All images: Lucasfilm and Disney
Star Wars: Rebels has been a good show for almost its entire runtime. From the pilot, when exiled Jedi Kanan first pulls out his lightsaber to Ezra's amazement, the show has had a spark of something excellent. But, often, it failed to delivery, offering periods of uneven or just plain bad episodes. But finally, as it all starts to wrap up, the series has found the focus it needed to hit consistent highs.
Called "Rebel Assault," the mid-season finale will be the culmination of the arc that's taken up the majority of the season so far: finally, the heroes are going to strike at Thrawn's factories on Lothal. And that, right there, is the key to the show's success this season. It's learned how to stay in one place.
The fourth season of Rebels has taken place primarily in two locations: Mandalore, where the first episodes of the season dedicated time to wrapping up Sabine's family arc and chronicling the burgeoning Mandalorian resistance against the Empire. The second location is Lothal, where the series began, an essential planet that's been the focal point of much of Rebels's best moments up until now. And this decision — to focus the series primarily on single planets, following the heroes as they travel and fight across them, has been a brilliant one.
Don't get me wrong, Rebels has had excellent episodes. The "Twilight of the Apprentice" two-parter at the end of season two is one of the all-time best chunks of Disney's Star Wars universe. But the show has suffered from a lack of focus and, at times, the sense that the show lacks a core identity.
Avoiding arc-based storytelling, the show used to keep mostly to one-off episodes, balancing lore-building exercises and Jedi adventures with goofier episodes featuring cameos from popular Star Wars characters and gimmicky ideas. (Remember how obsessed the writers were with Ezra interacting with goofy animals in the first couple of seasons?) These episodes were clearly meant to be broadly crowd pleasing, especially for the kids in the audience, but they mostly just came across as inessential. And while the team-based dynamics of the heroes are excellent, it's fairly canonical Star Wars material. Teams of misfits are what the series was founded on, after all. Often, even at its best, Rebels has felt like just distilled Star Wars Greatest Hits.
The fourth season's narrow focus on single locations for long periods of time has solved both of those problems. The focus has given the writers the chance to dial in on stronger, serialized stories, bringing together the show's great character work and weaving it into larger, more complex conflicts. But even more than that, the focus on the successes and failures of rebellion on single planets has given the show a jolt of originality that it seriously needed.
Star Wars tends to focus on big conflicts, jumping from location to location: major space battles, system-spanning wars, stakes involving hundreds if not thousands of planets at a time. When doing that, it becomes easy to forget just how many individual lives, individual planets as big and complex as our own, are involved. But Rebels has remembered. And by using the connections our protagonists have to these planets — Mandalore is Sabine's home, and Lothal is Ezra's — the series has been able to dial the audience into the impact a big, galactic conflict can have on just one planet. The push and pull between the local and the galactic feels vital here, a powerful complication to the work of the Rebel Alliance. The questions are provoking and thematically interesting: How do you balance the long-term goals of the many with the desperate needs of the few?
It's an approach I've not seen in a piece of Star Wars media before, and I hope it continues through the entire season. I don't know what questions this last season will or won't answer. But I'm eager to find out what happens to Lothal.