One of the strengths of Star Wars Rebels is its position in the timeline after the Star Wars prequel trilogy and The Clone Wars animated series but before the start of the original trilogy. This position allows it to cherry pick elements of both to bridge the gap between those two stories, while introducing some interesting elements of its own into the larger Star Wars universe. Connecting the past to the future is an element that infuses nearly every episode of the second season of Star Wars Rebels, now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Star Wars Rebels centers on the crew of the Ghost: the young Padawan Ezra Bridger, his mentor Kanan Jarrus, the ship’s captain Hera Syndulla, the resident artist/explosives expert Sabine Wren, the snarky astromech droid Chopper, and the muscle Zeb. At the end of the first season, the crew won some small victories against the Empire by transmitting a message of defiance all over Ezra’s home planet of Lothal, killing the Jedi-hunting Grand Inquisitor, and destroying Governor Tarkin’s personal Star Destroyer. When the crew links up with the nascent Rebel Alliance, they discover that their secretive contact is Ahsoka Tano, while the Empire has deployed Darth Vader to Lothal to deal with the rebel activity once and for all.
The second season begins with the double-length episode “The Siege of Lothal,” where the crew of the Ghost learns exactly how ruthless and how lethal Vader is, barely surviving two encounters with him as they escape from Lothal for the safety of open space with the rest of the Rebel fleet. Vader himself is a malevolent force of nature: relentless and unstoppable by the likes of Kanan and Ezra. It’s an excellent return to form for the dark lord, and bodes well for his expected appearance in Rogue One. The next two episodes, “The Lost Commanders” and “Relics of the Old Republic,” brings back fan-favorite Clone Trooper Captain Rex, who is lured back to fight the good fight even if Kanan remains skeptical. His concerns are entirely rational as a survivor of Order 66, where Clone Troopers swiftly turned on their Jedi commanders. Both sets of episodes serve to integrate Rebels nicely in the timeline: we see the same Vader that we know and love from the first Star Wars movie, while also leaning on the Clone Troopers familiar from The Clone Wars. In both cases, it is easy to tell how important these characters are even if Star Wars Rebels happens to be your first encounter with them.
“Always Two There Are” reveals more about the Empire’s Inquisitors, introducing two new ones who go by Seventh Sister and Fifth Brother. While on a mission to secure medical supplies on an abandoned Republic space station, Ezra, Sabine, Chopper, and Zeb run into the two Inquisitors and barely make their escape. These Inquisitors are markedly different from the one who plagued the Ghost in season 1, and the offhand comments made about them offer tantalizing hints of a larger structure that remains unknown to our heroes (and us). “Brothers of the Broken Horn” brings back the wily criminal Hondo Ohnaka from The Clone Wars, still scheming and double-dealing. Hondo drags Ezra and Chopper along for a caper, with the episode’s fun derived from watching Ezra and Hondo trying to outwit each other. “Wings of the Master” is an origin story for the B-Wing fighter (only seen on screen in the climactic battle of Return of the Jedi); the episode is best for the hints about Hera’s background and some exhilarating flight scenes. “Blood Sisters” introduces Ketsu Onyo, an old friend of Sabine’s who is still working as a bounty hunter. The two find themselves at odds over a MacGuffin of a droid until a common enemy forces the two to work together again. It’s an interesting episode, although it makes one wonder exactly how Sabine managed to pack such an eventful life in such a short amount of time, since she’s supposed to be only a few years older than Ezra.
“Stealth Strike” introduces the Empire’s Interdictor cruiser, with powerful gravity well generators that can pull a ship out of hyperspace. Field tests of the cruiser capture the ship carrying Ezra and Rebel Commander Sato, leaving it up to Kanan and Rex to execute a rescue. This episode was one of my favorites when it was originally broadcast, largely for the amusing asides and snarky comments that Rex and Kanan throw at each other, and for the tight and efficient scripting. The call-out to the classic X-Wing video game was also appreciated. “The Future of the Force” returns Ahsoka to the fray, as she learns that the Empire is also using the Inquisitors to abduct Force-sensitive children for unknown purposes. This episode is entertaining for watching Zeb, Ezra, and Kanan attempting to deal with a baby Ithorian and for its thrilling climactic battle sequence.
“Legacy” addresses a question hanging since the beginning of the series: exactly what happened to Ezra’s parents? A vivid dream convinces Ezra to find out what happened to his parents, sending he and Kanan back to Lothal to discover their ultimate fate. After a few big action sequences, this episode ends on a pensive note where Kanan’s platitudes aren’t as comforting as the visions Ezra has of his parents. “A Princess on Lothal” brings a very young Princess Leia Organa to Lothal in a convoy of supply ships for the population. Her cover as an Imperial Senator hides her loyalties to the Rebellion, but her plans for the Rebels to steal her convoy of ships is hindered by the Empire. While the episode is solid overall and they successfully channel Princess Leia’s character, her appearance ends up feeling like a cameo for a cameo’s sake. Star Wars Rebels is strong enough on its own that it didn’t really need the call-out to the original trilogy and I don’t think much is improved by using Leia in this episode as opposed to an original character.
“The Protector of Concord Dawn” uses a negotiation between the Rebels and a group of Mandalorians to bring out more information about Sabine’s past. I suspect the deeper meanings to the revelations will be much more meaningful for fans who watched The Clone Wars religiously; this episode was probably the first one where I felt a bit lost for not knowing the full backstory, although the episode’s slightly choppy pacing might also be related to that feeling. “Legends of the Lasat” throws a spotlight on Zeb, who learns he is not the last Lasat in the galaxy when the crew of the Ghost rescues two more: a former member of the Lasat Honor Guard and a wise woman with a tendency to speak in riddles. The Ghost eventually finds its way to a new Lasat homeworld, safely tucked behind an impenetrable barrier that will keep out the Empire. For some reason, the mysticism of “Legends of the Lasat” never quite clicked for me, making this one of the weaker episodes in an otherwise strong season.
“The Call” highlights one of Ezra’s growing Force abilities to communicate with sentient life forms, as the crew of the Ghost is tasked with stealing a fuel shipment to the Empire. The mining platform holding the fuel is also of interest to a pack of Purrgil, strange whale-like creatures with a natural ability to travel through hyperspace. Ezra’s encounter with a very alien intelligence is communicated excellently, which ensures the episode works as well as it does. “Homecoming” throws another spotlight on Hera, as a mission to capture an Imperial carrier brings the Rebels together with famed Twi’lek insurgent Cham Syndulla, Hera’s estranged father. The father/daughter conflict is eventually mirrored in conflicting agendas, and the sudden twists of fate make this episode a standout in the season. “The Honorable Ones” puts Zeb and Imperial Agent Kallus in a fight for survival on a frozen moon, forcing the two enemies to work together as allies. Even if the eventual outcome is almost never in doubt, the story is executed well and leaves Agent Kallus looking a little bit better. One of my major objections in season 1 was the way Agent Kallus was over-simplified into a mustache-twirling villain early on; “The Honorable Ones” seems to be walking that back a bit and the stab at giving him some depth is appreciated.
“Shroud of Darkness” sets up the last act of the season, as Ezra, Kanan, and Ahsoka return to the Jedi temple on Lothal to seek guidance for their future. The resulting vision quests reflect the growth of Kanan and Ezra as Jedi, while also bringing back a familiar face and allowing Ahsoka to confront her suspicions of the identity of Darth Vader. This episode is a nice follow-up to the events of season 1’s “Path of the Jedi,” and also reminds us that Kanan is still learning and growing as a Jedi even as he does his best to teach Ezra the ways of the Force. “The Forgotten Droid” is an episode centering on Chopper, who ends up on a misadventure of his own after he accidentally stows away on an Imperial freighter. A chance meeting with an older protocol droid named AP-5 leads to many shenanigans and a last-minute save for the Rebel fleet, which brings them to a safe haven from the Empire. However, “The Mystery of Chopper Base” reveals that the base is still not entirely safe, as indigenous life forms threaten the crew of the Ghost. This episode of Star Wars Rebels seems to be taking most of its cues from horror movies, and succeeds well in giving us the creeps. Not an episode you should watch if you have a thing about spiders, and it’s also one you can skip but for the beginning and the very end.
The final double-length episode, “Twilight of the Apprentice,” sends Ezra, Kanan, and Ahsoka to the planet Malachor, where they uncover a Sith temple. The group is split up by the landscape and then by an Inquisitor, who soon summons Seventh Sister and Fifth Brother as well. Separated from Kanan and Ahsoka, Ezra discovers a mysterious lurker near the Sith temple who is soon revealed to be Darth Maul himself, acting out his own agenda separate from both the Jedi and the Sith. Maul soon begins tempting Ezra to the Dark Side of the Force with honeyed words and reasonable-sounding arguments, made stronger by the way the pair successfully navigate through the Sith temple using Maul’s teachings. Before long, the competing sides come into conflict, with Maul serving as a wildcard between the Inquisitors and the Jedi. It all ends with a confrontation that fans have been waiting for years to see: the meeting of Ahsoka Tano and Darth Vader, and the results are explosive and tragic.
Perhaps the best thing about Star Wars Rebels is the way it can build on story material from the prequel movies and Star Wars: The Clone Wars and drop hints for what’s to come in the original trilogy stories, but in such a way that old fans will recognize the call-outs but newer ones won’t feel lost. The crew of the Ghost have settled nicely into their roles, and the spotlight episodes for Hera, Sabine, and Zeb ensure that everyone can get their due. Animation also seems to have been improved slightly from the first season of the show, with fewer abandoned streets and some impressive visual effects sequences. I was especially impressed with a scene of two ships colliding in “Stealth Strike” which showed unexpected levels of detail and realism. It is also a treat to hear familiar actors returning to reprise their roles from The Clone Wars, with Dee Bradley Baker returning as Rex and the clones, Sam Witwer lending new dimensions to Darth Maul, and Jim Cummings hamming it up as Hondo Ohnaka. Finally, it is a genuine pleasure to hear James Earl Jones returning as Darth Vader, completing the character’s return to form.
The 3-disc Blu-ray set has the expected high-quality transfers and soundtrack, with a solid 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack in English and French and 2.0 Dolby Digital in Spanish. However, despite the labeling, bonus features are a little thin this time around. Most welcome are the complete set of “Rebels Recon” recaps, just as on the season 1 release, which delve into production matters and answer some questions raised during the show’s run. The remaining two bonuses are rather short, limiting how effective they can be. The three-minute “Connecting the Galaxy: Rebels Season 2″ highlights the numerous references that Rebels makes to the larger universe, and even notes one instance where an element of Rebels made it into The Force Awakens. The Blu-ray exclusive bonus featurette is “From Apprentice to Adversary: Vader vs. Ahsoka,” which runs just over 6 minutes and covers the pair’s history in The Clone Wars. It’s a solid recap for those who never watched (or, in my case, gave up early on) The Clone Wars, but I have to admit the blaring “Exclusive Blu-ray Bonus!” feature prominently displayed on the front cover led me to expect a bit more. I do appreciate that the set has no forced-trailers-on-disc-insertion, which I always found annoying. In fact, the only trailer in this set is for Rogue One.
Apt comparisons have been made to this season and The Empire Strikes Back, with both sophomore efforts building on and bettering what came before, and sharing an overall darker tone and a strong sense of loss by the end. Having almost twice the episodes as season 1 also allows Star Wars Rebels to spend a bit more time on the supporting cast, which is almost always time well-spent even if the episodes aren’t strictly necessary. Star Wars Rebels season 2 is a terrific addition to the Star Wars universe, and leaves us with baited breath for the third season.