Note: This review contains SPOILERS
A few months ago, I gave you some of my initial impressions on Star Wars Rebels‘ Season Two opener after it premiered at Star Wars Celebration, but now that it’s been released to the public and I don’t have to worry about holding back spoilers (and because I was able to hear more than half the dialogue without a few thousand fans cheering) it’s time to break this episode down and really dig into its rich, nougaty center. There’s definitely a lot to talk about here.
“The Siege of Lothal” begins shortly after the events that ended Season One. Our ragtag band of Lothal rebels have now been plugged into the larger rebellion that is taking hold across the galaxy. The episode begins with the Ghost crew working side-by-side with Commander Sato’s Phoenix Squadron to liberate supplies from an Imperial freighter. It’s a scene that works on a number of levels – most obviously it’s a great action sequence, reminiscent of some of the best dogfights in the Original Trilogy films – but beyond that, it shows how much has changed for our rebels in a short period of time. They’re no longer a stealth operation that relies on sneaking behind enemy lines then running for the hills, but instead, they have a whole fleet backing them up, and the results are impressive. They’re an effective part of something greater, contributing their talents to a larger organization, but despite the effortless appearance of all this, not everyone is onboard. Kanan in particular bristles at the idea of joining what is effectively a military operation.
It’s a smart character move to make Kanan more comfortable as the lone gunslinger because it speaks to a past we’ve only gotten glimpses at. Kanan saw what happened when the Jedi – the guardians of peace and justice – became soldiers in a war, and it cost the lives of everyone he was ever close to. He was happy when things were smaller, more personal; defending individual groups of people from Imperial oppression. Joining forces to fight the Empire as a whole? That’s something different entirely.
All this puts him at odds with Hera. For Hera, this has always been her end game. She knew that what they were doing on Lothal was merely the first steps to a more organized rebellion, and she’s been training all this time in preparation for war. This also means that her quiet, behind the scenes leadership of the Ghost crew has suddenly become very loud, leaving Kanan – the team’s previous leader, at least in title – out in the cold. There’s an obvious tension here that comes not only from Kanan and Hera’s different viewpoints, but also the friction of this unspoken role reversal. Hera, his partner both romantically and professionally has suddenly taken the lead, and it’s left him trying to figure out how to deal with being reduced to second in command.
Things become a bit more familiar, though, when they are called back to Lothal. Minister Tua, of all people, sends them a transmission requesting their help in smuggling her off-planet. It seems the power dynamic on Lothal is shifting, and she has begun to fear for her life. In return, she promises to reveal secrets about the top-secret Imperial plans for Lothal – plans that come directly from the Emperor himself.
So the Ghost returns home, and on the way the crew discusses their feelings about their role in this larger rebellion. Kanan is obviously against it, while Hera is fully in favor of it, but there are interesting reactions from the rest of the group as well. Sabine is uncertain on the matter because she, much like Kanan, left a larger organization due to some still undisclosed disaster, while Zeb, the last remaining Lasat warrior, is happy to have a flag to fight under again. As for Ezra, the Empire has defined every aspect of his life in a deeply tragic way, and so he’s filled with piss and vinegar and a youthful idealism. Chopper doesn’t get a vote because he’s a droid.
When they reach Lothal, they embark on the kind of mission we’ve seen them do a dozen times or more over the course of the previous season: sneak past Imperial forces, acquire the package, and get away before things get too hairy. Unbeknownst to them, though, a change in management means nothing about this mission is ordinary. You see, the reason why Minister Tua fears for her life is because the Emperor sent none other than Darth Vader to oversee the capture of these Lothal rebels, and unlike the previous officers on Lothal, Vader is prepared for what these rebels have in store.
Minster Tua dies* in a trap set by Vader, and in the process the rebels’ transport is destroyed, stranding them on Lothal. What is perhaps most surprising about this is that the episode actually made me care about Tua’s apparent death. From her very first appearance, Tua was a character I found deeply irritating in a show I otherwise enjoyed, and have secretly hoped for her demise since the series’ second episode. Now that it finally happened, I actually felt kind of bad about it. They were able to wring sympathy out of this terribly unlikable character in a couple of ways. Number one, the information she was offering the rebels is not just something that is valuable to the characters in the show, but is also something that is valuable to us as viewers. When a character says, “I have information on the Emperor’s secret plan for Lothal,” it creates a compelling mystery, and suddenly we want that character to survive, at least long enough to pass the information along. Second, and more important, is the presence of Vader. For the first time since 1980, Darth Vader is scary again. This is not the precocious kid squealing “YIPPEE!” or the angsty teen whining about how unfair everything is or even the mournful old man who regrets the monster he has become; no, this is Vader as evil personified, as a ruthless, merciless killer, and so when he sets his sights on Tua – as much as we may have disliked her in the past – suddenly we are just as afraid as she is.
Vader’s threat doesn’t end with Tua’s death, however, and as the Ghost crew makes their plan to escape Lothal, he is already one step ahead of them. With the Imperial forces spread out across the Capitol City, locking down all the landing platforms in the area, the rebels decide to steal a shuttle from the Imperial headquarters itself, unfortunately, they did not plan on the kind of opposition they would encounter.
After seeing this episode at Star Wars Celebration, I called the duel between Kanan, Ezra, and Vader maybe the second best lightsaber duel in the whole Star Wars series. In the two months following, I had worried that this way maybe hyperbolic and that I was just hopped up on the enthusiasm of being at the convention. Seeing it now for a second time I can say with the utmost confidence that this is easily one of the most exciting, most meaningful lightsaber duels the series has yet given us. Vader is terrifying here, almost mocking the two Jedi with the lack of effort he’s putting into hopelessly outmatching them. It mirrors his duel with Luke in Empire Strikes Back where he’s going easy on them to see what they’re made of before going in for the kill. There’s a moment of chilling mercilessness where Vader has Ezra pinned to a wall and forces the young Jedi to bring his lightsaber to his own neck. More so than anything we saw in either the Prequel films or The Clone Wars, this shows us a version of Vader we can believe hunted down and destroyed the Jedi Knights. When Kanan and Ezra do manage to get away, it’s only because the rest of the Ghost crew managed to shoot out the legs of a few Imperial walkers, causing them to collapse on Vader, who in turn, brushes it off like it was nothing. Vader is as relentless and unkillable as the monster in any slasher movie, and it is incredible.
But the rebels do manage to get away, however Vader has a few more tricks up his sleeve. The shuttle that the Ghost crew hijacked was equipped with a tracking device, meaning the Ghost crew inadvertently leads Vader right back to Phoenix Squadron. If the aforementioned lightsaber duel was not enough, the following scene cements this episode as one of the best ever depictions of Vader in a remarkably smart way. Even though we only ever see Vader pilot a starship once in the entire Original Trilogy, the Prequels made an extremely big deal of the idea that Anakin was the best pilot in the entire galaxy. Phantom Menace includes two extended sequences that serve no other purpose than to make sure we understand that, “yeah, okay, Anakin knows his way around a starship.” So Rebels pays off on this idea by having Vader pilot his TIE Advanced to take on Phoenix Squadron by himself and absolutely decimates them. The team that we saw so effortlessly taking on Imperial forces at the beginning of the episode is now hopelessly, hilariously outgunned by a lone starfighter. This is so smart. As much as I rag on the Prequels (and they are truly miserable), the Rebels team has showed an incredible aptitude for finding the best ideas contained within them and expanding on them in ways that are interesting and rewarding. I almost resent them for recontextualizing this stuff in a way that makes it required viewing.
In the midst of this sequence, we get most of our Ahsoka action for the episode. When Vader attacks, Ahsoka joins our heroes onboard the Ghost, and the three Jedi can sense that there’s something very wrong about this unknown foe. Kanan and Ahsoka reach out through the Force to make a connection with this pilot, and once the connection is established, Ahsoka senses something that terrifies her. The episode is somewhat ambiguous on exactly what it was that Ahsoka felt, and when questioned by the Ghost crew she claims ignorance. We do know for certain that Vader recognized Ahsoka during the connection, so it stands to reason that Ahsoka felt Anakin as well. But think about what this would mean for Ahsoka. Ahsoka left the Jedi Order – left Anakin – more than 15 years ago, and shortly thereafter, the entire Jedi Order was killed. At this point, the only people who know Vader’s true identity are the Emperor, Yoda, and Ben Kenobi; everyone else, including Ahsoka, believes that Anakin was killed alongside the rest of the Jedi during the rise of the Empire. So even if Ahsoka did sense Anakin, would she trust those feelings? Imagine if, out of the blue, you got a letter from a loved one who has been dead for 15 years. You’d probably be suspicious of it, even if it looked like their handwriting and read like their voice. Besides, Ahsoka’s seen some pretty weird crap over the years (see the section on Mortis in my Ahsoka Tano primer), so even if she thinks this might be Anakin, she’s certainly going to want to know more before jumping to conclusions.
For Vader, on the other hand, the reappearance of Ahsoka represents a threat to him. Anakin is dead, and Vader has purged every ounce of humanity he once possessed, but Ahsoka, much like Obi-Wan, and eventually Luke, represent living connections to the person Vader used to be. We saw how things turned out for ol’ Ben, and I imagine things aren’t going to go much better for Ahsoka.
The episode ends with Vader contacting the Emperor, who orders him to send another Inquisitor after the Rebels while they decide on the best course of action to take against this new threat. In other words, they’re effectively setting up the new status quo for at least the first part of Season Two.
On its own, “The Siege of Lothal” is a tremendous episode of Star Wars Rebels. It’s easily as good as some of the best moments of Return of the Jedi, meaning it’s by default the best Star Wars thing we’ve seen in 32 years. There are still some things I remain nervous about for the upcoming Season – most notably the return of more characters from The Clone Wars and the introduction of a whole team of Inquisitors – but if I’ve learned anything from the excellent first season of the show and this truly remarkable Season Two opener, it’s that the Rebels team has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. I’m incredibly excited for the new season to start up in earnest this fall, and can’t wait to see how all of this plays out.
*or, at least she seems to. In these kind of stories, when a name character is killed by an explosive trap, eight times out of ten they’re not actually dead.