When was the last time we felt sorry for Anakin Skywalker? Before the prequel films hit, the catharsis of Anakin’s sacrifice — and therefore, his redemption — was mostly symbolic. Forty years ago, when Return of the Jedi hit theaters, Anakin Skywalker wasn’t really a character as much as an idea. Luke needed to forgive his father to avoid the Dark Side, but no one thought much about Anakin as a person until 1999 with The Phantom Menace. And from that point on, it’s been hard to figure out how to really feel about the guy.
But with Episode 5 of Ahsoka, “Shadow Warrior,” Star Wars seems to finally be figuring out how to make the flesh-and-blood version of Anakin seem more like a complete person. And, in doing so, it accomplished the one thing the prequels never quite managed.
Although “Shadow Warrior” goes out of its way to not explain itself — an odd decision considering how much deep-cut Star Wars lore is needed to follow Ahsoka — it does get one thing right, as the animated duo of Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano from The Clone Wars finally mesh with their live-action counterparts. Matt Lanter voiced Anakin throughout The Clone Wars, and his tone sometimes made him feel like a second version of the character with a slightly different continuity. In The Clone Wars, Anakin was far more jovial and straight-up cool than in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Hayden Christensen’s two Star Wars movies showed us Anakin’s worst days, while The Clone Wars tended to show him at his best, or at least not at his most tragic.
Despite the general confusion of “Shadow Warrior” (most notably, ghost Anakin’s true “lesson” was hazy), the simple fact that we get to see Hayden Christensen playing Anakin in these situations is a revelation. This isn’t an Anakin complaining about sand or Obi-Wan. He’s not trying to cover up the fact that his wife’s pregnant. Instead, in his flashback scene, Anakin is charming, humble, and overall more human than Christensen got to be in the prequels.
Little Ahsoka and Anakin’s flashback takes place during the Battle of Ryloth, from Season 1 of The Clone Wars. Anakin is rocking the battle armor worn by his animated counterpart, and trying to work very hard at being a good teacher. The fact that Ahsoka is a literal child in these scenes is an important touch; because the cartoon is a cartoon, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Ahsoka was very young during The Clone Wars. Doing this flashback in live-action not only makes Anakin seem more grounded and well-rounded but also makes Ahsoka’s journey feel weightier. She’s young and impressionable, and she’s learning.
Hardcore Star Wars fans can argue all they want about how great the animated shows are, and they’d be correct, but when it comes to a character as pivotal as Anakin Skywalker, the live-action stuff is always going to carry more weight in the cultural consciousness. Seeing Hayden playing Anakin this way greatly enhances our feelings about what kind of guy Anakin was before he turned to the Dark Side. Ahsoka gets angry with him at one point because he’s joking around, which is a small but wonderful detail. Everyone looked down on Anakin in the prequels, and the audience was aware of his impending doom. But Ahsoka looked up to him. And in these scenes, Hayden Christensen got to play Anakin the way so many of us wanted to see him in the prequels: as a hero.
George Lucas took a huge risk when he decided to make the prequels and chronicle the fall of Anakin Skywalker. Those films tell us why Anakin fell from grace and became Darth Vader, but we rarely saw him be graceful. But for a moment of Ahsoka, we saw Anakin through Snips’ eyes. And this time, he really looked like the Chosen One.