This Star Wars Rebels review contains spoilers.
Star Wars Rebels: Season 3 Episode 15
After several episodes that tried but did not quite succeed in marrying action with characterization, the chance to see Sabine kick some butt as she learns more about her Mandalorian legacy seemed like a breath of fresh air. “Trials of the Darksaber” is very much an opening act for a longer arc, but its confidence and exceptional character work make it stand out on its own as well.
When Fenn Rau suggests that Sabine could rally the Mandalorians behind the darksaber, she is reluctant to take on that responsibility. Kanan enlists her in some Jedi-style training. Part of what was so entertaining about this episode was that it included a built-in audience; Ezra gave the episode some energy without calling too much attention to himself. The reaction shots of him and Fenn Rau watching Sabine and Kanan were amusing and well-placed.
However, this is Sabine and Kanan’s episode through and through. Fenn Rau’s grave explanation of the still rather silly darksaber includes some exposition animated in a 2D style. This, as well as the chanting when the title card comes up and the focus on Sabine’s art, immediately establishes this as an episode which is, appropriately enough, willing to take some artistic risks. The music, which tends away from bombastic brass and toward acoustic and natural-sounding melodies, also immediately conveys the atmosphere around Sabine’s mood.
Through her, we see a little more about why the Mandalorian situation is so complicated. She’s written as a little more rough around the edges than she has been lately – not just plucky but antagonistic, an element that had been missing before. This makes her more believable as someone who can launch a real rebellion, as opposed to a character who is plucky for the sake of pluckiness.
And when the episode takes Sabine seriously, it takes her very seriously. Her backstory is grim and affecting. Any surprise that I had at never hearing any of it mentioned before was easily smoothed over by the conversations we’ve heard Sabine and Hera have in the past. Both of them are obsessed with secrecy, and good at it. Of course Sabine was good enough at hiding something big that everyone thought there was nothing to hide. Her backstory makes her more impressive and more powerful – how old was she when she first started at the Mandalorian Academy? – and I’m looking forward to finding out more about how it effects her family.
That effect is certainly going to be big. For now, though, the focus is on the darksaber. With it comes some of the best Jedi training scenes Star Wars might have ever given us, even though Sabine isn’t actually a Jedi at all. Kanan helps Sabine untangle her emotions and get to the heart of her reluctance to help the Mandalorians. Their conflict isn’t as simple as confidence versus fear, even though it sometimes leans that way. Sabine is secure in her self-worth, but it’s her actions that matter.
In seeing her learn to take action, the audience gets a treat when it comes to lightsaber fighting too. After growing up with diagrams of lightsaber forms in old Star Wars sourcebooks, it was especially cool for me to see Sabine, Kanan, and Ezra actually perform something on screen that looks like it might be a consistent martial art. Kanan’s advice is grim and honest: “Every mistake is a limb lost.” Episodes like this let the viewer feel like they’re learning right along with the characters.
In some ways, this episode does a better job of making me feel like I understand Jedi training than some episodes focused around actual Jedi did. Kanan explains why the intent behind a lightsaber matters – it’s not just a sword, but a “current of power.” He also says that “the blades will be drawn to each other,” a nice tactile detail that we see demonstrated visually as well. Sabine’s gauntlets are designed specifically to fight against Jedi, and give her a technological equivalent of Force powers. It’s an entire episode based around upgrading a character’s arsenal – and it’s a lot of fun, as well as revealing what might be some of the most important secrets in the entire season. Sabine’s history is rooted entirely in Rebels – as opposed to being connected to Ahsoka or Maul or another movie character. This makes it feel all the more important, because it lends weight to the entire Ghost crew.
I’ve been hyper-focused on the degree to which Ezra barges into episodes this season. For a little while, I was concerned that “Trials of the Darksaber” might somehow end up being about him too. Luckily, that’s not the case. It’s Kanan who threatens to steal the spotlight – and it’s understandable that he might have his own hurdles to leap when it comes to training a second apprentice. However, Hera shuts him down, speaking words that I think could have been used more this season – “This isn’t about you.” There’s no question that Sabine is in the spotlight. The last third of the episode owns that declaration, revealing exactly how good Sabine is with weapons.
The only thing missing is the art. After those pleasant but inconsequential references near the beginning of the episode, “Trials of the Darksaber” doesn’t feel any need to explain Sabine’s penchant for creativity. The writers could have explained her art as a coping mechanism in several different ways. It could be considered a message one step removed from its writer, or a rebellion against the Mandalorians as well as against the Empire. We don’t get a deeper look at that in this episode, but nor is there a pressing need for one. Sabine’s art has been a consistent part of her characterization from day one, and nothing in her backstory changes that.
As always, Rebels features some tiny but meaningful interactions between characters. Ezra and Sabine’s sibling rivalry, including surprise punches, is endearing. This episode reminded me that Sabine has been with Kanan and Hera for much longer than Ezra has, and Kanan has a great moment where he reminds Sabine to breathe deeply just by modeling it for her. Kanan, Hera, and Sabine aren’t all together at the same time in “Trials of the Darksaber,” but they clearly know one another as well as any family.
By the end of the episode, that family bond is even stronger, and Sabine has unquestionably earned the crew’s respect. It’s such a relief to see an episode that balances a side character – especially a female side character – so well against the Jedi. Hopefully there’s even more of this to come as Sabine confronts her family.