A guest post by Judith Vogt (@JudithCVogt)
When Star Wars Rebels first aired two years ago, we watched it with the kids—or to say it differently: We watched it primarily because it’s a kid’s show and we wanted to watch a kid’s show with our kids. We got addicted pretty quickly. For us, it brought back the Star Wars feeling (and the Firefly vibes!) into our lives in a way the prequels, The Clone Wars and even the first Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer couldn’t. When we started telling other people about how great Star Wars Rebels is, they mostly said, “You watch that show with your kids, right?” as if they were looking for an excuse why we would be so hyped about 20 minutes of animation.
When I read reviews of season one here (in Germany, since season two is not yet complete—and the kids were really mad at us because we sent them to bed so we could watch the English version as soon as we could get the episodes on Thursday evening), I always stumble over things like “It’s a kid’s show, so it’s a bit shallow in character development, the good guys always win and the Stormtroopers can’t shoot.” Okay, you’re right with the last thing, but they can never shoot. Yeah, I know, you might say, “They wanted to let Luke and Leia escape from the Death Star!” But in Cloud City? On Endor? They’re always bad at shooting, and yeah, they are awfully bad at it in Rebels, but this just feels like Star Wars for me. The whole show feels like Star Wars, and sometimes, it’s even feeling more like Star Wars than A New Hope. Seriously, nothing should feel more like Star Wars than that!
Why? Because Rebels is deep. It is rich. It has so many facets. And it delves deeper and deeper in season two. They do things in that show that you only begin to realize at the very end, like deep ties and knots and entwinements. And I love that about Rebels. You can watch it as a kid’s show, or you can watch every episode twice (along with the Rebels Recon videos on YouTube) and you’ll discover that something very thoughtfully twisted is going on there.
I like The Force Awakens. It brought Star Wars back for the general audience. But for me, as a 80s/90s kid? It’s Rebels that brought me back not only to my favourite time, the time of the Rebellion, but to the depths of Star Wars. That is what The Force Awakens lacks—it doesn’t bother to take a general audience into the depths of the Star Wars galaxy. If you know nothing about Star Wars, you’ll be perfectly happy with that movie, and I think that’s its job. It does a great job! But if you want to “learn the ways of the Force”, even more subtle, more ambivalent, more ambiguous than in the movies, you have to watch Rebels.
Star Wars has always been about mysticism, about good and evil, about the Force, the Jedi, and the Sith. About falling to the dark side and about redemption. About fear, anger, hate, courage, and accepting that there’s something greater than your own life. And these themes of Star Wars are explored in Star Wars Rebels. You can watch it as a show about a bunch of rebels that include Space Aladdin, who learns to be a Jedi, and some recurring Clone Wars characters. Until you learn that it’s not.
What was the deepest lesson Luke learned from confronting Vader and the Emperor? It was the knowledge of when not to fight. He doesn’t win. He throws away his lightsaber. He doesn’t follow Obi-Wan’s advice to kill his father. He doesn’t heed old knowledge or a Jedi Council. He follows his own instincts that tell him that pacifism is the true way of the Jedi (there’s a reason why the Jedi are extinct—war mongering has never been a good idea and they paid the price). He knew when to let go and that was his true wise moment, the moment of his victory, when he listened to the Force instead of the voices of advisors.
Rebels doesn’t work with multi-episode arcs because it works with smaller spotlights on a whole story with a distinct theme. The first season’s theme was revelation. Everything was about stepping into the light. Some characters have to learn that they wield a greater power and have the responsibility to hone it for the sake of the Rebellion they fight for. Others acknowledge that secrecy should be replaced by honesty (and in comes Ahsoka Tano). Even the dark side has its revelations, like the Inquisitors who step out of hiding, servants of Darth Vader who want to capture or destroy all Force wielders.
At first I thought the second season was about finding allies, and partly, I’m right. The rebels struggle to find a secret base and in almost every episode there are new ways, new allies, new support as well as some backlashes. But there is one other theme in season two and I call it “when not to fight”. This theme recurs so often, I couldn’t even believe that it slipped past my grasp for so long. (Thanks to Sal, Johnamarie and Johna’s mum for pointing it out to me in their great podcast!) The show is so much about fighting that I didn’t really get that it’s also about not fighting, but on another level. And there we go, deeper into the mysticisms of the Force than The Force Awakens showed us.
For example, (and now it gets spoiler heavy, so be warned) there’s the episode “The Protector of Concord Dawn”, where Hera tried to accomplish a mission peacefully, was shot down and nearly killed, and Sabine wanted revenge and dueled with the enemy leader Fenn Rau. She disarmed him not because it’s a kid’s show, but because she recognized that this is what Hera wanted and what Kanan taught her. “You sound more like a Jedi than like a Mandalorian,” Hera tells Sabine on her sickbed, and Sabine glances at Kanan and says, “I guess I’ve just been raised right.”
Raising is another big theme. Not only do fans refer to Kanan and Hera as “Space-Dad” and “Space-Mum”, but the Ghost crew refers to itself as a family. Kanan and Hera both come from broken families—dysfunctional families you see so often depicted in Star Wars. Hera’s strict and distant father never really seemed to understand her and her needs, and her mother died when she was young. Kanan grew up without parents as a Jedi Padawan, lost his maternal figure (Depa Billaba) when he was about 14/15 years of age due to Order 66 and struggled a lot with survivor’s guilt, maybe even alcoholism and certainly a big amount of PTSD. (Yeah, in a kid’s show.) Together the two of them managed to raise two “adoptive” children, a traumatized veteran and a murderous droid-pet. Somehow, they manage to be the only whole and functional family within the wide Star Wars galaxy. Although this family consists of broken people, they raise and change each other.
Back to the “not fighting” theme, there are several episodes that show that the rebels know when not to fight. They fight a good deal. Lots of ships blow up and lots of troopers are shot—this isn’t at all a pacifistic show. But at the right moments, it shows when not to fight. Ketsu decides it’s not the right way to kill Sabine. Sabine decides it’s not the right way to kill Fenn Rau. Zeb decides that he can come to terms with his nemesis, the Imperial Agent Kallus, and it’s shown very clearly that every conflict has two sides and every side has its human facets. Star Wars has always been about black and white with a little bit of grey in between, but Rebels leans heavily on that grey.
I want to talk now about the episode “Shroud of Darkness”, where Kanan is knighted. I was really touched by that not only because I never saw a knighting in Star Wars (and it was one of the finest Star Wars moments I can recall), but the vision of a Jedi Temple Guard tells Kanan that if he keeps on fighting, the Rebellion will fail, he will die (and Kanan doesn’t seem to care about these two foreshadowing statements), and that his apprentice will fall to the dark side. Only as the Sentinel says this latter part that Kanan draws his lightsaber and tells his opponent that he will not let that happen. They fight, and it needs three temple guards to keep Kanan’s protective paternal instincts at bay. On his knees with three lightsabers to his throat, he gives up. He tells the Sentinel that he trained Ezra the best he could, that he has to be willing to trust the boy, and that he has to let go and to stop fighting. And by doing so, he overcomes his personal trial and is knighted.
What I’m trying to say with that is Star Wars Rebels, other than the Star Wars movies, isn’t only a coming-of-age-story of a young orphan. It’s also about the struggle of being a good parent, despite all the self-doubts and lack of capabilities. What touches me very much is that it acknowledges parents as characters in fiction and that it is about a parent’s struggle to let go and to trust. And this, I think, is one of the most important lessons I ever saw in pop culture.
In the season finale, the theme of letting go and defending instead of attacking even culminates when Darth Maul tries to take Ezra as his apprentice. He sees Kanan as a rival, slices through his eyes with a lightsaber, and blinds Kanan.
Ever heard of blind trust?
After being blinded, Kanan puts on a mask, the same mask the Sentinel wore when he knighted Kanan. He defeats Maul within 6 seconds just by defending himself, and while Ezra is almost seduced by a Sith holocron, Kanan gets to him, led by loyal murder-droid Chopper, and helps him to do the right thing. And even as Darth Vader enters the scene and tries to pull Ezra and the Sith holocron over to him, Kanan grasps Ezra and says, “I got you.” This show is about support , unconditional love, and “blind” trust despite the doubts, and for me, it delves so much deeper than, say, the prequels and the adolescence and coming of age of Anakin Skywalker.
And it even acknowledges that parents want to have stories about parents who go on space adventures! It is as if this show was made for me! One of its quintessence moments is “You think you can lay out your kids’ future? You cannot. But you prepared them, and they will decide which way to take, and you can be at ease with that. Rise, for you are now what I once was: A Knight of the Jedi Order.”
And now, back to the depths of Star Wars‘ mysticism, only for a short last note. Back to black, white and grey. Back to Ahsoka Tano.
Ahsoka, who left the Jedi Order, didn’t cease to be a good person, a caring person and someone who fought for the right thing just because she gave up living in the exact structure that propagated to stand for those things. She doesn’t need to rely on a Council, on the Jedi or her master to know which way to take. When she says, “I am no Jedi,” she has her true Éowyn moment and reveals us that the Force is just what it is called: A force of nature. Something that drives beings to be what lies inside of them.
With the Lasats’ Ashla, the Inquisitors and Ahsoka, we explore older, different and ambivalent sides of the Force, and the show unfolds to angles I always wanted to see in Star Wars.
Make sure to follow Judith on Twitter and share in friendly Star Wars Rebels discussion!