The biggest complaint among fans about the Disney-era of “Star Wars” is the franchise’s reticence to venture beyond the confines of the Original Trilogy’s lore, going so far as to retcon more than 30 years’ worth of supplementary novels, comics and video games. The most salient counterexample to this complaint, though, is Disney XD’s animated TV show “Star Wars Rebels,” whose fourth season’s first two episodes air Monday night. Set right before “A New Hope,” it gets weird and wonderful in a way that “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” never did — space whales? Check. Ancient, turtle-bison-Force-guru? Check. The best lightsaber duel in the franchise? Absolutely.
In its opening, a two-parter titled “Heroes of Mandalore,” the fourth and last season of “Star Wars Rebels” continues the best plot thread from the previous season: the “Game of Thrones”-esque power struggle among Mandalorian clans (a race of warriors that includes Boba and Jango Fett) against their pro-Empire peers.
Part one of “Heroes of Mandalore” features a chase ripped right out of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” — tank convoy, precipitous cliff and all — as the heroic Sabine Wren (Tiya Sircar) leads the anti-Empire clans to free her captured father. The animation of this episode’s chase is exciting and beautifully realized — the Mandalorians dynamically zip about with their jet packs, and Jedi duo Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray) and Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze Jr.) fluidly deflect blaster fire. What’s more, the relationship between parent and child is a motif that is distinctly “Star Wars,” and it’s one that the episode ably explores through the interactions between Sabine, her father and her warrior mother.
The first episode ends on a tragic note, and while it is effective in raising stakes, the show doesn’t sustain its tension for very long, reversing the tragic ending in part two of “Heroes of Mandalore.” In this sense, the show reneges on its promise of true, compelling drama.
This refusal to place obstacles before the show’s characters is a frustrating trait of “Star Wars Rebels,” one that “Heroes of Mandalore” all too gladly indulges. Previous seasons promised the appearance of characters such as Darth Vader and fan-favorite Grand Admiral Thrawn (resurrected into canon from a disavowed series of novels) — they’re great villains in other media, but like the villains of “Heroes of Mandalore,” none of them offered consequential resistance to the titular rebels.
It’s too early to tell if season four will embrace the darkness its first episode suggests, but which it never explores. Nevertheless, it is almost necessary for “Star Wars Rebels” to end its run with some degree of tragedy — after all, most of the show’s characters don’t appear in the Original Trilogy, which is set just a few short years after “Star Wars Rebels.”
While the first two episodes of season four are reflective of the weakest elements of “Star Wars Rebels,” it also fully leverages the show’s strengths, especially its characterization of Sabine. Opening the season with Sabine — who was a supporting character until the tail-end of season three — as she fully embraces her identity as a Mandalorian warrior is particularly gratifying. The major players of the new “Star Wars” canon are General Leia, Rey, Jyn Erso and now Sabine Wren.
This doesn’t mean that the Jedi Ezra and Kanan get sidelined though — they still get the chance to slice through Imperial Scout Walkers, but in a season that should be darker in tone, Ezra’s lighthearted quips thankfully take a backseat to the urgency of Sabine’s own unfolding story.
Ultimately, “Star Wars Rebels” is a fun, if flawed, show, at once capable of offering thoughtful storytelling and inconsequential fluff. “Heroes of Mandalore” reflects that dichotomy, but the show’s memorable characters and expansion of “Star Wars” lore should whet fans’ appetites until the eighth entry in the saga hits theaters, which in turn should whet fans’ appetites until the next Kylo Ren trailer reaction.
“Star Wars Rebels” premieres Monday on Disney XD.