Note: This review contains SPOILERS
Last week I talked about how Star Wars Rebels finally felt as if it found itself – settling into a groove without big, attention grabbing gimmicks and just telling a story based on the world and characters already established. This week, though, they’ve taken that status quo and blown it all to pieces, and in the process made what is by far their best episode to date.
I’m going to walk back that hyperbole just a tad, as I’m admittedly writing this only a short while after watching the episode in question. How this compares to other series high points like “Spark of Rebellion” and “Empire Day” will become more clear over time, but in the moment, I was wildly impressed by this episode.
The episode begins with the arrival of Grand Moff Tarkin at the Imperial base on Lothal much in the same way the Emperor arrives at the Death Star II at the beginning of Return of the Jedi. Tarkin, who has been dealing with isolated rebel cells all over the galaxy, has turned his attention to the Ghost crew and the increasing problems they’ve been causing for the Empire. Changes will be made, he assures Agent Kallus, Minister Tua, and the Inquisitor, and the incompetence of their efforts thus far will not be tolerated. With that, he executes two of the more cartoonish Imperial goons we’ve dealt with so far.
This moment is probably the darkest the show has gotten to date, but it still feels tasteful, unlike some of the needlessly grim episodes of The Clone Wars (in particular ALL of the episodes featuring Darth Maul). It deliberately stands out from the lighter tone the show normally operates at, which makes it an effective moment without feeling exploitative and juvenile. It also eliminates some of the more cartoony, buffoonish Imperial goons which have always felt out of place in the context of the show (now, if only something could be done about Minister Tua). It’s a moment that works both in the context of the episode, and as a course correction for one of the few, small problems of the series early on – namely the lack of credibility of the Empire as a serious and sinister threat for our heroes.
As a small aside, this episode features a reoccurrence of the Star Wars mythology that hasn’t been touched on much since the original film, and in fact became somewhat obsolete after Empire Strikes Back: the idea that to the general population of the galaxy, the Jedi and the Force are no more than fables – fairy tales for the superstitious. It’s something that is referenced heavily in the first film, and it’s used to highlight the passage of time between the golden age of the old Republic and the current rule of the Empire. The problem is, once Vader uttered those famous four words at the end of Empire, this period of time collapsed to 20 years – the age of Luke Skywalker. Someone like Han Solo would have been nine or ten-years-old at the fall of the old Republic, certainly old enough to remember what it was like when the Jedi were still an active force in the galaxy, and in Rebels we’re only fifteen years out from the fall of the Republic, certainly not ancient history as one character in the episode refers to it. It’d be like if 9/11 Trutherism was a widely accepted belief in the real world. It’s not a major issue, to be sure, but it’s interesting to see how, despite Lucas’ claims of a grand six movie plan from the beginning, the series was already facing major retcons only two movies in. In many ways, it’s Empire, not Star Wars, that’s ground zero for the whole Star Wars universe, but that’s a discussion for another article. Anyway, back to the episode.
Our heroes, still reeling from the betrayal of Senator Gall Trayvis, concoct a plan to fill the gap he left – someone speaking out against the Empire and acting as a rallying cry for other rebels around the galaxy. To do that, they plan to hack into the primary Imperial transmission tower on Lothal, allowing them to broadcast on Lothal and in several nearby systems*. Ezra is hesitant about going through with this plan, though, considering the fact that his parents were hauled off by the Empire for doing something very similar. Ezra’s already lost his original family, and he’s not in any hurry to lose his new one. Kanan comforts him, saying that sometimes you need to take risks and make sacrifices in order to do what is right.
I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge that this is perhaps the best directed episode of the series so far. This whole episode feels extremely cinematic, and it was this sequence that really drew attention to it for me. Transitioning from the high action of the crew fleeing Imperial forces on Speeder Bikes to the more intimate character moments on the Ghost was handled extremely well with carefully constructed shots that not only capture the action, but highlight intricacies and nuances of these characters. I also have to give some credit to the animation team who have dialed their performances in to near-perfection.
This is all crucial, because the story they’re telling here really relies on both clear, coherent action and an intimate understanding of the characters. When the crew of the Ghost goes through with their attack on the transmission tower, unaware that Tarkin and company have already figured out that they’re coming, there are real stakes at play. As imperial forces close in to cut off their escape, Kanan stays on the ground to buy some time for the rest of the crew to get away onboard the Phantom, and when Kanan went toe-to-toe with the Inquisitor, I genuinely began to fear for his life. I’ve been suspecting for a while that Kanan won’t live to see the end of this series, but the presentation of both the action and the emotional stakes had me convinced that he was going to bite the bullet way sooner than I expected. He doesn’t, which probably should have been obvious, but they really had me going there for a minute, and that impresses me.
Either way, though, this episode marks a major turning point for the series, so much so that I’m a little bit surprised they didn’t save this for the season finale. Kanan has been captured by the Inquisitor, Ezra has yet again lost a father figure to the Empire, Hera will be forced to properly assume the role of leader for the Ghost crew, and the Lothal rebels have sent out a message calling for people to stand up and fight against the rule of the Empire. The destruction of the transmission tower at the end of the episode might appear to be a return to the status quo, but the message is already out there, and that changes everything. As soon as the next episode, I expect the crew of the Ghost will be in contact with rebels in neighboring systems and beyond, setting in motion the formation of the Rebel Alliance. I really can’t wait to see where we go from here.
*I was actually geeky enough to try to find Lothal on one of the galaxy maps to see what its neighboring systems are, but I guess the maps haven’t been updated to include Lothal yet, so it remains to be seen where their signal was broadcast.