“The Rise of the Old Masters” is the best episode of Star Wars Rebels so far. It digs into a Star Wars adage – “do or do not, there is no try” – and unpacks it, along with telling a weighty story about Kanan’s past and the new villain, the Inquisitor, hunting him in the present.
A few critiques before getting into the praise: Hera’s plotline was cursory and silly, although it did show off the very organic looking animation on her face and lekku and some Ralph McQuarrie-inspired creature designs. Chopper has gone from peevish to downright murderous, which leads to the tone in his scenes flip-flopping from slapstick to serious.
The rest of that beginning scene, though, is fun and energetic while teaching the audience a lot about Kanan’s feelings about his own abilities. When he catches a falling Ezra with the Force from what looks like hundreds of feet away, it’s impressive and moving. But “do or do not” is, as Kanan discovers, an aphorism that doesn’t come with an instruction manual. It isn’t particularly good advice without something to follow it up, and in this episode, Kanan learns how to follow it. “Do or do not” is woven throughout the entire episode in both humorous and insightful ways.
The other thing the episode hinges on is the dark side of the Force, namely the Inquisitor. He follows a long line of aggressive lightsaber-users like Darth Maul and Mara Jade, but is set apart by a spinning lightsaber and an ability to read other people like Sherlock Holmes. The former seems like a bit of a gimmick to sell toys right now, but the latter leads to Jason Isacc’s excellent sneer about Kanan’s lightsaber style.
With Kanan faced with a dark Jedi, the episode could have become one about his fears alone. Instead, it continues to revolve around the reluctant Master-Padawan relationship between Kanan and Ezra. When Ezra snarks back to the Inquisitor that he’s never heard of the dark side, I believe him. Both Kanan and Ezra are untrained Jedi, but Kanan has baggage, and his belief that Ezra would be better off with another Master hurts both of them. That emotion makes Kanan more complicated and human.
It’s writing like that which makes “Rise of the Old Masters” do what a Star Wars television show should do: explore the underpinnings of the Star Wars movies while bringing more of what fans want – epic conflict, characters with heart, and, sometimes, darkness.
The reveal that Luminara was, like Bruce Willis, dead the whole time served the story well by driving home the idea that the Jedi Order is dead. It showed Rebels was willing to kill beloved characters, and that Rebels would not be, like the Legends EU was, a haven for Jedi who survived Order 66. Order 66 has teeth again.
However, losing Barriss is also a major blow. It removes what could have been a major female character, as well as a connection to “The Clone Wars.” (And it means that one of my entries in “6 Clone Wars Characters That Appear in Star Wars Rebels” was wrong!) I can’t help but fear that some fans might see this as a sign that Rebels considers The Clone Wars dead to it.
However, it is in the latter part of “Rise of The Old Masters” that Rebels feels closest to the later seasons of “The Clone Wars,” with a corpse like those reanimated by the Nightsisters and the Inquisitor advancing steadily forward through closing doors with the same sort of juggernaut impact as Savage Oppress. “Rise of the Old Masters” would probably be a good episode to show someone new to Rebels, to see if it is the kind of Star Wars that fits their taste. And as a bonus, it’s a very well-written episode.