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Week-to-Week: Sometimes We Actually Do Need A Recap
On Ahsoka, this week's Reservation Dogs, and the challenge of context
Week-to-Week is our mostly weekly newsletter written by me, Myles McNutt. To receive future newsletters, and updates on the shows we’re covering for paid subscribers, sign up below.
Ahead of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s debut last spring, I was traveling to Paris and downloaded The Ringer’s podcast episode ranking the character’s most essential moments for my flights. In the episode, hosts Joanna Robinson and Mallory Rubin—who just spun House of R into its own podcast feed, so mazel tov to them—dig deep into the character’s history not just in the original and prequel trilogies, but also across the animated projects that have become increasingly important to the franchise’s television output after the ascendance of Dave Filoni and reintroduction of characters like Bo-Katan Fryze and Ahsoka Tano in The Mandalorian.
The podcast episode was, effectively, homework for me—I knew I was planning to cover Obi-Wan Kenobi in the weeks ahead, and yet I was coming into the show with almost no experience with The Clone Wars. And so I dutifully listened to the episode, wanting to make sure that I wasn’t in the dark when the show would connect these critical pieces of Obi-Wan’s arc to the new drama unfolding.
But then something funny happened: literally none of it mattered. Obi-Wan Kenobi debuted with zero interest in exploring the character’s Clone Wars arcs, and the homework I did about his relationship with Satine had no bearing on the show’s plot, which had far more interest in its depiction of a young Leia and an emergent Darth Vader to dig deeper into its title character. And although the series did come complete with a “Previously on” montage, it only included scenes from the prequel trilogy, seemingly affirming that the animated series were not meant to be part of the series’ canon.
Personally, I consider this important context for the conversation happening this week around the debut of Ahsoka, including in the comments of Josh Spiegel’s review of the premiere here at Episodic Medium. After debuting an Obi-Wan series that actively ignored and erased the animated series from existence, Disney+ has now released a show that is a direct sequel to one of those animated series, and which—unlike Obi-Wan—includes no “Previously on” to help acclimate those who have been introduced to the title character through The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett.
There’s a good explanation for the distinctive approaches to continuity happening here on a general level. The Obi-Wan series spun out of the franchise’s cinematic Star Wars Story era at Disney, shifted to television after the underperformance of Solo—no one involved had any meaningful connection to the animated series. Meanwhile, Dave Filoni has been given free reign to build in details from the animated series he oversaw for George Lucas into Jon Favreau’s Mandalorian era, and Ahsoka represents the culmination of his efforts to use this emerging platform to return to the characters and stories left unfinished when a fifth season of Rebels wasn’t greenlit.
However, while this explains the broad distinction, it doesn’t explain why Disney made no effort to address it. The choice was seemingly made that whereas Obi-Wan was given a prequel recap to ensure viewers were reminded of what they experienced in the past, it would be wrong to cross the streams and present animated content ahead of a live-action series, creating two burdens. The first was on the episode itself to establish and introduce characters and backstory in a way that made enough sense to invest in the story, with only a brief opening crawl to work with. The second was on fans who, in the absence of Disney itself either including a “Previously on” or producing content for Disney+ or other social platforms recapping the storytelling of Rebels, were forced to become ad hoc ambassadors for the story involved, filling in the gaps for more casual Star Wars fans.
Because the truth is that Ahsoka can’t fully meet that first burden. To be clear, I don’t think the show is nonsense to someone who’s never seen Rebels, but Josh’s review reflects the uncertainty created when it becomes unclear how much details of a world are important to the story. As I noted in a tweet to Joanna Robinson about it, the show’s short eight episode run means that compared to other series based on other media like Game of Thrones, there will never be enough time to bridge the gap between “newbies” and “experts,” which means that it does behoove producers to find a way to do whatever they can to onboard new viewers to the wavelength of the fans if that’s the text’s desired relationship.
I resent overly prescriptive “Previously On” sequences that work too hard to remind you of past events that are going to become important to a given episode, but there’s a clear argument that this would have been a smoother experience if they had eschewed a pretty broad opening crawl for a more concerted effort to recap the events of Rebels, particularly the reason why we should be invested in the characters of Ezra and Thrawn.If you’re not willing to literally show us footage from the animated series (fans often note that Disney often chooses to ignore they exist), then produce new visuals to tell the story, or open on a diegetic scene where the history is told in greater detail to other characters. It may be possible to follow what’s going on without background, but the entire experience would improve if some of the recommended homework involved—as Alan Sepinwall framed it in his newsletter today—was part of the text itself.
It’s a conversation that’s also resonated in our Substack Chat, where we’ve been discussing this week’s episode of Reservation Dogs, “House Made of Bongs.” Alan also writes about this in his newsletter, and notes that this flashback episode was a direct followup to the home video footage Maximus (Graham Greene) showed Bear earlier in the season. But I need to be honest and say that I hadn’t really registered that footage itself as important in that moment, and spent the early parts of this flashback episode wildly unclear as to what we were looking at and why. And yes, when it’s all laid out the episode’s ability to connect the dots of various elders—Elora’s grandmother Mabel, Cheese’s adopted grandmother Irene, etc.—presented within the narrative across all three seasons and show them at the same coming of age moment as our central protagonists is really effective. But my question is whether it was in any way beneficial to turn this into a mystery to be solved as opposed to laying clearer groundwork for the episode’s function.
Would “ House Made of Bongs” have been weakened if it had come with a diegetic scene of someone clearing out Maximus’ house and stumbling onto the footage? Or would it have worked less if we had gotten a “Previously On” featuring scenes with Bucky, Irene, Mabel, and other characters who we may or may not recognize from past seasons by name? Or what about a montage of images from their various homes, featuring shots of photographs and other memories that transition into the flashback? I know I wrote last week about how the show’s fragmented narrative style has been an issue for me in the past, and that may not be the case for everyone, but I would have enjoyed this—beautifully shot—episode more if I hadn’t spent the first half treating it like a puzzle box. And in a season where I’ve found the central coming of age story has struggled to cohere with so many divergences from that story, the episode’s resistance of drawing clearer parallels strikes me as a mistake.
The defensive response to this—and the Ahsoka situation—is that I’m asking a complex show to water itself down to be more palatable to an audience who is paying less attention. And on some level, yes—I think that the producers of both Ahsoka and Reservation Dogs fell on the wrong side of contextualization in choosing how to tell these stories, and would argue that a middle ground solution could have avoided those circumstances. And so I suppose my campaign here is for us to collectively acknowledge that sometimes a text really is improved by exploring as many possible avenues to ensure its audience is on the same page.
We’ll have the full—well, close to full until Showtime dates one of their fall shows we intend to cover—details on our plans for the fall early next week, so stay tuned for more on our yearly subscription drive and how we intend to add to our schedule before the channels/streamers return to programming in earnest in October and November.
For the record, my context for Ahsoka included enough social media presence to recognize the different characters, and enough conversations with my boyfriend to know some random details from Rebels that he expanded on during the episodes themselves. I knew enough, for example, to notice the Space Whale in the sky above Seitos when he missed it.
Unrelated to this, last week I did a podcast with David Chen and Patrick Klepek at Decoding TV discussing the New York Times’ article about “MovieTok” and film criticism, and the article’s author Reggie Ugwu recently tweeted calling it a “super thoughtful and nuanced discussion.” I appreciated that, although I’d appreciated the article more if it had been equally nuanced, but c’est la trend piece journalism. (There’s a very specific lesson in that article for fellow academics that, even if you get an email from the Paper of Record, you can and should still challenge the premise of their argument even if it validates your research.)
While the news of Warner Bros. pushed Dune: Part Two into 2024 all but confirms that the studios are punting on a fall movie season despite Barbie and Oppenheimer’s success, I will say that I’m at least glad that it’s clear Oppenheimer will get a return engagement in IMAX this fall, because my nearest local IMAX has been broken since a week into its run, and I never did manage to trek out to the other one in the area due to construction traffic.
As someone noted in the comments on Josh’s review, it also didn’t help that the last opening crawl we got was Rise of the Skywalker’s, and that was the WRONG kind of exposition.