This review contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, now streaming on Disney+.
“I’m not who I used to be,” Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Bail Organa late in the first episode of Obi-Wan’s self-titled Disney+ series. It is 10 years after the events of the third Star Wars prequel, Revenge of the Sith. The Galactic Republic has fallen. Most of the Jedi are dead, and the remaining ones are being hunted by a pack of evil ex-Jedi known as the Inquisitors. Everything Obi-Wan fought for, everything he believed in, is gone, and nearly all of this has come about because he was too willfully blind to recognize that his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, was on the verge of going bad.
This would be enough to break the spirit of even the strongest warrior-monk like Obi-Wan, and as the series — written by Joby Harold, Stuart Beattie, and Hossein Amini, and directed by The Mandalorian vet Deborah Chow — picks up, broken is the only way to describe Obi-Wan. He is living in a cave in the Dune Sea on Tatooine, with no purpose save for keeping a distant eye on young Luke Skywalker, even though Luke’s uncle Owen wants the boy to have nothing to do with the Jedi. Where once Obi-Wan played swashbuckler across the galaxy, now he butchers meat in a demeaning factory job, haggles with a local Jawa named Teeka to buy back his own property every time Teeka steals it, and generally tries to avoid being noticed.
Twice in the Obi-Wan premiere, our hero is offered a chance to become who he used to be. The first comes from Nari, a fellow fugitive Jedi who has coincidentally wound up on Tatooine, and is being hunted by the Inquisitors. Nari begs Obi-Wan to help him, but Obi-Wan refuses to risk being noticed and leading the Empire right to Luke’s doorstep. He turns his back on Nari, who eventually winds up dead at the Inquisitors’ hands. Later, Obi-Wan’s old friend Bail Organa reaches out with the terrible news that his adopted daughter — and Luke’s sister — Leia has been kidnapped. Obi-Wan declines again at first, and while he’s swayed by Bail flying in for an in-person plea, he does not seem particularly confident in his ability to help anyone. He seems almost afraid to touch the lightsaber he buried in the desert (let alone the one he took off of Anakin after leaving him for dead on a volcano planet). When young Leia later questions whether her would-be rescuer is even a Jedi at all, Obi-Wan does not look as if he is prepared to mount a stirring defense of the credentials he has long since allowed to lapse.
Obi-Wan’s attempt to get back to who he used to be is the emotional core, and the best part, of this new show. In many other ways, it is mixing and matching from bits of the Star Wars TV universe, most notably in how Obi-Wan, like Mando, winds up protecting an adorable younger version of an iconic character from the original trilogy(*). And these first two installments very much live up to star Ewan McGregor’s description of the season as “a six-hour movie” — or, at least, as if someone took the failed attempt to do a standalone Obi-Wan film and padded it out for television, as happens so often in the streaming era. But just as McGregor almost superheroically carried large swaths of the prequel films, he is again nothing less than incredibly watchable. And Obi-Wan’s reawakening is a strong enough hook to pull the viewer through the parts of the show that don’t work quite as well.
(*) Yes, I know Grogu is not actually a baby version of Yoda. But he kind of is in our hearts, is he not?
In this case, our Mini-Me is the 10-year-old Princess Leia Organa. We get only the briefest glimpse of Luke, acting very much like his birth father’s son as he pretends to be a great space pilot rather than doing chores on Uncle Owen’s moisture farm. Leia, played by Vivien Lyra Blair, is even more her birth mother’s daughter. She takes to swapping clothes with doubles (as Padme used to with Keira Knightley), rebels against all the formal protocols of royal life, and seems happiest when she and her adorable floating droid Lola are roaming the forest outside her home. Dragged to an extended family function, she winds up verbally cutting a mean older cousin down to size. When ordered to apologize, she instead goes roaming again, this time getting kidnapped by a trio of mercenaries who are working in service of Reva, an Inquisitor with a mysterious grudge against Obi-Wan.
This level of precociousness is a lot to pile onto any performer, much less a young one like Blair. In some scenes, like the aforementioned dismantling of Leia’s obnoxious cousin, she pulls the wise-beyond-her-years act quite well. At others, particularly in some of the scenes in the second hour where she’s insulting Obi-Wan, it feels less natural. And there is also Star Wars continuity to think of: In the 1977 film, Leia records a video introduction to Obi-Wan, reminding him that he served with her father in the Clone Wars, rather than saying, “Remember that time you saved me from being kidnapped by Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers?” Will she, like C-3PO (glimpsed in the background of the Organa family reunion) at the end of Revenge of the Sith, somehow get her memory wiped? And there is obviously always a concern that Lucasfilm can’t help itself from turning back to the Skywalkers again and again, even though that saga has very clearly exhausted itself(*).
(*) For that matter, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader’s encounter late in the original Star Wars suggests they have not seen each other since both were young men. (“When I left you,” Darth tells him, “I was but the learner. Now, I am the master.”) With the promise of Obi-Wan and Vader (played once again, under a lot of burn makeup, by Hayden Christensen), that also gets confusing.
But the “grizzled old warrior protects an adorable young charge” is a trope that long predated The Mandalorian for a reason. It just works, whether it’s in manga like Lone Wolf and Cub, or movies like Man on Fire. And when it’s intertwined with Obi-Wan’s attempt to wake up from a 10-year nap, it plays even better. Throughout the second hour, we see little signs emerging of the man he used to be. As he surveils the building where Leia is being kept, he begins to reflexively stroke his beard and mustache the way he did in the prequel films. And after much hesitancy to use either his lightsaber or the Force, he manages, with much strain and barely enough result, to use the latter to save Leia after she falls from an ill-considered rooftop jump.
As was the case in the prequels, McGregor’s presence forgives many narrative sins. There’s various bits of sloppiness sprinkled throughout these episodes. The Inquisitors, for instance, seem fairly laid-back about letting Nari get away from them the first time, while the rooftop standoff in the second hour seems to end abruptly once Obi-Wan saves Leia, even though he appeared to be pinned down by enemy fire. And Moses Ingram from The Queen’s Gambit is basically given one note to play as Reva, which might work if we had some idea of why she hates Obi-Wan so much. By withholding that answer for later in the season, it puts a lot of weight on the revelation to justify it(*).
(*) On the other hand, hard to imagine anything justifying the amount of time spent watching Reva parkour across the daiyu rooftops. Between this show and The Book of Boba Fett, someone on the Star Wars TV stunt team is really into parkour.
If this really is just an expanded version of that unmade Obi-Wan film, we may be in for some bumps in the coming weeks. But this was a perfectly entertaining start, and a reminder of just how much value McGregor has brought to the franchise over the years.
Some other thoughts:
* After the Obi-Wan/Leia pairing, the most promising addition to the mythos may be Kumail Nanjiani as Haja — a con man posing as a Jedi to scam travelers out of extra credits, but also a con man with something of a heart of gold, who really does help the people who hire him (even if he wildly overcharges them for the service). And when he realizes who Obi-Wan really is, he charges in to help him, even putting himself at risk of being killed by Reva in the process. You would not automatically think of Nanjiani as a Han Solo type, even after he got all swole to star in Eternals, but Star Wars projects almost always benefit from having a prominent character who’s more cynical about the mythos than the Skywalkers and/or the Jedi are.
* Much was made of Rupert Friend being cast as the Grand Inquisitor, a figure who appeared multiple times on the Star Wars: Rebels cartoon. But even though this show is set several years before the events of Rebels, the Grand Inquisitor appears to be killed by Reva. This means one of two things: His death is a fake-out and Friend will return in one of the final chapters to get vengeance on his wayward underling, or the Grand Inquisitor from Rebels is Friend’s replacement. (On the other hand, Sung Kang from the Fast and the Furious films very much seems to be playing the Rebels version of fellow Inquisitor Fifth Brother, which gives him a large amount of plot armor to survive the remaining episodes.)
* This is the first Disney+ Star Wars show not produced by Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni. The most notable stylistic difference so far is that the end credits simply play over a field of stars, rather than over a series of paintings of scenes from the episode we just watched.
* Finally, the Mandalorian Season One cast was incredibly eclectic, with Werner Herzog, Nick Nolte, Taika Waititi, and other people you would not instantly expect to appear in a galaxy far, far away. There’s a similar mixture here, including Nanjiani, Flea as Vect, filmmaker Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems) as Nari, the return of Joel Edgerton as Uncle Owen, and even a Temuera Morrison cameo as the homeless clone trooper panhandling at the Daiyu spaceport.