Now that’s more like it. “The Mystery of Chopper Base” returns Rebels to what it originally advertised itself to be, and what its best season one episodes were: a true ensemble show, where the group itself is the vulnerable thing at stake. As a lead-up to the finale it was inevitable that this episode would have some rising action, but along with opening a window at the end and letting in a breath of mystic Star Wars air, it also brings new depth to the interactions between the members of the Ghost crew.
Essentially, this episode is about communication, and how the team does it both well and badly. Two seasons in we already know how different characters communicate – the “cowboy Jedi” is learned and casual, Ezra has no filter, Hera keeps tactical secrets but loves her squad. All of those things are on display in this episode, while Sabine stars in several of the fight scenes.
The one major loose end in this episode that didn’t seem intentional is the one that kicks the whole thing off: a Rebel pilot heads out into the wilderness to plant a beacon at their new base, and is attacked by giant spiders. The episode isn’t particularly concerned with the fate of that pilot, an odd oversight. The rest of what ensues is a mix of character- and world-building, as the Rebels head underground to rescue Rex and the pilot from the spiders. The new base is everything I wanted last episode’s space station to be: it looks real, and it has its own (simple) ecosystem. We see snail creatures all over the place, and Rex notes that it’s hot out. Along with the interestingly textured and pattered leaves, this makes the planet feel a bit more real.
The caves underneath it are the perfect place for the crew to begin to face their dark sides. The Jedi are leaving soon to face the Inquisitors, while Hera, Sabine, and Zeb stay with the Rebel soldiers, and Hera isn’t happy about it. The split pits Hera’s practicality against her attachment to her people, and it’s a conflict that, once we understand the source of it, comes directly from her character. Hera is torn. She doesn’t want Kanan and Ezra to go, but she’s also more bitter and less controlled than ever before. “We’ve got to get used to not having them around” was harsh, but my favorite line from her was just one word: “Sure.” Hera has always been good at talking around secrets, but she can’t hide how blatantly she’s pretending to be okay in that moment.
Kanan and Ezra’s relationship is fraying too. Ezra’s over-confidence and his desire for revenge get in his way. Over-confidence isn’t exactly a rare flaw for child protagonists, and the revenge angle feels, for now, like a bit of Star Wars flavor. Why is Ezra more determined to go after these Inquisitors than he ever was before? Maybe it’s simply a product of his growing – of his learning more about his own emotions, including his own desire for vengeance.
Ezra tells Kanan, “You always change the subject when I start winning.” The fun banter that has characterized the crew through the show’s entire run is revealed as a liability in this episode. The characters hide behind absolutely everything they have in order not to talk directly at one another. Kanan covers up his feelings with jokes, Hera covers hers with technical speak, and Ezra just gets angry.
It would have been nice to have established this dynamic a little bit earlier in the episode. We get (well-rendered) soft looks from Hera to Kanan as he trains with a frustrated Ezra, but the depth of their relationship doesn’t really feel established until halfway through the episode. However, the cave is the perfect place for the emotional ties between the team mates to start fraying.
That makes for immediate and powerful stakes for the finale outside of the inevitable Vader versus Ahsoka conflict. Will the team will stay together or fall apart? We know from the trailers that even if Kanan and Ezra come back alive from the finale – and I’m betting they will – they might not necessarily be the same people.
(For what it’s worth, this week’s Rebels Recon indicated that we might not see any more of Hera, Sabine, and Zeb for the rest of the season. I’m disappointed, but hope that their reunion will be as well-done as “The Mystery of Chopper Base.”)
The actual dialogue in the episode ranges. Some lines, like Hera’s “sure,” turn even simple moments into scenes that speak volumes about the character and her state of mind. Other opportunities are not quite embraced so cleverly: Zeb literally screams “eat this” at one point. In the same scene, Ezra’s desperation (“the last Jedi in the galaxy’) is neither as revealing nor funny as Zeb’s sad, panicked “I’m the last of my kind” from a prior episode.
However, the episode wraps up with another conversation that is half honesty and half things the characters are too afraid to say. Kanan and Hera’s final conversation strips away the barriers between the two in just two lines, and Ezra’s parting moments convey both gentle, forward-looking Force mysticism and quiet danger.
This was essentially a “monster of the week” episode, and neither the spiders’ ecosystem nor the fate of the missing pilot are ever fully explained. The action scenes are some of the best and most claustrophobic this season though, turning the creature scares from “Out of Darkness” up to eleven. There were several points where I believed that these characters were really in danger, and practically Whedon-levels of misdirection when it came to what would prove the greatest threat or the most emotional moment.
Making the team the focus of this episode struck at the core of what pulls the show together. It also struck at Ezra’s core: he has found a new family, but he is also put on the pedestal of being a Jedi, and is beginning to feel the more dangerous aspects of his power. Harnessing a giant predatory spider is beyond Ezra’s abilities, but harnessing bitterness isn’t. That’s true of everyone in this episode, and testing both their physical and emotional limits makes this one great.