In its third episode, the structure of Obi-Wan Kenobi becomes clearer. It seems like we’re getting one planet per episode, like a less laconic The Mandalorian, as Obi-Wan, Leia, Vader, and Reva hopscotch around the galaxy in various pursuits of each other. It’s an enjoyable galactic tour that adds some less familiar environments to a show that’s so far pretty dependent on legacy characters. But maybe it’s really the story of Obi-Wan trying and failing to find decent Force Ghost coverage: Everywhere he goes, he mutters pleas to Qui-Gon, searching for a signal, and gets no bars. It’s a very “legacy sequel” kind of tension, where the fun suspense over whether we might see a glowy Qui-Gon mingles with the more eye-rolling suspense over whether an unconfirmed Liam Neeson did, in fact, secure a deal to return. (Picture McGregor on the conference call trying to convince a TV-averse Neeson to come back: “You were right about one thing: The negotiations were short.”)
Later in the episode, the continually lost Obi-Wan has to settle for an all-purpose encouraging message from the similar-sounding Quinlan, who is involved with the Jedi-adjacent Underground Railroad–style transport network. This is Quinlan Vos, the type of prequel-era character that more movie-centric fans might need to DM their Clone Wars superfan friends to learn that he’s a Jedi who has appeared in ancillary stories both in and out of the official canon. Is Quinlan’s message (“Only when the eyes are closed can you truly see”) a thematic grace note for Obi-Wan’s desperation to reach his departed mentor, decorated with a little Easter egg bonus, or a full-on tease for yet another live-action debut for an animated Star Wars character? (Not counting an apparently retconned “appearance” from Quinlan in Phantom Menace, naturally.)
The more pressing question: Does Obi-Wan Kenobi really earn its Underground Railroad allusions? The third chapter of Kenobi’s story finds him mired in doubt, second-guessing the tip he received in the previous episode from fake Jedi Haja Estree. When he and Leia arrive in the mining system of Mapuzo and travel to the coordinates Haja supplied, finding what looks like an empty field, it takes Obi-Wan all of two minutes to give up hope and agree to Leia’s impulsive plan: hitch a ride to the nearest spaceport with Freck, a happily pro-fascist type voiced by Zach Braff, doing what I think we can all agree is a stunning, borderline disturbing impression of Seth Rogen. After a close call with some stormtroopers, Freck sells his passengers out to, uh, some other stormtroopers, who meet the business end of Obi-Wan’s blaster and a laser fence until the good guys are stopped in their tracks by, uh … even more stormtroopers. Those stormtroopers are then ambushed by Tala (Indira Varma), a rebel disguised as an imperial officer, who spirits Kenobi and Leia away to a hideout.
It is here that the audience may catch a glimpse of the Obi-Wan Kenobi writing process, which, based on the four names in the credits, seems like it involves the smoothing out of many drafts into something that basically makes enough sense but isn’t going to wow anyone with the quiet grace of its storytelling. (Did every draft’s “suddenly, stormtroopers arrive” moment somehow get incorporated into one episode?) The underground network of Jedi smuggling, though, is an interesting idea — a hidden trail of compassion that Obi-Wan, way out of the Jedi-business loop, hasn’t seen for himself until now. It also establishes an alternate path to the one chosen by aspiring Grand Inquisitor Reva — assuming she’s a former Jedi youngling, which still seems like a safe bet.
As Obi-Wan and Leia look for their escape, Reva has a status meeting with her boss Darth Vader, who confirms she’s in line for the big promotion (and/or getting murdered if she fails). Given Reva’s drive to bring Obi-Wan to Vader, it’s a little surprising to see the latter just roll up to Mapuzo himself (classic Sith micromanaging!) It seems to catch the characters — and possibly even the showmakers — off-guard because it results in an awkwardly staged low-speed foot chase until Kenobi reluctantly hits that lightsaber “on” button and halfheartedly defends himself against Vader’s attack; rare and unusual to see a lightsaber duel where one participant feels like he’s given up from the jump.
By design, this is not the rematch of the century. In fact, it very much feels like something included at around the series’ halfway mark to sate the Vader fanboys whose favorite Star Wars scene of the past 40 years is him owning dudes in that Rogue One hallway. Still, any excuse for evocative visuals; Deborah Chow really is fond of lightsaber lighting, and Vader engineering his own pit of fire in which to toss his former master is a pretty sadistic touch (in that it is both sadistic and, yes, kind of pretty, in a grim sort of way). Vader further tortures his former father-slash-brother figure with a bunch of hackneyed bullshit out of a second-tier mid-2000s superhero movie: “I am what you made me” and “You should have killed me when you had the chance.” James Earl Jones returns for this? Obi-Wan is granted a temporary reprieve from both overcooked skin and undercooked writing when Tala shows up to save him. But to do so, she has to leave Leia on her own, which sends her into Reva’s clutches.
It’s not a bad episode-ending cliffhanger, and in general, Obi-Wan Kenobi makes the best of its dubious “really one long movie” approach to serialization; the episodes flow into each other without feeling arbitrarily chopped up, the planet tour giving them a clear shape that was certainly lacking from The Book of Boba Fett. But as to the earlier question of whether the show really earns those historical allusions … I’m not so sure yet. As entertaining as it can be, Obi-Wan Kenobi, at the halfway mark of its six-episode season, feels a little like a show in search of the resonance beyond its keep-away plotting, much like Kenobi’s so-far fruitless search for Force Ghost Qui-Gon. Ewan McGregor’s clipped, charismatic weariness can only provide so much gravity — and certainly doesn’t have much opportunity to engage with his sneaky sense of humor. So far, we haven’t seen Kenobi need to do much thinking on his feet, either; the decisions of Leia or stormtroopers or other characters keep happening to him. In other words, he needs to spend a little more time with his eyes closed.
Notes From the Higher Ground
• After another lingering reference to Padmé (albeit in a hastily composed cover story given to Freck and the stormtroopers), Leia intuits that Obi-Wan did, in fact, know her birth mom and asks if he’s her bio-dad. The tenderness with which McGregor answers in the negative is lovely. I do fear for the logistical balancing act of having to generally match original-trilogy continuity by keeping Leia and Vader unaware of each other’s familial connections. I’ll try to keep my concentration in the here and now, where it belongs.
• In the “fan service is fine, as long as I’m the fan” department: This episode features a tantalizing glimpse at Vader’s castle on Mustafar, also seen in Rogue One and in a really cool Lego set.
• There’s no real getting around the fact that Hayden Christensen can walk around in the Vader suit all day, but with the iconic mask and unmistakable tones of James Earl Jones, he’s not going to get much to do as an actor unless Vader is in his bacta tank, or his meditation egg, or some other Mustafarian convenience. Has the show figured out a way for Christensen to actually appear at length, or is this really more of a ceremonial return? Sorry, sorry: Here and now, where it belongs, etc.
• Watto watch: No toydarians on Mapuzo. In fact, not many aliens on Mapuzo at all, save ol’ Freck; obviously, the show feels that it’s more dramatic if Vader is offing innocent humans or humanoids rather than, like, slaughtering a bunch of dugs. (And fair enough, that scene of Vader terrorizing the Mapuzo population was scary stuff.) But I do wonder if, more broadly, the Star Wars team is missing some opportunities based on a reluctance to engage with human-size creatures who would require full CG to create. Maybe it’s a budget issue, but it’s a bit weird that these Star Wars shows expand on some of the prequels’ technological touchstones (extensive green screen) but not others (fully CG characters, especially ones with little metal hats).