The first season of “Star Wars: Rebels” is a perfectly serviceable, if slightly inferior, follow-up to “The Clone Wars.” Exiled from “The Clone Wars'” home on Cartoon Network to the explicitly kid-friendly confines of Disney XD in the wake of the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm, “Rebels” boasted smoother animation, a more consistent tone and more genial nostalgia-baiting than its forebear (no surprise from the company that brought you “The Force Awakens”). Yes, the character models looked a bit bulbous at times and the Disney shift brought with it a tonal movement away from the darker places where “The Clone Wars” often went, but Season One was still good Star Wars fun, with the starship Ghost providing a grounded framework that still allowed for a variety of narrative options.
However,the show had one major problem: with the exception of Hera, “Rebels” lacked consistently likable characters.
Gadget-happy Sabine was inconsistent and one-note, Chopper was a sassy grouch (and he suffers from the same omnipotent droid syndrome that befalls R2-D2 in the prequels), Zeb was a furry Jayne rip-off from “Firefly,” and Kanan and Ezra were locked in battle for the title of most irritating; is it the overbearing nag in Jedi robes or his know-it-all apprentice with a chip on his shoulder? Only Hera, the crack pilot with a tough but loving relationship with her crew, received consistently good characterization.
For Season Two of “Rebels,” the show's writers – many of whom worked on “The Clone Wars” – provided the show with the shot in the arm viewers didn't know they needed by bringing in some new characters who turn out to be quite familiar.
The return of Ahsoka Tano, Anakin's apprentice from “The Clone Wars,” is of course teased in Season One's final moments. While Ahsoka doesn't join the Ghost team outright, her position in the Rebel Alliance's leadership allows her to dip in and out of the narrative at the writers' discretion. Throughout the season, the show adds to its “Clone Wars” character roster in drips and drabs, from space pirate Hondo to Captain Rex in a recurring role to the appearance of Darth Maul in the final episodes. With Season Five of “The Clone Wars” leaving some storylines frustratingly incomplete – Ahsoka's and Maul's in particular – Season Two of “Rebels” feels like a successful melding of what works about both shows, with the former show's characterization injecting instant gravitas and the latter's new setting and semi-serialized format – this season revolving around the crew's attempts to preserve the freedoms of the Old Republic and the principles of the Jedi – spawning fertile narrative ground.
Ahsoka's arrival heralds an increase in Force-centric story arcs for the season, as the Empire decides that the Rebellion has a Jedi problem. To solve said problem, Darth Vader – voiced by James Earl Jones, no less! – is dispatched to Ezra's homeworld of Lothal to deal with the rabble rousers. With Vader's arrival, the show also begins injecting characters from the original trilogy, and the season begins to make clear its true purpose: belonging.
Ezra's surname, “Bridger,” has always been kind of a dad joke, symbolic as it is for a show that is connecting the narrative tissues of the Star Wars prequels to their original counterparts. While Season One's aversion to too much content from the prequels left its bridging primarily to the realm of filling in the timeline (and doing a much better job of it than “Droids,” the last TV property to occupy that chronological space), Season Two pulls from all over the Star Wars universe to create a thematic jambalaya, melding the formal, almost comedically officious tones and stories from Episodes I, II and III with the freewheeling nature and pop psychology of IV, V and VI. “Stop battling over prequels vs. originals, Lucas vs. Disney,” the show says. “There's good all over. Just enjoy it.”
It's easy medicine to take when the show gets this fun. Original trilogy purists will be delighted by details like the origins of the B-Wing and Jones's turn as Vader, complete with an angular costume tweak that pays homage to Ralph McQuarrie's original designs of the character. Meanwhile, prequel and “Clone Wars” lovers will love the prowess of an adult Ahsoka and the tricked-out AT-TE that Rex and his fellow grizzled clones drive around a deserted cloud planet before they're called out of retirement.
Speaking of Rex's ride, the visuals in this season of Rebels take a big step up from Season One, as well as the entirety of “The Clone Wars.” While some of the character models are still a bit spotty – in a bad light, Ezra looks like a marzipan cake topper – and the fight choreography isn't quite what “Clone Wars” was at its peak, all of the action is smooth, sleek and easy to follow. The textures on backgrounds and ships are lovingly rendered to minute detail, and many of the season's new creations are stunning: particularly the modified AT-TE and the underground Sith temple Ahsoka, Ezra and Kanan visit in the finale. Though it lacks much of the narrative maturity of “The Clone Wars,” “Rebels” may be the best argument yet for the prequel skeptic about the redeeming qualities of pre-“New Hope” Star Wars.
While “stop bickering, find common ground” is a needed message for some Star Wars fans (this one included), Season Two of “Rebels” applies those lessons beyond love of its fictional universe. Throughout the volume's 20 episodes, which vary between standalone adventures and ongoing stories about the rise of a formalized Rebel Alliance and the renewed connection between Darth Vader and Ahsoka, the Ghost's crew members search for direction. They deal with the scars of their pasts, parents both dead and disapproving, and people once thought lost.
Zeb shelters with mortal enemy Agent Kallus. Ahsoka deals with imposter syndrome as a seemingly failed member of the Jedi Order and survivor's guilt at seeing what Anakin has become. Kanan, whose friends and surrogate family were murdered by the clones, must look past Rex's background to see the person underneath. Through it all, each one learns that they're worth saving, that those they might have prejudged are worth believing in, and that for any movement or community to live up to the justice it espouses, it needs leaders who forgive past wrongs and look out for people lost in the margins. Literally and thematically, “Rebels” Season Two brings together all kinds in a Star Wars stew, and it is good.