This review contains spoilers.
3.1 & 3.2 Steps Into Shadow
Welcome back to Star Wars Rebels coverage! Season three starts with a bang, as Grand Admiral Thrawn takes the stage, transitioning from the expanded universe to the world of animation. Steps Into Shadow was first shown at Star Wars Celebration London this summer, but for those unable to attend the convention, the show started at a new time slot on Saturday nights. There have been some changes behind the scenes too, with Dave Filoni handing the supervising director spot to The Clone Wars veteran Justin Ridge in order to be more involved with the day-to-day writing and animation.
Season three begins with a bit of a time jump. Young Jedi Ezra Bridger has grown, and not necessarily for the better. His particularly timed descent toward the dark side was one of the more fascinating things about season two. Raised without the (sometimes corrupt and stifling) influence of the Old Republic Jedi Order, Ezra’s need for justice in his precarious world increasingly manifests as an attraction to power. It drives him in this episode, which features a mission that almost adds some more twists to Ezra’s story.
Unsurprisingly, the episode feels introductory, smoothly establishing a new dynamic between the characters. Ezra and Kanan have barely spoken since last season, and Ezra has taken to confiding in the Sith holocron (with the welcome return of Nika Futterman as the voice of its guardian.) Ezra is tasked with scouting out an Imperial station, but takes it upon himself to add retrieving ships to the mission plan.
His leadership role isn’t sitting well with the other members of the squad. We see very quickly that Ezra has edged toward the dark side, with an extremely unsettling end for the pilot of an AT-ST. The line between Ezra’s frustrated teenage angst and the supernatural temptations of the dark side are thin, and that’s part of what makes his story work. It’s understandable that he would feel frustrated now, even if there are some gaps in exactly what happened between the end of season two and the beginning of season three. It’s clearly symbolic that Ezra is hiding the holocron under one of his helmets. The dark side is now inside his head.
Newly equipped with a mask and a beard, Kanan is spending more time away from the Ghost crew, meditating near the predatory spiders we saw last season. His contemplation brings him to the Bendu, Tom Baker’s Force-beast that guides him through some of what he has been feeling since he was blinded in the season two finale. The possibility existed for the Bendu to fall into the vague Force-mysticism some other high concepts in the animated Star Wars shows have, like the Mortis family or Ahsoka’s owl creature. However, the Bendu is a more self-contained entity, and because little explanation for his presence is given or required, he stands more comfortably on his own.
He leads Kanan on a guided meditation that ties Star Wars to real-world philosophies, which works well. The Bendu’s words seemed a particularly illuminating way of talking about about the very kinds of emotions Jedi in the old Order are told not to have. Kanan is suffering from fear and guilt, and the Bendu doesn’t tell Kanan to avoid those feelings. Instead, he teaches Kanan to identify exactly where those feelings are coming from. Baker’s warm voice also helps sell the character, although what sounds like filtering used to make him sound large and alien just ends up sounding slightly artificial.
In the A plot, Ezra leads his team to an Imperial outpost. There’s some interesting voice acting on the way, too. An incidental mining guild character sounds like a bored toll-taker rather than a moustache-twirling villain. Captain Rex gets his moments to shine, with some worryingly self-sacrificing tendencies and a stunningly deadpan reaction to Ezra attempting to pull rank on him. Given that I was as surprised as Rex was that Ezra even tried, the clone’s stony reaction upped the tension between the young Jedi and the rest of his crew extraordinarily.
Interestingly, Hera doesn’t seem as concerned about Ezra’s use of the Force as she could be. It’s possible that she is simply a soldier unsurprised by war, who finds forcing an AT-ST pilot to essentially kill himself to be a perfectly efficient way of denying the enemy resources. There are plenty of reasons why she might not be concerned, but so far, the show hasn’t settled on one. I hope that any conflict that grows between Hera and Ezra in the future has a base stronger than this, since Hera has suffered from being used as a mouthpiece for the plot before.
The episode trails off a bit at the end, losing its strong connection between Ezra’s choices and the plot while also showing the consequences of his actions. The action sequence is the type of race-against-the-clock adventure we’ve seen before, and felt a bit contrived to bring all of the disparate elements together.
However, that enables the episode to do exactly what it was meant to do. The relationships between Ezra and the rest of the crew are set up nicely, Kanan has addressed his own problems (although mostly through the lens of the Bendu), and Rex is firmly set as the (probably doomed) powerhouse of the team. So what about the guest characters?
Hondo Ohnaka returns, primarily as a device to tie the nicely-constructed ship-stealing plot together. His involvement is also an interesting look into Ezra’s unwillingness to take responsibility for himself, since Ezra denies having anything to do with putting Hondo in Imperial prison. During Kanan’s absence Hondo is actually a decent teacher for Ezra, his desire for profit leading him to advise the young Jedi to gather allies instead of using aggressive negotiation to solve his problems.
For now, Thrawn is a sibilant advisor to Lothal’s Governor Pryce, who was previously only seen in Star Wars books. Thrawn has certainly generated enough quiet, intimidating atmosphere around himself that I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in the future, and his dissection of the Rebels’ movements was a nice top-down look at what the other Imperials couldn’t see. Lars Mikkelsen’s voice is versatile and creepy, but doesn’t always sound like it’s coming from Thrawn’s face, which might take some getting used to as well.
Season three is starting off strong. While season two suffered a bit on the character development front, three looks like it certainly has a lot to work with – and is willing to dole out its big bad sparingly. The first episode felt very much like classic Star Wars, and seems like it could do a lot with Ezra’s unique look at the dark side – as long as other characters aren’t moved aside too much in the process.