On Rebels: The Heart Becomes H-Artless

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I do not apologise for that title.

Welcome! Quick note: this is not a review. Here, much like in an art gallery, we take a closer look at only a few things – and then blow them up because we hate culture. As always, SPOILERS from here on out. (Also minor Legends book spoilers for those who haven’t read the Thrawn trilogy)

On Rebels, Hera’s Heroes, Hera is detained by the far-too-good-for-this-Empire Thrawn, and our Spectres plan a daring rescue – which is pointless because Hera is not a damsel in distress and doesn’t need no man to rescue her, thank you very much.

Sacrificing All For The Good

This show surprises me time and time again; just when I think I’ve got the measure of a character, the writers pull out something wonderful to add depth to them. As noted by Governor Pryce in an earlier episode, ‘[The rebels] fight so hard for so little’ – and that’s precisely what happens here. Take the above image, for example: with dignity, poise and unflinching determination, Hera Syndulla blows up her own home to get an insignificant one over the Empire. That’s quite a thing to do – and there’s quite a bit to explore, so let’s start unpacking!

The sole motivation for this week’s jaunt is that Hera wants to retrieve a priceless heirloom from her family mansion. This is significant for two things: one is that, though it’s somewhat understood beforehand, now we see that Hera comes from ‘good stock’ – as we sometimes call nobility in the UK*. For many, that privilege tends to equate a blind eye to the misfortunes of others. Yet Hera is the heart of the crew and the most ideologically driven. For her, it is her responsibility and her duty to use her power and privilege to help those less fortunate and those unjustly persecuted. (That said, I hasten to point out the real-world examples of upper class educated people who are often the primary drivers of societal change, a la French Revolution and that slight quibble in North America some centuries ago).

*As a distinctly working class man I must point out that this isn’t, ahem, what I prefer to call them.

The second thing that this scene is significant for is that Hera is the one out of all the Spectres who will most likely forsake personal grievances in order to continue and advance her political agenda through revolutionary means. She is the one who if, say, Kanan were to be captured by Imperial forces, she would walk away and say that it’s for the good of the cause that he be left. It will hurt like hell for her, but she’ll go on because she knows that the betterment of society must require sacrifice (and nothing says sacrifice like someone else dying). Despite this, she is always more than willing to help the others in whatever personal trouble that is ailing them – because that is who she is. She is always compassionate to others, but when it comes to her, it’s as if she turns off a switch in her brain. Because she understands that, much like the heroic Captain Carrot of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch, the personal isn’t the same as important. And, as Vanessa Marshall who plays Hera says in this episode’s Rebels Recon, her reticence to indulge herself with a personal mission is a product of her upbringing, from growing up in a time of galactic war and as the child of a war leader and political leader.

And yet: she runs head on into Imperial headquarters to regain something personal. It’s almost as if, I don’t know, her crew is having an effect on her and as a result she’s experiencing personal growth. It’s almost as if she’s a real three dimensional person with thoughts and feelings and wants and desires. It’s almost as if these writers planned this.

But back to Hera being stone cold-hearted and ruthless, which I’m pretty sure is my favourite type of Hera. At the end of the episode we see that she is more than willing to sacrifice something meaningful to her … almost out of spite. Sure, it was a message to the Imperials, and to Thrawn, that the rebels are willing to go to extraordinary measures to get what they want, but to blow up her home? That was cold. I mean, sure, it was also acting as a distraction to enable their escape and a military blow against the Empire to take out their command centre, but I’m convinced that, for her, the main driving force to blow up her home was to reclaim some ownership over a large part of her life – and to deny the Empire and Thrawn that, too.

Scene Dissection: A character’s Mission Statement

Quite often, owing to limited air time (or simply poor writing skills) certain things either get tossed out or are written in order to get the most information across to the viewer with the least amount of fuss or dressing up. This means that we occasionally get exposition-laden scenes that act as little more than info dumps. This doohicky does this, people want it, we have to do that – and so on. It’s often clunky and the ugliest, but most necessary, part of film-making. When Thrawn was introduced, the writers had the unenviable task of not just placating fans of the Legends Thrawn but also informing viewers new to him as to what, exactly, he is about. Not only that but they had to establish his in-universe credentials as a credible villain, too. And so we get this scene seen in the image above.

As a fan of the Legends books I can’t honestly tell you how they succeeded (or not) in terms of introducing the character to those meeting him for the first time. As a fan, though, I was quite satisfied – but that’s not what this point is about. The scene begins with Thrawn explaining the basis of how he formulates his theory – for us, the viewers, certainly, but mainly to teach the Imperial Cro-Magnon* a thing or two (without getting into too much detail, they are amongst the enemy, after all, even if she is at their mercy). Though it’s tempting to read into the theatrics as an attempt to impress us, Impysaurus noncognitus and most importantly Hera with his intellect, it seems to me that he values above all the need to teach his Captain Incompetent how to do his job well.

*His name isn’t worth looking up.

And then he asks why. Why would someone steal a trinket that’s worth something only to a few select individuals? For him, the answer is obvious (not so much to Captain Oblivious, the worst supervillain of all time – even if he does get there eventually), but the important thing isn’t that he deduces it – it’s that he questions it at all. Previously on this show we’ve seen very few Imperials question motives or actions; we mostly get knuckle-dragging ignoramuses who failed Neanderthal training, as well as a few lethal Imperials who are so focused and sure in their actions that they have no need for doubt. The only truly questioning Imperial we get is Agent Kallus – and he appears to be turning into one of the good guys because of it. With those as the standard, his questioning marks Thrawn as a cut different from (not necessarily above) the rest.

And then he speaks to Hera personally. Why? It would be tempting to think that he was indulging in the oldest trick in the Evil Genius play book: the monologue (for further reading, please refer to the film The Incredibles. Yes, you’re being set homework. I expect a report due on Monday). While that is what is happening, the simplest answer is that he’s merely trying to intimidate Hera. I ask again: why? We know she escapes, even before anything happens – but for all he knows Hera is, as I said earlier, at their mercy. She is their prisoner and that isn’t likely to change any time soon. There’s simply no need to scare her because she’s already beaten! And yet, I think Thrawn is one to cover his bases. He knows that Ezra was most likely there and/or about to attempt a rescue, because he’s been studying them. He knows that a rescue will likely come to pass (even after that failed attempt) and that, should they be successful, he wants them to get away with a distinctly unnerving impression of him. For Thrawn, it’s not merely a military way he’s fighting – but a psychological one, too. He’s fighting for their hearts and minds. He wants to crush their hearts and stupefy their minds.

A Slight Misstep

With all that said, I’m still not entirely sure why he let them go. Oh, certainly he found it ‘very enlightening’ and, courteous as he is, he respected the victory they had earned. Harking back to the Legends stories, his allowing them to leave was somewhat reminiscent of the battle of Sluis Van. In that battle, the Thrawn enacts a meticulously planned battle strategy – yet he is surprised by New Republic forces that he hadn’t accounted for and ultimately and graciously concedes defeat. He did this because, in war, as in life, it’s seldom a good idea to reinforce failure. In that story, it made sense to retreat. Yet in this episode I can’t help but think that the battle wasn’t yet over, failure wasn’t a certainty, and most importantly that they could have acquired something tangibly more useful than information.

They could have captured two Jedi, one regional leader of the Rebellion and several key members of the Rebellion in that sector. To defeat or capture the Spectres and Cham Syndulla would have delivered a serious blow to the Rebellion’s war effort. Not only that, it’s been long established that the Empire uses supposedly effective interrogation techniques – Thrawn, or his brutish lackeys, could have tortured them for all the intelligence they could have dreamed of and more! Why pass this up?

I get that perhaps it’s more important to have the crew live to fight another day and at the same time show that Thrawn values information more than a few military victories. But at the same time it doesn’t make sense, in universe, to simply let a vital, untapped intelligence resource just fly away like that.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s this desire for knowledge over military victory is what does him in in the end?

Michael Dare

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