With the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailers blowing up the internet in the past few months, the franchise’s stock has shot up considerably. There’s been a lot of discussions about Star Wars now–just as Disney planned–and that in turn seemed to bring a few more eyeballs to Disney XD’s animated take on the offering. Star Wars Rebels feels like it’s becoming a show just perfect enough to tie audiences over until the seventh movie’s release, which means it’s time for the show to step up its game (and for me to step up my review acumen). “The Siege of Lothal” does just that, taking the events from last season and, both literally and figuratively, blow it all up.

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“The Siege of Lothal” feels like it’s pushing the second season into a different narrative direction. While the first season mostly told individual, episodic stories within a broad, overlying arc (primarily Ezra getting acclimated with the Ghost crew and his new-found Force powers), this season feels like it has more concrete character arcs that the show will be working through. The biggest one looks to be Kanan’s reluctance to officially join the rebels. The former Jedi has been scarred by the events after Order 66, and his brief conversation with Hera hints at how distraught he still is from that massacre. We knew that Kanan was uncomfortable with re-engaging with the Force, what with his half-assed training efforts with Ezra and his attempt to pass him off, but here, his fears are more realized. He wants no part of war whatsoever.

This essentially confirms my theory from last year: Star Wars Rebels is Kanan’s story. Yet the episode does its due diligence with (most) of the remaining characters. Hera, as we learned last season, is truly dedicated to the rebel cause. I’m hoping we’ll get a clearer sense as to why she is, but Hera is such a strong, steadfast presence that I would probably be okay if the answer was simply because she believed in it. Ezra seems to be poised more as the newbie through which information (and exposition) can be relayed to the audience, but he does have a tragic moment when his former home is bombed–like it or not, he’s definitely part of the crew now. Zeb gets a small shout-out to his time as part of the Lasan Honor Guard, but mostly remain the comic relief muscle. But poor, poor Sabine continues to be a blank slate, all snappy attitude but very little sense of her character.

In fact, outside of Hera, Star Wars Rebels struggles with its female characters, which I’m hoping will change over the course of the season. The plot of “Siege” begins with Minister Tua seeking to defect after being chewed out by Darth Vader and ordered back to Governor Tarkin to account for her failures, which, in Empire terms, is a death sentence. This sort of seems like a grand opportunity to use Tua as an exploration of her as a character and as a figure within the upper-ranks of Imperial bureaucracy (we get some of that with her discomfort over the use of brutal tactics), but instead they make her expendable. She was just pawn in Vader’s massive plan (and it’s one of those “we know every single emotionally-wrought decision everyone is going to make” plans, which is ridiculous in general). When the Ghost crew goes to retrieve her, she’s killed in an explosion, leaving the crew stuck on Lothal and on the run. It’s an immensely tense situation but Tua isn’t given much characterization to really grasp the scope of her death, which is most likely on purpose but feels somewhat cheap regardless.

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The tension is on point, though. Watching the Ghost crew narrowly escape capture and sneak around Lothal while on the run is wildly exciting. It’s really just a way for the show to acclimate viewers to the general dynamic of the main characters, watching them interact with each other and the world at large in the midst of a conflict–a sort of “we’re getting the band back together” vibe. They do really well, too! Escaping the Stormtroopers, Jedi Mind Tricks, well-composed shoot-outs and fights and all that good stuff that makes for exciting television. They even snatch up a bunch of needed shield generators. Then the flow of the show stops cold (in a good way) when Darth Vader arrives.

This moment signals a change, a different direction of the show. This is no longer a series of semi-interesting escapades with various bad guys. This is the real deal. Vader isn’t the Inquisitor, who Kanan eventually overcame by coming to terms with his shortcomings. Vader is a killing machine you can only hope to survive long enough to escape. I particularly love how different in tone the fight between Kanan and Vader is–unlike the battle with the Inquisitor, all blades, blasting, and badassery, this one is slower and more methodical, which reminded me of Obi-Wan’s fight with Vader in A New Hope. This suggests a more mental/spiritual battle, a battle of wills versus skills, a battle that neither Kanan nor Ezra were even close to winning. They barely escape with their lives, and only a general sense of what they’re now up against, but things grow much, much worse.

The idea of Darth Vader flying in solo to take out most of the rebels is a bit on the fan-service side, but it plays like a horror movie; watching the entire Phoenix squad get taken out one by one is terrifying, a slow realization of Vader’s true power as the rebels gradually realize what they’re up against. The commander’s refusal to escape the ship, for example, comes less from the stereotypical “stubborn” leader and more from the ludicrous idea of a single entity being so destructive. The entire one-sided battle builds to its horrifying climax, as Ahsoka and Kanan connect to the Force and, Ahsoka in particular, recognizes Vader as her former master. It’s somewhat disappointing that this realization happened so quickly at the tail end of an episode filled with narrative momentum (and that Ahsoka was missing for most of it), but it gives the show a solid framework to build off for the remainder of the season, and it should be a good opportunity to situate Ahsoka into the dynamics of the team.

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Star Wars Rebels wastes no time in getting off the ground, bringing in big, classic Star Wars characters while creating a number of narrative threads that look promising. All that’s needed is some more exploration of Sabine, Zeb, and Ahsoka (and, I guess, Ezra, but it’s hard to place him in a more important role now that the adults are here). I don’t doubt we’ll get that, though, and I’m looking forward to exploring this season with you all.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • Lando returns briefly as he and Hera negotiate for safe passage off Lothal. It’s fun to see him again but the scene felt superfluous. It would be nice to see Lando in a real, prominent role, instead of the generic smooth-talking outsider he’s been portrayed as for years now.
  • Minister Tua suggests that there’s a more sinister reason the Empire is fixated on Lothal beyond sucking the planet’s resources dry. This sounds like an excuse to keep the characters on (and re-use the animated assets of) Lothal, but maybe there is an insane reason that Lothal is still in play. I’m speculating it’s Force/Dark Side related. It would be crazy if they bring in the “dark magic” stuff from Clone Wars, like the Nightsisters, or even the batshit insane events from the Mortis arc. But that would be nuts.
  • Chopper is way more manageable this season. This is for the best.
  • THIS WEEK IN EMPIRE EVILNESS: The point of this section is to comment on how objectively evil the Empire is portrayed. Killing off Minister Tua was the winner today, purely in brutality, but also a missed opportunity to maybe, kind of, give an Imperial officer some sort of characterization.
  • The season premiere was tonight but the series will return in the fall. A bit odd, scheduling wise, but this was probably done so more people can play catch-up with the series. I’ll be there in the fall to cover the second season, so I’ll see you there!

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