This review contains spoilers.
One of the most exciting things about Star Wars Rebels has been its setting. Not only is the period of time directly preceding the original film rife with storytelling potential, but the way Rebels has gone about exploring this period has been fascinating. Each season of the show has covered roughly one year in the life of our characters, meaning that the show is essentially playing out in real time. Where the timeline of The Clone Wars was expanded to the point that six-and-a-half seasons of television still didn’t make it all the way through three years of story, Rebels’ focus makes it feel much more immediate. We’re hurtling rapidly toward the end of the five year window in which Rebels has to tell its story, which means there’s a clear, definitive end point in our future.
That also means that, with each subsequent season, the world of the show has to move closer to the world we know from the 1977 film. It’s almost surprising that now, less than three years out from Leia giving the Death Star plans to Artoo for safe keeping, the growing rebel movement still hasn’t coalesced into the Rebel Alliance. Even so, more and more pieces keep falling into place. We’ve seen Bail Organa and Princess Leia. The rebels have gotten their hands on B-wings, Y-wings, and even an Imperial carrier. In this season’s premier we even got a shout out to General Dodonna and saw how the Ghost crew indirectly aided in the assault on the Death Star. This time around we have two more faces to join those ranks, one familiar and one, er– maybe not so much.
As the rebel organization grows in strength, so too has the Imperial opposition. Commander Sato’s Phoenix squadron has been hemorrhaging pilots, and after a particularly devastating botched supply run, they’re in desperate need of some new blood. Luckily Fulcrum (which, it turns out, is a code name for all of the rebel movement’s deep cover agents, not just Ahsoka) has received some intel that a number of pilots in one of the Empire’s top training facilities are seeking to desert and join up with the rebel cause. But, of course, they can’t just waltz out of an Imperial training facility any old time they please; they need someone to infiltrate the Imperial academy to help them make their escape. Someone like Sabine.
The basic idea of this episode is a lot like the early Season One episode “Breaking Ranks.” One of our heroes goes undercover in an Imperial training academy, they find cadets who have become disillusioned with the Empire, and then help spirit them away to freedom. The difference is that this time the inner workings of the Empire are noticeably uglier. Way back in Season One, a minor complaint of mine was that the Empire seemed a little bit goofy and inept. These are our metaphorical stand-ins for Nazis, but the training of future stormtroopers ended up being nothing more than a benign obstacle course. Here, though, we get a better idea of the way the Empire attempts to condition its soldiers to follow any order, however inhumane. That ship carrying cargo and innocent civilians is just pawn for the rebel cause. If you hesitate, if you show mercy for even a second, the rebels will exploit that weakness and kill you.
At the time, I saw the more cartoonish, silly version of the Empire as a failing of the show, but in retrospect it makes a certain amount of sense as the starting point for this story. As the rebel forces grow in strength, the Empire has to follow suit. It has to get meaner, get nastier, and use more and more insidious methods to try to maintain the status quo. Hell, we’re seeing this is the real world. Even as we see more strides made for equality, as more people recognize the institutional injustice that is at the very heart of our society, we’re also seeing a troubling return of fascism and extreme nationalism as people desperately try to preserve their idealistic view of the way things were.
Sabine even comments on the way things have gotten worse. You’ll recall that Sabine was once an Imperial cadet as well before deserting to become a bounty hunter then, eventually, a member of the Ghost crew, but whatever grievances she had with the Empire at the time, they were evidently less extreme than being ordered to fire on civilians in a training simulation. But Sabine’s not the only one getting cold feet when it comes to these orders, and she soon finds company in the group of would-be deserters Fulcrum informed them of. Among this group is everyone’s second favorite X-wing pilot, Wedge Antilles; and Derek “Hobbie” Klivian, the guy who gives Leia lip about her plan to evacuate Echo Base in Empire Strikes Back. Together, they begin forming a plan to escape, but the rebels aren’t the only ones who know about these potential deserters.
News that a few cadets may be considering turning traitor has made its way to Governor Pryce and Agent Kallus, and the two pay a visit to Skystrike Academy with the intent to reveal these malcontents. Pryce orders a training exercise involving students taking TIE fighters into orbit, which would give Sabine the perfect opportunity to signal the Ghost crew and make their getaway. Of course, that’s what Pryce is counting on. As soon as Kanan and Ezra emerge from Hyperspace, Sabine and the other turncoats find their TIEs disabled while the rebel ship is met with a barrage of fire. With no way to rescue them, Kanan and Ezra are forced to retreat and the deserters are left at the mercy of Governor Pryce.
Pryce means to interrogate them to identify not only which of them is the rebel insurgent, but also to get information about the larger rebel organization. Sabine outs herself to protect Wedge and Hobbie, and the two immediately start working through a plan to return the favor. Turns out they needn’t have worried about it because in the time it takes them to formulate any sort of plan, Sabine has already sucker punched Governor Pryce and made her way to rescue the boys from their cell. Pryce is thwarted, Wedge and Hobbie are rescued, Sabine gets to be a badass, and everyone’s happy, but there’s no time to celebrate yet. First, the trio has to make their escape from Skystrike Academy.
They attempt to do so this time by stealing one of the Empire’s TIE bombers. The good news is that the heavily armored bombers can take more hits than your average TIE, the bad news is that the extra protection comes with reduced speed. As the Imperial forces gain ground on them it appears as if their second getaway attempt might end just as badly as the first, but just in the nick of time Kanan and Ezra arrive to ferry them away to safety.
While all’s well that ends well, there’s a crucial wrinkle in that story that needs to be mentioned. Namely that Agent Kallus of all people helps the would-be rebels escape. As the trio is fleeing the brig, before they hijack the bomber, they find themselves cornered by Kallus, but instead of detaining them (or worse), Kallus opens the way ahead and tells them which hangar will have the weakest defenses. To justify his actions he says only that this makes him and Garazeb Orrelios even. This is a payoff to the journey we saw this character take back in “The Honorable Ones,” where Zeb ends up saving Kallus’ life when the two of them are left stranded on a desolate moon. In that story we saw a softening of Kallus, and got to peek behind the armor to see a man with deep reservations about the cause he’s fighting for. While Kallus indicates that things are now ‘square’ (and certainly he’d like to think so) I hope this isn’t the end of this particular thread. Just as Sabine and Wedge and Hobbie have seen the Empire transform into something more evil than they could have imagined, I’m interested in seeing Kallus continue wrestling with his demons – struggling to find balance between his sense of honor and his sense of morality.
The fact that Kallus has been our only constant antagonist in this series has proven to be interesting. Where once he was the lone hardass in a group of somewhat bumbling Imperial bureaucrats, now he seems downright tame compared to the company he keeps. Company that now includes a certain Grand Admiral.
Review continues on the next page.