[WARNING – This review of Star Wars Rebels season 3 premiere contains SPOILERS.]
Star Wars Rebels - much like its predecessor, Star Wars: The Clone Wars - began as a mostly straightforward adventure set in a galaxy far, far away. Sure, there was peril and the Empire's hold on the galaxy was growing, but not until its second season did Rebels begin becoming darker. Clone Wars experienced this shift too; call it the Empire Strikes Back effect if you will, but like that film, it's a period in which our heroes are hit with a major setback.
In the case of Star Wars Rebels, that setback was Maul (Sam Witwer) duping Ezra (Taylor Gray) into using the Sith holocron to activate an ancient Sith weapon, setting off a string of events which left Kanan (Freddie Prinze Jr.) blind, Ahsoka's (Ashley Eckstein) whereabouts unknown after an intense duel with her old master, and saw both Darth Vader (Matthew Lanter) and Maul escape, readying themselves for the next encounter. The season 2 finale of Rebels was explosive, and the ramifications weigh heavily over season 3.
In its two-part season 3 premiere, 'Steps Into Shadow', a more mature and formidable Ezra leads a rescue mission to spring Hondo (Jim Cummings) from prison, while a new villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelsen) is introduced. A master strategist, Thrawn has vowed to rip the Rebellion apart, piece by peice, until only the Empire stands as the ruling power in the galaxy. Thrawn is no stranger to longtime Star Wars fans, having been originally a major player in the now de-canonized Star Wars Expanded Universe, but the popular villain rejoins the saga this season on Rebels, hunting down the Ghost crew and all those sympathetic to the Rebellion. However, the Rebels aren't without their own advantages, one of which is Ezra. Always the talented Force wielder, Ezra's abilities have grown ever since encountering Maul and receiving the Sith holocron on Malachor - but at what cost?
The Power of the Dark Side
A significant, though not exact amount of time has passed since Ezra's time on Malachor, and in that time the
horcrux holocron has been speaking to him, whispering to Ezra of what power the dark side holds. He's certainly learned a thing or two from that holocron because he displays a great amount confidence in his abilities, ably leading the rescue mission and quickly adjusting to any hiccups along the way. He also shows off new Force tricks; namely, the ability to control a human's actions, leading a pilot of an Imperial walker to shoot his comrades and then walk off a platform to his death. It's a chilling moment, one in which Ezra exhibits not only great power but a total lack of empathy - a clear sign he has what it takes to become a terrifyingly powerful Sith if he should choose to do so.
There's a clear concern over Ezra's new attitude among his friends and shipmates, but it's also hard to argue with results. His successful rescue of Hondo gains valuable information for the Rebellion, and Ezra is rewarded with a promotion to Lieutenant Commander. On the next mission, Ezra takes the lead once again, but things don't turn out nearly as well for his second outing in command. Ordered to perform a recon mission on an Imperial salvage yard, Ezra changes the mission from recon to recovery, deciding to take the Y-Wings themselves. And if his greater skills are a side effect of the Sith holocron's teachings, so are Ezra's rash and emotional decisions. His actions endanger his crew and the mission, but worse, needing the fleet to arrive and rescue them only confirms Thrawn's suspicions there's a much larger Rebellion growing across the galaxy.
Part of the reason Ezra has been allowed to stray so far from his teachings is that his teacher, Kanan, has become isolated since losing his sight in a fight with Maul. Urged on by Hera (Vanessa Marshall), Kanan goes to see Ezra, only to find him using the Sith holocron. The master and apprentice argue, with Ezra insisting he's learned more from the holocron than he ever did from Kanan - something to which Kanan doesn't necessarily have an answer for. But Kanan still knows better, he knows how seductive and tempting the dark side can be, so he takes away the holocron.
Later, while meditating, Kanan hears a voice reaching out to him through The Force. Following it, he comes face to face with The Bendu - a massive creature who embodies both the light and dark side of The Force (he's also voiced by legendary Doctor Who actor, Tom Baker). Through his conversation with The Bendu, Kanan learns to rely on his other senses - most importantly, The Force, duh - to regain his "sight". He also comes to realize it's his own fears holding him back and keeping him from being the master Ezra needs. Clearly, Kanan as much as Ezra was changed by their time on Malachor, and the two will need each other if they ever hope to move past it. As for the Sith holocron, Kanan leaves it with Bendu, though by no means will this be the last we see of it.
After the rescue at the Imperial junkyard, Ezra is suspended of his command for disobeying orders, but he and Kanan are again on friendly terms. Ezra apologizes for using the Sith holocron - though he's still keenly interested in what Kanan did with it - and Kanan promises they'll continue to grow, together. It's a surprisingly upbeat note to leave them on, seeing as how far gone this premiere had teased Ezra's descent into darkness. But there's still a whole season to go, and the seeds have been planted for Ezra to experience an arc that will very likely mirror that of another Jedi once tempted by the power of the dark side.
Meet the Grand Admiral
As for what the rest of Star Wars Rebels season 3 premiere offered, there wasn't a whole lot of the Grand Admiral, but what we saw promised great things for the season ahead. He's just as cool and calculating as fans would expect, and his one scene with Grand Moff Tarkin (Stephen Stanton), albeit short, was a moment Star Wars fans won't soon forget. Going forward, it's clear why Thrawn is going to be a huge thorn in the side of the Rebellion - unlike so many Imperials, Thrawn doesn't underestimate them. In fact, he may actually hold some respect for those who can mount a serious resistance against a force as unyielding as the Empire. Just don't expect any of this to ever translate into sympathy.
After what was a jam-packed season 2 finale, 'Steps Into Shadows' is a distinctly slower, less chaotic episode, but one that'll be no less important to Ezra's arc for season 3; also promising a unique new threat in Thrawn, potential new information about The Force, as well as a return from everyone's favorite Dathomirian.
Star Wars Rebels season 3 continues next Saturday, October 1st at 8:30PM with 'The Holocrons of Fate' on Disney XD.