Fair warning: Rise of the Masters has yet to air on DisneyXD so there are SPOILERS ahead!!!
Episode 5 – Breaking Ranks – This IS Star Wars
I approached the newest episode of Star Wars Rebels with a bit of trepidation. After all, as I said in my review of Rise of the Old Masters, that episode was near perfection and rivaled many of my favorite Clone Wars episodes; Breaking Ranks had a lot to prove, and boy was it ever up to the task.
I don’t often throw around the word superlative to describe things. I usually reserve it for something that has had a profound effect on me, or resonated with me on some level. While I loved every episode of The Clone Wars – Lost Missions, I have not had such a visceral thrill or wave of emotion come over me watching Star Wars since watching The Wrong Jedi, the final broadcast episode of Clone Wars. To further make the point how moved I was by Breaking Ranks, when it was over I immediately Tweeted writer/producer Greg Weisman (who wrote this episode), and thanked him for this story.
Breaking Ranks is a simple story, and that’s what makes it work so well, especially given its 22 minute run time. As our episode begins, Ezra has been on a mission for the crew to infiltrate the Imperial Academy and pose as a cadet so he can get access to data files which include the coordinates of a convoy that is in possession of some incredibly potent weapon for the Empire. Both Ezra and Chopper have infiltrated the facility and have been working on the inside for weeks when our story opens. And while Kanan says he is confident in his young Padawan’s ability to complete the mission, he is clearly concerned Ezra is in over his head.
Ezra and his fellows cadets are lowered into an ominous Imperial testing facility known as The Well. They are required to climb a series of moving platforms as quickly as possible while the Academy Commandant measures their stamina, physical prowess, and ability to think quickly and independently. As the episode unfolds they are placed inside The Well multiple times, each time with a slight twist to the test. What the cadets are unaware of though is that the Empire also uses this examine to determine the potential Force abilities of the trainees, for a purpose that will be revealed later.
One of the things I really appreciated about these sequences was how they felt familiar. Season 3 of The Clone Wars began with a spectacular arc following a group of Clone Trooper cadets. The testing facility has a similar look to the training facilities on Kamino, and even The Well feels eerily to a bounty hunter testing facility from the Season 4 Episode, The Box. The episode does a spectacular job tying itself to the lore of Star Wars.
While attempting to make communication with Chopper, who is in disguise as a black-painted (of course) old Imperial droid, Ezra unwittingly draws the attention of one of his fellow cadets, Zare Leonis. Zare follows Ezra to Agent Kallus’ office, and watches as Ezra tries to steal the encrypted disc the crew needs to intercept the Imperial shipment. Zare confronts Ezra over his apparent betrayal, but Ezra senses there is something off about his fellow cadet. Zare warns Ezra that he is about to set off an alarm if he simply tries to walk out of Kallus’ office with the disc. Finally, Zare admits he is under cover as well, looking for his sister who trained at this facility and never returned. The two decide to join forces and find another way to steal the disc.
Later Zare attempts to distract Kallus while Ezra uses the Force to life the disc out of the office into a ventilation duct where Ezra is hiding. After stealing the disc Ezra overhears an alarming conversation between the Commandant and the Inquisitor; not only are the Imperials testing for Force abilities among the cadets, but those that do will be delivered to the Inquisitor for special training. The two candidates the Commandant has eyed for this training are Ezra, and another cadet named Jai.
Ezra delivers the disc to Hera and Kanan, but informs his Master that he is staying behind to help his friends, much to Kanan’s dismay. Ezra must help Jai and Zare escape, but Jai is reluctant, he appears to want to be given this chance at what he thinks might be a better life. Both Ezra and Zare implore the young cadet that he will probably never see his mother again if he stays. Jai agrees and their plan is set into action.
Meanwhile Hera and Kanan arrive at the coordinates for the rendezvous and find a group of three ships. We then learn what the Ghost crew’s mission has been all along. This convoy carries special cargo, a Kyber Crystal, and enormous crystal with incredible destructive power (give you a guess what it’s for…). Hera and Kanan must locate the ship carrying the crustal and destroy it before the ship jumps into hysperspace. The Imperials catch sight of the Ghost and the battle begins.
On Lothal, at the Imperial Academy, the cadets go through one last test in The Well. Ezra, Jai, and Zare must win the competition, so they will be stationed in the facility’s enormous landing bay when their escape plan is launched. Unfortunately one of the loyal students intervenes and stuns Zare before he can reach the top. Thinking quickly, Ezra sacrifices himself, allowing Zare to be one of the final three contestants; Ezra will have to devise a new plan.
Finally Zeb and Sabine launch their attack on the Academy, and Zare and Jai take control of a small AT-ST walker firing at troops and vehicles, creating a diversion for their escape. Using his incredible powers Ezra jumps onto the walker as more troops approach.
Hera and Kanan are finally able to locate their target and begin their attack, however, waves of TIE fighters attack the Ghost. All appears lost when the Imperials are about to jump to lightspeed, however, Hera’s fancy flying and a few well placed shots destroy the Imperial ship, and a enormous shockwave erupts from the vessel. The Imperial ships are consumed by an enormous energy ball, but out heroes narrowly escape making the jump to lightspeed.
Back on Lothal, Ezra, Jai, and Zare are finally able to escape the Academy as Zeb and Sabine finish off the last of the Stormtroopers. As they are about to leave Zare tells Ezra he’s not going; he must stay behind and keep searching for his sister and the Academy is his best start. As out heroes escape Zare takes a couple of shots at their escaping speeder, to ensure the Imperials are not suspicious of his mutiny.
As our story concludes, Zare is taken before the Inquisitor who asks asks the young cadet all he knows about Ezra. Zare is trapped… for now. Jai is sent off to find his mother so they can hide from the Empire who will surely try to track the young Force sensitive down. Finally, Kanan and Ezra are reunited. Kanan finally comes to terms with the fact that his young apprentice is capable, and he should stop doubting him.
Ezra, like Daniel in the Bible, has emerged from the proverbial Lion’s Den with his faith tested and strengthened. He’s no longer the Lothal street rat without purpose; he is becoming a man.
The pacing of this episode is perfect, there’s absolutely no fat in this story, but there’s more than enough meat on the bone to sink our teeth into. I never once felt cheated as a viewer, as if I were missing something, or the story needed to be padded… everything felt right. There’s a growing tension throughout the episode as we wonder if Ezra will be caught during his mission, what are Zare’s intentions, will the Inquisitor finally get his hands on Ezra, and what exactly is the Ghost’s mission? All of these questions finally culminate in a thrilling and dramatic conclusion.
Years ago, when Dave Filoni was still the Supervising Director of The Clone Wars, he once said in an interview that he was “learning how to make Star Wars from George (Lucas);” clearly Dave was a great student, and George was a brilliant teacher. The tension filled finale with Ezra, Zare, and Jai trying to escape the Imperial Academy with their lives, cross cut with Hera and Kanan on the Ghost trying to destroy the Kyber Crystal, is nothing short of classic Star Wars. It recalls the epic final battles from A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones as we cut back and forth between our heroes building tension and drama. The stakes are enormous and there is a frenetic pace to the editing, that often leaves the viewer doubting, just for brief moments, whether our heroes will survive. Composer Kevin Kiner’s score keeps the tempo and ends with just the right dramatic flourishes at the perfect moments. For a few minutes I forgot I was watching a weekly animated kids show.
Taylor Gray is nothing short of stunning as Ezra Bridger. I was initially concerned about the character and his similarities to a certain Arabian Disney “street rat.” However, in only a handful of episodes all of those concerns have been swept away. He has brought a level of depth to the character that I never believed would materialize, and his performance as the young Jedi-to-be is filled with energy, compassion, thoughtfulness, and a sense of purpose. Since Ezra has taken on the responsibilities of a Jedi Padawan, there is a seriousness to him and a sense that he is growing in confidence. While he still has that roguish charm, and is quick with a sardonic joke, he is beginning to come into his own as a young man.
One of the things that really makes Ezra stand out to me is his growth. When the series first began he was simply looking out for himself and very reluctant to get involved in the affairs of the crew. But as the story continues we can see his maturation. He is becoming a selfless warrior for the less fortunate around him. In the final test at The Well he willingly sacrifices himself so that Zare can be a finalist and get a chance to escape. He is beginning to realize that his gifts in the Force can be a benefit, not just to himself, but to those around him, and that he can use those abilities to help change other people’s circumstances.
He has a larger place in the universe…
I have nothing bad to say about this episode, except that it ended. Oh, one little nitpick… If you haven’t watched the unfinished four part Crystal Crisis on Utapau arc (what are you waiting for) from The Clone Wars, you wont fully get the reference of the Kyber Crystal, But even if you haven’t, the crystal still functions as a classic film MacGuffin, that thing the heroes are always in search for, but you never truly find out what it is.
Perfect pacing, perfect script, great voice acting, a solid score, terrific animation, and a thrilling conclusion make for a near perfect Star Wars adventure. Breaking Ranks is right up there with the best Clone Wars episodes, and is equally as entertaining as the films that spawned both series. I’m not sure how Dave Filoni and company topped Rise of the Old Masters, but they have.
Superlative Star Wars storytelling…
9.5 of 10 (Leaving room… just in case)
May the Force Be With You