TV: Star Wars Rebels

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Star Wars franchise stopped speaking to me. Oh, from time to time there have been glimmers of revived interest: Solo had its moments, and The Last Jedi briefly transported the franchise to a newly relevant place. But in the wake of its most recent failures—the overrated Mandalorian and the disappointing Rise of Skywalker—I was ready to close the book on this universe forever.

Well, now I can say I’m really ready to step away from Star Wars, but for a different and unexpected reason: I’ve seen it at its best. An impressively animated series that takes place between the prequel trilogy and A New Hope, Star Wars Rebels (2014–2018) is a winning series that successfully taps into the series’ powerful lore while also forging something very much its own, an authentic, evolving serial experience. Outwardly it looks like straight-up kids’ fare, but it possesses far more depth and maturity than any of the movies: more sophisticated plots, richer characters, deeper emotional resonance, and all with a genuinely conveyed sense of wonder. Everything the recent glut of Star Wars releases has lacked? It’s in Rebels.

It starts on the planet Lothal, where the Galactic Empire is flexing its authoritarian muscle. Ezra Bridger (voiced by Taylor Gray) is a resourceful orphan in Lothal’s capital, eking out a meager existence on the city streets. By chance, his trickster, con-artist personality entangles him with a rebel cell led by ace pilot Hera Syndulla (Vanessa Marshall) and one of the last Jedi knights, Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze, Jr.). Like all Star Wars heroes, Ezra is reluctant to involve himself with the cell, which works out of Hera’s trusty ship, The Ghost. But as he gets to know Hera and Kanan’s team, he quickly takes a shine to them and becomes a new member of the group, which also includes resourceful Mandalorian Sabine Wren (Tiya Sircar), a hard-nosed Lasat named Zeb Orellios (Steven Blum), and a cranky astromech droid called Chopper (Dave Filoni). Ezra brings a mix of charm and sneakiness to the group, but also proves capable of wielding the Force, which inspires Kanan to train him in the ways of the Jedi.

The show starts relatively small, focusing on the team’s covert operations against Imperial forces on Lothal. But over the course of its run, the stakes gradually increase as the battle against the Empire takes ever more dangerous turns. In season two, the team makes its way into space, joins a nascent rebel fleet, and eventually becomes an integral, formative part of the Rebellion. And as that Rebellion struggles to gain traction, enlisting allies and winning hard-fought battles against the Empire, the crew of The Ghost remains in the thick of things, growing ever closer to one another as they help set the stage for the events of the original film.

In light of recent disappointments, it took some convincing to get me interested in Star Wars Rebels, but I’m glad I finally broke down to try it. The first season is a modest, appealing success, but the series really ramps up in its second year, as the show expands its canvas and the plots start to feel more epic. Despite the consistent arc of Ezra’s coming of age, the heart of the show is the created-family vibe on The Ghost as Ezra, Kanan, Hera, Sabine, Zeb, and Chopper’s friendship under fire leads to deeper bonds. Along the way, they encounter familiar faces from the franchise—Princess Leia, Lando, and Darth Vader, for example—but after a while that starts to feel like so much stunt casting. Rebels introduces its own legendary figures, including incredible villains like The Grand Inquisitor (Jason Isaacs) and Grand Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelson), as well as scads of memorable supporting roles for fellow rebels, scoundrels, friends, and family.

Oh, it’s still a Star Wars series, mind you. There’s plenty of logistical silliness and wonky science. But in terms of structure, it’s surprisingly accomplished, from its handling of general plot nitty-gritty—military strategy and tactics, covert tradecraft, the logistics of managing the fleet—to its broader narrative and emotional arcs. Indeed, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the show is the mindful way it develops and evolves its world. This is reflected physically: over time, Ezra gets taller, Sabine mods her armor and colors her hair, Kanan grows a beard, and so forth. But it also has command of its emotional beats. There’s a genuine sense of time passing, of events having an impact, of connections forming and strengthening and deepening as the series progresses. This leads to genuinely affecting moments in seasons three and four, occasionally accompanied by spine-tingling sense of wonder. If the recent movies skate by on flashy, dazzling effects and cagey homage, Rebels really works to build something, carefully earning narrative trust and delivering emotional payoff. You can see the makers of The Mandalorian attempting something similar, by the way, but it’s laughable by comparison; indeed, many of the niftier details of The Mandalorian I actually liked were cribbed from Rebels.

Overall, it’s a far more compelling and successful series than I was anticipating, especially considering how down I’ve been on the franchise lately. It’s likely I’ll end up watching another Star Wars property at some point, but if I never do, having seen Rebels I’m convinced I’ve seen the franchise at its best.

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