[WARNING - This review contains SPOILERS for Star Wars Rebels season 3, episodes 21 and 22.]
All season long on Star Wars Rebels, Grand Admiral Thrawn has been closely studying the Rebels, learning their tactics and why it is they fight. He's done this not out of any empathy, of course, but to better prepare his attack and bring an end to their uprising once and for all.
That attack finally comes in tonight's two-part finale, 'Zero Hour' -- written by Steven Melching (Part 1), Henry Gilroy and Matt Michnovetz (Part 2), directed by Justin Ridge -- as Thrawn locates the Rebel base on Atollan and begins the assault. First blockading the planet, cutting off their escape, and later bombarding the base, then following up with a ground assault, Thrawn's attack is as relentless as it is regimented. With ships being shot down left and right, and Chopper Base under heavy fire, could this be the end of the Rebellion before it's even really begun?
"I Know These Rebels, I've Studied Them"
Thrawn is clearly a patient man, waiting for the opportune moment to strike. And when that moment comes in 'Zero Hour', there is a sense that this could be it for the Rebellion -- even if we know for a fact it isn't. Thrawn's launching of an offensive attack has been slowly building throughout season 3, and though it would have been a rather dark note to leave off on, handing Thrawn a victory at this time seemed plausible.
Star Wars Rebels doesn't opt for that bleak ending here, but Thrawn's offensive is a success in that it preempts the Rebellion's own planned attack on Lothal. There are also causalities, with Commander Sato bravely sacrificing himself and his ship to allow for Ezra to get past the Imperial blockade. And while Sato's ramming of one of the Interdictors (killing Admiral Konstantine in the process) is noble as well as tactical, it robs of us of a Thrawn and Sato confrontation -- something Rebels had earlier implied by suggesting a shared history between the two characters. ('Zero Hour' does, however, include a short but spectacular fight between Thrawn and Kallus, with the Grand Admiral having worked out that his ISB agent is the Rebel spy, Fulcrum.)
Thrawn comes closer than anyone to putting an end to the Rebellion, and even though most escape, they are handed a heavy blow. Again, this is all thanks to Thrawn's insight -- he, unlike so many Imperials, doesn't underestimate the Rebels, recognizing that they repeatedly manage to pull a victory out of certain defeat. Unfortunately for Thrawn, his fellow officers Konstantine and Governor Pryce, aren't nearly as wise or clever, and their underestimating of the lengths at which the Rebels will go for their cause creates opportunity for escape.
"I Am The One In The Middle"
In addition to glory-seeking officers, Thrawn's flawlessly planned attack was also thwarted by something else, something he could never have predicted -- the Bendu. Introduced all the way back in the season 3 premiere, the Bendu is a strange fellow, quite powerful in The Force but neither of the light or dark side. As he likes to remind Kanan: "I am the one in the middle. I take no side."
It still isn't exactly clear what his purpose is within the grand scheme of Star Wars Rebels, but here in 'Zero Hour', the Bendu works as a last minute saving throw for the Rebels of Phoenix Squadron. Not that he actually enters the fray on their side, but having been incensed by Kanan, the Bendu lashes out on all who are still on the planet, transforming into a massive storm and attacking both Imperial and Rebel forces.
The Rebels use the chaos created by the Bendu's attack to escape, while Thrawn instructs his men to shoot at the center of the storm, bringing the Bendu crashing down to the planet's surface. When the Imperial forces approach the Bendu, now severely weakened, he shares with Thrawn a vision: "I see your defeat surrounding you like many arms in a cold embrace." Thrawn, not at all pleased with what the Bendu has to say, shoots him, only for the Bendu to vanish into thin air, perhaps even becoming one with The Force.
It's unlikely this is the last we've seen of the strange Force wielder, but for now, his words about Thrawn's future are all that linger.
What's Next For the Rebellion?
Having narrowly avoided total annihilation thanks to Ezra reaching out to Sabine and the Mandalorians, Phoenix Squadron, for the most part, lives on to fight another day. They rescued Kallus, officially bringing him in to the fold, and General Dodonna has made his first animated appearance, signalling just how closely Rebels is to approaching the events of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and beyond. The episode even ends with them traveling to Rebel command on Yavin IV.
At one point during 'Zero Hour', Mon Mothma remarks to Ezra that it may have been too soon for the Rebellion to engage in open warfare, and again, knowing the timeline of events to come, she's right. This brings up the question of what will the Rebellion, and in particular Phoenix Squadron, do between now and the official star of the Galactic Civil War?
The fate of these characters remains shrouded in mystery. Other than Hera and Chopper, none of the other Rebels are mentioned in Rogue One. Have they died? Been reassigned? Or worse, defected? 'Zero Hour' sees the family (as Hera calls it) back together again, but it seems unlikely that will last long. Sabine is sure to return home, needing to fight in Mandalore's own civil war. Jedi business could easily pull Kanan and Ezra away (the threat of Darth Vader still looms large, after all). And for countless reasons, Zeb, Rex, and many more may either perish or leave.
'Zero Hour' was an action-packed finale, featuring what felt like more space battles than the entirety of the series. It was at times gripping, other times solemnly reflective, but was mostly a solid end for what has been a rather good season of Star Wars Rebels. It may not have played out in quite the manner expected, and it is somewhat overshadowed by the previous episode (not too mention its season 2 finale), but 'Zero Hour' raised the stakes for both the Empire and the Rebellion. The stage is now set for all out war, and it won't be long before that becomes unavoidable.
Star Wars Rebels season 4 premieres this fall on Disney XD.