Star Wars Rebels Season 1 Episode 11: "Call to Action"
"Every time we win," Ezra said in "Call to Action," "we lose." That seemingly contradictory statement was profoundly true in this episode, as the rebels at least temporarily sacrificed one of their own to broadcast a hopeful message across the Outer Rim. Every time the rebels have taken a step forward, they've also been forced to take one step back, and in this respect, "Call to Action" was no different. What did set this episode apart was the welcome presence of a commanding Imperial figure who disrupted the status quo on Lothal in a brutal way and personified the overwhelming superiority against which the rebels were ultimately throwing themselves.
This show is seeing its fair share of cameos. The introduction of Grand Moff Tarkin, exquisitely voiced by the great Stephen Stanton, was the perfect way to raise the stakes for our heroes by showing viewers that the rebels' work on Lothal was registering back on Coruscant. The rebels were more than a thorn in the local government's side; they were a threat to the vitality of the Empire in the region. How so? Because Lothal, as Tarkin pointed out, was a key industrial world powering the Empire's expansion into the Outer Rim.
In this episode, Tarkin was every bit the iron-willed enforcer that we saw in A New Hope. Just as he would do with Darth Vader in that movie, Tarkin here asserted that the Jedi were an insignificant threat, calling them "ancient history." I found it interesting that he raised his voice when he told Minister Tua that all the Jedi had died, and that he was going to defeat the threat posed by Kanan. It was as if he wanted everyone in the hangar bay to hear him. That wouldn't be surprising; the Tarkin Doctrine is all about winning people's minds to defuse future resistance. Tarkin's goal was as much to downplay the Jedi as it was to defeat the individual Jedi-led cell on Lothal.
By far the most compelling part of this episode, in my opinion, was Tarkin's effect on the other Imperials on Lothal. We've come to know Minister Tua, ISB Agent Kallus, the Inquisitor, and those two bumbling Imperial officers over the course of the last ten episodes. They're familiar faces, and their routines are equally familiar. Tarkin shook things up, which was exactly what the familiar rhythm of this show needed right now.
With his uncompromising tone and clear expectations, the Grand Moff put the rest of the Imperials off their game. Each of them was used to certain authorities, certain spheres of control. Tarkin had no time for that. Even the Inquisitor was chastened when Tarkin scolded him about failing to catch Kanan. Agent Kallus, meanwhile, was in even less of a position to argue with a Grand Moff. Like the Inquisitor, he took his upbraiding in stride, though he bristled somewhat at the insults to his competence. I really enjoyed seeing Tarkin's interactions with the other Imperials, because those normally commanding figures were positively meek before him. (None more so than Tua, but my disdain for her character is well-established.)
Tarkin had arrived on Lothal to clean up the sclerotic, failing local bureaucracy, but it wasn't until he had the Inquisitor kill Commandant Aresko and Taskmaster Grint that we really saw the lengths to which he would go. In that moment, it became clear why he was feared across the Empire. If he couldn't get results, he could at least unleash the Empire's fury on those who were failing it. Tarkin's ruthlessness was perfectly in keeping with the Imperial doctrine of uncompromising loyalty and accountability that we saw in the original trilogy. ("Apology accepted," anyone?)
I was surprised that Tarkin saw the situation as dire enough to drive home his point with executions, but it made sense as part of his, shall we say, management style. If I was surprised, however, Tarkin's fellow Imperials seemed stunned. Agent Kallus and Minister Tua seemed astounded that Tarkin would have the Inquisitor kill other Imperials, which showed that they weren't used to his brand of management. This was one of the only times where the Inquisitor's elite status became clear, where his instructions from the Emperor (through Vader) distinguished him from his coworkers. The Inquisitor was high enough up in the food chain to embrace Tarkin's brutality, so much so that Tarkin recruited him for the task. If they didn't know it before, Kallus and Tua now knew for sure that the Imperial leadership wasn't happy.
Tarkin's effect on the Imperials in general interested me, but his relationship with the Inquisitor was the most fascinating one. As we know, the Inquisitor was on Lothal on direct orders from the highest levels of the Empire to root out Force-sensitives threatening the government. He was essentially a direct representative of Darth Vader's will, and—nuances within senior leadership notwithstanding—Vader was universally feared throughout the galaxy. Tarkin's condescension toward the Inquisitor was thus very interesting to me. He talked down to the Pau'an, and in response, the highly trained Jedi-hunter merely held his tongue and nodded dutifully. It was a rare break from the haughtiness and venom that had defined the Inquisitor until now.
The dynamic between the Inquisitor and Tarkin again reminded me of the friction between Tarkin and Vader, or—as I mentioned in my review of "Vision of Hope"—the Inquisitor and Kallus. Kallus and Tarkin come from the pure Imperial side of the Empire, with its COMPNOR indoctrination and Tarkin Doctrine and Star Destroyer fleets. But of course, there's another side to the galactic government: the influence of the Sith. The Inquisitor, like Vader and the Emperor, saw things in almost an entirely different plane of existence. He knew that his mission related to the stability of the government, but he, like his bosses, was engaged with threats bigger than those that regular Imperial flunkies could comprehend. To the Inquisitor, Kanan wasn't just a rebel; he was a practitioner of a powerful art the very continuance of which posed a threat to the Emperor's mystical plans. Thus, the stakes were higher for the Inquisitor and his bosses—or at least, the Inquisitor perceived things that way.
This perspective could only produce tension between Sith-oriented Imperials and government-oriented Imperials. I won't rehash my analysis from the last episode, but suffice it to say that Tarkin could be expected to bristle at the Inquisitor and Vader's mystical notions and obsession with the Force. He was trying to run a government here, and these lightsaber-wielding magicians were interfering with good order. Tarkin probably didn't appreciate that the Inquisitor thought himself free to ignore the other rebels in order to pursue Kanan. We know that Kallus similarly bristled at the Inquisitor's single-minded focus on Kanan. Here was someone who shared Kallus' perspective on what their job should be—although of course Tarkin's very presence was a sign that Kallus was failing.
Tarkin's arrival surely sent a chill down Kallus and Tua's spine and rattled the Inquisitor's self-image. On the Ghost, meanwhile, the rebels were feeling similarly despondent, none more so than Ezra. "Every time we win, we lose," he said, upon seeing Senator Trayvis' self-congratulatory HoloNet interview. I definitely understood Ezra's frustration, especially given the fact that, as a young kid, he was probably expecting bigger, flashier, and more definitive operations.
Kanan's suggestion that the rebels speak out to turn the tide of their efforts rattled Ezra for obvious reasons. Kanan, tired of hiding in the shadows, wanted to hurt the Empire where it counted: messaging. Hera, the politically minded team leader, agreed that it was a good idea. She was clearly still smarting from Trayvis' betrayal and the setback it represented for her attempts to link her group into a larger movement. Perhaps she expected that the group's transmission would galvanize more people to rebel and set the stage for those cells to merge their efforts. Regardless, in the wake of the Trayvis affair, it made perfect sense that Kanan and Hera would want to do something bold.
"Spark of Rebellion" Ezra would have instantly jumped at the chance to stage a dramatic announcement to the rest of the planet—to strike a blow for the people, if only symbolically. As of "Call to Action," however, Ezra was a changed young man. The son of two proto-rebel propagandists had a new family, one he didn't want to lose. Ezra fairly growled as he admitted to Kanan that he was scared to lose his friends, as if it was hard for him to even admit this.
We've seen Ezra express this fear before, but until now, it was in the context of general self-endangerment. Never before had the team contemplated following in the Bridgers' footsteps. Part of Ezra's unease, he confessed to Kanan, was self-doubt at his ability to live up to his parents. But the lion's share of his fear came from the same thing that drove Anakin to become Darth Vader: attachment.
Kanan's response to this emotion, which could spell doom for Ezra if not tempered properly, was to reveal his own uncertainties and stress the necessity of hard choices. "When the time comes, we have to be ready to sacrifice themselves for something bigger," Kanan said, in what will surely be seen later as the stage-setter for big events on Rebels. The thing is, this wasn't just a reminder for Ezra. This was a milestone in Kanan's development too. Since joining up with Hera and the others, he had clearly learned the necessity of self-sacrifice.
Even Kanan's Jedi Master hadn't been able to get that message to stick. Devastated by the destruction of the Jedi Order when he was a young man, Kanan had gone into hiding, but in the process of surviving by any means necessary, many Jedi lessons had slipped away from him. What we saw in the weighty conversation between Kanan and Ezra in this episode was how much the older man had been changed by "the Ghost effect"—that is to say, Hera and her team's selfless commitment to a cause. After countless missions with Hera and the others, Kanan was no longer the drunk from A New Dawn.
It was fitting that Kanan confessed to Ezra, "I don't think I ever understood [the necessity of selflessness] until now, trying to teach it to you," because Kanan's most dramatic act of self-sacrifice thus far came when he held off the Imperials to let Ezra and the others escape. Even though Ezra intellectually understood the Spock principle of one to save many, he couldn't bring himself to abandon Kanan when the time came. Zeb had to pull him away. Standing at the doorway to the communications tower, Kanan reassured his Padawan that he would be right behind him, but Ezra recognized that these were just words; Kanan wouldn't be following.
As soon as the Inquisitor arrived to apprehend Kanan, the episode took on a very Episode IV feel. Knowing he was trapped, Kanan resigned himself to acting as a stalling tactic. In a parallel to A New Hope, Ezra was forced to watch as his master dueled a dark sider to allow the rebels to escape. Unlike Ben, Kanan didn't die, but neither could he escape with the others; they had to watch as they left him behind. Kanan's temporary loss haunted Ezra much as Ben's death haunted Luke. As he had on the ground, he resisted Kanan's insistence that they abandon him in the Phantom; Hera finally had to make the tough call. I loved that you could see the grief on Ezra's face as he turned away from the closed hatch.
I want to pause briefly to acknowledge how much better Ezra is getting at using the Force and taking stock of his surroundings. He easily called on the Force to convince a Loth-rat to attack the probe droid that would have discovered them. He wasn't just better with the Force; he was better at knowing when to use it. He didn't even struggle to influence the creature; he just calmly asserted his will. And unlike Sabine, he realized that they needed to make the probe droid's demise look like an accident. In "Call to Action," Ezra's impressive growth was juxtaposed with his lingering self-doubt, suggesting that his relationship with the other rebels was quickly becoming more complex than his relationship with the Force.
Although it was only touched on lightly, the state of the nascent galactic rebellion was an important background presence in this episode. Kanan brought it up first when he suggested that the rebels make a transmission. "We have to let people know what it's really like out here," he insisted. Kanan's use of the phrase "out here" recalled a classic geopolitical framework that has influenced real-world governance throughout our planet's history: the core-periphery dynamic. In this dynamic, the government caters to and focuses on the core, because it's composed of influential, wealthy, and politically engaged people. In doing so, it neglects the periphery, where information takes longer to spread, technology is less advanced, and prosperity is limited or nonexistent.
Because of this government policy, life becomes more difficult in the periphery. If people in the core ever saw the stark big-picture reality of this disparity, enough of them might agitate for change that the government would have to respond. But the core-periphery dynamic inherently cuts against this possibility. The less contact between members of the core and the periphery, the less awareness the core has of the periphery. The less awareness there is, the less impetus there is for the core to examine the periphery in detail. The less impetus for examination there is, the less likely a grand, arresting depiction of the periphery's plight becomes.
Throughout Star Wars storytelling, the goal of the Rebel Alliance has always been to expose the affluent and powerful core to the suffering of the periphery. Individual rebel cells, however, operate in the periphery and thus suffer from its constraints. What Kanan was proposing to do was use an outpost of the core authority to transcend the restraints of the periphery that were all around them. It is no accident that the tallest buildings on Lothal are Imperial, nor that these buildings soar over everything else on the most low-lying planet. This is a visual symbol of the government's presence on the periphery, and the artists behind Star Wars Rebels seem to be evoking it intentionally.
Life "out here" under the Empire's boot would probably come as a surprise to the "people" to whom Kanan was referring: rich Core Worlders whom the Empire accommodated because they didn't pose a threat. Why didn't these people pose a threat? Because they benefitted from the system, whether they realized it or not. The "core" side of the core-periphery dynamic was as self-reinforcing in terms of blissful ignorance as the "periphery" side was in terms of Outer Rim residents' disenfranchisement.
That's the general political dynamic. But how do rebels—not just Kanan's team—fit into all of this? Tarkin provided a small insight into the status of the disparate rebel movements when he dismissed them as a threat in his conversation with the other Imperials. Hera's cell presented a serious threat because it had something the others lacked: unity. This was all Tarkin said about the other cells he knew of—that they weren't efficient, that there was no unity either within or among cells. (Given the composition of some of the cells that we saw in the Expanded Universe, it's no surprise that clashing personalities and ideologies would be producing such unimpressive rebel movements at this point in the saga.) Tarkin considered the Lothal rebels a threat not because of Kanan's Force abilities but because of Hera's discipline and leadership, although he had no idea who she was or what she represented.
If Tarkin was worried about Kanan representing hope and sowing the seeds of unified rebellion across Lothal, he got a disturbing glimmer of his fears coming true when Ezra began broadcasting the group's message. Kanan had bought his friends enough time to escape, and now they were going to savor their hard-won reward: a few precious minutes of interstellar propaganda. It was smart for the team to put Ezra on the comm. His youthful voice inspired people to think of their own families and the world they wanted for their children. As we saw in brief cutaways, he got people listening. Like a good rebel, he didn't use aggressive, scary language. He knew he would need to incite armed resistance, but he did so in an upbeat way.
In terms of pacing and framing, the inspiring montage around Ezra's transmission benefitted greatly from the juxtaposition between his line "There will be loss and sacrifice" and the cutaway to Kanan and Tarkin. Kanan looked defiant, as if he had made a difference and he was trying to force Tarkin to register his displeasure. But Tarkin's grimace soon became steely-eyed resolve, as much to Kanan's despair, the Empire destroyed its own communications tower to cut off Ezra's broadcast. It was the perfect downbeat note to kneecap what the rebels were doing, and Tarkin delivered the episode's best line as only he could: "You do not know what it takes to win a war. But I do."
This was a key moment for the series. Hera's crew had a lot going for it: Jedi powers, blaster marksmanship, Imperial academy training, honor guard experience, ace piloting. But what they lacked were the ability to do things on a big scale and the fortitude to make hard choices. Kanan made one for himself, but if it weren't for Hera, Ezra probably would have leapt out of the Phantom to rejoin his master. He didn't seem ready for what rebellion would entail. But it was more than willpower and means. Tarkin didn't just have the desire and the ability to do whatever it took to win a war; he had the knowledge to understand what that meant. He was an experienced battlefield commander. The rebels were comparatively untrained.
If "Call to Action" showed us anything, it was that Hera's crew was registering back on Coruscant even as the rebels' actual accomplishments remained minor. Tarkin's presence in the episode seemed to hint at a widening of the Imperial perspective in future episodes of Rebels. This is supposed to be a show about a family, but it remains situated in a political context, and it's important that we see the shock waves reverberating out from the crew's very limited actions. I know some people will groan about all the cameos in Rebels, but each one so far has been targeted at a specific aspect of the show. Thanks to both Tarkin's disruptive ruthlessness and Stephen Stanton's spot-on performance, the appearance of this Grand Moff more than met my expectations—as did "Call to Action" overall.
From the Imperials fidgeting upon Tarkin's arrival to the rebels sitting around uneasily after the transmission died, this was very much a paradigm-shifting "Where do we go from here?" episode. I was pleased to see the show itself embrace viewers' trepidation about the aftermath of these events by closing with the eerie sound of Ezra's transmission fading into nothingness.
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