I went into Trials of the Darksaber, the thirteenth episode of the stellar third season of Star Wars Rebels, with a clear, predefined notion of what it would likely be. Following last week’s Warhead, a fun side-story with larger ramifications, but one that seemed to exist largely to develop characters and set up future plotlines, I figured Darksaber would be something even more along those lines.
I was right, sort of. There are few locations, and only five characters really come into play. There’s no battling against the Empire, but there are several great psychological conflicts, fantastic world-building, and some long-awaited backstory and continuations of The Clone Wars’ most compelling plot lines.
Trials of the Darksaber involves, as its title suggests, Sabine Wren learning to fight with the darksaber she recovered from Dathomir in Visions and Voices just before the mid-season hiatus, under the tutelage of Kanan Jarrus. We know that Kanan has an uneasy history with Mandalorians from The Protector of Concord Dawn, and it has been hinted that Sabine left Mandalore under unpleasant circumstances, so this training brings out dark demons in both characters as they struggle overcome prejudices and fears to come to terms with their heritage and use every advantage they can in the fight against the Empire.
The episode was written by Dave Filoni, former supervising director of The Clone Wars and Rebels and current executive producer overseeing all of Lucasfilm Animation’s projects, who was something of a storytelling protégé to George Lucas in his last years at Lucasfilm. Filoni was credited as a writer on Twilight of the Apprentice, last year’s intense season finale, but I think this is his first solo writing credit on a Star Wars show. The depth of the history of the conflicts between the Mandalorians and the Jedi Order is deeply seeded in the dialogue between Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus and Mandalorian-in-exile Sabine Wren, and I don’t believe they could’ve found a better writer for this story.
In addition to the past, the script is positively saturated with hints about the future. Filoni has been explicit in interviews that the latter part of this season would delve into Mandalorian culture and what it means to be Mandalorian in the Empire era, and that’s clearly ramping up here. There’s not much more to say without spoiling it, but with every line from Sabine and fellow Mandalorian Fenn Rau, we learn more about the history of the people and what their role in the Empire is. As Kanan and Sabine spar during her training, it seems as though the cultures of the Jedi and the Mandalorians are sparring verbally. We don’t really have many canonical sources of what happened before the Star Wars films, and these bits of dialogue really flesh out “ancient history,” so to speak. Notes of xenophobia and prejudice weave in and out of one character’s dialogue to great effect, continuing a Star Wars tradition of using these otherworldly cultures to explore intensely human themes.
The voice acting, of course, is a strength of an episode that relies so heavily on dialogue during swordplay. You really believe that these characters are straining physically and emotionally while remembering their pasts. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tiya Sircar (Sabine) shed real tears during her performance, or if she and Freddie Prinze Jr. (Kanan) were actually acting out the fight in some form in the recording booth.
What could’ve easily been done as a “filler episode” took its chance to slow down the usual pace of Rebels and really flesh out the galaxy while putting pieces in play for the climax of the season. Trials of the Darksaber is one of my top five Rebels episodes as of now, though it hasn’t topped Ghosts of Geonosis. It seems that Rebels is going to take a four week break now, much to my chagrin, but I’ll see you next month to explore the “Legacy of Mandalore!”