Star Wars Rebels has just wrapped up its third season with the biggest Empire-versus-Rebellion showdown we’ve yet scene from the show. Prior to the episode, speculation swirled around the promised battle, with many wondering just exactly how the rebels we know and love are going to make it out of this one. And, inevitably and tiresomely, spirited discussion sprang up around which Ghost character would die in the ensuing conflict.
It’s not the first time there has been speculation around a major character dying in the show. Like clockwork, the closer we get to a season finale, the more discussion there is about why someone on the Ghost needs to bite it. Rex and/or Zeb needs to go out in a blaze of glory. Kanan needs to die for pathos and so the fandom can make tragic fics about Hera. Ezra needs to die because of a thousand and one reasons (the main one being that the majority of the older fanbase finds him irredeemably annoying). They all have to die because we don’t see or hear anything about them in the original trilogy. Inevitably, it all comes down to fans wanting to see that things are different, that the rebels have finally faced a serious threat and come up short and now have to find a way to overcome.
And yes, that’s certainly a good (and necessary) narrative to explore. After all, it’s not exciting if your heroes never face any serious challenges or defeats. But why is it that we automatically go to “major character death” as the best way to show the severity of a threat or to shake up the status quo?
A large part of it is, I’m sure, due to the current TV landscape. Shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, etc. have set a standard that “realism” automatically means “anyone can (and will) die at any moment.” It’s dark, it’s gritty, and sometimes it’s a bit edgy. It’s Serious Television, where the world is an unhappy place and people make hard, morally grey decisions, and no one is safe. Whatever your opinion on those shows, you can’t deny that they have become cultural juggernauts and it’s only expected that other media tries to emulate their success. And soon it becomes shorthand for what good, realistic storytelling looks like.
But what’s wrong with a little plot armor? What’s wrong with a happy ending (or at least an ending that isn’t a worst case scenario)? Star Wars is full of ridiculous coincidences that happen to work out in our heroes’ favor, so why is it unrealistic for our ragtag heroes to make it through their encounters with the Empire (or worse), often only by the skin of their teeth (and maybe a little luck)? Killing your main characters isn’t the only way to create a dramatically satisfying story.
Of course this isn’t to say that no one should ever die; sometimes that is that natural development of a character or story and that’s fine. As Gary Whitta recently said, if you’re having to work hard to find a survival scenario then that probably means your characters aren’t supposed to make it out alive. But you shouldn’t need to kill off major characters just to establish stakes. Frankly, it’s lazy to immediately jump to “someone needs to die to show things are Serious” when there are so many possible ways a story could go.
And it’s good that Star Wars has largely avoided falling into this. Even when a character seemingly has a death foreshadowed all season (e.g. Kallus, as Thrawn’s noose drew ever tighter around his identity as Fulcrum) it’s subverted at the last moment and they manage to escape. And I think that’s for the better. To continue with the example of Kallus: it would have made sense to have him killed while trying to escape or executed after being caught. But instead he’s now joined up with the Ghost crew to continue the fight against the Empire. The addition of a former Imperial officer (who may not be entirely trusted) to our ragtag band of rebels suddenly throws an interesting wrinkle into the dynamics of the group.
To go back further, we have Kanan and Ezra on Malachor. It would’ve made sense for Kanan to be killed during the duel with Maul and would’ve served as a painful lesson for Ezra. But instead he survived, albeit completely blinded. As a result we saw Kanan grow more into his spiritual side as he learned to rely more deeply on the Force in the absence of his physical sight. Not to mention it still served as a reminder to Ezra of the importance of not getting in over your head (a lesson he is slowly learning as the show progresses). Both of these instances make for a more interesting show.
And even fan favorite Ahsoka is rumored to have survived her duel with Vader. Admittedly it’s the most far-fetched of these survival tales, but in a universe where nine-year-olds can survive deadly podraces and a barely-trained farmboy can destroy a planet-killing superweapon by using the Force, it’s hardly the most unrealistic scenario to ever happen.
It’s possible to have a tense, high-stakes story without needlessly killing off main characters, and so far Rebels has done an excellent job of portraying the dangers of fighting an evil empire while strapped for resources. At this point, killing any of the main Ghost crew would be akin to killing Han, Luke, or Leia during the original trilogy. They may be separated, they may be on the ropes, but somehow they make it through and live to fight another day. And the story is better for those trials. Death is such a permanent decision; it’s far more interesting to see the adventure continue.