The Mel Brooks spoof Spaceballs is not an especially exacting parody of Star Wars. There are certain elements Brooks travesties with glee, but as funny as the movie is, it’s clearly been made by people who are more casually amused by the original trilogy than meticulously obsessed with satirizing its details. Yet the movie is prescient about one aspect of Star Wars movies that had not yet been produced back in 1987: Underneath the gleaming, menacing dark helmet is a whiny, insecure human being — whether it’s Rick Moranis or Hayden Christensen.
Gleaming, menacing helmets have become a major part of the Star Wars iconography, to the point where they’ve come to symbolize a kind of originalist traditionalism in the series. If certain fans bristled (or, less charitably, fussed like babies) over the abundance of CG menageries in the prequels or the human messiness (and diversity) of the sequels, the series could always return to the helmets, whether through narrative (Kylo Ren performing a hasty, “cool” repair job on his imitation Vader headwear in The Rise of Skywalker) or lucrative ancillaries (check out just how much non-Grogu Star Wars merchandise revolves around showcasing endless helmets rather than actual faces).
It’s probably no accident that the first two live-action Star Wars TV shows deal explicitly with characters who spend time in cool helmets; The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett each doubled as savvy marketing and meta experimentation. The Mandalorian tried to wring emotion out of scenes that often played out between a puppet and a character whose face was fully obscured by a cool helmet (and by most fans’ standards, succeeded wildly). Boba Fett took the opposite approach, trying to figure out who this character known for his headgear really was underneath. Compared to its predecessors, the Obi-Wan Kenobi series represents a major departure: Its lead character is exposed and actor-specific in a way that Mando and Boba are not. This is underlined by the fact that, minute for minute, it’s probably the most human-heavy Star Wars undertaking yet; its lead droid is a child’s plaything, and the nearly hourlong finale, “Part VI,” features all of about two alien creatures onscreen.
At the same time, Kenobi is similarly driven by in-world questions about people lurking underneath their menacing helmets as well as some meta questions about acting: How do you find Anakin (or Hayden Christensen) underneath Darth Vader (or a costume, various stuntmen, and a very famous, now digitally assisted voice)? And can you? Should you?
Obi-Wan never explicitly states “finding” Anakin as his goal in confronting Vader again. It’s supposed to be more practical. As the entertaining and satisfying “Part VI” opens, the Empire is hot on the heels of the transport carrying various Force-adjacent refugees, and while Roken (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) tries to keep hope alive among his passengers, he quietly confides to Obi-Wan that they’re basically screwed. At the same time, he takes the mildly incoherent position that Obi-Wan should not, in fact, break off from the group to lead Vader away, insisting that there must be a way for everyone to stick together. He then intuits that Obi-Wan isn’t really doing this to save everyone (even though it probably will?) but because he “wants” to. (Doesn’t he also … want to save everyone?) Okay, fine, you want to make it clear that Obi-Wan is actually ready to stop avoiding the big Darth, but boy, it would have been cool if Roken felt like an actual character and not just the person who spouts off contradictory assertions to gin up nominal conflict.
Obi-Wan’s dilemma is intercut with a whole other thread, where an injured (but don’t worry, only fully run-through with a laser-sword!) Reva heads to Tatooine to menace the Lars family homestead and, she hopes, kill Luke Skywalker as revenge against Anakin. This sequence has a cool western-siege aspect, as Owen (Joel Edgerton) and Beru (Bonnie Maree Piesse) fight off this attacker and attempt to protect young Luke. Reva as a desperate, wounded (emotionally and physically!) outlaw gives Moses Ingram more interesting notes to play than her more strained attempts at intimidation.
As Reva closes in on the Lars family, Obi-Wan takes a smaller ship down to a rocky, seemingly uninhabited planet, and, sure enough, Vader follows. (It seems like Vader would have the resources to pursue Obi-Wan while sending the rest of the Empire after the others, but never mind.) Here is the actual lightsaber battle, that “rematch of the century” that can’t really hope to live up to the operatic intensity of characters battling it out on an erupting lava planet. But there is a neat progression in having Obi-Wan and ex-Anakin’s second years-later duel take place on a bunch of jagged old rocks (what lava hardens into).
Appropriately, the chatter between Obi-Wan and his former pupil has hardened, too; not much finger-pointing this time around, just the bad guy splitting the difference between Vader’s grandiosity and Anakin’s petulance. (“The weakness still remains … which is why you will always lose!” isn’t worlds away from Darth Helmet’s “Evil will always triumph over good … because good is dumb.”) As directed by Deborah Chow, the fight feels like it has its own visual identity, using her favored (and, let’s be frank, probably cost-effective) lightsabers-as-lanterns technique and the landscape’s roughness to stage something scrappier and less elegant than the Revenge of the Sith face-off. Vader buries Obi-Wan in rocks, sarcastically calls him “master” (classic Anakin!), and stalks off.
In a bittersweet touch, it’s thoughts of Vader’s own kids that summon the Force that Obi-Wan needs to — in the parlance of The Last Jedi — lift some rocks and resume his battle with Vader (and then lift some more rocks). Obi-Wan seems to be summoning the strength needed to finish the Sith Lord off and does succeed in ripping open the fearsome Vader façade, allowing Hayden Christensen to peek through the iconic outfit. For a few minutes, the show, too, gets to pierce through all of that heavy helmet iconography and look for a human who might be able to meet Obi-Wan’s gaze.
It’s one of the most potent images of this series, and maybe the best scene of Star Wars TV so far, as Obi-Wan is overcome with remorse at the glimpse of his old friend: “I’m sorry, Anakin. For all of it.” Vader, his trademark voice box buzzing on and off, mixing Christensen’s voice with the James Earl Jones augmentation, whether intentionally or not, offers absolution through a kind of prideful boast: “I am not your failure, Obi-Wan. You didn’t kill Anakin Skywalker. I did.” On a show that has sometimes offered clunky dialogue without the ol’ George Lucas quirk, this exchange stands out, though it’s at least as much McGregor and Christensen’s delivery as it is the writing. That’s doubly true of Obi-Wan’s crushing rejection of Vader’s vow for revenge: “Good-bye,” he says, before adding an uneasy “Darth.” Obi-Wan has never really talked about attempting to bring Anakin back from the dark side; the futile hope and subsequent sad reality of the situation are all allowed to live in McGregor’s performance.
In some ways, this confrontation is a continuity loop-closer. But it’s remarkable for how much genuine emotion the show fits into a scene that’s also concisely matching up a bunch of A New Hope material that didn’t always appear to square with the prequels or this miniseries: Obi-Wan telling Luke that Vader killed Anakin (now that “certain point of view” is retconned to be Anakin’s!), Obi-Wan calling Vader “Darth” rather than “Anakin” during their final confrontation, and his refusal to appeal to Anakin’s better nature. It should be fussy nerd stuff; instead, like the best moments of Revenge of the Sith, it makes puzzle-piece assembly look downright elegant and imbued with regret.
There’s a bit more of this matching game later in the episode, as Obi-Wan agrees to take a more hands-off “here if you need me” approach to his watching over Luke, tacitly explaining why a teenage Luke is familiar with “crazy old Ben” rather than “the cool lightsaber-wielding guy who’s always watching our backs.” It helps Obi-Wan’s case that he’s not the one who saves Luke from Reva, who knocks him down from an embankment and approaches his unconscious body, ready to strike. Like Obi-Wan, Reva has some montage-y kid flashbacks, here of her own traumatic experience during the execution of Order 66, and cannot bring herself to stoop to Anakin’s level, despite her Anakin-esque hood. Obi-Wan arrives in time to find Reva bringing Luke back to Owen and Beru and comforts her as she cries over her fallen Padawan family: “You haven’t failed them by showing mercy … you have honored them.” (He restrains himself from saying, “You want to go home and rethink your life.”)
So Reva is freed from her maniacal quest. Vader is dissuaded from a relentless pursuit of Obi-Wan by the Emperor. Leia returns home and no longer feels shackled to royal traditions. And Obi-Wan is released from his self-flagellating loneliness, even if some residual Anakin guilt probably remains. Obi-Wan Kenobi started out feeling like a sequel to a prequel; it ended up feeling like a prequel to itself. A second season has not yet been announced, but it would present the perfect opportunity for Star Wars to keep those shiny helmets off and allow its hardworking star even more freedom to explore who he is outside of Darth Vader’s orbit.
Notes From the High Ground
• I found it pretty strange when Obi-Wan said to Reva, “Who you become now is up to you, and also this week’s Disney+ streaming numbers.”
• The petty question that always lingers with me when a cinematic event or character makes the jump to TV is this: Did this need to be a series? I regret to say that while Kenobi mastered episodic structure better than some of its Star Wars–Marvel brethren, it often felt like it was imposing that structure upon a story that could have been told more cleanly and effectively as a 140-minute feature with the budget for a couple of great set pieces to replace some of the dimly lit skulk pieces. Ultimately, it seems like the box office failure of Solo didn’t inspire a major rethinking of the Kenobi project beyond “maybe this should be on TV instead.”
• So even more than O’Shea Jackson Jr., Maya Erskine really didn’t have a character to play. Maybe she’ll pop up in the Andor series; in the meantime, she can take consolation in being immortalized as a tiny action figure!
• Obi-Wan’s acceptance that he can live some kind of life of his own triggers the cameo, er, materialization of Force Ghost Qui-Gon Jin, played (however briefly) by the incomparable Liam Neeson. It’s noted here, rather than in the body of the recap, because it feels more like fan service than a real payoff to Obi-Wan’s attempts to contact his master (great to see him again, though).
• Watto Watch: The night before I watched the finale, I literally had multiple dreams about Watto appearing in “Part VI.” (Enjoy that peek through the window to my madness.) When I awoke and watched the episode, there was no Watto. There was no Dexter Jettster, either, nor Sebulba, or any established alien characters that would require substantial CG (or detailed puppetry). Was this a bold stance against fan-service pandering? I’m going to say no because the show was one Natalie Portman away from a full-on prequel reunion party — humans only, though! I understand that the funky-alien-diner vibe was ultimately not the goal of this relatively somber character piece, but if Obi-Wan pulls a classic prestige TV and does follow up its “limited series” with a second season, I dearly hope it will leave room for some more Lucas-style whimsy.