The most interesting expansion of the Star Wars universe is happening on TV, on the cartoon Rebels. And I say that as someone who absolutely loved The Last Jedi (I’ve published a whole ton of Last Jedi-related stuff on this site, like my review, my look at the Taoism of the Jedi, a piece on Rose Tico’s wisdom, and an admiration of Admiral Holdo). The new movies have brought an exciting life into the franchise on a mainstream level, but Dave Filoni and his team have been steadfastly keeping Star Wars humming – and exploring its nooks and crannies – for years on TV.
The latest two-parter of Rebels is a bad place to jump on; the show is hurtling towards its finale, and this two-parter is not just wrapping up story elements from the last four seasons but is also touching on stuff that was introduced in the old Clone Wars cartoon. Still, this is a good opportunity to talk about how deeply exciting this sort of tie-in show can be when handled by someone with a true vision, and how an expanded universe can work in absolutely stunning and involving ways.
Rebels is set in the years before the first Star Wars, and it looks like the show is going to end right around the Battle of Scarif from Rogue One, which leads directly into the opening moments of what they now call A New Hope. It tells the story of the crew of a ship called The Ghost, and their journey from a small band of thorns in the Empire’s side to their place in the founding of the Rebel Alliance. For continuity nerds Rebels fills in a lot of gaps between Revenge of the Sith and Rogue One, and it explains the disjointed, uncertain nature of the Rebel Alliance in that film. But more than that, Rebels has been vital in filling in the mythos of the Jedi.
One of the leads of the show is Kanan Jarrus, a Jedi who survived the purge by hiding out and laying low for years. As the show begins he is roped into working with the crew of The Ghost, despite The Clone Wars having cured him of any delusions about the glories of war. While on a mission the secret Jedi meets Ezra Bridger, a Force sensitive kid, and Kanan takes him under his wing as a Padawan learner. Over the course of the past four seasons Ezra has grown into a burgeoning Jedi in his own right, all while dealing with the kind of Force weirdness Luke Skywalker seems to have only glimpsed in passing.
This builds on work Filoni and his team have been doing since Clone Wars. While ostensibly telling the story of that conflict between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, that cartoon filled in more character backstory than you can shake a stick at (people who watched Clone Wars actually feel the turn and loss of Anakin Skywalker in a big way). But it also went deep into Jedi lore, and it took the Jedi away from just being telepathic kung fu monks and added layers of deep spirituality and trippiness. They explored the dimension of Mortis, where living embodiments of the Force dwelled, and they took Yoda to the Sith homeworld to interact with mysterious Force priestesses and uncover the key to becoming one with the Force. If the main Star Wars films show the Force to be a fairly knowable thing, the cartoons have created a world where even the Jedi at the height of their power understood only a fraction of it.
This has continued in Rebels. Ezra found himself being groomed for the dark side by Darth Maul (who survived into Clone Wars and became a great character) and having mystical vision experiences with giant wolves. Kanan studied under the Bendu, an ancient Force being who scoffed at the idea of there being a light side or a dark side to the Force – there is only the Force.
And now, in the latest two-parter, Ezra traveled deep into a hidden Jedi temple on his homeworld and discovered a place between time and space, offering him access to all of history and the universe, and accidentally making the Emperor aware of it. These episodes truly transcend the knowable, with their involvement of mystical spirit animal wolves and a mysterious Force owl who leads Ezra to change the time stream. And yeah, there’s time travel in Star Wars now, but in a very interesting and unique way.
But most of all the show uses this space away from time to move Ezra forward as a character. Given the opportunity to mess with the time stream he is tempted to save a loved one, but he has to finally understand that their sacrifice is the only reason he’s alive today – to take away the sacrifice would be to take away everything the person died for. It’s a beautiful moment that illustrates the concept of acceptance, and that recognizes you don’t need to LIKE something to accept it. It just means that you’re not fighting against reality anymore. It’s heady stuff for a cartoon on Disney XD.
A few years ago, before The Force Awakens and Rebels, I wrote an editorial proclaiming Star Wars the most overrated franchise in history. I wrote that from a position of ignorance – not of the movies, which used to have a way worse batting average than they do now, but of the TV properties. I know that there are people who instinctively recoil from tie-ins and expanded universes, but the TV side of Star Wars has been so consistently good, so consistently thoughtful and so unlike anything that happens in the movies that I can’t recommend these shows enough. You don’t need the shows to understand the movies, but the shows deepen the universe and the characters so much that all of the movies – yes, even the Prequels – are elevated. And they’re just damn good tales on their own, filled with adventure and humor and shining lights on the corners of the Star Wars universe that tend to pass by in the background in the films.
Most of all, though, Rebels has been a remarkably mature and spiritual series, and I think the spiritual stuff that works best in Last Jedi is building on what Rebels has been establishing. This is what makes the Star Wars franchise so different from any blockbuster franchise that has come before, that it is exploring stuff that goes beyond lasers and explosions, that the wars themselves are the backdrop for a larger quest for meaning. And this week on Rebels our characters continued that quest.