I’m a big fan of metafiction—stories that incorporate, either directly or through themes and subtext, their own artificiality into their narratives. In the Expanded Universe, this manifested itself in Luke, Han and Leia’s increasing weariness as the years dragged on and they lost more and more of their loved ones (and debatably, their souls) due to an endless series of galactic conflicts. As early as 1999, Han’s reaction to Chewbacca’s death in Vector Prime was framed in overtly out-of-universe fashion as the evaporation of a perceived bubble of safety around the core group of characters.
While that particular safety bubble was handily popped in The Force Awakens, it manifests in a different way on Star Wars Rebels. While the Disney XD animated series hasn’t shied away from killing any number of Imperials, as the stakes have increased over the past two seasons it’s become increasingly hard for many to believe that no one from its core group of protagonists has died. Personally, I think fans—older ones, at least—get way too wrapped up in life and death being the only stakes that matter in a story; not only is it perhaps unrealistic to expect Whedonesque fatalities among the heroes of a cartoon, but doing so makes it harder to become invested in the stories the show is telling, hence the common complaints that this episode or that is “filler”.
As such, I neither expect nor desire any deaths from the Ghost crew in the near future—by the end of the series, maybe, but not soon. More than that, I’m actively rooting for Hera and Sabine to survive into the original trilogy and beyond. But what’s very interesting to me from a meta perspective is the tension between Kanan and Ezra’s story and the very real pressures both in- and out-of-universe forcing them inch by inch toward the grave. As someone who survived for years on the fringes of the Empire, and who has now endured a handicap that could limit his ability to be a true threat to Palpatine, I can imagine any number of second-tier fates for Kanan that don’t involve his death. Ultimately, though, Rebels is no more his story than A New Hope is Obi-Wan’s—it’s about Ezra. Kanan’s function in the story is to take a dumb, self-centered kid and facilitate his transcendence into a higher plateau of importance, one where he could be a force for great good, unthinkable evil, or purely for himself.
“If we’re telling a multiple season story, I want to know where this kid is going. Why does this kid exist for us? Why was Ezra so important we had to tell a story about him?”
When The Clone Wars first began, news of its main new character Ahsoka Tano was met with a level of skepticism that’s hard to remember now. For Expanded Universe fans, the notion that Anakin had had an apprentice at all was a huge, continuity-shaking pill to swallow, and even for more casual fans I’ve spoken to, “Anakin gets a sassy teenage sidekick” sounded like the worst aspects of The Phantom Menace all over again, or worse, a Poochie-esque attempt to make Star Wars more “contemporary”. Even I’ll admit that she was a hard character to invest in that first year or two—and so has it been with Ezra.
Except this time, I’ve seen what can become of a character like that. The fact of the matter is, fourteen-year-olds are obnoxious; it’s a primary hallmark of that age. Starting a character’s story there can mean a tough sell at first, but with the proper care, in time you can watch them flourish into mature, three-dimensional individuals, and appreciate it all the more because you were there for the bratty years.
For Ahsoka, coming into her own meant leaving the Jedi Order behind; any other story wouldn’t have given her the chance to grow up at all. In doing so, she both demonstrated her own strength as a character and lent a new facet to Anakin’s turn to the dark side shortly thereafter. Instead of being a cynical post hoc accessory to the prequel era, she became a key puzzle piece.
Viewed in this context, what might become of Ezra? I’m truly not sure. But we know Dave Filoni and the other showrunners are keenly aware of the original trilogy’s status quo where extraneous Jedi are concerned. As much as that might seem like the story they’ve been telling thus far, I’m not especially concerned that he’ll be running around as an active Jedi (or darksider, for that matter) beyond A New Hope, but to think those are the only two options for him is to ignore the lesson we learned from Ahsoka. Where she functioned as a bridge between the Anakin of Episodes II and III, Ezra conveniently sharing a birthdate with the Empire itself (not to mention his oh-so-clever last name) could signify his status as a bridge between the old ways of doing things and the new. His training may predate Luke’s, but he has much more in common with Luke than he does with Kanan or any other Old Republic Jedi. Including one crucial detail—both he and Luke were raised by a loving family until the Empire interceded. Also like Luke, he now faces danger from the dark side born of a desire to protect his loved ones at all costs. How might he react differently to this temptation than Luke did? And what lessons might Yoda, observing from afar, take away from it?
After the season two finale, one piece of speculation I heard was that Yoda sent Ezra to Malachor knowing Ahsoka would go with him, and hoping that she might be the one person capable of bringing Anakin back to the light. When that doesn’t work out, he then becomes set in his view that the only way out is to destroy Vader, and this is how we find him in The Empire Strikes Back. That’s an interesting possibility, and it’s the way we should be thinking now about Ezra himself—rather than try to extrapolate his future from where we are now, look at where we know we’re going and consider how he might help to get us there.
Like Ahsoka, Ezra was a tough sell at first. After the prequels, Star Wars fans had gotten used to having a pretty good idea of where characters were going to end up, so suddenly coming upon an irascible little ragamuffin who’s inexplicably missing from later stories was understandably disorienting. But look at Ahsoka—and more importantly, her fan base—now. I have no idea where Ezra will be a few years down the line, but I’m willing to bet we’ll enjoy the ride.