Obi-Wan, the new Star Wars series that premiered its first two episodes last Friday, has two (2) inherent strengths and one (1) inherent weakness.
The first strength is series star Ewan McGregor, reprising the role of young(er) Obi-Wan Kenobi that he played 20ish years ago in the prequel trilogy. He has always been one of the few bright spots of the Star Wars prequels—I am not here for your baby Millennial revisionism, they are bad movies and childhood nostalgia does not make them better—and he continues to be a great Obi-Wan two decades later. Alec Guinness originally defined Obi-Wan as a tired recluse riddled with regret, whose final breath was a gasp of hope that propelled one of the great cinematic journeys of the 20th century. McGregor, meanwhile, got to step in and play Obi-Wan as a young hothead who could barely stand the desert brat his mentor stuck him with when he died. (One of the prequels’ biggest failures is not effectively building up Obi-Wan’s relationship with Anakin Skywalker, later animated series like The Clone Wars did a LOT of heavy lifting there.)
Now, however, we find Obi-Wan ten years after Palpatine seized control and established the Empire. Anakin is believed to be dead, and Darth Vader is the Empire’s big stick. Obi-Wan lives a meager existence on Tatooine, working at some kind of horrible abattoir and spying on Luke Skywalker, who is being raised by his aunt and uncle, Owen and Beru (respectively, Joel Edgerton, WAY too famous for this sh-t at this point, but a good enough sport to come back and do it anyway; and Bonnie Piesse, rebuilding her career after all that NXIVM stuff). He seems pretty defeated, except he still intends to train Luke, should he show signs of Force sensitivity. Uncle Owen, meanwhile, is like, F-ck that, y’all got it all wrong with his dad so f-ck off forever, nothing good will come of turning Luke into a Jedi. (The sequel trilogy: Uncle Owen was right!)
McGregor does a GREAT job in these early episodes—directed by Deborah Chow, with scripting duties split between various combinations of Hossein Amini, Stuart Beattie, and Joby Harold—of bridging the gap between the strident Obi-Wan of the prequels and the worn-out old man of the original trilogy. There is still a little spark in Obi-Wan, but it’s clearly fading. He’s bitter and cynical and even his insistence on training Luke seems less like a belief in continuing the Jedi Order and more like clinging to the promise he made to Qui-Gon Jinn to train Anakin. He’s just going through the motions, surviving because he’s too stubborn to die, and McGregor slides effortlessly between Obi-Wan’s old rebelliousness and his new exhaustion.
The second strength of the show is to send Obi-Wan on an adventure with ten-year-old Princess Leia. For one thing, this lays a foundation for Leia reaching out to Obi-Wan ten years later in her moment of need, and another, AT LEAST IT’S NOT MORE LUKE F-CKING SKYWALKER. At this point, I will consider centering the show on the OTHER Skywalker twin a “win”, even if Leia is as big a pill at ten as Luke ever was at twenty. Seriously, she is a classic horror movie child, determined to get everyone around her killed by constantly doing the stupidest thing possible (also, she can read minds except for not being able to tell “Ben” is, in fact, a friend of her father’s?). That’s not on the young actor, Vivien Lyra Blair, who is charmingly tart when Leia isn’t being written into the dumbest corners. She has a GREAT scene taking down her bully older cousin that gives us a glimpse of how formidable Leia will someday be, it’s too bad that sensibility is nowhere to be seen anywhere else through two episodes. Maybe there will be a miraculous turn-around in the remaining four episodes; one can only hope.
While making the show about Leia, not Luke, is the right call, we still have to deal with the show’s inherent weakness—it’s a prequel. We know where all this is going to end up. There are “Inquisitors” of the Empire hunting surviving Jedi across the galaxy; one of them, Reva (Moses Ingram), is obsessed with finding Obi-Wan. She uses Leia as bait to draw Obi-Wan out, but neither Obi-Wan nor Leia is ever in any real danger. We know they’re both going to be alive in ten years. So the stakes are very low, and Obi-Wan doesn’t find anything to fill that void, at least in the opening episodes.
As the show is only six episodes, by the end of episode two, we really ought to have a sense of what is at stake, but we don’t, because nothing is. All the good guys are going to live to be in Star Wars, and while death isn’t the only stakes that matter, Obi-Wan also doesn’t set up anything else to give the story meaning. There is certainly pleasure in watching Ewan McGregor play a character he obviously loves, and I’m sure there will be some cool lightsaber fights down the line, but Obi-Wan isn’t offering much beyond these spectacles. It feels like the whole of Star Wars has become a cotton candy machine, endlessly spinning fluff for consumption but it’s just empty calories. It’s all flavor, no substance.
Obi-Wan episodes 1 and 2 are now streaming on Disney+.