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Review: Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Part I” and “Part II”
A much-anticipated inevitability of Disney’s mining of Star Wars finally arrives as a TV series…of sorts
[Editor’s Note: If you’re getting this email and have not yet watched the first two episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, I recommend you do before reading, as there are some details of the premise that were kept out of trailers and that you may want to experience first hand]
From the time that Disney purchased Lucasfilm and entered Star Wars into an era of intellectual property exploitation, it felt inevitable that Evan MacGregor would return to the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Beyond the fact that MacGregor was well-liked in the role, It’s probably the cleanest “gap” to fill in the existing canon: we know who he was, we know who he becomes, and there’s rich material to be mined in the era in between.
Of course, after the creative crisis in the film side of the franchise and the arrival of Disney+ pushed Lucasfilm into television, the form of Obi-Wan changed: there’s no question we were getting a feature film version of this chapter of his life before Solo’s box office failure. And I can’t help but wonder what that movie would have been like watching the television version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, which released its first act early after its premiere at Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim.
I’m realizing writing this that I’ve never actually written anything about the Star Wars series to date, which seems strange. The short version is that I am a “Special Edition re-release” Star Wars fan, insofar as my relationship to the series was defined by the theatrical releases of the original trilogy in the buildup to the arrival of the prequels. It’s that perfect age where the toys/movies existed in my world as a smaller child (we had the Endor playset) but I ended up coming to the franchise at a slightly older age, where the prequels were met with a still excited but nonetheless more discerning gaze. This is all to say that while I lived the hype of Phantom Menace earnestly, my experience with the prequels was an education in confronting the ebbs and flows of franchise filmmaking from a critical perspective.
It’s interesting, then, to see how Obi-Wan Kenobi frames the prequels as legacy. The “Previously On” sequence that summarizes Obi-Wan’s story to date is fascinating, insofar as it’s completely incomplete: there’s none of the canonical pieces of the animated series, for example, and there’s no effort to situate the story in relation to Alec Guinness’ portrayal in A New Hope. That latter decision makes sense, insofar as a “Previously On” is mostly about ensuring plot points are understood by a forgetful or ignorant audience, but the former doesn’t. Does this mean that this story is uninterested in all of the gaps in his story that The Clone Wars and Rebels already filled in?
In some ways, this is a relief, because I never got to the animated series and would be mildly lost if they dug too deep into that part of his life. But there’s also something about the way Obi-Wan conceptualizes the past that echoed some of the issues I’ve had as The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett have resurrected Luke as a character. At one point, Bail Organa tells Obi-Wan to stop dwelling on the past and move on: they all made mistakes, and he can’t escape who he is just so he doesn’t have to dwell on what Anakin did more than he already does in his dreams. But Obi-Wan also can’t escape that same past, because its choice of how to fill in this gap in Obi-Wan’s life immediately turns into The Young Leia show (which was a surprise), and these first two episodes build to the reveal that this is also about Anakin’s earlier years as Darth Vader (which casting had revealed).
I don’t register this as a complaint, per se. As someone who cares about Star Wars, watching Leia channeling her mother’s energy unknowingly creates that warm feeling of recognition, and I do think it’s powerful to see the very moment when Obi-Wan realizes that the man he thought he killed is still alive. MacGregor remains a magnetic presence even in an attempt to slink into the background, while Vivian Lyra Blair captures an essence of Leia in a way that works even if the writing can’t entirely decide how to balance her wisdom with her tempestuousness.
But there’s something about these nostalgia delivery systems that ends up feeling hollow. The introduction of the Inquisitors is compelling, but Moses Ingram’s Reva feels less like a lived part of this world and more like a plot device, a conduit to get us to the Vader reveal that makes her own arc seem perfunctory rather than meaningful. The Grand Inquisitor’s “gutter” remark is followed through on when she kills him, but this never feels like her story, because we know so strongly whose story it is with Obi-Wan and Leia front and center.
Switching to television creates this problem. We’re watching a medium where characters can be expanded, and where B-stories and C-stories can be used to flesh out a supporting cast and complete important world building. However, these stories remain in an A-story mode, which creates a natural propulsion from a story perspective but resists that type of growth of the story or its characters. If this had been a 45-minute first act to a movie, some parts might have had to move a bit faster, but the story basically would have had the same level of depth, and that’s always in the back of my mind as we move away from The Mandalorian’s embrace of episodic television in favor of projects extended out into longer, segmented formats because this is where Disney’s priority is.
Many critics have complained about claims that TV shows are “long movies,” and I’m mostly with them: it’s often said because the people making a show don’t want to acknowledge the medium of television, and cling to “cinema” as a form of legitimacy. But while MacGregor’s comments about this being “a long movie” didn’t get into much nuance, Obi-Wan Kenobi is definitely straddling that line. There’s a clear “break” between the first and second episodes, but it functions more like a commercial break within an episode than anything else, and the Anakin reveal at the end of the second episode is a similar cliffhanger that creates the anticipation needed for us to return.
And, while that’s definitely inspired by the way we watch and experience television, the actual storytelling isn’t taking full advantage of that. But again, I don’t present this as a rejection of the choice to make this a television experience: although it’s not really interested in being a TV show, there is a thrill to experience this in a weekly context, and having the anticipation build alongside conversations like the ones we’ll be having here, or on social media. I think it’s unfortunate that after the initial success of The Mandalorian the Star Wars TV shows have been uninterested in trying to create an actual TV show (see also: the MCU), but I also feel the thrill of experiencing the steady drip of new Star Wars content in real time.
As such, the jury remains out on how Obi-Wan Kenobi coheres into a television story, but as a cultural event, it delivers on a character we care about, a performance that has stood the test of time, and a world that Disney has proven can be mined successfully in this format. And I’m interested in how others are connecting with it, and how our discussions about it will evolve and diverge as we dig deeper into the characters and the new adventure for Obi-Wan and Leia coming to life over the next few weeks.
Okay, everything about the chase scenes in this show drove me crazy. The simple truth is that Blair is way too tiny to outrun any of those people, and nothing about the spatiality of Obi-Wan chasing her made a lick of sense either.
Along similar lines, the way Obi-Wan hid out and escaped to get through the necessary exposition in the cargo port rang false. I get that they’re delaying a proper encounter and lightsaber battle, but the slinking around just felt hollow.
Young Leia enters a long lineage of “precocious children paired with emotionally closed off men,” and while I do think the writing is a bit erratic in terms of her levels of self-awareness and self-preservation, I appreciated the energy overall.
I know I give off the energy that I’m a bit resistant to every Star Wars story reverting back to existing characters, but putting Jar Jar in the “Previously On” and not delivering an update on Jar Jar would be evil. #JusticeForJarJar
There’s more to discuss, but we’ll need to do that in the comments, because I’m on vacation and only the early release and a completely messed up sleep schedule gave me the time to write this at all. Looking forward to discussing with paid subscribers in the weeks ahead (and, later, copy-editing this more because it’s too annoying on an iPad).