In many ways, "Wings of the Master" mirrored the experimental blade-wing at the center of its story. It was the product of many moving pieces—writing, voice acting, animation, and music—and to really deliver on its promise, all of those pieces had to fit together perfectly. Thankfully, like the blade-wing itself, this episode came out firing on all cylinders. Everything just worked. We learned a little bit more about Hera's backstory, we met a new ally of the Rebellion (and his whiz-bang prototype ship), and we were treated to one of the most breathtaking sequences of animation and music that Star Wars Rebels has ever given us.
The episode began on a rough note for Hera. During the first attempt to break the blockade, she pushed the fleet to its limits, despite the obviously overwhelming odds. She told the lone Corellian corvette to stay on course for the planet, and the Imperials destroyed it because of her advice. She was so focused on getting through the blockade to help innocent people—for reasons that become clear later in the episode—that she didn't admit the possibility of defeat or, when it came time, retreat. She also lost Phoenix Leader. As the surviving rebels regrouped and fled, you could see the regret and dismay on her face. She wasn't used to such abject failure.
Yet Hera still seemed confident that a second attempt could succeed. Interestingly, it was never clear if she actually believed this or if she just thought that the consequences of not trying were unacceptable. Either way, Commander Sato had to remind her that the Imperial blockade had already demonstrated its ability to decisively block their approach. It was a rare moment in which someone else admonished Hera, rather than the other way around, and it showed that Hera wasn't at her best. The urgency of the mission had blinded her to the futility of the existing strategy.
After Rex mentioned his friend of Shantipole, Kanan had to be blunt with Hera: The fleet needed a blockade buster or they were doomed to fail. Hera couldn't bear to leave the fleet because she didn't see the utility of the mission to Shantipole, but that probably had less to do with her carefully considering it than with her restless desire to reattempt the supply run. All in all, I enjoyed this new dimension to Hera's personality. In past episode, she was either right all the time or out of the picture. To see her actually making a mistake, letting her frustration with a costly failure cloud her perspective, was to see a new side to her character.
I loved the excursion to Shantipole. I loved the idea of a planet with a volatile atmosphere that someone had turned into a testing ground for an experimental craft. It was a nice marriage of mission and environment. The animation team crafted a gorgeous landscape and peppered it with nice reminders of its treacherous conditions; I enjoyed the fleeting shots of crashed ships strewn among the spiky mountains.
Unlike other recent episodes with a strong character focus but barely any story, "Wings of the Master" soared on the strength of the Mon Calamari ship designer Quarrie. Anecdotal Twitter evidence last Thursday night suggested that critical acclaim and fan love for Quarrie was universal. There was something quintessentially Star Wars about him: gruff, blunt, and grumpy, but also smart, skilled, and compassionate. This episode also made a fantastic contribution to Star Wars lore by telling the origin story of the rebel B-wings. It made perfect sense that many of the rebels' less conventional ships would come from prototypes designed by quirky recluses like Quarrie.
The odd Mon Calamari reminded me of Yoda in the way that he tested Hera. He really made her work for the chance to fly his ship. It made sense, of course: Like Yoda with Luke, Quarrie needed to see if Hera possessed the grit, fearlessness, and determination necessary to take his craft for a spin. I loved that he was very possessive of his ship; it added just the right flair to his character, making us believe that he had spent years becoming protective of it as he tweaked its innards.
It was on Shantipole that Hera explained her love of pilot: she associated the skies with the arrival of Republic heroes on Ryloth during the Clone Wars, and she wanted to get up there not only to feel light and free but also to emulate her saviors, to fight a good fight. When Quarrie tested her convictions by noting her willingness to shoot and kill, she impressed him by citing the necessity of fighting for a worthy cause. But it was the last part of Hera's eloquent speech that seemed to impress Quarrie the most, as she talked about the wonders of being in the sky. "It's all rooted in something I can't explain," she said. "A need to be up there." With that, it seemed, she had passed Quarrie's test.
It's important to understand how Hera's love of flight is rooted in her experience as a young girl on Ryloth. Whether or not the Separatists ever actually enslaved her and her family, it must have felt that way as the Twi'leks retreated into caves and mountains to flee CIS forces. Those hiding spots, buried deep underground, became synonymous with fear, retreat, and confinement both physical and political. Living on occupied Ryloth, Hera must have come to associate the caves with the powerless and oppressed and the skies with the powerful and free. The sky became a place of agency and authority; it was where droid starfighters zoomed around and Trade Federation control ships hovered ominously farther above. When the Republic arrived to free Ryloth, its clones and Jedi again came from the sky, cementing, for Hera, the symbolic meaning of the sky as a place of freedom. Years later, when Hera got a ship, a crew, and a mission, the sky let her emulate her heroes and saviors by taking advantage of its limitless possibilities and advantages.
"Wings of the Master" brought Hera's passion for flying to the viewer on an emotional level with the sequence in which she tested the blade-wing. It began with a great shot of Zeb and Sabine looking over the edge of Quarrie's platform, followed by Hera soaring overhead in the ship, as the music soared along with her spirits. It immediately became clear that she relished the flight, the ability to reach the level of Shantipole's winged inhabitants and zip between its jagged peaks. She was back where she felt most comfortable—back where the clone gunships had appeared to free her and her family from Count Dooku's armies.
I cannot say enough about the music in this episode. Our first taste of composer Kevin Kiner's latest tour de force accompanied our first glimpse of Quarrie's blade-wing. There was an inspirational vibe to the notes, putting a charge in the air as Hera first saw the blade-wing, pilot meeting craft. When she finally took flight, Kiner gave us this amazing, soaring theme that, as I understand it, intentionally echoed the joy and exhileration of The Rocketeer. It was without a doubt the series' best music so far. The best way I can describe it is to quote Quarrie and say, "Masterful."
The rest of the episode unfolded rather quickly, the core of the story having run its course on Shantipole. The triumphant rebel fleet music from the end of season 1 played as Hera made her last-minute arrival to knock out an Imperial cruiser and let the Ghost deliver its supplies to beleaguered resistance fighters. Hera had redeemed herself for her earlier failure. Thanks to her, good people were going to live to fight another day.
Before I wrap up, a few miscellaneous thoughts. I enjoyed seeing the rebels helping the needy instead of carrying out another attack, because it reminded viewers that the Rebellion was a humanitarian operation as much as it was a military one. Kanan's insistence on making the second run in the Ghost was another reflection of this selflessness, which is a major distinguishing factor between the rebels and the Imperials that sometimes gets lost in the broader war. Trying to break the blockade in the Ghost might have been foolish, but it was also realistic: the people of Ibaar needed those supplies urgently, and the Rebellion owed it to them to try again.
I also liked seeing how Kallus reacted to the fact that the Ghost was carrying the supplies. Not only did he know its real name at this point, but he was familiar enough with the Ghost crew's relentless gallantry to find it deliciously appropriate that they were making themselves the target. I did find it a bit unlikely that he would just happen to be leading the blockade of the planet that Commander Sato's group decided to help, but perhaps he's somehow following them in an attempt to get revenge on Hera's team. This episode certainly showed that his frequent run-ins with them had created some sort of bond between them.
With "Wings of the Master," Star Wars Rebels reminded us of how it excels when all the pieces fall into place, with the perfect blend of characterization, stakes, writing, exposition, lore, and, of course, animation and music. As a longtime fan of the underappreciated B-wings, I loved seeing Rebels tackle their origins within the Alliance. And as one of many people who had bemoaned the lack of Hera in earlier episodes, I was thrilled not only with the episode's focus on her but also with the payoff to her heroism: a promotion to Phoenix Leader, which will hopefully result in more missions away from the Ghost with her fellow fighter pilots. "Wings of the Master" didn't just elevate Hera's status within this slice of the Rebellion. It also brought Rebels itself to soaring new heights.
You can read all of my Rebels reviews right here.