“Empire Day” raises the stakes and puts the crew of the Ghost into real peril.

With several episodes under its belt, Star Wars: Rebels has a familiar cast of heroic characters at its disposal, not to mention some legitimately terrifying villains. That means it’s time to shift gears and tell a story with higher stakes, just in time for the mid-season finale. The good news is that Rebels has fully recovered from the missteps of early episodes. Instead of throwing extraneous fight scenes or helpless civilians on the screen to force viewers to care, Rebels uses effective pacing and character development to pull us in without heavy exposition. Even better, it’s the first time the Ghost crew seems to have bitten off more than it can chew, instead of walking into and out of battles with a devil-may-care attitude.

That makes it all the more disappointing that these elements are unresolved, since the second half of the finale hasn’t aired yet. It’s especially frustrating since by itself, “Empire Day” can’t quite decide if it’s the opening chapter of a finale or a standalone episode; the pacing hints that there’s lots to come, but it also tries to settle Ghost’s current mission before moving on. This leaves the final fight and half-hearted cliffhanger feeling more anticlimactic than they rightly should, something that could have been easily avoided if Rebels made this a full-length special like “Spark of Rebellion”.

But that minor point aside, this is the solid beginning to the finale that will leave you anxiously wondering what’s going to happen next. If you want to see for yourself, the episode is on Disney XD and iTunes.

And you should definitely watch it. Even if just to hear the Imperial March performed as a wonderfully upbeat parade song.

Across the galaxy, every settled world is celebrating Empire Day, honoring Emperor Palpatine’s pivotal role in ending the Clone Wars and assuming command of the “corrupt” Republic. The Ghost’s home planet of Lothal is no exception, where all alien races must patriotically attend the Empire Day parade where Stormtroopers proudly show off their military might. It’s also too good an opportunity for the Ghost crew to ignore, who have made plans to blow up the new Advanced TIE Fighter that the Empire intends to showcase.

The twist? The Stormtroopers are on high alert, even more so than usual. It turns out that a valuable Rodian refugee has slipped out of Imperial hands, prompting the Empire to put the planet on lockdown. While Empire Day celebrations must continue (it’s the law), old enemies like Agent Kallus and the Inquisitor himself are combing the planet for his presence. But Ezra recognizes the Rodian as Tseebo, a friend of his long-lost parents, prompting him to shanghai the mission into an impromptu rescue operation.

Compared to early episodes, the Imperials are threatening to the point of being almost unrecognizable. The Stormtroopers who half-heartedly bullied citizens and frightened Wookie toddlers have been replaced with a more insidious enemy, one that controls society and could make you disappear at anytime. What’s more, Rebels is doing a fantastic job of showing the danger, not just telling. “Empire Day” is filled with tense quiet moments like when Stormtroopers watch the Ghost crew without saying a word, or when fear grows on a Rodian’s face when being racially profiled. And that’s before the Inquisitor makes a surprise appearance (suddenly emerging from burning aircraft wreckage), and his presence was already terrifying in any non-finale episode. Rebels has pulled off the impressive feat of making the Empire scary when it isn’t actively doing anything, even when the band plays a high-tempo Imperial March.

“Empire Day” brings the focus back to Ezra, but finally explores his backstory in a satisfying way. While light on details, it’s slowly revealed that his parents were anti-Imperial sympathizers who disappeared when Ezra was seven years old. You don’t need to squint to piece the dots together, but Ezra keeps quiet about it for long enough that it adds a strong air of mystery to what exactly happened. Throw in the fact that Tseebo himself knows what happened to them, and Ezra’s orphan subplot is suddenly a lot more interesting.

What feels a little odd is that, even accounting for the increased Stormtrooper threat, the Ghost’s crew isn’t quite on its game. These are heroes who frequently deal out massive amounts of damage to entire Stormtrooper squadrons. But here they’re missing blaster shots, getting blindsided, and generally being overwhelmed by fairly light resistance. I suspect that’s because Rebels is saving a truly climactic confrontation for part two, but it’s a little jarring. This is the crew that broke into a Star Destroyer during the premiere and blew up its docking bay on the way out. It certainly raises the episode’s tension, since Ghost may not survive unscathed for once. But there’s probably a better way to do that then making the crew seem less competent than before.

Regardless, this is a solid episode that goes a long way towards getting fans excited for the next chapter. If the second half can satisfactorily resolve the plot elements “Empire Day” established, this might just be the best Rebels storyline yet.

Bottom Line: “Empire Day” is a fantastic opening to the midseason finale, only suffering because act two isn’t here to back it up. Everything from the pacing, dramatic tension, character developments, and early action set pieces are top notch, leaving you legitimately disappointed once “To Be Continued” crosses your TV screen. This is Rebels at its finest, and it’s absolutely worth the watch.

Recommendation: If you’re not already watching Star Wars: Rebels, this is a great episode to dive in for.

[rating=4.0]

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