Star Wars Rebels, welcome back. It’s been a long wait after the events of the Season 2 finale, “Twilight of the Apprentice,” but our Ghost crew has returned, and they’re a little different. On a superficial level, there’s an immediately noticeable aesthetic change to our human leads: To show the passage of time, Ezra’s hair is slicked back (and is he even a little taller? My eyes could be playing tricks on me), Sabine’s own ‘do is a little more sleek itself, and Kanan’s gone full-on blinded beard man. Rebels’ one-hour premiere holds stronger and deeper changes, though, that signify deeper stories and higher stakes in this chapter of the Star Wars saga.
The Rebels’ adventure begins this week when the Ghost crew rescues their good backstabber—I mean, friend—Hondo. In exchange for his rescue (and maybe a ship?) he slips them information that some old Y-Wing bombers are on a factory in the Yarna system, just begging to be stolen from the Imperial scrap heap. Sensing an opportunity, the Phoenix squadron launches a recon mission to see how they can steal the bombers and begin building the Rebel Alliance’s strike force, with none other than now-lieutenant Ezra Bridger in charge.
Lieutenant Ezra Bridger? Kanan would usually be leading this mission, and that’s the first big change. Kanan’s been out of action since he was blinded by the Inquisitors’ band of Brothers and Sisters in Season 2. He’s been off trying to restore his sight, and that means Ezra, the only other kind-of Jedi, has had to pick up the Force wielding slack. He’s also had to adopt another master to guide him: the Sith holocron salvaged from the Dark Side death ray in “Twilight of the Apprentice.” Its guidance is effective; in the opening sequence of “Steps Into Shadow” Ezra plows a path through at least five stormtroopers singlehandedly before Jedi Mind Tricking an Imperial Walker off a cliff. However, once Kanan finds out about Ezra’s study sessions with the holocron, he worries the device is changing Ezra, and not for the better, not in the long run. He wonders if it’s only a matter of time before his Padawan turns to the Dark Side. Audiences have seen moral changes in family television characters before, but where Prince Zuko redeemed himself in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Rebels creative team seems to be seeding a change in Ezra slightly more in line with the character Terra’s path in the original Teen Titans show. In that series, Terra, who controlled rocks, started out joining heroes Robin, Raven, Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Starfire, but eventually fell to villain Slade’s machinations, becoming a tragic antagonist. As this season of Rebels begins, the dominoes could be lining up to lead to Ezra’s tragic fall.
However, even Terra in Teen Titans eventually redeemed herself, and helped the heroes win the day. In family programming, there are incredible amounts of space for compelling moral ambiguity. Every once in a while, a family series has the guts to say, “You know what? Good and evil are fluid. There’s gray between the black and white.” Rebels is one of them. When Kanan confronts Ezra about using the holocron, Ezra disagrees with his concerns. To Ezra, the holocron has only been a help. It hasn’t twisted him at all, but helped him lead his team to one victory after another, and brought his friends ever closer to the fall of the Empire.
This is partly a lie. Ezra’s totally cocky in the premiere, and it comes back to bite him in a big way when the recon mission on Yarna inevitably goes South. It’s also true, though, because rescuing Hondo at the beginning of the episode wouldn’t have been possible without the abilities the holocron unlocked within the Jedi-to-be.
Narratively, it leaves Ezra toeing a fine line. It’s transfixing storytelling, and even a bit of a connective thread to its predecessor series, The Clone Wars. Ventress, betrayed by her Sith master, and eventually briefly working with Asohka after striking out on her own, first introduced, in canon, the possibility of ongoing ambiguity in a Force wielder (that is, not a temporary moral conflict that resolves with the character firmly established as Light or Dark). Now, the concept continues more explicitly as Ezra approaches that territory too.
Over the course of the Season 3 premiere, though, Kanan meets A character who’s already there. As he meditates, reaching out to the Force to restore his sight, our blind swordsman discovers the Bendu, who simply states, “I am in the middle.” He is neither fully Jedi or Sith. He is a third way, and a concretely new way of looking at the Force. He tells Kanan he will never be able to see as he used to, and as he guides Kanan toward a new kind of sight, he is the series’ firm statement that the Star Wars universe will be seeing differently too. Through the Bendu (voiced with a threatening Cave-of-Wonders quality by Dr. Who alum Tom Baker), Star Wars is saying that, if the Force is the metaphorical barometer of morality, then its stories will finally examine moral behavior with a truer eye.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t still have our exquisitely terrible villains. The big news leading up to Star Wars Rebels’ third season was the introduction of Grand Admiral Thrawn, before only a myth in the Star Wars legends/extended universe. Gone are the pretty poorly developed Inquisitors, and even the terrifyingly depicted Vader. Now the series has a brand new (for me; I haven’t caved and run to Wikipedia yet) singular antagonistic focus, and one whose soft voice and calculating mind hint at chilling master plans to come.
Finally, if anything hints at change this season, it’s the loss of the Phantom ship during Ezra’s botched mission on Yarna. Just like the Ghost crew is a family unto itself, the Phantom shuttle was like a daughter of the Ghost, and my heart broke a little when the shuttle fell through the planet’s fog and exploded. It’s a powerful, unspoken sign that this season, even the most important members of our crew can be lost.
What did you think about this week’s return of Star Wars Rebels? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and tweet me!