Jay: The season three premiere of Star Wars Rebels was an interesting departure from the series norm. I’ve already heard a few people observe that it was less intense — both emotionally and in terms of action — than the opener of the last season, and I agree. I also think that’s a good thing: the story development reasons that required “The Siege of Lothal” to be a very harrowing experience for the characters militate a very different sort of development for the season three opener. That said, I don’t think the character experiences are any less intense just because their engagement with the villains was.
Vader loomed large over “The Siege of Lothal”. He had to — he’s Darth Vader. But more than that, he escalated and changed the stakes in a show where the Ghost crew — even facing the Grand Inquisitor and Grand Moff Tarkin — had a fairly easy time of it. He also drove the crew off of Lothal in a convincing fashion. These were all important for story reasons: it wasn’t just that Vader’s presence demanded that the heroes become overwhelmed, but that they needed an impetus to change the pace of the show and change its setting. “Siege” was exactly what the show needed, and it shocked the audience in all the right ways just as it provided the characters a great shock and opportunity for growth.
“Steps Into Shadow” was different. For one thing, it would be a little unconvincing if Thrawn were to show up and 1) be defeated or 2) defeat the Ghost crew but be prevented from finishing them off. Instead, his presence was slow and methodical — he made himself known as a threat, but in that very deliberate and methodical way that Thrawn does. As Dave Filoni pointed out in an interview, Thrawn is very different from someone like Tarkin (or the other villains that the Ghost crew has faced) — Thrawn is not a politician and he doesn’t have a need to show immediate results. He’s after the bigger picture. That alone makes him terrifying — the finality with which he dismissed the entire Phoenix force by saying, “that is not the Rebel fleet,” says it all. He’s playing to win, and that will take time.
That time granted our characters time to develop. The show would have been short-changed and the audience done a disservice if we did not have time to see the consequences from “Twilight of the Apprentice” play out. Ezra’s flirtation with the dark side needed more than just an immediate resolution, and I think we’ve all seen the dangerous consequences of that flirtation (in another altogether terrifying form) for both him and his crew. And while I’m mildly concerned that he and Kanan made up so quickly, those fissures are likely to remain — at least one hopes. We know this storyline isn’t over yet.
Nor was Kanan’s blindness brushed over. He has his Jedi calm and peace in meditation, but he’s actually terrified. His conversation with Bendu about fear was one of the best things the show has ever done, and showed Kanan’s insecurities better than previous episodes — including the one with the Jedi Temple.
So in conclusion, this episode was exactly what it needed to be. It gave the characters room to breathe and develop from the last season — because that’s where the show is now — and it gave Thrawn a chance to develop as a mature threat, instead of a Vader-like menace who could only appear once and disappear lest the Rebellion be over right here and now. I’m very interested to see where the show takes Thrawn and the new fissures in the Ghost crew.
(If I had one complaint, it was that Sato put Ezra in charge instead of Sabine — it’s not like Sabine went to the *Academy* or anything, and it’s not like she’s a thousand times more level-headed than Ezra. Suppose the tendency during the last war to give juvenile Jedi military commands hasn’t changed…)
Ben: The differences in the three season openers for Rebels have been an interesting study. The season one opener “Spark of Rebellion” served also as a pilot for the series as a whole, introducing the heroes and villains and showing us the stakes. We got our first look at Lothal, got to know each of the different characters, and saw just what the Empire was bringing to bear against our heroes. “Siege of Lothal”, the first episode of the second season, was the climax of everything that happened in the show to that point, almost more a finale for the first season than a starting point for the second. It ended the show’s ongoing setting on Lothal as a parallel to the first season opening with it.
“Steps into Shadow” is more like the first season’s premiere than the second, but is still distinctly its own animal. It’s the first premiere to not make its debut during the summer as a special “movie” airing. It’s also the biggest obvious time-skip in the series thus far, with all of our main hero characters sporting redesigned character models to reflect that, so it serves as a launching point for the third season more than a finale for the second. It’s not quite a reintroduction to the series, though the continuity with what happened before is still there and still strong.
The major thing that sets “Steps into Shadow” apart from the other two premieres is how it treats the Empire. In the first season’s opening, the Empire was represented by Agent Kallus, a confident and somewhat competent ISB agent who very quickly found himself outclassed by the Rebels but dogged them at every step throughout the season. The second season opened with Darth Vader picking up where Kallus and the Inquisitor had failed, using ruthless craft and brute force to pry the Rebels loose from their home base and cast them out into the galaxy. Season three opens with Grand Admiral Thrawn doing… nothing.
It’s a fascinating contrast. Where Vader and Kallus take immediate action to rid the Empire of the Rebels, Thrawn is content to sit back and wait, watching and studying. Like his Legends counterpart, Thrawn’s strength as a villain seems to be his analytical ability and willingness to learn. While the conclusions that he draws as to the Rebels’ intentions are nothing earth-shaking, it’s the orders that he gives that are different. Where Kallus would have pursued the Ghost crew to Reklam Station and doubtlessly confronted them there, and just about any other Imperial officer would have ambushed them with the intent to destroy them above the planet, Thrawn allows them to escape.
It’s a similar gambit to the one that Vader runs himself in the season two opener, allowing the Ghost crew to escape and lead him back to the Rebel fleet; Thrawn allows them to escape with their small victory, losing only a salvage station in the process. But, unlike almost any other character in the show (except Hera and Sato) he knows that he is dealing not just with insurgents, but with a capital-R Rebellion beyond just the Ghost and the force it’s a part of. So he, too, resolves to play the long game. Instead of focusing on the destruction of a single cell, even a single group of ships, he watches and waits to see how things will play out before taking any decisive action, to get the scope of the enemy and the measure of their resolve.
This changes the pacing of the story in a fundamental way. There is no confrontation between the heroes and villains. At this point, the Ghost crew does not even know that Thrawn and Pryce are hunting them. The show, like Thrawn, is playing the long game. We know from trailers and previews that Thrawn will, at some point, confront the Rebels directly. But the fact that he did not right away is new. The conflict will play out as the season goes on, as Thrawn resolves to take the Rebels apart piece by piece instead of in one decisive battle. This makes the initial premiere a bit less bombastic that the second season’s and a little more involved than the first, but sets things up for a very interesting sort of unfolding as things progress.
And that’s not even touching on the fascinating potential that Ezra and Kanan’s respective new statuses will have for their parts of the story going forward. The main difference there is that we have had that plot, the Jedi being reborn and going up against whatever the Empire throws against them, threading through all three seasons at this point. The plot of the Imperial Admiralty hunting down the coalescing Rebel fleet has a lot of promise, because it’s something that has never really been shown on screen before, but we always knew would happen.
The Rebellion is starting to come together, but the Empire is likewise beginning to take their actions more seriously. Just like the escalation in danger in the last two seasons as Ezra and Kanan learned more about the Force, now the actions of the group have indicated that in order to ensure their destruction, the Empire must resort to a higher form of war. This is no longer about simply putting down an insurrection, this is about forming a war plan and systematically destroying an opposing force. Hence, Tarkin and Pryce bring in Thrawn, an accomplished, credited military leader, with the purpose of engaging (and destroying) a military threat.
Season three of Rebels is just getting started. Even without the flash and pizzazz of the other premieres, “Steps into Shadow” does exactly what it needed to do: familiarize the viewers with a new status quo, and show how the fight against the Empire will change as the story progresses. The closer we get to A New Hope and the formal, organized Rebel Alliance we see in that film, the more other disparate pieces of plot and character as going to start coming together. But it will also, inevitably, lead to even greater forces being brought down upon them. Darth Vader already scattered their Jedi resources, leaving Ahsoka MIA, Kanan blinded and Ezra struggling to overcome his own anger and fear. Now Thrawn has taken a place on stage, preparing to swoop in and wipe out their military force and crush the rebellion once and for all.
Get your popcorn, folks. This is going to be fun to watch.