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I had to do one thing after I finished the third episode of Disney+’s latest franchise-expanding (padding?) series Obi-Wan Kenobi. I hit play on Star Wars, the groundbreaking and Oscar-winning 1977 film that started it all. Don’t worry, I didn’t watch thew whole thing. I was just curious to replay the one moment when Obi-Wan (played then by Alec Guinness) finally comes face to face with Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones). In my head, that moment has always suggested that the elder Jedi and his once young and promising Padawan hadn’t met since a fateful fight that had finally torn them asunder, one audiences finally saw on the big screen in the fiery finale for 2005’s Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith.
In any case, I wanted to hear once again the line Vader spews at his old mentor: “Obi-Wan, we meet again at last,” he says. “The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but a learner. Now I am the master.” Even in that first film (“Chapter IV” in the saga), you got the sense this confrontation was decades in the making, that there was a festering sense of resentment that had grown over the years and hadn’t ever been allowed to bloom in each other’s presence. Obi-Wan Kenobi, of course, seemingly retcons this. Or merely allows Vader’s line to be slightly less constricting; I guess he could have been suggesting they’d been tracing that circle intermittently for years. Namely: they had met again after their volcanic row. Maybe in some mining planet where, by sheer chance, a kidnapped Leia was also involved.
If I got stuck on that line from the OG film while watching Obi-Wan (played now by Ewan McGregor) fighting off Darth Vader (in characteristic Frankenstein manner, played by Hayden Christensen and voiced still by James Earl Jones), it is because I felt like I was having a dreary kind of deja vu. Had we not seen these two already come head to head in similar manner? Not just in A New Hope (where Obi-Wan remained stoic but determined) but in Revenge Of The Sith (where flames played just as central a visual role). Then I remembered that, in many ways, that moment between the two, recycled and remixed and retconned (maybe) as it was, felt in keeping with the spirit of these latest Lucasfilm spinoffs. What else do they offer other than glimmers of known storylines twisted just ever so slightly so as to suggest a vast galaxy that remains, in fact, quite limited in scope?
Because, let’s face it, this episode had arguably the most quintessential Star Wars plot imaginable: How do we get off this planet?
Obi-Wan and young Leia may have been able to arrive at Mapuzo after escaping Reva (Moses Ingram, continuing to find ways to shade Third Sister’s relentless fixation on Obi-Wan into an engrossing characterization), but now they must find a way to get smuggled out by a willing pilot. This includes a scene in which Obi-Wan must confound Stormtroopers looking for him. Sound familiar? Of course it does. So much so that I worried we’d get something silly like a glimpse or a mention of a young Han Solo that would serve as nothing more than an entertaining Easter egg. Thankfully, we were spared. Instead, we got yet another story about needing to misdirect the Empire (and Darth Vader himself!) so as to guarantee safe passage elsewhere, this time with the help of an Empire defector, Imperial captain (Indira Varma).
If I’m being overly harsh on the episode’s plot, it’s because it felt stitched together from known Star Wars tropes, something I’d hoped Obi-Wan Kenobi could wisely avoid. Then again, once I saw that its central narrative was going to revolve around young Leia and involve Darth Vader, I knew any probing character study of a Jedi in exile coping with how to build a life would always be watered down. That is, I expected the sort of moments that would be in those novelized paperback stories that helped expand the Star Wars world only to feel expendable except to diehard fans who relished just living in that universe.
Which is not to say there weren’t any moments worth relishing: The quiet ones between McGregor and Blair as their characters bond over their shared sense of being orphans offered something new about the life of a Jedi that’s seldom explored—and may give us hints as to why the series opened with a scene of young Padawans needing to fend for themselves!
It makes sense that Obi-Wan Kenobi would force its central character to yet again risk losing a young child to the Dark Side. If we are to revisit him in the trappings of a Disney+ series and bring back the always magnetic McGregor, who here manages to play broken resilience with beguiling ease, we might as well twist the knife of the mistakes he knows he’s made and we know he fears he’ll make again.
Whether the show can finally let go of what was and become something if not entirely new then entirely more engrossing is yet to be determined. There’s only so many cat-and-mouse episodes we can watch before hoping we’ll be shown a story taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away that maybe we haven’t yet seen before.
Honestly, I kind of miss Obi-Wan’s stealth outfits. Sure, his Jedi wardrobe is fine, but there was something about seeing Ewan in very stylish “I’m a lowly worker, but make it fashion” attire that intrigued me. Now we just get him in his signature cape.
All my quibbles aside, we have to admit that Darth Vader’s breathing is one of the most iconic sound effects in late twentieth-century cinema, yes? Hearing it again, with its mix of menace and vulnerability, was a treat, even if I remain baffled by Christensen’s choice to let himself be swallowed in that costume while letting Jones mostly calibrate his performance. But maybe there’s a payoff in later episodes for that bit of (arguable) stunt casting?
How much is the focus on Leia here a way to make up for the way Rise Of Skywalker had to jettison what was rumored to be a heavily Carrie Fisher-centric episode? (To her credit, young Vivien Lyra Blair is perfectly cast, giving you a sense of the quippy, no-nonsense “princess” Leia will grow up to become).
“What have you become?” “I am what you made me.” Sometimes all I need is deliciously campy dialogue delivered earnestly to really feel like I’m in the middle of the Skywalker saga.