Obi-Wan Kenobi: Nostalgic But Predictable
Kenobi Is Heavily Limited By Its Own Story Conceit
Obi-Wan Kenobi is a show hard to review as its own thing. While lately a good chunk of Star Wars is an act of accounting for missing parts in the timeline and universe, Kenobi has especially little space to experiment—its plot is so heavily stuck by continuity that there are practically no surprises to be had. We know who can and cannot die in any scene; even people who don’t know Star Wars well will have a general idea of what will happen in this plot.
If you’re going to watch Kenobi for something, watch it for the concentrated Force blast of nostalgia. From the extended summary of the prequel trilogy that starts the first episode to the multiple callbacks sprinkled throughout (some I didn’t even fully understand), Kenobi is chasing the same delight of seeing the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens. It’s trying to do what the prequel trilogy did, but perhaps better this time.
The Series Is Absolutely Made For Long-Time Fans
I’d go so far as to say this assumed mission statement affects everything in Kenobi. The pacing of scenes and how the plot moves are all informed by its history. While watching, I couldn’t help but notice how the storyline defaults to the classic hero’s journey archetype that Star Wars helped cement in the zeitgeist in the first place. “Ben” Kenobi is called to action with a digital message, refuses it, and finally is forced to accept it and go get his lightsaber. Textbook stuff.
And, sadly, more often than not with how these sorts of things are handled, that would be a strike against a show—but I can’t give that condemnation here. Not with this. The nostalgia is too effective. Seeing Ewan McGregor play Obi-Wan again made me so happy. Obi-Wan was a highlight of the prequels, and watching this character struggle against his want to help others was deeply engaging narratively. The knowledge that—because it had to happen at some point—he and Hayden Christensen’s Darth Vader would get a lightsaber fight turned even slower-paced scenes into mounting narrative tension. And, once Darth Vader showed up, hearing James Earl Jones voice him again and doing it with such bombast was peak nerdy joy. Despite—at least by my self-perception—being a rather cynical critic, I’m not immune to fandom.
So Much Of The Storyline Is In Service Of Nostalgia
But what I didn’t even think about when I started watching for this review was how skilled the new actors and character writing would be. It hadn’t occurred to me that would also be an aspect of the show. But, first off, Vivien Lyra Blair does an excellent job as young Leia. Little Leia’s interactions with Obi-Wan are some of the best scenes in the first three episodes. The few conversations they had while riding in Freck’s “truck” were great writing and acting, and it considered continuity in interesting ways. A lot of the Star Wars plot is rather bleak when you think about it, and those moments captured the loss and pain.
Further adding to the great characters, we get the very-interesting-from-a-world-building-perspective Haja (played by Kumail Nanjiani) and the surprisingly complex Organa parents (Breha, played by Simone Kessell, and Bail, played by Jimmy Smits). And we get the Inquisitors (who, as far as I can tell, are a group originally from Star Wars Rebels—which I haven’t seen). From a purely writing perspective, the Inquisitors are a great way to introduce lightsaber fights and advanced Force powers to a universe that is supposed to have almost no Jedi left. Their job is to find Jedi, so they can show up to make things worse for Obi-Wan (without breaking suspension of disbelief) whenever the plot needs an action scene. They’re also great as individual characters outside their plot function. Two are heavily featured and given stronger characterization, and the others are entertaining and menacing. Reva’s (played by Moses Ingram) very Sith character arc of pursuing power easily builds up to a (presumed) fun confrontation, and her rivalry with Fifth Brother (played by Sung Kang) adds more texture to Kenobi. It’s interesting to see in-fighting in the Empire, especially when contrasted with the uniformity of Stormtroopers and the Empire devotees that occasionally pop up.
The Side Characters Give A Lot Of Needed Variety
I wish the series would stop making the audience wait for the payoff of certain setups, though. Obi-Wan keeps getting saved instead of fighting someone (preferably with a lightsaber) and keeps escaping because of others’ assistance. Like, seriously, how often can they find a ship that’ll go off planet after the Empire “locks everything down?” How many locations are automated/staffed only by droids and thus a good hiding spot? Why, oh why, does a small fire stop Stormtroopers that easily? This stalling setup means it takes forever for Obi-Wan to use the Force and even more time for him to use his lightsaber. If you’re like me and were hoping for a return to the battle dances that we saw between him and Darth Maul, I’m not even sure something that cool will happen outside of the opening Order 66 scene.
However, if you want to see how brutal Star Wars fighting can get without much gore, Kenobi has a shocking number of moments that go pretty far. A Stormtrooper dies in perhaps the most violent on-screen way I’ve seen in the franchise. And then there’s Darth Vader’s first big “fight” scene. I suppose, considering he murdered a ton of younglings in Revenge of The Sith, it shouldn’t be surprising, but damn, do they emphasize his ruthlessness. The Force is allowed to do anything from healing to teleporting objects, but it never occurred to me that a character could use it that lethally. It honestly calls into question why that method isn’t used (at least by Vader or equivalent powerhouses) more often in battles besides screenwriting reasons.
Battle Scenes In Kenobi Seem Much More Violent
This brings me to one of the odder parts of this review: Obi-Wan and Darth Vader’s connection. It’s interesting to explore how Obi-Wan feels about what happened on Mustafar. The parallel of him wanting a sign from his previous master and being pursued by a now evil padawan is a strong storytelling decision. The best scenes in this show are when Obi-Wan deals with his past, his honor-bound promise to take care of Leia and Luke, and what seems like a somewhat loss of his connection to the Force. But when Vader and Obi-Wan are in the same scene for the first time, it feels like they should’ve had a more complex conversation. These two have such a history together—such a knowledge of one another. Maybe they’re saving that for later episodes, but the big meeting of the two was mostly a replay of an earlier time with Reva attacking. I can pinpoint no exact moment when the switch happened, when I stopped being engaged by the scene, but I couldn’t shake the disappointment.
Scenes That Should Be Incredible Lack Something
I also don’t know how well the series approached its topics connected to marginalized groups. I don’t have the experience to say how well the series handles Vader’s disability or its depiction. There’s also the hunting of Jedi and the underground network for saving them. That’s got some very specific real-world parallels. And I encourage you to seek out and read articles written by better-informed people on those aspects of the show.
As to my overview of Kenobi, I think I’ve highlighted the differing sides of my opinion fairly robustly. The prequels are old enough and have been reexamined positively enough that people hold them in much higher regard than they used to. The score, the fight scenes, some performances, and more were given their dues. And Kenobi uses them as a springboard for a strongly acted continuation that feels like a bridge—which was clearly the goal. But because of the need for it to be a six-episode miniseries that ends where it all began, the plot is limited. The stakes are low, and dangers easily solved. Given the trajectory of the pacing, I would at least hope the later episodes deliver on some promises. But, even if it stays small-scale and mostly episodic, even if it remains an examination of how Obi-Wan knows Leia and how Obi-Wan becomes who we’ll eventually know as Luke’s mentor, I was never bored by Kenobi. If nostalgic media needs to exist, I’d prefer it be done like this. A layered, interesting tale that explores more in-depth the characters we’ve known for so long.
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