I’m going to try and hold off on saying anything about the meat of my discussion for about a hundred words because I don’t want the spoilery content to make it onto Facebook, Twitter, etc. previews. Please note that if you continue there will be spoilers. This is because I’m trying to get at some thematic things that depend on some of the late-season action pretty heavily.
With that said, I’ll note now that I came to Clone Wars very late (as in I’m still not done watching it) largely because I was one of those fans who felt very let down by the prequel trilogy. In fact if it weren’t for Adam Shaftoe being like, “no, seriously, give it a chance,” I wouldn’t have ever got around to it.
Clone Wars largely seems to be an apologia for the prequel trilogy. It does this by giving room for the relationship between Anakin and Obi Wan to breathe, by introducing Ahsoka Tano as a character, by allowing time for Anakin and Amidala’s romance to seem less straight-up creepy and by humanizing the clone troopers and giving space to examine how they’re affected by a war they were born and raised to fight.
But even so it seemed like a half-measure to me. Clone Wars does much to humanize Anakin Skywalker and remove some of the taint of Hayden Christensen’s career-destroyingly bad performance in the prequel trilogy. But, at least the parts of it I’ve seen to date, don’t really do anything to show us a man being seduced by the dark side of the force. And that’s a problem, because Palpatine’s co-option of Skywalker remains the most awkward and ham-fisted parts of the prequel trilogy: a victim of stilted scriptwriting, crowded plotting, last minute stunt-casting and Christensen’s inability to act his way out of a paper bag.
And so we’re left with a story of a now thoroughly humanized Jedi, who suddenly goes inexplicably insane and starts murdering children for no fucking reason in Ep. III.
I don’t know, maybe there are scenes later in the Clone Wars trilogy that I haven’t seen yet, where Anakin must engage Dooku on a dialectical level rather than just as an enemy swordsman, where he’ll have to confront the discrepancies in Jedi orthodoxy and see that perhaps the ideas of the Sith – that embracing passion makes one stronger, more able to shape the universe the way it should be – are worth examining.
But I haven’t seen them yet, at all really, and I’m into the second season of that show.
Ok, that’s probably long enough.
So let’s get to it.
Star Wars Rebels is the Darth Vader origin story the prequel trilogy should have been.
Being in the second season is significant because Rebels is two seasons old and has managed to create a Vader origin story on two levels, both of which are more effective than Ep. III ever was.
The first level is as a textual origin story. Throughout the second season, having defeated the Inquisitor from season one, the rebels face a nemesis in the form of Vader himself, and gain an ally in the form of Ahsoka Tano.
Within the show, Vader is as different from the season two inquisitors as Ebola is from a head cold. The inquisitors in season two are largely typical cartoon antagonists. They’re dangerous enough to provide an obstacle to our heroes, but rarely present much in the way of legitimate peril.
And then there’s Vader.
Vader gets a large vehicle dropped on him in his first encounter with the rebels. He’s buried under tonnes of scrap metal. And then he just shrugs it off. His laboured breathing doesn’t even change speed. Vader is implacable, a juggernaut, he’s inevitable death, patiently walking toward his enemies, fully aware that they are insects.
Just try not to cry.
Ahsoka discovering his identity, and coming to terms with the fact that her master, the man she fought with, who taught her to be the person she became, has become a monster, is one of the most emotionally intense moments I’ve seen in a cartoon. I mean we’re almost reaching Jurassic Bark levels here.
In these moments between former master and apprentice, we manage to see at the very least how far Vader has fallen. We see the contempt he has for the man he was. We see how he’s encased himself in emotional armor, and how he believes, and not without cause, that this distance has made him so very much stronger than he was.
This provides context for Vader that functions as an origin for him better than a direct retelling of his fall. But of course, as Lucas said, and Abrahams skillfully showed, Star Wars products should rhyme. And that’s where we hit the thematic way in which Rebels becomes a better Vader origin story.
We need to talk about Ezra
Ezra is the perspective protagonist of Star Wars Rebels and he holds the narrative focus much more strongly than Anakin does in the Clone Wars. This callow youth is a force sensitive who has grown up without his parents due to their having been among the first people to actively oppose the Imperial order. We eventually learn that they were imprisoned and later died orchestrating a prison escape in response to their own son’s rebellious propaganda.
Bam. Ezra holds some responsibility for his parents death while simultaneously being able to externalize the blame to a vast and implacable foe to whom his anger was already devoted.
He’s also frighteningly powerful. The show handles this with uncharacteristic grace considering how heavy-handed the Star Wars franchise can be, focusing on Ezra’s special talent: charming animals. Over and over again, his ability to empathize with the monstrous creatures who occupy the frontier of the Star Wars universe gets him and his friends out of peril. He soothes angry monsters. He secures flying steeds for last-minute escapes. He identifies potential environmental hazards and enlists beasts to fight his enemies for him. This happens over and over again. And what’s more, Ezra is shown to far surpass Kanan in this regard. As for Ahsoka, she may be a masterful light sabre duelist, but the script never gives her that sort of ability.
And Ezra has a clear affinity with the Dark Side. Kanan agonizes over it. Yoda is nervous around it. Maul exploits it. The inquisitors egg it on. Every force sensitive Ezra encounters (again, seemingly except Ahsoka, who seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the Dark Side) notices that the boy has a bond to it.
And boy howdy but it’s seductive. When Ezra fails to accomplish Force feats using Jedi methods of serenity, Maul tells him to harness the power of his emotions, and it might as well be nitrous. Ezra, when he lets his passion into his force work, is far more powerful than when he is under Kanan’s watchful eye. This is highlighted repeatedly through the second season to such an extent that it reinforces my opinion that the whole dark side / light side thing and some of the toxic structures that leave the Jedi so vulnerable to the Sith exist precisely as a check to the power a fully trained Force user can wield. Simply put, the Jedi are deliberately handicapping themselves for moral reasons. And Rebels makes this much clearer over and over.
This whole story boils throughout the length of the second season, but it comes thoroughly into focus when Ezra encounters Maul (not Darth, not anymore) during the finale. Old Master Maul embodies the seduction of the Dark Side much more effectively than his own master ever did in the movies. And I can see a dark timeline where Ezra slowly drives away his friends with his spiral into darkness, until all that’s left is to bow before a master he hates, but who is the only one who understands the journey he’s set himself to.
Parallels in the supporting cast
So if Ezra is our Anakin Skywalker stand-in, and Maul is our Palpatine, this sets Kanan as our Obi Wan. And he does an admirable job. We get a real sense of mentorship with Kanan, but also camaraderie. Kanan is in many ways the ideal Jedi. He’s selfless, kind, brave and occasionally reckless. He tries to temper his action with wisdom and agonizes constantly as to whether he’s really up to the tasks he sets himself.
Unlike Obi Wan with Vader, Kanan is probably the first one to notice how strong Ezra is with the Dark Side. And as he tries to guide his apprentice along the Jedi path, this anxiety, that he will fail his apprentice and precipitate a fall, is his core fear.
Yoda stands in for himself in the series. He remains the slightly disapproving master turned recluse that he is in Empire Strikes Back. But his reaction to Ezra, while echoing his reaction to Luke Skywalker, is much more level than his immediate rejection of Anakin Skywalker in Episode I. Of course Yoda’s awareness of Ezra and Kanan presents a puzzle since, his words to Obi Wan regarding Luke at the climax of Empire is, “there is another,” and this is clearly Leia, he never says, “and, you know there’s that Jedi Knight and his apprentice who helped found the rebellion kicking around too.”
So that raises the question of why they’re out of the picture by the time Luke bursts onto it.
There isn’t really a Padme equivalent, as Ezra’s romantic life has taken a thankful back-seat to his master-student relationship. However the closest parallel is probably Sabine – the Mandalorian artist/bomber who joined the rebel crew shortly before Ezra.
She’s a heck of a lot more interesting than Padme ever got to be, though this could be the combined influence of both the awful scriptwriting that Portman faced in the prequel trilogy, and the fact that she’s got so much more screentime when all is said and done. Still, her ascerbic wit, her moodiness and her desire for inclusion, trust and respect provide a role model for Ezra which point him away from the staid teachings of the Jedi without going into the nonsensical, “Jedi aren’t allowed to love,” crap from the prequel trilogy. After all, Kanan’s relationship with Hera stands in stark contrast, a relationship of mutual respect, tender love and compassion.
Hera then acts effectively as a foil for the Padme role.
Here I have to divert to say momentarily that it’s unfortunate the extent to which the show does use the women in the cast to advance the character arc of the male characters. However the episode where Hera and Sabine have to recruit a ship builder together remains one of the strongest stand-alone episodes in the series, so this is something which will hopefully be corrected as Disney comes to realize how strong the force is with women.
The remaining key cast members mostly serve roles of comic relief and don’t need much discussion here. Chopper as stand in for R2-D2 isn’t exactly something that advances much thematically, especially since he’s basically just a palette swap.
That finale tho
So this is where we leave our Rebels: Kanan wounded by Maul. Ezra opening a Sith holocron even though he knows that thing is bad news. The battle between the Rebels, the Inquisitors, Maul, Vader and Ahsoka reduces the Inquisitor population further but ultimately sends all the other force users to their respective corners to wait for Round 3.
It’s hard to say which way Rebels will go. Using Jedi as much as it has – and Rebels is absolutely lousy with force users – paints it into a corner since Kanan, Ahsoka, Ezra, Maul an the Inquisitors are absent from the original trilogy. We could be looking at a tragedy story here.
But it’s children’s cartoon. So maybe we won’t get such a dark ending. And that’s what ultimately makes Rebels compelling entertainment. The stakes are organically high. The characters are invested in the story in a way that makes sense and that puts them in a position of genuine peril – both to the body and to the heart. And that leaves me anxiously awaiting Season 3, flaws and all.