Rebels Revisited: “Look What I Have Risen Above”

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“I’ve done a lot of prolonged lightsaber battles over the years and I think what’s most important about any kind of confrontation is what’s riding on it. What’s the tension going into it? It starts to matter less and less how you swing a sword or how creatively you do it if there’s not a lot riding on it.” – Dave Filoni

Mike: First and foremost, this was an Ezra episode. Like “Twilight of the Apprentice” before it, “Twin Suns” had to take an event of great significance to the larger saga and fashion it into a key step in the development of Star Wars Rebels‘ ongoing story. That being the case, of course we spent most of our time with Ezra, because his state of mind was the point of all this. When Obi-Wan tells Ezra to fuck off back to the Rebellion and Ezra actually listens, that’s such a major character shift as to be almost unbelievable. Ezra’s arc ever since meeting Darth Vader has been all about gaining enough power to defeat the Sith, so for him to willingly trot off into the desert with Maul standing right there shows that his conversation with Obi-Wan ended that delusion of grandeur once and for all—clearly it took being told by “Master Kenobi” himself that his place is with the Rebellion to finally get that through to him (and it’s certainly very interesting for Rebels‘ larger narrative).

And with Ezra out of the way, what does that leave us with? A weak, raving maniac still hung up on a thirty-year-old defeat facing off against a Jedi Master at the height of his powers, currently acting as an instrument for no less than the Will of the Force. Obi-Wan in this moment is Chirrut crossing the beach to the master control switch, and Maul, for all their history, is no more than a blaster bolt whizzing by. Not only should Obi-Wan have been able to take Maul apart logically speaking, he has the weight of the entire narrative—I’m sorry, I mean the Force—on his side. Compared to that, this isn’t an event of great significance, it’s a brief annoyance that just so happens to be cool to watch. And for the show to present it as precisely that is, I think, a triumph of perspective over fanservice.

Obi-Wan tells Ezra that Maul has “altered the course of many things”, which is a great meta wink at his even being alive in this time period. While I have to admit some great stories have come out of it, I’ll always see the decision to bring Maul back in The Clone Wars as a flawed one—for the last several years he’s been like a tumor growing on the side of the real story, superfluous yet impossible to ignore. Seeing him fight Vader a year ago may have been momentarily satisfying (though, much like this fight, it had a hard-to-top predecessor in the Legends comics), but that would have distracted from Ezra and Kanan’s needs as characters. Here, Maul’s defeat is a secondary concern and the real fight is over Ezra’s decision not to fight; the same decision Obi-Wan and Luke will make for themselves in the future—to do what the Force truly wants from them rather than seek a superficial sense of justice. Ezra casts his pretensions aside and rides north, leaving Obi-Wan behind to cut off the tumor once and for all.

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Ben: In lieu of the major story beats, I’d like to dive a bit more in the Out Of Universe impact of the episode. Specifically, its major happening. In the lead up to this episode, the confrontation between Obi-Wan and Maul was heavily hyped, to the point where all else about the episode might not have existed at all. It’s one of those monumental events that naturally gets buildup from both the fandom and from the Disney XD marketing team. The visual of the two striking their ready poses over an extinguished campfire was all over the internet, all over the channel’s commercials, on Twitter, on Facebook, on and on.

Then, when the episode itself rolled around, the duel itself lasted for, at most, two seconds of actual combat. No fancy spinning of the blade or flipping of the body, no running or jumping or anything else we’ve long come to associate with lightsaber combat, and with both Maul and Obi-Wan in particular. This is a very different sort of lightsaber battle, the sort that really has not been seen since the very first one: Obi-Wan and Darth Vader in the Death Star’s hangar bay.

Naturally, some people were disappointed. They expected something flashy and dramatic, a climactic duel between two greats, the realization of every hope for both characters since Maul was “resurrected” in The Clone Wars’ fourth season. Obi-Wan was robbed of his greatest victory against the Sith, and now the scales would once again be set right. And the battle, compared to all of their previous confrontations, certainly lacked the flash that many expected. However, it was far from lacking in drama.

The subtlety of the choreography in the duel really cannot be overstated. Dave Filoni mentioned that the duel was based on one from The Seven Samurai, where two characters spend more time watching each other’s eyes and movements than actually clashing blades. The sort of single-stroke combat we see here is far more common in Eastern media as opposed to Western, where swords are romanticized in the sort of Errol Flynn swashbuckling sense. But the reality is far closer to the former than the latter. A good swordsman does not get into a fight that drags out for minutes, they end it in seconds; watch modern fencing or kendo at a high level for examples.

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When Obi-Wan and Maul confront each other, it is the third duel they have fought to this point, and they know each other’s techniques quite well. You can see the two of them playing out their moves in their heads as they stand with blades drawn, watching the stances that each of them falls into. Maul’s stance is the same as it has been since we first saw him, back in The Phantom Menace. Obi-Wan starts off in his prequel-era stance, with his sword arm back and off-hand forward, while Maul’s stance has his saber back behind his body. Both of them shift stances, Maul first as he moves his blade up alongside his body, then Obi-Wan drops into a more kendo-inspired stance, with his arms low and hands close to his waist.

Then he changes stances again, to one that is not as well-known or even as recognizable. His hands move up, to shoulder-height, and he goes to Qui-Gon Jinn’s ready stance. I’ll leave the analysis of that particular moment to Dave, but the stance proves to be the winning one. The combination of his own lightsaber skill and Maul’s overconfidence allows him to block twice, once left and once right, then slash through Maul’s saber and body in one clean downward riposte. Clean, efficient swordplay that is still uniquely Star Wars (after all, what Earth sword could cut through a rival’s like that?) and matches brilliantly with the Obi-Wan we see in A New Hope, a more methodical style that threatens at each step without being showy.

The quick conclusion of the duel is not because the story needed to be shorter to accommodate for Ezra’s foolishness, the duel is short because Obi-Wan is a good enough swordsman to make it short. He is not engaging Maul the same way he fought Anakin, he is not trying to persuade him to turn back to the light. He is putting down a rabid dog, at last putting an end to a now-pathetic old foe who keeps coming back when he long ago should have died or gone away. One strike is all he needs, and one strike is all that it takes.

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David: The duel is full of allegory and references to their first fight in The Phantom Menace. As Ben mentioned, the way he moves from his Revenge of the Sith “flashy” stance to the more traditional one favored by Qui-Gon Jinn is full of meaning. This is the moment where we realize that the Obi-Wan we see here is not the Obi-Wan we last saw during The Clone Wars: this is Old Ben Kenobi, the wise master. But if you are so inclined you can even take a more practical in-universe approach to it. Of course Kenobi uses Jinn’s stance now: he’s been, as Yoda said, receiving his training for twenty years. That kendo-inspired stance can even be read as Kenobi’s way to goad Maul into making a mistake, feigning a weakness to provoke him into trying to kill him the same way he killed his master. And Maul indeed bites: the first two blows are, beat by beat, identical to the last blows that Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul exchanged but, when Maul tries to hit him in the face with the pommel, he finds Kenobi’s blade, which slices through the hilt with ease delivering the death blow. Maul has been stuck in the past for twenty years, while Obi-Wan has evolved beyond what he used to be. Old tricks won’t work against a master and Maul has nothing new to show. It’s not a combat between equals because they are no longer equals, if they ever were.

And how appropriate it is that Obi-Wan cradles Maul’s dying body like he did with his master thirty years before. This is, after all, a fight he never wanted to fight, a life he no longer wanted to take. And just as Qui-Gon Jinn reassured him with his dying breath that Anakin was the Chosen One, this time it is Obi-Wan who confirms to Maul that the kid that he’s protecting—Luke Skywalker—is the one who will end the Sith. The circle has been closed.

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Jay: I agree with everyone else on most points here. Ben was done masterfully — voice and animation were spot on. The quick nature of the saber battle was thoroughly realistic: watch Olympic fencing to see how quick — with the exception of epee — most fencing bouts tend to be (though watching extended actions at such a high-level can be thrilling because it turns into a chess match). Good swordplay isn’t actually flashy. I also agree that the promotion of this episode did it a disservice, and maybe hurt the careful work the storytellers put into it.

But I want to talk a little more about the storytelling of this episode. I knew going in that I wasn’t the primary audience for this episode — I don’t watch this show for the Jedi stuff, and while I do enjoy that the show keeps the Jedi stuff on a nicely mythic tone, I just don’t care for Maul. But even so, Maul and Kenobi were still the best part of the episode: and they only really featured at the end of it. Most of this episode was about Ezra.

Carrie Beck told us on Rebels Recon why this is the case: the show is about the Ghost crew, and when they use the big name characters (she called them “legacy characters”) from the films, they have to try to make sure those characters are serving the story of the Ghost crew. I could not agree with that more strongly — I want this show to be about the Ghost crew. I want to learn more about them, and I want to see them develop. Ben touched on the idea last week that we may have to stop seeing this show as an ensemble show, and that it’s mostly Kanan and Ezra’s story. That’s the part that frustrates me, I think. I feel caught between two issues: we have the interesting ensemble characters that aren’t getting attention and we have the big name legacy characters who are inherently interesting, but who shouldn’t be the main point of the show. Instead, we get how this incident changed Ezra.

I get it. I do. If he’s the main character, an episode mostly about him with this massive confrontation almost as a backdrop to Ezra’s character growth is the way to go. It’s the way I’d want to see it done too. But the combination of the promotion and the frustration with Rebels constantly being the Ezra Bridger show gets to me. I do still think this show is largely for everyone: last week’s AP-5 episode was fantastic, even if it’s not for everyone’s tastes. There’s something for the PT fans, the OT fans, the Jedi fans, the Mandalorian fans, the Imperial fans, the Rebel fans — it’s part of why this show is so great, and I guess it’s why I get frustrated that Ezra looms so large. But if it’s his story — then that makes all the storytelling sense in the world, even if I say that begrudgingly and think the show could really use more Hera, Sabine, and Zeb. Sabine’s gone, and perhaps time constraints prevented this from being an ensemble episode but — I wish it were.

Sigh. Like I said, I get it. But I still want to throw milk cartons at Ezra, Chopper-style.

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6 comments

  1. Eric Brown says:

    This episode showed why Lucas’ first choice for Obi-Wan was Mifune… total samurai duel right there.

    But for all that this site had talked post-Rogue One for the Jedi and their flaws and such – in this episode you see the Jedi essence distilled down. Wise, caring (even for the defeated), focused on what is truly important.

    It was nice to see a Jedi be a Jedi again. It had been a LONG time since we had seen that. A long time.

  2. Jessiah says:

    I’m surprised to see such consensus on the Kenobi/Maul rematch. As I said on TFN and elsewhere, while I appreciate what Filoni and the others were striving for, its execution left something to be desired.

    Since when have we, as fans, been satisfied with ineffectual villains?

    I’m well aware that there are aspects of Maul that would indeed be described as pathetic – but that’s an adjective that could apply equally to other baddies as well: Ren, Dooku, Tarkin, and yes, even Vader and the Emperor. But they’re portrayed as utterly formidable in other respects; otherwise there is no tension in the story and defeating them isn’t a big deal.

    Perhaps I’d have been more satisfied with the outcome if SWR had depicted Maul as such before subjecting him to an ignominious end, but this was the same impotent clod who was humiliated by a blind Kanan.

    On a bigger level, I question SWR’s ability to give its audience a powerful villain not named Vader. Maul was touted as being one of two Big Bads this season and he was handled carelessly. So much is riding now on Thrawn, who’s done little so far besides steeple his fingers and mumble cryptically and who now has only 2 episodes left to make some sort of meaningful impact.

    I’d submit that a formidable villain is a principal pillar of good Star Wars storytelling (and good storytelling in general); with the exception of Vader and arguably the Grand Inquisitor, SWR hasn’t really given us any. Maul deserved better.

    • Maul was an effective villain for Ezra, not for Obi-Wan. He represented Ezra’s personal doubt in his own path and preyed on his naivete, following up his role in the second season finale. He’s a far more psychological villain in Rebels than he was in TCW, far more Sith-like and manipulative. It’s just that only Ezra listens to him. Everyone else knows better at this point.

      I don’t think he deserved better at all. Maul is a cockroach, he should have been killed long ago and managed to keep himself alive by holding on to his hatred for one man: Obi-Wan Kenobi. Everything else, all of his plans and plots, were secondary to that goal. And the few times he did manage to face Kenobi again, he failed, let him escape, lost, and finally, mercifully, died. Like Khan in Star Trek II, he kept missing the target. Honestly, if anything, his death was a mercy so he’d stop hanging around like an unwanted stray dog.

      I entirely disagree about Thrawn. He’s not a smash-bang-pow villain, he’s a thinking villain, and he says from the beginning that he’s playing the long game rather than trying to cut the tail while letting the head get away. Maybe you don’t see him as effective, but he also hasn’t put his cards on the table yet. If the previews for the finale are any indication, there’s going to be a lot of smash-bang-pow to go around.

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