“Breaking Ranks” returns Star Wars Rebels to a happy medium after the thin episode “Fighter Flight” and excellent “Rise of the Old Masters.” The adventure could have been a goofy school story about an Imperial Academy like the one Luke Skywalker so badly wanted to join. Instead, it brings further gravitas to the show and enlarges the world of Rebels, adding new characters as well as seeing the return of the Inquisitor and Agent Kallus.
Ezra himself continues to be no more than the plucky protagonist he always appeared to be, while more interesting are the new characters he meets at the academy. After Jai Kell’s introduction as Ezra’s friend I thought that he would be more important, but instead, fellow cadet Zare Leonis comes packaged with his own backstory that also introduces his sister, who may or may not be Force sensitive and may or may not be alive. Meanwhile, a stressed Kanan and Hera attack an Imperial convoy to destroy a kyber crystal like the one last seen in the unfinished Clone Wars episodes released on starwars.com in September.
The beginning of this episode allows the world to exist without its characters. It’s unsurprising that Ezra is behind the Imperial cadet mask, but putting the mask on allows the viewer to look at the opening for what it is: a narrow but effective introduction to the Imperial academy. The academy looks like a Death Star in miniature, while Kallus’ office also has triangular statues similar to the Sith aesthetic.
“Breaking Ranks” works as an ensemble episode, with Zeb, Sabine, and Chopper playing smaller parts in Ezra’s mission on the ground. As with previous episodes, Ezra’s introduction in the group still feels a bit incomplete. We’ve seen him train with Kanan, take comfort and advice from Hera, and both goof around and survive dangerous situations with Sabine and Zeb. His loyalty was tested in “Rise of the Old Masters,” but it was innate spunk more than learned wisdom that led him to talk back to the Inquisitor.
Perhaps Kanan has that in mind when he over thinks his own plan, repeatedly trying to avoid telling Hera that he is worried about Ezra even though the infiltration was his idea. Their dialogue is good, expressing Kanan’s jitters and Hera’s calmness without stating them bluntly.
Hera has more to do in this episode in general than she has before, showing her prowess as a pilot for the first time. Shooting down the kyber crystal-carrying Imperial transport takes more effort than has been seen from Star Wars’ ace pilots like Han Solo before – Hera’s pained expressions make me think that her internal dampeners might be malfunctioning a bit, if that EU technology is still in effect.
Back at the academy, Zare Leonis in particular provides a lot of interesting storytelling possibilities for the show going forward. The Inquisitor asks him to “take a walk” (which I can see becoming the Imperial’s ominous catchphrase) and hints that Zare and his sister might have Force sensitivity of their own. Although brief, it was also telling to see the Inquisitor exert understated authority over the Imperial instructors. Also notable is Dante Basco as Jai, sounding much younger than in his either of his roles in Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra.
Zare provides some of the best dialogue of the episode, with his reactions to Ezra talking about Jedi training. Zare and possibly his sister star in the “Servants of the Empire” series of young reader books, and after “Breaking Ranks” gave us a look at Imperial training in the Dark Times, I’m curious to see whether they appear again.