The common parlance (taken, of course, from a line the first film and applied liberally by fans) for the period between the fall of the Republic in Revenge of the Sith and the rise of the Rebellion in A New Hope is “the dark times”. This is when the Empire is at its zenith, with the Jedi long dead and any other opposing forces deep underground to avoid being summarily crushed. For many, especially when Star Wars Rebels was first announced, having a kid-friendly show about the adventures of a precocious teenager set in a time that should be the hallmark of an oppressive authoritarian regime was a perfect example of the “Disney-fication” of Star Wars as a whole. A show like Rebels, with such a light, comedic tone, would never be able to properly show the extent of the Empire’s oppression.
How easy it is to forget that when the Rebels media blitz was getting revved up and the series itself was finding its sea legs, we got a glimpse of the future, of how the show would handle that very subject. Various supplemental sources, like the Servants of the Empire series, hinted that the Empire was going to start to strip-mine Lothal for its natural resources, turning it from its idyllic pastures and rolling hills into yet another cog in the Imperial war machine. As Rebels itself left Lothal in the second season, we lost sight of that vision a bit. On periodic return visits, everything seemed relatively fine aside from the gradually increased Imperial presence, though sources outside of the show like the Thrawn novel touched back on the planet’s mining riches as general background.
Now, though, after the time-skip between the second and third seasons of the show, we’ve finally returned to Lothal proper in “The Occupation”. We go back to familiar locales first glimpsed all the way back in the show’s pilot shorts, now seeing the wind-swept McQuarrie-inspired grassland covered in heavy industrial smoke and dust. We hear that the friendly Ithorian bartender Old Jho, an early ally featured across multiple episodes of the show and even some of the books, was evicted from his establishment and summarily executed by the Empire for treason. The once-friendly locals don’t even dare brave the streets after dark anymore, with all motorized transports impounded and Imperial patrols everywhere. Lothal may have been under Imperial rule before, but now it is under true Imperial occupation, with all efforts being taken to stamp out any further potential rebellion.
“Occupation” shows that, no, the Rebels writing and production team did not forget the wider context of the universe as they were taking Ezra on his adventures across the galaxy. Events on Lothal have progressed since he has been there last, and we finally, fully see the consequences of what has been planted in the show’s backstory since its inception. The Empire is methodically, deliberately and unscrupulously killing Ezra’s home planet for its own material gain.
In some ways, it’s an even more impactful reveal than when we found out that Ezra’s parents had died in Imperial custody. We never saw Ezra’s parents onscreen; we only interacted with them in his memories, and his search for them is as much about what he does in response to their absence as actually discovering their fate.
But the show was built on Lothal, almost the entire first season was based there, the planet is as much a part of the show as Ezra himself is. Seeing the sky of Lothal as a dust-choked miasma of reds and blacks, full of swirling clouds and filth that blocks out the sun above the capital city, it’s akin to when Kanan was blinded back at the end of season two: a massive, irreparable wound torn through the status quo. It affects everyone of course, but it affects Ezra most of all.
When he sets out at the beginning of the episode, he vows to Mon Mothma and the others in his crew that Lothal is his place, that he’s ready to devote all his efforts to free his home from Imperial rule. This is the goal he’s set forth for himself since “The Siege of Lothal” when Darth Vader chased them offworld, to return and finished what his parents started. But when he sees the extent of the damage, sees how deeply the Empire’s influence has sunk into what he saw as incorruptible bastions of independent ideas, he despairs and all but gives up, reminded of Saw Gerrera’s words that his world is already lost to him, and all he has left is to fight back against the ones who took it from him.
It’s against this grim backdrop that we’re launched into the second episode this week. “Flight of the Defender” is, in a lot of ways, a throwback episode. The plot is very similar to an episode from the first season, albeit with higher stakes and a much more threatening villain presence, but the first half of the episode’s emphasis on humor and banter, with the physical comedy being a highlight, feels like a return to the show’s roots. And from a setting perspective, away from the capital, Lothal doesn’t look that bad. The sky is clear and blue again, and the Imperial presence is limited to their bases and facilities, leaving a wide operating theater for Ryder and the rest of the Lothal resistance. It’s a very stark contrast.
It’s likely to avoid the show becoming too grim and too obsessed with its own darkness, but “Flight of the Defender” is almost a breath of fresh air, both for its tone and its sense of fun. Ezra and Sabine are in danger, for sure, but it’s the fun, adventurous sort of danger that flows naturally out of Star Wars as a whole. Rebels will circle back to the situation on Lothal as a whole as the rest of the season plays on, but “Flight of the Defender” does something important by distracting him from that and giving Ezra a bit of a break. He now has another mystery to solve.