‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ finds the Star Wars redemption machine operating at full capacity
The Star Wars franchise has notoriously had bad luck with third installments. Return of the Jedi came under mockery in its time for introducing the adorable Ewoks. Critics and fans slammed Revenge of the Sith for the almost laughable explanation of why the series’ Big Bad turned bad. And “Rise of Skywalker” was an unholy mess struggling to tie up clashing directorial visions between its two prior installments.
Fortunately, with its third spinoff series on Disney+, ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi,’ the TV Side of the Force may have broken the curse.
‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ takes place a few years after the events of Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin Skywalker has gone full Evil Emo and is rapidly Vaderizing. Meanwhile, the Jedi have been largely wiped out or are in hiding, while Anakin’s two motherless twins, Luke and Leia, are dispatched to other families to raise them.
Enter Obi-Wan Kenobi, hiding out in a cave under the clever pseudonym of “Ben” Kenobi. He’s agreed to keep an eye on young Luke, currently in the care of his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, until he’s old enough for the training depicted in A New Hope (otherwise known as ‘Star Wars’). In a parallel storyline, the royalty of Alderaan is raising young Leia to one day claim her famous title of Princess and rise to be a major leader of the Rebellion.
But in both cases, we have no idea how all this is going to happen. This is the series’ promising fertile soil. And it also separates it from what I’ll call the “Cool story bro, but did we absolutely need this” installments like “Solo” and “Rogue One.” (Both solidly entertaining, but adding little to the lore: the former painting the deliciously fragmented Han Solo legends by numbers; the latter, um, killing off everyone we’d just spent two hours coming to like.)
And most intriguing in my book, Obi-Wan Kenobi looks to tell these two stories by digging into the messy psyche of an often sainted, somewhat two-dimensionally heroic character’s life. You have to at least tune in for a series whose central dramatic question is, “You’ve just had the most disastrous job failure in the galaxy. What’s next?”
Here I must confess to a personal fascination into the question of how Obi-Wan rebuilds himself after Vadergate. When I heard of Disney developing this series, I wrote a ridiculous spoof pilot of my own, in which a burned-out Kenobi responds to his failure by descending into a midlife crisis bender.
In any case, Episode 1 of the show drops us smack in the middle of this Obi-Wan Conundrum. We find Obi-Wan in the classic mode of the “reluctant hero,” his Jedi heritage slowly tugging him into action. But he also pushes back against young Jedi aspirants and calls to galactic derring-do. Young Uncle Owen, who gripes at the stinky cavedweller’s plans for Luke like the Dursleys trying to keep Harry Potter away from Hogwarts, is also pushing him away.
By Episode 2, though, we are already in a way more exciting place. Specifically, not Tatooine–a barren galactic shithole in which the franchise has spent far too much time already. Obi-Wan overcomes his hero-reluctance and agrees to go to the sleazy, crime-ridden, semi-Blade-Runnery planet of Daiyu to rescue young Leia (whom bad guys have kidnapped, as we later learn) as bait to draw out Obi-Wan.
That alone would be a yarn worth listening to. But where the fun really starts cooking is that, among the Imperial baddies trying to nab Kenobi, there’s ‘Game of Thrones’-like dissension and backstabbing abrew. We meet an electrifying new villain Reva, who, despite a wardrobe and set of parkour stolen from The Matrix, is on her own path to bring Kenobi to Vader, and the show’s genius is in making us kind of pull for her from the jump.
But Obi-Wan Kenobi also takes a new storytelling approach that’s different from the picaresque side-mission quality of The Mandalorian or the “badass turns into builder of toll roads” deescalation of Book of Boba Fett. This time around, the ever-inventive team of Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni give us a directly serialized adventure.
This keeps the action and stakes high in Episode 2, as we see in its many “cat and mouse” sequences throughout the story, not just one big set piece saved for the end as the previous series did.
Admittedly, some things fall a little flat. Despite Kumail Nanjiani’s reliably devilish charm, the arc of his scoundrel-turned-savior Haja is at best awfully familiar and at worst, awfully convenient. In the final fight, Obi is under relentless fire from his pursuers, then is suddenly apparently, “not.” And you can feel the Disney touch that brought us Baby Yoda steering us toward Obi’s plucky young companion, Tween Leah. However, as played by Vivien Lyra Blair, she is adorably sassy and worldly-wise, and promises to be a more interesting and textured “kid foil” than young Annakin was.
Young Leia also has the glimmers of a “humble outsider scorned by others” story parallel to Reva’s, which I hope they will pay off. And we haven’t even met Darth Vader, but we can see from the final shot that we’re about to get his very first early stabs at evil, which is exactly the part of Vader backstory I think will be most fun.
Another thing going for the series is Ewan MacGregor, whose eternally youthful visage combined with his middle-aged man’s life experience gives the character the perfect frisson of “self-reinvention + gravitas,” a big energy jump from the “semi-retirement vibes” of Boba Fett.
Finally, Obi-Wan Kenobi the series has creative potential because it seems unlikely to fall into what I’ve described elsewhere in this publication as “The Skywalker Problem.” This is the Hobson’s Choice that the franchise has to keep make between portraying Luke Skywalker as a complicated, jaded older human being (which provoked a fanboy rebellion in The Last Jedi), or an eternally young, nostalgic, fan-servicing reproduction of Action Figure Luke like the one depicted in Boba Fett and The Mandalorian.
In this series, refreshingly, there’s little need to depict Luke, other than as a young boy observed (somewhat creepily) from afar, a later project for Obi-Wan after he first does some work on himself.
Obi-Wan Kenobi occupies an interesting niche in what one might term the “Star Wars redemption machine.” There’s the feeling of a kind of original sin that creator George Lucas committed when he ruined the taste of the Original Trilogy by making the Prequels. They designed The Force Awakens to cleanse the palate of this, by recapturing the pure joy of A New Hope, but more or less did so by mechanically copying much of ANH’s tropes.
By contrast, ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ has the chance to bridge the creative gulf between the two trilogies more organically, by leading us from the campy hokiness of the former into the more grounded mystique of the latter. So far it looks to be on a good path to doing that. Even just two episodes in, ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ brings some highly inventive, non-fan-servicing lore to a universe often in danger of falling into a Sarlacc pit of retreadiness.
A New Hope indeed.