3 Things We Liked, and 4 We Didn’t, About Tales of the Empire

3 Things We Liked, and 4 We Didn’t, About Tales of the Empire

This past weekend, Lucasfilm dropped Tales of the Empire, the second entry in its animated anthology series exploring the dual stories of characters in the galaxy far, far away. But what worked and what didn’t in getting to explore the stories of Morgan Elsbeth and Barriss Offee during the time of the Empire? Click through for our spoilery thoughts.

We Liked: The Dramatic, Oppressive Lighting

Screenshot: Lucasfilm

One benefit of the Tales series’ focus on short-form content is that it can pump out some of the strongest technical features Star Wars animation has, freed from the need from the consistency and constraints of a season of weekly 24-minute episodes (that’s not to say Bad Batch’s final season looked bad or anything, quite the opposite; Tales just looks even nicer). But one consistent highlight throughout Tales of Empire is each short’s use of light.

From the fires of a burning Dathomir and Corvus, to the harsh light of day, to the shadows of Fortress Inquisitorius, Tales of the Empire makes for some really evocative moments absolutely enhanced by some really deep and striking lighting. Say what you will about LFL Animation’s house style as it’s developed over the years, but in this regard it’s rarely looked better.

We Liked: Barriss’ Arc

Screenshot: Lucasfilm

Star Wars fans have waited over a decade to see what happened to Barriss Offee after she was jailed by the Republic for her part in the Jedi Temple bombing in Clone Wars season five. While there’s a lot of structural quibbles to be had about what we got (more on that later), at the core of it all beyond structural and pacing decisions, this feels like a Star Wars story that was worth that long wait.

It’s not even simply that Barriss gets to live—joining the Inquisitorius and grappling with what the Clone War had pushed her survival instinct to, leaning on the anger and the violence, and bringing herself back from that brink as she realizes the extent of what the Empire is about. But in getting to see Barriss grow and change beyond that moment, and become a healer who seeks the other path before violence, even as it threatens to get her killed in turn? The character now feels ripe for even further exploration… with some caveats that, again, we’ll get to later.

We Liked: General Grievous’ Tiny Moment of Menace

Screenshot: Lucasfilm

This is a very minor thing, as Grievous is less of a major character in Empire as he is a catalyst for Morgan’s story, but it was still nice to see the Clone Wars version of Grievous—always a little defanged in the show by narrative constraint and his role as more of a Saturday morning cartoon villain—get to let loose a little bit and genuinely feel like a scary, relentless foe. He’s short, sharp, and punchy: gets in, gets out, job’s done, no more, no less. An effective use of a very small amount of screentime!

We Didn’t Like: Morgan’s One-Note Anger

Screenshot: Lucasfilm

Morgan’s side of Tales begins with a horrifying moment: her witnessing the near-extinction of the Nightsisters as a people, and then, in her desire for revenge, nearly getting another clan of Dathomiran witches wiped out in the process. You would think this sets up a narrative of how Morgan became the person she is by The Mandalorian and Ahsoka, or how revenge blinds people to becoming monstrous themselves, or even what it means to carry that kind of grief and anger without a defined outlet for it for so long.

Instead it mostly means Morgan is angry for the next 20-ish minutes of animation. Empire has absolutely nothing to say about Morgan’s interiority, and is only interested in facts—how she met Thrawn; how she, out of nowhere, was apparently the designer of the TIE Defender and just bizarrely brought that to them like she’d designed an Imperial Navy Original Character Do Not Steal in her spare time; why she locked down Corvus to what it became in The Mandalorian. It’s a terrible waste, because ultimately we come out of Empire with no real new understanding of Morgan and who she is that we didn’t already know from her prior appearances. And considering those prior appearances climax with her death, it’s hard to make this feel like anything more than a lot of wasted time for a lot of boxes ticked off on a factoid checklist.

We Didn’t Like: The Vagueness of Either Narrative

Screenshot: Lucasfilm

Like Tales of the Jedi before it, Empire tells the stories of Morgan and Barriss with a sort of vague haziness, chronologically speaking—dipping in and out of their lives across periods of time that are left undefined to the viewer. This is not necessarily a bad thing: we don’t need to know the exact date in a calendar any of these events occur at. But it does lend each story as sort of weird emotional lurch as we jump from one episode to the next, uncertain of how each character got to where they are from where they were in the episode prior.

We Didn’t Like: That Vagueness Still Leaves Little Room for Further Depth

Screenshot: Lucasfilm

This spartan approach leaves a series already short on time with even less room to really dig into the really interesting ideas that Empire is playing with, or even really the characters it’s playing with as well. There’s no room for reflection or mediation on any of the events that have occurred. Everything has to keep moving forward, which creates this weird sensation where there are plenty of gaps in both Barriss and Morgan’s stories that are ripe for exploration, while also feeling like those gaps are no longer really worth exploring because we’ve seen the stepping points along the way in each of these episodes—and even those steps, while more clearly defined, still don’t really get into the emotional cores of either of these journeys particularly well.

We Didn’t Like: The Way Tales Uses the Anthology Format

Screenshot: Lucasfilm

Ultimately though, all these issues come down to a singular question: is Tales making effective use of the anthology format, four stories in? The answer feels increasingly like “no.” Part of this might just be a character selection issue—of all four characters in either Tales series so far, Barriss is really the only character we didn’t know the future fate of (Ahsoka in Jedi, of course, we knew would go on and on across Star Wars continuity, but we still knew the direction she was going in around the context of her episodes), and Barriss is ultimately the only character the series did something particularly interesting with.

But regardless of that, each character Tales focuses on gets about 40 minutes of airtime, and even that has to be parceled between three delineated episodes of 10-15 minutes each. The window to effectively communicate an individual story in each of those slots, and have them build an arc over all three of them, is an incredibly fraught tightrope to walk—and it’s arguable that beyond Barriss in Empire, the series hasn’t really effectively been able to add something meaningful to the stories of the other character’s it’s played with.

Not every Star Wars story has to be strictly definitive. The series is often at its best, perhaps, when there are gaps left open for new stories to be told, for interpretation on the part of its audience. But there’s a difference between that and a vagueness brought about by ineffective use of form and pacing. There’s also something to be said that while it’s good that there’s room for more to be said about these characters, Star Wars only really gets one chance to tell these stories for the first time—and if they’re so hampered by the form they’re being told in, were they really worth telling like that in the first place?

It’s not like Star Wars doesn’t work in an anthology format, either—Star Wars Visions is a perfect of example of the series taking the idea and running with it. But if Tales is going to become a regular entity for Star Wars animation, whether it finds new institutions to build stories around beyond the Jedi Order and the Empire, or returns to revisit those settings with more characters, it needs to find a better way to use its time—whether that’s focusing on just one character instead of two, or freeing itself from needing to be quasi-episodic, or going for depth rather than breadth. Whatever it decides, with Jedi and Empire now under its belt, something needs to change.

Star Wars: Tales of the Empire is streaming on Disney+.