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TFN Rebels Review: "Fighter Flight"
Posted by Eric on October 21, 2014 at 12:00 PM CST
Star Wars Rebels Season 1 Episode 2: "Fighter Flight"

Going into this episode, I was hoping for one thing: a convincing next step for Ezra and Zeb's tense relationship. "Fighter Flight" delivered that and a few unexpected gifts. We got a look at the Imperial M.O., as well as a fleeting glimpse of Ezra's past life and the people he left behind to join the rebels. We also saw more of life on the Ghost, with its daily challenges like, "What is Sabine doing in that room and is there a chance it could explode?" Chopper cranked the crankiness up to eleven, which is always rewarding to watch. But at the end of the day, this was a story about Ezra, Zeb, and their odd-couple friendship.

First, a few brief notes about the Imperials. I really like the way the Empire is being shown, at least in broad strokes. Lothal feels like a planet under siege. There was even a noise like a police scanner when the stormtroopers walked past Ezra in the marketplace, which made me imagine an internal comlink channel where the storm troopers, the Empire's policemen, discussed the criminals that they were pursuing all over the planet. We also saw the first regular-series appearance of Baron Valen Rudor, the TIE pilot whom Zeb gleefully ejected from his ship. Fans may know Rudor from the Rebels web shorts, or from the HoloNet News video about his arrival on Lothal. Rudor's arrogant and disdainful looks were perfect for an Imperial pilot, as was his disgusted reaction when Zeb jumped onto his TIE fighter.

The Imperials' destruction of the farm owned by Ezra's friend Morad Sumar demonstrated the casual brutality that is a fact of daily life for people in the Empire. It is important that we continue to see this brutality as the series progresses, and I know we will. What is equally important is that we continue to see stormtroopers as they were portrayed in this episode. Consider Ezra's rooftop fight with the stormtrooper. The man confronted Ezra and asked, amazed, "You did all this...for fruit?" This wasn't just a laugh line. It emphasized that stormtroopers were normal people, not bred-to-fight clones or programmed-to-fight droids. These stormtroopers were more capable than any of their chronological predecessors in Star Wars armies of experiencing surprise and amazement -- in short, of having personalities and being real people. I trust that the series will not overlook the importance of continuing to show us this side of the Empire in addition to its powerful and aggressive side.

The trouble spot in the depiction of the Empire in this episode reflects my biggest gripe about the series so far: The stormtroopers are terrible shots. Baron Rudor and the destruction of the farm may have demonstrated the Empire's brutality, but Rudor managed to get thrown out of his own TIE fighter, and the transport that blasted the farm was aiming at a stationary target a few meters away. Rebels is good at presenting the Empire's brutality, but not its competence. It was actually cringe-worthy watching Ezra, who has no formal training in martial arts or combat gymnastics, evade an entire squad of trained Imperial soldiers. Far more than anything else that bothered me about this or previous episodes, the failure of the stormtroopers to do their jobs is making me question how fearsome the Empire can truly be in Rebels. It's early yet, and the series will have many more chances to improve the Empire's image, but right now, I'm unimpressed.

Now on to what I really enjoyed: the character-building main story. Ezra and Zeb's relationship underwent a profound transformation in this episode. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- Ezra's heroic gesture to save his life at the end of "Droids in Distress," Zeb was still annoyed with the kid at the beginning of "Fighter Flight." When the horseplay that Ezra brought into their bunk led Chopper to accidentally shock him, Zeb practically became a wild animal, snarling at Ezra and baring his teeth. After the bunk bed collapse incident, Zeb chased Ezra through the halls of the Ghost, and it was not until Hera arrived that he settled down to anything resembling a sentient being.

It was obvious that Ezra still irritated Zeb, and it soon became clear why: Ezra kept playing up the fact that he'd saved Zeb's life. I'll be honest, I kind of like that Ezra has let it go to his head -- it's consistent with his character at this point. If you were a young teenager who, in the span of a week or so, discovered that you had magic powers and saved the life of a guy giving you a hard time, you'd probably be unbearably proud of yourself too. On the flip side, it's not hard to see why Zeb gets so frustrated whenever Ezra brings up the events of "Droids in Distress." He's a proud man, a renowned warrior, a former honor guardsman, the team's designated muscle. It has to be very uncomfortable for him to remember himself in a moment of physical vulnerability -- particularly one that he exposed himself to by letting his thirst for vengeance get the better of him. Zeb doesn't want to remember the fact that he lost his cool and almost got killed any more than he wants to remember the fact that Ezra was the one to save him. These believable character traits (Ezra's exuberance and Zeb's shame), along with the inevitable tension they produce, make Ezra and Zeb's initial, tense relationship seem realistic.

The fact that Zeb's impulsiveness nearly doomed him last episode is significant, because very rarely in this episode does Zeb act impulsively. He is the one calling for caution in almost every circumstance. He tries to stop Ezra from running out into the open landing bay to grab meilooruns from the Imperials, and he winces when the kid does it anyway. Later, aboard the TIE fighter, he expresses reservations about investigating the smoke rising from the farm, even though he agrees to help Ezra anyway. It is clear that, despite his ferocious reputation in combat, Zeb is generally a cautious fighter. Crouching with Ezra on the landing pad, he didn't want to jeopardize their safety. Instead, it was Ezra who wanted to show off and prove to Zeb (and their taskmaster Hera) that he was worth bringing along.

If I had to pinpoint the moment when Zeb began to see Ezra as less of a nuisance and more of an earnest if untested colleague, it would be that scene in the landing bay where Ezra tried to use the Force to steal a meiloorun. I saw a transformation begin in Zeb when the boy gave him a reason to laugh. He was laughing at the kid's expense, sure, but for the first time, he seemed to be doing it playfully, not angrily.

In terms of the Ezra/Zeb dynamic, things sort of snowballed from there, as the relationship became progressively more equal and more civil. When Zeb rescued Ezra in the alleyway, he told Ezra that now they were even. For him to even acknowledge that there was a score suggested that he viewed Ezra as part of the team, not just a temporary interloper whose various saves and failures weren't worth tallying. When you start to tally saves, you're implicitly recognizing the durability of the relationship. ("That's two you owe me, junior.")

Later, Zeb showed that he enjoyed making Ezra squirm when he refused to let the kid into the stolen TIE fighter until he admitted that they were, in fact, even. I've heard some criticism of the Zeb character for supposed inconsistency: He was a member of an honor guard but he's jeopardizing Ezra's life for cheap thrills? That criticism rings hollow, however, when you consider what has happened to Zeb since he left the Lasat -- or rather, since Lasat society effectively ceased to exist. Indeed, it is that very event that marked a turning point in Zeb's life; even after only two episodes and a movie, we can see that the destruction of his people was a catalyst for Zeb's commitment to the rebel movement. Working with Hera's team, Zeb is no longer a solemn protector of Lasat elite. He may still possess the training, the knowledge, and the weapon of the Lasat honor guard, but he does not possess their mission. Put simply, he's hanging with a different crew these days, and who you hang out with tends to affect how you behave.

Zeb may have enjoyed giving Ezra hard time at the beginning of their adventure together, but Ezra still considered him a friend. When the Lasat fell off a wall attempting to scale it behind Ezra, the boy called out for him. It was the first real clue in this episode that, despite all their differences, Ezra genuinely cared for Zeb. When push came to shove, as we saw in the last episode, Ezra was a team player.

Every friendship has its rocky moments early on, and this episode proved itself capable of portraying that honestly and realistically by not settling for a straight upward trajectory in depicting Ezra and Zeb's coexistence. Even after they began to warm to each other, there were tense moments. When the TIE veered toward the street and meiloorun splattered on its canopy, Zeb got angry Ezra, as if seeking to blame the accident on his young partner. The Lasat had a brief moment of awe at Ezra when the kid used the Force to avert a catastrophic crash, but then he mustered his angry face again, telling Ezra to clean the TIE's canopy.

Given the cause that had united them, it was ironic that Ezra and Zeb really began to develop a strong working relationship in the cockpit of that TIE fighter. By the time the episode was over, Zeb liked Ezra enough to tell him, "Let's just say we're eternally even." This was Zeb showing Ezra the ultimate sign of confidence: a recognition of the fact that they would be working together long-term. Zeb even thought to grab Ezra a helmet for the collection he knew the kid maintained. Ezra's first response was his brash, unthinking persona, telling Zeb that he already had a TIE pilot helmet. But then he demonstrated that he was learning to interact more sociably and to think about other people's feelings: He told Zeb that this TIE pilot helmet was "a nice one."

This was also a strong episode for Ezra in ways unrelated to his growing friendship with Zeb. Sure, he was still caught up in his crush on Sabine, earning an eye-roll from her when he caught himself in the middle of a chase to ask if she wanted him to pose for her. The kid thinks he's smooth, and at some point Sabine is probably going to clue him in about the fact that he isn't. But for now, let him have his childlike obsessions and misconceptions. After all, he's a teenage boy. If you thought there wasn't going to be any "teenage boy stuff" from Ezra in this series, you were being unrealistic. If Rebels were to ignore the impulses and hopes of its main viewpoint character, it would be unrealistic.

One of the biggest Ezra-specific themes in this episode was the notion of proving oneself, or trying to, at any rate. The stage was set when Ezra ran into Morad Sumar, the human farmer with the yogan stand. As Dave Filoni has said many times before, no second is wasted in a twenty-two-minute Star Wars adventure. For this reason, I perked up when I saw that we were going to meet a background character so early in the episode. You could call Mr. Sumar "Chekhov's family friend," based on the dramatic principle of Chekhov's gun. He was there in Act One, so he was going to be relevant in Act Three.

When Mr. Sumar became relevant, it set the stage for Ezra to do something that he rarely did: risk his life for someone else. When he saw the smoke rising from Mr. Sumar's farm, he found himself asking someone else (Zeb) to help him risk his life -- the exact opposite of what had happened in Spark of Rebellion with Hera. The fact that what motivated Ezra was his connection to Mr. Sumar through his parents showed that he valued other people more than he usually let on. His brief mention to Zeb of his parents gave us another hint of what his life was like before the series.

Ezra's first conscious, intentional, and successful use of the Force -- at least on screen -- happened when he unlocked the Imperial prison transport's guard doors to free Mr. Sumar, his wife, and their hired farmhand. The episode made a point of slowing down what was an otherwise hectic rescue mission to show us Ezra concentrating on using the Force. He was motivated to slow down and concentrate based on his desire to save his friends. This was no ordinary "op" for Ezra; this was personal. After a successful rescue, a brief strand of music from A New Hope could be heard as Ezra waved goodbye to his friends. To me, the music hinted at the beginning of Ezra's progression from street rat to hero on a journey.

Despite being mostly about Ezra and Zeb's shopping-trip bonding experience, "Fighter Flight" also contained some brief glimpses of what is quickly becoming a highlight of the series: the familial atmosphere aboard the Ghost. I liked seeing Hera managing the crew, especially on practical matters like grocery shopping. It may sound like a dull subject, but the emphasis that Hera placed on gathering supplies reminded us that the Ghost crew have some pretty basic concerns in addition to their high-minded quest. The fact that Hera ordered them to buy a meiloorun even though they weren't grown on Lothal was just an added twist to their itinerary that reflected her sense of humor.

The various other interactions about the Ghost likewise contributed to a nice picture of a crew at home. There was Hera and Sabine's conversation, where Hera, sensing that Sabine was up to no good, wrote off the situation because she trusted the younger woman, and because, hey, at least it wasn't in Hera's room. The Hera/Sabine dynamic fascinates me, and we haven't seen much of it yet. Sabine respects Hera and Hera respects Sabine, but Hera also recognizes that Sabine is just a quirky character and needs space to do her thing. Whether she's "doing her thing" in her own space or in someone else's...well, that's not Hera's issue to micromanage. Let the kids sort it out.

I can't talk about the crew of the Ghost in their natural habitat without remarking on Chopper, the family cat. I was apprehensive at first about how much the series could make me love an astromech besides R2-D2, but I'll admit that Chopper is growing on me. I loved watching him antagonize Ezra, in a polar opposite dynamic to R2 and Luke. The way he made those tentative noises while Ezra tried to life the bowl with the Force, only to reveal that he, Chopper, was doing the lifting, was very funny. He even accompanied the fake-out with his own "whomp whomp" sound effect. This droid is an all-in-one hazing ritual.

Later, after he removed the bolts from Ezra's bunk and precipitated the latest clash between Ezra and Zeb, Chopper proudly showed off his handiwork to Sabine, who remarked on it approvingly. Chopper's hijinks didn't just make him feel like part of the team; they made the team's base of operations feel more like a home. Sabine's art project was part of that. By the time Ezra and Zeb returned to the ship, Sabine had immortalized a moment of levity between the two roommates -- or at least, it was a moment of levity to her and Chopper.

Very few things bothered me about this episode. There was the so-obvious-it-almost-hurts reference to A New Hope with "That's not the TIE you're looking for." There was the corny scene with Zeb and Ezra pretending to box on their way into the Ghost after their adventure. And I can't ignore the tired Star Wars clich? of Chopper playing dejarik with Kanan; apparently every single freighter in the galaxy has to have one of those chess boards.

Overall, however, these minor complaints did little to distract from the broader narrative and the successful depiction of Ezra and Zeb's evolving relationship. One of my favorite moments was Zeb and Ezra facing off via comlink against Hera and Kanan, who were demanding to know their situation. Zeb and Ezra's shared experience flouting the no-stealing-TIE-fighters rule had created a bond between them. They both wanted to keep the TIE, and they worked together to disable the locator beacon before -- we must assume -- stashing it somewhere safe.

The writer, Season 1 executive producer Greg Weisman, brought a healthy dose of the banter that Star Wars is known for: "What's the worst that could happen?" "Well, we both wind up dead." The voice actors, especially Taylor Gray as Ezra, offered a very good balance of humor and believability. Gray and Zeb voice actor Steve Blum ensured that, while the dialog was funny, it wasn't usually cheesy. Furthermore, some of the camera angles -- especially looking over the gun turret's "shoulder" at the TIE fighter -- were straight out of A New Hope in a way that successfully executed on the animation team's desire to evoke classic trilogy feelings.

Star Wars Rebels is off to a strong start, and episodes like "Fighter Flight" demonstrate the writers' intent on fleshing out their characters early so that they can take on bigger and bigger social, ideological, and situational challenges. I wanted to see a decisive turn in Ezra and Zeb's friendship, and I think we got that here. That's not to say they'll never argue again. Instead, what "Fighter Flight" delivered was a believable resolution to their misgivings about each other. Zeb may still trust his honor guard staff more than the Force, and Ezra may still prefer to be alone with his thoughts than trapped in a cabin with Zeb, but the two of them are now true friends.


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