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TFN Rebels Review: "Empire Day"

Posted by Eric on November 18, 2014 at 11:00 AM CST

Star Wars Rebels Season 1 Episode 6: "Empire Day"

There's nothing quite like a really solid episode of Star Wars television, with all the requisite elements, themes, and visuals. "Empire Day" was a triumph for Star Wars Rebels, a series that is betting heavily on fans' enthusiasm for the interregnum period between the Clone Wars and the next outbreak of galactic conflict. With the Empire's cruelty birthing resentment from citizens everywhere, a rebellion seems like the natural result—but this series' job is to show us how that result became inevitable. The more episode like this one that we get, the more the show will be succeeding. "Empire Day" focused on Ezra's hidden grief and the Empire's oppressive governance, taking these parallel micro and macro approaches to illustrate the source of the rebels' deep-seated grievances.

Ezra Bridger is a very conflicted character. He joined the crew of the Ghost and quickly embraced his new family, but the embrace was only partial. As was hinted at in previous episodes and made abundantly clear in this one, Ezra keeps a part of himself hidden from the team. For all the bantering and horseplay that happens on the Ghost, there's still a loneliness inside of him. He may seem like a brash kid on the outside, but thanks to "Empire Day," we can also say that he's a young man with a dark past.

The animation in Star Wars Rebels is so damn good that you could see the pain on Ezra's face when he picked up the key to his childhood home. He brushed his finger against it gently, then looked down in sorrow, as if the key were triggering repressed memories. Perhaps it merely symbolized the life that he was trying desperately to seal off in a psychological escape pod and jettison into the mental void. It is no understatement to say that Ezra is still consumed by his own private pain.

Later, as he stood in front of the place he used to call home, Ezra visibly steeled himself to enter it, clearly expecting memories to wash over him. "This was your home, wasn't it?" Kanan asked. "Where you grew up?" Ezra recoiled from the suggestion that he had grown in any meaningful way in the house. He replied bitterly, "I grew up on the streets...alone." Ezra rejecting both the memories and the importance of his home was a crucial moment. It reminded the audience that he was no ordinary child, but a creature of the streets. The harsh realities of homelessness, unscrupulousness, and forced moral compromise fashioned him into the person he is today. Ezra is no normal child. He has had to give up so much to survive. As we learned in this episode, he even had his birthday—normally the happiest day in a child's life—ruined for him, because he was born on Empire Day.

It's very easy to dismiss Ezra's moodiness, lack of trust, and impatience as the hallmarks of the stereotypical Disney brat. Yet Ezra's past gave real meaning to his impatience and his reluctance to, as Kanan suggested, open up to others. The very first scene in the episode established that Ezra was having trouble giving himself over to the Force in the way that Jedi throughout the ages were taught to do. Kanan instructed Ezra to bond with a Loth-cat: "Step outside of yourself. Make a connection with another being." Ezra's frustration with Kanan's training methods only seemed to deepen at this suggestion. He was reluctant to attempt the connection to the animal, as if he considered the test a waste of time.

Seeing Ezra refuse the test reminded me of a kid who couldn't swim refusing to try treading water, except in Ezra's case, he had once known how to connect to others, but had buried that trait deeply during his time on the streets. As we saw in Spark of Rebellion, a homeless kid living on what he could pilfer from merchants could not afford to be sentimental. Watching Ezra remain withdrawn in this episode, I got the sense that his very ability to empathize—to connect in the way Kanan wanted him to—had atrophied during those long, harsh years on the streets of Lothal.

Kanan, perhaps sensing this, told Ezra, "You have to let your guard down. You have to be willing to attach to others." This wasn't just a lesson; it was a warning. Kanan understood that Ezra was walking a dangerous line. Having learned about fear, anger, and suffering as a child at the Jedi Temple, Kanan would have been all too familiar with the consequences of repressing emotions. He wasn't an experienced Jedi Master, but even he could detect conflict, doubt, and insecurity within Ezra. He worried that Ezra could poison himself by keeping things locked away. Yet at least in this episode, Kanan's goal of getting Ezra to unburden himself remained out of reach.

Ezra's fascinating and complex private pain was the micro view of Imperial oppression. The macro view was Empire Day itself, and all the attendant displays of Imperial cruelty that accompanied it. From the TIE pilots sweeping through the Lothal bar to the one pilot's demand that the bartender turn on the celebratory Imperial HoloNet broadcast, the Empire's demands of conformity, obedience, and uncritical support were in full force in this episode. Ezra's anger at the Empire manifested itself as he steeled himself for a fight in that bar; Kanan had to silently warn him against it. I really enjoyed seeing the Imperial troops searching for their quarry, because it gave us a glimpse into their policing practices, as well as the reactions from Lothal's citizens. The one funny moment in that bar was when the TIE pilots walked past Hera and Zeb's table exactly the way the stormtroopers walked past Han and Chewbacca in Mos Eisley. Other than that, the whole affair was a grim one, reminding us that casual brutality is a fact of daily life on Lothal.

Because of Star Wars Rebels' limited budget—especially compared to The Clone Wars—the series faces difficulty whenever it tries to do crowd scenes. Fans have already pointed out that the crowd in "Empire Day" features dozens of the exact same character model scattered throughout lines of onlookers. My understanding is that Rebels won't have many of these scenes, so as to avoid this and other related problems. Nonetheless, I was able to overlook the shortcomings of the crowd scene in "Empire Day" because of the story significance it held.

The celebration was a display of Imperial might to the citizens of Lothal and a reminder of the Imperial propaganda strategy to viewers of Rebels. Grand Moff Tarkin famously said, "Fear will keep the local systems in line." The rest of that quote specifically related Tarkin's strategy to the Death Star, but prior to its completion the Empire needed other ways to suppress insurrectionist tendencies and enforce conformity. Empire Day, with its parade of Imperial armor and its display of pilot bravado, was a combination morale-booster and anti-sedition PSA: "Isn't life great in the Empire, where you're protected by all this advanced weaponry and a trained military to wield it?" is just a nicer way of saying "Don't even think about rebelling, because if you do, we have the means and the will to crush you." The Empire has to give people something to cherish—and something to fear.

The Empire values obedience over everything else, because obedience leads to harmony and harmony leads to a stable operating environment. Only on pacified planets can the Empire attempt to build up its military-industrial complex. As we learned at the end of the episode in the Rodian Tseebo's offhand remark, Lothal is about to become a full-time regional production center for TIE fighters. The Empire needs to maintain order there. Besides Empire Day celebrations, we learned about a new tactic for improving productivity and obedience: implanting lower-level servants with cybernetic alterations, as the Imperials did to Tseebo. The Empire's inhuman depravity knows no limits. It is now turning people into droids. (This is ironic, given that the Empire was born out of the ashes of a government that successfully held a rebel movement with a droid army at bay using creative, independent clone troopers.) As always, the Empire's unofficial motto is clear: Productivity at all costs.

With "Empire Day" expertly demonstrating this big-picture view of Imperial oppression, it was only natural that the episode also included some seeds of rebellion. First, there was Gall Trayvis, the senator-in-exile whose intel led to Kanan's failed mission to rescue Luminara Unduli. I like Trayvis as a symbol of resistance, and I hope we continue to see his pirate broadcasts. They unite Lothal and its rebel movement with the movements and populations of countless unseen worlds, subtly painting an off-screen picture the scale of which no series could ever completely portray. There is a constant rebel presence unifying the Empire's distant worlds, a sentiment bubbling under the surface of numerous societies. Trayvis represents that, and he does it with voice actor Brent Spiner's characteristic audaciousness and vocal flair.

Perhaps more important to the series, however, was the seed of rebellion introduced in the form of Ezra's parents. Until now, we knew nothing about them. Ezra had told Sabine that the Empire was responsible for the breakup of his family, but nothing more. In "Empire Day," we learned the interesting tidbit that Ezra's parents were proto-rebels. They hosted pirate broadcasts just like Gall Trayvis. In voice-over flashbacks, Ezra's father and mother explained to Tseebo that they were fighting for a galaxy in which young Ezra could one day be free. Star Wars works on its grandest scale when it incorporates family history and the legacy of past generations. The fact that Ezra's parents were rebellious essentially means that this tendency runs in his blood. It will be very interesting to see how his missing parents continue to play into his private pain. Based on this episode's cliffhanger ending, this subplot is only going to get more important.

"Empire Day" was mostly about the oppressive present, but it also contained references to the past and hints of the future. The references to the past were in the bar: A clone trooper helmet on the counter behind the bartender and an image of Palpatine's famous declaration of a New Order on the HoloNet viewscreen. The hints of the future, on the other hand, were more subtle. This was our first chronological glimpse of the TIE advanced starfighter, which Darth Vader would later pilot during the Battle of Yavin. Its appearance, shiny, curvy, and distinct from the run-of-the-mill models, represented the future of the Empire and the unstoppable fact of its evolution.

Even more interesting than the appearance of Vader's future craft was the revelation at the end of the episode that Ezra's friend Tseebo carried within his cybernetically enhanced brain details of the Empire's five-year plan for the Outer Rim. This was the most concrete reference to Palpatine's interstellar goals in the series so far. With Tseebo's knowledge in their possession, the rebels have the ability to dramatically expand their ambitions. The images that flashed on the hologram—TIE bombers, AT-ATs, Lambda-class shuttles—represent the burgeoning military that we will see in the original trilogy. It's thrilling to consider the possibility that Star Wars Rebels will show us the Empire's specific agenda in the outlying territories for the first time in the history of the franchise. Our rebels are finding themselves in the middle of some of the most transformative events in the Empire's reign, and that carries all sorts of exciting prospects for the series.

I want to close by commenting on a few lighter moments that I think worked really well even in the middle of this grim portrayal of Imperial rule. First, there was Kanan pretending to be a dumb, oafish drunk man to escape a stormtrooper's scrutiny. Ezra eventually saved the day with his improvisation, but before that, we got to hear Freddie Prinze Jr. do his best impression of a frat boy who had had too much to drink at a fireworks show. Given Kanan's past, as explored in the novel A New Dawn, this version of Kanan wasn't entirely fake. The second funny moment was between Ezra and Sabine after Ezra rejoined the group for their escape. Sabine said, "Hey, where were you?" to which Ezra replied, "Why, did you miss me?" I will never tire of Ezra's clumsy passes at Sabine just as I will never tire of Sabine's amused way of brushing him off. The last funny moment also involved Sabine. It was when she punched a stormtrooper in the helmet and, after wincing at the pain in her hand, said, "I miss Zeb." I have nothing to add about this moment. It was just a really well-delivered line.

"Empire Day" as a whole was a well-produced look at the consequences of Imperial rule. It put the focus on Ezra in a new and revealing way, but it also showed us the Empire's larger goals and its strategy for achieving them. This was also a good episode for the Imperial agents in the show. Agent Kallus got to be a warrior, the Inquisitor got to fly his TIE advanced fighter like his boss Darth Vader, and the sickly-faced Imperial officer Cumberlayne Aresko got to utter the famous insult "Rebel scum," which I know the team from our site was particularly happy to see. If every subsequent episode of Rebels has the depth, humor, focus, and flow of "Empire Day," I'll be a very happy viewer. To paraphrase Darth Vader, "Empire Day" will be an episode long remembered.


You can find all of my Rebels episode reviews on TFN's review index page.

Related Stories:

TFN Rebels Review: "Idiot's Array"
TFN Rebels Review: "Path of the Jedi"
TFN Rebels Review: "Gathering Forces"
TFN Rebels Review: "Out Of Darkness"
TFN Rebels Review: "Breaking Ranks"
TFN Rebels Review: "Rise Of The Old Masters"

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