The first episode of Season Four to air without a companion episode, “Rebel Assault” had lavish animation, beautiful scoring by Kevin Kiner, and mostly exciting writing. It also felt very much as if it was the second part of a two-episode storyline, where the first episode had been lost. Nominally the events in “Rebel Assault” were setup in “Crawler Commandeers,” but that episode wasted a lot of time with a not-very-important storyline for the rebels on Lothal at the expense of more time with Hera on Yavin IV. With “Rebel Assault” in consideration, this feels even more like a missed chance not only to provide more information on where the wonderful X-wings came from that highlight the first act of “Rebel Assault,” but also to better frame everything relating to Hera’s rise to general between the moment she makes her speech to rebel High Command and the leap to hyperspace for Lothal.
“Rebel Assault” not only concluded the Rebels episodes to air in 2017, it also completed Hera Syndulla’s journey from captain of the Ghost to general in the Rebel Alliance. Hera’s promotion is significant because she became the first recognized female general in a command corps that leaned heavily into old, white men (white scruffy beard optional). Yet her promotion to the highest rank was first announced, quite literally, in the background of a Yavin IV scene in Rogue One, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that thrilled fans of the heroic Twi’lek. Unfortunately, the promotion was similarly downplayed in “Rebel Assault.” It has already happened off screen, referenced only by the “Iron Squadron” member, now Alliance X-wing pilot, Mart Mattin, addressing Hera by her new rank. What should have been a big deal, bigger than her promotion to commander of Phoenix Squadron, was anything but in an episode heavy with a lot of action.
The promotion itself, though, is not as significant as seeing Hera be the general that the rebel command has decided she merits. We should have had the chance to see her plan her attack, rally her pilots, and, in short, lead. Rebels has relatively done a good job of highlighting the contributions and actions of its female characters, from Mon Mothma to Sabine Wren. It simply dropped the ball in one of the biggest moments of the series for its most prominent female leadership character.
Although it failed to portray Hera’s full potential as a leader, the story in “Rebel Assault” was dedicated almost entirely to Hera’s talents as an individual hero, from her incredible piloting in the stars above Lothal to her attempts to evade Imperial capture in the capital’s streets. To keep the focus on her, the episode even oddly sent the crew of the Ghost off with a shrug when the attack failed, despite knowing that Hera had crash-landed in the city. Nothing previously in the series supports the idea that the team would simply walk away from a friend in such a need. Several episodes earlier, it’s acknowledged that Ezra has a masterful understanding of the layout of the city and its sewers in a conversation with Zeb, so the abandonment of Hera makes little sense. Thankfully, watching Hera on her own, then later teamed up with Mattin, makes up for this decision. Returned from “Iron Squadron,” Mattin is far more likeable when he’s not making amateurish attack runs on Imperial cruisers. Additionally, we now know he carries the loss of his uncle, Jun Sato, as one more motivational factor in his fight against the Empire.
Even Kanan’s decision to turn back from his decision to head toward the city to rescue Hera feels more driven by plot than character. The role and purpose of the Loth-wolves has purposefully been obscured by the writers outside of the fact that somehow Kanan is connected to them. In “Rebel Assault,” the wolves stop Kanan before he can begin his one-man rescue mission. We are not privy to the silent conversation that followed, only that Kanan acknowledges afterward that he understands what he must do, and he doesn’t seem surprised at all when Hera is missing from the sewer tunnel at the end. The decision to cloak the role of the Loth-wolves in mystery is a gamble that will only pay off if the story can deliver on the eventual reveal. If it’s subpar, it will dampen the quality of the season as a whole with what could be a potentially wasteful build up over nothing much. (This seems highly unlike, though, as we await the final episodes next year.)
One beat the writers didn’t miss: Thrawn. The grand admiral earned his figurative epaulets with his impenetrable defense of the TIE Defender factor on Lothal. While his second wave of fighters decimated the rebellion’s wing of fighters and bombers that had slipped through an opening in the orbital blockade, Thrawn’s character was also burnished by his treatment of ace Imperial pilot, Skerris. When the pilot, introduced in “The Antilles Extraction,” disregarded Thrawn’s direct order to disengage from Hera, the blue-skinned admiral chose to let him meet the fate Syndulla had in mind for him. In short, Thrawn doesn’t suffer fools. This has been a trait of the character since his reappearance on Rebels, and it has served from time to time as a subtle reminder of his very competent abilities as an Imperial officer. On the other hand, Thrawn tends to upstage Governor Pryce, whose general purpose on the show has been to take Thrawn’s orders and request his help. It’s a poor use of a character who was the best part of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn, which was released last spring.
For the flaws that can be found in “Rebel Assault,” it still shined as one of the more enjoyable episodes of the season, buoyed by the nostalgia-driven excitement of seeing X-wings rolling into attack formation for the first time on Rebels and the spotlight focus on Hera both above and on the surface of Lothal. It served well as the mid-season finale, finishing on a crescendo of incredible intrigue over Hera’s fate and Kanan’s destiny. Furthermore, it added additional fuel to the demand for more of Kevin Kiner’s work to be made available to add to all our music libraries. Not the best, but better than most, isn’t a bad way to hit that midseason hiatus.