Mike: The good news is, this is the episode I’ve been waiting for since Star Wars Rebels began. I am a giant sucker for “the bad guy comes around” stories; it’s a big reason why I was such a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it may explain why the original trilogy spoke so strongly to me when I was younger (or maybe it’s the other way around). While the institution of the Empire is quintessentially one-dimensional, puppy-kicking, muahaha-ing capital-E Evil, Star Wars at its best has never been a one-dimensional story; it’s about—pardon the word choice—human characters making human decisions in the midst of galactic-scale moral crises. As The Clone Wars got on in years it started moving characters around on its moral axis, usually toward the “more evil” side, and it’s very exciting to see Rebels finally take its first steps past a one-dimensional Empire by nudging Agent Kallus, its longest-surviving antagonist, ever so slightly toward the “good” column.
The bad news is, I’ve been waiting for this since the show began. As much as I want to see the show make Kallus sympathetic (at all), I can very easily see an argument for it being too late. Kallus may not be an evil force of nature like Vader was, but he’s hardly a confused teenager like ATLA’s Prince Zuko, either. He’s performed any number of evil deeds in his career, even bragged about them, and forcing him to develop a grudging warrior’s respect for Zeb, while very welcome, isn’t exactly the profound moral crisis Vader faced when expected to kill his own son.
Of course, this could simply be an attempt to add more dimension to the character—and give the amazing David Oyelowo a little more to work with—without really changing his alignment. Maybe it’s about motivating Kallus to investigate the disappearance of the Geonosians, so that he might stumble upon the Death Star—a much bigger moral crisis for an Imperial “everyman”. Or it could be akin to Ventress’s arc in TCW; Kallus decides he doesn’t want to serve the Empire but isn’t about to oppose it, either. But wherever the story goes, the reason for any character development along these lines would be to earn some degree of sympathy for Kallus from the audience, and after a season and a half of mustache-twirling, that would be a huge task for a show that delights in presenting the deaths of stormtroopers as comic relief. What do you guys think? Could you actually see your way to rooting for Kallus someday?
Ben: There is a very important distinction to be made here. Sympathetic does not automatically equate to being a hero. This episode made Kallus sympathetic to a degree, but it most certainly did not make him a hero. Kallus is an Imperial soldier, through and through, and his actions through the series thus far can’t be forgiven after one episode worth of soul-searching. But this episode wasn’t there to turn him into a good guy right out of the gate. Maybe it’s there to lay a foundation for an eventual heel-face-turn, or maybe it’s there just to show us that the cackling staff-wielding villain we thought we knew has his own reasons for doing what he does, and his own experiences with the war he has fought.
The pivotal scene, in my opinion, is when Kallus and Zeb discuss what happened on Lasan. This is after they have spent enough time on awkward banter and conversation that a number of their walls have been broken down. They’ve both shared their point of view, and Zeb has encouraged Kallus (in his own gruff way) to start thinking for himself about whether his actions are justified or not based simply on what his superiors say. But the major elephant in the room has yet to be addressed. Once Kallus brings up Lasan, he looks remorseful, even ashamed of himself, but he doesn’t back down from his actions, only stating that the results of what happened weren’t what he had intended.
And instead of Zeb barking at him or just shrugging him off as he has for most of the episode, the Lasat does something unexpected. He says he’s moved on. He doesn’t forgive Kallus, and I doubt he ever will, but he does tell him straight out that he doesn’t hate him as much anymore, something that happened before this episode even began. Once Zeb found out he was 1. not the last of his kind after all and 2. actually his species’s herald of sorts to help lead survivors to a planet where they could live and be safe without Imperial interference, his hatred for Kallus lost its edge.
And it’s something that Kallus simply isn’t prepared for. He isn’t ready to confront and speak with a Lasat somewhat civilly, not after everything he’s seen and done in his life. And he’s shaken by it, he’s affected. Zeb shows Kallus a sense of honor and maturity that leaves Kallus flabbergasted. After all, aren’t they mortal enemies?
No, apparently. They aren’t.
I’ll root for him. More that he continues to see what he and the Empire do from a more objective perspective. He doesn’t have to change sides and become a Rebel, I really don’t think he would. But maybe he can show a bit more honor as he moves forward, show that the Empire isn’t made up wholly of one-dimensional villains.
Jay: So, I’ve had to sit and digest this episode for a while. I have a particular dislike for whitewashed Imperials, or Imperials who are “good” without any explanation of why they’re serving an evil system. I’ve written at length on that already, and I needn’t go through it again here. I’ll just leave it at that I’m really sensitive to these kind of portrayals and look at them really closely. But as a result, I also tend to scrutinize the way these portrayals are received — and there was a lot of Twitter traffic about saying this episode accomplished a “heroes on both sides” feel. It didn’t, and because I feel that Kallus is thoroughly unheroic it’s very easy to read the episode through that lens.
So I was prepared to write something negative here, about how the episode didn’t work for me and how Kallus hadn’t earned sympathy or hadn’t justified portrayal as a decent, honorable warrior. But on my second viewing, it occurred to me that’s not really what the episode was showing. The episode was showing more depth and humanity for Kallus, but not seeking that we empathize with him. We see why Kallus does what he does, and we see how he lives a comfortable lie: thoroughly convinced the Rebels are monstrous and his deeds are justified. We see, too, how he has difficulty justifying them when challenged, as opposed to living in an environment where everyone agrees to the same truths. That’s a valuable perspective.
But I want to stress that Kallus is still definitely a terrible person. He relishes his awfulness, and his role in Minister Tua’s murder shows how far he’s willing to go. But though evil, he’s still a human being — and acts of mercy, warmth, or kindness have their affect on him, and the reciprocal lack from the Imperials is very noticeable too. Kallus had to work with Zeb to survive, and a goal-oriented person like him had little trouble deciding which short-term goals outweighed certain long-term goals. But though his decision was purely rational, the emotional aspect did hit him.
And I think that’s where the episode’s strengths lie. It’s important to underline both that Kallus is human and that he’s still a villain. But he’s a villain and a dupe. I think the episode may have gone a little too far in making him nice, given his personality in the past, but showing his humanity and showing the illusions he operates under was important.
My hope going forward is that he doesn’t actually defect defect, or if he does, it’s something that’s earned and worked towards. But I do hope that this sets the seeds for something, and isn’t just a one-off episode for Kallus.
Sarah: I have a soft spot for sympathetic portrayals of Imperials. It’s far too easy to make them into flat, one dimensional, mustache-twirling villains and Rebels, unfortunately, has fallen into that trap far too often. While Star Wars is known for its archetypal characters, there’s always nuance to keep them three dimensional.
Furthermore, pairing Kallus with Zeb makes the episode mean more. Obviously there is no love lost between the Ghost crew and the Imperials, but the animosity between Kallus and Zeb is far more personal due to Kallus’s history with the massacre on Lasan. So to have these two have to work together to survive and eventually reach a point of grudging respect is far more impactful than it would be with Kallus and Hera or Kallus and Kanan. Kallus is full on expecting to have to fight Zeb every step of the way and is left reeling with Zeb responds to him with maturity and honor. This leaves Kallus emotionally vulnerable, and he begins to recognize, if even subconsciously, the comfortable lies and justifications his life is based on.
As Jay said, a sympathetic portrayal of Imperials means striking a delicate balance between finding that nuance and not justifying why they would continue to serve such an evil entity. Because let’s be clear: Kallus, despite moments of humanity and understanding in this episode, is not a nice person. He may not have set out intending to massacre Lasan but he certainly sees no problem with gloating about it after the fact and using it to taunt Zeb. He’s no Ciena Ree or Rae Sloane, caught between believing in the Empire’s higher ideals (and carrying them out as pragmatically as possible) while desperately trying to rationalize away all the evil it does. Kallus clearly revels in the terror the Empire spreads.
So does this mark the first step in a full fledged redemption arc for Kallus? Only time will tell, though I’m not holding my breath. Though we started to see some cracks in his Imperial persona, I’m not sure Kallus is the type to turn rebel (at least not without some heavy character development). Far more likely is the chance that he stays within the Empire…but is perhaps a bit more pragmatic. A bit more honorable. Or, at least not so gleefully malicious. Still villainous, but not a cartoonish caricature of evil.