“Zero Hour” marked the conclusion of Star Wars Rebels’ third season, a season which had the burden to follow a pretty incredible season that brought back Clone Wars alums like Captain Rex and Ahsoka Tano, but also drew in Darth Vader with exquisite finesse for the season finale, “Twilight of the Apprentice.” If we had to rank the three seasons, it would likely fall Second, Third, and First, and that’s unfortunate given the excitement that the second season created over its run and with its conclusion. Let’s get the bad and ugly news out of the way first as we figure out what just didn’t work that well in Season Three.
The failures in Season Three are a mixture of episodes which just failed to do much for our heroes or the overall story (usually both) and loss opportunities. Of the latter, Ezra Bridger’s character arc stands out as the most disappointing given the build up and then almost sudden abandonment of any developmental arc. In Second Season’s “Twilight of the Apprentice,” Ezra is initially goaded into testing out the waters of the Dark Side by Maul whom he encounters on the ruined planet of Malachor. Even though Ezra eventually catches on to Maul’s machinations, he’s still intrigued by the mysteries of the Sith Holocron, a Dark Side forbidden fruit of the Force. The danger the Dark Side has poised for Ezra has been present since Season One’s “Gathering Forces,” and given a fairly strong likelihood that our Mr. Bridger will not end up a Jedi by the time of Return of the Jedi, that danger has always existed as a reason to care about Ezra’s fate. In effect, Ezra was at that point running around with a swinging pendulum blade hanging over his head.
That blade seemed to drawn closer to the Jedi in training with the premiere episode of Season Three, “Steps into Shadow,” when we see Ezra break out some Sith Force techniques to force an Imperial walker pilot to fire on his fellow Imperials and then guide his walker over the side of a platform to his doom. It was dark and it made us all fear that Ezra was truly in danger of becoming seduced by the Dark Side. One reason we were given for Ezra’s deep dive was Kanan’s withdrawal for a number of months due to his blinding by Maul in “Twilight of the Apprentice.” Tension existed between master and apprentice, with Ezra upset that his teacher had essentially abandoned him. This could have been at least a half season arc or more for both characters, but in a surprise move, the writers of Rebels flipped the time machine switch in “The Holocrons of Fate,” and not only healed the rift between Kanan and Ezra, but decisively shoved Ezra back and away from the Dark Side of the Force.
Such an abrupt change of direction over a major change of direction seemed to communicate one of two things: 1) it was decided Ezra’s seduction to the Dark Side was deemed a terrible mistake or 2) it was decided that seduction was premature. Without speaking to the writers, we will never know which of those two possibilities is the more likely (though if Ezra is pulled back toward the Dark Side in Season Four or Five, we’ll get our answer then), and it’s highly doubtful the writers would ever fess up to changing their minds so dramatically. As a result, Ezra’s character development for Season Three was essentially stunted, but for him learning to not trust the old pirate Hondo so much. A secondary victim of this decision was that it made Maul’s continual entreaty to Ezra as his apprentice fall flat – repeatedly. By “Twin Suns,” one of the stand out episodes of the season, it comes across as a bad joke, which is just darn unfortunate for everyone. At the heart of the healing between Kanan and Ezra is the Bendu.
Voiced by one of the great Doctor Who actors, Tom Baker, the Bendu ended up being something of a disappointment. A mystical Force being, the, yes, get ready for it, “one in the middle,” the Bendu definitely brought something new to the expanded universe and Baker did a brilliant job voicing the character, mixing gravitas, eternity and a dash of old recluse, into the giant creature’s dialogue. The problem arises on whether the Bendu was used too much or not enough, because it’s always a bit unsettling to have someone who’s kind of like Yoda in one’s backyard. In “Trials of the Darksaber,” the Bendu is quite literally in the background, but isn’t used other than to reference his presence (there’s an argument that the environs of the Bendu represent change and choosing one’s destiny, but that’s for another time). However, the answer to the question, “What does one do when the Empire attacks?” is to ask the Bendu for help. In effect, the Bendu was kept around entirely to serve as something of a partial deux ex machina, a giant eagle if you may, to help the rebels escape from Thrawn.
The Bendu is wonderful earlier episodes of the season, but by “Zero Hour,” his angry reaction to the Imperial presence, “You’ve brought war!!Arrrrgh!” seems kind of misplaced, as if a hive of bees built honeycombs over his head and he couldn’t make the connection that honey would eventually start spilling onto his noggin. We have to believe the Bendu is smart enough to recognize the rebels for what they were, and even if he really didn’t care about who they were or what they fought for, one must assume he should have predicted that a military outpost would beget military action in some form or another. Instead of understanding this fairly quickly, the Bendu waits until there’s a proverbial Imperial sting to act surprised and outraged. It might have been nice if Kanan and the rebels had been forced to deal with the Bendu’s desire for solitude and peace earlier in the season, to setup this angry reaction. This Bendu problem highlights an overall problem for Season Three, the writing.
The writing for Season Three seemed to lack the same cohesion and focus that it possessed in Season Two. Perhaps it had to do with Dave Filoni being promoted to a higher position in Lucasfilm or perhaps when it came to figuring out Season Three, things just didn’t quite come together. For example, a number of episodes, like “Iron Squadron” or “Double Agent Droid,” failed to do at least one of two things, either advance the season long story arcs or develop the characters of our heroes in some manner. A successful episode only has to do one of those two things to make it entertaining, a fantastic episode does both. In a few of the season’s episodes things happen of no consequence, no one character really changes as a result of those things happening, and there’s really not much in the way overall impact on the larger storylines. But for appearances in the characters, one could almost pick up these episodes and drop them in any of the other two seasons and they would be just as home. These types of episodes are actually fine in terms of entertainment and the majority of television shows follow this formula, but the problem is that Rebels isn’t just any television show. Across Season One and Season Two, Rebels raised the bar for itself and when it fails to meet its own self ascribed standards, it’s disappointing.
The lack of writing focus seemed to fall upon the characters with three exceptions. The attention to characters was fairly well spread in Season Two, but an imbalance occurred in Season Three. The three characters who truly benefited from this season were Hera Syndulla, Agent Kallus, and Sabine Wren (by exclusion, the other characters pretty much existed in a stasis of where they were by Season Two’s conclusion). Between those three, Kallus and Sabine commanded some of the best episodes, with “Through Imperial Eyes,” and “Trials of the Darksaber” representing some of the better character focused episodes. Kallus’s transformation from loyal Imperial to rebel agent began at the end of “The Honorable Ones,” but really evolved over the course of Season Three as he took greater and greater stakes to support the rebellion. Sabine also transformed, from a woman who was fighting the Empire in part as a form of penance for bringing suffering upon her people, to a leader ready to return to those people and guide them toward freedom. She was the prodigal daughter of Rebels. But this was really it for the heroes of the show and the Imperials suffered even more with the dynamic Thrawn being introduced but changing not one iota throughout the season. His failure at the end of “Zero Hour” arises entirely from others messing up his plan, not through any fault of his own. The episode even concludes in media res for the character, presumably because he will return in Season Four. If there is no such return, it would represent a very odd conclusion for one of the Emperor’s most able admirals.
The uneven writing undermined the deaths of two characters, each on either side of the war between the rebellion and the Empire. Commander Sato heroically sacrificed himself and his command ship to take out an Imperial interdictor cruiser during “Zero Hour.” Sato was introduced in Season Two of Rebels, but despite “Iron Squadron” and “Stealth Strike” (Season Two), not enough of his character was ever really explored and beyond a superficial familiarity and appreciation for his command, his passing failed to incur much of an emotional response. There was simply not enough of a reason to feel that loss. On the Imperial side, we had Admiral Konstantine, who lived and died an Imperial stereotype. Arrogant, full of prideful ambition, Konstantine had a chance to change in some way underneath Thrawn’s command, but this was never really explored. The Imperial admiral went out with a shrug for all concerns. Their deaths, nearly simultaneous, were identical in that both men represented viewer stereotypes of the two sides, which is fine, but cannot rest on shallow shells if they are to mean anything more than plot points to be acknowledged and moved upon – which is exactly what happened in “Zero Hour.”
A final issue with the writing of Season Three is on the production side, the notable lack of diversity in the writer credits. Nicole Dubuc is the only woman writer given full credit (Carrie Beck has producer credits) and that’s unfortunate, as the show has been making notable strides to be more inclusive, be it gender or sex of the characters one see’s on the screen. We want that inclusion to expand to the writer’s room, if simply because people of different backgrounds bring different qualities and traits to their jobs and the more of that there is to draw upon, the more interesting and nuanced the writing will become. Miss Dubuc, for her part, wrote “Through Imperial Eyes,” “An Inside Man,” and “Hera’s Heroes,” two of which focus on Kallus’ evolution as a rebel agent and the first great introduction of Grand Admiral Thrawn, plus an exploration into Hera’s character. We can only hope she’s called upon to write even more for Season Four. The same issue can be extended to the director’s chair, where no woman has yet had the opportunity to helm an episode of Rebels.
It’s always easy to criticize failings, but never worry, in our next Riffing on Star Wars, we’ll discuss everything that was great about Rebels’ third season. Tune in later this week!