[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]
The worst thing I can say about the Disney+ Obi-Wan Kenobi series is that it doesn’t really matter. And I guess that’s pretty damning, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The show introduces us to Obi-Wan at a time when he is probably at his lowest. To put it plainly: Ben has PTSD. He’s seen the destruction of all he knows and loves and is living with the reality that he failed (and had to maim and leave for dead) his best friend and padawan Anakin Skywalker. Everything he stood for has been destroyed, and because of the failure of the Jedi order, the galaxy now lives under the totalitarian rule of the Galactic Empire and its two Sith Lords, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. Obi-Wan is a man who has very nearly lost his faith.
This is the reason for the show’s existence, according to Deborah Chow, series director. And that comes across clearly enough over 6 episodes. Obi-Wan’s arc, as he navigates the trials set before him in this show, is clear. It’s handled clumsily and would have been so much more rewarding in the hands of a more competent writer, but it is there. And there’s no doubt we’re meant to see him wrestle with his demons, overcome them, and become the man (and Jedi) he needs to be in order to play his role in the larger story (that plays out in the Original Trilogy).
Ewan McGregor’s return as the titular character is difficult to find fault with. The writers have given him better dialogue to work with than the awful lines he was dealt in the Prequels. You can tell that he gave the role his best, but his character isn’t given enough room to breathe to build up a real emotional payoff. And that is a recurring problem with the show. The heavy lifting is left mostly to the actors and the audience to do, and it doesn’t really work as well as it should.
Joel Edgerton turns in one of the best performances of the show as Uncle Owen. He’s not given much to do until the end, but he’s acting his ass off in every scene. Indira Varma as Tala, an Imperial officer-turned-rebel spy, does a solid job, but, again, the show barely scratches the surface of the character and when she sacrifices herself for the greater good, it doesn’t really resonate. The music and the slow motion tell us that we should feel something, but we don’t.
Of course, there are exceptions to the mostly solid acting. Moses Ingram as the Inquisitor Reva turns in a performance that is uneven at best. The problems are most obvious in the first few episodes. She’s screechy and just doesn’t come across as evil, intimidating, or scary. And then, three or four episodes in, her portrayal of the character does an almost complete 180. Here she seems to simmer and seeth rather than screech and scowl. This portrayal is much more effective for this actor, and it’s at about this time that I started to be somewhat interested in her character.
Unfortunately, very little time or attention is given to developing Reva, aside from a hasty exposition dump around episode 4 or 5 where she divulges her entire backstory to Obi-Wan through a steel door. It’s an odd scene. And it’s a shame, really, because the idea of a Jedi Youngling who survived Order 66 and what that might have done psychologically to a kid who has just seen all of her friends and all the family she has ever known wiped out by someone she trusted—not to mention the fact that the surviving Jedi went into hiding like cowards and left the survivors to fend for themselves—is an idea that is ripe for development. Like the character of Tala, by the time we get to the emotional payoff for Reva’s journey, it just falls flat. No time has been devoted to fleshing out her character and to earning the audience’s sympathy. And so her character’s cathartic moment on Tatooine just comes and goes despite an admirable attempt by Ingram to do the scene justice. Because the revelation that Reva was a Youngling is held until almost the very end, there’s no time to process what this means or to build sympathy in the audience for the character, and, as a consequence, there seems little point to the character’s inclusion in the story. You could edit her (and all of the other Inquisitors) out and not lose anything of substance.
Reva should have been a mirror reflecting Obi-Wan’s failure and an emotional lever that the writers could later pull for emotional payoff for the audience. But instead of letting these elements simmer, the writers chose to be coy about Reva’s identity, revealing it all in a rush toward the end like a cheap gotcha moment. And in a show where not much really happens, to sideline important character moments in favor of pointless plot is a pretty fatal mistake for a mini series.
Speaking of pointless plots, let’s talk about young Leia.
Like Ingram as Reva, Vivien Lyra Blair’s Leia doesn’t really work right out of the gate. And this I mostly chalk up to an adult writer who has no idea how to write dialogue for a child. Her lines are punchy and it couldn’t be more obvious that these scenes are meant to foreshadow the quick-witted Leia we see in the Original Trilogy. But it’s about as subtle as a piledriver. You can almost feel the writer elbowing you in the ribs and saying “Get it? She’s feisty! Just like in those movies you love. Get it?!” Yeah, dude. We get it. And it’s not cute or clever. It’s annoying. You just made a beloved character annoying. Well done.
Fortunately, also like Reva, Blair’s Leia gets better in later episodes. Her dialogue is toned down, and her scenes with Obi-Wan come off as more sincere and grounded. Despite a rough start, Blair manages to make Leia a sympathetic character, and her and Ben’s budding relationship is decently illustrated in some of the only character moments we get in Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sadly though, and for a third time like Ingram’s turn as Reva, no amount of solid acting on Blair’s part can paper over the fact that Leia’s appearance in this show is pointless. Her inclusion in the story, like Luke’s in the final episode, only serves to further muddy an already muddied story continuity.
Now I’ve said that the point of this series was to examine the character of Obi-Wan between Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars and to show how he must have struggled with his own failures and the failures of the Jedi order. And the show does do that, but I’m not entirely sure I believe that was the actual intent. Or maybe that was the intent early on, but it seems pretty clear that those intentions were eventually overshadowed by The Duel.
And the reason I say that is because the final episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi almost feels like it belongs to a different show. It seems like everything else that happened in episodes 1-5 were sort of haphazardly constructed to get us to the point that Vader and Obi-Wan fight again. The kidnapping plot with Leia, Reva, the Path—none of it seems to have much purpose beyond taking up space and time. It’s just filler.
And again, it’s a shame really, because this episode seems to be of a higher quality than all of the others, and The Duel truly is almost worth the price of admission to the show. The setting is perfect. It’s menacing without upstaging the actors or the action. The tone is serious. We know that what we are seeing is supposed to have weight and it’s treated appropriately. The dialogue is pitch perfect, especially Vader’s lines. This is the best Vader has sounded, not only in terms of the quality of his voice but the dialogue itself, since the Original Trilogy. The lightsaber duel itself is one of the best lightsaber fights in Star Wars.
All of it feels…climactic. But it’s a climax with no build up. Like most other Disney live action Star Wars projects, it’s a hollow sort of pleasure we’re experiencing.
Obi-Wan Kenobi is not catastrophically bad. But not even a week out from the series finale, I find myself asking a question I asked when an Obi-Wan movie was announced years ago: Why? What’s the point? Sadly, Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn’t have an answer. And in the world of popular culture, that may be worse than being catastrophically bad.