Editorial Note: Starting next week, these Star Wars Rebels recaps will be released to coincide with the latest episode. In the mean time, as we catch up with this season, we’re combining a couple episodes into each recap. This recap covers the first two episodes of Season Three while tomorrow’s recap will cover episodes three and four.
This review contains spoilers.
I have never liked Thrawn. It’s important for me to acknowledge this up front. He is a blandly written character from a trilogy of not-particularly-good novels that are beloved primarily because they were the first major addition to then-nascent Star Wars expanded universe (don’t @ me). I have also never liked Darth Maul. To say he is poorly written character would give too much credit – he’s barely written at all. A character devoid of substance, Maul is popular primarily because he has a cool look and was the first major villain in a Star Wars movie since Vader died in Return of the Jedi.
Both Maul and Thrawn are characters who achieved popularity not on their own merit, but merely for existing at times when fans were desperately hungry for more Star Wars. But now we have almost more Star Wars than we know what to do with, and with it a slew of far more interesting characters to explore. The fact that these two characters are paired as the primary antagonists for this new season of Star Wars Rebels poses an interesting challenge for the show: can you take these characters who have coasted for years on unearned popularity and finally give them a reason to exist? Or, more bluntly, can Dave Filoni and co. finally make me give a damn about Darth Maul and Grand Admiral Thrawn?
The answer, so far, is no, but we’ll get to that. First, we’ve got to talk about what the show has always gotten right: the Ghost crew. It’s been about six months since everything went to hell at Malachor at the end of last season. While the wounds our heroes endured are still felt, the galaxy still spins on. Ezra has gained more confidence in his abilities and has in turn taken on additional responsibilities. With Hera’s time now occupied by organizing an entire rebel cel, Ezra has been assigned to lead the Ghost team for more standard operations.
Along with his change in status, Ezra’s had a change in appearance, looking noticeably older – taller, with shorter hair and more refined features. One of my favorite things about this show is that it takes place in roughly real time, so the 14-year-old kid we met back at the beginning of Season One is now approaching his 17th birthday. And, like most 16-year-olds, Ezra is kind of a putz. He’s moody and arrogant and prone to shouting when his own sense of authority is challenged. To make matters worse, this standard-issue teenage angst has been exacerbated by Ezra’s summer hobby: unlocking the secrets of the Sith holocron he retrieved from the temple on Malachor. Being tricked by Maul, seeing his master blinded and Ahsoka killed, it’s taken a toll on the young Jedi. It was his choice to trust Maul, to look for the best in him, that led to their defeat, and as the only one to emerge physically unscathed he’s got a heaping helping of survivor’s guilt. He’s not going to let anyone get hurt on his watch ever again, even if that means tapping into the dark side of the Force in order to ensure it. There’s a great bit of visual metaphor early in the episode as Ezra calls upon the dark side to convince the pilot of an Imperial walker to walk his walker right off a cliff. Ezra takes a step forward and we cut to a matched shot of the walker stepping off the landing platform and into the abyss
Kanan is also struggling with the fallout from Malachor, but his turmoil manifests differently from his apprentice’s. Instead of being proactive to the point of recklessness, Kanan has withdrawn, bowing out of the action to spend his days meditating on his failings. He blames himself for Malachor, for failing to achieve whatever it was Yoda sent them there to accomplish, for allowing his apprentice to be seduced by Maul, and for allowing Maul to get the better of him, rendering him helpless to defend Ahsoka. Ahsoka’s dead, Ezra is headed down the path to the dark side, and it’s his fault for being unable to see the dangers in front of him, even before his sight was stolen.
For as much as these characters have grown, the defeat at Malachor reveals that Kanan and Ezra are still struggling with the same issues they faced all the way back in Season One. It’s a failure of communication – master and apprentice both believing that not only is everything their own fault, but each believing that the other blames them for these failings.
For Ezra, at least, there’s not much time to linger on these concerns as he’s chosen to lead the Ghost crew on another mission. Thanks to intel gained from pirate turned frenemy of the rebel cause, Hondo Ohnaka, they’ve learned that the Empire has a squadron of decommissioned Y-wing fighters left over from the Clone Wars. The Ghost team is sent in to run reconnaissance and then report back on their findings, but upon arrival they discover that the Y-wings are already in the process of being dismantled. Instead of reporting back as per his orders, Ezra makes the call to move from reconnaissance to recovery in an attempt to prove to himself as much as anyone else that he can handle a tough situation on his own. Prove that he doesn’t need Kanan or Hera or Ahsoka stepping in to take care of it for him.
As for Kanan, back on Atollon he begins hearing voices, a voice calling to him specifically. With nothing but his instincts to guide him, he ventures out into the uncharted wilderness to find whoever this might be. That voice, it turns out, belongs to the Bendu, a massive – quite possibly ancient creature – who seems to have some sort of control over the Force. As the two of them converse, we begin to learn more about this creature. For one, he seems to think very little of the Jedi and Sith’s endless bickering over the light and dark sides of the Force. Ashla, Bogan, always at war with each other, the Bendu, however is more interested in balance – in peace.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard the term ‘Ashla.’ If you’ll recall back in Season Two, this was the term the Lasat people had for their understanding of the Force. Now we have two more words to add to our vocabulary: Bogan and Bendu, both of which originate from The Journal of the Whills, Lucas’ earliest pass at what would eventually become Star Wars. Ashla and Bogan are easy enough to grasp; these are what we’ve called the light side and dark side respectively for nearly 40 years. Bendu, though, is more interesting.
At first pass, it seems to simply be the name of the character, but the way the Bendu talks about himself, I suspect it might be a title more than a name. In The Journal of the Whills, what we now know as Jedi Knights were called Jedi-bendu, they were keepers of the peace, maintainers of order. I suspect that Bendu is a term that describes the state of balance between light and dark, Ashla and Bogan, and that this creature – and others like him, if they exist – are dedicated to preserving that balance. As the Bendu says, he is the one in the middle.
All of this is fascinating. For 40 years we’ve understood the Force through the binary terms laid out by the Jedi and the Sith. There is a light side and a dark side. Good and evil. Right and wrong. But Rebels seems to be increasingly interested in the nature of the Force outside of these religious dogmas – perhaps even diving into a more ancient understanding of what all of this is. This alone makes Rebels arguably the single most important expansion of the Star Wars universe since The Empire Strikes Back. We’re not just cycling through the same old conflict again as the ‘saga’ films are prone to do. We’re off the edge of the map, charting new territory we’ve never seen before.
And exploring this along with us is the crew of the Ghost. Just like us, their preconceived notions about this world are being challenged. The Bendu challenges Kanan to learn to move past his reliance on sight and see instead through the Force. The problem, though, is that this world the rebels have found themselves on is literally crawling with spider-like creatures called krykna – creatures that neither Kanan nor Ezra have been able to connect with through the Force. With the Bendu’s help Kanan learns that these creatures are not voids so much as they are mirrors, feeding on and reflecting the imbalance of the creatures they encounter. When Kanan is able to center himself, to find that balance, the spiders’ hostility ceases and he can begin to sense their presence.
Unfortunately, a sense of balance is something that Kanan’s apprentice does not share. Ezra’s reconnaissance-turned-recovery mission continues to get more complicated as Ezra continues making more and more foolhardy decisions. With the number of salvageable Y-wings continually diminishing, Ezra takes it upon himself to seize the control center, and, when the Imperial officer in charge of the facility locks the controls, cuts power to the entire station sending it plummeting towards the planet’s surface.
Rex, Sabine, Zeb, and Chopper manage to get away in the stolen Y-wings, but Ezra finds himself stranded when the Phantom is dislodged from its landing spot and burns up in the planet’s atmosphere. Fortunately Hera, Kanan, and the rest of Commander Sato’s rebel cel come to the rescue. While Hera makes her way to the planet to rescue Ezra, Sato’s rebel troops do battle with the Imperial forces up above. Unbeknownst to the rebels, there’s someone new calling the shots: Grand Admiral Thrawn. With the Empire’s most brilliant tactician at the helm, the Imperial forces… back off and let the rebels get away.
I get it. They’re trying to get across the idea that Thrawn is focussed on the big picture, that he’s not going to sweat a single rebel cel when the larger organization still eludes them. At the same time, this is an underwhelming way to introduce the guy who’s supposed to be the biggest threat this season. Thrawn is introduced with an air of fearful reverence, the other Imperial officers almost cowering in his presence, but this reaction is totally unearned – he doesn’t actually do anything.
When other recognizable characters have been folded into the Rebels story, they’ve almost always been given something worthwhile to do right off the bat – a reason to justify their presence in this story; hell, even Darth Vader, a character who needs no introduction, was given moments to prove what a singular, terrifying presence he was. But with Thrawn, it’s like the show expects you to already think this guy’s a major badass, and worse, it’s leaning on a history that in this new canon hasn’t even ‘happened.’
I’ve never liked Thrawn, but I’d like this show to change my mind. To do that, though, the show has to give me a reason to care, not just assume that I already do.
Review continues on the next page.