Note: This review contains SPOILERS
One of the first things I did after being pleasantly surprised by just how good “Spark of Rebellion” was, was to go back and give Star Wars: The Clone Wars a shot. I had only ever seen the feature film that launched the series (which is godawful, for the record) and I had never bothered to watch anything beyond that. Seeing the quality of Rebels, though, and knowing that a large number of these people had also worked on The Clone Wars was enough to compel me to give it a go. To say I was less than impressed would be an understatement.
Now, I have been told on numerous occasions that the series does get substantially better as it goes on, and after fighting through the first full season of the show, I can admit to seeing some of that change. While the first few episodes teetered on the precipice of being absolutely unwatchable, the final handful of episodes of season one have, at the very least, strong action set pieces and some solid art design. What the series doesn’t have (at least not as far as I’ve watched)? Characters that are worth a damn. Not counting the multiple movies most of them have starred in, I’ve spent roughly 12 hours with Anakin, Obi-Wan, Ahsoka, Padme, and co. and I still could not care less about any of them.
I say all this not just as an excuse to express my distaste for The Clone Wars, but to point out that we’re only seven episodes into Star Wars Rebels and I’ve already developed a much deeper connection to its characters than I have after spending 12-20 hours with the characters from The Clone Wars. I may not know as much about each of them as I’d like, but I find each of these characters* compelling and I enjoy spending time with them.
This week’s episode does something that The Clone Wars could have never gotten away with early in its run and opens not with an action scene, but a quiet character moment. Kanan is continuing to train Ezra in the ways of the Force, and here we see him teach Ezra about how the Force connects him with every living creature if one is willing to let their guard down and embrace that connection. Ezra, unfortunately is unable to find that sense of peace because this day, the anniversary of the Empire’s formation, is one that always puts him on edge. This scene masterfully uses just a few short minutes to set up the narrative and thematic arc of this episode while also expounding on both the relationship between Kanan and Ezra as well as their individual character arcs. It elegantly lays out the entire episode for you right at the beginning without feeling rushed or overly expository. It also continues Rebels’ trend of hitting all the right notes for this life-long fan of the original trilogy. While the prequels did their best to drain all of the magic from the Force and reduce it to a set of superpowers, this training scene recalls scenes of Ben Kenobi describing the Force to Luke. It emphasizes the spirituality and mysticism of the Force rather than its ability to be used in flashy, over-choreographed fight scenes.
Ezra’s training is interrupted, though, when a group of TIE Fighters make an unexpected appearance in the nearby Lothal town. The crew of the Ghost investigates and finds the TIE pilots in a local bar searching for a Rodian named Tseebo, who, as it turns out, was a friend of Ezra’s parents before they were taken by the Empire. The TIE pilots also throw their weight around a bit and demand that the bartender turn on the Imperial Holonet news which is currently airing information about Empire Day festivities taking place around the galaxy. When the crew of the Ghost makes plans to interrupt the parade taking place at Lothal’s Capital City, Ezra opts out, returning to his home to reflect on the things that are bothering him. When he does, though, he hears the voices of his parents and realizes where Tseebo might be hiding.
Meanwhile, in Capital City, the crew of the Ghost set off fireworks surrounding the Empire Day parade as a distraction while Kanan plants a bomb on a new prototype TIE Fighter being debuted at the celebration. Ezra arrives shortly before the bomb goes off and leads the rest of them to an abandoned home where they can wait out the chaos caused by their act of rebellion. This abandoned home was, in fact, where Ezra lived as a child, and in a hiding place under the floor Ezra finds Tseebo, who has had cybernetic circuits implanted into his head that effectively erase his personality and replace it with information to be used by the Empire. In Tseebo’s head are stored information detailing the Empire’s plan for the next five years, which is why they’re so desperate to get him back.
I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I’d like to see more out-and-out villainy from the Empire, and this episode really hits the mark in that regard. The media propaganda and the Empire Day parade are very clearly emulating celebrations of Nazism in the early days of World War II, and the literal reprogramming of its workforce is suitably sinister. This is exactly the right tone the Empire should be taking in this series – it’s a stand-in for evil government regimes using science fiction metaphors to represent real world atrocities. Mass genocide becomes the destruction of a planet and the systematic extermination of a religious group becomes Darth Vader hunting down the Jedi. Cybernetic implants standing in for more traditional brainwashing is a perfect addition. It creates sympathy for this new character we know virtually nothing about and establishes weight to the story’s villains.
Also of note is the fact that Tseebo has information on the Empire’s five year plan. Remember that Rebels takes place five years prior to the original film; it’s likely that Tseebo has information on the Death Star stuffed away in his noggin. We also learn during this scene that Empire Day also happens to be Ezra’s birthday. It’s a little bit hokey that the main character of our story was born on the exact day of the Empire’s formation, but it’s hokey in that specific pulpy way that suits something like Star Wars (not unlike the fact that Captain America’s birthday is July 4).
After this, Ezra, Sabine, and Kanan hijack an Imperial Troop Transport to smuggle Tseebo out of Capital City and rendezvous with Hera and Zeb on the Ghost. Agent Kallus pursues them in this episode’s big action set piece and though they manage to escape Kallus, Chopper is damaged in the process and they still have to deal with the Imperial blockade surrounding Lothal. Onboard the ship, Tseebo briefly regains lucidity and informs Ezra that he knows what happened to his parents.
Smash cut to “To Be Continued…”
It can be a bit hard to review two-part episodes since you’re naturally only getting half of the story. There are a few inclusions in this episode that feel like throw-aways – most notably the Inquisitor showing up to do absolutely nothing – but there’s the potential these will pay off next week. The benefit, though, of doing a two-parter vastly outweighs any minor problems it may cause; this episode is easily the best of the series so far, and that’s fairly high praise considering I’ve already really enjoyed it prior to this point. While Rebels has never exactly struggled with pacing for the 22-minute format, there’s more breathing room in this episode and it allows for some really great moments of atmosphere and characterization. I already talked about the wonderful opening scene, but there are so many fantastic small moments scattered throughout this episode that they simply wouldn’t have time for in a regular episode. The scene at that bar on Lothal in particular stands out as being absolutely dripping in atmosphere due in no small part to a few great dialogue-free establishing shots that would have almost certainly been cut if this weren’t a two-parter. The fact that this is an animated show on a children’s network forbids this, but “Empire Day” really makes me wish that every episode of Rebels was paced for 44 minutes instead of the standard 22.
That’s something I never thought I’d say about a new Star Wars cartoon, that I actually want more than a half-hour of it every week. I’m still blown away by just how good Rebels is, and this episode has made me fall in love with it all over again. While “Rise of the Old Masters” was the previous high-point (at least after “Spark of Rebellion”), in some ways it felt like a better version of what Lucasfilm Animation was doing on The Clone Wars. “Empire Day,” however, is very much pushing Rebels’ unique direction and showcasing all the potential they have to tell great stories in this world.
Unlike The Clone Wars which, at least early on, felt like it was playing second fiddle to a series of bad movies, Rebels is allowed to exist on its own terms. The characters in Rebels are unique to the show, and while the story clearly has connective tissue with the main series of films (particularly the original Star Wars), it’s not married to them in a way that limits its own narrative potential. “Empire Day” highlights all of this in really great ways, and I legitimately cannot wait for the follow-up episode next week.
*The exception to this is Chopper, who is mercifully only in this episode for a few brief moments. I didn’t mind the “what if R2-D2 was kind of a dick?” schtick at first, but now Chopper has become little more than an antagonistic force. In the context of a group that’s populated with characters that are likable and narratively compelling, Chopper is a big problem.