Rebels, In The End: On Letting Your Heroes Die and Doing Your Taxes

Friends, we did it and we did it together.  Finishing Rebels was a tough journey, specifically due to the inability to easily access the material in a very rudimentary manner.  Rebels is not streaming on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or Youtube.  You can of course purchase it on a season-by-season-basis for an average of $25 each of the four seasons for a grand total of $100, but for the cash-conscious among us, that was still a bit steep.  It took several trips to our local public library system to find working copies of each season in order, and even then many of the discs contained scratches that made swaths of episodes unwatchable.  In trying to complete a watch of the series, I made sure to view each episode though I cannot vouch for a 100% completion rate because of some particular problems with Seasons 2 and 3. And I was so close to that platinum trophy.

But we did it.  I had attempted to take notes throughout the entirety of the series in order to document the items, elements, themes, and issues that arose in order to engender some conversation.  However, it became too daunting to both keep up with watching the episodes as well as take appropriate notes. Perhaps an alternative approach would have been to watch the episodes once without notes in order to get a complete experience and then to revisit with a more critical eye.  But, then, you might have to wait until 2027 to cultivate the fruits thereof.

In the interest of interest, today we focus on the finale of the series and some of the events of the episodes just prior to it.  So, with a great big

***SPOILER WARNING***

let’s jump in.

What I want you to consider here is the difference between the sacrifice of Kanan to the sacrifice of Ezra.  In the tenth episode of season 4, “Jedi Night,” Kanan and the team execute a rescue mission to save Hera from the clutches of Grand Admiral Thrawn and Governor Pryce of the Lothal system.  However, having been goaded by the Force earlier, Kanan goes into the mission understanding that it may, and indeed does, require his life in order to save the one he loves. Ezra, by comparison, activates a similar self-sacrificing contingency plan when Thrawn appears in order to stop the rebels emancipation of Lothal once and for all.  Thrawn arrives with his squadron of Star Destroyers to blockade the system and begin razing the surface of the planet to coerce the rebels to abandon their plans. However, Ezra turns himself over to Thrawn in order to create an opportunity for Hera and Sabine to complete the mission, as well as to bind Thrawn to the Chimaera when the purrgil arrive in order to deal with the Imperials.  The purrgil bind up the ships, including Thrawn’s, where he and Ezra are still engaged, and jump to hyperspace destination unknown.  The rebels watch in shock and sadness as they lose their second Force-sensitive leader to the machinations of the Empire, both sacrifices intended to spare their friends from such similar pain.

Kanan and Ezra.jpg

So why then does Ezra’s sacrifice seem to lack the emotional weight and gut punch that Kanan’s does?  Why does the reliving of Kanan’s sacrifice cause a stronger emotional reaction than Ezra’s? When the two are so linked, is it possible that too strong of similarities, which may have been intended to link the two actions together, actually cause harm to the value of Ezra’s?  It may have been my personal experience with the events here, but it felt as if Kanan’s sacrifice had been unexpected (outside of the episode itself, which telegraphs the crucible moment like a Goodyear blimp) and personal, while Ezra’s felt more like a contrivance of a way to end the series and make sure all the characters had reason for never appearing in any of the actual films that subsequently occur in chronological order.

But since “feelings” don’t make for good arguments, I believe there are concrete elements that demonstrate the similarities, the differences, and what the show runners intended all along.

There are a number of major similarities between Kanan’s sacrifice and Ezra’s.  Some of them are to the credit of each action while some of them actually tend towards the problematic side of things.  

Concocted In Secret

Kanan.jpg

Kanan comes to terms with his impending end when fleeing the capital city of Lothal.  At this point, Hera has already been captured after attempting a starfighter assault there.  The rebels intend to regroup and execute a plan to rescue her, and any other pilots that survived, and subsequently fell into Governor Pryce’s clutches.  However, while making their escape, Kanan cannot stand the thought of leaving his beloved behind and wheels (repulsorlifts?) his speeder around, intending to go-it-alone if need be.  Ezra actually allows Kanan to make that turn unimpeded, understanding the emotional connection between Hera and Kanan, and not willing to step in between that. However, the Force will do what Ezra would not.  

And now we have to talk about animals.  

I have purposefully avoided looking into Lothwolves and Lothcats in order to preserve some attempt at figuring out what in the World Between Worlds these things actually are.  Rebels seems to want to have things both ways: they are at once both a physical manifestation of the Force’s presence on Lothal, as well as indigenous fauna of Lothal.  The Force uses Lothwolves to communicate with Force-sensitive beings, the Lothwolves can access and manipulate the Force, and individual Lothwolves seem to have individualistic agency as well (that is to say, they do not always agree with one another and have the opportunity to follow the lead of other wolves; this demonstrates rationality, individuality, comprehension, interpretation, and application, none of which seem present in any other non-sentient creatures).  However, they also appear as beasts under Ezra’s guidance, used for attacking and killing Imperial troopers during the last assault on Lothal. Certain episodes treat them as purely manifestations without actual zoological importance; for example, the rebels are transported mysteriously from one side of the planet Lothal to the other by clinging to the Lothwolves’ backs and falling asleep. When they wake up, they have traveled across continents.

Ezra and wolves.jpg

Perhaps the best acceptance of Lothwolves lies in an Occam’s Razor-style approach: that which is simplest may be most accurate in explanation.  The Lothwolves are used as plot devices to accomplish certain tasks, which include, but are not limited to: 1) visually depict how Jedi interact with the Force; 2) move characters from one location to another unburdened by logistical considerations, trivial little things like “time” and “distance;” and 3) the opportunity to demonstrate violence without getting the characters’ literal hands dirty.  To that third element, it is important to note that human-on-human (or bipedal-on-bipedal) violence is almost rarely fatal in Rebels.  Our heroes knockout stormtroopers left and right, throw them off of bridges overhanging endless chasms, and destroy TIE fighters with impunity, but they don’t actually kill them with blasters nor do we see their grizzly ends.  The death and violence occurs off-screen and the actions we actually see on screen are more or less dramatic interpretations desensitized for the intended viewing audiences.*

Long story short, Kanan is inspired by the Lothwolves and subsequent communing with the Force to prepare for his eventual sacrifice.  

Is there anything wrong with the approach of using Lothwolves to get Kanan’s character to the point where he is ready to die?  Nothing egregious; it accomplishes the story-telling goals, albeit not as cohesively and dare I say maturely as possible, since the rules that Lothwolves are supposed to play by seem undefined (that is, the show does not set clear rules of how they work and operate though we are afforded some latitude as discussed above), but it is still an acceptable application.  There’s quite a different reading of Star Wars that one can make if you allow for the depictions on screen to be substitutionary for actual events too sensitive for the audience or too baffling for good sense to grab onto.  We still must allow for a certain degree of suspending our disbelief, though I admit that this particular instance (the Lothwolves, that is) pushes my boundaries nearly to breaking. The Lothwolves are interesting and arresting and could have provided springboards into some very interesting areas, whether the production team committed to them as either deadly beasts manipulated by Force-wielders or as physical manifestations of that balance and tension that exists in all life, providing a unique identity to the planet Lothal which would permit us to extrapolate that all planets may have some similar manifestation capabilities and now we can start theorizing about potential anthropomorphic representations of the planets we know and love.  What would a Coruscanti wolf look like, then?  Do dead planets like Jedha still have some sort of embodiment?  Does this accentuate what happened to Alderaan and Obi-wan Kenobi’s reaction to its destruction?

Lothwolves.jpg

The Lothwolves, getting back to our heroes, stop Kanan in his tracks by calling to him by the name he gave up so long ago, “Dume.”  This is not the first time we the audience have seen the wolves speak to our heroes, but we have been deliberately mislead. We have been hearing “doom” whenever the Lothwolves were speaking with Ezra, but when Kanan encounters them (on his own), he hears them calling out to him, to his past as a Jedi. This compels Kanan to commune with the Force in order to get a better understanding of what it is that the Force has in store for him.  Keep in mind: this is the Force literally calling him by name when no other method sufficiently got his attention. This is the voice of Jesus saying to the crying woman in the garden, “Mary;” Dr. Jones (Sr.) getting Indy’s attention off of the Holy Grail by calling him, “Indiana, Indiana;” Valjean interceding on behalf of the simpleton by declaring his own true identity before the court.  Kanan, we are shown, leaves his visor behind, along with a cut of his hair and the knife by which he completes the transition from Kanan Jarrus back to his true self Caleb Dume.  With that, he is ready, personally and professionally, for whatever happens next.

Ezra’s calling occurs in a slightly different manner though in a similarly secretive fashion.  We have no sequence by which we understand our hero to have been enlightened or even confronted by the Force.  Rather, Ezra’s plan of sacrifice begins by himself, leaving instructions with Mart Mattin, relatively new convert to the Rebellion, in case Thrawn and his squadron of Star Destroyers happen to reappear above Lothal, jeopardizing their mission to finally evict the Imperials from Lothal.  We do not get the impression that Ezra was given a glimpse of the future through the Force; in fact, we might have expected such an occurrence given that Ezra is one of only two characters to enter the World Between Worlds, where time seems to be a slightly less forward-movement object, as it were.  We can understand why, in that sequence, Ezra chooses to allow Kanan’s sacrifice to occur (again), but are we supposed to believe that this inspired Ezra’s planning-ahead-for-Thrawn?  Also, why record a goodbye message as he does if the plan was to have the purrgil handle the capital ships?  Why did he think that his plan was going to be (or had to be) automatically synonymous with his own death?

Ezra does not have a strong history of planning things out that far in advance and is more likely to wing it as the gang bounces from development to development, so his foresight into calling for the purrgil seems slightly out of character, to me.  However, his planning in secret is certainly similar to how Kanan planned his role on rescuing Hera.  And while both plans were concocted in secrecy (that is, away from the rest of the rebels), Kanan’s came at the instruction of the Force (via the Lothwolves) whereas Ezra’s came from some sort of foresight not otherwise defined.  

Legacy Of Sacrifice

Kanan and Hera 2.jpg

Both Kanan and Ezra leave a legacy of sorts behind them (though the impact of that legacy will come up again later), though they operate on varying degrees of emotional strength.  We see Hera struggle with the loss of him who meant everything to her; we see Sabine take up the mantle of Lothal’s protectorate in Ezra’s stead even though, from the evidence on screen, Sabine and Ezra’s relationship never ascended to the heights that Kanan and Hera’s did.**  In Ezra’s departing mission, he asks that Sabine carry such a charge, and she does so in spite of probably being more valuable to the Rebellion as a whole and probably even more so to her Mandalorian people, but that’s another conversation.

Kanan’s legacy lives in Ezra and Hera.  Ezra learns from him the truth about self-sacrifice: that it costs something.  And while that might be inherent in the very idea of self-sacrifice, it is not until we come face-to-face with the requirement to set down that which we love and prize, whatever it may be, in order to accomplish something even greater.  Kanan gave up not just his own life but the life in which he could have had going forward, starting a family with Hera and continuing the fight against the Empire.  He did that knowing that his happiness and joy was never assured anyway, but he had to get Hera out.  There was no way around it: she had to get out safely and if it were to cost him their combined futures, then so be it.

Now, the epilogue to the series (those last few minutes where Sabine’s voiceover replaces actual storytelling, but whatever) shows us that Hera would give birth to a son Jacen and would continue to fight in the Rebellion even up to and past the Battle of Endor.  I struggle to understand this inclusion because it presumes a level of relationship with Kanan that otherwise has little to no support in the rest of the series.  Did they love each other?  Undeniably.  But how long between that confession and Kanan’s death does the consummation of that relationship really have to occur?  Are we to believe that the two of them were busy… uh… doing their taxes… while Sabine, Ezra, Zeb, and Chopper were all busy elsewhere on the Ghost?  I am not one to begrudge the creators’ their right to make the story end how they want, but that moment felt out of place and leads to some uncomfortable reckoning with other events just prior to Kanan’s death.  Perhaps reviewing the episodes will help alleviate this issue, but we won’t know that until Disney+ releases.***

Sabine art.png

Ezra’s legacy lives on in the rest of the rebels he left behind on Lothal.  He charges them with continuing the fight and never giving the Empire another inch of ground.  His goodbye message allows him that final opportunity to make sure that the people of Lothal have a fighting chance as well.  Whereas Kanan’s actions were more spur-of-the-moment and only-if-I-must, Ezra wanted to make sure that come the worst, then his homeland would still be safe.  And then, eventually, once the Empire’s grip on the galaxy is broken, Sabine sets aside her assignment and joins forces to go out and figure out what happened to Ezra and Thrawn.  Ezra is still remembered, those many rough years later through the conclusion of the Galactic Civil War, and remembered fondly.  Ahsoka’s inclusion on such an expedition has implications of the need to keep tabs on Force-wielders such as Ezra.  Or am I the only one who had that reading?

So we have covered some of the similarities and unearthed some of the finer distinctions between the two sacrificial acts.  However, there is one glaring issue between them that has to be called out as probably the quality-shattering impact, that singular issue separating high impact from cheap theatrics:

Finality and the Problem Of Extra-Source Material Influence with the Unwillingness to Let Your Heroes Die

Filoni.jpeg

In honor of trying not to beat a dead horse, you can surmise that Kanan’s death made a stronger impact on me than Ezra’s sacrifice in terms of emotional weight and gravitas lent to this children’s program.  And the best rationale I can use to explain the disparity is simply, Kanan is dead, once and forever; Ezra is out there somewhere and the reason we the audience know that is completely lame.

First, Kanan’s death was witnessed.  We know for a fact that he did not survive the blast on Lothal and we even got to observe it a second time from Ezra’s perspective in the World Between Worlds.  Ezra watches while entertaining the idea of interrupting the events similar to how he did with Ahsoka only moments before.  He saved Ahsoka, why couldn’t he save Kanan, he asked himself.  However, understanding the trauma that it may inflict, on Hera, especially and the nobility of the act, Ezra decided to leave Kanan to his choices and allow that to pass, regardless of how painful it might have been.

Ezra, however, in his final moments of the show, jumps to hyperspace on board the Chimaera with Thrawn acosted by the purrgil.  We see bits of glass and other detritus floating in the air while Ezra makes his final communication to Hera and the gang, giving us the impression that he is using the Force to maintain some sort of barrier between the bridge of the Star Destroyer and the cold vacuum of space.  To jump to hyperspace with a gaping hole would be certain death for the average being; however, Ezra seems to maintain that barrier with the intention of surviving the jump to hyperspace.  The show ends with an ambiguous note of hope that Ezra survived, though there is no confirmation one way or the other.

Ezra Thrawn.png

So why is the fandom so certain that Ezra and Thrawn indeed survived and made it out the other end of the jump alive?  Because we couldn’t leave well enough alone and someone had to ask Dave Filoni.  And he confirmed: they survived.

This is the problem: the show specifically leaves that question open for interpretation, without any sense of closure or confirmation, leaving the audience feeling a little saddened that there is a possibility that Ezra would never get to see the free Lothal that he had worked so hard to achieve.  However, having his fate confirmed outside of the material itself does a disservice to that actual material.  It robs the show of its own agency when the puzzles and the intended emotional denouement is dispelled with an interview after the show ends.   It takes away the daring risks that the show took by ending the series without its main lead.  It automatically creates artificial hype for more material since now we expect that Ezra and Thrawn could have had their own zany adventures out somewhere in Wild Space with the purrgil.  And all of this wipes out the affect of the series’ finale.

So why would they do it?  Why would the creative team be willing to be daring in their planning and execution of the series finale and then wash that all away with a post-game interview, confirming that the stakes were in fact minimal and not that threatening after all?  The most obvious answer is probably, “because otherwise he would have been hounded by that question for years to come.”  If there’s one thing the Star Wars community is good at is bugging content creators with inanity, personal beliefs, and “head canons” dangerously approaching stalker levels of concern.  So we have to trace back these issues to the root of it all:

  1. The showrunner, Dave Filoni, confirms that Ezra survived the purrgil’s hyperspace jump.
  2. He answered that concern in order to stave off years of such questioning (again, that’s my expected rationale for the willingness to address such an issue).
  3. Those questions would come about because people simply cannot accept that the creators have a reason and purpose for their creative decisions without their preconceived notions being dismissed and done away with.

This is The Last Jedi all over again.  Where the fans have their idea of what they want to have happen and the creators have their own ideas about what has happened, the fans cannot let go of their ideas.  We cling to having all of our questions answered rather than grappling with the reasons why the show did not simply answer the questions in the show.

Luke death.jpeg

If we are to give the show creators’ the benefit of the doubt and respect that they have made conscious decisions in the production of their craft, then we have to believe that leaving Ezra’s fate unresolved is the vision of the creators.  However, those same creators, knowing the penchant that the Twitterati have for abuse and hounding until they get what they want, tried to subvert that issue by addressing such concerns.  But in doing so, they again rob their very own creation of its power and impact.  That theft of power is the fault of those of us who cannot leave well enough alone and grapple with the material as presented.

Now, this may sound harsh coming from the team that enjoys examining the minutiae of it all, and picking nits where nits deserve to be picked.  Part of the fun of Clashing Sabers is the willingness to pick out our differences and understand why they are; we like to deep dive into elements and themes in Star Wars to understand what it is the creators thereof want us to understand and take away from their artistic endeavors.  However, one thing we do not do is force our own interpretations upon another and certainly not on the creators themselves.  We may like to do, as I have done here, apply our logic and reason to what those creators have done but we must always maintain a willingness to have our own understanding overridden at such a time as the creator does so themselves, provided an appropriate level of reason is likewise applied.  When our understanding of art specifically and distinctly clashes with those of the artist themselves, we do not have the right to subvert their intentions with our own.

It is sad and disheartening commentary that the show runners behind Rebels felt the need to get in front of the viewing audience.  Diminishing its own creations’ potent conclusions demonstrates a willingness to prioritize the threat of post-finale bombardment over the impact of leaving your viewers hero-less.  Yet it would not be hard to argue that one of the most difficult lessons in life in general is how you handle the failure and loss of your heroes.  When Yoda, in The Last Jedi, remarks that, “the greatest teacher, failure is,” perhaps we should take that to heart from the position of the student rather than just the teacher: when we lose our own heroes, what is it that we can cling to?

Kanan’s death never needed a bow on it like the one that the Rebels team put on Ezra’s sacrifice.  It was purely communicated, perfectly understood, and complete in its telling of the character’s end.****  Kanan’s death exemplifies the mature, responsible, forward-thinking approach: honor the sacrifice and do not let it be in vain.  Ezra’s sacrifice teaches the opposite: when life gets to be the hardest, whine, moan, and complain about it to the people who you think made it that way.  Perhaps once the community, as a collective, can mature out of that type of response, creators will feel free to allow their creations to live, breathe, and communicate with us in the freedom and manners they intended and not have to be watered down with post-finale interviews.  

Drew Brett
@TheDrewBrett

 

BECAUSE EVERYONE LOVES FOOTNOTES
*Consider the number of times, especially in Season 4, where our heroes are sneaking behind stormtroopers and need to eliminate them and have their blasters in hand yet choose to clack helmets together instead of burying a blaster nozzle in their necks.  Not enough Cassian Andor in these rebels’ diets.
**Look, I’m just going to say it: I know there’s probably a large contingent of fan fiction between Ezra and Sabine but its just not on screen.  Give it a rest.  This discussion might be for another place and time, but there’s still something unsettling about fan faction and ‘shipping’s’ inherent sense of wish-fulfillment.  If its your thing, I suppose that’s fine and you should go for it, but don’t be surprised if you don’t see that considered here.  That’s all.
***I don’t think I can get away with borrowing Season 4 from the library again.  And then watching it again.  Then reconsidering it all.  Again.  At least until November, winkyface.
****Caveat: in the final shot of the still-living-Kanan, we see his eyes return to their fully colored appearance.  This may indicate that his sight returned to him in his last moments.  Now, unless there’s some sort of special sight-restoring gas that they use on Lothal, it seems that the most logical rationale for this to occur is that the Force granted him his sight once again to be able to see Hera one last time; “logical rationale” here only to imply what the show is going, not to argue that its actions make good sense.  In fact, this stands out as problematic because it indicates that 1) the Force wanted Kanan to sacrifice himself and wanted to reward him for following through on it, and 2) the Force has the ability to grant this type of physical restoration of its own will, which I don’t think exists anywhere else in canon.  It is akin to the kindness shown to the prisoner on his way to the execution chamber: its nice, but ultimately inconsequential next to the incomparable suffering about to occur.  It’s not impossible, but it seems like another one of those wishes that the creators simply wanted to have happen regardless of giving sufficient reason.  Sort of like, “you guys will figure out the how, just bring Darth Maul back.”  It isn’t my favorite moment of that sequence, though I can understand the middle-school level emotional writing that it exemplifies.  Hey, I was in middle school once, too.  But remember what Hera said a few episodes earlier: “[he] could always see [her],” so I question the need to have this moment dramatized.

2 thoughts on “Rebels, In The End: On Letting Your Heroes Die and Doing Your Taxes

  1. This ties back into my comment about fan service in films dulling the danger by plot armor & resurrections.

    But I think the author here is missing a thing or two. They have several points which make sense but in the context of a kid-friendly show they don’t. I’m sure they’re aware of that but I can tell their longing for more dire consequences, more deaths, more explicit details about in-Universe sex, they have that tension within them pulling/pushing against that.

    The deus ex machina which are the Loth-fauna are simultaneously euphemisms & manifestations. They were considered “long extinct” & only showed up when Kanaan & Ezra came around. Why? Were they really gone? Nah. They just didn’t want to interfere in Lothal life. Now that Lothal has its champions they come around to assist. That’s their goal — not about protecting Kanaan, or teaching Ezra, it’s to scrub Lothal of the Empire. That’s why they have all these crazy abilities, knowledge, etc. — they’re advanced within the Force & used that to hide from the invasion of offworlders there, even though they weren’t a big-big threat. Yet, the planet protects itself & the Loth-fauna, being so in-tuned with the Force are that manifestation.

    Ezra didn’t die because Kanaan’s death was meant to emphasize this is all Ezra’s story. From the beginning to the end it’s about him, his impact, etc. The very end is about finding him. I doubt Ezra planned this outcome as he was more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants than Kanaan so foreshadowing was minimal & the final outcome was unforeseeable.

    It was an emotionally heavy show for a kids show. It lasted 4 seasons so it kinda grew up with it’s audience if you imagine a 10-year old starting to watch it becoming 14 by the end.

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    1. I made this comment in a Facebook discussion, so that’s why it starts off sounding like a continuation of a thought.

      Basically I pointed out how authors with huge followings have to really reel in the concept of plot armor, OP fan favorites, &, basically, fantasy fulfillment.

      We’re pretty accustomed to stories, now, where we presume the main character in the beginning will carry us to the end. I mean, even when I type that out I’m sure people are thinking “What’s the alternative? A story that ends in 3 minutes followed by 1:57 of credits?” but subverting those expectations is important. You can look at RR Martin’s GOT — lots of deaths for important characters going on until the series departed into uncharted story-territory. But when Glenn died (TWD) how many people stopped watching?

      That’s the balance writers must have — who & how to kill people off. Glenn’s death, for me, was the last TWD I saw. Why? It wasn’t because I was mad Glenn was dead & disinterested in what happens to the rest of the crew, it’s that the season before they faked his death. I already went through that loss & here it is for real? Didn’t feel the same.

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