For the past two seasons, Rebels has been like almost every other Star Wars story: A young person trying to learn the Force, an older mentor, a group of good guys fighting an evil regime and bad guys with red lightsabers. With season three, though, executive producer Dave Filoni is trying something different — and in doing so, he's begun to complete the circle. "A lot of [season three] is centred on one line [in A New Hope]," Filoni told us. "Tarkin tells Vader the fire of the Jedi has gone out of the universe. So you have to start to enter this period where it seems like the rule of the day isn't people who wield the Force but it's more people that are controlling military might and starfleets. They seem to be the ones in control by the time of A New Hope."
This is the reason Filoni decided to introduce Grand Admiral Thrawn into the series. The fan-favourite character is a master military strategist who provides a threat unique to all of Star Wars to date; he's a servant of the Emperor with no personal agenda other than crushing the Rebels to secure the safety of the Galactic Empire.
"We didn't just insert another Force-wielder here," explained Filoni. "We didn't just create another kind of lightsaber. You can only go to that well so many times. Now it was time for the Imperial Military."
The addition of Thrawn doesn't mean everything is different, though. At its core, Rebels will still be about that younger Jedi-in-training, Ezra Bridger, and his older mentor, Kanan Jarrus. But Filoni also wanted to change that relationship from what we've seen in the past.
"We're doing another Jedi master-apprentice situation, so how are we going to make that story different from what we did with Anakin, Ahsoka and Luke?" Filoni asked. "I think there will always be similar beats and trials but how they come through them and how they answer the challenges is what's going to be different and define them as characters."
Much of that will derive from where season two left the characters, with Ezra having discovered the power of the Dark Side, Kanan having lost his sight, Ahsoka missing and Darth Maul now in the picture.
"One of the most important things to us was to actually deal with the emotions and results of that interaction," Filoni said. "We definitely had to have the characters come through something and show the change that occurs in their decision-making."
The new story direction changed Filoni's decisions, too. "In the first season of Rebels there are big pillar episodes that connect, but there are also a lot of side adventures," he said. "I feel in season two there were more episodes that connected directly and less side adventures. Now as we get to season three, there's definitely becoming more and more of a throughline as the characters really become who they're meant to be. There's more of a sense of this is starting to be one bigger story."
When the new season begins, this story will centre around the mysterious and powerful Sith Holocon that Ezra helped Darth Maul acquire. Since the season two finale, Ezra has been using it to explore the Dark Side while Maul acts as a secret tutor for the young rebel, hidden in the shadows.
"The Maul storyline is not a main storyline [of season three]," said Filoni. "He's in episodes but he's not in an overwhelming number of episodes. I didn't want to overplay him. You don't want him to be in that weekly guest role. So when he shows up you know it's important and it's a key moment for him."
Maul also won't be the only recognisable character on the show this season. Though Filoni admits it's a bit trickier to add in original trilogy characters to the show the closer things get to Rogue One and A New Hope, there are some to whom they feel beholden.
Princess Leia appeared on Rebels season two. Maybe she'll be back.
"There are absolutely characters that will come back," Filoni said. "A lot of the characters we've seen are now woven into the tale and we have a responsibility to explain more about them."
And though Filoni is notorious for not explaining much, he did admit how Rebels' third season is similar to the period between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the original trilogy.
"Between Empire and Jedi, [Luke and Leia] are already in the act of saving Han. Luke knows he's going to have to confront the Emperor. There's a period there where they're making some very serious decisions about what they're going to do next and a lot of that is not just because they have come in contact with the greatest powers of the galaxy but they have some of the great power of the galaxy. We're in a similar situation where Ezra has come in contact with Darth Vader, he's been a part of defeating Inquisitors, and he's seen what evil power can do.
"So it's really about power, how we use power and claim power for ourselves," Filoni concluded. "Which is ultimately the path between selfishness or selflessness, which is always underneath the story of Star Wars."
The third season of Star Wars Rebels premieres in the US on September 24.