In The Clone Wars season 3 opener “Clone Cadets” (which first aired four years ago… wow!), we saw clone trooper training under the Jedi and the Republic. Now, four episodes into the first season of Rebels, we get “Breaking Ranks”, which offers insight into stormtrooper training under the Empire… and the contrast couldn’t be more stark.
As “Breaking Ranks” opens, we find Ezra deep undercover, posing as a cadet at Lothal’s Imperial Academy. His mission: to steal a decoder that contains the location of an important Imperial shipment.
The Imperial training is revealing: weakness is punished; unsportsmanlike behaviour is rewarded. And the exercises actually recall “The Box” from season 4 of The Clone Wars, which was itself designed to be both perverse and unforgiving.
But what truly sets this episode apart are the animation, editing and overall direction. Never before have the characters been more fluid or believable in their performances—even at the height of The Clone Wars, the characters’ movements were as stylised as their physical designs, but here the character animation is much more believable. It’s really quite stunning.
Meanwhile, the way the episode has been cut together lifts it further, giving sequences a very natural flow that echoes the rhythm of the best Star Wars movies. The final act is just captivating, and it’s largely thanks to the editing that the climax is so thrilling.
But overall, Steven G. Lee’s direction is what sells this episode. Little moments sell the story with subtlety in some instances, but he really know when to push things as well. Lee, the brother of Clone Wars veteran director Steward Lee, really has an eye for the best way to immerse the viewer in this world.
More than any other episode of Rebels thus far, “Breaking Ranks” offers a glimpse at the sinister machinations of the Empire. And although the characters don’t seem aware of it, they’re already witnessing movements within the Empire which will lead to the events of Star Wars: A New Hope.
This is a show nominally aimed at children, but never before has it been so evident that this is really a gift to fans.