Note: This review contains SPOILERS
As we enter the holiday season, most shows are going on hiatus until January and leaving us with big mid-season finales in an attempt to sustain our interest through the holidays. Star Wars Rebels is no exception, wrapping up the first half of its first season with a two-part episode that really highlights how much the show has grown, even in this short time it’s been airing.
Picking up from last week’s cliffhanger, the crew of the Ghost are fleeing Lothal with the Inquisitor and a squadron of TIE Fighters in pursuit. Chopper is down for the count, the hyperdrive is damaged, and the Ghost is rapidly approaching the Imperial blockade surrounding the planet. Meanwhile, Ezra lashes out at Tseebo, who claims to know what happened to Ezra’s parents. Ezra is angry and confused; he’s long accepted that his parents are dead, since any hope that they might still be alive – that they might one day return to him – would have been crippling. He’s sacrificed that hope in order to function, and Tseebo’s words threaten to destroy the fragile balance of Ezra’s life.
In a lot of ways, Ezra mirrors a certain young wizard more than he does Luke Skywalker. Obviously all three characters are drawing on the same tropes that have been with us for hundreds of years, but I see a lot of Harry Potter in Ezra. He’s a young protagonist with powers he doesn’t quite understand, whose parents were taken from him by an evil organization. These last two episodes have delved into Ezra’s backstory in an intriguing way, and I’m very interested to see how it plays out over the rest of the season. Ezra has found a surrogate family in the crew of the Ghost, but I suspect we’ll eventually see him forced to choose between staying loyal to his crew or betraying them for the sake of his parents.
For now, though, Ezra suppresses all of this in order to help the rest of the crew escape their pursuit from the Imperial forces. After Tseebo fixes the hyperdrive, the crew manages to make the jump to light speed, but not before the Inquisitor tags the ship with a tracking device. Fortunately the device hit the Phantom, rather than the main hull of the Ghost, so Kanan devises a plan to lure the Inquisitor into a trap while the rest of the crew get Tseebo to safety. After re-routing the coordinates, Kanan and Ezra board the Phantom and make a dangerous drop out of hyperspace and head for the abandoned base where Sabine and Hera had a run-in with Fyrnocks in “Out of Darkness.” Kanan’s plan is for Ezra to reach out with the Force and connect to the Fyrnocks as he was training him to do in the previous episode. Ezra once again struggles to make the connection because there’s too much he’s unwilling to let go of – he’s too afraid to let his guard down, and too afraid of the possibility that his parents may still be alive. As the Fyrnocks approach, Ezra finally lets go of his fear and forgives Tseebo, in the process calming the Fyrnocks surrounding them.
This episode once again highlights an interesting dynamic of Kanan in that he never completed his Jedi training under the Prequel era Jedi order. Much of Kanan’s instruction of Ezra is based on instinct, and can come across as sometimes reckless, but there’s also a wisdom there that perhaps exceeds what the old Jedi order taught. Yet again, Rebels takes a flawed element of the Prequels and recontextualizes it in a way that is thematically compelling. The thing about the Prequels is there are actually a few good ideas in there, but they’re isolated and buried underneath tons of garbage, and none of them connect in any way that can be considered a legitimate thematic through line. If Lucas had brought on other writers to refine these ideas, the Prequels might have contained an interesting deconstruction of the “chosen one” trope, as well as discussions of the entropic nature of politics, the dichotomy of emotion and logic. Unfortunately the films are too fundamentally broken to make any kind of functional statement on any of those points, but the potential exists for those threads to be picked up in other Star Wars stories.
Here, for instance, we have Kanan discussing the nature of fear in a way that is much more mature and thoughtful than Yoda’s infamous “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate,…” speech from The Phantom Menace. Rather than seeing fear as an inherently negative emotion and a characteristic of the Dark Side, Kanan recognizes that fear is something that we all face. The key is not to suppress that emotion as the old Jedi order instructed, but rather to recognize our fears and work to overcome them. It’s like the old saying that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, but the willingness to act in spite of it. Ezra is afraid of knowing his parents’ fate, but trying to suppress it only makes that fear more potent, it’s only when he acknowledges it and allows himself to be at peace that he’s able to overcome it.
When the Inquisitor arrives, though, Ezra gets his first real taste of the Dark Side. After the Inquistor bests Kanan in combat, Ezra reacts in fear and anger, drawing upon the Force to summon what I can only assume is the Fyrnock queen. The effort he puts forth doing so causes him to pass out, but Kanan comes to his aid, and the two of them escape while the Inquisitor is busy dealing with the Monster Ezra unleashed.
To me, this is the only moment of the episode that felt like it didn’t quite have the punch it needed to. Ezra’s first time calling upon the Dark Side of the Force should punch us in the gut. It should be something that makes us uncomfortable and really emphasizes the weight of the situation. Instead, we simply see Ezra using the same power that was a good thing moments before, only turned up to eleven. If, for instance, they had Ezra using this connection not to turn enemies into allies, but rather to use the Fyrnocks as puppets, it might have had a bit more impact. Regardless, this is obviously a key moment for Ezra, and it marks the beginning of him being tempted by the Dark Side.
Back on the Ghost, Hera and company deliver Tseebo to Fulcrum, but not before Tseebo admits to Hera (off-screen) what he knows about the Bridgers’ fate. It’s worth noting that Fulcrum’s ship looks an awful lot like the Tantive IV, the ship from the opening of the original Star Wars that we also saw in “Droids in Distress” when Kanan returned C-3PO and R2-D2 to Senator Bail Organa. It seems as though the episode wants us to assume that Senator Organa is Fulcrum, but I think this might be a red herring. My only evidence is that the colored accents on this ship are blue, while the Tantive IV’s are red. I think Fulcrum is likely someone we’ll recognize, but I don’t think it’s Senator Organa.
So here we are at the midpoint of the season, and this show continues to surpass my expectations at every turn. We’re only eight episodes in, but this show already has a rich world and characters that are worth caring about. If these past two episodes are any indication, they even seem to have moved past the “gimmick a week” mode, and into more traditional serialization. Character arcs are developing, beats set up in previous episodes are being paid off, and new story threads are emerging to keep things interesting going forward. I’m especially impressed with the way that the show has managed to loop back on one-off episodes like “Fighter Flight” and “Out of Darkness” and make them feel like important parts of the continuity. Also worth noting is that the animation work has improved quite a bit since the first few episodes. The animation work on Rebels has always been better than the early days of The Clone Wars, but there was a bit too much over-exaggeration of movement in the first few episodes. Animation requires a certain amount of exaggeration, but the movements were previously so over the top as to not feel convincing; now, though, they’ve dialed it back to a place that feels much more natural.
As we enter the holiday hiatus, Star Wars Rebels is in a tremendously good place for a series this young. I never thought I’d be this attached to a new Star Wars cartoon, but I’m very happy to be proven wrong. I can’t wait to catch up with the crew of the Ghost in 2015.