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REVIEW: Star Wars Rebels: complete season two Blu-ray set

It’s safe to say season one of Rebels was a success, though it was criticized by many as being too small scale and low stakes. Season one certainly had a limited scope — by design, and, in my opinion, smartly so — though the three-part season finale, which reintroduced Grand Moff Tarkin, included a spectacular battle in orbit of Mustafar, and teased us with the arrival of both Darth Vader and Ahsoka Tano, hinted at a somewhat wider scope and scale for season two. Did season two build on what season one laid down in a logical and satisfying way? Was the show able to continue to develop its characters while achieving a larger scale? And is the recently released Blu-ray set of season two worth picking up, even if you’ve already seen all the episodes? That, my friends, is what I’m here to tell you.

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The second season set of Star Wars: Rebels looks and feels a great deal like the season one set. As before, the video is 1080p, presented in the show’s original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. English, French, and German audio tracks are available in Dolby Digital 5.1, while Spanish-speaking fans will have to be satisfied with a 2.0 mix. The season’s 22 episodes are spread out across 3 discs, along with each episode’s corresponding installment of Rebels Recon, the YouTube after-show hosted by Andi Gutierrez, StarWars.com’s social media correspondent. Disc three also includes two short featurettes, “Connecting the Galaxy,” and “From Apprentice to Adversary: Vader vs. Ahsoka,” both of which I’ll discuss below.

THE SHOW

If you read my review of season one, you’ll know I enjoyed the show quite a bit (with some reservations here and there). As I mentioned above, I think keeping the scale and the stakes relatively low for season one was the right choice, as it gave the characters a chance to be established on their own terms before thrusting them into the wider Star Wars universe. That said, I’m immensely pleased season two opens things up a bit. Apart from Vader and Ahsoka, we are also introduced to two new Inquisitors, each vying for the position opened up by the Grand Inquisitor’s death in season one. We also meet some of Zeb’s people, an old friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend-again-maybe of Sabine’s, a heretofore unseen commander of the Rebellion, and even a new droid friend for Chopper. We are also reintroduced to Captain Rex, Hondo Ohnaka, and Cham Syndulla (Hera’s father!) of The Clone Wars fame, not to mention a certain teenage princess of Alderaan. And of course the season culminates in the return of Darth Maul and the final(?) confrontation between Ahsoka and her old master, Anakin Skywalker. For the most part, these guest appearances all feel organic and not like a ratings stunt; the show justifies everyone’s presence quite well, in my mind, and works them into the story in a satisfying way.

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Season two of Rebels is a more fast-paced and confident show than it was in season one. Having established its world and its characters, the show now feels justified in bringing in old favorite characters from The Clone Wars (to say nothing of Leia and Darth Vader), as well as widening the scope and giving us a look at one cell of the nascent Rebel Alliance. The show mostly does well with the broader scope, though it still feels committed to episodic storytelling (as opposed to the longer arcs we got in The Clone Wars, as well as most television being made today) in a way that hurts the show. The episodes still feel contiguous and part of a whole, but the season doesn’t do a great job building towards the conclusion — when the Vader/Ahsoka duel finally happens, it feels less like something the show itself was ramping up towards, and more like something the fans were ramping themselves up for. The creators stated a number of times that this wasn’t Ahsoka’s show, that the focus was still on Kanan and Hera and the rest, and that’s fine, but either tell Ahsoka’s story here or don’t. It feels like we’re only getting snippets of her arc, and that’s frustrating.

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It’s not just limited to Ahsoka, either. I complained last season that Ezra’s entire character arc takes place over the course of the pilot, rather than the season or even the show as a whole, and that continues to be a problem here. Zeb has what should be a season-long character arc in a single 20-minute episode, and while we were promised big things for Sabine, her episodes felt phoned in in a way that didn’t give me much insight into her character at all. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the season’s strongest episodes — “The Siege of Lothal,” “The Lost Commanders” / “Relics of the Old Republic,” and “Twilight of the Apprentice,” were all two-parters. 22 minutes just isn’t long enough to tell the kind of rich and ambitious stories the writers are very clearly trying to tell. I don’t know if scaling back the longer story arcs was a creative decision, or one handed down from above to try and make the show more kid-friendly, but it’s hurting the writing either way. Ideally the show would be 10-15 hourlong episodes, rather than 22 half-hour ones, but failing that, the writers and producers should really commit to longer arcs.

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And as far as Ezra goes, I remain frustrated at how good he is at … everything. The show strongly suggests — and this is backed up by the interviews in Rebels Recon — that Ezra’s “speciality” is connecting with other lifeforms through the Force. Which is great and interesting, but he also displays an insane level of combat skill which seems disproportionate to his age and training. Telling us his speciality is connection while also making him an infallible warrior seems a contradiction, and I wish they’d address it (or at least dial back the lightsaber flips a little).

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One final note on this season: the score is incredible. Season one felt like the music was mostly just sampled from John Williams’ movie scores, but composer Kevin Kiner really steps things up for season two. There’s a sequence in “The Lost Commanders” that feels like something John Williams would have scored for that scene, but didn’t actually sound like any existing score from the films. And there are a couple really beautiful, epic moments — specifically, in “Legends of the Lasat” and “Twilight of the Apprentice” — which don’t necessarily sound Star Wars-ey in and of themselves, but are absolutely gorgeous pieces of music which fit the moment wonderfully.

THE DISCS

As with season one’s set, the video here is basically flawless. Blacks are black, colors are bright, lines are clean. The detail is extraordinary; the character design may be simple, but the textures are marvelous and a joy to behold on Blu-ray. Not to jump ahead, but the excellent video quality is pretty much the reason to buy this set — if you’ve only seen Rebels streaming, or over broadcast HD, you haven’t seen how good this show can look.

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Audio is likewise impressive; the 5.1 mix isn’t too aggressive or gimmicky in the rear channels, but used to nice atmospheric effect (with the occasional ship swoop or laser blast thrown in for good measure). It’s not as immersive, or used as well as a storytelling tool, as the mix on The Force Awakens, but that’s to be expected for something made on a television show’s schedule and budget, as opposed to a (rabidly anticipated) feature film. Dialogue is always clear and crisp, with no muddiness to be found. As with the video, the quality here is top-notch.

The menu design is just as minimalist and frustrating as the season one discs. Rather than give us a list of episodes on a single screen, we’re forced to scroll through a horizontal menu at the bottom of the screen, which often fits only two episodes on it at a time. This can make picking the episode you want to watch a bit challenging, since you’re often not sure which of the two episodes you have selected! Also as with season one’s set, there’s no option for auto-playing an episode’s corresponding Rebels Recon when the episode proper has finished. Instead, you have to go hunting through the special features menu, which is just as frustrating to navigate as the episode list. It’s even more irritating on disc three, where you have to go two menus deep to reach the Rebels Recon episodes. This is extremely poor menu design; there’s no reason not to have the entire disc’s worth of episodes listed on a single screen, and there’s no reason not to have a “play with Rebels Recon” option.

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The special features, I’m sorry to say, are even more anemic than what we got with season one. No episode promos, not even a season three promo, no in-depth making-of documentary, no cast or crew commentaries. Just the requisite Rebels Recon episodes (which I’m happy to have on the discs, don’t get me wrong) and two very brief featurettes. The first one, “Connecting the Galaxy,” they needn’t have bothered with, frankly: it’s five or so minutes of an overly goofy narrator describing references and easter eggs to the larger Star Wars universe. Some are so blindingly obvious (did you know the crossguard lightsaber Ezra picks up on Malachor was a reference to The Force Awakens??!?!?) you wonder why they bothered, and some are so strained and ridiculous (the name of character pleading for food in “Wings of the Master” is ‘hunger’ spelt backwards or some nonsense) … you still wonder why they bothered. “From Apprentice to Adversary: Vader vs. Ahsoka” is a little more interesting; narrated by Dave Filoni, he goes into some of his thoughts and design process for the lightsaber battle between Vader and Ahsoka. He doesn’t really cover any ground not already covered in Recon, but we do get a nice look at some of his storyboard and concept art. The lack of any substantial special features — beyond Recon, which I do enjoy — continues to be a thorn in my side with these sets, and I’ve almost given up hope they’ll step up to the plate and give us a full-featured set for season three.

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Lastly, the packaging itself is honestly appalling. At first glance it seems fine: standard Blu-ray keep case with a cardboard sleeve (though I’m not sure when and why cardboard sleeves became standard for Blu-rays; seems like a waste of paper to me). When you open it up, however, you see that disc one is on the spindle to the left, while discs two and three are on a single spindle to the right. I refuse to believe that Disney’s profit margins on these discs is so low that they can’t include a spindle in the middle. Putting two discs on a single spindle isn’t how discs should be packaged — it’s something you yell at your roommate for doing when they can’t find the proper keep case for a movie. Granted, Blu-rays are a lot less prone to scratches than DVDs were, but this is still unprofessional and cheap as hell. Also — and this is a minor annoyance — there’s no episode list in the case itself; just an ad for Disney XD.

My review of the season two Blu-ray set of Star Wars: Rebels boils down largely to what my review of the season one set was: good show, could be better; excellent video and sound; appalling menu design; anemic special features. Worth the purchase for the upgraded video and sound quality … but probably only at a discount. Do better, Disney. I know you’ve got it in you.

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