Star Wars Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Star Wars shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry examines Obi-Wan Kenobi Episode 5 and Darth Vader’s eventual redemption as impossible as that seems.
How are we all feeling about our Darth Vader action figures and Darth Vader t-shirts after watching this week’s Obi–Wan Kenobi? Seems a little strange to have a child killer molded into plastic, standing defiantly in our display cases. Every time this franchise ventures earlier into the timeline, before Star Wars: A New Hope, we’re forced to reckon with Anakin Skywalker’s villainy. The more filmmakers add definition to his hatred and fear, the harder it is to simply vibe with the black hat badness we first met in 1977, which is exactly what George Lucas wanted when he first forced us backward with the prequels.
Star Wars was fun and games until Revenge of the Sith. We could ignore the capitalism critiques and fragile democracy commentary in The Phantom Menace, but we could not blind ourselves to Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) cutting down younglings the way Padme ignored his Tusken Raider genocide in Attack of the Clones. Oh, did we ignore that too?
Of course, Revenge of the Sith didn’t linger on the kiddie killings. All we saw was Anakin, rebranded as Darth Vader, storming into the Jedi temple and flashing his blue blade after one child asked, “What are we going to do?” We’re left to play that imagery in our heads. Nearly twenty years later, Obi–Wan Kenobi refuses such kindness.
In Episode 5, we learn what many already suspected after the premiere. Inquisitor Reva (Moses Ingram) was one of those Jedi temple younglings. When the Emperor executed Order 66, she witnessed her friends struck down not just by the Clone Troopers but by Anakin Skywalker, the supposed chosen one. She stared into his eyes as he slashed his lightsaber into the tiny bodies of her friends. She escaped the same fate by playing dead, hiding amongst the corpses.
So much of Obi–Wan Kenobi has focused on how war affects children. At the narrative center are Anakin’s twins, Luke (Grant Feely) and Leia (Vivien Lyra Blair). Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) desperately clings to the prophecy that Qui-Gon Jinn once so vehemently believed, but these kids may just be commodities to sway political and personal vendettas.
On Daiyu, in Episode 2, we caught our first glimpse of the Path, an underground railroad used to ferry Jedi and Force-sensitive children away from Imperial slaughter. When Vader tracks Obi-Wan to Mapuzo in Episode 3, he lures his former master out of hiding by dragging bystanders through the street, breaking one child’s neck, who was merely running to his father’s aid. In Episode 4, we caught a horrific glimpse at what’s hiding beneath Fortress Inquisitorius. Vader’s goons are collecting Jedi cadavers like trophies, including at least one of Reva’s youngling classmates.
Star Wars has examined violence in the past, most successfully in the animated arena with The Clone Wars and Rebels, but also in Rogue One, even if it never went as far as Gareth Edwards initially promised. Back in 2016, Lucasfilm may have had some cold feet when leaning into the “Wars” of its golden goose’s title, but in 2022, they’re ready to wallow in some human misery. Catching Obi–Wan Kenobi‘s protagonist at his lowest, coming to terms with his role in the Republic’s defeat and the numerous lives lost, compels the franchise’s immense audience to reckon with the fascistic horror that the original 1977 film was built on.
“You would prefer another target? A military target? Then name the system.” Grand Moff Tarkin pushing Princess Leia into giving up her Rebel allies only to obliterate Alderaan while Darth Vader locks her face-front to the devastation is one of the most harrowing moments in A New Hope. The Death Star’s eventual destruction and the merchandising onslaught that followed in its wake numbs us to that moment. The good guys ultimately win, highlighting the faceless losses as perfunctory plot mechanics.
Obi–Wan Kenobi returns us to that scene when Episode 1 finally plants us on a live-action Alderaan with young Leia. As she’s running through the woods, causing frustration to her mother and the staff tasked with educating and guarding her, we’re stuck contemplating what’s coming. Everything we see – the plants, buildings, droids, animals, and people – will soon be space dust. Obi–Wan Kenobi is a ghost story; we’re surrounded by the dead.
The dread the show drags us through causes us, or maybe just me, to reevaluate the many, many Darth Vader and Stormtrooper action figures we’ve purchased throughout the years. Vader is no longer the cool-looking bad guy with the red sword. He’s a child killer several times over.
Again, this is not a new sensation. It’s something I think about whenever I revisit Revenge of the Sith. Simmering in the Imperial era means digesting constant atrocity. It also propels the audience to the end of Darth Vader’s story, where he hurls the Emperor down a ventilation shaft, receiving forgiveness from a son who never really knew him.
Luke sensed the Light buried in the Dark. He could feel the conflict within his father, the doubt seeping from beneath all the evil he did over the years. In his last moments, Vader rejected Palpatine. We read that as a rejection of his Dark Side choices too, and George Lucas grants Anakin Skywalker a Force ghost moment alongside Obi-Wan and Yoda in Return of the Jedi‘s last seconds. Do we do the same?
I believe in redemption. I believe in forgiveness. But am I capable of granting either? Can I forgive Darth Vader after watching him butcher children and explode planets? The guy wallpapered his basement with the dead. That’s serial killer business.
I’m not Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader is not my dad. Maybe what’s important is that I struggle with his forgiveness as a possibility. Kicking back in my office, typing these words now, I’m looking at a Darth Vader Black Series figure from Hasbro. I can’t pretend that I’ll throw him away anytime soon. But I can’t look at him like I did when I was five years old. And when I see that helmet staring out at me from a Star Wars-themed Christmas sweater or some other absurd tie-in trinket, I also now see the youngling frozen in amber beneath Fortress Inquisitorius and Reva’s watery eyes as she contemplates her grotesque hiding spot.
Obi–Wan Kenobi Episode 5 opens with a warning from Disney, “There are certain scenes in this fictional series that some viewers may find upsetting.” Killing kids onscreen so soon after the Robb Elementary School shooting is a heavy burden to place on your audience. Granted, the series was certainly scripted and filmed well before that mass murder, but no matter when it was completed, given our current culture, Obi–Wan Kenobi was assembled around some other American atrocity involving kids. This season was always going to be upsetting.
Consuming Star Wars in our violent climate stirs tremendous anxiety. Understandably, some people do not want to be confronted with these real-world horrors when watching a series that once yanked us from the Vietnam War era and solidified Hollywood’s blockbuster mindset. But viewing Star Wars as throwaway escapism was always an illusion. They’re called Stormtroopers. The Imperial emblem is a quick sketch away from the swastika. As the Star Wars Twitter account recently informed an ignorant troll, “Star WARS is literally in our name.”
George Lucas couldn’t make his Flash Gordon movie, so he invented a sci-fi adventure using the classic Saturday serial aesthetic. He also placed it atop a World War II framework, switching out the Fourth Reich with the Empire and the Allies with the Rebels. Actually, that’s not true. Lucas did not take inspiration from the Allies for the Rebellion. At least, not totally.
In his Story of Science Fiction, James Cameron sat down with George Lucas and asked him about his terrorist heroes. Lucas firmly states, “When I did it, they were Viet Cong.” His good guys were battling an impossibly large force, guerilla-style. The chances of victory were nonexistent, but they persisted despite the odds. Lucas saw the Rebels very much in line with the Vietnamese resistance.
When Lucas returned to the Skywalker Saga in 1999, he double-downed on what he thought we missed. The Phantom Menace is a painfully blunt instrument. He’s hitting his fanbase on the head, “Hey dummies, this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.” Palpatine fabricates a fictional war, using the fear within his Republic, so they would happily vote away their freedoms. In their death grip to maintain the status quo, the Jedi are blind to the evil swelling within their ranks. Their chosen one is their greatest enemy. Their ego is their death.
Obi–Wan Kenobi is either the logical result of following Darth Vader around when he’s at his most evil, or it’s Lucasfilm actually falling in line with Lucas’ original thematic-forward vision. Never have more eyes been glued to the franchise. No doubt, most are here for the swashbuckling rather than the disturbing confrontation with their action figures. We can resist the introspection or embrace it.
Both options require work from the viewer. The former demands a powerfully willful obtuseness and will only result in frustration and anger; you’re on your way to the Dark Side. The latter demands conversation. With the narrative, the filmmakers, your friends, and yourself.
What is Star Wars about? It’s not about nothing. Listen to their Twitter. It’s there in the title. In the “Stars” rests adventure and the hope it provides. In the “Wars” lies everything we do wrong on this planet every damn day.
Obi–Wan Kenobi Episode 5 feels like a line drawn in the sand. We see Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber connect with two children. It’s not new information, but we now have the visuals to match our knowledge. It’s harder to ignore. There’s no coming back from it. Seeing a Darth Vader cake at the next children’s (or adult’s) birthday party I attend will be odd, and that’s good. Star Wars and its mass appeal challenges itself and the consumer. Every spin-off series and dip back into the mythology muddies what was already a pretty muddy popcorn entertainment.
My struggle to accept Luke Skywalker’s forgiveness of his cruel, murderous father and Darth Vader’s all-consuming iconography within our culture is everything George Lucas would probably want. The verdict is still out on whether Lucasfilm and Disney want that too, but I’m fairly sure whoever is running the Star Wars Twitter account is down with such internal turmoil. And someone up the ladder let them off the chain. It’s a positive sign that the franchise is reclaiming its political backbone. Because if they’re going to continue to prequel it up, they have little other choice. Star Wars history is awful. All history is awful.
Obi-Wan Kenobi Episode 5 is now streaming on Disney+