Thursday, March 31, 2016

'Star Wars Rebels' Finale Fulfills the Series' Potential

The Disney XD animated series Star Wars Rebels has gotten very little attention on this blog, aside from a post in late January about the show's growing relevancy to the Star Wars universe. Last night's Season 2 finale, "Twilight of the Apprentice," didn't just provide some truly exciting moments that would drop the jaw of any Star Wars fan; it also finally proved that Rebels can reach the same storytelling heights of its beloved predecessor, The Clone Wars
The hour-long episode involves Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus, young trainee Ezra Bridger, and Clone Wars vet Ahsoka Tano traveling to the forbidden planet of Malachor to learn more about the Sith...and hopefully find a way to defeat them. Malachor first appeared in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and though the planet's original history doesn't match up completely with what Rebels shows us, both versions were the site of a major Jedi-Sith conflict. Its presence in Rebels suggests that other Expanded Universe elements could be brought into the new Star Wars canon, which is a very exciting prospect to anyone who was frustrated by the de-canonization of their favorite characters. 
The three heroes fall into Malachor's vast subterranean ruins, where they discover scorched corpses and a pyramidal Sith temple. The episode's first eyebrow-raising moment comes when Ezra picks up a lightsaber off the ground and ignites its blade...along with two smaller crossguard blades. It promptly malfunctions and will probably be forgotten for the rest of the series, but you wouldn't expect Rebels to feature such a substantial connection to the origins of Kylo Ren's controversial weapon. The Force Awakens' visual dictionary even states that Kylo's design is an ancient one that dates back to the Great Scourge of Malachor. 
After being separated from his friends by a Jedi-hunting Inquisitor, Ezra quickly meets a hooded, seemingly-decrepit man with valuable information about the temple. It's Darth Maul, and it would have been a nicer surprise if the mid-season trailer hadn't spoiled Maul's return, but you can understand why Rebels' marketing team would want to broadcast that one of the greatest Star Wars villains would be coming back. 
Maul proves that he's trustworthy and encourages Ezra to harness the full potential of his powers as they work together to enter the temple and grab the holocron inside. They exit and find Ahsoka and Kanan facing three Inquisitors: the Seventh Sister, the Fifth Brother, and the newly-introduced Eighth Brother. Though the two never met in The Clone Wars, Ahsoka immediately recognizes Maul as a sinister threat, undoubtedly thanks to her friendship with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Maul lets his "actions speak louder than words" by shedding his cloak, igniting a double-bladed lightsaber (which he first introduced to the Star Wars universe, of course) and leaping into battle against the Inquisitors alongside Ahsoka and Kanan. 
The Inquisitors flee. Maul explains that he's an enemy of the Sith, too, and Darth Vader must be on his way to destroy them all. He claims that the secrets of the holocron will be unlocked if they place it in an obelisk at the top of the temple. Ezra vouches for him, and Ahsoka and Kanan reluctantly agree to work with him. They split up to make their way up the temple, killing the Inquisitors in the process and exhibiting a level of violence that Rebels has mostly shied away from. Disney might be getting some angry calls from parents about the implied decapitations and impalements, but it's certainly worth it if the show is abandoning its overly kid-friendly tone.

Maul sends Ezra ahead to the top of the temple to activate the holocron. He declares Ezra his "apprentice" and betrays Ahsoka and Kanan by blinding the latter with his lightsaber. Of course, we all knew that Maul had some ulterior motives, but who could have guessed that his betrayal would give Kanan a permanent injury reminiscent of what happened to Arya Stark in the Game of Thrones Season 5 finale? (You know it's a big moment when Star Wars Rebels and Game of Thrones can be mentioned in the same sentence.) 
Maul and Ahsoka duel and he reveals that Ezra is actually activating a "battle station" that will cause untold death. Kanan dons a mask of one of the Jedi Temple guards and uses Daredevil-like senses to hurl Maul off the cliff. Meanwhile, Ezra discovers the true nature of the temple as it emits crackling lightning and a purple beam straight into the sky. Darth Vader arrives with a typical, Vader-y dramatic entrance, standing on top of his signature TIE Advanced. Ahsoka comes to Ezra's rescue, and we finally have the moment we've been waiting for: Anakin and Ahsoka, master and apprentice, reunited. 
But Ahsoka is still doubtful that her good-hearted, honorable friend is the man behind Vader's mask. He tells her, "Anakin Skywalker was weak. I destroyed him." Vader's future grandson utters something very similar to this in The Force Awakens, making this another great example of how the Rebels writers can incorporate references to the Sequel Trilogy. Ahsoka angrily suggests that she will avenge her master, and when Vader points out that revenge is against the Jedi way, Ahsoka replies with a truly awesome – if not predictable – line: "I am no Jedi." 
Ahsoka has some serious moves but it isn't long before the Sith Lord defeats her and Force-pushes her off the cliff. Ezra and Kanan together pull the the holocron out of the obelisk, causing the temple to begin collapsing. Vader prevents their escape and tries to claim the holocron for his own purposes, but Ahsoka returns and slashes part of Vader's helmet. She finally recognizes him as her old master. 
"I won't leave you, not this time," Ahsoka says, referencing the heartbreaking Clone Wars Season 5 finale, in which she left the Jedi Order and abandoned her master. Through his damaged helmet, Vader now speaks not with the familiar bass of legend James Earl Jones, but with the same voice as brave, passionate Clone Wars-era Anakin (Matt Lanter): "Then you will die." It emphasizes the tragic truth that the man who taught Ahsoka so much is now her intended murderer. Kanan and Ezra are forced to leave her as the temple explodes in a big ball of purple energy.  
The episode's final moments don't reduce the emotional impact. Kanan and Ezra return to their friends at the rebel base, and we see Captain Rex look crestfallen as he realizes that his old friend didn't make it. An unsurprisingly still-alive Maul leaves Malachor on one Inquisitor's TIEs, leaving the door wide open for yet another return. 
Vader limps out of the ruins of the temple, while an equally-wounded Ahsoka seems to be hobbling back inside, confirming that she's alive, even if she probably won't be returning to the series immediately. The core rebel team appears to mourn her presumed death, while Kanan sports a new blindfold and Ezra uses the Force to open the Sith holocron, suggesting that Maul succeeded in encouraging the darkness within him. 
"Twilight of the Apprentice" brought us multiple heavy moments, some semi-closure for the Anakin-Ahsoka relationship, and more than enough cliffhangers to get us excited for Season 3. But its biggest accomplishment is that for the first time in the series' history, Rebels has fulfilled what any Star Wars TV show should be: an expansion of the universe that features major connections to the films, but also gives us plenty of originality and new and lovable characters. Not to mention that it's been beautifully tying up loose ends left by The Clone Wars – or at least, letting those threads spin again. 

What did you think of "Twilight of the Apprentice"? What are you hoping for in Season 3? Tell me in the comments, and may the Force be with you all. 

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