Following the past two weeks’ monumental twists, with Maul’s vision in The Holocrons of Fate and the surprising temporary ally the new Rebel pilots found in The Antilles Extraction, I was uncertain of how today’s Hera’s Heroes, the fourth episode of a third season that is already changing the landscape of the Star Wars universe, could live up.

Indeed, I’m not raving about it as I was those two episodes. I didn’t immediately rush to tell all of my friends who watch the show that they NEED to tune in tonight. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun, straightforward story of the Rebels against the Empire. It absolutely is, and that’s all it needed to be. As the official episode description states, “When the Empire occupies Hera’s home, she decides to personally recover a family heirloom. But a new Imperial commander named Grand Admiral Thrawn is waiting.” The crew once again teams up with the Free Ryloth movement to do battle with the dark side, making for a fun adventure story, even if it lacks the depth of the rest of the season thus far.

The Free Ryloth movement and the Ghost Crew unite!

The Free Ryloth movement and the Ghost Crew unite!

One standout for me has been the improvement in character animation subtleties this season. Without spoilers (though you may already know the scene from advertising and preview clips), when a member of the Ghost crew is in danger, we see another of the Spectres in the background. Although they are wearing scout trooper armor as a disguise (first appearance of the scout troopers on television, neat!), if you look closely, you can see their torso expanding and collapsing as their breathing quickens, fearing for their friend.

Even as this improves, I must admit I find the environments of the show to be lacking in comparison to its predecessor, The Clone Wars. Creatives working on the show have unofficially acknowledged on social media and at conventions that The Clone Wars was able to visit so many dynamic worlds and introduce such a varied cast of characters because billionaire George Lucas saw it as a passion project and funded it out of his pockets. Rebels lacks such an angel investor, and so the Free Ryloth movement is smaller (we’ve still only met three members, whereas we saw dozens in The Clone Wars) and Ryloth itself seems to have flatter, blander terrain.

Rebels undercover.

Rebels undercover.

Of course, with The Clone Wars characters back in the spotlight, there are a few customary references to the show, visual, verbal, and story-related, but the episode can still be enjoyed without having that context, and I think that’s important. The show’s primary audience is children, and they may not have access to The Clone Wars. The story is indeed accessible, though one mention of an obscure creature from The Clone Wars seems a bit forced.

The previous animated show is not the only element of Star Wars’ past informing this story, of course. This summer, the show made entertainment headlines when it was announced that Grand Admiral Thrawn, infamous antagonist of Timothy Zahn’s popular 1990s Star Wars novels, now non-canon but still bearing an important legacy. The introduction of Thrawn, truly a villain fans love to hate, was long-awaited by the show’s crew and promised to raise the stakes for our heroes. He is only beginning his plot in this episode, his second appearance, but already threads are forming and the audience is left hanging on every line delivered by Lars Mikkelsen, who continues to masterfully give voice to a character introduced 25 years ago. We hear Thrawn for the first time in Rebels, yet he somehow sounds familiar. Longtime fans will question one of his moments in this episode, but it is important to remember that this is Thrawn 11 years or so younger than when we first met him. His temper is more fiery, which can be jarring, but I still accept him as a younger version of the character from Zahn’s work. The low and ethereal choir, eerie organ, and light strings that accompany Thrawn’s most potent soliloquies serve very well to underscore the artistic genius’s treachery.

Grand Admiral Thrawn

Grand Admiral Thrawn

This episode, by new writer Nicole Dubuc and returning director Mel Dwyer, also features a return to the Star Wars galaxy by voice actor André Sogliuzzo, veteran of many Star Wars video games and the 2003 animated microseries Star Wars: Clone Wars, here portraying the diabolical Imperial conquistador Captain Slavin. The rest of the cast is familiar to fans of the show, but all deliver standout emotional performances in an episode that, ultimately, is about attachments to family versus attachments to material possessions, however important they may be. In particular, Vanessa Marshall as Hera Syndulla and Robin Atkin Downes as her father Cham do a fantastic job of furthering the story of the sometimes very troubled but ultimately loving relationship the two characters share.

Catch Hera’s Heroes tonight at 9:30 PM on Disney XD or right now on watchdisneyxd.com with your cable provider login information! I’ll be back next week to review The Last Battle, which promises to raise The Clone Wars nostalgia even further.

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