‘Star Wars Rebels’ returns with an explosive season 2 premiere

A menacing new villain with an iconic respiratory problem is back.

Mar 1, 2020, 1:01 am*

Internet Culture

Eric Geller 

Eric Geller

Star Wars Rebels, the Disney XD animated series exploring the time period between Episodes III and IV, ended its first season on an exhilarating note. The season 2 premiere showed how different things will be now that the stakes are immeasurably higher.

When we last saw the crew of the starship Ghost—Kanan Jarrus, the former Jedi; Hera Syndulla, the team leader, ship’s captain, and a Twi’lek freedom fighter; Ezra Bridger, an orphan from Lothal whom Kanan is training as a Jedi; Zeb Orrelios, the team’s muscle and a former member of the Lasat honor guard; Sabine Wren, a Mandalorian demolitions expert; and Chopper, their grouchy droid—they had just joined a larger rebellion. An old friend from the previous animated series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, had returned to guide them. And a menacing new villain with an iconic respiratory problem was about to make things difficult for everyone.

The Rebels season 2 premiere, “The Siege of Lothal,” began to explore the Ghost crew’s new place in the rebellion, a role that not everyone on the team relished. The one-hour special episode also gave center-stage to Darth Vader, who had been dispatched by the Emperor to clean up the situation on Lothal by any means necessary. Along the way, “The Siege of Lothal” addressed one of the biggest questions on Star Wars fans’ minds when it reunited Vader with his former padawan, the ex-Jedi Ahsoka Tano, in a dramatic way.

One of the most important things to note in this episode was how Kanan reacted to the change around him. Kanan initially signed up for Hera’s crusade when he thought it would be a small-bore way to help the needy. He liked Hera and he grew to like the crew, but he didn’t have huge ambitions as far as their goals were concerned. He just liked helping people—making a difference. Everything changed for Kanan and the crew of the Ghost in the season 1 finale, when Hera’s rebel contact “Fulcrum”—revealed to be Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice from The Clone Wars—arrived with a fleet of ships to save the day. Suddenly, this small band of heroes was part of a larger effort, and they had new concerns, namely serving as part of a paramilitary force rather than striking targets on their own, according to their own whims.

Kanan clearly wasn’t a fan of this dynamic in the season 2 premiere. “We always did alright on our own,” he told Hera toward the start of the episode. Like Han Solo in the original trilogy, Kanan didn’t appreciate the formality of the new system. When they received a transmission on the rebel flagship, Kanan was ready to let Chopper open a channel without any precautions. Hera had to remind him to cloak the transmission. Now that they were part of a rebellion, they had protocols to observe. Kanan would just as soon fly by the seat of his pants, whereas Hera was growing accustomed to the rules and order.

At first, this might seem like archetypal brash Han Solo-esque defiance of order and procedure. But there was much more to it than that, as we saw when Hera confronted Kanan in a hallway on the rebel cruiser. Visually, the scene reminded me of Han and Leia’s tense chat in the corridors of the Hoth base in The Empire Strikes Back, complete with a rebel trooper passing by trying not to notice the spat. Thematically, though, there was a lot more to it. This wasn’t about vague notions of following order. This was about what the rebellion reminded Kanan of—namely, the Republic. Hera was willing to do whatever it took to fight for their cause. Kanan, on the other hand, hated the military aspect of the rebellion. It reminded him of the clone troopers who had tried to kill him a decade earlier, when the Emperor had issued the fateful Order 66.

“I saw what it did,” Kanan said, referring to the war he’d barely survived. “To the Jedi?” Hera asked quietly, thinking specifically of how the Order had been fatally blinded by the conflict. “To everyone,” Kanan responded darkly. This was a fantastic exchange. It perfectly captured the tragedy of the Clone Wars. It wasn’t just about the Republic or the Jedi, or even the planets that had suffered the most in terms of direct assaults. The whole galaxy was scarred and changed by the conflict. Listening to Kanan voice concerns about the rebellion, I found myself appreciating his position. He wasn’t just a stereotypical rogue with trouble fitting in, like Han Solo in Empire. He had a history with war that we could understand and practically feel in his tone of voice. His reluctance was credible and powerful.

This was a tough episode for Kanan overall. Not only did he have to work with a militia that brought back Clone Wars memories, but he had to face down an enemy who dredged up even more visceral fears. More on our heroes’ clash with Darth Vader later in this review, but for now, it’s worth noting how Kanan described him to Ezra after their first brief encounter. The Sith Lords, he said, were “the ancient enemy of the Jedi.” Ancient. The word carried so much weight. The Sith had attained an almost mythic status by the time one of them revealed himself in the form of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith.

It was a testament to Ezra’s youth that he responded by asking Kanan how they could beat Vader. He was visibly rattled, but he wasn’t giving up. Kanan, who had lived through the Dark Times, poured cold water on that idea right away. He wasn’t just scared; he was terrified. Here was an enemy he couldn’t beat. As he later told Ezra, he felt things getting worse just as they had in his youth, at the end of the Clone Wars. Unlike the Clone Wars, however, there were no more Jedi to protect Lothal or other worlds. It was now up to Kanan to carry the Order’s flame.

But if Kanan brought significant historical weight to this episode in terms of his Jedi past, he also brought significant mirth. He was still, in many ways, the goofball he had been in the first season. When he had the situation in hand and he knew it, he could let loose. It was refreshing to see him enjoy knocking out the stormtrooper captain next to the landing bay on Lothal, gamely approaching him like an old academy pal as Hera and the rest of the crew looked on in amazement, with Hera’s eyes even widening at the sight of his antics. Later, after Ezra failed to mind-trick another stormtrooper and Kanan easily succeeded, Ezra said wistfully, “I wish that worked for me.” Kanan, essentially Ezra’s adoptive father at this point, responded, “I wish it worked on you.” This wasn’t just another example of Kanan having the best dialog in the season 2 premiere. It was also a reflection of who he was at this moment: a powerful Jedi, but one with very human limitations, such as his inability to tame Ezra’s exuberant spirit. The Force can’t solve everything.

Anyone who watched season 1 of Rebels will remember how much Ezra grew over the course of just 12 episodes. In the season 2 premiere, we saw that joining the larger rebellion was making him even more bold and ambitious. When the rebels received Imperial Minister Tua’s call for help from Lothal, it was Ezra who took the initiative and said that she deserved their help. On the rebel shuttle to Lothal, it was Ezra who briefed the others on how they would rescue her. He was taking command, and it was a big departure from his role in season 1. “That’s what we do,” he said when others criticized the idea of helping an Imperial. “Help those who can’t help themselves.” The camera then cut to a brief shot of Hera smiling, which was deeply significant. This kind of compassion and industriousness is what she has been trying to teach him ever since he joined the crew.

But Ezra was also traumatized by the brutality of the Empire in this episode. He was the first one to sense the cold, cloying presence of Lord Vader on Lothal, and everything seemed to go downhill for him from there. As the Sith Lord tightened the noose around the rebels, closing off avenue after avenue of opportunity for them, they retreated to Ezra’s childhood home, where his parents had raised him briefly before being snatched by the Empire for broadcasting resistance messages. It was deeply symbolic seeing the Empire destroy that house as the rebels barely escaped with their lives. Ezra had just lost a huge connection to Lothal, and as he snuck away from the smoking blast site, he glanced at it and muttered to himself, “I guess there is no going home.”

Already, the parallels to Luke Skywalker in A New Hope were clear. Both young men had lost their homes to the Empire. But Ezra was about to face one more parallel to the famous scene in which Luke discovers the ruins of his aunt and uncle’s homestead. Later in the episode, Ezra saw smoke off in the distance and felt the need to investigate. We knew that it was the smoldering remains of a refugee camp called “Tarkintown” because we had seen Vader order its destruction. Ezra didn’t know that, but watching him mount a speeder bike and speed off toward the site, it was as if he knew but had to see it for himself. Kanan let him go because he knew what Ezra would find—and he knew that Ezra needed to find it.

Ezra arrived at the scene just like Luke had arrived at his homestead to discover the corpses of the only people he had ever thought of as parents. Kanan wasn’t far behind him. It was telling that Ezra could be shocked by the destruction in front of him. Even after everything he had seen working with the rebels in season 1, he still couldn’t believe that the Empire would eradicate this refugee settlement simply to punish him and his team. Kanan’s quiet, brutal truth-telling—that things were going to get worse, that there would be more wanton violence like this in retaliation for their rebel activity—was the perfect way to concisely remind the audience that he had seen this kind of brutality before, and then some. Upon giving the order to destroy the camp, Vader had said, “The compassion of the rebels is a weakness.” It remains to be seen just how true this is for Ezra and the others.

Vader himself was used perfectly in this episode. He had appeared at the very end of the season 1 finale, a new force to be reckoned with on a planet that had previously posed few significant threats to the rebels. With his arrival, everything changed. As one would expect in a contest between Darth Vader and a small band of inexperienced freedom fighters, the fight wasn’t even close to fair. Vader’s plan worked perfectly up until the very end. He anticipated everything, from Tua’s betrayal to the rebels’ escape from the planet. His decision to let the rebels leave Lothal and plant a tracking device on their ship casts A New Hope in a completely new light, because now his plan to let the Millennium Falcon lead the Death Star to Yavin IV becomes a reuse of a successful strategy, instead of just “an awful risk,” as Tarkin put it.

Anyone who has watched Rebels from the beginning will appreciate Vader’s presence, but we’re not used to seeing the Imperials actually succeeding. Vader is a breath of fresh air, a spark of competence in an otherwise flustered Lothal military presence. His physical presence is as imposing as his tactical brilliance: every camera angle that framed him and every step he took lent to his aura of quiet lethality, right up until he drew his lightsaber for the first time.

Seeing our heroes sorely outmatched was a welcome change in the series’ dynamic. They had faced challenges before, but nothing like Vader. In his lightsaber duel with Kanan and Ezra, he was a force of nature.  From the eerie music that accompanied his arrival to the chilling shot of him standing in the hangar doorway—deadly quiet and perfectly still except for the glowing blade of his weapon—everything about his presence showed that the creators of Rebels understand how to use him. The rebels’ response was just as key to building Vader’s persona on the show. They had no idea who or what he was, and for the first time, they were all scared. Vader, meanwhile, was just relentless. He tossed Kanan and Ezra around like ragdolls, casting aside Ezra in particular like he couldn’t even be bothered to fight the boy.

Kanan and Ezra thought they had defeated Vader by Force-pushing him into the path of several collapsing Imperial walkers. After all, who could possibly have survived the ensuing mechanical carnage? But this is Vader we’re talking about. Again, the episode visually accented Vader’s fearsome image, with a shot of his outstretched hand levitating pieces of a crashed walker as flames engulfed everything around him. That was the moment when Kanan realized that resistance, as another TV show might put it, was futile. Sabine valiantly tried to blast Vader as the rebels made their escape, but the Dark Lord easily batted back her blaster bolts, and for the first time, she took direct hits to her helmet and chestplate. When I first watched this episode at Star Wars Celebration in April, the audience gasped at that moment. Rebels was not messing around.

Then the battle moved into space, and we got to see how adept Vader was at piloting his TIE fighter into combat. It was another reminder that Vader used to be the Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, “the best star-pilot in the galaxy” in Ben Kenobi’s words. Vader positively decimates Phoenix Squadron, the group of A-wings protecting the rebel fleet. It’s the first time that the Ghost crew’s new friends in the rebellion have seen Vader’s prowess. For them, it must have been sobering. For the audience, it was just impressive. Vader could take on an entire rebel fleet by himself. It really proved how good he was.

There are a few Vader moments that deserve special consideration. The scene in which Ahsoka and Vader sense each other’s presence is undoubtedly the most important thing that has happened in Star Wars Rebels so far, given how much buildup there was and how deeply it shaped those characters. I won’t deny getting goosebumps as the three strands of that tense scene were woven together in an instant: Ezra saying “It’s the Sith Lord we faced!”, Ahsoka opening her eyes in horror, and Vader muttering, “The apprentice lives.” Star Wars fans have wondered how that exact moment would play out ever since Rebels was announced, shortly after The Clone Wars‘ cancellation—and the scene did not disappoint.

Few moments in either The Clone Wars or Rebels have been this deeply significant. Given the characters involved, this was the most important thing that could happen at this point in the chronology. Ahsoka, who went from a canon-altering annoyance in 2008 to a beloved part of the franchise when her show ended in 2014, is a core part of the saga—whether or not bitter older fans who hate the prequels and the animated series will admit it. Ahsoka grew up on screen and faced the Clone Wars’ countless perils alongside Anakin; when fans learned that she was coming back in Rebels, the notion of the two characters encountering each other wasn’t a question of if, but rather, when.

The payoff when Vader contacted his master, Emperor Palpatine, was the other crucially important Vader moment. The scene itself was shot perfectly, with the Emperor’s holographic visage always off-screen, like an ethereal “other” lurking just offstage. (It’s worth remembering that young fans who are starting their Star Wars journey with The Clone Wars and Rebels, or just Rebels, don’t know who the Emperor really is.) But the weight of the scene came from what Vader said. When he realized Ahsoka was alive, he said, “The apprentice lives.” He didn’t say “my apprentice,” and there was a reason for that. Vader hinted at it when he talked to the Emperor. “The apprentice of Anakin Skywalker lives,” he told his master. Vader had so thoroughly detached himself from his former life that he saw Anakin Skywalker as a completely different person. He would later do the same with Luke.

But when the Emperor mentioned the idea of Ahsoka leading them to “other lost Jedi,” something changed. Vader no longer took pains to cast off his former life. He suggested that Obi-Wan Kenobi, his old master, might be among those lost Jedi. This was very telling: despite his struggle to forget and abandon the past, Vader retained an obsession with Obi-Wan. He longed to find the Jedi Master and defeat him in the way he had failed to do before. This was a reminder of the shred of Anakin Skywalker that still lived within Vader. As hateful as he was—particularly in this case, with Obi-Wan—he remembered who he used to be.

Next to Vader, the most fascinating character to watch in “The Siege of Lothal” was Ahsoka. The creators of Rebels have said that she won’t be playing a major role in every episode, for fear that she might crowd out the new heroes. But even in just a few scenes at the end of the episode, Ahsoka played an important part in pushing the series forward and hinting at avenues of conflict with the Empire.

When Ahsoka lost consciousness at the shocking realization that her master had become Darth Vader, it was as if her world had fallen apart. In a sense, it had. She later recovered enough to discuss the situation with Kanan, and that scene was great. I enjoyed seeing her bring up the Clone Wars as the last time she and Kanan had faced that kind of evil. The war was something that she and Kanan had shared, even if they hadn’t fought together. In that moment, realizing that something sinister remained from the Clone Wars, they weren’t just rebel freedom fighters—they were battle-hardened warriors reflecting on the darkest time in their lives.

Ahsoka lied to Ezra and Kanan about not knowing who this mysterious Sith Lord was. She absolutely recognized Vader as her old master. Why she lied is not entirely clear. Did she want to avoid the appearance of an attachment that could cloud her judgement? Was she not ready to discuss the connection between Anakin and Vader until she knew what exactly had happened? Either way, the realization isolated Ahsoka. She was carrying something that no one else could understand as she did. The Ghost crew took comfort in each other’s support, love, and teamwork as the episode drew to a close, but Ahsoka, sitting in the front of the cockpit, stood apart from them, troubled. She knew what she had seen, and while she hated having to deal with it, she knew that it was her task. Exciting things lie ahead in this season of Rebels, that’s for sure.

While Ahsoka dealt with her discovery, Hera, the captain of the Ghost and the commander of the team, showed herself to be fitting in with the rebellion quite well even as she retained her pragmatism and her capacity to lead. Unlike Kanan, she was willing to listen to Minister Tua; she took their “help the needy” mantra very seriously. She was also more interested in exploring the angles of the situation than Kanan, who saw Tua and immediately wanted to leave her for dead. Hera, by contrast, saw an opportunity.

When things started to go south, Hera remained the team’s steady leader. She recognized Vader’s plan—drawing the rebels out and turning the people of Lothal against them—and made the tough decision to evacuate Lothal. Ezra was more naive and nostalgic—he didn’t want to leave. Hera, as we have seen, could be just as idealistic about their goals, but she was much more pragmatic about their tactics. As much as she cared for the people of Lothal, Vader had forced her hand. The great thing about watching Hera in this episode was that, even though Vader was besting her at every turn, she wasn’t giving up. She knew that her team was counting on her, and everything from her posture to her voice to her orders conveyed her seriousness of purpose. And despite the odds, she did manage to outfox Vader during her team’s final escape, using a clever trick that ended up snaring the Sith Lord in a Star Destroyer’s tractor beam.

One of the most interesting background elements of Rebels is its depiction of the Empire. While the main characters are elsewhere carrying out a mission, we get to see snippets of life under the Empire and life inside the bureaucracy itself. In this episode, Minister Tua was our window into that experience. Tua, a mid-level civil servant, was unused to Vader’s “brutal methods.” Normally a firebrand, she became meek in Vader’s presence. It was a reminder that, for most Imperial bureaucrats, the rebellion is elsewhere; people like Tua never expect a rebellion to crop up on their own world and require Vader-style repression.

We were left with many questions when the dust settled at the end of the season 2 premiere. When will Ahsoka come clean to the rebels about Vader? Will we learn more about the rebels with “powerful friends in the Senate” whom Tua said the Empire was watching but not snatching? And most importantly, what was the real reason the Empire set up shop on Lothal? Tua mentioned it, but the rebels will never get the answer from her. That seemed like the kind of foreshadowing that will have huge ramifications for the nascent rebellion.

With its brilliant treatment of Vader, its brief but emotional scenes with Ahsoka, and its continued exploration of Ezra’s growth and Kanan’s background, “The Siege of Lothal” brought Star Wars Rebels back to television in a huge way. It set the stage for epic showdowns—when will Ahsoka face Vader?—and it introduced new characters, like the rebel commander Sato, who will hopefully help expand the story beyond the core cast who dominated season 1. Now that they’re part of a fleet, the rebels might be part of larger battles; they’ll certainly be going to more places, now that they’ve made their choice to stay with Sato and his fleet.

If “The Siege of Lothal” is any indication, Star Wars fans won’t want to miss the rest of Star Wars Rebels season 2.

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*First Published: Jun 21, 2015, 1:08 pm