{Pop Culturally Insensitive will now be co-hosting (De)Constructing the Ion Canon, an ongoing blog surveying the entire official Star Wars canon according to its timeline. Check back every week for the next installment.}

Get caught up with the mission statementEpisode IEpisode IIthe Clone Wars moviethe first season of the showthe secondthe third, the fourththe fifth, the sixth, the Clone Wars Legacy,  Episode III and the lead-up to Rebels.

So, when last we left off, Cham Syndulla’s daughter Hera had convinced a rogue Jedi to help strike a blow against the Empire. Together with an irate astromech, a Mandalorian street artist and a cockney Lasat, they stole Imperial supplies like galactic Robin Hoods from Ryloth all the way to Lothal, where one of the TIE Fighters they shot down (flown by Baron Valen Rudor, Lothal’s most prominent Imperial pilot) is set upon by Ezra Bridger, a thief who seems to always be one jump ahead of the lawmen.

The series of novels, shorts and other media building that direct, linear line between Revenge of the Sith and Rebels brought me to the point where I was more excited to dive into this show than any other component of the canon thus far. Some of these characters I felt I already knew, others I wanted to get to know, and the quality of storytelling I’d seen on display throughout the previous works (especially Jason Fry’s YA novel, that brilliantly straddled the line between accessible and exciting) would ideally be on display ten-fold in this series. Comic-Con attendees all passionately advocated for the show, friends who’d never normally set eyes on a cartoon sung its praises. Hell, the first season even garnered a Critics’ Choice nomination.

How could it possibly go wrong?

Well, actually, the truth is I’m still wondering that, because thus far it hasn’t. It’s nailed it. It’s honestly astounding how well Rebels‘ first season knocked it out of the park, considering how rough the inaugural season of Clone Wars was, and indeed how inconsistent even its best seasons could be. Yet there wasn’t a bad episode in the bunch, and it possessed such a great sense of foresight and overarching plot, despite being isolated storylines each episode, that the series earns the awkward twists and clunky cameos you initially question, paying it all off in the end. It was a great thrill ride I recommend everyone take, and if you haven’t, now’s the time for a quick warning:

{HERE THERE BE SPOILERS FOR REBELS SEASON 1. Trust me, there are some really cool reveals and plot developments that occur in this first season that you’re gonna be really pissed to have ruined for you. During the Clone Wars posts, I had plenty of people say “I just don’t have time for a cartoon”, but believe me, you wanna make time for this. It’s well worth it.}

Season 1 was launched with a TV movie (thankfully not expanded and launched theatrically to no fanfare like a certain other film we shan’t speak of) entitled Spark of Rebellion that serves as the origin story not only for the crew of the Ghost in their current form, but also their prime antagonist, the Inquisitor. The film originally aired on October 3rd, 2014 on Disney XD, but was later that month broadcast on ABC with an additional prologue scene that not only features the menacing Darth Vader, but actually got James Earl Jones to provide the voice.

And that’s how we start, with Darth Vader instructing the Grand Inquisitor (who looks like a mix of the people of Utapau from Revenge of the Sith and the Son from Clone Wars) that Palpatine fears the “children of the Force” may be an issue and that he must hunt them down, before we’re reintroduced to Ezra Bridger.

Ok, we gotta get this out of the way. Ezra is a great, engaging character who despite being young and appealing to kids never once slips into the cloying childish mold that Ashoka Tano was trapped in in the early Clone Wars seasons. He is also a shameless, shameless Aladdin knock off. I mean, the character design alone would be bad enough, but placing him on a desert planet, wherein he outsmarts armed guards in order to help people in need, while pilfering their wares for his own benefit, claiming “Hey, a kid’s gotta eat” (which is essentially an abbreviated “Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat”) is so painfully obvious that by the time Kanan straight up refers to Ezra as a street rat, you’re just cringing at the parallels.

That said, the general pitch of Aladdin in space is enough to win me over. I’m cool just pretending its actually Aladdin in space (for the record, the equation “Classic literary character + “in space”= all of my money. It’s true. I’ve sat through two different films that were essentially (or literallyRobinson Crusoe on Mars). Watching Ezladdin escape the pursuit of storm troopers and Imperial officers is fantastic, and the animation is so lively and fluid you’re really drawn into the action in a way even some of the prequel films failed to do.

I have no intention of providing a full synopsis of the film when we’ve still got thirteen episodes to cover, but sufficed to say, Ezra falls in with the rebels, and in doing so discover’s Kanan’s secret Jedi past. Stealing a Holocron, Ezra manages to open it and hear Obi-Wan’s message about Order 66, causing Kanan to realize Ezra is force sensitive. There’s also a Wookie rescue, and David Oyelowo as a white guy with mutton chops. There’s a lot going on in this film, basically, and the truth is the story is of little consequence beyond establishing who these characters are, what their motives are, and setting up Ezra to be taken under Kanan’s wing. That said, it’s a real rush the whole time, experiencing the excitement of classic Star Wars, the clear cut good guy vs. bad guy, crafty characters with quippy one-liners, free from the constraints Clone Wars had in so far as all of their fates are as yet unwritten. Spark of Rebellion sets the stage for a lot of potential greatness, and thankfully the series lives up to it.

From the first episode, Droids in Distress, the series makes it clear we’re gonna see a lot of cameos from the classic characters, but this particular episode could have honestly done without the famous droid duo of C-3PO and R2-D2. This very Firefly-esque plot about weapons smuggling digs deep into Zeb’s past (the weapons they steal are illegal firearms, the exact model that was used to wipe out Zeb’s people), fleshing out the character brilliantly, and gives the ever-crafty Sabine a great moment posing as an Imperial translator. There’s some great action, some brilliant bits of dialogue that manages to sharply straddle the line between the Homeric antiquities spouted on the prequels and the  ragtag off-the-cuff comments of the original trilogy, and even a series-introduction for Bail Organa at the conclusion, who has already begun forming a rebellion against the Empire, and becomes very interested in the Ghost crew. Its hardly the best episode in the bunch, and would have made for a weak start were it not for Spark of Rebellion preceding it, but its an enjoyable episode all the same (especially if you are nerdy enough to spot the “cameos” from McQuarrie’s original design for C-3PO and the droid from Star Tours).

The show, as I said before, has a much greater sense of continuity than Clone Wars, so when Droids in Distress features Ezra saving Zeb’s life with the Force, the laws of tv dictate that the following episode should be a buddy comedy wherein the life-debt is continually harped upon by the owed until circumstances cause the debt to be repaid. The episode’s plot is negligible, involving Ezra and Zeb sent on what is really a team-building exercise under the pretense of obtaining an unobtainable fruit, which results in them tangling with Imperial forces (which results in my favorite moment of the episode, a bewildered stormtrooper asking “Wait, you did all this for fruit?” Its my sincerest hope that where the battledroids had been slapstick humor, the stormtroopers merely remark on the absurdity of  situations) and stealing a TIE Fighter. Such an episode would be the kind of trifle any other cartoon would put out as filler, and admittedly everything from the premise to the plotting feels so, yet as we saw (or as you’ll see when you quit reading now and watch the show if you haven’t, because seriously guys, there’s some spoilers coming) that even that TIE Fighter, stolen in episode 2 and rarely mentioned again, gets paid off in the epic finale. All in all, the story is nothing to write home about, yet its a testament to how engaging this diverse cast of characters is, and how strong the writing and chemistry is that Fighter Flight is utterly engaging and remarkably fun.

Holy s**t this episode is dark. Like, Revenge of the Sith level dark. Like Edgar Allen Poe, HP Lovecraft level dark. Like the Inquisitor utilizing the Holo-Net broadcasts to convince the Ghost crew that Luminara Unduli is still alive but in actuality having her mummified corpse act as bait for Kanan and Ezra’s force sense to lure them into a trap level dark. Actually, it’s not just like that last one, that’s the plot. After a fun and fancy free Fighter FlightRise of the Old Masters gets hella grim, while still maintaining a sense of dashing adventure. From the opening scene of Kanan imparting on Ezra Yoda’s classic mantra “Do or do not, there is no try” only for Ezra to question how such a statement is even plausible, since one cannot do something without trying, we’re granted a sense of uncertainty not common for the Star Wars universe, the idea that what’s happening may not be part of fate’s grand plan, that Kanan may not be a capable teacher, that Ezra may not have any grand destiny after all. We’re also given peeks at both the Inquisitor’s impressive abilities (and totally boss dual bladed spinning lightsaber) and a potential larger rebellion with Brett Spiner (ST: TNG‘s Data, in a bit of fabulous franchise crossover) as the David Niven-looking Senator Gall Trayvis, known for his V For Vendetta-style diatribes on hijacked Imperial signals. Ultimately, Kanan comes to realize what Yoda meant: If Kanan tries to teach Ezra, than he isn’t certain that he can. Only by having the confidence that he can and will teach Ezra the ways of the force can he do so without “trying”. Its a surprisingly well-thought out explanation for the oft-quoted but never understood piece of advice.

I truly believe Breaking Ranks is one of the best, if not the best, single-story episodes of the season, but I recognize I’m biased given for me and those digesting the entire canon, its not a single story, but rather a crossover with Jason Fry’s excellent Servants of the Empire series. We see Ezra Bridger, undercover within the stormtrooper training academy, only to find he’s paired up with Zare Leonis, also in the academy with ulterior motives. The story itself is pretty standard, with the entire plot becoming clear from the instant the premise is introduced to even the least amount of critical thought,  but its the exceptional execution combined with the idea of seeing two very different characters (privileged, educated Leonis trying to find a member of his family, and poor orphaned Ezra trying to be part of one) that we’ve grown attached to in books finally meet. Sure, there’s some plot holes, namely how Ezra infiltrated the Academy at all, but I suspect Fry’s second book in the Servants series, Rebel in the Ranks, which runs concurrent to the episode, will clear up all of that, and I for one can’t wait to get to it.

Despite Sabine being easily my favorite character in the series, I have to admit Out of Darkness is the only episode of Rebels I found myself apathetic towards. I recall admiring the visuals, particularly the lighting and the design of the alien creatures the pair encounter in the cave, the introduction of the mysterious Fulcrum,and being entertained in the moment, yet none of the episode stuck with me, nothing stuck out as memorable, and were it not for the callback it receives later on, it likely would have fallen to the wayside of my memory. That said, it still exceeds anything produced for the final season of Clone Wars, and certainly won’t disappoint those looking for a bit of fleeting fun.

We get our first two-parter of the series with Empire Day and Gathering Forces, and its fantastic. Just the right length (meaning Dave Filoni learned from Clone Wars), and packed with great character moments, like Sabine’s color-based sabotage, Kanan’s play-drunkeness to evade Imperial forces, and Zeb’s impatience to toss the fireworks. But ultimately, even though the episode features a good amount of background on Ezra’s rebellious parents, and introduces Tseebo, who valiantly imbedded his brain with Imperial secrets in order to honor the now lost Bridgers, the arc’s real purpose is to highlight the darkness within Ezra himself. From Kanan’s angry concern when Ezra casually suggests killing the alien he finds himself unable to control with the force (in a tone that conveys he’s not necessarily a stranger to lashing out at others) to coldly telling Tseebo he will never forgive him, to of course the harrowing final moments when Ezra calls upon the dark side in order to summon the mother creature to fight the Inquisitor, this episode turns the entire series on its ear, this was our Ned Stark moment, if you will, causing us to question all we knew about the medium. Could the character we’d been following all this time, could our main character, our archetypical orphan with a destiny, be evil? Could he turn to the dark side? In a series full of bad men getting redemption (Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, and ultimately Anakin Skywalker), could we actually witness the opposite? Have we ever seen a kids’ show where the hero falls from grace? Of course, it’s Star Wars, and not only that, it’s Disney. There’s no way, logic tells you, that they’d make a show with a main character, the one aimed most at kids, who’ll become evil. And yet, Empire Day and Gathering Forces present enough to cause not only Kanan but we the viewer to have our doubts about the former street rat.

Path of the Jedi is the closest Rebels ever gets to its predecessor series in tone and structure. The plot is reminiscent of both A Test of Strength in that Ezra is searching for a crystal to build his lightsaber, and also the Mortis trilogy as all of the events that transpire are an illusion of the force in order to test Ezra,making it a little harder to get invested in the episode since you know its all a fantasy. Indeed, its only because Kanan himself seems worried Ezra might turn to the dark side that the episode has any real hook, since you think perhaps Ezra may actually fail his test, may prove unworthy, or may indeed receive a crystal, but one who’ll result in an infamous crimson blade. Alas, despite some cool illusory moments that are ultimately inconsequential, everything plays out as you’d expect, with the only surprise being a voice cameo from Frank Oz as Yoda, who provides wisdom to Kanan assuring him about training the boy, and guiding Ezra through the same glowing lights that Qui-Gon had used to guide Yoda in the Clone Wars finale. This is one of the few times a full canonical knowledge of Star Wars may actually hamper the enjoyment of an episode, as I’m sure kids (or movie-only adults) who see this episode are dazzled by all of the things it does, expanding the Jedi mythology from what they know, but once you’ve been through the preceding novels and Clone Wars, everything this episode has to offer you’ve seen before.

There will never be a more perfectly executed cameo on Rebels than Idiot’s Array. Granted, from a chorine-canonical perspective, we should have no idea who this is. But…come on, we know. That’s right, Billy Dee Williams is back as Lando, and it is spectacular. From a storyline whose main plot points are Lando a) winning Chopper in poker, b) selling Hera into slavery and c) very obviously trying to **** Sabine to the mere existence of my now-favorite Star Wars alien, the “puffer pig”, who inflates when stressed, this episode is undeniably silly, unbound by any of the seriousness Clone Wars was oft to either be restrained by or flourish in (Hutt baby named Stinky aside). It’s also fantastically fun, perfectly slick without a dull moment in the entire run time, some stellar voice work (the episode’s main antagonist is Lopan from Big Trouble in Little China, in case Billy Dee wasn’t enough to get you on board), and some great moments of humor that never seems to betray any of the serious character work they’ve done thus far (played for a joke, Ezra and Kanan’s willingness to leave Lando behind in the grips of Azmorigan fits what we know about both characters thus far, especially considering the Kanan we met in A New Dawn). If you need one episode to convert a hesitant fan to Rebels, this is it.

I know I’ve done a few spoiler warnings thus far, but I really must urge you to turn back if you haven’t seen Vision of Hope, as this one’s twist actually took me by surprise. After finding hints hidden in one of Trayvis’ broadcasts as to his next stop, the Ghost crew finally meet the Senator in Exile in person, only to discover that he’s in fact a puppet of the Empire, used to lure rebels into a trap. Apparently the Lothal rebels had stirred up enough trouble to get on his radar, so I guess that should be a plus in their book. Vision of Hope lacks the sort of powerful dialogue or stunning action sequences that brand the episode into your memory like the majority of the season does, though its nice seeing Zare return when Ezra, who is now receiving premonitions through the force, is being pursued by stormtroopers. I love seeing Zare be a “man on the inside”, helping Ezra right up to the point where a stormtrooper can see, than instantly putting on a full Imperial guise, ultimately earning praise from his superiors. Apparently Vision of Hope factors into the third Jason Fry Servants book, Imperial Justice, so even if the episode itself isn’t particularly remarkable compared to the rest, I’m fascinated to see how Fry fleshes it out.

The three part finale Call to ActionRebel Resolve and Fire Across the Galaxy pack a lot of fantastic moments, but for my money none are better than those that involve the ruthless, methodical left hand of the Empire, Grand Moff Tarkin. These episodes are easily the series most cinematic, with an imp[ressive amount of care going into lighting, shot choices, and editing, best exemplified in the sequence where Tarkin wordlessly orders two failed imperials execution, told through Leone-esque close-ups of the eyes of all in the room before the Inquisitor ignites his blade. There are some clever little storytelling techniques that add suspense, like the moment where Tarkin expounds upon the various other cells of rebels, reminding you once again that the Lothal crew are far from the only ones, robbing you of the assurance that “they can’t die, cause they’re the start of the rebellion”. They in fact can die, and you really think they might, especially when Kanan tells Ezra to flee while he stays back to fight the Inquisitor, recalling Obi-Wan’s fateful instruction to Luke in Episode IV.

The writing is top notch in these final episodes, from ominous statements like Hera describing Mustafar as “…where Jedi go to die”, perhaps alluding to Anakin Skywalker’s supposed death, or hinting that the Jedi who survived after Order 66 were rounded up there, to humorous taunts like Kanan’s mocking “I see…I see…I see you getting more and more frustrated.” Everything from the past season comes together neatly in this finale, from the stolen TIE Fighter from Fighter Flight (now colorfully repainted by Sabine) to the horned scoundrel from Droids in Distress, to the payoff on the appearance of Bail Organa and the reveal of Fulcrum, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s address the series’ finest action sequence, Kanan facing off against the Inquisitor. From the stellar fight choreography utilizing both the blaster and lightsaber portions of Ezra’s lightsaber (“I never thought of that” Bridger remarks) validating the design as something with more intent than to just be “cool” and sell more toys to some great dialogue on par with the best Clone Wars ever offered, when Kanan tells the Inquisitor that pushing Ezra off the side of the platform they’re fighting on was a mistake, and the Inquisitor says “Why? Because you have no one left to die for you?” to which Kanan replies “No, because I have nothing left to fear” before redoubling his assault. Ultimately, the Inquisitor chooses to end his own life rather than surrender to Kanan, explaining that their are some fates worse than death (one can only assume he’s referring to the torture the Emperor submits failures to, but there could be some greater mythology about Inquisitors that’s yet to be revealed), and we’re treated to a moment that’s both humorous and also hints once more Ezra’s fate may not be so beatific as he and Kanan find themselves with only one option of escape, the Inquistor’s TIE, to which Ezra jokingly says “Well, we know he’s not gonna use it” mere moments after the character plunged to his likely excruciating death. Kanan’s comment of “You know what kid? You worry me sometimes.” works perfectly as a punchline, but also hints at an actual underlying concern has about Bridger. After all, like Kanan, Obi-Wan was a Jedi who was capable of going rogue, of straying from the Jedi code, disregarding commands of the council, engaging in reckless tactics, and even falling in love; his pupil being so susceptible to the dark side may well have been in part due to his own intermittent departures from the rigid structure of the calling. So to may we see Kanan’s straying from the ancient ways result in Ezra falling into the clutches of the Sith.

Of course, the biggest punch the finale packs is the reveal of Fulcrum. Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, Hera has made them a part of a much larger rebellion, through the assistance of Bail Organa. After escaping Mustafar in a ship piloted by Chopper, they find the Ghost running alongside them, and wonder who’s flying it. They board their ship to find a hooded figure descending from the cockpit as Bail’s hologram expounds upon the broader rebellion to the crew. Finally, the mysterious Fulcrum reveals herself to the crew to be…holy s**t it’s Ahsoka. After brief mentions of her in Tarkin and Lords of the Sith, and the nagging concern that despite leaving the Order she’d been killed during Order 66, it turns out not only is Ahsoka alive, but she’s one of the founders of the rebellion. Granted, for those coming to the series with no background, or “movie-only” background, this reveal is meaningless, but for those of us who’ve kept with the canon all this time, its an incredible, mind-blowing twist that makes everything thus far feel so much more unified and sets up a fascinating dynamic for the series going forward, especially since the final moments reveal Darth Vader’s arrival on Lothal, complete with the ominous hiss of his breathing playing over the final “Star Wars Rebels” logo of the season.

Ultimately, Rebels packs a hell of a punch, with a season that on the whole surpasses any single season of Clone Wars with an array of episodes that seem infinitely rewatchable, due to a smartly plotted overarching story that never hampers down individual episodes (a certain Doctor Who show runner should probably take notes) and brilliantly crafted characters whose personalities and chemistry make you want to watch even the most overdone plot lines just to see how they react. It’s well worth the time, and proves to be a great addition to the overall Star Wars franchise, bringing in new viewers and reminding the old what we loved most about the classic series.

Well, that’s it for this week. If time permits, we may take a look at the expanded Rebels canon work, like the remainder of Jason Fry’s Servants of the Empire, the remaining two Rebels video games, and the technically canon comics which appeared in the Rebels Magazine which is thus far only available in the UK. It’s a hell of a tall order, all things considered, but if life permits we’ll take a look at that midweek, and then next Friday we hit the final countdown. That’s right, next week we take a look at the masterpiece that started it all, Star Wars (sigh…fine…Episode IV: A New Hope, if we must). See you guys then.

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