On Saturday, Rebels returned for its third season with the hour long “Steps into Shadow.” To say the premiere, debuting on Rebels’ new night, was highly anticipated is an understatement, as expectations and excitement were both boosted insanely high by the reveal at Star Wars Celebration Europe that the old Expanded Universe villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn would return, essentially resurrected from dead canon, as the nemesis of our rebel heroes. In “Steps into Shadow,” the blueberry colored Imperial spent approximately two and a half minutes in front of the virtual camera, long enough to introduce him by name and lay down the briefest of expectations of his military genius. Instead, the premiere essentially belonged to our two force wielding Jedi, Kanan Jarrus and Ezra Bridger. This is not a bad thing.
“Steps into Shadow,” directly connects back to the dramatic conclusion of Season Two for both characters, continuing the glimpse we were provided in the stirring closing montage of a blind Kanan and an Ezra preparing to dabble with the forbidden mysteries of the Sith Holocron. It does so by leaping ahead an unknown number of months, long enough for Kanan to grow a decent-sized beard and for Bridger to learn a number of Sith methods for problem solving. For either character, the result is troubling, as displayed in the first act of the episode, the rebels breakout of Hondo Ohnaka from an Imperial prison facility.
From the first, Kanan is missing. Given his visual impairment, it’s understandable, and at first the mission seems like any number of such tasks our rebels took on and succeeded at with little difficulty. They find Hondo, plus a bonus Ugnaught (quick reference: those pig faced guys who were having a ball teasing Chewbacca in the bowels of Cloud City with C-3PO’s parts), and make short time of their escape until they find their desired landing platform occupied by a number of stormtroopers and an Imperial walker (an AT-DP). Pinned down on both sides, Ezra steps up with the Force as his ally, and promptly uses the Sith version of a Jedi mind trick to render the AT-DP’s driver an unwilling puppet. Bridger turns the walker’s guns on the Stormtroopers and then without hesitation, forces the driver to guide his walker right off the platform to certain death below. We don’t need to see the hint of a sinister callousness on his face to know what Ezra is doing is wrong, it feels wrong. The Jedi mind trick has always been something of a moral gray area in the first place, a utilitarian tool that steals an individual’s freedom of will for the greater good, but Ezra’s display is a step above the actions that usually accompany a waving hand and twinkling eyes.
The script for “Steps into Shadow” is a few times rather blunt in its messaging to its viewers and the moment following Ezra’s display is punctuated by Sabine asking Ezra when Kanan had taught him how pull off the technique he’d just performed. Ezra, almost angrily responds, “He didn’t.” It sums up everything we need to know about Ezra and Kanan’s relationship, that Ezra must have learned it from the Sith Holocron, but also, Kanan isn’t as involved in Ezra’s training as he should be. Toss in his absence on the battlefield in any capacity (not even on the radio or in the Ghost with Hera), and we know that there are problems in need of fixing.
The successful rescue of Hondo results in news that decommissioned Republic fighters are there for the taking at an Imperial run demolition plant. It also results in Commander Sato promoting Ezra to lieutenant commander, a rank referred to entirely as lieutenant by everyone, which is the only way it makes sense so as Ezra wouldn’t outrank Hera who was promoted to captain previously. Additionally, Ezra is given the command of a reconnaissance mission to see if there’s anything worth grabbing from the plant. It’s all good news for Ezra, but it follows the episode’s second highlight of Ezra’s new dangerous pastime involving Sith artifacts. We’re greeted to an angry Ezra, storming about his room, complaining about not being powerful to get the respect he deserves, and his anger seeming to awaken the Sith Holocron hidden in his old Imperial cadet helmet. The Jedi apprentice is drawn to it, engaging with it as if it were a living being, and it responds, voiced by Nika Futterman, with a voice eerily similar to Asajj Ventress.’ Its voice almost seductive in nature, the holocron encourages Ezra’s anger as a path to power before the scene concludes.
Elsewhere, we find Kanan quietly meditating outside on Chopper Base. After a visit from Hera, encouraging him to go speak with Ezra, the pony-tailed Jedi Knight does just as much, only to discover the Sith holocron in Ezra’s quarters. It leads to an angry confrontation with Kanan confiscating the holocron and neither party happy with the other. The story then splits in two at this part, one side Ezra’s story and the other Kanan’s. For Kanan it leads to one of the other anticipated moments of the season, the introduction of the Tom Baker voiced Bendu.
Somewhat fresh from his argument with Ezra, Kanan once again meditates only to now hear a voice calling to him in his head. The voice promises help and so Kanan decides to follow it to the source amongst the strange rocky outcroppings of the planet, all the while watched from a distance by the spider-like creatures from “The Mystery of Chopper Base.” When Kanan senses he has found the voice and demands it to reveal itself, it does with gusto in a giant form of a rocky monster with large soulful eyes, prominent snout, and something of a shaggy beard. With eyes both dark and light, the Bendu introduces itself as that which exists between the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force. Where he came from, how long he’s existed, or why he was slumbering (he claims Kanan’s turbulent mental state awoke him) is never explained. The Bendu simply is.
What the Bendu does represent is another step begun in The Clone Wars of drawing upon the mystical elements of the Force. First in the Mortis storyline, where Anakin and friends find themselves somehow on a planet where the Force, including the Light Side and the Dark Side, have living avatars, and then later in Yoda’s final episodes of Season Six, where he counters something akin to ghostly Force Priestesses, the mysticism of the Force as something not entirely understandable and mythic has slowly flourished within the Star Wars universe. It accompanies a general re-understanding of The Force, or to be better stated, a re-clarification of it, as voiced by members of the Lucasfilm Story Group through interviews and online statements. These statements, almost always grounded in an understanding of George Lucas’ original design for the living energy field, imply such things as everyone being connected to the Force with varying degrees of ability and that the simple absolute division of Force users, Dark Side user versus Light Side user, Sith versus Jedi respectively, isn’t applicable anymore as long was the custom. Like Yoda’s last arc, the Bendu exists as a primordial being of the Force to guide a Jedi with knowledge and insight either never learned by the Jedi or long since lost.
And learn Kanan does after the Bendu offers to help the blind Jedi to regain sight, albeit not the physical kind. After destroying the beacon used by Kanan to ward off the spiders, the Bendu leads Kanan through a lesson of looking inside himself to sense the spiders around him. The lesson ends with Jarrus coming to the realization that since the events of “Twilight of the Apprentice” he has allowed himself to be filled with feelings of fear and anger. The result was him ignoring the world around him, essentially wallowing in his own misery without truly recognizing that he did so. As G.I. Joes would say, “Knowing is half the battle,” Kanan, armed with his knowledge, is able to not just perceive what he must do, return to Ezra’s side as master and mentor, but also discovers he can coexist with the spider creatures because he knows them, and thus, no longer has a reason to fear them. In return for the Bendu’s gift of giving him sight through the Force, Kanan leaves him the Sith Holocron to the bemused delight of the ancient creature.
Elsewhere, Ezra’s mission to recon the plant and its fighters quickly devolved into an attempt to save a squadron’s worth of Y-wings about to be permanently loss. Troubled at first, what with industrial droids trying their best to tear apart the Phantom and the rebels, and then Imperial resistance headed off by a commander Titus, last seen in charge of the Interdictor from last season’s “Stealth Strike,” the rebels eventually succeed in making off with just over a half-dozen of the vintage fighters. Thrown in through much of the mix are plentiful doses of Rex channeling his old Clone Wars self, complete with harsh condemnations of “clankers.” If any one character stands out in the heist as the action hero, it’s Rex, hands down. Yet, even with the successful theft of the Y-wings, through the course of bad luck and bad decisions, Ezra finds himself trapped on a burning demolition plant plummeting down to its doom through its planet’s dangerous center. It’s a moment of Ezra recognizing his own hubris and the moment when Kanan arrives to reassert his friendship and role as teacher.
After Hera correctly guessed things had gone sideways, the rebels appeared above the planet shortly after a star destroyer responding to a distress call from Titus (before the unfortunate loss of his latest command). On the ship is Governor Ahrinda Pryce in contact with Grand Admiral Thrawn, who had been brought in by Grand Moff Tarkin earlier in the episode to assist Pryce in further eliminating the rebels in Pryce’s sector. Tarkin, who had earlier drawn the connecting points of earlier events in the episode to predict the rebel raid on the planet surprisingly informs Pryce to withdraw. The reason? Thrawn wants to wipe out the entire rebel fleet, not just some of its ships. It concludes Thrawn’s involvement in the episode, somewhat understated but still effective as an introduction for undoubtedly bigger episode very soon on the horizon. The Ghost, part of the rescue effort, dives down to the planet to rescue Ezra.
The rescue scene is charged with symbolism. Ezra is clinging to the only safe place he can find, surrounded by sparks, flames and falling debris, and in darkness. Meanwhile, Kanan opens the hatch on the side of the Ghost, a window of light that he emerges from to offer his hand out to his student. When he tells Ezra to trust him and jump, his student initially refuses, but finally does and Kanan hauls Bridger aboard for a safe getaway. As animated, Kanan literally pulls Ezra out of darkness and shadows into the light. In an episode closing exchange which comes across as something ominous, after Ezra thanks Kanan for returning for him, Kanan responds, “I will always comeback.” Consider this our warning of an Ezra in desperate need of help at the end of this season and Kanan doing whatever it takes to save him.
“Steps into Shadow,” is a solid return to the high level of entertainment and quality we’ve come to love about Star Wars’ Rebels. While it exclusively focused on Ezra and Kanan, it didn’t ignore the rest of our favorites who returned much as we had last seen them at the conclusion of Season Two, albeit in slightly different outfits. We can definitely expect episodes focused on them down the road, so there’s no need to complain about the relative lack of exploration of their potential growth during the off season. Thrawn’s introduction was subtle, designed enough to raise the interest of those who have no idea who the blue-skinned, red-eyed admiral is, and to satisfy the promise of his return to the fans who have loved him since reading Timothy Zahn’s trilogy which introduced the Imperial military mastermind. Finally, “Steps into Shadow,” succeeded in clearly introducing the new setting for Season 3, the characters involved, the rising stakes, and leading toward the establishment of the Star Wars universe we find when a princess from Alderaan being pursued by a dark lord of the Sith. Rebels is back.