Pardon if this review waxes a little theological, but there’s a point worth stating: there’s a reason why the world’s major religions prohibit involvement in the occult.
If you assume the Devil is real, then you’re dealing with an ancient entity with considerably more power and knowledge than yourself. Trying to outsmart and control such a being would be incredibly stupid, and there’s no reason to believe that he has your best interests at heart. Accounts from those who’ve played with the occult–take them for what you will–are disturbed, to say the least, and they’ve felt the ramifications for years after.
This is all relevant to Star Wars Rebels because…let’s come out and say it, Darth Maul is back. Or just “Maul” as he describes himself: he’s abandoned the Sith and the Sith have abandoned him, but it’s the same Maul we knew. Let’s push back the moderate absurdity of the prospect of yet another film character appearing on this show, because we all knew this was coming. Maul returned on Clone Wars a few years ago, and his final fate was neither revealed there nor in the still-canon Son of Dathomir comic series. Maul’s return on Rebels was as inevitable as any other guest appearance.
Maul is not quite the devil of Star Wars–that role is clearly reserved for Palpatine–but he’s certainly a high-ranking demon who learned from the devil himself. Appropriately, the worst qualities of Palpatine indirectly shine through Maul in “Twilight of the Apprentice.” Tonight’s hour-long finale saw Kanan, Ahsoka, and Ezra continue their mission from Yoda in “Shroud of Darkness” to go the planet Malachor, home of an ancient Jedi-Sith war. Arriving planetside, the trio discover an ancient Sith temple, but are soon separated when an Imperial Inquisitor shows up. Ezra, left alone, encounters a seemingly crippled old man who…well, come on. It’s very obviously a much older Maul.
Ezra has no idea who this is, of course, and he doesn’t have Ahsoka ready to warn him (she and Kanan spend half the episode preoccupied with one and later three Inquisitors). But Maul is all too willing to play the part of the devil: that wiser, ancient being who whispers in the ear of someone too ignorant to know what they’re getting into. Ezra’s already been skirting with the Dark Side, and he’s hot and full of anger to find the “knowledge” Yoda told him to find on Malachor. It’s just that Yoda didn’t say what that knowledge was, but Maul does seem to, and Ezra is his ticket to get into the Sith temple.
The Devil operates with a forked tongue: never quite lying, but telling just enough truth to make you comfortable and lead you away from what he doesn’t want you to see. Maul denies being a Sith to just enough of an extent that he tugs at Ezra’s heartstrings: the Sith cost both of them their families. He plays off proper Jedi techniques, twisted in a Sithy way: the opening to the Sith Temple is similar to the teamwork method of the Jedi Temple on Malachor, excepting that it requires anger and frustration rather than cooperation. And finally, the Devil-Maul operates by dangling the forbidden fruit of illicit knowledge. Techniques that are forbidden to Jedi are suggested to Ezra: use your anger, use your aggression. To defeat your enemy, you need to understand him…not acknowledging that understanding your enemy may require you to become him.
The Devil’s other trick is to get you to trust him more than the good, and Maul plays that part well in this episode. When Maul and Ezra uncover a Sith holocron in a precariously-placed position, it seems like Maul is going to trick Ezra into getting it at the cost of his own life in an apparent callback to Indiana Jones’ “throw me the idol!” moment. It doesn’t happen: Maul very openly saves Ezra and the holocron. When Ezra and Maul are reunited with Kanan and Ahsoka, the former Sith very readily joins the good guys in an impressive four-on-three lightsaber battle. When the smoke has cleared, Ezra is ready to follow this horned devil back into the temple despite his masters’ screaming that this is a dumb, dumb idea.
Oh, and Vader’s on the way.
Here’s the thing about the Devil: he’s never in it to help you; he’s in it to help himself, and you’re just a stepping stone to get there. By all rights, the heroes should have been running at that point: from Vader, from Maul, from Malachor. But the call of the hidden knowledge in the Temple is just too great, and Maul keeps promising it’ll be alright. Except it’s not. When the group is separated, yet again, Ezra takes the holocron to the Temple’s center and discovers that it’s the key to a giant weapon, one which Maul plans to use to avenge himself. Oh, and he’d like to get Ezra as his own apprentice as well.
If it seems like losing a limb or worse in Star Wars is a trope, it is: but it’s an important symbolic one. Most of the time, the loss of a limb is paralleled to the loss of self. As Luke and Anakin strayed closer to the dark side, they lost a hand. It was restored, but it’s not the same–something of the core of the person is now lost. For the Rebels heroes, the loss here is more of a moral one than one to the soul, but it’s still a shocker: while Ahsoka and Kanan fight Maul, whose plan is now revealed, Kanan takes a lightsaber to the face and is blinded. This isn’t quite the moral loss of the films: if anything, it’s a great growth moment as Kanan blindly grabs a helmet and battles Maul totally dependent on the Force for sight. It’s Luke’s “use the force” moment amped up by a factor of 10, and it’s as exciting as it is tragic.
With Maul defeated (but not dead–he’s seen fleeing in the episode’s final moments), the blind Kanan and Ezra depend on each other to overcome the Sith Temple and retrieve the holocron to shut down the superweapon. This would be a great ending if Vader didn’t choose that particular moment to show up.
It’s a great entrance: Vader’s silent appearance speaks volumes through nothing but deep breathing. This leads to the inevitable and heartbreaking final fight between Ahsoka and Vader–former master and apprentice–in the fight we’d all seen coming since last season. Honestly, to describe the fight here would be an injustice, other than to say that Ahsoka’s idealism leads her to make one last, beautifully tragic attempt to sway Anakin Skywalker from the Dark Side. She fails, and Ezra and Kanan escape at the apparent cost of Ahsoka’s life.
It’s unclear how many more seasons Rebels will run, but this episode truly felt like a midpoint, an Empire Strikes Back moment with this being the darkest the show’s been yet and an uncertain future ahead. Future episodes may bring back some of the familiar levity, but Rebels did a tremendous amount of growing up tonight and it can’t easily return to its childhood going forward.
- “There’s always a bit of truth in legends.” Oh, very funny, writers: this comment is an obvious metatextual reference to the Legends line of stories which provide an endless well of material for the new canon going forward.
- No, that wasn’t Kylo Ren’s lightsaber. The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary states that Ren’s saber was inspired by the Malachor model, so there’s a connection, but only superficially.
- On the other hand, one has to wonder if Malachor’s superweapon was some kind of inspiration for Starkiller Base. We didn’t see it in action, so we’ll never know.
- Ahsoka’s “I am no Jedi!” seemed vaguely inspired by Eowyn’s “I am no man!” moment in Return of the King, but I could be reading too much into it.
- There could be some vague “Legends” callbacks in this episode, though. Kanan’s blinding was reminiscent of the blind Jedi Rahm Kota in The Force Unleashed video game, and Vader’s helmet being cracked open recalled the same thing happening in the original Purge comic book.
- Is Ahsoka really dead? Apparently the producers left it intentionally ambiguous. Still, with no Jedi around by Episode IV (3 years away in show time), it seems unlikely that she’ll be back as anything other than a ghost. To bring her back after a fight with Vader would be ridiculous, and to kill her again would be just annoying.
- On the other hand, Ezra is clearly headed to a very, very dark place in his soul. Let’s hope he reflects on how his own determination to get Sithy knowledge is what led to all the tragedies of this episode.