"Stealth Strike" might be as close to a perfect episode of Star Wars Rebels as we've seen in a long time. It ties with "Wings of the Master" as the best of season 2. Not only did it blend moments of humor with moments of gravity (pun intended), but it resolved some tension between two main characters, taught another character an important lesson about the past, and put a formerly background character in a central role in a way that hinted at the struggles of the growing Rebellion. "Stealth Strike" balanced a story full of homages with a raft of meaningful dialog and still managed to tell a fascinating story that equally leveraged the strengths and weaknesses of several fan-favorite characters.
The most important dynamic in this episode was the one between Kanan and Rex. The series has worked hard to establish that the two men aren't just separated by their fates after Order 66—one of them a discarded hero, the other an escaped fugitive—but also by their personalities and approaches to the continuing war. Kanan is an easy-going, fast-talking, roguish ex-Jedi. His distaste for the strictures of their new place in the broader rebellion was apparent as early as the season 2 premiere film, in which he complained to Hera about feeling uncomfortable among soldiers. In "Stealth Strike," Kanan saw Rex's complicated Clone Wars-era codes as "protocol nonsense," refusing to admit that they were instrumental in allowing the rebels access to the gravity-well cruiser. Kanan lives in the moment and flies by the seat of his pants; he has no time for protocol.
Rex, on the other hand, is a more regimented person. Despite leaving the Clone Wars behind, he remains every bit the soldier we saw on Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Protocol remained an important part of how he lived his life, because he was raised—bred—to respect protocol and the discipline it created. That's part of what made Kanan uncomfortable around him—his obedience to protocol made it easier to lump him in with the faceless troopers who have pursued Kanan and Hera's rebels for so long. But there was a purpose to Rex's protocol. Discipline isn't just for stormtroopers. It's essential for every army. Rex seemed to be trying to convey that to Kanan when he told his reluctant partner to "act like a professional" on their mission. The line was more than just a nod to the clone work ethic; Rex was genuinely concerned that Kanan's usual posture and attitude would get them into trouble. (Of course, there was no shortage of references to the clone/stormtrooper divide, such as Rex's haughty proclamation that the Empire's supposedly upgraded armor was in fact "junk.")
Despite both men's unease, Rex clearly respected Kanan, but for a long time, that respect was mostly deference to Kanan's old Order rather than appreciation for the man he was in the present day. The episode repeatedly emphasized that Rex fondly remembered his service with Jedi Knights like Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. When Kanan mind-tricked his way past two stormtroopers, Rex remarked, "I've seen better." It was clearly a reference to the adventures that The Clone Wars partially chronicled, but it also seemed to represent Rex's begrudging respect for Kanan's way of doing things. The mission didn't always have to be about protocol; sometimes, Kanan's more impromptu approach paid off. Rex might not have wanted to say as much directly, but he knew a successful tactic when he saw it.
One of the highlights of "Stealth Strike" was watching both Kanan and Rex sink back into the Clone Wars dynamic of fighting side by side and building off of each other's strengths. That took a while to emerge in the episode—and rightly so, owing to the tension that had heretofore prevented such cooperation—but when it happened, it was like something profound clicking into place. "I'll pull. You fire," Kanan said, preparing to use the Force to line up some easy shots for Rex. "Just like old times," Rex said, with an equal mix of determination and nostalgia. "Settle down, captain," Kanan replied.
You could do an entire half-hour podcast segment on that interaction, as layered and nuanced as it was. Kanan recognized that their predicament called for Jedi-clone teamwork. He knew that he had to use his unique ability to give Rex an opening to use his blaster skills. But Rex got a little too excited—the teamwork was stirring old, fond memories—and Kanan needed him to focus. But of course, that wasn't the only reason for Kanan's "Great kid, don't get cocky"-style admonition. He wanted to avoid the memory of his teamwork with clones during the war as much as Rex seemed to crave the same memory. The two men's partnership was, at this stage, still uneasy, even if it excited loyal viewers of The Clone Wars.
One of the tragedies of a 22-minute format is the preponderance of weighty themes that only get a few minutes of screen time each week. One such theme in this episode was the contrast between the old, decaying, and honorable Republic and the ascendant, gleaming, and wicked Empire. "Relics of the Old Republic" gave us a taste of this dynamic, and "Stealth Strike" brought it back, when Rex, having been captured delaying Imperial pursuit of his friends, came face to face with Imperial Admiral Brom Titus.
Admiral Titus was a Palpatine loyalist through and through, fiercely proud of his command and his Empire. Rex was a disillusioned war veteran who had seen good times turn to bad—and who knew that he and his brothers had played a formative role in the death of liberty. Viewed in this context, Titus's attempts to appeal to Rex's honor must have been doubly insulting to the clone. Not only was Titus trying to instigate Rex's betrayal of the Rebellion, but he was also putting a heroic spin on what Rex saw as his shameful role in the rise of the New Order.
"You were a hero once," Titus said. "You and your kind brought peace to the galaxy. ... I serve the order you put into place, captain." This debate between old and new, catalyst and final product, emphasized that new was not always better—that new might be stronger, but it wasn't necessarily more just. The Empire may be slicker, but it's not morally superior. The Republic might have been falling apart, but it was built on a principled foundation, even if it failed to live up to it. When Titus mentioned Rex's contribution to the New Order, the clone's face conveyed his mix of disdain, frustration, and shame.
While Rex wrestled with the face of the era he had helped usher in, Kanan grappled with his changing attitude toward his partner. Rex's sacrifice had won him Kanan's respect, even if that hadn't been his goal. Kanan initially saw it as solely a grand gesture, but when Rex committed to the diversion, knowing that rescue would be unlikely, Kanan truly began to appreciate Rex's commitment to the cause. Having rescued Commander Sato and the other rebels, Kanan had completed his mission. (Hera had never instructed him to keep Rex alive and safe.) He could have headed for the ship with the others. But instead, Kanan—who had always played it safe and shunned opportunities to stick his neck out for others—doubled back, seemingly against his better judgment, and rescued Rex. I appreciated the fact that the writing and animation conveyed Kanan's mixed feelings. It was clear that he couldn't help himself—and it was equally clear that he hated that he couldn't help himself. But Rex, he decided, was a "friend."
Kanan and Rex's evolving relationship formed the core of the story and the character development, but there was also an interesting development in the way Commander Sato viewed Ezra. Sato started off annoyed by Ezra; Hera had said that the boy would be useful, but as their rescue mission proceeded, Sato wasn't seeing it. Sato, like Rex, was a soldier. He heeded protocol, respected rank, and followed procedures. Earlier episodes, particularly the season 2 premiere film, highlighted his annoyance with Ezra, who, even more so than Kanan, disrespected authority and flouted procedures. After their capture, Ezra tried to reassure Sato that he was a skilled jail-breaker. "I've been captured many times," he told the older man, to which Sato replied, "You're not putting my mind at ease." It was clear that, despite Hera's high praise, the rebel commander saw Ezra as an annoyance and a liability on this serious mission.
Things changed when Kanan informed Sato of Ezra's escape. The commander began to recognize that Ezra was a capable fighter. Sato initially couldn't believe that Ezra had escape "on his own," as he incredulously put it to Kanan. But Ezra's Jedi teacher knew his student's strengths. He nonchalantly told the commander, "He tends to do that." Later, when Kanan split off from the group and left Ezra at the vanguard of the rebels' retreat, Ezra urged Sato not to worry, saying, "I've got this." Even still, Sato wasn't sure how good Ezra was. "You've got this?" the older man said, no doubt concerned that he and his loyal crewmembers were in greater danger now that Kanan was gone. But Sato soon discovered that Ezra wasn't just bragging—he really did "have this."
Sato's role on Rebels has been to contrast the mysticism of the Jedi and the odds-defying improvisation of Hera's crew with the procedures and command structure of the burgeoning rebel movement. He clearly likes Hera, but he also doesn't know what to expect from her team. His skepticism is understandable: He's in charge of hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives and a cache of resources almost as precious to the Rebellion. He can't afford to take chances. Before he knew Ezra's capabilities, he was taking a chance on the boy. Who knows, maybe he'll still regard Ezra with unease. Either way, I hope we continue to see Sato front and center, personifying the rocky transition from ragtag groups like Hera's to more united flotillas like the one we see in Return of the Jedi.
It takes a lot of work to assemble and coordinate a fleet like the one that massed at Sullust. Even though it takes place many years before the Battle of Endor, Rebels—through Sato and, hopefully, other rebel leaders—can depict the tension that is the inevitable byproduct of mashing together diverse teams composed of irregulars and, shall we say, strong personalities like the ones found aboard the Ghost.
"Stealth Strike" gave ample attention to Ezra's continuing maturity. One noteworthy but perhaps overlooked moment was Ezra's warning to the stormtroopers escorting him to his cell. "When I escape," he said, "I won't hurt any of you." Some viewers might overlook this as a simple laugh line; to do so would be to miss the significance of the statement for Ezra's growth. In contrast to Zeb, Ezra didn't enjoy fighting for fighting's sake. He didn't get a thrill from bashing his enemies' heads together. He knew what he had to do, and he resolved himself to do it, but he seemed eager to convey the fact that he was neither ruthless nor bloodthirsty. Granted, he was a bit overconfident, warning his captors in that way. But by demonstrating a calm confidence and disavowing violence for violence's sake, he reminded me of Luke Skywalker in Jabba's palace, issuing his last warning to the vile gangster even as the Hutt and his guests prepared to watch the rancor go to work.
When Kanan and Rex fell into their typical bickering, Ezra once again revealed himself to be wise beyond his years. He betrayed a flash of anger at the older men's pettiness, then took command of the situation by telling his two mentors to follow his plan. Like a child outgrowing his parents' ability to impart lessons, Ezra wasn't dependent on Kanan and Rex for direction. They still had much to teach him, but he knew when following their lead wasn't likely to help. Some may characterize this approach as headstrong. I saw it more as a refined sort of confidence—knowing when to step out on one's own without worrying about what one's mentors will say. Remarking on the situation to Rex, Kanan said of Ezra, "He takes after Hera sometimes." Kanan, mollified by Ezra's clear-minded, Hera-like rebuke of their counterproductive bickering, could only have meant this as carefully concealed high praise.
Although ISB Agent Kallus only appeared in two short scenes, the few lines he had helped flesh out his place in the Empire and his relationship with the Ghost crew. Agent Kallus has learned by now not to underestimate Ezra Bridger. But as Admiral Titus proved, the Imperial admiralty hasn't learned that lesson—despite experiencing more than enough defeats to impart such wisdom to anyone paying attention. The Imperial Navy is full of arrogance; Admiral Titus, an excellent example of this supreme overconfidence, remained confident, despite Kallus' warnings, that his cruiser's superior forces were more than capable of handling a simple boy. This contrast made me wonder what Kallus thought of the admiralty. Did he, like many of his Expanded Universe counterparts, believe the dreaded ISB to be of superior character to the Navy? He certainly hinted as much when he came across Titus' escape pod at the end of the episode and said, with a smirk on his face, "Had some problems with the boy, I see." (As a side note, I appreciate that Kallus, despite being a villain, has a sense of humor.)
What I loved about "Stealth Strike"—what made it the second-best episode of the season so far, tied with "Wings of the Master"—was that it didn't excel solely at expounding upon these big themes and deep character moments. It also incorporated lighter moments, meta-humor, and a bevy of homages. Before Ezra asserted himself to Kanan and Rex, for example, he struck a lighter tone, making up a story to avoid admitting that he had stunned Kanan and Rex. I don't care what anyone else says—I love Ezra's awkward, embarrassed, teenage humor. The writers consistently give him dialog that is alternately witty and slapstick, and it's totally believable that he would make up a story to avoid taking the blame for stunning his friends. (It's equally believable that Chopper would debunk the story by playing back a recording of the embarrassing moment.)
The use of meta-humor is a tricky proposition, but "Stealth Strike" pulled it off with—what else?"—stormtrooper jokes. Upon seeing the Imperial shuttle that was to ferry them to the gravity-well cruiser, Kanan said, "How is it the Empire lets us keep stealing these things?" Given how convenient such shuttle thefts are to the story, as well as how much the repeated theft of high-value Imperial property strains credibility, I appreciated the wink and nod at this trope. Kanan and Rex also traded quips about stormtrooper armor, which each man must have loathed for different philosophical reasons. "This armor doesn't protect you from anything," Kanan said at one point. Later, he told Rex, "Wow, you really do shoot like a stormtrooper," to which the older man replied, "It's this helmet. I can't see."
The entire episode was a fun Death Star homage, down to the Imperial officer boarding the turbolift after Kanan and Rex—a reference to Luke and Han avoiding a similar encounter in A New Hope. When the two disguised rebels stumbled through stormtrooper talk to bluff their way along, it recalled Han and Luke doing the same thing en route to Leia's holding cell. ("Large leak...very dangerous.") There was another homage when Rex said, "So much for stealth," and Kanan replied, "It's not like they don't know we're here." ("It's a wonder the whole station doesn't know we're here.") Viewed in the context of these homages, even Kanan's last-second decision to rescue Rex could be seen as an homage to Han's change of heart at the end of the Battle of Yavin.)
"Stealth Strike" excelled on many other, smaller fronts as well. I loved both the gravity-well cruiser's pulled-out-of-hyperspace effect and the Expanded Universe concept of the "interdictor" itself becoming canon. On the animation front, the shot of the gravity-well cruiser crossing on top of Sato's ship made the Imperial vessel look like some deep-sea monster closing in on its prey—again, not unlike the similar shot in A New Hope. Sabine's Imperial knowledge came in handy again, as she explained the likely size of a testing zone for a new type of Imperial cruiser. Her art also returned, this time with a purpose: she spray-painted a picture of Kanan and Rex working together in the hope that it would foster cooperation. And even though Hera only appeared for a few seconds, her scene with Kanan spoke volumes about her. She wanted, even needed, Rex and Kanan to work together. It wasn't just that Rex's military experience would be invaluable, as Hera correctly predicted; it was also that she needed the two men to start trusting each other. That insistence on trust and cooperation is one of the hallmarks of a good leader.
What made "Stealth Strike" work so well can best be summed up in two moments. One was Ezra saying, "Jedi and clones. Now I get it." The other was Kanan saluting Rex. In the former case, Rex and Kanan's begrudging partnership gave Ezra a true sense of what the good parts of the Clone Wars were like. Through his two friends, Ezra got a glimpse of a nobler past—one that will hopefully inspire him to live up to the wisdom and bravery of the Jedi of old. In the latter case, the very act of saluting showed how profoundly Kanan's opinion of Rex had changed. A salute is a quintessential example of military protocol—the very thing that the easy-going Kanan despises. But he offered one to Rex anyway, as a sign of his respect—and it doubtless meant more to Rex coming from someone who didn't like relying on protocols to communicate. By imparting lessons to all three of these characters, "Stealth Strike" transformed how they saw each other—and their mission—in ways that will hopefully resonate across many future stories.
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