This Star Wars Rebels review contains spoilers.
Star Wars Rebels Season 3 Episode 14
What exactly is Zeb’s role on Rebels? “We’ve never really figured that out,” Chopper deadpans (through a translator) in “Warhead,” and it’s funny because it’s true. Tasked this week with actually doing the security job he was assigned, Zeb confronts a new kind of Imperial recon droid in an episode that doesn’t quite answer the question.
It’s been a while since Zeb took the spotlight on Rebels. The last episode that gave us a lot of information on him taught us the large-scale, actually quite sad story of the Lasat and gave Zeb a sort of cultural spirituality of his own. “Warhead” treats Zeb more like the show did in season one, when he was just as immature as Ezra. After a delightful scene of Hera actually ordering Wedge and Hobbie to work, she presents a rather thin reason to split the party: the other members of the crew are working on a training exercise. Meanwhile, Zeb is chief of security for Chopper Base, a position he has’t done much with before and which he insists he doesn’t want to do because he is “bored”.
That sets up his confrontation with EXD-9, an Imperial recon droid. We know from the first scene that the droid is from the Empire, which means this could go one of two ways: it could be a story about the Rebels defeating an enemy from within, or one about them allying with a new friend who was programmed to be bad, but doesn’t really want to work for the Empire at all. Either way, I tend to find droid episodes devoid of character, used either for kid-oriented humor or to get away from the main plot for a while.
This one ended up to be the “defeating an enemy from within” story. Throughout, I was not so much examining whether I personally enjoyed it as how much I was willing to forgive it. Just like in last week’s episodes,, what could have been a frightening sequence was was broken up by dull exposition. Is this just par for the course for Rebels now? Was there any point in questioning how much sentience the Imperial droid has when it clearly doesn’t have any agency? Even AP-5, who made his own choice to leave the Empire, had no problem forcibly reprogramming the recon droid.
The question of droid agency is always a bit blurry in Star Wars, but it was especially so here. Zeb and AP-5 never discuss any moral aspects of sending the recon droid back to the Imperials to explode. AP-5 never seems to identify with EXD-9 as a fellow droid. He wouldn’t necessarily have to in order to make the episode work, but it’s one of the things that made the question of EXD-9’s capacity even more jarring.
Were the good parts of the action sequence good enough to make up for the repetitive parts? For a split second the show casts EXD-9 as a sort of droid vampire, then abandons the idea. Although the droid was scariest when it was mysterious, the reveal of its secret battle form was pretty cool. I’d buy an action figure that transformed from mild-mannered inventory droid to a spindly killer with way too many eyes. The fights didn’t have a lot of weight, though, with Zeb and the droid throwing one another around but never straining or struggling. The set-up for the horror is good, but the final sequence manages to both be too repetitive and move too fast, including an incredibly short “the bomb is counting down and we have to do something” sequence. EXD-9 might be more memorable as an action figure than as a character.
In fact, the most frightening part of the episode for me was the last minute or so, when we get a bit more about Agent Kallus in his precarious role as the new Fulcrum. His scenes felt much more personal, and much more threatening, than the droid itself.
So, was Zeb’s story interesting enough to justify him being the one left behind on the base? I’m still not sure I’ve figured out what Zeb does, and this is one of those plots that hinge on a character not doing their job effectively until they do. He drags the droid back to the center of the base without question, and refuses to delegate any work to other people. (Speaking of other people, where was the man at the command center during the action scenes?) There’s certainly a lot of merit in choosing to intentionally tell a story about a character who isn’t good at their job, but this isn’t that story. In “Warhead,” Zeb is the point of view character. Maybe the writers wanted to make him a good viewpoint for the audience, and therefore made him a bit more naive than usual – a bit more like Ezra.
I don’t inherently mind that the show has elements that might work for children better than adults. It is, essentially, made for children, who might have no trouble identifying with Zeb’s wanderlust and boredom or might find EXD-9 frightening. However, season three’s attempt to deepen the characters seems plagued with inconsistency. Ezra is sort of a loose cannon who might be going to the dark side, until he isn’t any more. Zeb is sort of learning a lesson about how to do his job as a security officer, but not really. Hera is perhaps the most consistent character lately even though she has so few lines, because each of those lines shows her becoming more adept at commanding her growing group of Rebel troops and pilots.
I enjoy Rebels a lot. The voice actors do well with what they’re given, and the show always feels like Star Wars. However, the third season has made me hesitant to recommend it to people who don’t have an existing attachment to the characters. Season two dragged, and season three has improved on that with more threatening villains and more connective tissue. The things “Warhead” did well – introducing a cool new Imperial droid – couldn’t make up for Zeb’s regressive conversation or the episode’s lack of depth.