The second season of Star Wars: Rebels concluded in spectacular fashion last night. Before The Force Awakens came along, I was fairly confident in saying Rebels was the best thing to bear the Star Wars name since 1983. Not to say Rebels has been diminished in the slightest — The Force Awakens was that great— and it more than showed its worth in its finale.
What’s captivated me about Rebels in a way Clone Wars never did is two-fold. First, there’s the lack of expectation. Rebels isn’t fulfilling the promise made almost forty years ago when the words “the Clone Wars” were first uttered in Star Wars. We waited decades to finally see the Clone Wars on the big screen, only to see them shunted off the small one, a near afterthought in the prequels. So I sort of held it against the series that it was where I was finally seeing the Clone Wars happen. I thought it deserved better. I thought it deserved to be the grand backdrop to the prequels that the Rebellion was to the original trilogy. Not some weekly doling out of CGI on cable. Rebels, on the other hand, is brand new. It wasn’t like the origins of the Rebellion were some great mystery left unrevealed. You could easily piece it together: Empire grows, planets eventually revolt, boom, rebellion. Not that there wasn’t intrigue in the particulars, but there also wasn’t anywhere near the mystique the term “Clone Wars” conjured for us.
Second, unlike most of their Clone Wars counterparts, the stars of Rebels don’t already have their fates set. No matter what happened in Clone Wars, you knew Obi-Wan, Anakin, Palpatine, Grievous, and the main Jedi characters had to stay alive until events reach those shown in Revenge of the Sith. You could put Obi-Wan and Anakin in all the danger you wanted, but you couldn’t do any permanent damage. The show did do a better job showing Anakin’s frustration with the strictures of the Jedi order and his anger that eventually led to his turn, but for the most part, the leads had to stay the same to line up with their cinematic counterparts. In fact, for me, the show shined brightest when it focused on characters whose fates we didn’t know, like Ahsoka and Ventress and the surprisingly still-alive Darth Maul. And Rebels is filled with characters like that. We know where events have to lead, but not these characters’ fates in them. Only an occasionally appearing Darth Vader has a set path, and even then, Rebels has done so much to return him to the epic villainy of The Empire Strikes Back that he almost feels like a new character. And just because we know we don’t see Kanan or Ezra or Hera or any of the others in the OT doesn’t mean they’re not around for those events. There’s a real sense that anything can happen; which, in the finale, it did.
If anything related Star Wars can truly be said to have creative freedom, it feels like Rebels does. Even The Force Awakens was beholden to what had come before, in no small part because a large part of its job was to rehabilitate Star Wars as a cinematic property, to remind people why they loved it in the first place. And while Rebels carries no lesser debt, it doesn’t feel burdened by it. It revels in it. It loves having Vader show up as an unstoppable threat you run from rather than confront. It loves having Leia and Lando make brief, fun appearances. But the show doesn’t revolve around those links to the OT; it’s deepened by them. It uses them to envelop itself in the grand Star Wars history. All the while having a grand time doing it.
The third season of Rebels is due to premiere later this year, and the finale has given us plenty to speculate on until then. The characters have gone through real, lasting changes, and even though we know we’re eventually getting a Death Star and Leia’s eventually ending up on that blockade runner, we have no idea where this band of rebels is going. And, best of all, we’re actually invested in where that might be.