Motivations in Star Wars aren’t often complicated. Sure, plenty of characters change their minds between the Dark Side of the Force and the Light Side, or between the Sith and the Jedi, but for the most part it’s only those two sides. Which is making Ahsoka’s Baylan Skoll feel like a complete mystery — and probably a huge missed opportunity.
[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for the first six episodes of Ahsoka season 1.]
Baylan is Ahsoka’s primary antagonist, at least through its first five episodes. An ex-Jedi who survived both Order 66 and the reign of the Galactic Empire, Baylan now seems to have struck out on his own, away from the rules of the Sith or the Jedi. Based on everything we’ve seen and heard for most of the show, it seems that Baylan is a kind of Count Dooku lite, an ex-Jedi who now works toward the aims of the Dark Side and is helping to set up the shadowy powers that will one day (once again) rule the galaxy.
But in episode 6 he tells us what he’s really after, explaining to his apprentice that he seeks an end to the cyclical wars between the two factions of the Force. That’s why he allied himself with the Witches of Dathomir (avowed Jedi-haters through and through) in order to bring Grand Admiral Thrawn (also a Jedi-hater) back from his accidental exile.
On its face, this motivation seems understandable and interesting, but in practice it’s almost tragically silly. Baylan doesn’t realize what the audience already knew when Ahsoka began: This is a show about how the First Order comes to power. In other words, it’s all connective tissue for Disney’s sequel trilogy, the most egregious and ridiculous “continuing the cycle” that Star Wars has ever tried to pull. While that might seem like great fuel for a tragic-irony fire, Ahsoka seems wholly uninterested in playing things in that direction.
A sympathetic Baylan, trying earnestly to fix the galaxy but getting duped by more evil and clever people who want power, could have been one of Star Wars’ strongest characters. He could have been a Ned Stark type, a man with conviction who wants the horrors he’s seen to stop, but instead finds out that the cycle of cruelty is always propped up by those it benefits and that he’s just a cog in the machine.
This would make him a perfect thematic foil to Ahsoka herself. While she, too, might have been interested in ending the Dark Side/Light Side cycle in the past, now — thanks in part to Ahsoka’s gripping Force vision sequence in the previous episode — she’s committed to creating a better version of the Jedi, and one that includes unorthodox members like Sabine. If Ahsoka had forced her to reckon with someone ideologically similar but on the opposing side, it could have provided some of the most interesting character insight that Star Wars has ever managed. But Ahsoka isn’t giving Baylan that honor.
It’s possible that a more interesting and nuanced story could be in store for Baylan now that he no longer has to perform the duties of Ahsoka’s villain. “Part Six” finally reveals Thrawn (for the first time in live action) and he instantly rockets up the ranks to the series’ number one threat. Perhaps this will give Baylan the space he needs to more elegantly explain his motivation, or for the show to let him see the error of his ways and transform into a truly interesting and sympathetic character. But if that’s going to happen, it would have to happen fast, since Ahsoka only has two more episodes left in its season.
For now, Baylan simply feels like a victim of creator Dave Filoni’s attempts to retroactively save the sequel trilogy. Baylan may profess to wanting change in the galaxy, but we know that he’s just here to reset the board: One way or another, Palpatine will be resurrected, the Empire will return as the First Order, and Star Wars will become a little smaller and a little more boring.