TFN Rebels Review: "Breaking Ranks"
Star Wars Rebels Season 1 Episode 4: "Breaking Ranks"
It would be hard to top "Rise of the Old Masters" so early in Star Wars Rebels' first season, so I wasn't expecting the next episode, "Breaking Ranks," to be able to raise that bar. In retrospect, I'm glad I moderated my expectations; this episode would have been a crushing disappointment if I hadn't. "Breaking Ranks" fell far short of its remarkable predecessor and even the other previous episodes. It was a rushed and unimpressive way of telling a story that deserved to breathe more for its viewers. Sure, there were a number of bright spots along the way, including a fantastic new character who deserves significant future attention, but this was simply not a good first look inside the Imperial training process. Considering how excited I was to see that process up close, the failure of "Breaking Ranks" to deliver on its promise was an unexpected disappointment that I hope the series can quickly surmount.
This episode showed us Ezra's growth as a Force user and as a part of the Ghost team. I enjoyed seeing him ace both Imperial stormtrooper cadet tests using his Force-honed instincts, as it reflected that he was taking his training with Kanan very seriously. His use of the Force to anticipate the right path was getting more precise. He is still ambitious and self-confident, but he had developed real skills. I also noticed that Ezra's use of the Force for more mundane tasks—like levitating Kallus' decoder key—was improving, although, as one would expect for a relative newcomer to the Force, he still struggled to lift a lightweight object a short distance.
Although Kanan and Hera had very little to do in this episode, their conversations on the Ghost before and after Ezra changed the plan reflected different approaches to handling their youngest rebel. Kanan doubted his apprentice's skills, while Hera tried to keep him calm and remind him that there was nothing he could do. In an angry and impulsive moment, Kanan suggested that he should have gone undercover instead of Ezra. Hera's reply was the perfect combination of amused and dismissive. "Oh yeah," she said with the skeptical tone of a parent trying to convince a child to abandon an unrealistic idea. "You'd make quite a cadet." It almost seemed like Hera had to do as much management of Kanan as she did the other rebels. Throughout the few episodes we've seen, Hera has been an impressive stabilizing presence, unflappable, soothing, demanding but good-hearted, keeping everyone else on-mission.
Despite Kanan's concerns, Ezra showed initiative, intuition, and empathy. He has come so far since Spark of Rebellion—as he himself acknowledged when he explained, by hologram, why he wasn't ready to leave the academy yet. Ezra was aware that his new friends were changing him. "It's your fault," he said pointedly in the hologram. "The old me never stuck his neck out for a stranger." Watching Sabine and Zeb react to his message, I couldn't help but wonder if they were proud of his impulsive but noble decision. Hera wouldn't appreciate the deviation from the script, but based on the smile she cracked after the message ended, Sabine certainly did. It seemed as if Sabine and Zeb gained more respect for Ezra after seeing that he was taking the mission seriously.
Ezra's ally Zare Leonis was probably the best part of this episode. (Well, tied with a certain crystal that I'll get to later.) Here was a likable, well-rounded character about Ezra's age with an interesting backstory. I was glad to see Ezra making friends, particularly someone like Zare who can be such a good ally to the rebels from inside the machine. The mysterious disappearance of his sister, a star Imperial cadet, gave him a good reason to want to hurt the Empire. More importantly for the series, it also opened a lot of doors for episodes exploring interesting and underlooked aspects of the Imperial regime.
Even before Zare expressed his belief that the Inquisitor had taken his sister away for some dark purpose, I was sold on him as a character. Then I saw the Imperial officers make a note of Ezra's unusual skill, and I heard them tell the Inquisitor that they had some prospects for him to evaluate. I can only assume that the Inquisitor has tasked Imperial cadet trainers with conducting a sort of talent search for "gifted" cadets who may actually be Force-sensitive. The idea that the Inquisitor might have started developing his own young agents added a new layer to his wickedness—and his brilliance.
Part of the reason why so many fans loved Mara Jade was because the notion of the Emperor hand-picking an impressionable young person and molding her according to his dark will played on real-world fears about indoctrination, brainwashing, and other sinister influences. Imagine if this series went there with Zare's sister, presenting her as an enemy of the rebels whom Ezra tried to avoid hurting because of his friendship with Zare. That would be an awesome way to shake up the standard antagonism between heroes and villains.
I hope Zare learns more about his sister's disappearance through his interactions with the Inquisitor. (If the Pau'an villain really did hand-pick the other Leonis for a dark mission, he almost certainly recognized Zare as her brother.) Zare's decision to stay behind means that the series is already building out relationships apart from the Ghost crew that will (hopefully) persist through the series. When most of your action takes place on a single planet, it's important to develop connections between the main characters and many parts of planetary society. There is now a compelling plot angle linking Ezra, the Inquisitor, and someone in the Imperial academy. The longer this series continues, the more dots will start popping up connecting the main characters to people in far-flung places.
The reason this was a solid episode at all was because of Zare and Ezra's relationship and the possibilities that it opened up. Apart from that, the story itself was merely acceptable. I enjoyed seeing the way the Imperials trained their cadets, because it offered us a look at the Empire as a home instead of the enemy. I did find it odd that the Imperial officers seemed to suggest that stormtrooper training only lasted a few weeks. (Maybe that's why they're such terrible shots.) Perhaps there was a next stage to the training that took place in the field. These cadets seemed far too young to fit into that iconic armor. Either way, that aspect didn't make much sense. If the writers really felt the need to address the topic of the stormtrooper training routine, they should have done so in a clearer way.
The only really interesting thing that happened at the academy was the straining of relationships between the cadets in the intense competition for distinction. The Well that the cadets trained in may have looked a bit like the clone training facility on Kamino from The Clone Wars, but this wasn't a Republic training environment. It was meaner and less collegial. These teenagers were being shaped according to Imperial doctrines of ruthlessness, self-interest, and shrewd favor-currying. "There is no friendship in war," one of the officers told the cadets. It was fun to consider how this type of atmosphere must have strained the friendships that the young cadets initially tried to build.
For the most part, the academy was little more than a backdrop for introducing Zare and building up Ezra, but its scenes also showed how the Empire tried to stamp out individuality in its soldiers. Ezra did what he had to do to win the two challenges, which made me wonder what similar incidents occurred in other stormtroopers' lives to make them so rigid and unemotional. I'd like to see more episodes exploring life inside the Imperial military—provided they justify their use of the academy backdrop with deeper stories than "Breaking Ranks" had.
Twenty-two minutes is rarely enough time to tell any story, but "Breaking Ranks" in particular failed to give its plot the necessary room to breathe. I like the idea of the Ghost team conducting undercover missions, with Chopper painted black and using flashing symbols to communicate with Ezra. I hope the series brings back this spy flavor for other missions. But this episode was just too rushed. It disappointed me, because the writers could have done so much more with the setting and the characters. Part of the problem was that the team's mission required some space combat scenes as Hera and Kanan confronted their target. These brief cutaways from the main action were pretty boring, and I found myself wishing again that the academy storyline hadn't necessitated these cutaways.
A story dedicated to the transport raid subplot—or to an infiltration and retrieval mission on one of the transports—could have been really cool. Similarly, there are many ways to do a fun episode exploring life at the academy in the vein of some of the clone-centric episodes of The Clone Wars. Maybe that's coming later; I don't know. For now, what I do know is that this episode felt rushed, a problem that Rebels has expertly avoided so far.
Besides Zare Leonis, the other thing that really made "Breaking Ranks" worth watching was the focus on the Kyber crystal. Almost overnight, this extremely powerful crystal—which appeared in the EU many years ago—has become the first true testament to the Story Group's focus on cross-platform synergy. Its first canon appearance was in "Crystal Crisis on Utapau," an arc of unfinished story reels from The Clone Wars. In those episodes, Anakin and Obi-Wan had to stop a massive Kyber crystal from reaching the Separatists, who were almost certainly planning to use it in the Star Wars saga's most famous top-secret weapons project. James Luceno's forthcoming novel Star Wars: Tarkin mentions the crystals as well: they power the focusing lasers that let the Death Star destroy planets. With its brief off-screen appearance in "Breaking Ranks," the Kyber crystal further united this massive universe of stories. We've been seeing different stages of the same grand plan for many years now through The Clone Wars, but the Kyber crystal's numerous appearances in 2014 make the synergy of the new canon much more tangible and obvious. If nothing else, I can at least appreciate this episode for contributing to that synergy.
I don't want to sound more critical of "Breaking Ranks" than I am. I enjoyed a few things about it, like Zare's introduction, Ezra's growth, the idea of an undercover op, and the presence of the Kyber crystal. The Inquisitor's arrival at the end was exciting, and the writers are doing a good job of keeping him "special," so that his appearances feel like they mean something. I liked seeing Ezra acknowledge to Kanan at the end of the episode that he felt at home on the Ghost. And the Imperial training montage music was a fantastic pitched-down version of The Phantom Menace's Droid Invasion Theme, one of the best tracks from any Star Wars soundtrack.
Together, these scattered positives kept me entertained, but I was not enthralled, nor did I come away from my first viewing hungering for a rewatch. Because the Star Wars universe is so rich, even an underwhelming episode can be mined for more compelling stories. Ultimately, that's what "Breaking Ranks" is—a springboard to better realizations of its various characters and situations, with neither a stellar premise nor a thrilling execution of its own.
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