(Spoilers immediately ahead!)
Rebels’ fourth mid-season finale definitely took a trick from the book of contemporary TV shows, in which the mid-season episodes tend to finish with horrible cliffhangers. Rebel Assault, an episode completely focused on Phoenix Squadron’s strike against Lothal’s TIE Defender factory, ends with Thrawn triumphant, the Rebel attack force in disarray and the main characters scattered. Hera Syndulla is captured by Rukh and governor Pryce and Kanan Jarrus, who was supposed to rescue her, departs on a mysterious mission following the Loth-wolves.
With only three episodes left (for which we have to wait until the next year, apparently!), this is about as clear a signal that we are in the endgame as there can be. From now on, the stakes can only get higher. No more filler episodes (as if this season had had any), we can expect an epic ride to the end.
And it has started already here. Rebel Assault has delivered some things that make it remarkable. The heroes make a valiant attempt – not some half-hearted sabotage mission, but a full-on attack. The first minute wastes no time to make this clear: the initial shot of the Imperial defense force, followed by the image of Phoenix squadron’s X-Wings (yay! X-Wings!) and, of course, Hera herself in the cockpit. Likewise, however, Thrawn is once and for all presented not as your kind of classic baddie, who is so full of himself that he falls to the unexpected bravery of the heroes. No, Thrawn shows that he is ready for everything and the rebel assault is brutally repelled – or actually, destroyed. A tiny, but equally telling detail about Thrawn is that he is willing to sacrifice his top pilot, Vult Skerris, when Hera leads him right ahead of the Star Destroyer – and it’s either her and Skerris, or nobody. The way Thrawn shows his regret, but coldly states that Skerris had made the decision himself and orders to fire, is a beautiful show of his cold, rational personality.
Anyway, the focus on starfighter combat was actually the part that made this episode shine. It is sad to say this, but this has been the best dogfight scene in Star Wars since A New Hope. Why can’t we have so good scenes, with so much focus on individual fighters (while making it possible for the audience to follow what is happening, and making us care) in a “proper” Star Wars movie?
Some applause should also go to the designer team and animators for making the X-wing movements look good and realistic (and the cockpits with the classic “rocking effect” known from A New Hope).
The reappearance of Rukh and his pursuit of Hera was also nicely orchestrated, especially using the element of initially failed capture only to make him return later (and by then, it was probably clear to everyone that Hera had to get captured). Similarly appropriate move was Chopper’s show of loyalty to his master, both when defending her from Rukh and later when refusing to leave her behind. I don’t know how many fans care about Mart Mattin, but he at least served as a familiar face to accompany Hera instead of some random Rebel.
The ominous ending of the episode clearly outlines what needs to happen next. Those of us who saw Rogue One know that Hera has to survive, so we wouldn’t need to worry about her even if we weren’t placated by that “this is also a show for kids, after all”. What we can worry about more is Kanan’s fate, or the fate of Hera and Kanan’s relationship. Did he leave her in order to reappear with “better, bigger comeback” – some sort of Aragorn-like trick of picking up an “Army of the Loth-wolves” (I am sorry, but the Lord of the Rings parallels are there) and defeating Thrawn once again with something that his rational mindset didn’t expect (just like with Bendu)? Or is Kanan going to use the “Force of all living things” on Lothal – but also somehow retreat into the nature, or become “fully one with the planet” himself? To put it perhaps in a ridiculous, but not unimaginable way – is he going to transform into a Loth-wolf and leave Hera?
I don’t personally believe in it, but something along these lines might happen. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Hera clearly needs to escape – will she do it herself, or will she need outside assistance? Will she manage to confront (meaning: fight) Thrawn, or Pryce, and will such an encounter become fatal for some of them? And how about Rukh? How does Thrawn’s knowledge and/or underestimation of people’s cultures/individual personalities fall into this? And how about Ezra and HIS connection to Lothal, which has been somehow sidelined compared to Kanan? Are the Rebels still going to destroy the TIE Defender facility, or is it – perhaps unexpectedly – going to get closed by the Empire itself, which will decide to allocate its resources rather into the Death Star project?
It seems we need to wait until we have at least a teaser to base our speculations on. Until then… hang in there, Rebels.