This week’s episode of Star Wars Rebels felt surprisingly “right” in spite of the fact that it’s dipping back into an old Clone Wars plotline about the Darksaber and the Mandalorians. We’ve complained a lot here that Rebels has an overreliance on nodding to the future of the Star Wars saga or riding too much on leftover Clone Wars plots. “Trials of the Darksaber” doesn’t suffer from that overreliance, though. Instead, it uses an old Mando artifact as an opportunity to expand on a few of the characters, especially Sabine, who to date has been pretty underdeveloped.
Picking up from the midseason finale of “Visions and Voices,” “Trials of the Darksaber” reveals that Sabine turned the eponymous blade over to Kanan and she hasn’t touched it since. Consulting with Fenn Rau, Kanan comes to understand that the Darksaber is a sort of Excalibur to the Mandalorians, a symbolic weapon which could be used to unify Sabine’s clan and even her planet. But she hasn’t touched it since, and it’s not clear why.
The Lothal Rebels care about Sabine–they’re very explicitly her surrogate family–but there’s bigger issues at stake in war, and it’s Hera who realizes that if Sabine unifies the Mandos, she can bring a substantial army into the Rebellion. Reluctantly, Kanan agrees to train Sabine in the art of the lightsaber. Which doesn’t go well. Kanan doesn’t think she’s ready to use a limb-hacking blade, and he and Ezra resort to teaching her basic form through sticks.
This training episode cracks the door on an interesting topic: to what extent are non-Force users involved in the Force in the larger Star Wars mythology? To date, we’ve always had the impression that Jedi are the “mutants” of the Star Wars universe, born with force sensitivity due to some ill-defined genetic quirk. It’s not uncommon for a non-Force user to use a lightsaber (see General Greivous), but it’s always been apparent that a lightsaber is a very, very dangerous weapon of pure energy, and it takes a Jedi’s natural abilities to use it properly. But the Force is in all living things, and Kanan suggests that even as a non-Jedi, Sabine can somehow “open” herself to proper use of the weapon if she can just get over some mental block that’s keeping her from using it properly.
So Rebels does two things very well this episode in training up Sabine. The first is that we finally, mercifully, get into her backstory. To date, all we’ve known about Sabine is that she’s an artist and some kind of Mandalorian apostate who’s had some vaguely unexplained falling out with her family or people. Kanan’s training in helping her overcome the “mental block” that’s limiting her effectiveness brings out why Sabine doesn’t want to go home. Turns out (spoilers!) that before leaving Mandalore, she designed weapons for the Empire which were then used against her own people. Worse, when Sabine spoke out against it, her family stuck with the Empire while she didn’t. So now we’ve got a level of clarity on why Sabine sticks with the Ghost crew, as well as why her past has been so buried to date.
The other thing this episode does well, though, is that it explores a dynamic between Kanan and Sabine which we really haven’t seen in three seasons. Despite having six characters, the relationships have tended to be specific pairings: Ezra and Kanan, Ezra and Zeb, Kanan and Hera. Certainly we’ve had Kanan and Sabine interact, but never with the amount of depth seen in “Darksaber.” It’s not quite a father-daughter relationship, but Kanan trains her more sensitively than he did Ezra. With Ezra, Kanan trained him on the hull of the Ghost several miles above Lothal. With Sabine, he trains her with sticks.
Why? It could be easy to dismiss this as sexism, treating a daughter differently than a son. The episode offers its own explanation: Kanan’s worried because as a non-Jedi, she’s just not going to have the same use of a saber that Ezra is. This does, notably, backfire on Kanan–he doesn’t respect her as a student, so she can’t respect him as a teacher. It’s only until Hera prompts him to take her seriously and help her overcome her inhibitions that the training becomes serious.
And, indeed, Sabine’s actual duel with Kanan when she takes up the Darksaber is pretty intense. This goes well beyond, say, Obi-Wan’s brief training of Luke with a blast shield and a tiny droid–the danger in Sabine and Kanan’s duel is palpably real. It’s also as much a physical battle as an emotional one, with Kanan being as much a psychologist as an instructor and forcing Sabine to confront what’s holding her back. Tiya Sircar gets the opportunity to flex her characterization of Sabine a little, showing her as something more than a sassy teenager. This works.
Lastly, “Trials of the Darksaber” is apparently a stealth two-part episode, but it stands on its own with no problems. Next week’s “Legacy of Mandalore” will apparently continue the story with Sabine finally heading home, but at least this episode ends on a solid enough point that “Legacy” is set up without making “Darksaber” feel incomplete. (Correction: the show is apparently going on another month-long hiatus. What the heck?)
Rating: Four darksabers out of five.