This review contains spoilers
I have never been particularly fond of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. This is something I’ve written about extensively in the past, but now that I’m writing here at Heroic Hollywood, I think it’s important to restate this bit of context. Because, you see, as much as I’m not fond of The Clone Wars, I adore Star Wars Rebels. This puts me in something of a unique position among fans – a position where the appearance of “fan favorite” characters from The Clone Wars on Rebels inspires trepidation rather than elation. In Rebels’ second season, we have seen no less than five Clone Wars characters show up so far, and the success rate for their integration into this new setting has been somewhat hit-or-miss. This week, Rebels brings that total up to eight, but you know what? Not only is this the most successful integration of Clone Wars characters in Rebels to date, it’s also almost certainly the show’s best standard-length episode.
The character in question is Cham Syndulla. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because he shares a surname with the Ghost’s illustrious pilot. Cham Syndulla is a war hero, a freedom fighter, a rebel provocateur, and most importantly (for our purposes, at least) Hera’s father. He fought alongside Mace Windu during the Clone Wars to liberate Ryloth from the Separatists’ droid army, and, as the Republic gave way to the Empire, he never stopped fighting. He even, at one point, attempted to assassinate Darth Vader and the Emperor, though that plan turned out to be less than successful. Now, with the rebel forces stretched thin and sustaining heavy losses as they search for a new base of operations, they turn to Cham Syndulla and his band of freedom fighters to help them capture an Imperial carrier currently orbiting Ryloth.
What makes Cham’s appearance here so successful is that almost none of the backstory I just rattled off is required reading. If you’re familiar with Cham Syndulla’s previous exploits, that knowledge adds a richer layer of context to the proceedings, but on a purely functional level, none of it is necessary to understand the story at hand. That’s exactly the way this kind of thing should work. You don’t need to know all the specifics of Cham’s battles on Ryloth, you just have to know that he’s been fighting non-stop for nearly twenty years, and that war has consumed his life to the point where he cares for nothing else, not even his own daughter.
As important as Cham’s presence is, this episode is all about Hera. As the series has progressed, we’ve spent more time getting to understand the backgrounds and motivations of our core cast of characters – the way Ezra’s parents were captured for speaking out against the Empire; Kanan as a wayward Padawan following his Master’s murder; Sabine’s history as a bounty hunter, a student in the Imperial academy, and daughter of a Mandalorian terrorist; and Zeb’s role as an honor guard for the royalty of his people – but Hera’s history and motivation has largely been unknown. Hera has always been the glue that holds the Lothal rebels together; she’s the one who brought in the other members of the team, and, of the Ghost crew, she’s the most deeply, personally invested in the rebel cause. Now, with the appearance of her father, we finally get some context for what drove her to this point and what continues to drive her.
For Cham, war has consumed his life. He’s fought unceasingly for the freedom of the Twi’lek people on Ryloth, only to see one occupation replaced by another. This endless, hopeless struggle has broken him and distorted his perspective so that the only ambition that occupies his thoughts is the liberation of Ryloth by any means necessary. Hera, on the other hand, growing up under her father’s influence saw not only the suffering on Ryloth, but the way that suffering extended throughout the galaxy – a systemic plague of injustice and tyranny caused by the Empire that could never be eradicated from just one world. She shares her father’s passionate fire, but unlike Cham, Hera’s passion is bigger than Ryloth, and it was this perspective that led her to leave her home and her father’s misguided crusade and focus her attention instead on rallying peoples from all star systems together to strike back against the Empire on a galactic scale.
All of this is another reason why Cham’s appearance here is so successful. This isn’t just an existing character showing up with a wink and a nudge to incite a Pavlovian reaction in fans, but instead it’s using an existing character to incite an important development in our main cast of characters. As much as fans may wish for a seventh season of The Clone Wars, this is not that, and a handful of episodes in the past have come dangerously close to being nothing more than an excuse to tie up loose ends left over from that series. Doing that, though, is a disservice to Rebels which should be allowed to stand on its own merit as a show about this surrogate family of misfits who are instrumental in the organization of what would become the Rebel Alliance. Any guest appearances of fan favorite characters should serve primarily to advance the story of the Ghost crew, not the other way around. This episode achieves that Platonic ideal perfectly, with Cham’s story allowing us to better understand Hera’s.
As the two Syndullas form an uncomfortable alliance, they find that they have different ideas of how to proceed. Hera and the Ghost crew intend to add the Imperial carrier to the ever growing rebel fleet, while Cham is hell bent on destroying it as a symbol and a rallying cry for his people. After some debating, they come to terms, with Cham reluctantly agreeing to aid Hera in her task, but as soon as the rebels dock onboard the carrier, Cham double crosses them. As Cham and his freedom fighters make their preparations to destroy the ship, our Lothal rebels are hot on their tails, fighting their way through stormtroopers and Imperial officers to get to the bridge. The action here is some of the series’ best (which is no small praise) with lots of fun, inventive beats like Kanan and Ezra using the Force to launch each other through a succession of closing bulkhead doors. When they arrive at the bridge, Hera and her father engage in an impassioned battle of philosophies. Cham believes that the destruction of this ship is the only way to inspire his people, to help fight against the suffering and oppression of the Twi’leks who are tortured, killed, and enslaved by the Empire; but Hera argues that with this ship, they can achieve a greater victory, a victory that will help not only Ryloth, but every world, every system. She tells her father how it was by watching him unite the citizens of Ryloth during the Clone Wars that she was inspired to unite the galaxy, and she pleads for his help in their fight. As Imperial reinforcements arrive to attack the carrier, Cham agrees to help his daughter, and together, the rebels and Cham’s freedom fighters are able to defeat the Imperial forces and escape with the carrier.
Back at the rebel fleet, the Syndullas reconcile, with Cham thanking his daughter for what she did not only for the rebel cause by for him personally – reminding him that there’s still reason to hope and to dream of something beyond the next battle. It’s a powerful moment, a moment more powerful than even seems rational when you consider that the entire arc of this relationship is wholly contained in 22 minutes of television. It’s moments like these that are the reason I love this show in a way I could never love The Clone Wars. There’s an enormous beating heart at the center of this show that never existed in the earlier series, and it comes from this unconventional family of characters. As has always been the case with Star Wars, it’s the characters that make this story worth caring about, whether it’s Han, Luke, and Leia in the original trilogy; Rey, Finn, and Poe in The Force Awakens; or Hera, Kanan, Zeb, Sabine, and Ezra in Rebels. When it’s at its best, Star Wars Rebels is, for my money, the strongest piece of Star Wars media since 1980, and this week, it’s at its very best.