(Warning – contains spoilers for Season 1 and 2, including the finale!)
With the second season of Star Wars Rebels safely concluded and after a bit of time sort out one’s impressions, it is probably safe to make a bit of evaluation. What was it like, how did it compare to the first season, and what promises may Rebels hold for the future?
There were several main features which separated this season from the first one. Aside from generally a bit more serious tone, I would say they were the following:
Individual backstories. Every crew member (including the droid!) got at least one episode which focused on their past and/or their relationship with one significant person outside the crew. I loved those. Among the most well-executed were certainly Hera’s father (what was it with Kanan trying to make a good first impression on his wannabe father-in-law?) and Sabine’s encounter with Ketsu Onyo and the Protectors of the Concord Dawn. I did not really buy the “Force ex machina” journey to the promised land of the Lasat, but Zeb’s character development in that arc and especially his subsequent robinsonade with Agent Kallus made up for it. Indeed, the bonding of “the honorable ones” together with the revelation that Agent Kallus has a much more humane side to him was among the highlights of the season.
More nods to Clone Wars and the Expanded Universe at large. Starting with the appearance of Ahsoka Tano by the end of season 1, continuing through Captain Rex and casual appearances or remarks about the Mandalorian Deathwatch or even the planet Malachor (!), it became obvious that the makers are taking care to appease the fans more invested in lore and the wide Galaxy. In this respect, Star Wars Rebels has now became a flagship of consolation to the crowds of fans disappointed by Disney’s dismissal of the old Expanded Universe. It is only a consolatory move, but surely appreciated nonetheless.
A side note – with the timeline from Episode III onwards being altered because of the new films, many fans of the Old Republic period began to wonder whether the dismissal of the old canon necessarily affects also the beloved stories from times before the films. With the Old Republic video game’s storyline still in full swing and now with the KOTOR-design ships and Malachor appearing in Rebels, it becomes a strong indication that at least something of the old canon is being taken into account.
Less linearity. This is perhaps the one major negative. While the first season was pretty much “go and get a supply of crates from planet X, next time get some more from planet Y”, it still felt like having a more centered plot, mostly given also by the need to train Ezra while avoiding the Inquisitor. There was a main antagonist and it all culminated with the final encounter where he was dispatched. The second season couldn’t really do the same with Darth Vader, the two new Inquisitors popped up fairly irregularly, at the same time there was the “let us find a permanent base for the Rebellion” quest in the background, but all these felt like background projection for the actual one-time plots of individual episodes. It didn’t feel like “now we need to get a ship for the Rebellion, and we happen to use Hera’s father’s help”, but rather “now is the time for Hera to sort out things with her family – and by the way, there’s some way in which this concerns the Rebellion, too”.
Like I said, I was happy with the focus on the individual characters’ stories, and it was the less linear approach that enabled the “person-centered” episodes in the first place, so it was a price I was willing to pay. Nonetheless, at times it felt a bit too random and scattered.
And how did the finale feel? If season 1’s finale was decent, then Twilight of the Apprentice was really good. Well-paced, certainly epic enough, with enough interesting twists (maybe even too much obviously planned stuff to make it seem super-interesting). And lots of unanswered questions (primarily, what in the name of all was Yoda actually thinking, sending the Jedi there in the first place?). Also, I am not very much of a fan of bringing back characters who have been already killed several times over just to milk them for more, but I have to admit “the Old Master” felt believable and had amazing presence. And the final encounter between Darth Vader and Ahsoka – something we have been expecting all the time – did not disappoint, either. Very emotional and very powerful.
Were there any major disappointments in Season 2? Aside from the issues of linear plot, and a couple of fairly dull episodes, I would say the biggest disappointment were the new Inquisitors. The Fifth Brother and the Seventh Sister looked like very promising characters when they first appeared, but their role in this season has been limited to almost zero. Really, two random stormtroopers could have easily taken their place. There seemed to be seeds of some interesting dynamic between them (or between them and Ezra), but they didn’t really get enough screen time to make them flower. And then, this was cut short, although once again in a very powerful moment.
What would I expect from the third season, then? Firstly, now that we have used the second season to establish the individual characters, we could focus more on the overarching story. I guess that was a bit of problem for Rebels to begin with: obviously, you cannot have “how Ezra became the Jedi Master of the new generation” as a plot, because we all know there are no Jedi in the future. You also cannot have “how the Rebels won”, because they don’t. Therefore you are left with vague “how the Rebellion came to be”, which is nice enough, but open-ended. That is, I believe, one of the reasons why the show is now spending so much time on the individual characters. They have to make us care, so that “how Ezra’s, Kanan’s, Hera’s… story ended” becomes at least somewhat satisfying substitute for a central plot. (At one point, I wondered whether “how we found the Yavin 4 base” would be the main plot – and it indeed might still be. Especially given Ezra’s recent exploits, and the Expanded Universe’s connection of Yavin 4 to ancient Sith tombs, I can envision a subplot exploiting this.) Of course, probably the most epic conclusion to the whole show that I can imagine (and don’t call me heartless, it would be only a logical conclusion) would be “how Darth Vader killed us all”, but somehow I don’t see that happening in animated Disney show.
Other predictions for Season 3? Well, with the Rogue One film coming (and after we have seen random nods to Episode VII in Rebels season 2, for example in the form of Kylo Ren-style lightsabers found among the designs of old weapons on Malachor, or in Darth Vader echoing Kylo Ren in saying that “Anakin Skywalker was weak… so I destroyed him”), I would expect some hints and nods at that one. In particular, if I were to make bets, I think Mon Mothma could make an appearance (after all, we already had Leia).
And then we have lots of individual stories to continue. Most of all, Kanan and Ezra could now become the main focus again. Kanan ending up disabled after the finale was an amazing story move (while obviously awful and heartbreaking for everyone), the more with the need to continue Ezra’s training and with Kanan’s recent reestablishment as a full Jedi Knight. I can only imagine the load of problems this will bring (let’s not forget the Jedi code forbidding romantic attachments – and we know there is nothing platonic about Kanan and Hera!). As if that wasn’t enough, there is the pull of the Dark Side and Ezra’s newly acquired holocron which he gained when (according to Darth Maul) only a Sith should be able to receive it.
Rebels season 2 felt generally positive, certainly very much in comparison with the first. On technical side and the side of execution of the story, I should still point out the obvious effort with which the creators paid attention to detail. One example for all is voice acting, like when Hera gets mad at her father and her accent suddenly switches mid-dialogue to the rylothian accent, making it clear that actually, her manners acquired living among humans for large part of her life and learning to speak “proper” Galactic Basic can slip away when talking to family members in private, especially under so emotional circumstances. One such small hint between the lines suddenly reveals much more about a character than an episode full of boring monologues what one did when they were twelve (and thanks to the makers for avoiding such things).
My hope is that the creative team won’t halt in their good effort, and that we may hopefully see Season 3 being even better than this one. There hasn’t been an official date set yet, but we can assume that we should see the next season première sometime in the autumn.