Something persistently bugged me throughout the broadcast of Star Wars Rebels Season 3. I had the sense that something was off compared to the first two seasons, but was never quite being able to put my finger on what it was. Now that I’ve been able to binge-watch the entire season on the newly released Blu-ray set, my season’s discontent has become clearer. While Star Wars Rebels overall continues to be a compelling series that fills in interesting blanks in the time period between the Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, the series is beginning to show signs of strain in keeping all its continuity balls in the air and in sequence. The best episodes of this season are among the best the show has done, but a few too many of them feel like they’re more concerned with connecting dots and following plot trails, losing the grounded perspective that makes for the best Star Wars stories.
Much has changed in the brief time jump between the end of season 2 and the start of season 3. Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus has been permanently blinded by his duel with Darth Maul at the climactic final episode of season 2, withdrawing from the crew of the Ghost in general and as mentor to the young Jedi Ezra Bridger in particular. As a result, Ezra has begun training himself, making use of a Sith holocron to expand his knowledge and abilities with the Force in increasingly dangerous ways (and seemingly placing him more and more in the thrall of fallen Sith lord Darth Maul). However, the struggles of the crew of the Ghost against the Empire are about to become infinitely more challenging with the coming of a new adversary: Grand Admiral Thrawn, a patient and cerebral strategist extraordinaire who may be the greatest threat the Rebels have faced yet.
Despite the epic space opera trappings, the best Star Wars stories center on small groups of individuals, filtering the massive sweep of history through extremely personal eyes. Those individuals can range from major players like Luke Skywalker or Rey, small but critical characters like Jyn Erso in Rogue One, or even mostly passive observers like C3PO and R2-D2. Regardless of their importance in the larger scheme of things, the events themselves are much less interesting than the lives of the people/aliens/droids living through them and their reactions to those events. To my eyes, the fundamental problem of the prequel movies was that it accepted as given that the history of the Clone Wars was interesting in itself, so that the movies slipped too often into a dry, large-scale history lesson interspersed with chaotic action sequences. Almost entirely lost in the epic CGI extravaganza was the personal perspective. Whatever their faults, the original trilogy movies always kept the perspective of the galactic conflict at the level of Luke Skywalker and his friends, focusing firmly on three little people whose problems may have amounted to a pretty big hill of beans in a crazy galaxy, but who were ultimately still a relatively small part of a story with much larger scope. In the past two seasons, Star Wars Rebels seemed to match the original trilogy by showing the establishment of the Rebellion (the big story) through the eyes of the crew of the Ghost (the smaller, personal perspective). For better or worse, Star Wars Rebels season 3 opens up the series’ scope, and I think this is the root cause of my niggling dissatisfaction with it overall.
To be clear, there are not any truly bad episodes in Star Wars Rebels Season 3, and its best episodes are perfect models of the “personal perspective of the epic sweep of history” moments that I describe. The pair of episodes “Trials of the Darksaber” and “Legacy of Mandalore” tie in rather tightly to a larger history, but both episodes succeed because the entire sweep of that history is filtered through Sabine’s experience of it. The first episode is an extended training sequence as she learns how to wield the Darksaber, a powerful Mandalorian artifact that may be the key to uniting the fragmented Mandalorian clans under a single ruler again and bringing them over to the side of the Rebellion. It may be the best single episode Star Wars Rebels has ever done, with its power coming from the revelation of Sabine’s backstory and the emotional load she’s been carrying. Any insights gleaned on the inner politics of Mandalore are, at best, window dressing that’s ultimately less important than how they affect Sabine. The moment when her façade finally cracks and her anger boils over delivers a tremendous emotional payload that makes the ultimate resolution at the end of the episode immensely satisfying.
A similar thing happens with “Twin Suns,” which delivers a conclusive resolution to the Ezra/Maul subplot while also tying the series as a whole back to the original trilogy and to past events stretching back as far as The Phantom Menace. No matter how much history is tied up in that moment (and there is a LOT of history from a lot of different screens tied up in that moment), or how much of that history you are personally aware of, the final face-off in the episode packs a real wallop, with the reluctance of one participant contrasted with the determination of the other. But like the offhand historical references in the original movie, you don’t have to know any of those details to sense the sad air of tragic inevitability that permeates the scene. This infuses the episode with a sharp emotional clarity that is tremendously moving and powerful.
However, that level of emotional investment is missing from too many other episodes in this season, with continuity references and chronicling of (seemingly) random events taking its place too often. Part of this might be the way this season splits its time between four distinct major plot threads: the growth of the Rebels from independent cells to the Rebel Alliance we’re more familiar with; Thrawn’s hunt for our Rebels; the growing influence of Darth Maul on Ezra Bridger; and the Mandalorian arc. Even if all these plots ultimately intersect, it is hard to get a sense of real forward momentum when the season keeps changing subplots with every episode. Even re-watching the season in a more compressed manner doesn’t seem to help very much. Furthermore, too many of the episodes this season are more focused on those dry history lessons, focusing more on the events than the people involved in them. Hery Syndulla already got her “personal perspective on the larger conflict” moment in season 2, so her focus episode this season “Hera’s Heroes” feels like a weaker retread that’s more important to maybe set up a potential plot domino for some later point. “The Last Battle” should be a moment of catharsis for Captain Rex, but ends up mostly a replay of The Clone Wars with a pat moral delivered by Ezra at the end. “The Antilles Extraction” and “Secret Cargo” may be solid episodes but ultimately feel more like platforms for shoehorned cameos by recognizable figures from the movies; “Ghosts of Geonosis” may be more successful, but still feels a little too much like an excuse to get another identifiable character on the show. In hindsight, episodes like these feel like wasted opportunities to have furthered one of the main subplots more. There are also filler episodes like “Iron Squadron,” “The Wykaththu Job,” and “Double Agent Droid;” the first two feel like excuses for in-jokes but are otherwise completely inconsequential, while the last is at least entertaining for being so off-the-wall. It’s plausible that this season may end up looking better once it’s combined with the conclusion to this story in the upcoming fourth season, but that’s just kicking the can down the road at best while raising the stakes for that last season unnecessarily.
Star Wars Rebels Season 3 arrives on 3 Blu-ray discs, presenting all the episodes with the high-quality home video treatment that one would expect. Bonus features are much more substantial than they have been in the past. As with the earlier season set releases, all the recap episodes of “Rebels Recon” are included here, even if there’s still no option to play them automatically at the end of each episode. Five featurettes focus on individual elements of the season. “A Rebel Alliance” digs into the ways this season begins establishing the Rebellion as seen in Rogue One and A New Hope; “Return to Mandalore” examines Sabine’s plot thread and the links back to Mandalorian intrigue as shown in The Clone Wars; “Thrawn: A Legend Reborn” looks closer at the introduction of this iconic Imperial commander, and includes commentary by his creator, writer Timothy Zahn; “Apprentices to Outcasts: Kenobi to Maul” zeroes in on the bitter rivalry between the Jedi and the Sith, again placing their confrontation in “Twin Suns” within the larger Star Wars context; and “The Original Rebel: Saw Gerrera Returns” is an extended version of the behind-the-scenes featurette released shortly after Rogue One premiered and before his episodes aired. All five featurettes also drop hints and include clips from season 4 of Star Wars Rebels, so avoid them if you’re intent on avoiding spoilers.
There are also audio commentaries included for four key episodes in the season and one of the more light-hearted ones (“Trials of the Darksaber,” “Legacy of Mandalore,” “Through Imperial Eyes,” “Double Agent Droid,” and “Twin Suns”). Executive Producer Dave Filoni solos “Trials of the Darksaber” and “Twin Suns,” and is joined by a brace of the creative crew for the rest; all of the commentary tracks are informative and interesting behind-the-scenes looks at the episode that go into greater depth than either the “Rebels Recon” episodes or the featurettes.
Star Wars Rebels will be coming to an end with the upcoming fourth season, and I hold out hope that the dissatisfaction that persists with this season will be dissipated once the full context of events becomes clearer. Even so, it still feels like there’s a bit too much history lesson this season. The highs of season 3 are higher than anything Star Wars Rebels has achieved up to this point, but there are too few of them and those very heights end up making the lows and in-betweens feel worse than they probably are.