Note: This review contains SPOILERS
Last week I said that it was important for Star Wars Rebels to follow up the encore showing of “Spark of Rebellion” on ABC with a really strong episode that forwards the major arc of the season, and I’m happy to report that “Rise of the Old Masters” does exactly that. Here we have an episode that progresses character arcs, retcons dumb pieces of Star Wars canon established in the Prequels, and formally introduces the show’s “big bad.”
The episode starts with Kanan training Ezra in the ways of the Force. On top of the Ghost. While it is in flight. After announcing his intention to do so at the end of “Spark of Rebellion” it’s nice to finally see Kanan follow through on his promise to train Ezra, especially after two episodes of this particular arc being ignored. Kanan, though, as it turns out is not a great teacher, and perhaps isn’t even a great Jedi Knight. He’s rash and impatient, and admits that he doesn’t fully understand the platitudes so often spat out by the former Jedi Order, and when his training nearly gets Ezra killed he decides he’s not up to the task and looks to pass him off to another Jedi Master who they’ve just discovered is being held prisoner by the Empire.
This is a great bit of character development. One of the most frustrating things about the Prequels was the idea that the Jedi were this highly structured society of celibate, emotionless monks. The idea that Jedi could not know passion or love was ridiculous and here we see Rebels taking steps to spin that bit of idiocy into compelling character motivations. By all the rules of the old Jedi Order, Kanan sucks as a Jedi, but here we’re seeing the beginning of an arc that could lead Kanan to understand that maybe you don’t have to be bound to these dumb oppressive rules in order to be a good Jedi; it hints at the notion that maybe the Jedi Order as it was established in the Prequels was deeply flawed after all.
Meanwhile, Ezra takes Kanan’s self-doubt as a rejection, and over eagerly goes about trying to prove himself and his abilities to Kanan, which in turn reaffirms Kanan’s belief that he can’t even keep Ezra in check as a pupil. This episode is very much about developing the relationship between Ezra and Kanan, and while the other characters play key roles in rescuing the aforementioned Jedi Master, the focus is on these two characters who both are doubting their respective roles.
Speaking of the rescue mission, here is where we get into some of the retconning I previously mentioned. The issue of how many Jedi survived after the formation of the Empire has always been a weird thing to nail down. Revenge of the Sith dealt with the issue in the dumbest way possible – having all the Jedi killed by Stormtroopers in a montage – meanwhile the Expanded Universe featured gobs of Jedi just floating around the galaxy. This episode addresses that issue basically by establishing that the idiotic Order 66 did kill most of the Jedi, but a few stragglers remained who were systematically hunted down by the Empire. This, thankfully, lines up more with Obi-Wan’s story in A New Hope in which he tells Luke that Darth Vader helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi. The only wrinkle is, it’s not really Vader who is doing the hunting, but rather a lightsaber wielding assassin called the Inquisitor.
The Inquisitor, as it turns out, reports directly to Vader, but even this is mildly annoying because it’s another example of Vader being rewritten as someone who sits on the sidelines rather than the one who actually goes out and gets his hands dirty. It’d restore a lot of Vader’s menace if he was personally exterminating the Jedi as Obi-Wan implied, but admittedly having a major player like Vader making regular appearances on this show would overwhelm its ability to explore new characters and new stories. Plus, I get the impression that the Inquisitor’s role in this show is going to foreshadow some of the things we’ll be seeing in the Sequel trilogy.
As for the Inquisitor himself, he sets up an interesting threat for our heroes. He’s a user of the Dark Side of the Force, and yet he’s not a Sith, meaning that Rebels has found a way to retcon the rule that there can only ever be two Sith, another bit of Prequel stupidity. Like so much of the content of the Prequels, the idea that there can only be two Sith in the whole galaxy shrinks the Star Wars universe. It eliminates possibilities and confines the storytelling potential to a strict set of characters that we already know about. This new category of “not quite Sith” is kind of a hokey way around the nonsensical ramblings Lucas shoved into The Phantom Menace, but it does its job in allowing for more than two villain characters able to use the Force. This allowance is used to good effect here, giving our characters a more threatening foe than your garden variety Imperial goons. What’s interesting is that the Inquisitor seems to have an inconsistent ability level; the trap he sets for our heroes hints at a type of power we’ve never seen before, and yet Kanan is later able to pin him to the ceiling with relative ease. It’s possible that I could be misreading the mechanics of the trap, and that the image of the deceased Jedi Master was actually a hologram and not a projection of the Force, but the fact that Kanan could sense her presence seems to indicate the latter. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how the Inquisitor develops as a character and how he plays into future episodes.
On the subject of character development, the show has done a good job giving us insight into Zeb, Ezra, and Kanan, but the women of Star Wars Rebels are still woefully underdeveloped. Hera and Sabine’s character is pretty much defined exclusively by their role on the team (pilot and demolitions expert respectively) and we know very little about them as people. It’s great that nearly half of the Ghost’s crew are women (I’m being generous by not counting Chopper), but it doesn’t do any good if they’re constantly relegated to background characters. I’d like to see an episode that headlines one or both of them soon.
Overall, this is by far the best episode we’ve gotten since “Spark of Rebellion,” and I’m still really excited about this show’s potential. This episode did feel slightly rushed, not as bad as some of the early episodes of TRON: Uprising, but it could have benefitted from five to ten more minutes of breathing room. I’m sure, though, that these kind of bugs – be they character development or time constraints – will work themselves out over the next few weeks. Rebels is in a really good place for a show this young, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.