Leading up to The Phantom Menace, Star Wars fans had high hopes for a new villain, Darth Maul. His menacing design, double bladed lightsaber, and portrayal by martial arts expert Ray Park promised a great adversary for the prequel trilogy, but his story was cut short (literally) of any sort of character arc when he was cut in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Fans were thrilled to see his return in Star Wars: The Clone Wars where he was developed into a much larger threat, only to see the series end before he got any sort of payoff. His unfinished Clone Wars story was continued by the comic Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir, but even the ending of that book still left Maul as a loose end floating around the galaxy.
Then he showed up in Star Wars Rebels, and things were different this time. He was tired. Contemplative. His rage was still there but it seemed diminished. His introduction to Ezra even mirrored Luke’s first meeting with Yoda, and he tells Ezra to call him “old master.”
For the first time in a while, Maul’s post Phantom Menace story seemed to be going somewhere. He’s on a mysterious mission, claiming he’s seeking “the key to destroying the Sith,” telling Kanan, Ahsoka, and Ezra “I am the enemy of your enemy now, and I have my own reasons for wanting the Empire to fall,” but a closer look shows this is far more personal for him.
Multiple times since his re-introduction in Rebels, he’s lamented his lost power, telling Ezra “The Sith took everything from me. Ripped me from my mother’s arms, murdered my brother, used me as a weapon, and then cast me aside. Abandoned me. Once I had power. Now I have nothing.” He has Ezra aid him in his quest by helping him bring together a Sith holocron and a Jedi holocron in a ritual the mysterious Bendu says grants a clarity of vision not meant for most mortals. Ezra wants to use this clairvoyance to learn how to defeat the Sith, but Maul says he’s seeking “something much simpler. Yet, equally elusive…hope.”
“Hope” is not the kind of language you hear typically from the darker half of the Star Wars universe. The good guys are usually the ones that seek hope, while the bad guys seek power, control, or order. But, like Maul says, hope is elusive. Hope for what? He claims he wants to defeat the Sith and bring down the Empire. Could his hope really be the same hope referred to in the title of Episode IV: A New Hope?
While he ultimately discovers that his answers lie on a desert planet with twin suns, the reveal that he’s looking for Obi-Wan Kenobi, not Luke Skywalker (the “new hope” of Episode IV), adds more mystery to his agenda. Maul has long sought revenge on Kenobi after the Jedi defeated him on Naboo, but where does that align with his search for hope and his desire to defeat the Sith and the Empire? When Maul finally discovers Kenobi’s location, he says “it ends where it began. A desert planet.” Is he seeking to end his search for hope, or find a resolution to his quest for vengeance?
Based on Maul’s history, most people’s primary assumption is that he wants to kill Kenobi, and it makes sense. As Palpatine’s apprentice, he was supposed to play the roles that ended up going to Count Dooku and General Grievous during the Clone Wars and the role of Darth Vader after the wars were over. When Obi-Wan defeated him on Naboo, that destiny was stolen from him.
In fact, his burning hatred for Kenobi is what kept him alive through the years until Savage Opress discovered him and took him to Mother Talzin to restore his body and mind. Once he was whole again, the first order of business was making Kenobi suffer.
Darth Maul’s training by Darth Sidious equipped him to be both a powerful warrior and a cunning strategist, just like his master. Maul began to slowly put his pieces on the board, uniting several major criminal organizations to form the Shadow Collective, which he used to conquer Mandalore, seizing the darksaber and naming himself the planet's new ruler.
Manipulating Obi-Wan’s long held - previously romantic - relationship with Mandalore’s Duchess Satine Kryze, Maul used her to lure Obi-Wan to Mandalore where he captured the Jedi and killed Satine in front of him, desiring to imprison Kenobi, making him suffer as Maul did after his defeat at Kenobi’s hand.
This quest for revenge was interrupted when Sidious came to Mandalore, killed Maul’s apprentice/brother, Savage Opress, and imprisoned Maul, only allowing him to escape, leading Sidious to Dathomir where he also killed Maul’s mother, leaving him to flee into hiding yet again. Order 66 happened shortly after, so Maul could have operated under the assumption that Kenobi was dead, along with all the other Jedi, not realizing he could still get his long sought revenge until Kenobi’s survival was revealed through the united holocrons, clearly pleasing Maul who exclaimed: “he lives!”
Now that he knows he can fulfill his dreams of revenge against the one originally responsible for derailing his grand destiny at Palpatine’s side, he seems to be on a mission of vengeance once again. But looking at this new Maul, that seems a little simplistic. Despite his understandable grudge against his former nemesis, the Maul we get in Star Wars Rebels seems to be a far more humbled Maul who’s more interesting in finding his place in the galaxy than in settling past scores. Could vengeance be beneath him?
One of the more interesting aspects of Maul’s journey in Rebels is his desire to train Ezra. In The Clone Wars, he takes Savage Opress on as an apprentice as a means to amass power, but his pursuit of Ezra seemingly comes from a desire for companionship and a legacy.
When he takes Ezra to Dathomir in search of answers to their shared vision in the holocrons, Maul tells the padawan “That is Dathomir. My home… I am the last survivor. My family, the Nightsisters, were killed. Masterful witches they were. A threat to the Empire,” taking the boy to a cave full of old relics upon their arrival, saying “These are artifacts from my past. From a time when my power was almost absolute.”
Sentimentality is new for Maul, who previously had nothing but the clothes on his back and the lightsaber on his belt. Now he grieves for his losses: power, status, family, heritage, destiny, and even his name, telling Ezra “I once had a real name, so long ago. Don't remember. Now I am called Maul." Obi-Wan may have been the one to initially separate him from his destiny, but his former master, Sidious, has wreaked far more havoc on his life since then.
The Sith Master didn’t seek out Maul after his defeat on Naboo like he did Vader after his defeat on Mustafar. Instead, he took on Dooku as a placeholder apprentice. When Maul re-emerged into the galaxy, Palpatine’s response was to kill his brother and imprison him. When Maul broke out of prison, he easily bests the new Sith apprentice, Dooku, only for Sidious to follow him to Dathomir and kill his mother, the last of his people. Now, by the time we get to Rebels, Vader is standing where Maul thought he would be at the Emperor's side and the former apprentice realizes it was never his destiny in the first place, and Palpatine likely knew that all along.
In fact, his defeat at the hands of Kenobi could be the former Sith’s saving grace. If he had won the duel on Naboo, he would have eventually been dispatched by Palpatine or Vader himself in a far more permanent fashion. He obviously wouldn’t have even realized that until witnessing the rise of Vader.
Now he claims to seek an end to the Empire and the Sith. Could he be hunting Obi-Wan in search of Redemption? In this situation, is his “hope” is that the aged Jedi Master can absolve him of his guilt for serving as the pawn of Sidious and hopefully join him to aid in bringing down Vader and the Emperor, finally giving the former Sith a legacy worthy of his younger aspirations?
Maul is changed, but is he changed that much? Even if he wants to bring down the Sith, does that even make him one of the good guys? His inability to even open the Jedi holocron shows he still embraces the dark side of the Force, and his insistence on killing Kanan obviously makes him anything but a friend to the crew of the ghost, but as the franchise is exploring more and more in recent years, good and evil isn’t always a binary in this universe, and his quest could be seeking both redemption and vengeance alike. When he meets Ezra on Malachor, he cites sections of the Sith Code as he tries to draw out the boy's power, yet on Dathomir he urges Ezra to "forget the past! Forget your memories! Forget your attachments!" which sounds more like something that might be said by a Jedi. He even asks Ezra to join him "as friends, as brothers." While it's hard to buy that his intentions are pure, there's a lot there to say he's also not entirely nefarious.
With many scores to settle, it isn’t only Obi-Wan Kenobi Maul is seeking vengeance from. As mentioned above, Palpatine has taken far more from him than Obi-Wan has, and it’s quite likely that would have happened anyway once Anakin showed up, even if he had defeated Obi-Wan on Naboo.
With Rebels season 3 barreling toward an end point involving both Obi-Wan and Maul, it’s hard to know what to expect, but there are two things we know for certain: First, Obi-Wan lives for the events of A New Hope, whereas Maul is nowhere to be found, and second, Star Wars animation has a history of subverting expectations to deliver the unexpected.
While there’s always a window of opportunity for Maul’s story to continue on into an unknown future beyond his upcoming confrontation with Obi-Wan, it appears as if his story will come winding to an end in just a few weeks. Will Maul see a bitter end, or something more worthy of the legacy he seeks?
There’s no knowing what end he’ll meet until we arrive, but regardless of the conclusion to his story, Maul’s is shaping up to be one of the most compelling character arcs in all of Star Wars.
Star Wars Rebels season 3 returns tonight with "Legacy of Mandalore" @8:30pm on Disney XD.