The plot develops and events occur, but really there is only one thing to talk about when it comes to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s third episode – so let us get straight to it. Spoiler-phobes beware.
‘When I left you,’ Darth Vader famously said in Star Wars, ‘I was but the learner. Now I am the master.’ Since 2005 viewers have always assumed we had seen that earlier encounter, as Obi-Wan duelled Anakin Skywalker on the fiery planet Mustafar. Now, 17 years later for viewers and 10 years later for Obi-Wan we find that this simply isn’t true. It was not difficult to predict that Obi-Wan Kenobi was going to include a previously unmentioned rematch. It was quite the surprise to see it happen so soon.
And here’s the thing about Darth Vader: he is one of the most iconic characters in popular culture. To find a more famous character from 20th century cinema you would have to reach for animated mascots like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. When the character was brought back for a few key scenes in 2016’s Rogue One, the excitement in the cinema was palpable. Even in Lucasfilm’s cartoon spin-off Star Wars: Rebels any appearance by Vader got the fanbase excited. Here he is again, only this time he’s opposite Obi-Wan Kenobi for the first time in almost two decades.
His surprise appearance here is one thing. How director Deborah Chow portrays him aesthetically is another. Through these first three episodes, Chow has used hand-held photography more than any other Star Wars production to date. It gives everything an immediacy, and a nervous energy that stands in contrast to the carefully choreographed visuals of Lucas’ original trilogy. It is also dark – Vader’s confronting Obi-Wan happens out in the middle of nowhere and the middle of the night. He is lit almost entirely by the glowing buttons on his chest, and the bleeding red light of his sabre. Put simply, Darth Vader has never looked as frightening as he does in this episode.
On the one hand, this episode represents pure nostalgic gravy for a generation of Star Wars fans. On the other, there is something very slightly off about this iteration of Vader. At first I wondered if it was the performance: now longer performed physically by the late David Prowse, and only simulating James Earl Jones’ resonant voice via computers and sound samples. On reflection it was not the physicality or the voice, but the actions.
There is a near-unbroken rule to Darth Vader through the entire original trilogy, and as far as I can work out it has only been broken twice. Put simply: Vader does not kill non-combatants. Now there is every probability that the character murders his way through dozens of civilians when the cameras were not rolling. We only ever encounter him when he is fighting rebels and enemies of the Empire – and his own officers, it must be said. They knew for what they were signing up.
In Revenge of the Sith there is a key scene where Anakin Skywalker, freshly turned to the dark side and using the Vader moniker for the first time, leads an attack on the Jedi Temple. During this episode he comes across a room full of cowering children and massacres the lot of them. It felt tonally wrong then. It destroys any sense of sympathy that the audience might have had for Anakin, because in one moment he jumps from tragic protagonist to child murderer. There is a similar scene in the previous film Attack of the Clones, where he struggles and weeps over his actions. There is no weeping here, just murdering children.
There is a very similar scene in Obi-Wan Kenobi, where to get Obi-Wan’s attention Vader walks through a village snapping people’s necks with the Force. They are not rebels or soldiers, just farmers and miners, and the same queasy shift in tone occurs. The problem is that Darth Vader is a movie villain, and we as an audience love to hiss and boo his villainy, but when we all emotionally signed on to become fans of the character we were not signing up for him to be quite like this. Star Wars, whicher way or form you love it, is essentially entertainment for children. Vader going after innocent civilians breaks that agreement – and breaks it hard.
That problem aside, this third episode really does kick the energy and quality of the series up a notch. Hopefully the remaining three instalments maintain it.