***THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS REBELS SEASON 3***
If you are a fan of A Galaxy Far, Far Away, and you aren’t paying Star Wars Rebels the attention it fully deserves, then it’s high time you revised your strategies. Disney XD’s fantastically entertaining animated saga is much more than Saturday night throwaway fun, rather a beautiful asset to the ever-expanding Star Wars universe, which simultaneously develops, and enriches the identity of the globally beloved franchise. To miss an episode of Rebels is like bypassing a chapter within a novel: they each contain context, information, dramatic relevance. Placed alongside Disney and Lucasfilm’s new vault of big-screen entertainment, such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the show is more than a kind compliment; it is in fact an essential companion.
Across 22 action-packed episodes, this third season of the show – which is narratively sandwiched between the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and Episode IV: A New Hope (via Rogue One, of course) – maintained two primary focuses throughout: providing significant depth for the gaggle of Rebels aboard The Ghost, and giving life to a canon character who had only ever lived within the pages of Timothy Zahn’s celebrated novels; Grand Admiral Thrawn. The events of Season 2 lead kindly into the third for Phoenix Squadron, in which Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus, now without his sight, must learn to really see as a consequence. Meanwhile young Ezra Bridger is caught firmly between the grasp of the Light, and the Dark. He is loyal to Kanan, and to his Rebellion, but the influence of Darth Maul, and that unquenchable thirst for power also beckons. Mandalorian weapons specialist Sabine Wren is starting to uncover secrets about her past, and indeed her place within the galaxy, whilst leader of the Rebel fleet, Captain Hera Syndulla, is attempting to recruit allied forces across the stars to join the revolt against the Empire as they continue to build a masterplan. And then there is Zeb Orrelios, the muscle who still doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and has been repaid by a very surprising ally.
The story however is most different for Thrawn. Debuting in the spectacular two-part pilot “Steps into Shadow”, he is a man of naval militance, and has a rare patience which is striking to both the show’s formatting of a principal antagonist, and equally, his fellow Imperials. His goal is simple: eliminate the Rebellion in such a way that will discourage any others from attempting such disobedience. His approach however, is extremely different. Thrawn understands that in order “to defeat an enemy, you must know them,” as he utters coldly early on. He takes a distinct interest in the Rebels’ behaviour patterns, movements, and personalities. What makes them tick; what makes them who they are. Throughout Season 3 – which is beautifully executed across a number of episodes – he enables his foe a collection of small victories. He could easily call in an attack fleet and formation, but instead he allows them to leave the scene with the small cargo they seek, or the limited resources they aim to transport. What Thrawn favours more than battle is information, and every addition piece earned for his strategic long-game is its very own victory. Watching this intergalactic chess match unfold is entirely satisfying, and consequently helps layer our villain, too.
If Season 3 has received one core criticism from viewers and journalists alike, it is the seemingly sparing usage of Thrawn. He only appeared in eight episodes physically – despite numerous mentions in many others – but this is a masterstroke from showrunner Dave Filoni. It ensures that each time the striking antagonist, blue-skinned, and red-eyed, arrives on-screen, audiences are part of an event. It also plays perfectly into his characterisation; Thrawn is no gun-ho baddie, and understands that less is more, therefore his restraint only deepens motive. Plus, he’ll be a core asset of Season 4, which is fantastic news.
There were so many spectacular moments across so many spectacular episodes, each around 22 minutes in length. Major character highlights included the introduction of the Bendu, an ancient Force wielder who is stationed firmly between the Light and the Dark side. “I’m the one in the middle,” he bellows. Elsewhere, the extraction and recruitment of Wedge Antillies was thrilling fan service, as was Captain Rex of The Clone Wars getting to do battle with Separatist Battle Droids once again. But the best moments all involved our recurring heroes. Sabine underpinned her destiny and heritage on Mandalore, where she comes to channel the power of the Darksaber; recovered from Dathomir, and formally the weapon which brought terror to the Galaxy thanks to the vindictive rule of Pre Vizsla. Watching Sabine fulfil her potential, and unite the people of her homeland – a place she was formally estranged from – was mighty satisfying. If any character has benefitted emotionally and tonally from the events of this season, it is Sabine no question.
Hera, Kanan, Zeb, and trusty bots Chopper, and AP-5 also benefitted from plentiful great moments throughout, as did Ezra, who has rendered into a devoted and integral part of the Rebellion. Gone is the shaggy-haired scamp living dangerous upon Lothal; instead he is a new man: a new Jedi. Focused, skilled, loyal. The recklessness is still there, as is the teenage angst, but Ezra’s outbursts are charged with aggression and assertiveness towards his foe, as opposed to his allies. Perhaps the most surprising twist of fate in Season 3 however was that of “Fulcrum”; the anonymous transmission feed at the Rebel base which provides the gang with vital information. For a long while, rumour suggested that Ahsoka Tano was the mysterious source, but this turned out to be false. It was in fact Agent Kallus of the Empire, who internally defects from his Imperial position, acting as a mole for the Rebellion.
The best episodes in Season 3 were as follows: the aforementioned “Steps Into Shadow” (Eps1/2); “The Last Battle” (Ep6); “An Inside Man” (Ep10); “Visions and Voices” (Ep11); “Trials of the Darksaber” (Ep15); “Through Imperial Eyes” (Ep17); “Twin Suns” (Ep20); and “Zero Hour: Part One & Two” (Eps21/22), but overall there wasn’t really a sheer dud. Like with every TV series, some episodes feel more like singular adventures as opposed to progressions of the core narrative strand, but even many of these were still enjoyable, in particular “Double Agent Droid” (Ep19), in which Chopper becomes remotely controlled by Imperial engineers, so they can attempt to penetrate the Ghost’s computer systems from the inside.
For many Rebels fans – this author included – it’ll be the final three episodes which are the biggest achievements overall. “Twin Suns” was quite frankly sublime. Getting to see Obi-Wan Kenobi face off against Darth Maul amidst the thick heat and dust of Tatooine was ludicrously satisfying, but equally emotional. The relationship between these two figures – ones who have experienced so many past encounters, and have made such potent impacts upon one another’s existence – was delicately captured in their final exchanges. We don’t get an epically extended lightsaber battle because we don’t need one. Instead we get a respectful, truthful portrait of both the Jedi and the Sith. Plus, you know, Tusken Raiders show up, which was just too cool…
After the stunning Season 2 finale “Twilight of the Apprentice”, in which Darth Vader and Ahsoka faced-off in thrilling style, Filoni and the crew had to pull out all the stops in order to make “Zero Hour” a worthy climax for this third season, and boy did they deliver. One of the most impressive elements of Disney XD’s show is the sheer cinematic scale it provides. As far as animated television goes, Rebels is right up there with the very best indeed. It benefits from ravishing camerawork, textured cinematography, rousing audio design, and a hair-raising score. In many ways, the final bout here – in which Thrawn steps away from the control centre, sports a helmet, grabs a blaster, and gets into the thick of battle – feels like a perfect partner to the all-out mayhem of Rogue One’s third act.
The many ships exiting hyperspace together, the blockades the Star Destroyers cause, the many side missions which unfold as the big fight rages on; it all felt so roaringly exciting, and so massively ambitious for a small screen product. Ezra and Sabine, alongside many Mandalorians, dive into space with jetpacks as they attempt to destroy the Imperial Interdictor. Meanwhile the Bendu brings the terror from the skies, thundering down in bolts of Force lightning, as Thrawn and his Death Troopers (yes, they are here, and yes, they are awesome) fire off against the Rebel squadrons upon the surface.
On the subject of Rogue One, we also got to see Saw Gerrera in the mid-season premiere, “Ghosts of Geonosis”, in which Filoni has stated that Rebels will continue to use the character and show his developments to where we meet him in Gareth Edwards’ film – a devoted member of the Rebellion, albeit one which Mon Mothma, and Bail Organa consider as an “extremist”. It has been teased that Gerrera will not be the only character from the film that’ll make an appearance in the fourth season, so keep you eyes peeled for some of Jyn Erso’s clan, and indeed some older faces like Kenobi as we near ever-closer to alignment with A New Hope.
Star Wars Rebels Season 3 was a thunderous success, offering an exceptional selection of episodes and character developments throughout. With so many amazing moments, and so many delightful surprises each week, the show continues to be one of the finest pieces to the overall jigsaw in the Star Wars universe, and we cannot wait to see what Season 4 has in store for us all. With a special Rebels panel scheduled for Star Wars Celebration in Orlando, Florida next month, we’re hoping to land a little taster of what’s in store for the Ghost!