There’s a point in the opening episode of any new TV series where you discover whether you are going to be watching a pedal-to-the-metal affair, where things move fast and really stop to collect their breath, or whether you will be treated to a far more thoughtfully meditative affair, one where emotions are wrought with a capital “E” and where thoughts are pondered and luxuriated, sometimes with self-torturous intent.
Obi-Wan Kenobi, which aims in its six-episode run, to fill in the gaps between what we know of the Jedi Master from the first trilogy in the Skywalker Saga – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005) – and what, of course is revealed most particularly in the fourth instalment, A New Hope (1977), starts off with deceptively action-oriented momentum as Order 66 is enacted with Emperor Palpatine’s clone troopers wiping out all the Jedis they can get their hands on.
It’s tense, near apocalyptic, and as the camera pans out, we seem some young padawans running for their lives as their older brethren are slaughtered en masse, part of the Empire’s plan to rid of the Galaxy of the good side of the Force once and for all.
It’s brutal, horrifically atmospheric, and following hard on the heels of a recap that shows how Obi-Wan Kenobi tried and ultimately failed to keep a headstrong Anakin Skywalker from falling to the Dark Side, it establishes too that Obi-Wan Kenobi is not going to spare its titular protagonist any pain.
Which is fair enough since as the show’s first episode, he’s in so much pain that not even a caravan of Banthas could hold the weight, his life now reduced to hiding out on Tatooine – yes, the first planet of the Star Wars saga is back again in all its sandy, Western frontier glory and misery – watching over Luke who is in the protective hands of Uncle Owen (Joel Edgerton returning) and Aunt Beru (Bonnie Piesse).
Obi-Wan’s, or should we say Ben’s, life is now reduced to working at a meat-cutting plant out in the desert wastes, from where he journeys to and from a major town where his camel-analogue ride awaits to take him to his cave-like home which, by the way, proves ridiculously easy to break into.
Apart from the frenetic burst of the opening scene, Obi-Wan Kenobi settles down considerably, and while sometimes it is a little too slow for its own good, for the most part, it nails the spirit of a broken man who is so hugely traumatised by the loss of his old world, his friends and brethren and most painfully by the turning of his padawan to the Dark Side – the final exchange where a lava-burned and likely near-to-death Anakin screams “I hate you!” is seared into his memory, playing like a torture film on repeat – that all he wants to do is hide away on Tatooine.
On a practical level that makes sense; the Empire’s Inquisition-like group, the Inquisitors, whose number contains a fiery, impatient apprentice called Reva Sevander/The Third Sister (Moses Ingram) who’s determined to hunt Kenobi down, no matter the cost, are chasing every rumour and whisper of Jedi activity and aren’t about to take any prisoners.
So, if Kenobi is going to stay alive, he has to refrain from interacting with the Force in any way, something which works for a decade but then rapidly does not, when a much younger Jedi on the run called Nari (Benny Safdie) attracts the Inquisitors, led by a fallen Jedi, to Tatooine at the same time as Reva is plotting to have Leia Organa (Vivien Lyra Blair) kidnapped from her home on Alderaan – her dad, you will recall, is Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smit) who appears with wife Breha (Simone Kessell) – so Obi-Wan will flush himself from cover.
She reasons, and she is right, that compassion always wins out over practicality when it comes to Jedi – it’s certainly what dooms Nari to a graphically public end – but she doesn’t allow for the fact that Obi-Wan is desperate not to fail in his one remaining task, to keep a young Luke played by Grant Feely safe, and so will resist any and all overtures to break cover.
But at Bail’s entreaty, breaking cover is precisely what he does, going to the Vegas-like planet Daiyu where he encounter Jedi charlatan Haja Estree (Kumail Nanjiani) who pretends to be a member of the order to get credits, and does his best to rescue Leia.
That may sound like a hell of a lot of action taking place but the truth is, much of Obi-Wan Kenobi is really long night of the soul territory, and affectingly so.
The first two episodes are content to take us places in the pursuit of fleshing out Kenobi’s back story, but with a firm focus on the brokenness of the one-time Jedi Master whose brittle emotional togetherness is almost fatally ruined by a revelation at the end of the second episode which rocks him to the core.
Kenobi is a man neck-deep in PTSD, awash in loss, pain and grief, whose sense of failure is manifest and palpable, something which the producers of the show, and director Deborah Chow who rightfully lets the compellingly measured narrative do its thing, make painfully visible in almost every scene.
You can see that Obi-Wan wants to help Nari and is raring to go rescue Leia – in both instances he refuses initially but only in Leia’s case does he relent – but is so traumatised and immersed in the darkness of his past that he dare not step back out into the glare of the Inquisitors’ attention.
Obi-Wan Kenobi is a finely-wrought piece of storytelling because, like Picard‘s first season, it understands that many of the greatest heroes we know are not necessarily driven by nobleness and valour but a need to make the world better, something which their own personal demons often make impossible to realise.
The first two episodes aren’t perfect but they are overall pretty damn good, lifting the curtain on Obi-Wan the heroic Jedi master and showing us the sundered man within, someone who is given the chance to either remain enervatingly trapped in a past rife with mistakes and pain – the series doesn’t attempt to minimise those but then nor does it say that’s the end of the story – or to step forward once again, his vows renewed, where he might make a difference however small to atone for past missteps.
Of course, the ending, which must remain spoiler-free does indicate that following that path of forced redemption may not be as easy as once thought, fueling what will no doubt be four, released-weekly, psychologically and emotionally taxing episodes to come.