Note: This review contains SPOILERS
As I mentioned in my editorial on the series, part of the reason why I watched Star Wars: The Clone Wars – in spite of the fact that most of it was bad – is because I’d heard that there would be more connective tissue between that show, and Star Wars Rebels in upcoming episodes. This week, that rumor started to prove true.
This episode, though not impenetrable on its own, acts as a companion piece to The Clone Wars’ final, Yoda-centric story arc (season six, episodes 10-13). It begins with Kanan confronting Ezra about his brief connection with the Dark Side in “Gathering Forces.” It seems as though Ezra doesn’t quite understand the gravity of the situation, while Kanan – who is still struggling with self-doubt – is worried about both Ezra and his own ability to keep his apprentice on the path to becoming a Jedi. This isn’t new, but this character dynamic continues to be excellent. The Jedi Knight who never finished his training struggling to teach a kid who has all sorts of deep, emotional baggage. This episode is all about digging deep into that dynamic, which might feel redundant considering it was a main focus of episodes like “Rise of the Old Masters” and “Gathering Forces,” but there’s so much great stuff here to mine that it still feels rewarding.
Kanan’s plan is to take Ezra to one of the old Jedi Temples in order to face a series of trials, the first of which is to reach out through the Force and find the Temple itself. As it so happens, the Temple is right there on Lothal. Quick sidebar: I’ve heard some fans complain that the scope of this show is too small, that we spend too much time on Lothal and don’t get to see the rest of the galaxy. Nonsense, I say. Yes, The Clone Wars hopped all over the galaxy and we got to meet hundreds of new characters, but the vast majority of it was garbage. The smaller, more intimate scale of Rebels is a benefit to the show, not a hindrance. It allows us to feel at home in this world and with these characters. The times when we’ve left Lothal have all been deliberate choices to rob our characters of their “home field advantage,” whether that’s falling into the Inquisitor’s trap on Stygeon Prime in “Rise of the Old Masters” or being stranded on an asteroid and hunted by Fyrnocks in “Out of Darkness.” Having Ezra face these trials on Lothal feels right. Lothal is part of Ezra; it’s where he grew up, it’s where he lost his parents, and it’s where he’s spent almost his entire life. Unlike Luke, Ezra doesn’t seem to yearn to get away from this place, but rather to find a sense of belonging. That desire to have a home, to have a family, is exactly what he is made to face in these trials.
The trials themselves are modeled on a few things. There’s the obvious parallel to Luke’s vision in the tree on Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back, but there are also nods to The Clone Wars episode “The Gathering” and the aforementioned Yoda story arc. Essentially, Ezra is forced to enter the Temple alone wherein he faces visions that play on his fears and insecurities. What makes this episode so good, though, is that we really understand where these trials are coming from. Back in “The Gathering” we were seeing these trials being undertaken by kids we’ve only just met, and so the episode naturally had to resort to big, stock lessons like “courage” or “selflessness” or “patience.” Here, though, we know Ezra, we know who he is as a person, so these trials can get really personal. As I mentioned, Ezra’s big motivation is belonging – to have a home, to have a family – and he’s found that, to an extent, with the crew of the Ghost. So, of course, that’s exactly what these visions attack. We see the Inquisitor kill Kanan, Ezra’s father figure; we see the other members of the crew act with indifference, even relief to the possibility of Ezra dying and having to go on without him; and we see the Inquisitor challenge Ezra one-on-one, without any of his family to support him.
Meanwhile, Kanan is still dealing with his own insecurities – the fear of failing Ezra, the worry that his incomplete training will cause him to let Ezra down, the feeling that he himself doesn’t know what he’s doing half the time so how could he possibly teach a Padawan. It’s here that we get this episode’s much-publicized big, fanservicey moment: the return of Frank Oz as Yoda. I initially had some concerns about this news – I want Rebels to exist on its own terms and not be playing second fiddle to the films – but the Lucasfilm Animation team handles this really well. Yoda appears, in voice only, to guide both Ezra and Kanan. For the latter, he reaffirms Kanan’s decision to take on Ezra as an apprentice, and for the former, he challenges Ezra’s commitment and intent to become a Jedi. We see Ezra grapple with his emotions – his fear of being alone, his anger at the Empire, and ultimately his empathy and his genuine desire to do good. At this point, the comparison has been used so often as to feel trite, but this one moment feels more honest and more emotionally real than Anakin’s entire three-movie “arc” in the Prequels. You really believe here that there’s both the potential for Ezra to become a great Jedi or to fall victim to his emotional turbulence and go to the Dark Side. For now, though, his empathy and his desire to help others is stronger than his anger and his drive for revenge, and he completes the trial by earning a Kyber crystal – the crystal that allows a Jedi to create his own lightsaber.
Jumping back a bit, Yoda’s appearance here is what makes this episode feel like a companion to the final story arc of The Clone Wars. It’s not just the appearance of Yoda, but specific visual cues that come straight from that story. Without that context, Yoda’s appearance doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but you could probably just chalk it up to “space magic” and the episode would work just fine. It’s a connection to The Clone Wars that feels a little bit too close for comfort, as, again, I’d like Rebels to exist on its own terms, but Yoda’s role in this episode really works on a story level, and it’s so satisfying to hear Frank Oz in that role once again (and, it’s worth noting, Frank Oz is doing the Yoda from Empire, not that other character we got in the Prequels) that I can forgive the fact that it has that story connection to The Clone Wars.
The episode ends with Ezra crafting his lightsaber (which is maybe my favorite lightsaber design to date) and a subtle refutation of the visions Ezra faced in the Temple. It doesn’t call attention to itself, but the feeling of the Ghost as family is powerful in this last scene – each of them pitching in to help Ezra build his lightsaber, and a final shot of the group united. The trials may have taught Ezra that he needn’t fear being alone, but it’s good to know that, for now, he is not.
There’s a moment near the end of the episode where Ezra looks back at the Temple and suggests that the crew of the Ghost use it as a base, saying “who knows what might be in there!” Kanan turns him down, telling him that the only thing in there is the past. This could be a mission statement, not only for Rebels, but for the whole Star Wars series as it moves forward, and this episode reinforces it. This is an episode that makes reference to the past, but at the same time has grown beyond it. It serves as a companion to a four-episode arc from The Clone Wars, but is better and more satisfying in a single 22-minute episode than the Yoda story was in nearly two hours (and that was one of the better story arcs of The Clone Wars). Star Wars Rebels comes back from its mid-season break reminding you that the show is the best thing to happen to Star Wars in a long, long time. We’ve only known these characters for a few months now, but – much like they do for Ezra – they already feel like family.