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From a certain point of view, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) might have had it right in Star Wars: The Last Jedi when he advised Rey (Daisy Ridley) to “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to become who you were meant to be.” But letting go has tended to be far easier said than done for Star Wars, which can’t seem to stop mining the gaps between its old stories for ideas for new ones.
Often, what it digs up feels, for better or for worse, like more of the same: explanations for things that didn’t need explaining, cameos by characters we’ve seen plenty of already, famous last names instead of new family trees. Yet there’s always the possibility of striking gold somewhere in all that sand — and while it’s too soon to say definitively what Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi is made of, its first two episodes give off a very promising shine.
Airdate: Friday, May 27 (Disney+)
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Moses Ingram, Joel Edgerton, Bonnie Piesse, Kumail Nanjiani, Indira Varma, Rupert Friend, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Sung Kang, Simone Kessell, Benny Safdie
Executive producers: Deborah Chow, Kathleen Kennedy, Michelle Rejwan, Ewan McGregor, Joby Harold
Set ten years after the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (don’t worry, there’s a “previously on”), Obi-Wan Kenobi finds Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) insisting he’s no longer the Obi-Wan Kenobi others remember anymore. And he seems to mean it, even if he’s still haunted in his dreams by montages from the prequels. Where the Jedi knight once defined himself through righteous valor, “Ben” stands meekly by in the face of injustice, shrinks from the Inquisitors hunting down what few illegal Jedi remain, and rejects pleas for help from other Jedi in hiding with a curt “The fight is done. We lost.”
In maybe the sharpest illustration of what his life has become, the first episode (confidently directed by showrunner and The Mandalorian vet Deborah Chow) follows him to his monotonous factory job on Tatooine not once, not twice, but three times. At the end of each day, he boards a crowded bus back to his empty cave, where he makes single-portion stews to eat while staring at the distance, in a more depressed echo of Rey’s routine on Jakku. From time to time, he’ll wander over to keep a distant eye on Luke (Grant Feely), at this point a carefree kid who knows nothing of his tempestuous family background.
But the Inquisitors know better than perhaps even he does that, as they put it, “The Jedi code is like an itch. He cannot help it.” When push comes to shove near the end of the first episode, Obi-Wan ultimately finds himself unable to resist the temptation to do the right thing, and sets out on a rescue mission that puts him on a collision course with the history he’s tried so desperately to bury.
Obi-Wan Kenobi shares with all other Star Wars stories a taste for creating new worlds, and does a better job of it than many. Obi-Wan’s quest first takes him to Daiyu, a planet that seems to have modeled itself after the neon-drenched grime of Blade Runner. Lined with veteran Stormtroopers panhandling for credits and lost adolescents pushing drugs (or “spice,” in the show’s TV-14 parlance), it’s as convincingly seedy as the Star Wars universe has ever gotten, albeit with alleyways that look one power wash away from being incorporated into Disney’s theme parks. Still, it represents pointed contrast from another scene set at a sleek cocktail party where the moneyed elite brag about their growing profits and wave off concerns about slave labor.
Likewise, Obi-Wan’s innate sense of decency gets a foil in Reva a.k.a. the Third Sister (Moses Ingram). Appearing in the series before even he does, Reva makes a strong impression as not only a Sith Inquisitor but one made more ruthless and callous than her colleagues by a fury so icy it burns. Her dogged pursuit of Obi-Wan has a personal edge that hints at plot twists to be revealed later — but more interesting right now is the way both characters seem unable to move on from old wounds, no matter how firmly others might insist they need to.
Tonally, Obi-Wan Kenobi falls closest to the ground-level grit of Rogue One. Here as in there, hope and despair wrestle for air inside a hero who struggles to see himself as such. The tension infuses the series with more drive than the episodic ambling of The Mandalorian and more weight than the breathless plot-spinning of Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. With six episodes of space to sprawl out in and the patience to let emotional beats play out organically, the series has the potential to serve up one of the more complex character studies ever seen in the franchise.
At least, if it can keep from getting bogged down in the franchise’s increasingly insular mythology. The one jarringly false note in Obi-Wan Kenobi‘s early episodes comes from the inclusion of a certain legacy character. (I won’t name names, but spoilers should be easy enough to Google — and no, I’m not talking about Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker, who’s barely in it so far.) Given the opportunity to expand our understanding of the character by letting them grow into their own, Obi-Wan Kenobi instead lets its reverence for the past cloud its vision for the present, and boxes them into the expected, fan-pleasing notes.
Thankfully, it’s a misstep the series avoids with its title character. Above all, Obi-Wan Kenobi works because its protagonist does. McGregor, a consistent highlight of the prequel trilogy, is as every bit as good if not better here. He still bears traces of the swagger that Obi-Wan had in his younger days, and the dry sense of humor. (“If you’re gonna steal my parts and then sell them back to me, at least have the decency to clean them,” he says wryly to a Jawa junk dealer.) But the older Obi-Wan has a haunted look in his eye and an invisible burden pressing down his shoulders. He really has changed, even if McGregor’s face is as familiar as ever.
“You’re not a Jedi anymore, Kenobi,” a henchman sneers at one point after backing him into a corner. “You’re just a man.” Whether the first part of that statement is true is for Obi-Wan to work out as he picks up his old lightsaber and tries to commune with the ghosts of his past. In the meantime, Obi-Wan Kenobi makes the case that he’s a man who’s earned our attention not because of who he once was or who he’ll become, but because of who he is right now.
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