Here’s the thing: Star Wars has to be careful how it plays its Empire vs. Rebels conflict. The franchise is, at its core, pulp action-science-fiction, by way of a spaghetti Western. It can’t really explore its central conflict too much. Or rather, it can, but it would have to seriously go through the narrative work to explore the nature of war, the costs and sense of destruction, the grey, moral complexity of its various tactics and characters, and the role that its various factions and players–including Force wielding monks–have in all of this. (The Clone Wars bounced around these ideas liberally but inconsistently: episodes would question the tactics of stealth bombing as terrorism in one arc, but comfortably do that exact thing in another). Star Wars is pulpy action/science-fiction, where its heroes and villains are clearly defined; grey areas are usually off-limits.
I don’t want to say that, between this and “Homecoming,” Star Wars Rebels is finally becoming the show it has always meant to be. I’ve fell flat on my face too many times being cautiously optimistic about potential shows gaining traction only for that traction to completely vanish. But you can’t deny the quiet power “The Honorable Ones” and it’s direct, one-on-one exploration of the Empire and the rebellion between two enemies forced to pair up to survive the freezing cold and some killer ice monsters. Once again, the show has not only opened up a character within the core Ghost group, but also developed Kallus as well, while adding nuance to entire intergalactic war and calling attention to a more obscure aspect of its Clone War past.
Before we can get into the details of this episode, we need to talk about Agent Kallus. Voiced by David Oyelowo–yes, the man who played Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma–he more or less coasted in this role, reading his lines with a barely restrained menace, and not much else. It’s not his fault though, since Kallus up until this point was nothing but a bluster of talk and threats who somehow managed to survive the Empire’s crackdown on failure. Kallus spent a season and a half being an Imperial stooge, but with a broken leg and trapped with the one person who’d hate him the most (on account for massacring of Lasat people), Oyelowo brings a more nuanced portrayal of a man haunted by his past and struggling to comes to terms with it. He also brings a slightly more “comic” perspective, with his panicked yelps and screams when being knocked over and tossed around. It’s goofy, but it’s also welcome to see the man do something other than scowl.
The Empire’s attempt to trap the Ghost crew was novel, but it only leads to a hardcore brawl between Zeb and Kallus inside an escape pod that crash lands on a frozen moon of Geonosis. The two are forced to figure out a way to stay warm, escape the cave, and survive the assault of those rock creatures, but as they plan and plot their way out, the two have a debate of sorts. It starts over an argument of which side will find them first–the Empire or the Ghost crew–but slowly dovetails into some pretty hard questions about the Empire and, more indirectly, the rebellion itself. Kallus is so dedicated to the Empire cause that he doesn’t bother to think about what the Empire might have done to the citizens of Geonosis, and he laughably thinks that Zeb would get a fair trial if his side arrives first.
But the talk gets deeper, and more personal. When Zeb thinks Kallus’s bo-rifle is a trophy, Kallus clarifies it was a parting gift, for besting the Lasat guard in battle. He then tells the tragic story of how his entire crew (sent on a peace-keeping mission on Onderon, which is questionable) was picked off one by one by a Lasat mercenary. Even after a horrific event, Kallus himself never comes off particularly vengeful towards the species; it was the Empire that forced his hand to attack Lasan, to make an example the actions of that one, solitary mercenary. It’s a terrible story, focused essentially on a company man who got viciously caught up in two terrible encounters, who most likely told himself it was all just the cost of doing his job to justify the horrors. Nothing in his demeanor at this point comes off directly angry or hostile at anyone. Kallus is lost, sad, and confused; his tough guy act was a hardened mask that seemingly melted away in the light and warmth of that meteorite.
Compare the goofy, easy going camaraderie that Zeb has to his Ghost compatriots to the cold, detached greeting Kallus is met with when he returns to his Imperial ship. Even he can’t help but spend the last few moments in his room contemplating the events that transpired, and his place in an intergalactic dictatorship that seems to care little for actual lives. “The Honorable Ones” marks a turning point (I say this with extreme trepidation) that suggests the show will be looking harder at the characters within this struggle–including what looks to be an upcoming encounter between Vader and Ahsoka–and if the show explores the cost of war as well, then we may be in for something truly special.
- Will future episodes actually have Kallus question the Empire on what happened to the Geonosians? From a narrative perspective, the show could use this as a tiny arc to maybe bring more depth to Kallus, a man who has been involved in two horrific massacres already. Yet keeping the truth as a haunting, unanswered mystery in the background has a more potent value. That would require some cautious, nuanced writing though.
- Speaking of which, my favorite arc on The Clone Wars was the Geonosis episodes, if because it allowed the show to play around with some dynamic genres tropes–thriller, horror, and suspense, as well as the general sci-fi action. And they did some really get work with it.
- The other, smaller reference to The Clone Wars is Kallus mentioning Saw Gerrera. He was the brother to a woman named Steela, who lead a bunch of rebels against the Empire on Onderon. That arc dealt with the extent to which the rebels were willing to win, including what could legit be considered terrorist acts–implied in Kallus’ story about the Lasat mercenary. It’s a heady topic for sure, and it’s good for the show to address the rebellion’s questionable tactics as well, but it’s tough because, well, rebel violent acts have been done sans moral consequences before in both shows. Having Star Wars pick-and-choose when to talk about the rebellion’s monstrosities, really, is an exercise in frustration (ie, how many people died in the Death Star explosion, for example).
- Kallus and Zeb may have come to an understanding, but good on Zeb not to mention that his people are still alive and thriving. He don’t know you like that, Kallus.