Friday, April 19, 2024

Rebels Swansong Goes from Strength to Strength

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In October 2017 Disney XD’s Star Wars Rebels (Rebels) returned for its fourth and final season. A run of nine episodes saw the series through to the end of 2017, and February 19th will see the airing of the final seven. For a show that is decidedly aimed at a younger demographic (Ezra’s first weapon was a wrist-mounted electric slingshot…think Bart Simpson in space), Rebels took a much darker and more serious tone for its final season.

Not to say there wasn’t still plenty of humour to be had—much of it slapstick—but the themes of leadership, grappling with loss and the age-old question of whether the ends justify the means set the tone for a more serious swansong. Only fitting, as the series hurtles toward Rogue One in the Star Wars canon timeline.

This piece will be a series of abridged review/recaps of the first nine episodes of the season, a catch-up, if you like, before weekly reviews commencing after the mid-season premiere next week. A quick note, most episodes were released as two-parters this season and the series has overall maintained a more serialised format during its final run.

Spoilers for the first half of Rebels season four to follow.

Heroes of Mandalore Parts I & II

Season four opens with sequels of sorts to season 3’s episodes “Trials of the Darksaber” and “Legacy of Mandalore”. The Rebellion on Mandalore is in full swing and Sabine’s (Tiya Sircar) family, Clan Wren, is leading the charge. Part I begins with Sabine, Ezra (Taylor Gray), Kanan (Freddie Prinze Jr) and Fenn Rau (Kevin McKidd) attacking an Imperial installation with the intent of rescuing Sabine’s father, held captive by the Empire.

Sabine leads the attack wielding the darksaber, but it’s a trap set by Imperial Governor of Mandalore Tiber Saxon (Tobias Menzies). Fortunately, Clan Wren’s beleaguered troops are rescued by Kara Thrace Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff), sister to the former Duchess Satine and former regent of Mandalore of The Clone Wars fame.

Mandalorian battle aftermath or post “Loot-train attack”?

They learn that Sabine’s father is actually on a prison transport nearby and rescue him successfully. Ursa and Tristan Wren make contact, reporting a victory over Imperial troops nearby, when Sabine hears the sound of a weapon powering up over the communication. She screams at her mother and brother to flee. They investigate the battlefield and find only charred Mandalorian armour.

Episode II opens with the reveal that Ursa and Tristan aren’t dead; they managed to escape the worst of the weapon’s range thanks to Sabine’s warning. They escape on one of Bo-Katan’s ships.

After regrouping at Bo-Katan’s hideout and realising that the weapon targets Mandalorian amour specifically and that Sabine herself designed it, Bo-Katan understandably loses her shit. Heated discussion follows but everyone eventually gets on board with a plan to destroy the weapon prototype and erase all data pertaining to its construction.

Tiber Saxon or Mandalorian Black Jack Randall? Can’t tell.

After attacking the facility and falling into yet another one of Saxon’s traps, Sabine manages to modify the weapon to be used against stormtrooper armour, as opposed to Mandalorian. The weapon is destroyed, Saxon killed and Bo-Katan claims the Darksaber, all Mandalorian clans pledging her their loyalty.

There is a lot of good in these episodes, the foremost of which is the conclusion of Sabine’s arc in relation to her Mandalorian identity. Sabine, like most of the Ghost crew, has always been an outsider. In last season’s “Trials of the Darksaber” we saw her come to terms with her internal relationship to her Manadalorian heritage and her shame from her past. In Legacy of Mandalore we saw her grapple with the impact her actions had on her relationship with her family. This two-parter allows her to face her relationship with Mandalore and her people as a whole, represented by Bo-Katan.

It’s especially great that she doesn’t have to be perfect in order to win the respect of Bo-Katan and her Mandalorian peers. She still makes mistakes, falls into traps, and wanders close to a dark path at the end by using the weapon on Tiber Saxon. Bo-Katan’s guidance helps her makes the right choice and she’s no longer an outcast among her people, but a hope and inspiration for Mandalore’s future. Sabine might be young and talented but it is the experienced, seasoned Bo-Katan who claims the mantle of leader at the end, with Sabine correctly recognising that Bo-Katan’s wisdom is what Mandalore needs.

There’s plenty of other great stuff here, like Bo-Katan’s arc that begins with refusing the mantle of leadership and ends with having it thrust upon her. Wonderful worldbuilding regarding the cultural value of Mandolorian armour and the method of its forging. Then there’s the existence of Sabine’s sensitive, artist Father Alrich (in contrast to her battle loving mother, Ursa), who is in no way viewed as less masculine by the more martial oriented Mandalorians. It’s a really great start to the season.

In the Name of the Rebellion Parts I and II

Part I finally brings us to the famous Rebel base on Yavin IV, where we get a reunion with Zeb (Steven Blum), Hera (Vanessa Marshall), Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) and a very suave looking former ISB agent Kallus (David Oyelowo).

“i joined the Rebellion so I could grow my hair out, okay? Sue me”

Hera’s squadron recently got chewed up, and Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) thinks the Jalindi sensor relay is to blame, information given to them by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker, reprising his role from Rogue One), obtained through torturing Imperial prisoners. Saw even goes so far as appear as a giant hologram and berate Mon Mothma for clinging to her principles, even as they make victory hard and harder to attain for the Alliance.

The Ghost crew are assigned to sabotage the Jalindi relay so that the Empire thinks it is still functional, but Ezra and Hera privately admit to wanting to just blow it up real good. The mission quickly goes south with a light cruiser arriving while Ezra and Sabine are still stuck on the relay. Thanks to some epic piloting by Hera and Kanan and the timely arrival of Saw, they succeed in blowing up the relay (instead of the planned sabotage). The episode ends with Saw and Two Tubes (the alien from Rogue One who captures Bodhi) jumping to hyperspace with Ezra, Sabine and Chopper still in their U-Wing.

Part II sees Saw explaining to Ezra and company that he’s tracking down some super secret Imperial stuff and has tracked it to a civilian freighter. Saw, Ezra, Sabine and Chopper board the transport and find it under Imperial control with stormtroopers and deathtroopers roaming the corridors. This is very much Death Star related, as we see when our Rebels find a giant kyber crystal and a bunch of energy engineers imprisoned in the hold.

Oh gee, I wonder where this might be going

Conflict emerges between Saw and the others, with Saw prioritising discovery of where the crystal is going over the safety of the prisoners. Saw escapes in his U-Wing after the transport arrives at rendezvous point, while the kyber crystal detonates leaving Ezra, Sabine and the engineers to be picked up by Hera in a stolen Imperial shuttle.

The first half of this two-parter is definitely the stronger one since the conflict for the heart of the Rebellion heats up. Saw’s berating of Mon Mothma is harsh, but Mon gives it back just as hard, calling Saw a criminal and labeling him ‘just as bad’ as those he kills. Later on when we learn the fate of Saw’s homeworld Onderon, you wonder if Mon might have a different perspective if the same thing happened to her home planet, Chandrila. It’s a good debate and although I’m pretty sure the narrative wants us to side with Mon, you can see Saw’s perspective during this episode in a way that’s somewhat lacking in something like Rogue One.

Saw and Mon might be fighting over the grand strategy, but the ideological struggle finds a way into the ground level missions undertaken by the Ghost crew. Hera, Sabine, and Ezra all question whether the long game of building the Rebellion is worth the cost of the short term goal of causing the Empire as much harm as possible. Only Kanan (who is becoming more a classic Jedi with every episode) seems sure about the path they’re taking.

The second episode does drag a little. Saw’s Ahab-like obsession with tracking down where this one random transport is going gets a little tiresome. We do get the payoff of seeing Ezra and Sabine’s decision to save the engineers have the positive effect of swelling the Rebellion’s ranks, while Saw flies off in his lonely little ship. All in all, it’s a solid follow-up to the season opener.

The Occupation & Flight of the Defender

Lothal before full Imperial occupation. Looks nice, hey? All idyllic-like, you could probably go waterskiing somewhere

“The Occupation” finally takes us back to Lothal, where it all began. Former Governor and dedicated Rebel Ryder Azadi lets Rebel Command know a new TIE Defender is being built, complete with a hyperdrive, missiles and shields. The Rebels use their old friend Vizago to smuggle them past Thrawn’s gigantic blockade and get down to the planet surface.

Lothal has changed since we were here last and not for the better. The crew’s old ally Jho is dead, his bar is now run by an Imperial TIE fighter bro. The whole planet looks red and burned, in contrast the greeny-white of the first season. As Ezra puts it

“Lothal looks like it’s dying.”

After a run in with Imperial authorities, the crew is lead to safety and Ryder’s camp by season one callback Jai Kell (rescued from the academy by Ezra and co way back in the day).

Annnnd after the Occupation. The smog and bushfires are lovely this time of year though.

While “Occupation” mainly dealt with the consequences full Imperial occupation has had for Lothal, “Flight” focuses on the core mission of investigating the new TIE Defender Elite. Ryder, Ezra, Zeb and Sabine scope out the base and watch the new fighter fly.

The main plot covers Ezra and Sabine’s attempts to steal the Defender Elite’s data recorder (and later the fighter itself) while Thrawn and Governor Pryce try to thwart them. There’s also a couple of little Kanan/Hera scenes that help contextualise the nature of their relationship and where they’re at as a couple, but more on that later.

Ezra and Sabine end up crashing the fighter but salvage its data recorder and hide its hyperdrive in Lothal’s hills. They’re then given a friendly ride back to camp by Ghost the Direwolf a White Loth Wolf that can apparently also speak. Yeah, it’s as weird as it sounds.

Seriously though, is this where Ghost went during season 7 GoT?

Character work mostly takes a backseat to plot in these two episodes as Rebels races to set up its Lothal endgame. The main character work centres around Ezra and his guilt over not being able to help his world avoid the fate of Saw’s planet. His desperation to save his world seems like it may eventually put him at odds with Kanan’s more measured approach.

Speaking of Kanan, he and Hera seem to be moving toward some kind of concrete definition of their relationship. These are two people who very obviously love each other but don’t have the time for a real life together outside of constant combat situations. Despite this and seemingly despite Hera’s better judgment these two characters seem to both be deciding in the face of the dire Imperial threat that present love is worth more than a potential future that may not come.

Over to our villains, Thrawn makes his first actually notable appearance for the season and gets a nice visual callout to the film “Patton” as he stands defiantly shooting his pistol at the ship Ezra and Sabine steal. There isn’t much else to say about these two episodes, but they serve adequately as set up for the endgame. As Kanan says:

“All paths are coming together now.”

Kindred & Crawler Commanders

“I’m telling you this IS me smiling dammit!” Sure Rukh.

The plot of “Kindred” revolves around the Rebel efforts to locate the stolen hyperdrive Ezra and Sabine hid last episode, allowing them to transport the stolen flight data recorder from the Defender Elite to Rebel Command, hopefully finding a weakness.

We’re also given a new Imperial character, one that fans of Timothy Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy will be familiar with, the Noghri assassin Rukh. Rukh is basically assigned to the search for the Rebels by Thrawn as a direct repudiation of Governor Pryce’s effectiveness (sidenote: Governor Pryce is super hands on leading search parties, I guess she doesn’t want to ride a desk). There’s immediate friction between the two as Rukh quickly locates the Rebels due to Zeb’s distinct Lasat odour.

The Rebels split up and manage to lose their pursuers but not before Rukh places a tracker on Ezra’s speeder. They get the hyperdrive back to base and load it into Ryder’s beat up U-Wing ready for Hera to fly it away in the nick of time, while the others remain behind. Did I mention Hera and Kanan finally kiss on screen? It’s magical and I wish I could write a page about all the underlying feels.

The Imperials attack and things look grim, but once again the White Loth Wolf arrives and the gang decides to follow it, their justification for doing so and Ryder’s bemused response being amusingly meta,

Zeb: “When it gets strange like this it’s a good thing”

Ryder: “ How have you people stayed alive so long?”

How indeed. After being lead on a cave path that is part vision quest and part Mario Kart bonus track by the wolves, the Rebels wake up on the opposite hemisphere of Lothal and safe. The White Loth Wolf also seems to take a special interest in Kanan, it knows his name.

“Crawler Commanders“ is a by the numbers piece where the Rebels still on Lothal attempt to jack a Mining Guild crawler devastating Lothal’s countryside for it’s long range communications. Meanwhile, back at Yavin IV, Hera convinces command of the need for an attack on Lothal. Needless to say they’re both successful.

These two episodes continue the pattern of setting up the endgame, especially Crawler Commanders, which, although funny and engaging, is pretty light fare. There is good character work in “Kindred”, however, as we finally see Hera and Kanan make the choice to commit to each other romantically despite the war raging around them and their uncertain futures. The two of them have taken control of their present, committed both to each other and the Rebellion. For now, for them, it seems to be enough.

God, you two. Just stop it. I have something in my eye.

Then there are the trippy, mystical wolves and the hints that something darker and deeper is being done to Lothal by the Empire. Long-term plot implications detected, keep an eye on this space. Four episodes of basically setup in a row is a little disappointing, despite the good character work, but it’s all worth it when we get to the mid-season finale.

Rebel Assault

Absolutely no time is wasted getting going in this episode. Before the title card we have Hera being referred to as “General Syndulla”, the animated debut of the X-wing, the return of the once annoying Mart Mattin as a pilot in Hera’s squadron and S-foils being locked in attack position.

Lock those S-foils in attack position because General Hera is about to curb-stomp you and your blockade

This space battle is sublime, especially the dogfight between the newly appointed General and Imperial ace Commander Vult Skerris in his TIE Defender. Thrawn’s attempt to end the fight at the expense of his own pilot after Skerris disobeys orders and follows Hera into a Star Destroyer’s line of fire is appropriately cold.

Thrawn: “Skerris, break off your pursuit”

Skerris: “Negative, I almost have her”

Thrawn: “How unfortunate. Open fire.”

The Rebels break through the blockade but are met by Thrawn’s reserve, a second wave of TIE fighters. The X-wings and Y-Wings are shredded to the last, the lucky ones crash landing in the capital city streets as Kanan and the others look on from the outskirts in horror.

The rest of the episode is a cat and mouse chase as Rukh attempts to capture Hera and Mart and they try to escape the city. Hera is captured, but that ensures Chopper and Mart’s escape. Kanan races to rescue her and is stopped by the White Loth Wolf. He extracts Mart and Chopper, heading back to base with plans to rescue Hera later.

As big action set-pieces go, this episode is on par with the later seasons of TCW, which is the highest compliment I can pay an animated series of this style. I can really only describe Hera unleashing her full abilities as a combat pilot as awesome. Even though the attack fails, you’re left with no doubts about her abilities or her merits as a General. Her dedication to getting her pilot out of the city safely, even at her own expense, confirms this.

Not how I wanted this to turn out.

Thrawn, meanwhile, is in full blown Magnificent Bastard mode, capably dealing with everything the Rebellion throws at him while effectively sidelining Governor Pryce from the defense of her own planet. It will be interesting to see how these two clash in the episodes to come.

Overall Thoughts

The first half of Rebels final season was a strong string of episodes. Even the weaker installments “Crawler Commanders” and “In the Name of the Rebellion Pt II” had good humour beats and deft character work respectively. The stronger entries, namely the Mandalorian two-parter and the season finale are simply phenomenal. Closure to Sabine’s identity arc and Hera finally assuming her natural place as not just a warrior but a key leader of the Rebellion were necessary, natural steps, which I am so glad this series committed to taking. It’s also been really nice to see recurring characters like General Dodonna, Brom Titus, Vult Skerris, Jai Kell, Mart Mattin and Ryder Azadi on a regular basis.

Kanan’s character over the last three and a half seasons has gotten square with his roots in the Jedi Order, his role as Ezra’s teacher, and his blindness at the hands of Maul. Now we finally see him and Hera commit to each other romantically, even as he seems to embody the more traditional Jedi frame of mind. Seeing how he’s come full circle makes me wonder if closure of a different sort is coming for the gunslinger Jedi Knight. Time will tell.

It seems apparent that Ezra’s arc will dominate the later half of the season and whether he can save his planet will go a long way to determining the path he takes. Ezra is wracked with enough guilt at letting Lothal get this bad, if the planet is unable to be saved this could lead him down a darker path, especially is Kanan is no longer around to help him. There’s no record of Ezra in canon after Rebels, so anything is really possible.

That’s not to say it’s been perfect. Sadly, no-one really seemed to know what to do with Zeb’s character; he just lumbered from scene to scene with one liners, occasionally knocking people out. Our dashing ISB defector Kallus and our aged warrior Captain Rex were both similarly underused, despite being among the more interesting secondary characters in the ensemble.

Including an appearance from this guy.

Rebels has given us an exciting, weighty start to it’s final season, deftly handling both character and plot in a way that both satisfies yet stokes the curiosity for more. In other words, exactly what you want from the beginning of a swansong. Expect big things from the final seven episodes.


All images courtesy of Lucasfilm and Disney XD

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