In "Breaking Ranks," Rebels has really hit its groove.
Last week's episode of Star Wars: Rebels absolutely knocked it out of the park, telling a well-paced action-adventure story that gave every character a chance to shine. After such a good episode, I was slightly concerned the next episode might lose that balance, but there was nothing to fear. The latest chapter is just as good as what came before, suggesting Rebels is hitting just the right groove.
In fact, "Breaking Ranks" actually goes a step beyond "Rise of the Old Masters" by offering something few Star Wars cartoons have done: Exploring what it takes to become an Imperial Stormtrooper. While it's not an especially complex or in-depth portrayal, it's a great glimpse of the faces behind the helmets... before they become cannon fodder with terrible aim.
Haven't seen what the fuss is about yet? You can watch the episode at Disney XD or iTunes.
"Breaking Ranks" jumps right into the action before the title card even appears, introducing the latest Imperial cadet unit about to begin training. The twist is that Ezra is among their number, slumming with his fellow students under another name for an undercover mission. As events unfold, it's revealed that Ezra hopes to find a Imperial decoder that Ghost can use to track down a kyber crystal shipment. But since Ezra is the only crew member who looks anything like a cadet, he has to operate completely alone, and finds himself unexpectedly depending on his fellow Imperials.
These cadets are put through an impressive regimen that, at first glance, seems like it should produce better Stormtroopers. Every day, the students are dropped into a pit filled with moving platforms, and instructors reward the first three to escape with high marks and advanced training opportunities. Meanwhile, those who fail (or refuse to take out fellow classmates) face another grueling training exercise under a crueler Imperial taskmaster.
If this is the experience all Stormtroopers go through, I'm amazed that they're so horrible at everything they do in the movies. The only reason Ezra can even keep up with them is because of his Force abilities, so where are the capable soldiers this program should be churning out? The truth is cadet training isn't just about producing the best Stormtroopers, it's about uncovering Force-sensitive recruits. Anyone who does "too well" at training tends to disappear, usually following an investigation by the Inquisitor.
It may be unintentional, but it explains so much about why the poorly-skilled Stormtrooper we all imagine: The system literally punishes its best and brightest students. Take that, everyone who joked that the light side is the dumb one.
The good news is Ezra overhears the Empire's plan while he's recovering the decoder. The bad news is another top recruit, one Ezra is quite friendly with, is also being investigated and will be kidnapped within days. Simply completing the Rebel mission isn't enough anymore, since Ezra also needs to find a way to rescue his friend. I'm not entirely sure why he didn't just bring the cadet along to be extracted with Zeb and Sabine; this crew is already used to improvising on the spot. But it allows for a great sequence where Ezra escapes the training facility on a walker, so I'm inclined to forgive it.