/half-human Jecki Lon (Logan’s Dafne Keen), and that all points eventually converge on the Sith.

While this is definitely not the first time we’ve seen secret Sith machinations against the Jedi on screen, in terms of live action, The Acolyte takes the deepest dive into their mythos ever. Headland describes the series as “an expansion of Sith ideology.” What was it about the bad guys that captivated Headland so much as to pitch an entire show about them? It all goes back to unanswered questions from The Phantom Menace.

“There are certain things that happened in the prequels about the Sith and about Darth Maul, and the Jedi’s understanding of them, that I found intriguing,” Headland says. “Qui-Gon on Tatooine immediately knows that Darth Maul is a Sith from fighting him and then reports that to the [Jedi] Council. Yoda knows about the Rule of Two; he says there’s always a master and an apprentice. So, while they’re considered extinct, there was a little bit of knowledge about the Sith that I felt would not have come from ancient history. To me, it felt like to know that information that quickly; it would have had to have been in the last 100 years.”

That’s a jaw-dropping observation from a lifelong Star Wars fan and creator who has clearly thought deeply about the movies and established lore that inspired this show. Let’s be very clear: chatting with Headland about Star Wars is delightful. She takes her time with each answer and is as precise as a targeting computer when digging up the most obscure references to canon and old Legends lore. In fact, fans tuning into the show this June should expect quite a few nods to deep-cut lore from the franchise’s past. 

“I really toyed with utilizing Darth Bane or mentioning Bane. We do not do it in the first season, but it is obviously the legacy of these practitioners of the dark side,” Headland says with a laugh when asked whether the show will finally see the live-action debut of Palpatine and Maul’s Sith forefather. “While we don’t get into that particular lore, there were some things in Legends that I wanted to drag out because I felt they were really interesting, not only to the storyline but to myself as a fan. I thought, ‘Well, I’d love to do that.’”

One particularly exciting reference was the beloved 2004 video game Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, specifically the story’s main villain. “Darth Traya really stuck out to me as an inspiration,” Headland says.

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Like the now non-canon Knights of the Old Republic, The Acolyte isn’t just technically a prequel to the prequel movies but also the first live-action series set during the High Republic era of Star Wars, a time period of relative peace for the galaxy and a golden age for the Jedi Order when what remains of the Sith are in hiding. The High Republic era was introduced in 2021 as the setting of a new line of Star Wars books and comics set hundreds of years before the movies. 

“There were two reasons I wanted to set it in that particular time period and that far away from the prequels. One, I didn’t want to mess with any canon,” Headland says. “The other thing that I loved about this period was the lack of legacy characters. I was too nervous to take them on, but also, I feel like we’ve seen a lot of that. [The High Republic] felt like a sandbox that I could easily jump into.”

In other words, don’t expect Yoda to be running around in this series, although High Republic fans will recognize one character from the books: Vernestra Rwoh, played by Headland’s wife, Rebecca Henderson. In the books, she is a teenager still learning the ways of the Jedi, but decades later, in The Acolyte, Vernestra is a full-fledged Jedi Master.

“She gives you a sense of how the Jedi have really changed,” Headland says. “They’re still the guardians of peace in the galaxy, but there’s stuff on the horizon.”

The Acolyte shows the galaxy on the cusp of a vibe shift at the very end of the High Republic era. The corruption that will eventually see the Sith infiltrate the Galactic Senate in The Phantom Menace is just about to set in. 

The Sith in The Acolyte are nowhere near the Senate floor yet, though. This is a point on the Star Wars timeline when the Jedi definitely have the upper hand, a setup that felt “ripe for a storytelling map,” according to Headland. “In live-action, you haven’t seen the Sith as the underdogs, as wildly outnumbered by the number of Jedi that are in the universe. It seemed interesting to me to explore that.”

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We know there’s at least one Sith lord in the eight-episode first season, but we don’t know who is under the creepy, toothy helmet teased in the show’s trailer. Is it Darth Plagueis the Wise, the master who taught Palpatine everything he knows? Or someone we haven’t met before? The dark side still clouds everything, but we do see this powerful villain single-handedly take on a whole group of Jedi Knights, including Master Sol, and completely blow them away with the Force. He’s no underdog as he ignites his red-bladed lightsaber, ready to show his adversaries that they have seriously underestimated the Sith. The Jedi are in trouble.

Star Wars: The Acolyte premieres on Disney+ on June 4.