This review contains spoilers for the series.
Pauline Kael once described the first Star Wars as a Cracker Jack box that’s all prizes (she didn’t mean it kindly). Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Cracker Jack box that’s all wrapping. Part VI is the best episode yet testifies to the show’s structural failure, being the only prize that the slippery plot devices had been machinating the whole time in layer after layer of unappealing packaging. It is the 45 minutes that they thought of when they conceived a show about Obi-Wan Kenobi. The rest has been a stall tactic.
Each prior episode concerned a struggle, not between characters but between writers with this conclusion in mind and the plots designed to prolong it. After multiple false escapes, misdirects, double agents, cliffhangers, and other over-extracted devices, this is the final setup – characters dueling over their emotional perceptions of their past. It’s clearly the third act of what might have been a decent film or by itself might be considered a triumphant fan production. It may even be a leftover part of the screenplay for the canceled “Obi-Wan: A Star Wars Story” film, stretched like taxidermized skin across an awkwardly big frame. But in six parts, totaling nearly four hours of screentime, the result is excruciating. It feels like all of this has been the “Part I” of something else.
The feeling comes partly from the weakness of the setup. Kidnapping Leia never felt reasonable as the premise of a whole show; I kept thinking it would end two or three episodes in to yield to the greater conflicts. Yet it lasts the whole show, long after anyone, good or evil, is that concerned about it. Regardless of how numbingly contradictory her presence is to Star Wars (1977), for the two characters to know each other this well and never say anything to each other, the real clinch of the viewer’s discomfort is that the show never fabricated a believable way to make this conflict last this long. Long after we learn that kidnapping Leia was never the point, she’s still in tow, with the writers scrunching their brows over the task of giving her “something to do.” Her little non-adventure in the power box in Part V where she sits in front of cables for 20 minutes before the writers decide she can plug in the rebel’s escape hatch is the most egregious example of stalling in any show in my recent memory.
The stalling isn’t limited to Leia. All the way back in Part III, when Vader and Obi-Wan first dueled, the show had no explanation for how that transitioned from a position of Obi-Wan’s capture to his escape right from under Vader’s pyramidal nose, for another episodes-long chase and yet another false escape. The writers have blind spots equivalent to the old Flash Gordon serials, when writers occasionally couldn’t get Flash out of a cliffhanger ending in the next episode and changed the details a bit (Flash falls into a pit in the cliffhanger; in next week’s recap, he almost falls into the pit). But without the swashbuckling frivolity of those adventure serials, on which Star Wars is well-known to be based, Obi-Wan Kenobi only has the derelict logic without the tonal deniability for it. It’s a box with five layers and one crackerjack at the bottom. The only prize is that puzzle piece feeling on which Star Wars now thrives, as though an impression of an explanation for a self-evident conclusion is revelatory enough to ignore its creative process.
Nothing that happens in Obi-Wan warranted this elaboration on the films, regardless of its indistinguishable execution. All its conflicts are either self-evident or contradictory and none have the emotional heft of a genuine take on this intermediary time between film episodes (the Luke chase through the desert is gratingly inconsequential). Its best moment is when Vader admits to having killed Anakin, giving Obi-Wan the inner peace required to no longer wish him dead (and to start acting like Ewan McGregor again). Yet even that has been self-evident ever since The Empire Strikes Back. The show admirably backs up the redundancy with an effective fight scene, which is weighty and grounded (outside of overusing digital camera shake). Compared to the bombastic green screen palooza of the final duel in Revenge of the Sith or even some recent takes on Star Wars fighting, such as the cringeworthy slow-motion in the final duel in The Last Jedi, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader have a worthy match at the end of this show. I suppose that’s as much as anyone could hope for.
The last episode even gives Reva (Moses Ingram) an emotional reaction to a dramatic shift, something she pulls off more convincingly than her toughness impersonation throughout the rest of the show. It’s another example of a character finally unchained from time-killing screenplays and given a moment to breathe. However, their broken concept for her is now fully apparent since being a double agent makes every episode even less sensible in retrospect (she now has no reason to have let them escape from Tatooine or from the prison fortress since capturing rebels was never her goal – the twist was clearly written after the fact). Obi-Wan also acts more emotionally motivated in the last episode, as the writers relieve his ten years of emotional constipation for a last (and first) hurrah.
Obi-Wan's problems go beyond these quibbles over character and continuity. Star Wars in the broadest sense is a collection of tall tales made small. Its brilliance – like an ability to attach itself to the viewer’s brain like a mynok that recites simple poetry – was always in the visual micro-stories, wrapped up in a broad adventure about the values of heroism. Examples include a rancor keeper crying over the loss of his pet, a droid that has learned to be an assassin, a martial artist who believes in the force without having any talent in it, a cantina bristling with creatures whose monstrous appearances aren’t so intriguing as their little flashes of humanity. Writing stories in the front and back of all these tiny tales has always been the core Star Wars appeal. When the new brand manager, Kathleen Kennedy, summarily deleted the expanded universe, she essentially deleted Star Wars’ ability to be anything but the central canon. Everything now lives and dies by its connection to the main saga. That decision has made it more difficult for recent Star Wars to feel like Star Wars than any other.
This show's most crucial error was in restricting itself to the series’ main arc in the context of Kennedy's reduction, like Quint strapping himself into his chair to catch an uncatchable shark in Jaws, as though he couldn’t think of another way to do it. That creative fatalism makes Kenobi boring to experience, like watching adults bang Obi-Wan and Darth Vader toys together and hoping it seems epic to a kid. Everything that happens is crucially important to the main arc yet inconsequential by necessity, causing unneeded riffs in places and over-clarifying obvious details in others. No one we know is ever actually in danger, so replacing a sense of fun with an atmosphere of importance makes every inconsistency ten times more glaring than it would be in a less consequential story. An Obi-Wan interim adventure that intersected the extended canon might have been enjoyable, or at least disposable. Dredging the primary one through a creative desert could only be unproductive in comparison.
At no point does Obi-Wan feel like it contains the patchwork universe of stories that is Star Wars. There are no memorable side characters, no universe-building places to munch on, no mind-prickling little cosmic mysteries, no visual energy anywhere outside the final dual. Even in the character designs, there’s nothing that could be added to memory, not even on the level of the cackling slave monkey Salacious Crumb or the quizzical engineer Babu Frick. In five years from Revenge of the Sith, the Star Wars universe seems to have gone from one teeming with a bizarre bestiary of limitless toys to one sparsely populated by backlot extras in full exposure, trimmed and cleaned, a crowd of forgettable faces in a generic world.
George Lucas’ version of having vision often involved challenging the limits of what could be done in visual effects while relying on the oldest storytelling standards to get away with them. By the time he was making Revenge of the Sith, his attitude had shifted from “who’s going to let me?” to “who’s going to stop me?” The result was an upturned toybox of crunchy trash, subjecting the wizened prequel body of a man who would become the understated Sir Alec Guinness to a sequence involving riding a dinosaur down an alien chasm while jousting a dinosaur with a robot body (who is also riding a robot). The film's spiritually dramatic conclusion involved surfing on robot janitors while sword-fighting inside an active volcano. The key was that this ridiculous stuff was presented gravely – the fate of the galaxy hinged on whether he could joust the robot dinosaur successfully. It had as few ambitions to self-criticize as Lucas.
Those absurd visual tangents are more appropriate for Star Wars than buckling down to a purely plot-driven intermediary story that tells nothing we did not know, challenges no boundaries of visual or technical filmmaking, and does nothing but kill time with famous faces in tow. Obi-Wan Kenobi is not merely a bad impression of a Star Wars show – it’s more like a glammed-up impression of a Comic-Con appearance. It is barely more creativity-consuming than an on-stage dramatization between costumed characters at those conventions, or in the pre-show before a “cinematic experience” at a theme park. Compressed into four and a half minutes, jostled by a car with a rebel transport façade, grinning under 3D glasses – then Obi-Wan’s target audience would be in their element (so would the writers).
When the clumsily debonair rebel spy, Haja (Kumail Nanjiani), reveals a good heart, the audience swoons with recognition that this “explains” why Obi-Wan trusted Han in the first film (“Everything in ANH is better now,” one Twitter user writes). This is crucial to the problem with the show as a concept. If an emotional premise as simple as believing in someone needs an origin story, the premise loses its meaning – explaining simple goodness explains it away. Depth is also lost in the transaction, as though Obi-Wan must have known that Han was good and chose him accordingly, which is not a complex revelation or even evident from the first film. The feeling from Star Wars was that they were desperate; they had to have faith that Han’s desire to get his money would lead them to an outcome that saved the galaxy. Any definition of “the Force” depends on this faith – the fact that Han ends up being instrumental to saving the galaxy is only meaningful if Obi-Wan did not know it. If he did, and especially if he knew it because of Haja’s inconsequential pivot towards trustworthiness, Star Wars would be trading all pretenses of the Force for the simplest moral manipulations. It would be giving up on filmmaking for the hand-holding logic of a guided coloring book.
Driving the show based on these details of “explanation” puts the characters’ dramatic context on the backburner of its recognition machine. Even the pre-decision to include Leia made it “necessary” to give Obi-Wan an unbelievable amount of emotional hesitancy after a decade of processing, and an unnerving penchant to explain lines and actions in later films with little flickers of relevance. The writers were on a quest to get away with something rather than communicate something, to fill a block in a content schedule on a streaming service that required recognizable hooks to get viewers for each part. This is not only why each one includes revelatory tidbits but also why Obi-Wan and Vader rush to their first duel, when any pacing strategy would tell you that they should only confront once in the whole show. Having sat through it, I feel like a fish that was caught and thrown back. Even after presenting the show as a single contained series, the producers still suggested that a second season was possible if the demand was high. In other words, they haven’t thought of a dramatic reason to continue it yet – it’s our job to give them monetary incentive to come up with one.
Star Wars has never been cheap, or complex, or niche entertainment. But it has always strived for beauty, has always been a victim of the simple pleasure of recognition, and is never more empowered than by the simplest stories of human kindness wrapped up in a giant mobile of visual ideas and the indulgences of concept artists. Obi-Wan Kenobi strives for none of these goals, even if The Mandalorian only achieved each of them partway. It’s as visually blatant as backlot footage, as dependent on recognition as a fisherman depends on his lure, and refuses to build any sequence more engaging or memorable than people slowly walking into an illogical situation before being saved “at the last minute” by screenwriters killing time to the next identical situation. That was every plot in Parts I-V. Part VI was Obi-Wan Kenobi, as they were actually thinking of it. The rest was an obligation. It's the fandom equivalent of income tax.
Image is a screenshot from the show: ©Disney
Cast & Crew
Stuart Beattie, Joby Harold, Andrew Stanton (story)
Joby Harold, Andrew Stanton, Hossein Amini (teleplay)
|Obi-Wan Kenobi||Ewan McGregor|
|Leia Organa||Vivien Lyra Blair|
|Reva Sevander||Moses Ingram|
|Grand Inquisitor||Rupert Friend|
|Owen Lars||Joel Edgerton|
|Bail Organa||Jimmy Smits|
|Haja Estree||Kumail Nanjiani|
|Fifth Brother||Sung Kang|
|Darth Vader||Hayden Christensen/James Earl Jones|
|Tala Durith||Indira Varma|