Deconstructing Star Wars Rebels’ First Season
By Justin Carter
The Star Wars property as a whole hasn’t exactly had a great track record. The first two movies, some of the books, the Clone Wars cartoons, and the original Knights of the Old Republic game are considered to be on the good end. Everything else, not so much, particularly the prequels. That’s a war that will always be fought, and after Disney bought Star Wars, there were fears that the House of Mouse would make it “kiddy”. It’s a bit weird, since Star Wars was made for children, but the cancellation of Cartoon Network’s Clone Wars cartoon, which got fairly dark at times, for Disney’s own Star Wars Rebels didn’t help things any.
Rebels comes to us courtesy of Dave Filoni, the supervising director for Clone Wars and Greg Weisman, who worked on Gargoyles and Young Justice (which I will remind you is great). It’s set 15 years between Episodes III and IV, with most of the Jedi wiped out, the Empire ruling the galaxy, and the people living in a state of fear. Our hero is Ezra Bridger, an orphan on the planet of Lothal who spends most of his time getting into trouble (read: messing with Empire soldiers whenever he gets the chance) until he comes across a group of rebels stealing a shipment of weapons from the Empire. He gets himself involved and winds up in the rebels’ ship.
Led by former padawan Kanan Jarrus, the rebels have been doing what they can to disrupt Empire operations on Lothal, and it’s something that Ezra quickly finds himself doing alongside them when he discovers that he’s actually quite in tune with the Force. Kanan offers to train Ezra in the ways of being a Jedi, but that ends up being harder than expected thanks to Ezra’s attitude, lack of knowing basically anything outside of Lothal, the Jedi-hunting Inquisitor, and Kanan actually being a pretty bad Jedi.
Which is part of what makes Rebels fascinating to me. The Jedi have always been portrayed as do-gooders who’ve ended up realizing the hard way that their whole “no personal attachments” rule is ultimately what did them in. With the exception of Anakin, Obi-Wan and Ki-Adi Mundi, the others were very firm on that rule. Kanan straight up admits that he never really understood what Yoda was trying to say with “do or do not, there is no try” and only uses his lightsaber during really important moments, like fighting the Inquisitor. When he reveals himself as a Jedi in the premiere by walking calmly into blaster fire and pulling out his lightsaber, there’s genuine shock from Ezra, the Wookies they’re saving, and the Imperial soldiers themselves. With the both of them being orphans in a sense, and Kanan being in a relationship with the rebels’ pilot Hera, him and Ezra naturally bond. Out of everyone, they largely get the most character development, which is one of the issues I have with the show.
Anyone not Ezra or Kanan largely gets shafted in terms of actual depth and growth. Zeb is the cranky muscle, Hera is literally just the pilot (not even joking, she spends a large amount of time in the ship while the others do the actual action) who is also Kanan’s possible girlfriend, and Sabine is the demolitions girl Ezra sometimes has a crush on. Their backstories are interesting–Zeb is one of the last Lasats in the galaxy, Hera has a mysterious contact named Fulcrum and seems to be the only person in the rebels who actually knows of “the plan”, and Sabine is a former Imperial cadet that defected after their teachings didn’t sit well with her. The five of them work well together and have a very consistent and fun dynamic, but the other three characters don’t get that much in terms of growth aside from maybe one episode a piece before we go back to Ezra learning about the path of the Jedi. And then there’s their droid, Chopper, who could possibly be an Imperial spy for how many times he tries to harm the rebels with his “pranks”. He ends up knocking Ezra off the platform of their ship during Jedi training and laughs about it, almost decapitates Kanan with a grate, and even goes so far as to knock an Imperial droid out of the ship after Zeb praises it for its good work. The character either needs to be revealed as a plant by the Empire or is in need of some retooling so he doesn’t come off as such.
At its worst, the episodes don’t feel like the ball is really rolling. A prime example is an episode super early in the show’s run where Zeb and Ezra get in enough trouble on their ship, the Ghost, prompting Hera to send them out into town to pick up fruit, an event that eventually leads to them stealing a TIE fighter. It’s one of those episodes that confirms what people feared about the House of Mouse taking over the property and making it kiddy with overtly comic effect. Another episode involves Lando Calrissian, apparently showing up for no reason other than to check off a box labeled “include at least three characters from the Original Trilogy.” The Rebels getting caught into Lando’s mess isn’t surprising, but him trading Hera as a bride for what’s basically a space pig is where the show gets a bit too silly.
But when Rebels gets its gears running, it knows what its doing. One of the best episodes comes at the halfway point when the team’s sneak attack during an Empire celebration on Lothal has them saving an Imperial deserter. It’s a nice episode that mixes all the things the show does well–good writing, good escalation of conflict, and a real sense that everyone is actually contributing to the mission. The show works best when everyone is doing something, or when the character the episode is focused on gets some new layers added to them.
At the end of it all, Star Wars Rebels is fun. It hits a nice balance of the things that worked in the original trilogy–self discovery, sense of awe, nice character dynamics–and what worked with the prequels–grand scale, shades of foreboding, the villains feeling like credible threats who lose not because of some contrived reason, but because the rebels outsmart them or make a gutsy move that ends up paying off.
While it could stand to even out its character development and dial back on the characters from the original trilogy (R2, 3PO, Tarkin, Organa, and Lando all show up, along with Vader for a small cameo), it’s still a pretty fun way to spend your Monday nights.
The show’s already been renewed for a second season, but I can see this going on for quite a while and will indeed continue watching if they make more.