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Welcome Back, Darth Vader!

I just recently watched “The Siege of Lothal,” the one-hour second-season premiere of Star Wars Rebels.  It’s a terrific episode, the best Rebels has done so far.  The main reason why it’s so good?  The welcome return of Darth Vader.  And when I say the return of Vader, I mean the evil, unbeatable, kicking-ass-and-taking-names version of Vader from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.  This is the top-of-his-game, evil and terrifying Vader we haven’t truly seen since 1980.  It’s joyous to behold.

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As I have written before, I was dubious about the animated Rebels series when it debuted last year, but the last several episodes of the season were spectacular.  The season one finale teased fans by bringing Vader into the story, and the season two premiere wasted no time before making good on that promise.  Vader is all over this episode, tasked with hunting down the small band of rebels who have been making trouble for the Empire on the planet Lothal.

Somehow they got James Earl Jones to reprise the voice of Vader, and it is an incredible delight to hear new Vader dialogue spoken by Mr. Jones.  Even better, the characterization of Vader is absolutely spot on, a triumphant return of Vader at the height of his villainous powers.  This is a Vader who is enormously powerful with his mastery of the Force.  When Vader confronts the show’s two Jedi characters, Kanan and his young Padawan Ezra, Vader easily overpowers them, as well he should.  The rebels try to stop Vader by blowing up two huge Imperial Walkers and toppling them on top of him.  But in one of the show’s best moments, Vader uses the force to lift the wreckage and strides confidently out of the flaming debris, Terminator-style.  (Compare that sequence of badass Force mastery with the great effort all the Jedi seemed to need in the Prequels just to lift small objects, all despite our learning from Yoda in Empire that “size matters not.”  That really bugged me in the Prequels.  It’s great fun here to see Vader as a hugely powerful Force-user.)  The show also nails the casual cruelty of classic Vader.  In this episode, Vader has an imperial governor killed in front of the characters trying to rescue her, he burns a refugee town to the ground in an effort to flush out the rebels, and when he defeats Kanan and Ezra he uses the force to have Ezra almost decapitate himself with his own lightsaber.  (The kid is rescued in the nick of time, but I love that Vader wouldn’t even trouble himself to walk over there and kill Ezra himself.)

But the best Vader sequence comes later, when Vader uses a homing beacon on the Ghost to track our little band of heroes back to the assemblage of Rebel Alliance ships.  (Guess the man loves that plan!  Note that in Star Wars putting the beacon on the Millenium Falcon is Vader’s idea, not Tarkin’s.)  I was expecting a fleet of Star Destroyers to jump out of hyperspace to trap the Rebels, but to my surprise — and that of the characters on the show — Vader takes on the entire fleet in just his one little Tie Fighter.  This is an incredible sequence, and a wonderful way to marry the depiction of Anakin from the Prequels as a cocky super-pilot with the Vader from the OT (who piloted a tie fighter in Star Wars but not after that).  Watching Vader absolutely demolish the Rebel fleet single-handedly was amazing.

Even better was the culmination of that sequence: Anakin’s former padawan Ahsoka’s discovery of Vader’s true identity.  The Rebels season one finale, which brought back Vader and Ahsoka (a main character from the cancelled Clone Wars show) in the same episode, made a very deliberate and tantalizing promise to fans: that we’d eventually see these two characters collide.  I thought they’d make us wait a long time to see that.  I’m delighted to have been wrong.  The whole time Vader’s ship is tearing apart the Rebels, I was thinking, is Ahsoka going to recognize the style of that pilot??  Sure enough she did, and when she and Kanan reach out with the Force, she discovers the truth.  It’s a whopper of a moment, one that’s been a long time in coming, ever since Ahsoka’s very first appearance in the first episode of The Clone Wars.

It was a hugely satisfying moment, and one that also left me eager to see what’s next.  What will Ahsoka do with this information?  I can’t wait to see the two characters actually come face-to-face.  How will Ahsoka react to Vader, and how will he react to her?  As I have been since the very beginning of The Clone Wars, I am filled with curiosity as to where Ahsoka’s story is heading.  Is she destined to die before Rebels catches up to the Original Trilogy?  Or is Rebels going to wind up eventually telling stories that run concurrent to the adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia?  (If Ahsoka, and also Kanan and Ezra, are still alive by the time this show catches up to the OT, then wouldn’t that make Yoda’s statement that Luke was “the last of the Jedi” a lie?)  I was also intrigued by the ending of this episode, in which Vader seems less interested in Ahsoka herself and more in the idea of using her as a way to finally find Obi-Wan Kenobi.  I’ve often wondered what Vader thought happened to Kenobi, and if he had tried to track down the man who had crippled him in the years between Episode III and Star Wars.  I love that this show is picking up on that plot point, and I wonder if Obi-Wan is going to get involved in this story somehow or if he is truly going to stay out of sight until he and Luke leave Tatooine, as we saw in Star Wars.

As I mentioned in my review of the first season of Rebels, bringing in Vader is a risky move.  He’s not someone the show can have the Rebels characters continually defeating.  Here in this episode, Vader gets enough of a win that it works, and our characters barely escape with their lives, but this is a delicate balance.  I hope it’s one the show can walk successfully.  But just based on this episode, I am hugely happy and very excited for the rest of season two when those episodes air later in the fall.

“The Siege of Lothal” was one of the best installments of anything in the Star Wars universe that I have seen in years.  I am eager for more.

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