Star Wars Rebels review: "Twilight of the Apprentice"

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The finale left fans as uncertain and worried as Ezra.
Lucasfilm

Every season finale is supposed to be epic. This is a given in serialized television. But "Twilight of the Apprentice" redefined epic in the context of Star Wars. The Rebels season 2 finale brought back and dramatically enhanced the stature of a villain once discarded as a broken tool; delivered on the promise and angst of a long-awaited fight while opening a new door for one of the combatants; and placed a promising but troubled young man in spiritual and philosophical peril, possibly setting the stage for him to clash with his master in the style of the finale's other main event.

Even before Maul appeared, the episode hinted at Ezra brushing a little too closely to the dark side. The fact that Malachor was the subject of warnings told to padawans at the Jedi Temple made it a "forbidden fruit" of sorts: there was knowledge waiting for them on the planet, but it had been placed off-limits by the Masters for a reason. Of course, this didn't faze Ezra. If anything, it might have piqued his curiosity more. Then Ahsoka, Kanan, and Ezra arrived at the pillar on the planet's surface, and the first real clue about Ezra's inner darkness emerged. As Ahsoka explained that the writing on the pillar was in "in the Old Tongue," he heard it calling out to him, and when he touched it, the ground fell away beneath them. The meaning of the fact that neither Kanan nor Ahsoka felt compelled to touch the pillar was unmistakable—and foreboding.

Interestingly, Ahsoka did her small part to set Ezra on the path he traveled in this episode, when she told the Jedi that, to beat your enemy, you have to understand them. What she didn't say was that this entails dancing close to your enemy in your mind and perhaps in your deeds. Any time you put yourself in your enemy's mindset, you risk being corrupted by their way of thinking. This was a theme in the Expanded Universe, with Jedi as powerful as Luke Skywalker himself brushing up against the dark side in misguided attempts to bring down the Empire from within, and I loved seeing the same thing play out in the season finale.

The catalyst for Ezra's near-fall to the dark side was the return of a character whose development and appeal is a testament to the power of non-film media. Maul, the former Darth, had somehow survived being hunted by the Empire and the Sith since the events of the Son of Dathomir comic. I really want to know what he's been up to recently. The fact that the Eighth Brother—the new Inquisitor we met in the finale—was tracking Maul meant that he was at least on Palpatine and Vader's radar. This, again, made me wonder about the extent to which he had been making his presence felt throughout the galaxy.

It was really interesting and even disturbing to see Maul interact with Ezra in a non-threatening, almost kindly way, because, of course, we knew that that wasn't who he was. His voice was different in this persona, his mannerisms gentle. When he said that he was too old to get into the temple alone, he even laughed at his supposed frailty. The fact that he could adopt this radically different personality showed how adept he was on putting on disguises to achieve his ends. And on the subject of Maul's voice, Sam Witwer's performance was phenomenal. I never felt as close to Maul's emotions as I did when he said, "The Sith...the Sith took everything from me." His anger and pain were crystal clear in that sentence.

Unsurprisingly, Maul was nothing like the frail "Old Master" that he presented to Ezra. The ease with which he defeated two Inquisitors showed that, despite everything he'd been through, he remained an especially lethal fighting force. And his revelation that the temple was a battle station completed the rollout of his masterful plan in a way that drove home his Palpatine-like ability to deceive others. Not only was he still a formidable fighter, but he had developed sophisticated skills of manipulation, to the point where he could cloud a young Jedi's mind and get him to ignore the warning signs leading up to him activating a Sith battle station. I didn't find Maul all that interesting in the movies, but The Clone Wars and now Rebels have transformed him into something utterly different—and endlessly fascinating.

Ezra and Maul in this episode walked almost the exact same path that Anakin and Palpatine walked in the prequel trilogy. The parallels were so obvious, in both simple fact and careful presentation, that it was clear that Dave Filoni and his team wanted to show that history repeats itself—and raise the possibility of that happening with Ezra at some point. While Ezra has dealt with anger in the past, this brush with the dark side was more potent and alarming than any previous incident. And by the end of the season finale, after everything that Ezra had done and seen, there was a new reason to think that he would, ultimately, fall.

Maul, like Palpatine, endeavored to bring Ezra's raw emotions to the surface. He asked Ezra if he wanted revenge for his parents' death, to which Ezra responded that he wants justice. Like Anakin, Ezra filtered his initial responses to Palpatine's probing remarks through the prism of his Jedi training. He remembered what Yoda had said about vengeance and justice, and how the former was a gateway to the dark side. Even so, he remained susceptible to Maul's influence as long as Maul phrased things the right way. There was a superficial nature to the resistance that Ezra offered to the notion of revenge, as if he thought that, as long as he said "justice," he'd be on the right path.

It might seem surprising to some viewers that Ezra was so quick to trust Maul, but ultimately, the reason lay in Maul pushing the right buttons. We like to think that we'd be fully aware of any attempts to manipulate us if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation, but the truth is, if we were Ezra's age, our emotions and memories would screw with our judgement even in what seems to audiences like a black-and-white situation. Maul's quick and easy success with Ezra showed how vulnerable to manipulation the young Jedi still was.

Almost immediately, Maul began poisoning Ezra's mind with Sith whispers about the impotence of the Jedi ways. He said that Kanan was "doomed to fail" because he scorned the idea of dabbling in Sith ways to better understand the Sith. This prompted Ezra to begin considering whether Kanan's way was too limiting, just as Palpatine's whispers to Anakin prompted him to re-evaluate the man he considered a brother. Having planted doubts about the competence of the one person urging Ezra to suppress his anger, Maul honed in on that trait and urged him to let it out. "Your anger is a wellspring," he said. "You must use it." It was early in their relationship, and Ezra was nervous about drawing on his anger, but he eventually relented because he perceived the mission to be too important.

"You must break your chains," Maul told Ezra, framing the issue so as to paint the Jedi in a bad light. It was the Jedi ways, he suggested, that were binding or limiting Ezra, not Ezra's own susceptibility to misdirection or false hope. Ezra, of course, didn't want to be chained or held back—no one does—so he embraced Maul's way. Like Anakin, for all of his power and potential, he remained dangerously impulsive.

It's worth dwelling for a moment on just how much like Palpatine Maul has become. Like his former master, he knew exactly how to word his seduction to achieve the maximum impact with minimal psychological resistance from his target. And he didn't just push Ezra's buttons; he empowered him, to the point where Ezra began to feel gratitude for what Maul had unlocked. Ezra's success opening the temple's doors by harnessing his anger convinced him that Maul might be right about the value of anger. But he had to experience that success before the thought took hold. This was a textbook Palpatine-style seduction, planting the chess pieces and causing the right ones to fall in just the right way to clear a path for the chosen pawn to advance.

The more Maul's whisperings bore fruit, the more likely Ezra was to accept more aggressive reinterpretations of what he already believed. "Unless you take risks—do what must be done—there will always be limits to your abilities," Maul told him. This was, quite simply, classic Palpatine. For Anakin, it was the ability to stop death itself. For Ezra, it was the ability to learn enough to beat Inquisitors in battle. But both of them wanted these skills, this knowledge, to save people they cared about, whether it be a secret wife or an adopted family. Maul, like Palpatine, was easing his victim into a position of being comfortable pushing accepted limits. You had to take this process slowly, like boiling a frog without it jumping out of the pot. But Maul could sense that Ezra hated the idea of being limited—especially with so many friends' lives on the line—and he seized that intuition for his advantage.

When Maul and Ezra reached the chamber that contained the holocron, they saw that it was separated from their ledge by a vast chasm. Maul told Ezra, "Only someone with the courage to risk oblivion is worthy to claim it." Obviously, there was the risk of physical oblivion here, but it seemed to me that Maul's statement could also be read metaphorically: drawing on anger and dabbling in Sith philosophies creates the risk of succumbing to moral and spiritual oblivion. As Anakin learned, becoming a Sith really means losing yourself.

In response to this warning, Ezra doubled down on his trust in Maul, attempting a Force-powered feat—the Force-leapfrog technique—that he had previously only tried with Kanan. The fact that he believed in Maul enough to put his fate directly and acutely in the other man's hands spoke volumes about how perfectly Maul's gambit was working.

The animators and writers couldn't resist playing with us, though. After Ezra retrieved the holocron, Maul convinced him to leap back with the understanding that he would snatch Ezra out of the air and levitate him to safety. As Ezra dangled in the air after making that leap, he extended his holocron-holding hand toward Maul. In the moment that followed, you were led to believe that Maul might just grab the holocron and let Ezra fall to his death. Maul's gleeful face certainly suggested it, and even Ezra looked nervous for a second. But then Maul saved Ezra, solidifying their rapport and seeming to banish all doubt from Ezra's mind. "You were wise to trust me," Maul purred.

As the second half of the finale opened, Maul and Ezra's relationship faced its first exterior test: Kanan. Unsurprisingly, Ezra's master was openly suspicious of Maul's intentions, and even if you put aside what we as viewers know about Maul's history, it was hard to blame Kanan for his doubts. But Kanan's misgivings—"I'm not convinced we're all on the same side anyway"—only annoyed Ezra, because he saw Maul as an unambiguous ally who had just saved his life.

Just as Obi-Wan raising doubts about Palpatine frayed his relationship with Anakin, Kanan's resistance to Maul led Ezra to doubt Kanan's commitment to their ultimate mission. Ezra even admonished Kanan for doubting Maul by reminding him their goal was knowledge. If we want to beat the Inquisitors, he seemed to be telling Kanan, then we should accept all the help we can get. For Ezra, the ends were already beginning to blur the means.

Palpatine knew that poisoning Anakin's mind would only draw out resistance from Obi-Wan that would cement Anakin's anger at his former teacher. Maul played the same exact game. When you combine Kanan's reaction to Maul with what Maul said about Kanan's limitations—which, he said, stemmed from his strict adherence to Jedi principles—it made sense that Ezra would start to turn on Kanan. After all, what Maul said now seemed to be true.

As if doubting the firmness of his grip on Ezra, Maul redoubled his pressure on the boy by reminding him that Vader had slaughtered his friends. I'm not a staunch defender of the Old Republic-era Jedi Order by any means, but one thing they preached seemed to be true: The emotional appeal is the way of the Sith, and that's the reason why the Jedi frowned upon serious attachments. As much as love can embolden someone to do brave, selfless things, it can also be a liability when manipulated.

Thanks to Maul's corruption, Kanan and Ezra's relationship only deteriorated farther as they began working with him. Kanan's protective instincts snapped into place the moment he saw Ezra trusting Maul, but when he warned Ezra that Maul was just using him, Ezra's response was to angrily accuse Kanan of not trusting him. This theme—"When will you trust me to stand on my own?"—had been built up over previous episodes, but now, finally, the two of them could put it into practice. By suggesting that Ezra was falling prey to someone else's tricks, Kanan was casting doubt on his ability to discern lies. He was essentially impugning Ezra's maturity and perceptiveness. To Ezra, this probably sounded like, "You need me to take care of you because you're too naive to navigate the galaxy on your own."

It was easy to see where this was going, but actually seeing it play out was still painful. "Maul sees what I could be," Ezra told Kanan. "You don't." This was the most vicious line in the entire episode. It was the worst wound Ezra could deal to Kanan. Maul had twisted him quite a bit by this point. And again, it was very similar to how Anakin defend Palpatine to Obi-Wan and turned on his old master in favor of a new one.

The closer Maul drew Ezra, the less work he needed to do to solidify his hold on the boy—and the more effective every act of deception was. When he saved Ezra from the Eighth Brother while Kanan lay wounded on the ground, it was both a setback for Kanan's image in Ezra's eyes and a win for Maul. Ezra's Jedi master couldn't help him; his new ally Maul had to step in. This only drove Ezra closer to Maul out of gratitude, and perhaps it exacerbated his frustration with Kanan for both failing to save him and doubting Maul's intentions.

When Maul suggested that the four of them split up, with Ahsoka and Kanan diverging from Ezra and Maul, Kanan faced a test. Ezra, by this point a true believer in Maul's every word, urged Kanan to trust him. Kanan had to decide whether to keep him close by or trust his judgement so as to win back his favor. In the end, like Obi-Wan, he decided that he was more concerned Ezra would fall if he thought his master didn't trust him than if someone else corrupted him.

The scene with Maul and Ezra on the rising platform was the closest equivalent to Revenge of the Sith's opera scene that the finale had to offer. In careful terms, calibrated to best appeal to Ezra's goals and methodology, Maul described the dark side's lack of mercy or remorse as a position of strength, implying that the light side—with its contemptuous mercy—was the side of weakness. When Maul asked Ezra, "Can I count on you?" I immediately thought back to Palpatine telling Anakin, "I need your help, son." Maul was corrupting the conversation, making Ezra's choice of sides seem like a test of his loyalty and integrity. If he didn't do what Maul wanted, he would feel like he was letting his new ally down. How could he say no?

By now we were getting close to the moment when Ezra discovered the truth about Maul, but the former Sith warrior had one more twist of the knife to deliver. When the two of them encountered the Seventh Sister, Maul urged Ezra to kill her, but he couldn't do it. So Maul did it for him, and he barely paused to regard her crumpled body before returning to his new student. What followed was an absolutely perfect—and perfectly Sidious-like—sequence of Maul guilt-tripping Ezra for failing to kill the Seventh Sister. With wide eyes full of false concern, Maul remarked that the next time Ezra failed to kill, it could cost "the lives of your friends." Immediately, we heard Kanan's concerned shout as he and Ahsoka fought the other Inquisitors. The message to Ezra was clear: the stakes are real, and some day your reluctance to kill might get Kanan killed.

Fortunately, Ezra wasn't Anakin, at least not yet. Whereas Anakin followed Palpatine's command to execute Dooku, Ezra was still tethered, albeit perhaps faintly, to the light side. And his experience inside the heart of the temple-turned-battle-station revealed that he wasn't ready to follow the Sith way. When a embodied voice that sounded like Asajj Ventress declared, "Knowledge is power," she was basically summing up the secret behind Maul's plan: Ezra wanted knowledge, but what he was unknowingly working toward was giving Maul more power. To Ezra's credit, he backed away from this as soon as it became clear to him. And when "Asajj" gave Ezra control of the battle station, he refused the chance, the temptation, to wield that massive power.

It was a relief to see how Ezra reacted when Kanan appeared. Just as Ezra had to help Maul enact his plan, Ezra and Kanan had to work together to undo it. The apprentice solidified his bond with his master as they jointly stopped what he and Maul had started. When Ezra realized that something was wrong with Kanan's eyes, you could see the regret and anguish well up inside him for a moment. He was realizing not just that he had messed up, but also that he had practically blinded Kanan himself by being so blind with Maul and letting the ex-Sith get so close to them all.

There's one more major element of this episode to discuss, but first, I want to touch on a few miscellaneous observations of the finale. I loved the design of the Sith chamber's interior, with the frozen, mummified bodies of Force-wielding combatants littering the ground; it was beautifully haunting, as were the star-scape of the ceiling and the thin shafts of light piercing it. I loved that Ezra found a crossguard lightsaber, in a nod to Kylo Ren's weapon in The Force Awakens—the design for which dated back to Malachor's earlier days. I was really impressed by the depiction of the temple; it felt alive as Ezra and Maul walked through it. It sounded angry, oppressive, and menacing, as if the doors and walls were snarling at the two of them.

I thought the twist moment, in which Maul revealed his true intentions, was beautifully executed, with the mood darkening as he slashed at Kanan's eyes.  There was even a clear hint of Duel of the Fates as Ahsoka stepped in to hold off Maul. I was surprised to hear Asajj Ventress's voice coming out of the holocron, and I was disappointed that we didn't learn more about what "The Presence"—as Nika Futterman's voice is listed in the credits—was doing in the temple. But then again, it was a jam-packed episode. I just hope we learn more about that voice's role in all of this.

I also wish we'd learned more about the Eighth Brother. At first, I thought it was a woman, and I briefly wondered whether Dave Filoni would introduce another twist by revealing it to be Barriss Offee. After all, Ahsoka was right there, and that would certainly make things more painful. But alas, he apparently died without even unmasking himself. At least we got to see the Inquisitors doing something new, hovering on their spinning lightsabers like a twisted version of witches on broomsticks.

Speaking of visuals, the shot of Vader standing on his descending TIE fighter, framed from Ezra's perspective, was just fantastic. In terms of both animation and viewpoint, it was the perfect way to portray Vader as an inscrutable monster. But when Vader said that the temple/battle station's power "will soon serve the Emperor," I realized that something didn't make sense: If the Emperor wanted that power, why didn't he and Vader go and seize it for themselves? Why did the Emperor have to wait for someone else to unlock it? I'd still like to know the answer to this, but as I watched the episode, I didn't have much time to dwell on the question.

Darth Vader versus Ahsoka Tano. It's the confrontation that Star Wars fans have been waiting to see since we first met Ahsoka in 2008 and learned that Anakin Skywalker had had an apprentice. This fight was inevitable. It was unavoidable. It was, as Palpatine might say, their destiny. When Vader declared that their "long-awaited meeting has come at last," he was nudging the fourth wall, speaking for the thousands of people who have been either dreading or eagerly anticipating that very moment. And the confrontation did not disappoint.

The lightsaber sparring itself was relatively uninteresting. Ahsoka held her own against her former master, showing that she had become nearly as formidable a warrior as him. Ezra offered the rare laugh line when he observed, "I need a lot more training." But the heart of Vader and Ahsoka's showdown was the verbal sparring. Vader brushed aside the very notion of Anakin Skywalker by saying that he was weak and "I destroyed him." (Side note: There was Vader endorsing Obi-Wan's "true, from a certain point of view" description of Luke's father's death.) While Ahsoka must have known that this was just a metaphorical statement, she clearly stood ready to avenge her master's demise.

Ahsoka's willingness to seek revenge surprised Vader and led to the best exchange of dialog in the episode: "Revenge is not the Jedi way." "I am no Jedi." I briefly wondered, at this point, if Ahsoka had that kind of anger in her. It was true, she was no longer a Jedi, but revenge is a dark thing. What did it mean for her that she was ready to embrace it to sustain herself in a fight? Regardless, it soon became clear that she had meant what she'd said: she was angry and willing to draw on that anger to defeat Vader. When Vader Forced-pulled Ezra and the holocron toward him, Ahsoka snarled as she lashed out at him to distract him. I realized, then, that even if her allegiance to Anakin hadn't brought out anger before, her desperation to save her friends had done so eventually.

Then came the bitter twist. When Vader, wounded by Ahsoka's strike, called out her name, her eyes went wide—because the monster's voice suddenly sounded less distorted and more human. It was more recognizable. She could hear Anakin's voice in there, somewhere. We then saw that Vader's mask was partially missing, revealing a sliver of his face and one angry yellow eye. This amazing look appeared a few times in the Expanded Universe, but we'd never before seen it in authoritative, canon media, and it was fantastic and devastatingly effective here.

Once she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Anakin was Vader, Ahsoka refused to abandon him. As bitterly as they had just fought, she still retained that vulnerability, that level of caring for her long-gone master. But Vader didn't care about her. He used her attachment as a springboard for a renewed attack. And that was the point at which the temple door slammed and Ezra, Kanan, and the audience left that epic confrontation behind.

A season finale of this scale wasn't about to end with a whimper. The closing montage was beautiful, haunting, epic, and cinematic: Hera reuniting with Kanan, Ezra looking guiltily at a distraught Rex, Maul flying away, Vader staggering out of the temple, and Ahsoka—in some form—descending into the darkness. It's my understanding that Dave Filoni is remaining coy about whether Ahsoka lived or died, and what, exactly, we saw walking into darkness on Malachor. I'm not a huge fan of that ambiguity, but if Filoni has bigger things in store for Ahsoka in the future, I can live with it. With Ahsoka's fate unknown and Maul once again a player in galactic events, there are certain many story threads to pull on in season 3 and beyond.

But even that emotionally devastating montage wasn't the true end of the episode. The last thing we saw before the closing title card was Ezra levitating the Sith holocron in his hand, his eyes burning with a hint of red as he unlocked a device that no Jedi was supposed to be able to unlock. This is the big question lingering over Star Wars Rebels as it embarks on its second hiatus: What happens to Ezra going forward? Season 1 established his immense promise, and season 2 introduced a series of hurdles and dangers. Where will season 3 take him?

Like Anakin, Ezra fell prey to a desire for knowledge that seemed off-limits to someone following a traditional Jedi path. It remains to be seen how his experience on Malachor—including supposedly losing Ahsoka—will shape his future. All we know is that he opened a holocron meant for Force-wielders with a dramatically different philosophy on life, justice, knowledge, and power. It is a testament to how exquisitely this season finale depicted Maul's manipulations that we can foresee real jeopardy for Ezra on the horizon. "Twilight of the Apprentice" expertly wove in echoes of Palpatine's corruption of Anakin, bringing Ezra to the precipice and then yanking him back, but leaving it uncertain just what he learned—and how he will apply those lessons in the future.

You can read all of my Rebels reviews right here.
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