Star Wars Rebels Season 1 Episode 3: "Rise of the Old Masters"
Throughout the first season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, viewers who weren’t sure whether to stick with the series were presented with numerous excuses to tune out. ("Bombad Jedi," anyone?) Then Season Two kicked off and almost immediately the series took Star Wars to the next level with the episode “Landing on Point Rain.” No fan could justify tuning out after that. Five years later, Star Wars Rebels is just getting started, but already “Rise of the Old Masters” is cementing the series as a must-watch piece of the saga. This is Rebels’ “Landing on Point Rain.” Though the focus is on Kanan and Ezra’s relationship, other characters and elements find time to shine—in particular, the show’s sinister new villain.
The first thing we saw in this episode was Ezra struggling. Kanan told him to "focus on letting go," and Ezra sarcastically replied, "Rather hold on if you don't mind." For all that Ezra has witnessed and participated in in the last few episodes, he is still a brash kid who is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task before him. Kanan wanted him to focus, but he was too distracted by the circumstances. His brush with death as he fell off the top of the Ghost reflected how out of his depth he was. Kanan never should have let Zeb and Chopper's throw dozens of cartons at Ezra all at once, but what we saw when they did reflected the fact that Ezra was not yet centered enough to handle such challenges. As he slid down the cockpit bubble of the Ghost, possibly to his death for all he knew, Ezra nonetheless paused to give Sabine, on the other side of the glass, a cautious smile. He couldn't help himself. He was still the cocky adolescent. This was where we found Ezra at the beginning of the episode.
Ezra's fear that Kanan was going to give up on him permeated this episode. This fear gained new meaning at the discovery of a possible survivor of the Jedi Purge, but Ezra was already worried even before that fateful HoloNet transmission. Despite their experiences together, Ezra was afraid that Kanan was fed up with him. You could easily see the hurt in his eyes after Chopper laughed off his concerns and rumbled away. This was a serious issue for Ezra, who had committed himself to a broad cause (rebellion) and a narrow mission (Jedi training) with little understanding of either. I sensed a deep loneliness in Ezra during the first act of this episode, reinforced by Taylor Gray's great voice work.
As the Ghost's detachable shuttle made its way to the Spire, Ezra remained the odd man out. While the ship descended through the clouds, Kanan sat with his eyes closed, Sabine adjusted her helmet, and Zeb flexed his shoulder and neck muscles. Only Ezra appeared unsure of how to steel himself for the mission. He never seemed as much like a rookie rebel as he did in that sequence aboard the shuttle. The team had, as Kanan put it, "prepped for an op," but Ezra was still learning the process for these sorts of things. He didn't know what to do.
Owing to Ezra's lack of self-confidence and his need to prove himself, things went slightly wrong right away. Ezra was so impressed with how deftly Kanan disarmed the stormtroopers on the prison platform—without even reaching for his weapons—that he got caught up in the moment and dived in after the older man. Kanan rebuked him for it, but Ezra's respect for Kanan continued to grow after he disarmed the new batch of stormtroopers without breaking a sweat. You could actually hear Ezra say "Whoa!" as he watched Kanan discard their blasters.
Ezra was one of two main characters who received prominent treatment in "Rise of the Old Masters"—the other being Kanan—but after the first act the story focused more on the master than on the student. The one other moment with Ezra that I want to highlight now is the demonstration of his growth and education. As soon as the rebels, fleeing through the prison, entered the room with the giant closed blast door, it became obvious what Ezra and Kanan would have to do. When the time came, Ezra doubted that he could help Kanan lift the door—it seemed so big, and he so comparatively small. This was the self-doubt that produced Ezra's earlier distractedness, and that led Kanan to parrot the most famous (and famously bizarre) talking point in Jedi history. By the end of the story, however, Ezra had seen enough to develop some measure of confidence in himself. Working with Kanan, he was able to raise the giant door, all the while blocking out the distraction of the Inquisitor's looming presence. Kanan had been right: There would always be distractions. But even the Inquisitor wasn't enough to distract Ezra when he needed his focus the most.
For most of "Rise of the Old Masters," the focus was on Kanan—and rightfully so. Although Ezra needed to grow and learn in order to be an effective Jedi trainee, Kanan too had some work to do before he could effectively train the young man. Looking at their early interactions in this episode, it was easy to see why Ezra suspected that Kanan wanted to be rid of him. Kanan's exasperation at Ezra's lack of focus was obvious. Here he was, investing the precious resources of his time and energy into training this kid, and his student didn't seem to be internalizing his lessons one bit. Ezra's sarcastic comment about wanting to hold on instead of letting go masked the fact that Ezra was holding onto certain notions about the universe of which Kanan would have to disabuse him. ("You must unlearn what you have learned," Yoda told Luke.) All in all, it was a rocky start for this training session.
Like old Ben Kenobi reluctantly pulling his lightsaber in that Mos Eisley cantina and quickly hiding it again, Kanan seems to stash his powers away until he truly needs them. When Chopper and Zeb's antics nearly got Ezra killed, Kanan's powers were truly needed. In a display of Force power that clearly amazed Ezra, Kanan levitated the young man a great distance to land on the Ghost's extended ramp, where Zeb was sheepishly waiting to receive him. But even this impressive rescue belied Kanan's unpolished nature and his weaknesses as a Jedi. Kanan visibly strained to hold onto Ezra; it was clear that, unlike many of the Jedi we're used to seeing from The Clone Wars, Kanan was almost out of stamina. As we saw in this and previous episodes, Kanan is strong, but he's not as strong as those Jedi who actually completed their training.
In a rush of sternness after the rescue, Kanan blasted Ezra for being "undisciplined and full of self-doubt." What he didn't admit to Ezra but knew in his heart was that he, too, lacked discipline and confidence. He has only been part of the Ghost crew for a small portion of his life, and the last time he was in a position to regularly call on the Force was many years prior to joining up with Hera. He was, to put it bluntly, a rusty Jedi. Moreover, he was an imperfect person as well. He took his hesitation out on Ezra when he lambasted his student's self-doubt. Even when he later told Ezra that Luminara would be a better teacher, thus revealing his lack of confidence, he maintained a stern face, indicating that he was disappointed with Ezra.
For all that he was similar to Ezra in terms of his lack of polish, Kanan was also far better than Ezra at fighting, as he demonstrated to great effect in this episode. I loved seeing the weaponless combat between the team and the stormtroopers, because it emphasized that combat could be more about training more than technology. Kanan, in particular, called on the Force in impressive ways, such that I almost forgot that he had never finished his own training. The most intense moment was probably when Kanan Force-pulled a pair of troopers toward him and used his outstretched arms to slam them to the ground. Ezra said, "You're really not messing around tonight," once again reflecting the stunned audience's feelings. For various reasons, Kanan was most certainly not messing around. (Judging by the dark moment where the turbolift door closed on an unconscious stormtrooper's helmet, neither were the animators.)
Ezra may have overestimated how much of the tension between them was his fault, but he was right that Kanan wanted to hand him off to Luminara. Yet in a refreshingly complex and realistic dynamic, Ezra misunderstood Kanan's reasons for wanting to transfer his student. He was only dead-set on giving Ezra to Luminara because he thought he wouldn't make a good teacher. Sure, Ezra's brashness annoyed him, but that only seemed to indicate to him that he wasn't cut out for teaching. Of course, Kanan was also intent on rescuing Luminara to spit in the eye of Emperor, but that was a political motivation. Kanan moved so intently through the halls of that prison with a determination that seemed to stem primarily from his personal motivation: to give Ezra a competent master.
The inclusion of that supremely competent Jedi Master, Luminara Unduli, was, in my opinion, a brilliant way to tie Star Wars Rebels back to the prequel films. It showed us a piece of the fallout from Order 66. Of course the leaders of rebel cells and the senators who sympathized with them would remember the courage of the Jedi and spread word of isolated survivors in the Empire's clutches. In the decade or so after Order 66, it was only natural that the Jedi would become the galaxy's famous hunted prey, viewed with either disdain or admiration depending on one's allegiance but considered an endangered species by all. Kanan's description of Luminara as "a great Jedi Master" and his talk of "rumors she survived the Clone Wars" made the story of Rebels feel like a real extension of Revenge of the Sith.
The moment when we and the characters learned that there was something off about the Luminara they found in the prison cell was positively eerie. It only got weirder when she walked into the containment pod, revealing herself to be a hologram. In an interview with IGN, Dave Filoni said that the hologram Kanan and Ezra see is actually a recording from Luminara's execution. Luminara's movements in the hologram, ending with her stepping into the wall chamber, are literally her last moments of life, recorded from the Inquisitor's perspective and played back for Kanan. She was killed in that chamber. Her body is still in there.
This is deeply disturbing stuff, more so than just about anything else I can remember in any Star Wars media. (The novel Traitor would be up there too, for its devastating torture scenes.) It's no wonder Filoni chose to explain this in an online interview rather than hint any more directly at it in the episode. Still, the fact that we're being told this happened makes it clear that Rebels is not going to shy away from darkness. (Side note: Read the rest of Filoni's interview for some incredibly cool thoughts on the Luminara scene in this episode.)
The idea that other Jedi might have been lured to their deaths by news of Luminara's (or other Jedi's) survival was fascinating to consider. It added another piece of information to our understanding of the Empire's continuing efforts to stamp out remaining Jedi. We've known that during this time Darth Vader was pursuing leads on other Jedi as an extension of his leading role in the Jedi Purge, but to see the Empire devoting other resources to the task puts a new spin on the Emperor's level of concern about Jedi stragglers. And speaking of those other resources, let's examine the newest antagonist in the galaxy far, far away.
Creating a villain is tough. Creating a villain in Star Wars, the saga that introduced Darth Vader, the undisputed ultimate villain—that's tougher still. Creating a villain in Star Wars in a time period when Darth Vader is out there doing his thing? I wasn't sure how Dave Filoni, Simon Kinberg, and Greg Weisman were doing to do it.
They did it. The Imperial Inquisitor's first appearance cemented his status as a villain worth watching. The entrance itself was dramatic, accompanied by the haunting chants of the Sith. Jason Isaacs' voice work was phenomenal, positively humming with elegant menace. The confidence and disdain in that voice is excellent. The Inquisitor, we saw, was able to identify a Jedi's Master based solely on the Jedi's fighting style.
More importantly, given the episode's earlier (and later) focus on distraction, the Inquisitor maintained total awareness during his initial duel with Kanan, barely batting an eye as he deflected the blasts from Ezra's laser-slingshot with ease. Speaking of weapons, I appreciated that the Inquisitor used his double-bladed lightsaber's spinning feature not while dueling but while stalking his prey and to increase the weapon's lethality when thrown. The spinning itself is a great visual, but when I saw that in the trailers, I worried that it was only a visual and that it lacked an exciting purpose. The fact that the Inquisitor used "spin mode" in non-dueling circumstances showed that he had added unique elements to his fighting repertoire, and that impressed me.
I also enjoyed seeing the Inquisitor casually attempt to recruit Ezra to the dark side, as well as Ezra's impertinent response that he'd "never heard of it." Despite Ezra's continued brashness, he still represented a valuable asset to whichever side could retain and mould him. Kanan obviously understood this. You could see on his face how determined he was to hold back the Inquisitor with everything he had. What I found interesting about the subsequent combat was the Inquisitor's surprise at Kanan's ability to pin him to the ceiling. Like many villains, he seemed overly confident in himself. As he watched the rebels escape in their shuttle, you could clearly hear him grunt in displeasure. Despite his disdain for the rebels, their existence was a threat to the Empire, and their actions bothered the Inquisitor more than he let on while fighting them.
This episode's strong story benefitted from a number of amusing moments, impressive visuals, and meaningful lines. The shot of the Ghost floating amid the dense clouds of Lothal was absolutely beautiful, as was the shot of Kanan standing on the roof of the ship pulling Ezra to safety while the blinding sun cast the Ghost in darkened outline. With beautiful shots came quirky ones, like the brief transition to ground level to watch a drink carton land on a Lothal creature's head.
The use of creatures, in particular, offered something refreshing in this otherwise dark story. The B-plot involving Hera's shuttle attracting attention from amorous flying creatures reflected the kind of affinity for nature that the original films portrayed so well with the mynocks. In this case, of course, the creatures were more like Ewoks than mynocks. The way they easily dispatched the stormtroopers and shrugged off their blaster bolts played on the classic theme of nature conquering technology.
Some other funny moments worth noting: Zeb propping up the unconscious stormtroopers so that they appeared to be standing guard at their posts; the Lasat's flippant comment to Ezra, "You did your job, you want a medal?" reminding him that teamwork was not all about recognition; and the line that had my audience at a New York press screening laughing out loud: "Does yours do that?"
That last line speaks to something I really like about Rebels so far: It's not afraid to poke at treasured icons of the franchise, like lightsabers—and, in another running theme of this episode, Jedi wisdom. I thought Kanan's repetition of Yoda's advice to "Do or do not, there is no try," was perfect for this episode. Not only was it situationally appropriate as Kanan was trying to compel Ezra to focus on the task at hand, but it was the right kind of original trilogy reference for a show like this. If you poke fun at a dearly held element of the original films in just the right way, you get the older audience laughing almost despite themselves in recognition of the hokeyness of their favorite movies. Kanan's confusion at the meaning of Yoda's advice reflected the confusion that many viewers experienced when they heard it for the first time.
There were two other major original trilogy dialog references in this episode, but neither of them worked nearly as well as the insertion of "Do or do not." The first was Kanan's "You're lucky every stormtrooper in the prison doesn't know we're here." A passable attempt at homage, forced but inconsequential given how quickly the action resumed. The worst offender was this later exchange between Sabine and Zeb, referring to Kanan: "His plan gets worse all the time." "Just hope he doesn't change it again." Seriously? Look, I know this series is trying to win over original trilogy fans, but there are much better ways to impress them. In fact, I can see how shoehorning in callbacks like this—and to be clear, this was a classic example of forcing a reference—would have the opposite effect. I wouldn't be surprised if children of the seventies skeptically tuning into Rebels viewed this kind of thing as desperate. I hope we see more references in the vein of "Do or do not" and fewer ones in the vein of "His plan gets worse all the time."
There were other things that bothered me about this episode—just once I'd like to see stormtroopers dive for cover when they see a thermal detonator—but overall it was a tremendous success. Zeb got a great laugh line at the beginning of the episode when he responded to Kanan showing Ezra the lightsaber length controls by saying, "I think it should be a little shorter." The decision to cast Brent Spiner as the senator-in-exile was an inspired choice. He had the perfect aristocratic voice for the character. The mission to the Spire carried subtle hints of A New Hope's Death Star break-in, from the Imperial design aesthetic to brief moments like Kanan pulling stormtroopers into a closed turbolift and knocking them out.
The best summation of what made "Rise of the Old Masters" so great is this dialog exchanged by the Inquisitor and Ezra: "He's unfocused and undisciplined." "Then we're perfect for each other!" It was the best moment in the episode, as it revealed Ezra's growing maturity and awareness while reinforcing his persistent headstrong nature. Defying the Inquisitor, he simultaneously acknowledged his own flaws and declared his solidarity with Kanan. As he would later put it to the older man, he didn't want the best Master—he wanted Kanan.
Ezra was right: He and Kanan are perfect for each other. I really like that Kanan isn't the confident, proud, distinguished teacher that Obi-Wan was to Anakin Skywalker. Kanan is a believable Order 66 survivor and, in some ways, a more complex character than we ever saw Obi-Wan grow into. He doubts his own abilities, does the best he can, and betrays his lack of significant formal training every step of the way. At the end of "Rise of the Old Masters," Kanan can finally explain what Yoda meant by "Do or do not; there is no try." He tells Ezra, "I may fail, you may fail, but there is no try." The lesson for Ezra extends to the rest of this motley band of rebels: In this era of struggling to survive while fighting an overwhelming enemy, believing you can succeed may be the most important thing you can do.
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4/16 - Star Wars Celebration Anaheim (2015)
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4/26 - Andrew Secombe