I apologize for the delay in posting this review. It seems Disney has decided to split this season into two separate volumes on Amazon, iTunes, etc. and seeing as I’m not inclined to buy this season at full price twice in a row, I reached out to Disney. They have since reduced the price of both Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 to reflect the fact that they are each only half a season of content.
This review contains spoilers.
Canon is a funny thing. For more than 35 years, Star Wars fans have obsessed over the Mandalorians – an ancient race of warriors and conquerors – fleshing out their history and culture over countless pages of expanded universe fiction, and it’s all due to the fact that Boba Fett, the original Mandalorian, was such a monumentally popular character. Now, fast forward a few decades and the character who kicked off this whole obsession in the first place is canonically no longer even Mandalorian. In fact, with the retconning of Boba Fett’s backstory, Mandalorians do not appear even once in any of the seven Star Wars films, and yet Mando mania still grips the fan base, meaning that it must be explored in other media. Enter television.
This week’s episode of Star Wars Rebels is all about the Mandalorians, and if you had the good sense to not watch The Clone Wars, I imagine there’s a lot to this that doesn’t make much sense. So, before we begin this review in earnest, I’m going to quickly recap the bare-bones version of the Mandalorian history as it’s presented in The Clone Wars. As in the traditional versions of the lore, the Mandalorian people were once a powerful and violent force in the galaxy, waging wars against the Old Republic and the Jedi, but after a civil war left them broken, a new regime united Mandalore under a banner of peace and pacifism, with the last of the warrior clans banished to the moon of Concordia. However, these warrior clans did not die out as they were intended, instead, they banded together under Pre Vizsla (who was himself allied with Count Dooku and the Separatists) to form Death Watch, an extremist faction that sought to overthrow the pacifist rule of Duchess Satine and return Mandalore to its warrior traditions. Eventually Death Watch allied with the recently resurrected Darth Maul (yes, really) who did manage to help them kill Satine, but not before also killing Pre Vizsla and declaring himself the new leader of Death Watch (I’ll get around to explaining all this Darth Maul foolishness in a future article, so hold on to your butts).
By the end of the Clone Wars, Mandalore is left without a true ruler and finally must succumb to Republic occupation, the very thing Duchess Satine had fought so hard to avoid. Of course, the Republic goes on to become the Empire, and so by the time our ragtag band of Lothal rebels enters the picture, we have a Mandalorian society once again crippled by infighting and stuck under the thumb of the Galactic Empire.
The fact that none of this context is present within the episode itself is perhaps the biggest problem this week. It’s a symptom similar to the one that afflicted The Force Awakens wherein all context for the current conflict was outlined in the Visual Dictionary and other tie-in novels instead of the film itself. As Star Wars continues to move into this realm of interconnected cross-media storytelling, these are issues the team at Lucasfilm need to figure out. Put simply, for cross-media storytelling to work, each individual piece should function on its own, while at the same time weaving a more ornate tapestry for those with the inclination to seek out all the disparate elements. So far Rebels has done a mostly okay job toeing this line as they continue to introduce more ties to The Clone Wars, but here I think they dropped the ball with an episode that works only under the assumption that you’ve also watched this other series.
And that’s a shame because otherwise this is a pretty decent episode. Now that the Empire has relaxed their grip on Lothal, the rebels have been able to do more work in that system, but even as things are looking up, nothing is ever easy where the Empire is concerned. The most recent hangup for our intrepid heroes is that the Empire is cracking down on the major hyperspace lanes in the Outer Rim. Luckily, Sabine knows of a route that wouldn’t be under Imperial control. The catch? It leads through the Concord Dawn system, controlled by the legendary Mandalorian Protectors.
There’s a bit of discord among the rebels as to how to approach this issue. On one side, you have Commander Sato and Sabine who advocate a go-in-blasters-blazing solution, while on the other side Hera and Kanan insist on a more diplomatic tactic. It’s resolved that they’ll attempt to strike a deal with the Mandalorians, but when Hera and Sabine set out with a complement of A-wings, it turns out that these Protectors have little interest in negotiations.
Unfortunately, the direction in this opening space battle is kinda crummy. A-wings and Mandalorian Gauntlet fighters putter around in circles, and there’s little sense of urgency or progression to any of it. I understand that establishing the geography of an action scene amid an endless starry expanse is a difficult task, but the shots here are so samey I had to go back and double check that they weren’t reusing shots. This shoddy direction is especially surprising when you consider that Brad Rau also directed the excellent dogfight with Vader’s TIE Advance back in “The Siege of Lothal,” but the good news is that the direction in the rest of the episode fares much better.
Hera draws the Mandalorians’ fire long enough for the other rebels to make the jump back to the fleet, but in the process her ship is decimated, and she’s left with severe injuries. The Ghost crew – Sabine in particular – are ready to head back to Concord Dawn to satisfy their desire for revenge, but Kanan insists that this is something he needs to take care of on his own. He sets out onboard the Phantom seemingly with the intent to avenge Hera, but as he enters Mandalorian space (with Sabine along for the ride as a stowaway) it’s revealed that Kanan isn’t here for revenge, but instead a last-ditch effort to strike a deal with the Protectors.
This reveal is a little bit obvious, but only because it’s totally in keeping with the character of Kanan. Kanan is quick to action, but he is not rash. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, and he won’t hesitate to fight for justice, but he also knows that justice and vengeance are two different things. Even after the Mandalorians have attacked his allies and wounded the woman he loves, he won’t kill these people and refuses to allow Sabine to do so either. I keep bringing up this point, but Kanan continually proves to be perhaps the most well put together Jedi in the entire Star Wars saga. What a difference this is from The Clone Wars where Anakin and Obi-Wan just casually murder their enemies (and even make a game out of it at one point). It’s nice to have at least one Jedi who is genuinely and earnestly heroic, and it’s even better when we get to see that kind of heroism rub off on other characters.
I love Sabine just as much as any other member of the Ghost crew, but in terms of character development, she seems to draw the short straw time and time again. That’s why I’m so happy that Sabine not only has a really meaningful arc over this course of this episode, but also has pieces of her backstory revealed that inform who she is and her role in this conflict. We learn here that Sabine is a member of House Vizsla, with her mother having served as a part of Death Watch, and yet Sabine claims to have no allegiances to Death Watch herself. Combine that with the already established fact that she was a student at the Imperial academy on Mandalore, and we begin to see an interesting picture. Sabine is a Mandalorian who has history with both her people’s abandoned warrior traditions and their modern subservience to the Empire, but has rejected both. She’s fighting not for the glory of battle, but for the rights of those oppressed by the Empire, and while she rejects the neutrality and pacifism advocated by Duchess Satine, she’s pursuing the same ends of justice and freedom from tyranny. She represents an intersection of Mandalore’s past and present and perhaps even stands as a vision for its possible future. This all comes to a head when Sabine invokes the ancient Mandalorian code to seek justice through single combat. She challenges Fenn Rau to a duel but chooses not to take deadly aim, instead she throws away her shot and uses explosives planted around the base to destroy the Mandalorian starfighters without killing any of the Protectors. Sabine puts aside her personal need for satisfaction in order to learn from Kanan’s example and do what is right.
The episode ends with an uneasy truce being called between the rebels and the Protectors after Fenn Rau is captured and taken back to the rebel fleet. The Protectors are now the servants of two masters: the Empire thanks to their control of Mandalore, as well as their new, secret agreement with the rebels, allowing them safe passage through the Concord Dawn system. This is certainly going to lead to conflict down the road, but for now things are looking up for our heroes as the second half of season two continues to be a marked improvement over the first. Structurally this episode was similar to a lot of the early episodes I took issue with – it’s an episode that splits up the core team in order to focus on the development of one specific character – but it does everything right that those other episodes did wrong. There’s a real, justifiable reason to split up the Ghost crew, and it’s in the service of actual, substantial character development instead of wheel spinning and empty antics. If it weren’t for the way in which it robs viewers of essential context, this would maybe be the second best episode of the current season, but either way, I’m happy to see this show get back on its feet.
Next week it looks like we’ll have a Zeb-centric episode that features the appearance of more Lasats! See you all then.