Star Wars Rebels season 3 kicks off spectacularly with Steps Into Shadow. The show's storyline has matured, become far more engaging. Two key plot elements are established. Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray) has begun to use the dark side. His fear of loss turning into a thirst for power. Then we have the introduction of Grand Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelson), the tactical genius who commanded the Empire after Palpatine. Thrawn was the superb villain of Timothy Zahn's excellent Heir to the Empire trilogy. Those books are now considered not canon. Lucasfilm was wise to pluck Thrawn's character and integrate him into Rebels. Cue the goosebumps, anyone who's read Heir to the Empire knows how formidable an adversary Thrawn is going to be.
Steps into Shadow opens with Ezra, Sabine (Tya Sircar), Zeb (Steve Blum), and Chopper breaking into an imperial prison. Ezra has grown, looks older, even a bit fearsome with his shorter hair. They are there to rescue Hondo (Jim Cunnings). Ezra shreds the stormtroopers like lettuce. The team frees Hondo and Turbo, an Ugnaught; who's quickly blown up by a Walker. Ezra uses the force to take control of the driver, kill the remaining troopers, and plunge it off a ledge. Sabine is stunned. She remarks never having seen Kanan (Freddie Prinze Jr.) teach him that power. Ezra replies icily that he didn't. He has clearly grown much stronger in the dark side.
Hera (Vanessa Marshal) retrieves them in the Ghost. She criticizes Ezra for letting Turbo run off and get killed. He's angry at her response. They did get Hondo. Wasn't he the mission? He retreats to his room. Hidden under a helmet is the Sith Holocron. In a seductive female voice, it promises more power. Ezra has been training in the dark side. He reasons that with Kanan gone, he must be stronger to save them all. He will not lose any more friends.
Grand Moff Tarkin (Stephen Stanton) wonders what assets are needed to face the rebel insurgency. Governor Pryce (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn) requests more troops and a new commander to lead the effort. Meanwhile, at their hideout on Atollon, Hondo gives them key information. His ex-cellmate Turbo worked on an imperial Base in the Yarma system. They had a facility that was destroying a fleet of Y-Wing Fighters. Commander Sato (Keone Young) knows they need those ships to build the rebel fleet. We learn that their primary goal is destroy the Empire's production facilities on Lothal.
A full bearded Kanan sits in the desert meditating. Blinded by Darth Maul, he stills wears a visor to cover his burnt eyes. He has distanced himself from the others. Kanan is surrounded by the Krykna Spiders. They are held at bay by a sensor rod. Kanan goes to congratulate Ezra in his room. He's aghast to discover Ezra has used the holocron. He takes it, warning Ezra that only a Sith could open it. Ezra angrily rebukes him. He doesn't need it or Kanan anymore.
Commander Sato promotes Ezra to a Lieutenant Commander. His victories have not gone unnoticed. He gives Ezra command of the Yarma mission. Ezra, Sabine, Zeb, Hondo, Chopper, and Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) leave on the Phantom. As Kanan watches them go, he hears a voice calling him into the desert. He takes the sensor rod, his defense against the spiders, and walks towards it.
The Phantom runs into mining guild ships on the jump to Yarma. Sabine's fancy flying and Chopper's turbo lasers blow the TIE fighters to bits. Ezra wants to destroy the last crippled ship, kill all of the enemy. The crew is uneasy at this request. They agree to proceed to the planet.
Back on Atollon, Kanan stops at a depression in the ground. A huge, goat-faced creature emerges from the sand. He is Bendu (Tom Baker), a powerful force wielder who sits in between the light and dark side. He was awoken by the conflict, the noise, inside of Kanan. Kanan gives him the holocron. He proclaims it dangerous, fears that it has changed Ezra. Bendu says that it is only an object. Only a person can decide what to learn. He says that Kanan can regain vision, but he must first learn to see. Bendu takes the sensor rod and destroys. He instructs Kanan to use the force to see where the spiders are.
Thrawn, with cold blue skin, red eyes, and slick hair, is presented to Moff Tarkin. He speaks with precision and authority. He has been promoted to a Grand Admiral by the Emperor. Thrawn has analyzed the rebel prison break of Hondo. He connects it to the attack on the mining guild ships. He accurately deduces the rebel objective to be the ships on Yarma.
The Phantom arrives on Yarma to find far fewer Y-Wings than expected. They are on a conveyor being systematically destroyed. Ezra decides they must get the remaining ships before they are lost. Rex disagrees, the mission was to observe and report back to Hera. Ezra shuts him down. He is in command. They will go for the ships. They swoop down towards the Imperial base, only to come under attack by dismantler droids. The base knew they were coming from Thrawn's orders.
Kanan senses that Ezra is in trouble. Bendu asks him where are the spiders? Kanan is within feet of them, surrounded. He panics and draws his lightsaber. Bendu implores him to quiet the noise inside him. Tune out his fears; see the spiders as they really are. Kanan quiets his thoughts. He reaches out to touch a spider. It does not attack him. He can feel their presence in the force, knows they are not a threat. The breakthrough gains him more strength. He thanks Bendu. Leaving him the Sith Holocron as a gift.
The Phantom team is in trouble. Hondo has convinced the Ugnaughts on the station to help them, but the imperial garrison has locked everything down. Rex and Zeb help Chopper and Sabine refuel the Y-Wings. Ezra races to the command center. He takes out the soldiers and is surprised to find Commander Titus (Derek Partridge) relegated to such menial duties. Ezra lets him escape, but sets the station's power cells to explode. Hera breaks silence for an update on the mission. Ezra says that he is preoccupied. Then watches in disbelief as Hondo and the Ugnaughts abandon them in an imperial shuttle. The rest of the team takes the Y-Wings into space, but are promptly intercepted by Star Destroyers. The ships have had their hyperdrives removed.
As Yarma station begins to fall, Ezra watches in horror as the Phantom is knocked off and explodes into a fireball on the planet's surface. He is trapped. Ezra cries out for Kanan as he realizes that everything has gone terribly wrong. TIE fighters hit the Y-Wings like bees. Suddenly, the rebel ships drop out of hyperspace. Commander Sato brings the Y-Wings unto his ship. Sabine cries out that Ezra is still on the station. Hera and Kanan race to the planet on the Ghost. Kanan can feel Ezra holding on to a ledge as the station descends. He opens the cargo door and uses his new power to pull Ezra to safety.
Governor Pryce watches the rebels engage them with futility. She comments that they will pay a heavy price for such meager spoils. Thrawn appears via hologram. He orders them to let the rebels escape. This is not the rebel fleet. He will use them to find their true targets. The rebels have only gained a handful of ships with no hyperdrives. Thrawn's intellect is presented in all of its glory.
On Atollon, Hera suspends Ezra's command. He foolishly endangered the lives of the crew. Zeb and Rex stand up for him, claiming they all went along for the ride. She's not having it. They were lucky to survive and get the ships. The rebel fleet grows, if only by a little. Ezra expresses his thanks and shame to Kanan. He was in over his head and acted foolishly. He inquires what happened to the holocron. Kanan tells him it's gone. They do not need it. As they walk together, Ezra thanks Kanan again for saving them. Kanan says he will always be there. The master and student are reunited.
Steps Into Shadow is a bravura premiere for season three of Star Wars Rebels. The character exposition was stunning, just magnificently developed. Ezra's seduction to the dark side was halted, for now, by his hubris and master's devotion. Kanan, much like Obi-Wan Kenobi, is growing into a great Jedi Master. The loss of his sight has enabled a much deeper vision within the force. I still can't help but feel that these two will end up facing each other in a climactic duel. Thrawn was exactly as Timothy Zahn imagined, a ruthless and cunning enemy. I can't wait to see his next move.