This review contains spoilers
During the last season of Star Wars Rebels, I wrote a particularly nasty review of the episode “Idiot’s Array” in which I called out the episode’s writer, Kevin Hopps, describing his work as (among other things) “a major stain on an otherwise spotless show.” It was mean – more mean than I’m normally comfortable with being – but I felt it was justified. “Idiot’s Array” was, after all, a terrible episode, and the other two that bore his name weren’t much better.
With that being said, I must give credit where credit is due: Mr. Hopps managed to surprise me this week by turning in a remarkably strong episode.
In what I’m sure is no accident, Star Wars Rebels gives us a notably horror-tinged episode mere days before Halloween. The setup this week is that the Ghost crew is following up on the list provided by Captain Rex in the previous episode by heading out to a long-abandoned Republic medical facility to gather supplies for the rebel movement. It’s an operation that should be milk run, so Sabine and Zeb are assigned, along with Chopper, to go it alone, but Ezra enlists himself at the last minute in order to bow out of the still simmering conflict between his Jedi teacher and the aged clone captain.
As an aside, it’s interesting to see how heavily they’re emphasizing the way Kanan is out of step with the rest of the burgeoning rebellion. Everyone else understands, and is onboard with the idea that in order to make any kind of real difference, they will need to wage all-out war on the Empire, but Kanan hates war. He’s lived through a war – a war that was responsible for the deaths of everyone he ever knew – and he saw how the Jedi were used and eventually discarded as soldiers in a conflict they had no reason to be involved in. It’s a really sticky issue because on the one hand, Kanan is 100% right; the guardians of peace and justice had no business commanding armies during the Clone Wars, and this betrayal of their purpose sealed their eventual fate once the war concluded. Kanan knows well the dangers of courting war, yet this time war is justified. War is a terrible, ugly, horrific thing, but it is also sometimes necessary, and this prototypical Rebel Alliance is right that the only way to gain any ground against the unfathomable might of the Galactic Empire is to fight back in force. Playing freedom fighter on individual worlds is little more than an annoyance, and as we saw back in “The Siege of Lothal”, it’s an annoyance that can be eradicated with frightening efficiency once the Empire sends in the big guns. I’m intrigued to see this messy ethical dilemma continue to play out, and I pray that Dave Filoni and company approach it with the nuance and care it deserves instead of falling back on The Clone Wars’ baffling pro-war sentiment.
Back to the task at hand, Ezra and the gang arrive at the medical facility, and begin their search through a maze of deserted corridors to find what they are looking for. What really got my attention this episode is how thick they managed to make the atmosphere of dread in this place. The Ghost crew wanders darkened hallways that bring to mind the claustrophobic labyrinth of the Nostromo (and in case you were having trouble making the connection on your own, Kevin Kiner explicitly calls out Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien) and there’s a perpetual sense that they are being watched. What is perhaps most impressive, though, is the way the show manages to balance these horror elements with lightness and humor. This is still a kids’ show, after all, so the element of fear stays fairly lightweight and is punctuated by genuinely strong moments of comedy. Managing these wildly different tones is always a tricky thing to accomplish and even the best Horror Comedies often struggle to connect with your average audience, but that fine line is walked with remarkable confidence here. A feat that is particularly surprising considering who wrote it.
In his previous episodes, Kevin Hopps has gone for broad, cartoon silliness and it’s always fallen flat for me – standing out like a sore thumb against the more nuanced characterizations we get from the rest of the series – yet here, he reigns it in. He’s playing once again with the Zeb/Ezra/Chopper dynamic he seems to be so fond of, but this time it carries with it the weight of how these characters have developed rather than falling back on the bickering siblings cliché he’s leaned on in the past. There’s humor as these characters’ personalities rub up against each other, but this time they feel competent and capable rather than being inept buffoons. There’s friendly rivalry, but it never devolves to childish antics or self-sabotage. A lot of the credit for balancing the tones of horror and comedy certainly belongs to episode director Brad Rau, but the character stuff is all there in the writing. Hopps finds the humor in these characters while still allowing them to feel like real people and be good at their jobs.
When the Ghost crew restores power to the station, it draws the attention of not one, but two new Inquisitors. The Fifth Brother, who we briefly met last week, arrives to apply brute force to the situation, but the more interesting arrival is the Seventh Sister. Voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar, the Seventh Sister makes an immediate impression; sinister and spider-like, she eschews the direct approach taken by her companion and favors toying with her prey. There was an element of this quality in the previous season’s Inquisitor (identified, as of this episode, as the Grand Inquisitor), but the Seventh Sister takes it even further, tormenting Ezra with nothing but her words. I’ll admit being a bit disappointed when it was reveled we’d be getting more Inquisitors as the B-villain to Darth Vader this season, and the Fifth Brother (at least so far) is the kind of bland lesser-threat I had feared, but the Seventh Sister is immediately compelling.
When Ezra and Sabine are captured and being pressed for information on both Kanan and Ahsoka, it’s up to Zeb to come to the rescue. There’s a callback to Hopps’ first episode for the series with Zeb taking the codename “Commander Mailoorun” and arranging a fraudulent pickup by Kanan and Ahsoka. As Ezra and Sabine are escorted to the landing bay, Zeb initiates a surprise attack from the ceiling, catching the pair of Inquisitors off-guard long enough to pick up the rebels and get away before they can be pursued. Back on the Ghost, the trio informs Kanan of the appearance of the new Inquisitors, and once again the weight of how profoundly in-over-their-heads our Lothal rebels have gotten begins to sink in.
In the overall arc of the story, it’s clear that this episode serves primarily to set-up the larger organization of the Inquisitors, revealing not only two new members of its ranks, but also clarifying the role of last season’s big bad as the leader of the group. Despite being allies, it’s clear that there’s a certain level of friction between the Fifth Brother and Seventh Sister, and it’s possible that in the wake of the Grand Inquisitor’s death, there could be some jockeying for position. It was also hinted at in Rebels Recon this week that the structure and history behind the Inquisitors will be a major plot point for this season, and that the Grand Inquisitor himself is a character we’ve previously met without realizing it during The Clone Wars*.
Either way, this was a strong episode; easily the best standard length episode of the season so far (though it is only the third). I’m also really pleased to see Kevin Hopps win me over and deliver an episode that paid off on what I’ve come to expect from this series. While I stand behind everything I said, I never enjoy being as mean as I was in my review for “Idiot’s Array.” So Mr. Hopps, if you’re reading this (not bloody likely), you have my most sincere admiration for proving me wrong.
*I’m going to have to go back and watch these episodes (ugh) to confirm, but I assume the Inquisitor must have been in the Crystal Crisis on Utapau arc that was released as a work-in-progress story reel following the cancellation of the show. This makes some amount of sense as a fair number of assets used in Rebels’ first season were repurposed from unfinished episodes of The Clone Wars.