Star Wars Rebels review: "The Lost Commanders"

Rex and the rebels seem to be asking, "Was this really how we wanted to start the season?"

Star Wars Rebels returned to television with an episode that felt almost as plodding as an AT-TE on a big-game hunt. If the relationships that developed on that aging walker had involved anyone other than fan-favorite clone troopers, I probably would have been sorely disappointed by "The Lost Commanders." As it was, I enjoyed the fact that meeting the clones brought out important qualities in Ezra and Kanan. Despite lacking anything truly exciting, "The Lost Commanders" played a valuable role by reintroducing Rex, Wolffe, and Gregor, whose very existence challenged Kanan to move on from the past — or risk being bogged down by the pain of distant conflicts.

As the season kicks off, Ezra is clearly still adjusting to life in a rigid military setting. He interrupted Commander Sato during a briefing, prompting Sato to remark that the young man was never shy about sharing his opinion. What I found noteworthy about this brief opening scene was the cutaway to Ahsoka, who seemed to look on approvingly as Ezra suggested that the rebels set up a base. It was a smart tactical move — constantly running isn't the best long-term strategy — and Ahsoka seemed simultaneously impressed and relieved, as if Ezra was meeting her expectations and growing into the kind of rebel she wanted in a nascent Alliance. Later, after the joopa hunt, even Rex seemed to sense that Ezra was someone special.

Whatever Ezra's faults, his boundless optimism seemed to serve the rebels well in "The Lost Commanders." It was he who established what little rapport existed between clones and rebels, earning Rex's respect and apparently proving himself worthy of being a friend of Ahsoka's. He isn't burdened with the experience of the Clone Wars, and while that annoyed Kanan (I'll get to that in a moment), Rex seemed to find it refreshing. Here was someone whose commitment to doing the right thing hadn't been tarnished by a massive betrayal like Order 66 — whose belief in the ability of good people to accomplish their goals hadn't been reduced to tatters. When Rex expressed bitter resignation about the clones fighting for a cause that ultimately abandoned them in both principle and practice, Ezra pointed out that their betrayal by Palpatine didn't diminish the value of their dedication or the merits of their goals. It was both a sign of Ezra's maturity and a contrast with Kanan's myopic, if understandable, view of a history that he had lived.

I found it particularly interesting to watch Kanan and Ezra's dynamic on the AT-TE, because Kanan was out of his element, distracted by ghosts from the past while Ezra was situated in the present. Maybe that's why Ezra was able to hold Kanan back when the older Jedi stormed toward the clones in anger after Wolffe confessed to calling the Empire. Ezra clearly trusted the clones enough to hear them out, to not immediately react with venom or violence. Even Kanan seemed to understand that he'd acted rashly, yielding at Ezra's insistence that they talk instead of brawling. One imagines that Ahsoka would be proud hearing of this moment — as would Kanan himself, if he hadn't been the one Ezra was telling to back down.

So let's talk about Kanan. From the very beginning of the episode, it was clear that he was having his own brand of trouble fitting into the proto-Alliance's way of doing things. He clearly preferred striking at Imperials from the Ghost and retreating a safe distance. This new arrangement, with its larger logistical considerations, moved too slowly for him. When Hera agreed with Ezra that the rebels needed a base of operations, Kanan's first suggestion was that they prioritize helping people on whatever planet they set up shop. Never mind that the location they picked for their base would be chosen specifically for the lack of an Imperial presence; Kanan's suggestion also exposed the differences between Hera and him. The Twi'lek pilot is a big-picture woman, more willing to strategize and take things slowly if it means a more reliable outcome. Kanan, the "cowboy Jedi," is more interested in getting straight to work. In that way, he's not unlike Han Solo at this point.

Kanan's frustration with Commander Sato's rebel flotilla was nothing compared to his discomfort at seeing clone troopers decades after several of them killed his master, Depa Billaba. Just seeing the clones' colorful repurposed AT-TE made Kanan nervous. There then followed a great moment when Rex said that they "haven't seen a Jedi since..." and the camera cut to Kanan looked equal parts wary and pained, clearly remembering the last time most clones had seen a Jedi. The animators, writers, and voice actor Freddie Prinze Jr. made Kanan's growing apprehension crystal clear, and for that they should be commended. (For those who want to better understand Kanan in this episode, I recommend Marvel's five-issue Star Wars: Kanan comic miniseries. Actually, I recommend it for everyone. So go read it.) From the instant they met the clones, Kanan was trying to convince Ezra not to trust them.  He desperately wanted his apprentice to understand that clones were dangerous, and he got mad at Ezra for being too trusting of them. Again, I commend Prinze on his delivery as he recalled, in haunted, pained tones, the story of Order 66.

Rex then arrived to say that he and his friends weren't like the others — but interestingly, the words he chose implicitly rejected the idea that Palpatine's chip was really all that powerful. "We all have a choice," he told the Jedi. The clear message was that Kanan should choose to evaluate Rex, Gregor, and Wolffe as individuals and resist his prejudices. But read another way, Rex was suggesting that obedient clones were actively choosing their path. (One wonders what he thought of his friend Cody and so many other clone commanders who chose the darker path.) Hera, too, tried to convince Kanan to let go of his prejudices. In their holotransmission, she urged him to revise his thinking on the clones. Kanan clearly recognized that they had done many good things, but his visceral memories of their betrayal still seemed too powerful to overcome. It's notable that Hera tried to change his mind by mentioning that they saved her life once.

My favorite moment in the episode came in the middle of the joopa hunt. Gregor was tossing Kanan and Ezra the staffs that they were supposed to jam into the electro-fishing-line, and when he offered one to Kanan, he called him "general." Kanan replied, "I was never a general," to which Gregor absentmindedly responded, "My mistake. Sorry, commander." Kanan had never been a commander either. He was barely a teenager when Order 66 wiped out that command structure — and nearly all of the commanders with it. This was a really fascinating scene. It occurred in the middle of an urgent and unrelated situation, but it seemed almost to wrench both clone and Jedi out of time, enclosing them together in a historically poignant bubble that Kanan's comrades never understand. Kanan had to think like (or at least about) Caleb Dume for a brief moment, and it was almost like he was sinking back into that time. He and Gregor shared a microscopic nostalgia trip to an era when their relationship would have been totally different.

This fan of The Clone Wars greatly enjoyed seeing clones again, partly because of the revelations about how time had changed them. Gregor had clearly changed the most; he was just flat-out unhinged, interested only in thrills and kicks and willing to risk Zeb's life for a chance at a big dinner. Wolffe had grown angrier and less trusting. He instantly assumed that Kanan wanted revenge when the Jedi ignited his lightsaber. He put protecting his squad above all other concerns, resisting helping the rebels because he thought it would only bring trouble and even calling the Empire just to get out ahead of the situation. He wanted to protect his brothers, and he didn't know what to make of the rebels, so he opted for what he thought was the safest course of action.

Rex's change was more subtle. He wasn't paranoid or unstable. He was defeatist. He'd had enough of the war and all the pain and misery it had brought, and he would rather safely avoid the Empire than take risks for a lost cause. Yet he still retained his integrity, as he demonstrated in his conversations with Ezra and as he tried to convey to Kanan. He also still possessed strong leadership qualities, as seen when he easily talked Wolffe down after the other clone pointed his blaster rifle at the rebels. When Rex admonished Ezra to handle his helmet carefully, we learned that, despite the captain's disenchantment with Republic service, he still valued his armor — his last connection to his old life besides his DNA itself. I hope we'll get to hear Rex discuss his past more in the next episode, but "The Lost Commanders" has already painted a nuanced picture of him.

Before I conclude, I have some miscellaneous thoughts. There's no consistent theme here, so I'll just rattle them off. I enjoyed seeing the tactical droid's head make an appearance, because they had become such a trope of The Clone Wars, and now they were just relics. Ahsoka dangled another nice connection by referring to evading the droids with her master. I didn't understand how the tactical droid was locating Rex, though — and it was clearly homing in on him, not the AT-TE, because it kept repeating his number. I was intrigued to hear Rex mention that the Empire retired the clones, and I wonder if we'll hear more about what that entailed. Were there severance packages? I somehow doubt it.

Another, even bigger tease: The Siege of Mandalore. What was that all about? We'll probably never find out, but hey, the war went back to Mandalore. Ahsoka's other lines raised even more questions. Why didn't she just tell Kanan that her friend was a clone? Was she testing his open-mindedness by sending him to confront the past like that, under delicate circumstances? And what, specifically, were the "questions that need answering" regarding Darth Vader? I have no doubt that we'll see at least glimpses of Ahsoka's search for answers there.

"The Lost Commanders" didn't blow me away. It was a mostly empty episode, with a few dramatic interactions born of nostalgia and history. But nothing really interesting happened to any of the characters. The plot was just filler to launch and develop a few relationships, notably Ezra and Kanan's relationships with Rex. We certainly saw some growth on Ezra's part and even some regression on Kanan's part, but it was just interesting, just promising — nothing more. Star Wars Rebels season 2 is off to a slow start. At the end of the episode, after Rex shot the Imperial probe, he looked at Kanan in the hopes of getting at least a thumbs-up. Hopefully, by the time this story concludes, the evolution of their relationship won't be the only thing keeping my attention on screen.

You can read all of my Rebels reviews right here.