A few people in the comments last week expressed disappointment in the upcoming Sabine/Mandalorian story arc. I sort of understand it. The Star Wars universe is so big and ripe for creative storytelling that it seems limiting to return to a story that, in some ways, is outside the main scope of a rebellion in its early throes. I think what works about it for this show is that, so far, it’s the only sure thing that has been dramatically substantial enough to work with this season, pulsing with enough complexity and intrigue that It makes thing interesting. It also helps that it’s all pushed through Sabine, a character that’s been fairly weak for two seasons but now has had a chance to shine on her own. The Kanan/Ezra relationship has been stuck in a weird rut. Hera’s greatness can’t overcome the show’s inability to clarify her rank (and feelings towards it) within the rebellion. Zeb has been a nothing-character for some reason. Sabine, really, is the only one who’s in position to grab some forward development. And bringing in the ambiguously moralistic Mandalorians to the desperate rebels may give the season a much needed jump start.
So far, this has been the case. Exploring Sabine’s development here in “Trials Of The Darksaber” manages to rip open a lot of lingering tensions that have been bubbling among the Ghost crew for a while now (except Zeb). Star Wars Rebels has tried to depict the crew as a family for a while now, but that depiction has mostly failed because it felt wildly artificial. Zeb, Sabine, and Ezra would bicker like siblings while Hera and Kanan scolded and made demands like parents, but rarely did the show put in the emotional work that emphasized why these disparate people clicked in such a specific way. I would say the show still hasn’t done that, but this episode, in its own way, explores the limits of non-family families. These are people who need a family structure for individual reasons, but are still very much haunted, struggling with the dark, broken relationships from which they may (or may not) have escaped. Star Wars Rebels seemed to have cold feet when it came to letting personal, dramatic stories breathe, usually bringing in Empire interlopers to mandate an action-filled third act or forcing to connect to some aspect of the Star Wars franchise. When writer Dave Filoni lets this story work on its own, when it lets its characters conflict with each other at a raw, personal level, it succeeds in a way rarely captured in this show.
Really, there’s a lot to unpack here. Like with Hera, who makes the uncharacteristic plea to Sabine to take hold of the darksaber and try to goad her people to helping the rebel cause. Hera trusts Sabine of course, but this is a tall order–Sabine ran from her people, her family, those who see her as a traitor, and here is her own “mother figure” asking her to go back to them (Sabine, rightly, is shocked by this). There’s a quiet desperation to Hera here, no doubt goaded by the rebellion’s small stature, but also to how she views Kanan’s training of her. Kanan is careful, methodical, and slow–completely unlike the way he trained Ezra–and Hera calls him out on this. But Kanan isn’t necessarily wrong to train Sabine differently. We know that Kanan’s work with Ezra wasn’t exactly smooth: Kanan has always been a reluctant, questionable teacher, and Ezra was always a cock-sure student who never quite got a full handle his teachings (plus, there’s the fact that at very least, Kanan and Ezra could connect via the Force, a trait that Sabine clearly lacks). It all comes down to Kanan’s inability (lack of desire, perhaps?) to get Sabine to open up and accept the full truth of her past.
But all of that stems from one central truth: Sabine absolutely does not want to this. This is a crucial point. At the very beginning she gave away the darksaber, suggesting that she knew exactly what it was when she picked it up in “Vision And Voices” (or that she recognized it later). She had an inkling she’d be summoned at some when she caught Fenn Rau heading to Kanan’s room. And even though she protested strongly over the idea of wielding the darksaber as a symbol to re-unite the Vizsla clan–and in effect the remaining Mandalorians–she ends up agreeing, primarily because of Hera’s earnest request. The entire training session is fraught with emotional conflicts, words and behaviors that do harm; no one actively acts like a jerk but they indirectly hit a number of sore spots. Sabine’s complaints about whether Kanan or Hera are concerned with what’s best for her, in relation to revisiting her parents, causes Ezra to remind her that at least she has parents. Kanan’s complaints about Sabine’s reluctance and “imbalance” prompts Hera to remind him how she knows all too well what it means to leave family that no longer trusts her. And there’s the shocking moment when Sabine, after receiving some old Mandalorian equipment from Rau, uses a grappling hook on Kanan, who retaliates by whipping out his lightsaber and attacking Sabine in response. These are ugly emotions, and Filoni provides no easy resolution to any of it.
Sabine and Kanan in the end do apologize, an apology that’s sincere but does little to solve the real rift between them. It’s telling that the final spar between them grows heated again, but in a different way: Kanan, who was reluctant to push Sabine, antogonizes here specifically on her past actions with her family; Sabine, who held back her emotions because of fear (of her past and what she has to do) unloads with fury, anger, and pain as she fights back and exposes the truth of what she did. She built weapons that were used against her own people and family, and when she spoke out against it, her family abandoned her. It’s both informative and cathartic. I don’t think we’ve recieved a full account of what happened to her, and who’s to say that’s the truth of it all? It’s not the tightest-written speech, but it’s honest, and it’s real to her, and voice actor Tiya Sircar gives it her all. It leaves Sabine an emotional mess, but it also allows Ezra, Kanan, and even Ray to reaffirm their loyalty–their familial loyalty–to her. That’s something. Let’s see how well it stands when she stands toe-to-toe with the very Vizsla clan she came from.
- Good on the show to move past the idea that Kanan’s restrictive training was due to Sabine being a girl. Perhaps, at some deep level, there might have been a bit of that element in there, but Filoni emphasizes that the issues are more personal, deeper, and confusing.
- Speaking of which, when Kanan complains to Hera about his worries about Sabine’s training, he inadvertently says she doesn’t think she’s ready to wield a “lightsaber”. I don’t know if this was in the script or if this was a mistake, but it’s a small but crucial faux pas on Kanan’s part. He’s dealing with Sabine like a Jedi, when he needs to deal with her with differently. He’s already knows he’s not a good teacher; this adds a layer of complexity on top of it.
- Director Stewart Lee should be commended as well, who applies small and even cheesy visuals that feel worthwhile. The shadowy animation when Rau recounts the darksaber tale is noteworthy, and beginning the first act with a shot of the chibi-styled picture of the crew was clever. More fulfilling shots include some pretty great background shots of sunsets with Sabine in the foreground, birds flying through the blue-lit skies, and bleak nighttime darkness. The shot that places Sabine and Ezra on opposite ends of the screen after their argument is obvious but deeply effective.
- I like how Ezra went from a playful, teasing brother-like persona to one more helpful, to being emotionally present. Ezra had to learn, along with the audience, the full extent of Sabine’s mental state, and reacted accordingly and with maturity.
- I think you could argue quite strongly that Sabine has been prodded to re-engage in her Mandalorian past for a while now–meeting Fenn Rau, acquiring the jet pack and the darksaber, receiving all that Jedi-fighting gear–and while a tighter show could have done a better job foreshadowing this plot line, it at least follows through here.