Undoubtedly, for a lot of contemporary younglings, Star Wars is something they first experience as a cartoon show, rather than a series of movies. And can we really blame them? Since 2008, there’s been hundreds hours of cartoon-Star Wars permeating the ether in the form of The Clone Wars, and now, Rebels. Years ago, this really bugged me, and occasionally, I still have a hard time taking cartoon-Star Wars seriously. But with the season finale of Rebels having just concluded, even a scoundrel like me has to admit that—like The Clone Wars before it—Rebels shaped up to be more powerful (and respectable) than we could have possibly imagined.
Ahead: Light spoilers for Star Wars: Rebels season finale “Fire Across the Galaxy,” accept for one MAJOR spoiler.
Many of us initially looked at Star Wars: Rebels as Disney’s attempt to re-ignite nostalgia and/or generate interest in settings and themes mostly emblematic of the classic trilogy. The excessive re-appropriation of early Ralph McQuarrie concept art was seemingly integrated into the show specifically to do just that, as were the old John Williams score-motifs and phitch-choo sound effects of the speeder-bikes. The statement Rebels seemed to be making was: this show is old school Star Wars; by the fans and for the fans. And yet, in its season finale, Rebels revealed one specific way in which it’s totally unique and not really fan service at all: it’s a direct sequel to The Clone Wars!
I’m about the reveal the biggest spoiler on Rebels, so if you really want to watch the show and be shocked as to what happens, stop reading now. If you continue reading and you haven’t seen “Fire Across the Galaxy,” help you I can, but you’ll destroy all that showrunner Dave Filoni and others tried to do in keeping this reveal a secret.
Ready? I’m going to say it now. Right now.
Ahsoka Tano IS BACK! That’s right, Anakin Skywalker’s bratty teenage apprentice, occasionally known as “Snips,” shows-up as a full-grown adult in the last few minutes of in the first season finale of Rebels. All season long, the captain of The Ghost—the heroic Hera— has been receiving information and rebellious advice from a shadowy figure code-named “Fulcrum.” And in the final moments of Rebels, it was revealed this informant’s true identity was indeed and in fact none other than Ahsoka Tano. Because Rebels takes place five years before A New Hope, that puts it about 14 years after Revenge of the Sith, meaning Ahsoka is probably now in her mid-thirties. WAIT A MINUTE. AHSOKA IS ALIVE? Still? Just how many Jedi survived Order 66?
Well, smartly, in the next-to-last-season of The Clone Wars, Ahsoka got kicked out of the Jedi Order, meaning we have no real idea what she was up to during the Jedi-killing events depicted in Revenge of the Sith. (Indeed, for years while Clone Wars was on, fans wondered how the show could kill her off!) If she wasn’t “technically” in the Jedi Order, then she was allowed to go off and do whatever she wanted, meaning nobody bothered to try and track her down. Similar to the way Kanan plays it cool with busting out his lightsaber throughout this season of Rebels, its insinuated that Ahsoka has also been in hiding. This reveal means that Ahsoka—canonically—along with Bail Organa (Leia’s adopted father) is one of the founding members of the original Rebellion. Let that sink in. Someone who was introduced as a side-character in what seemed like a shameless marketing ploy back in 2008 is now one of the brave Princess Leias who predate Princess Leia. This is so cool, for the obvious reasons, but I think the most significant thing here is that Rebels both respects its source material and the audience that may have grown up with and come to love The Clone Wars. (It also means that Ahsoka may live a long, long life, in secret, well past the conclusion of the original trilogy. Could an elderly Ahsoka show up in The Force Awakens? Let’s not get too carried away.)
Many of us groaned back in 2008 when a theatrical release of the animated The Clone Wars depicted a stone-faced Anakin and his mid-drift-baring friend Ahsoka having to transport a burpy little Hutt baby across the galaxy. But Ahsoka grew to be not only the best character on The Clone Wars, but in many ways a representative of the Star Wars fandom in between the end of the prequel era and the new era we’re about to enter.
These days, with Rebels, the role of the annoying cartoon-teenager has been taken over by Ezra Bridger who, like Ahsoka, becomes the apprentice of a Jedi (Kanan) who kind of doesn’t want an apprentice. The dynamic between Kanan and Ezra throughout this first season of Rebels doesn’t so much as parallel an Obi-Wan/Anakin relationship, but rather, the relationship of Anakin and Ahsoka. It’s not a direct one-for-one (particularly because Kanan didn’t go all beast-mode on his master like Anakin did) but the unconventional nature of the relationship is still what drives the show and makes it warm.
As a show, Rebels made huge narrative strides in a shorter amount of time than The Clone Wars did, and maybe that’s because “rebels” are inherently more sympathetic than Clone Troopers, or maybe because this team of animators and writers are just more experienced. Largely though, I think a lot of Rebels’ quicker pace has to do with keeping the scope of the action small, meaning when things widened a little bit in these last few episodes, the audience felt it. And cheered!
Everything about Rebels season 1 was a slow build to the finale. Clues about Ezra’s parents have trickled out slowly. More information about what happened to Kanan during Order 66 has been hinted at, but not everything! The nature of why Zeb is fighting got parsed out a bit. Hera’s paternal instincts towards everyone were developed subtly and then manifested strongly in the last three episodes. And, the biggest character arc of all: whether or not the audience was going to accept Chopper was “funny,” actually worked just fine. He is! And is somehow not just an R2-D2 wannabe!
On top of all this unique character stuff, familiar Star Wars stuff was slowly, slowly integrated into the show, too. Grand Moff Tarkin doesn’t show up until the last few episodes of the season, and Darth Vader really only shows up in the last few seconds of the last episode. (True, there is a special edition of the first episode where he appears for a second talking to the Inquisitor, but still, the point is Vader was used sparingly) Even familiar Star Wars planets are mentioned, but not explored fully. The final episode of Rebels saw a fleet of Imperial ships orbiting Mustafar (the planet where Anakin and Obi-Wan threw down) and yet there wasn’t really a need to set foot on Mustafar. This, I think is a metaphor for how patient Rebels was with its first-season plotting. Hey, we’ll show you this planet that you know about, but we don’t actually need to go there. Yet.
When familiar-shaped Rebel spaceships (Corellian Corvettes, no X-Wings yet!) show up to rescue the crew of The Ghost from the Empire at the very end, it’s exciting because it really does feel like you’re witnessing the early days of the Rebellion. If you were watching Rebels with the hope that it would be a bunch of continuity porn that allowed you to connect the dots between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, you’d probably be disappointed in the early episodes. But, by the time things got going, all these reveals—of familiar Rebel ships, Bail Organa, and yes, Ahsoka—were all totally earned. None of this felt like a gimmick, which is something The Clone Wars certainly fell prey to a few times. (Um…Darth Maul? Really?) Instead, the “big” reveals at the end of this season were just enough. If we hadn’t gotten to know these characters, and the show hadn’t kept the scope so limited to mostly the crew of the Ghost chilling on the planet Lothal, everything wouldn’t have felt nearly as cool when the universe opened up a little bit in the finale.
By the end of this season, I found myself really concerned for this six-some of new characters; Hera, Zeb, Sabine, Ezra, Kanan, and their little droid, Chopper. They aren’t better or more exciting than “real” Star Wars characters, but they’ll do for cartoon Star Wars. Further, in terms of realism, Hera and Kanan actually have a romantic relationship with the most subtle dynamics since maybe Leia and Han. (I’m not saying that they’re a couple, just that their relationship is unique in Star Wars.) And that’s because, they’re not trying to copy old characters outright. With Ahsoka on The Clone Wars, animated Star Wars succeeded at creating a new character who seems almost as important as the characters in live-action, cinematic Star Wars. And with the conclusion of Rebels, they have seemingly done it again with the new folks. In that regard, it was only fitting to bring Ahsoka back. The presence of Ahsoka in the finale of the first season of Rebels was a strong message to all the haters; almost like she was thumbing her nose at the “camera,” before leaving the scene, right before dropping the mic. Or dropping the lightsaber. (She’s still got two, right?)
Still, we’ve got plenty of new stuff to get exicted for in Rebels’ second season. Is the Inquistor really dead? Will we see some X-Wings? AND, just who could Sarah Michelle Gellar be playing?
Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths forthcoming from Plume (Penguin) on 11.24.15. He’s written for The New York Times, Electric Literature and is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.