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Star Wars Rebels: Twilight of the Apprentice

April 4th, 2016
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The first season of the animated Star Wars Rebels was enjoyable, although more aimed at kids than adults.  Things kicked into a high gear with the terrific season one finale, in which both Darth Vader (once again voiced by James Earl Jones) and Ahsoka Tano (Anakin’s apprentice from the Clone Wars animated series, whose fate had been left uncertain following that show’s cancellation) were brought into the story.  The season two premiere took the show to the next level (it was one of my favorite episodes of TV of 2015), as we got to see the best version of the truly evil, unstoppable Vader since The Empire Strikes Back, and we also got to see the incredibly emotional moment in which Ahsoka realized that this monster was in fact her former master Anakin.

Nothing that followed in Rebels season two lived up to that high-point, but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable season of TV that was one-hundred-percent Star Wars.  Between this and The Force Awakens, this has been the best year for new official Star Wars stories in two decades.

I’d expected the Vader-Ahsoka stuff to be stretched out for the next few seasons of the show, but in the very interesting season two finale, “Twilight of the Apprentice,” we seem to have perhaps gotten an end to this story-line far sooner than I’d expected.

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After having spent two seasons being hounded by Vader’s force-wielding inquisitors, Kanan and budding Jedi Ezra leave their friends in the rebellion and go off with Ahsoka to confront their pursuers.  They visit the planet Malachor, the site of an ancient Sith temple, to attempt to access forbidden knowledge about the Sith that they hope to use to defeat their enemies.  But there, they encounter not only three vicious inquisitors, but also Darth Maul — still alive after all these years! — and, eventually, Vader himself.

Even before we get to the Vader-Ahsoka stuff, there is a lot of fun to be had in this episode.  I love the idea of visiting this Sith Temple, it’s a fascinating exploration of the rich Star Wars universe and back-story.  (We really know very little about the Sith, where they came from or how they operate.)  We get some great development of the Kanan and Ezra relationship, as we see both the ways in which these two don’t mesh and also the ways in which they powerfully do.  Poor Kanan suffers an injury whose repercussions I expect we’ll be seeing for a long while to come in the show.  That was something I wasn’t at all expecting.  We get to see a ton of awesome lightsaber battles, brought to life with gorgeous animation.  And Ezra’s story continues to gain complexity as we see him more tempted than ever, in this episode, by the power that the Dark Side represents.  (His ability to open that Holocron at the end, something only a Sith should be able to do, is ominous!)

I was also delighted to see show-runner Dave Filoni resurrect, for a second time, Darth Maul.  This was a great character totally wasted by Episode I, so I was glad that Mr. Filoni and his team brought back the character for several appearances in The Clone Wars, showing us how Maul had survived getting sliced in half by Obi-Wan, and how this vengeful force-wielder could still cause a lot of trouble for the Jedi.  Maul’s story was sadly never completed because of The Clone Wars’ early cancellation.  (His last appearance was a spectacular episode in which we saw Palpatine take him down.  Some never-made Clone Wars scripts were then adapted for Dark Horse Comics’ four-issue Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir mini-series, but that story also left Maul’s story unfinished.)  So I was thrilled to see Maul brought back here.  (One of the best aspects of this second season of Rebels has been the way it has soothed fans’ pain over the untimely cancellation of The Clone Wars by bringing back many of the characters from that show whose fates had been left uncertain: Ahsoka, Rex, and now Maul.  An aside: how great has this new, old and grizzled version of Rex on Rebels been?  I love this character, and now when I think of him, I see this version of him more than the younger Clone-trooper version from The Clone Wars.)  They’ve come up with a great new design for this older, skinnier Maul, and Sam Witwer does some of his best-ever voice-work with Maul in this episode, showing the silky-smooth way he tries to seduce Ezra.  And when we finally get to see him kick ass at the end of the episode, it’s great fun.  I hope and expect that we’ll see more of Maul next season.

Maul’s introduction also gives a nice wrinkle to the title for viewers as this episode unfolded.  As soon as this episode title, “Twilight of the Apprentice,” fans wondered if that meant bad news for Ahsoka, the former apprentice of Anakin Skywalker.  Some also wondered if it signaled a new direction for Ezra, the apprentice of Kanan.  As soon as Maul — formerly the apprentice of Palpatine — appeared, though, I wondered if that had all been clever mis-direct and in fact this episode would be the end of Maul’s story.  This was a clever way to keep fans guessing as the episode unfolded.

So now we come to the heart of the episode, Ahsoka’s confrontation with Vader.  We all know that Yoda told Luke that “when gone am I, the last of the Jedi will you be.”  That implied threat has been hanging over Ahsoka ever since she was first introduced in the Clone Wars’ pilot episode.  It’s also, by the way, a threat hanging over the heads of Kanan and Ezra here in Rebels.  Now, it’s very possible that Dave Filoni and his team intend to split hairs here (something that Yoda and Obi-Wan themselves did a lot of in the OT — “So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view”) by allowing these characters to survive into the OT era because none of them are actually Jedi.  Ahsoka left the order in the season five Clone Wars finale, and angrily declares here in this episode that “I’m no Jedi.”  (A statement that doesn’t make much sense to me seeing as how she still uses the Force, still fights with lightsabers, and still seems to live her life by the Jedi code, trying to do good wherever she goes in the galaxy.  Ahsoka frankly feels like far more of a Jedi than Luke does for most of the OT.)  Kanan never made it past being a Padawan, and Ezra is just being trained.  So I guess technically they could all survive since they’re not actually Jedi.  But, while I like these characters and am not eager to see them killed off (and I can’t possibly  imagine Rebels actually killing off Kanan or Ezra, who are main characters on the show), I think it would dilute Luke’s story in the OT to have all these other Jedi (or Jedi-like good-guys) also running around the galaxy.

Since the very beginning of The Clone Wars I’ve been eager to see what ending Dave Filoni had planned for Ahsoka.  Now that we might have arrived at that ending, I am… confused?  At first blush, the end of “Twilight of the Jedi” doesn’t really feel like an ending for Ahsoka’s story at all, and so I was somewhat confused and disappointed in Mr. Filoni’s post-finale statements, in interviews, that he thinks Ahsoka’s story on Rebels is over. I understand the trap that Mr. Filoni was in — he needs to end Ahsoka’s story without contradicting Yoda’s statement, and yet it’s hard to imagine him brutally killing off this popular young character on a TV show that has a large kids audience — but if this was really the end that he’d had in mind all these years, it’s disappointing.  Not because Ahsoka’s end isn’t what I’d expected, but because once that door slams shut on Vader & Ahsoka’s duel, after she heartbreakingly declares that she won’t abandon her former master a second time (a powerful moment enhanced when James Earl Jones’ Vader voice is briefly replaced by that of Anakin’s, played by the same voice-actor who played Anakin in The Clone Wars), we don’t actually have any idea what happens to Ahsoka!  This isn’t a disappointing ending, it’s a cop-out non-ending, which is even worse.

I’m wondering if Mr. Filoni’s comments aren’t intended as misdirection, and we will get resolution to Ahsoka’s story in future Rebels episodes.  I’m also intrigued by rumors that perhaps Rebels is going to end sooner than fans had thought, perhaps even after just one more season (The Clone Wars was planned for eight seasons but cancelled after five, and with Rebels set five years before A New Hope, I’d expected the show to run at least five seasons), to then be replaced by a new show that takes place later in the Star Wars timeline, perhaps even in the time after Return of the Jedi and before The Force Awakens.  Perhaps Mr. Filoni’s intention is to pick up Ahsoka’s story in that next show?  That would be interesting, if still a bit annoying to fans who will have to content themselves for the next few years with this episode’s non-ending.

So while I have some issues with this episode’s ending, I must emphasize what a fun, entertaining, well-made hour of Star Wars this double-sized Rebels finale was.  I have thoroughly enjoyed this entire season two of Rebels, and I look forward to what season three, and beyond, brings.

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