Is this the vindication prequel fans have been looking for? For years, George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel trilogy has been subjected to derision, cast as the disappointing embarrassments of a lifetime. Yet through a combination of younger fans who grew up on these films and a general thirst for big-canvas fantasy movies with evidence of someone’s, anyone’s, personal sensibility, the trilogy has begun something of a reputational turnaround in recent years. (Of course, any presumed “universal” hatred of movies that grossed an average of $800 million worldwide is bound to be exaggerated, especially on the internet.)
When Disney first bought Lucasfilm, it seemed clear that they intended to bring the series back to the original-trilogy iconography: same old hero’s journey, same old “scrappy rebels versus monolithic bad guys” dynamic, same old helmets. Yet skittishness eventually seemed to wane, at least slightly: There were hints of prequelisms in the sequel trilogy (whoa, did Luke Skywalker actually say “Darth Sidious”?!) and, especially, the subsequent two live-action TV series, what with all the pit droids running around, the Naboo starfighter getting a pimped-out makeover, the Clone Wars cartoon characters made flesh. But, hello there: Obi-Wan Kenobi is a whole other world of prequel affirmation, bringing back trilogy MVP Ewan McGregor and a number of other prequel actors to star in what is, essentially, a sidelong sequel to Revenge of the Sith.
The connection is made explicit from the very first scene of Obi-Wan, which might as well be a particularly elegant deleted scene from Sith. Full-series director Deborah Chow (who helmed two episodes of The Mandalorian, among other big-name TV projects) opens with a previously unseen sequence of clone troopers attacking a Jedi and her youngling students. The Jedi falls, but the younglings survive, at least for the moment. (And given the prominent position of the scene, it’s safe to assume at least one of them survives longer than that.) Channeling the bustling-yet-painterly style of the prequels, Chow offers some of the show’s strongest visual flourishes right off the bat: the glow of lightsabers illuminating the characters as their desperate fight-slash-flight is depicted in a pair of longish takes.
Though Obi-Wan himself isn’t there for the flashback, it’s a scene that’s spiritually akin to his tapestry of presumably regular nightmares — a montage of which includes, somewhat hilariously, a shot of Anakin dive-bombing their stolen speeder in Attack of the Clones amid more directly destructive prequel incidents. (The filmmakers were probably aiming for a jumble of imagery showing both their brotherly closeness and tragic outcomes, but I like to imagine Obi-Wan still wakes up in a cold sweat over Anakin’s reckless, sick-making pilot moves. Now this is podracing!) The show picks up with Kenobi after a decade lurking in the Tatooine desert, watching over a young Luke Skywalker, just as Yoda asked him to during the final moments of Sith. (When 900 years old you reach, delegate the babysitting you can.) McGregor was already sporting a fine beard in the last two prequels, teeing up a resemblance to OG Obi-Wan Alec Guinness, which means he’s already following an iron-clad rule of long-gap sequels: The hero must be rejoined sporting some measure of facial hair. During his time on Tatooine, Obi-Wan has also secured employment at a makeshift desert meat-packing station, converting a giant fallen beast into manageable steak-like units. He works there unobtrusively, speaking to no one, trying his best not to leave a “trail of compassion” in his wake, though a local Jawa gives the impression that he has left an actual stench.
Other stray Jedi are not so discreet. Take Nari, for example, the excitable young lightsaber-wielder played by Uncut Gems filmmaker Benny Safdie: He’s mostly there to serve as a cautionary tale as he’s ferreted out by the Grand Inquisitor (Rupert Friend) and his Jedi-hunting team, including the mysterious Reva (Moses Ingram), who takes her job very seriously. The Grand Inquisitor obviously enjoys speechifying to the citizens of Tatooine — he’s the one who coins the line about tracking a Jedi’s “trail of compassion” — while Reva has her sights set specifically on terrorizing her way toward Obi-Wan for reasons that are as yet unclear but thoroughly irritate her bosses.
Reva is an intriguing character, though in this episode Ingram’s performance is missing something; is she too likable to play a more driven, trigger-happy outsider Inquisitor? Whatever it is, Reva doesn’t register as especially scary, unhinged, or even that obsessive; she’s like a henchwoman with mild delusions of grandeur. She’s clearly being positioned as an antagonist with a more personal interest in Kenobi (and less clearly but very possibly may be one of those flashback younglings, all grown up). But at the moment, this detail feels more written than embodied in the performance.
McGregor’s Obi-Wan has more breathing room, and the first chapter of his new story excels when it accumulates silent details and small interactions from his lonely routine. For the first stretch of the episode, he doesn’t speak much, and his desert isolation, complete with gunky quick-rising food mix that still manages to look weirdly appetizing, recalls Rey at the beginning of The Force Awakens — a retroactive parallel that makes some details of the former feel slightly less like a pure nostalgia exercise. For all of the unnecessary fan service and callbacks that Star Wars has trafficked in more or less since it was first sequelized, the series at its best can be cleverly recursive, with new connections forming patterns both expected and not.
Case in point: The series veers away from the expected unseen mentorship of Obi-Wan to young Luke, who’s glimpsed only from a distance and thankfully not played by a shrunken and de-aged Mark Hamill Actobot 3000. Instead, it looks toward Alderaan, where a 10-year-old Princess Leia (Vivien Lyra Blair) is already rebelling against her adopted parents, complete with her own sidekick droid, a nonspeaking Batteries Not Included–looking contraption called Lola. She’s soon kidnapped and taken off-planet for the first time in what turns out to be an attempt to lure Obi-Wan out of hiding.
Though the force ghost of Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn does not appear — it’s left ambiguous as to how successful Obi-Wan has been in his attempts to commune with his old master, but we are to assume not very — Kenobi could really use his advice here because Princess Leia basically just got Taken’d. So the show has its mission, or at least its initial one: By episode’s end, Obi-Wan will be convinced to leave his post guarding one of Anakin’s children so that he might help the other. It’s a great hook, not least because it relents from the last two TV series’ Luke fixation.
If The Mandalorian sometimes erred on the side of self-conscious spareness and The Book of Boba Fett was more a playful feast of characters, creatures, and action than a well-organized and well-paced story, the first episode of Obi-Wan seems to try for a just-right mix of the two, merging the sense of isolation with a more clear narrative direction. Pacing-wise, it’s bang on. Despite being one of the longer episodes of Star Wars TV to date, this feels more like a complete (if obviously serialized) episode than much of Fett. And while none of these shows have really attempted to approximate George Lucas’s maximalism, Chow has a stronger command of quasi-western minimalism than Jon Favreau.
At the same time, this Kenobi episode, which is supposed to function as both a character study and a call to action, doesn’t quite reach the hero-in-spartan-exile gold standard of, say, James Mangold’s The Wolverine. The show can’t resist the urge to have characters say things like, “What happened to you? You were once a great Jedi.” In fact, when it comes time for Obi-Wan to reunite with familiar faces, like Luke’s Uncle Owen (Joel Edgerton) or Leia’s dad Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), the show actually becomes clunkier and less expressive. Rather than letting us feel our way through Obi-Wan’s loneliness and regret, his protectiveness of Luke and Leia coupled with his guilt over Anakin, the show has him more or less explain it back to us out loud. It plays a bit like a misguided lack of trust in Ewan McGregor, who gives one of the series’ most charismatic performances and can convey plenty with spare or sometimes downright silly dialogue. The explicitly stated conflicts and pleas aren’t necessary. Even for those of us who love the world of the prequels, McGregor is why we’re here. Hopefully the series will keep finding new worlds, literal and psychological, for him to explore.
Notes From the Higher Ground
• Obi-Wan tries Owen’s patience when he attempts to anonymously leave Luke what is essentially a model ship to play with. In other words, Obi-Wan tries to treat Luke by … giving him some Star Wars toys. Well played, Master Kenobi.
• One of the best parts of Attack of the Clones, a generally excellent and underrated film, is its unintentional audition for a Detective Obi-Wan solo project. It’s probably too much to hope that a saga-centric, legacy-character Star Wars series could ever allow real detective-style detours, but Obi-Wan tracking down a young Leia at least gets him back on a case (albeit one that’s a mystery only to him).
• Watto Watch: Yes, the problematic toydarian called Watto has more of a relationship with Anakin (whom he owned) and Qui-Gon (who left him broke) than Obi-Wan, but the fact is a series starting from Obi-Wan on Tatooine, set a mere decade after the prequel trilogy, is probably our best bet for catching a glimpse of Watto and his darling little metal hat. Sadly the first episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi lacks even a glimpse. But we’ll be watching for him anyway! It stings that Obi-Wan gets his stolen-from-himself junk from a stray Jawa, but it makes sense that he wouldn’t want contact with anyone who knows who he is.
• If Obi-Wan doesn’t consort with Dexter Jettster, we riot.
• When the Inquisitors demand to know why Reva has such a “fixation with Kenobi,” they could be talking to the prequel fans who hoped for years that McGregor could be enticed back into the role. Then again, let’s hope that future episodes lend themselves to thematic analysis outside the realm of Star Wars self-referentiality.