Star Wars is back in season on the small screen as Star Wars Rebels returned on Saturday night with its season 3 premiere, Steps Into Shadow.
The season premiere was a 1-hour 2-episode story crafted by writers Steven Melching and Matt Michnovetz, with directors Bosco Ng and Mel Zwyer, and new supervising director Justin Ridge. The episode featured three big debuts along with our returning troupe of characters. Long absent Governor of Lothal Arhinda Pryce played by Mary McGlynn makes her series debut and is not wasting any time attempting to squash the Rebel cell in her territory. The newly created titanic Force Wielder of Atollon, simply called Bendu is introduced and is played by Tom Baker. The most anticipated debut of all however is of Grand Admiral Thrawn reborn into the new canon. Dave Filoni and crew in consultation with Timothy Zahn bring Thrawn into canon played by Lars Mikkelsen (brother of Rogue One actor Mads Mikkelsen).
For Star Wars Rebels season three’s premiere is really a culmination of all that has come before. In season one we got a premiere that was an origin story that remarkably hit all the classic Star Wars notes. In the season two premiere we had a dramatic escalation with the introduction of an in his prime Darth Vader and epic space battle action. In the season three premiere we get jump forward in time and join the crew of the Ghost mid-rescue operation. In many ways this in media res beginning is symbolic of the entire episode. We are in the middle of Ezra’s dance upon the penumbra of the Dark Side, of Kanan’s struggle with the ramifications of his blindness, of Phoenix Squadrons dealing with the victories and defeats of season two, and the Empire’s continued reaction to the rising Rebel threat.
The episode focuses primarily on three storylines Ezra’s growing leadership and growing relationship with the Dark Side, Kanan’s quest, and the Imperial plot. In addressing these three storylines the cast and crew does a very good job weaving between the mystical elements of the Force and the down and dirty realities of a guerrilla war. We got a lot of character work for both Ezra and Kanan something that I felt was lacking for large swaths of season two. Even if you do not like the direction that Ezra’s character is going there is some real growth and conflict presented here as Ezra for noble reasons is listening to the devil on his shoulder and traveling down a very dark path. For Kanan the episode introduces and resolves the primary conflict he feels over his vision in a believable if rather abbreviated way. This makes me think there are more difficult things that Kanan will have to face in season 3 than simple blindness.
We get some information and expansion of the Rebellion in this episode that lays groundwork of things to come. Hondo as a source of intel, Y-Wings introduced and acquired, and the important name drop of General Dodonna who is operating his own cell at this point. These are all things that are paving the way for greater development of the rebellion as the season progresses. We also see the Rebels interacting with a new group, the Mining Guild. The Mining Guild is the sort of Legends group that was prevalent in the Expanded Universe from RPGs to novels.
For the Empire the introduction of Governor Pryce and Grand Admiral Thrawn as antagonists serves to allow the writers to move away from Darth Vader and to a lesser extent Grand Moff Tarkin. By adding these two characters without resolved canonical fates to the mix with another antagonist in Maul, the creative team behind Rebels has much more storytelling flexibility going forward with its villains.
The addition of Thrawn also gives us more information into the stucture and back story of the Imperial military. We learn such things as that he was recently promoted, he had a great victory at Batonn and that he commands the Seventh Fleet. Further he provides a contrast to previously introduced Admiral Konstatine and Agent Kallus. It also sets the stage for what seems to be the most telegraphed twist of the season, i.e. the defection of Kallus to the Rebels. Ultimately what we got with Thrawn was more of a tease of things to come than anything else, just a taste.
Rebels seems to be most comfortable focusing on the ground level action, hand to hand combat and hit and run missions, but the episode really had its peak action moments during the aerial attack by the Dismantler Droids and the all to brief closing space battle. The space battle at the end felt like more of a tease than a complete sequence and I would have loved a couple more minutes of it.
The best parts of the episode were the Force related elements. Seeing Ezra interacting with the Holocron and his behavior towards friends and enemies, showing the conflict and change going on within him. Seeing Kanan reopening himself to the Force and to life during his encounter with Bendu, was like revisiting some of the Mortis stuff in a much more grounded and less fantastical way. It seems clear despite their seeming reconciliation during rescue that Ezra and Kanan are fated to come into serious conflict this season. The echoes of Anakin and Obi-Wan are simply to hard to ignore. Ezra’s attachment to the Sith Holocron and the female “Presence” inside it (played by Nika Futterman) is evocative of the relationship that a trio of Hobbits had to the Ring of Power in Tolkien’s work. That pull, that temptation for power to protect his friends, to prevent them from coming to harm likely will result in Ezra bringing the very pain to his friends he is trying to guard them from.
We don’t get a ton of screen time for the other Ghost crew members, Zeb is Zeb, Hera is even more ingrained in the military leadership of the Rebels, and Rex is the ever tolerant veteran. Sabine in her brief moments of screen time came off to me as a more matured and determined character. As Ezra is swinging further out of line, Sabine seems to be going in the other direction. It will be interesting to see her character growth this season as she is to have a more prominent role.
All in all “Steps Into Shadows ” took solid, confident steps in a lot of storytelling directions and provided adept character development that I was so richly craving after season two. It is a great launching pad for the rest of this season and beyond.