In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi Master Yoda tells Luke Skywalker not to judge others based on appearances, which is a little rich coming from a guy who spent his first hour with the kid pretending to be a senile bog hobbit. After the premiere of Obi-Wan Kenobi, viewers might be feeling a similar mix of emotions.
The show was marketed as yet another desert-set Disney Plus offering, a solo adventure for Ewan McGregor’s defeated Jedi master, who would struggle to watch over a young Luke Skywalker while he evaded the operatives of the Dark Side, culminating in a confrontation with Hayden Christensen’s Darth Vader himself. In the first episode of its two episode premiere, Obi-Wan Kenobi reveals that it is something significantly different.
It’s a great reveal, well crafted, smartly executed, and full of promise! Like Luke, viewers will probably be very excited to realize they have already found the Jedi they were sent to look for, metaphorically. But it does raise the question of why the show’s marketing feinted in the first place.
[Ed. note: The rest of this piece contains a significant spoiler for the first two episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi.]
In its premiere, Obi-Wan Kenobi introduces Vivien Lyra Blair as a 10-year-old Princess Leia Organa, and Old Ben Kenobi is her only hope. One could joke that this is the future of Star Wars television, handed down by The Mandalorian: jaded outcast meets adorable child, and adventure ensues. Except that the careful specificity of Obi-Wan’s exploration of Leia, and Blair’s exceptional performance of it, immediately speak for themselves.
This is a cinematic exploration of young Leia that parts of the Star Wars fandom have desired for years, an establishment of her dreams, her abilities, and her upbringing to stand beside the films’ focus on Luke. Obi-Wan doesn’t have to say “Well, this is what you get when the daughter of a woman who was elected president of an entire planet at the age of 14 has light Force sensitivity and is raised as a princess.” It shows that development, as the script makes Leia not just a precocious little “smart kid on TV,” but more emotionally savvy than most of the adults around her. Blair’s delivery alternates smoothly between age-appropriate naïveté and the sureness of the leader of a hard-core national student protest movement — which is, of course, what her character will essentially be in just a few years.
It’s not the only way that Obi-Wan, or at least the first two episodes of it, commits to showing instead of telling. The series appears to be deftly building a bridge from Lucas’ prequel trilogy, with deliberate selectivity of its best aspects: McGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan, Sith ominousness, and the tragedy of a golden age proven to be just patina. A nearly wordless scene between Obi-Wan, a street beggar, and a pair of patrolling storm troopers says as much about the hubris of the Jedi, the passing of an age, and the false dream of a “just war” as the entirety of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In these small moments, director Deborah Chow has an ally in the Force: Ewan McGregor.
McGregor carries these episodes less like a workhorse with a pack than a king with a crown. He’s not alone in his efforts; he and Blair play off each other delightfully, waking fonder memories of Obi-Wan’s dry wit coming to bear against Anakin’s moody sarcasm. Jimmy Smits — reprising his role as Bail Organa, the only plain good dad in Star Wars — shows that he’s always been great at this job, even if he’s only gotten to do it for 70 seconds at a time every three to 11 years. Kumail Nanjiani adroitly tight-walks the line between humor and sympathy without making the viewer feel winked-at.
But Chow commits to holding the camera on McGregor and letting him portray a betrayed, disheartened, disillusioned Obi-Wan Kenobi simply using his face. It’s a far cry from screaming “I loved you!” in the middle of a lightsaber fight on a planet made entirely of lava to a full John Williams orchestra (although John Williams did come back to do the theme for this one).
The show has its weaknesses so far — the editing of every chase scene with little Leia strains suspension of disbelief as she seems to evade grown adults over open ground at the speed of a jog. And inquisitor Reva Savander remains one-sided, something that will hopefully change in the next four episodes. Disney Plus projects have a history of starting strong and finishing flabby, losing the promise of their concept for a lack of execution. For all we know, Obi-Wan will hand Leia off to Bail in episode 3 and head right back to Tatooine to deal with his inquisitor problem.
But I fervently hope it doesn’t: It’s the most interesting thing about the show. If, after Book of Boba Fett, we are going to make another Star Wars series about established characters, let it be executed this well. But it certainly does beg the question of why Leia’s central role was kept a secret. To illustrate with a brief moment of personal experience, it’s a flabbergasting shift in expectations.
The Mandalorian set the example for a huge first episode reveal in Star Wars TV — something the Western monthly-publishing comics industry has embraced as simply the best way to start a serial story — and also did so by introducing a tiny version of a character from the original trilogy. But it’s obvious why the presence of “Yoda, but a cutie-wutie-pie baby baby crib baby” was not a part of the series’ marketing.
The Mandalorian had a specific tone and introduction that sold that character’s burgeoning relationship with an isolated bounty hunter, and established, without a doubt, that the crew was committed to honoring the beloved iconography with which they were playing. In a trailer, the reveal would have seemed like a crass nostalgia cash-in timed just before the biggest toy-buying occasion of the year. And other than his obvious inspiration, Grogu was something the Star Wars universe had never seen before. Leia is among its founding heroes.
Obi-Wan’s scenario recalls The Force Awakens, in which Rey’s status as the Jedi hero of the new trilogy was kept so under wraps that you couldn’t find toys of her with a lightsaber until months afterwards. Even then, one might blame J.J. Abrams’ obsession with obfuscation. It boggles the mind that Lucasfilm and Disney teased Luke’s appearance in Obi-Wan rather than Leia’s. Unless, of course, they thought the audience was more interested in Luke for … some reason …
But I digress. We know now: At least at its outset, Obi-Wan Kenobi is the Ben and Leia Show. And if it can maintain its current level of quality, Lucasfilm may finally have a worthy successor to The Mandalorian on its hands.