Why the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ Series Is a Star Wars Story That Deserves to Be Told
Updated: Jun 24, 2022
In a galaxy far, far away, there have been many intersecting stories in the never-ending space opera that is Star Wars. Here's why 'Obi-Wan Kenobi' is among its most deserving. [Spoilers]
Sequels, prequels and spinoffs have always had a love-hate relationship with their source material. On one hand, they come with the sand box already in place—as expansive as the deserts of Tatooine in Star Wars’ case—but they also stand in the shadow of their predecessors. In general, the best argument for mining the rich, vast universe first dreamed up by George Lucas is to tell another thrilling, heart-stirring and, yes, original story. In most cases, it makes more sense to let the audience fill in the blanks between franchise installments. Did we really need to see how C-3PO came into being in Episode I, as well as reconcile the preposterous coincidence it created? Or have to witness the actual “Kessel Run” in Solo? Such narrative fetishizing of the worlds and characters of Star Wars can have the opposite intention; rather than creating intrigue, they can demystify and disappoint. Less is often more, and what is deserving of a deeper exploration can be a challenging question—none of which is helped by the fact that many Star Wars fans pore over every frame of new media like it’s the Zapruder film. And though the Obi-Wan Kenobi series does its best to jibe with the events and dialogue to come in Episode IV and beyond, its more important mission seems to be one of character arc completion. And on that front, this life-long Star Wars fan will argue it succeeds in spades.
Consider where the prequel movies land us. While Episode III concludes with the fallout between Obi-Wan and his Padawan-turned-Sith, much of the emotional aftermath is understandably left to the imagination. And by the time we pick up again with Ben Kenobi in A New Hope, in spite of the horrors of the past, the man still possesses the confidence and fearlessness that he had as a youth, as well as a healthy relationship with the force—but what of the years in-between? Aside from Rebels, this Disney+ series is a rare window into that phase of Obi-Wan’s growth, and at the approximate halfway mark between Episodes III and IV. Naturally, his failure to stop Anakin’s turn to the dark side, coupled with the Order 66 carnage that wiped out nearly all his Jedi brothers and sisters, would have left some deep, lasting scars. One would expect a parabolic shape to Obi-Wan’s journey, from a thriving Master Jedi on one end to the seasoned warrior/guru who guides Luke Skywalker to his destiny on the other, but with a deep dive in the middle. Herein lies the truly fascinating missing piece of the emotional puzzle, and one that likely spurred some of the earliest discussions about a potential Obi-Wan series.
Indeed, the show does a great job of deconstructing the astute, compassionate, courageous hero we knew from the prequel films. Dressed now in darker, drab attire as he bides his time slicing meat for a hard-hearted local vendor, Obi-Wan is a shell of his former self. With the Imperial Inquisitors hunting down surviving Jedi all across the galaxy, he has buried his light sabers and taken refuge a comfortable distance from the Lars moisture farm, tasked with watching over 10-year-old Luke Skywalker. “What happened to you?” one of the few remaining Jedi (Nari) asks him in the pilot episode. From a story standpoint, the answer is that the Obi-Wan character has been taken to intriguing new depths, his lowest point in mind, body and soul ever to be portrayed by either McGregor or Guinness. What’s more—when Obi-Wan first learns the terrifying truth that Anakin is alive, we are treated to the first of many PTSD moments, culminating with a near panic attack when he senses Vader marching down the streets, snapping necks in his wake. Obi-Wan seems more disconnected from the force than ever, which shouldn’t be surprising. Star Wars mythology suggests that mastery of the force, like any muscle, takes time, practice and focus. That Obi-Wan’s desperate pleas to his late master Qui-Gon go unanswered is only further proof of this atrophying effect on him.
Until he is sent across the galaxy to rescue a precocious firecracker of a 10-year-old named Leia Organa—yes, that Leia. In a sweet homage to his later adventure in Episode IV, this quest aligns two of the most iconic characters in Star Wars folklore like never before, walking that narrow tight rope between canonical accuracy and the unexplored. Obi-Wan's growing bond with both her and “The Path” network conductors Tala Durith and Kawlan Roken, organizers of an Underground Railroad of sorts for fleeing Jedi, gradually refuels his empty soul, to the extent that he becomes a worthy adversary for Vader by the season finale in strength, valor and even swordsmanship. The series might be better titled How Obi-Wan Got His Groove Back.
Most importantly, he makes peace with his guilty conscience, owing (oddly enough) to Vader himself. “I am not your failure, Obi-Wan,” Vader admits. “You didn’t kill Anakin Skywalker. I did.” Not only does this admission cement the dichotomous understanding of Anakin/Vader that Obi-Wan will later impart to Luke, but it gives him an emotional out. If Anakin and Vader are not two sides of the same coin but rather two different entities, Obi-Wan is less of a failure than a victim of his true nemesis, the man who in parting he calls “Darth” (a fun Easter egg that supports his future dialogue with Vader in Episode IV).
Moreover, as a fitting button to his return to Jedihood, Obi-Wan nearly intercepts the “Third Sister” Reva before she does the unthinkable (and impossible, given what we know is to come): murdering young Luke Skywalker. Reva was previously a youngling who escaped the Order 66 attack on the Jedi Temple only to join the Empire in her secret quest for vengeance against Vader. And though she comes to Tatooine dead set on killing Luke, she discovers she can’t go through with it. In her tearful final monologue, however, Obi-Wan comforts her, letting her know that she can choose to be whatever she wants henceforth. The wise, evenhanded Jedi Master has come full circle. And as an added bonus, his reconnection with the force allows him to finally see the ghost of his old master Qui-Gon Jinn in the final moments of the finale. (Oh, and watching Luke’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru arm themselves to the teeth and battle ferociously to defend their surrogate son was both riveting and emotionally rousing too!)
And then, there’s Anakin’s redemption arc, which Vader’s confession codifies once and for all. Though the final stages of his transformation will happen years later in Return of the Jedi, the missing component, the actualization of Vader as a separate being, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, offers deeper illumination than ever about his evolution. And yet, as Anakin’s late wife Padmé observed in her dying words from Episode III, there is still good in him. Traces of Anakin exist in this Frankenstein, wonderfully externalized by the gaping hole in Vader’s helmet and the haunting mishmash of Hayden Christensen’s and James Earl Jones’ voices. An episode earlier, we were even treated to a memory duel between an aged-down Obi-Wan and Anakin in the whereabouts of Episode II and, all imperfectly smoothed out crow’s feet and frown lines aside, it was glorious!
In the end, a strong emotional response is one of the best indicators that a story is working. Recently, Return of the Jedi just happened to be airing on cable, and I found myself eager to study the Vader scenes after my experience watching Obi-Wan (or at least, the then five episodes that were available). As the movie was winding down to Luke looking gratefully over to the ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda and his father Anakin Skywalker (who was replaced with Hayden Christensen in 2004), I found myself choking up. Something about seeing Anakin restored to the young man he was before his life was utterly destroyed, pulled at my heartstrings like never before—and this is coming from a mostly original trilogy purist. Yes, there are many Special Edition and 2004 DVD additions and subtractions that rubbed me the wrong way. Replacing Sebastian Shaw with Hayden was one that had always kept me on the fence however. Now, I finally understand what Lucas was trying to do with that change. With the passage of time (the prequels are now oddly enough considered “classic” Star Wars) and introductions to other iterations of the franchise, he has succeeded in giving that moment added poignancy. He wanted us to feel the release of that tremendous emotional weight, the beautiful, cathartic transformation of a fallen soul back to the light again. And only Hayden’s smiling face could do it the justice it deserves in this day and age.
Whether or not there are any more worthy emotional beats to hit in the Obi-Wan saga remains to be seen. And while there will always be superfluous storylines in the Star Wars universe, as well as a fair share of plotholes and coincidences of convenience, some stories frankly deserve to be told, warts and all. This is one of them.
Thanks for reading! Agree or have a different opinion? Offer your thoughts in the comments section below.