This review contains spoilers.
By now, it should go without saying that I’m a big fan of Star Wars Rebels. After an initial hesitation to watch the new series, I fell in love with the pilot episode and I continued to watch as the show (for the most part) increased in quality over the course of that initial season. Hell, the only reason I’m writing these reviews week after week is because I wanted to participate in a discussion about the show, and virtually no one else was writing about it. All that being said, the show’s second season thus far (not counting the terrific season premier that screened at Star Wars Celebration seven months ago) has been kind of a disappointment. Of the five episodes released, three have been little more than exercise in pandering to fans of The Clone Wars (one of which is a serious contender for the series’ low point) and even the more Rebels-centric episode from a couple weeks ago fell short of the highs the show was hitting in the back half of its first season.
This week’s episode thankfully moves away from being still more empty Clone Wars fan service* but it’s another semi-disposable episode that doesn’t really deliver in a satisfying way on any front.
The episode opens with the Ghost crew working alongside Phoenix squadron in an attempt to deliver supplies to a world under siege by the Empire. Unfortunately, the small group of rebel fighters in unable to break through the Imperial blockade, and in her zeal to complete the mission, Hera fails to withdraw from the battle in time and their supply ship is destroyed. The fallout of this is handled in an incredibly bizarre fashion, because there really isn’t any. The cold open plays out in a way that deliberately calls attention to the fact that Hera’s passion leads her to make a bad call that ultimately causes not only the failure of the mission, but also the deaths of her allies, yet when the crew is debriefed afterwards nobody really seems too concerned about this. Hera wants to jump right back into the fray and everyone just kind of goes along with it. Even Kanan – who has been established as being vocally opposed to the Ghost crew becoming soldiers in a war – doesn’t acknowledge that Hera needs to chill out a little bit. The opening pitches such an obvious thematic angle across the plate, but not only does the rest of the episode miss the ball, it doesn’t even bother to swing at it. There’s potential here for an interesting arc in which Hera exorcises some of her own demons and gets back to a place where her fire doesn’t compromise her ability to lead, but instead the show doesn’t even act like this is a problem. It’s a return of sorts to some of the unfathomably botched themes from The Clone Wars where episodes would establish a framework for a discussion about the complicated, ugly nature of war, only to then ignore all that and eventually come down on the side of being insanely pro-war.
Regardless, instead of going out for another suicide run, Rex offers up the location of an engineer who claims to have designed an advance new starfighter capable of breaking through an Imperial blockade. The only problem is that the planet he’s located on has a reputation for destroying any ship that enters its atmosphere. Hera is elected to carryout the meeting, as she is the best pilot of Phoenix squadron, and after narrowly surviving a crash landing on the planet, she meets Quarrie, the Mon Calamari mechanic who designed this supposed “blockade buster.” The ship in question is a prototype B-wing, but when Hera requests to take it back to the rebel fleet, Quarrie refuses, only to change his mind a few minutes later after an impassioned speech from Hera.
There are a couple problems here. One is purely a time issue; Rebels has typically managed its 22-minute format fairly well, but this episode noticeably strains against it. The episode needs some kind of obstacle for Hera to overcome before taking the B-wing back to the burgeoning rebel fleet and saving the day, but it really doesn’t have time to give her anything more to accomplish beyond persuading a crusty old mechanic. It feels like a cheat to have this guy refuse to hand the ship over only to immediately change course after Hera delivers an expository monologue. Beyond the mere issue of time, though, is the deeper problem of the episode denying Hera an arc. This is a Hera-centric episode – one that beings with her enduring a disastrous defeat and ends with her being promoted to the leader of Phoenix squadron, but the episode fails to give her anything to do in between to motivate that change. There was an opportunity here for Hera to undergo an arc similar to Luke’s in Empire Strikes Back. She’s stuck on some hostile world with a broken ship and a stubborn old codger, but instead of being forced to undergo a change that will strengthen her ability to lead, she just talks about how much she likes flying and Quarrie says, “Well, that’s good enough for me.” It’s such a disappointing missed opportunity for a show from which I’ve come to expect better.
The flight itself is a fun moment, with Kevin Kiner once again playing around with non-Star Wars references in the score (this time it’s James Horner’s theme from The Rocketeer), but it also feels a bit empty because it’s totally unearned. There’s also a little bit of dumb fan service for original trilogy fans in that it gives the fan-favorite B-wing the most overpowered weapon, but whatever. After the flight Hera takes the B-wing and the now Hyperdrive-equipped Phantom to rendezvous with the Ghost, leading Phoenix squadron on another run at the Imperial blockade. Hera uses the B-wing’s crazy space laser to single handedly wreck the Imperial cruisers blocking access to the planet. The rebels save the day, Hera is congratulated as a hero and (as I already spoiled) Commander Sato promotes her to the title of Phoenix Leader.
This episode is a frustrating one, because on the one hand it’s worlds better than the truly dismal episode we got last week, but it’s also rushed, thematically airless, and a far cry from the quality this same team was achieving less than a year ago. It’s obvious that the episodes we’ve seen thus far this season are setting the table for when the main season arc kicks off in earnest, but now, five episodes into the main body of the season, it’s starting to feel like we’re spinning our wheels. I’m sure this is a side effect of having a longer season order this time around, but it’s unfortunately not doing the show any favors. We’ve had plenty of time to set the table, but now I’m ready to dig into the meal.
*There are some callbacks to the battle for Ryloth in Hera’s monologue, but at least that is in service of one of our main characters, which is as it should be.