The Obi-Wan Kenobi finale is out, and the show can be awarded a 6/10, perhaps 6.5. This is not a dreadful score, but it isn’t favorable either. I give abysmal films or shows with no redeeming qualities a 1 or 2, though this is extremely rare; bad or mediocre ones earn a 3-5; a 6 is watchable and even enjoyable but not that great, a 7 is a straight-up good production, an 8 is great, and a 9-10 is rare masterpiece or perfection territory. The ranking encompasses everything: was it an interesting, original, sensible story? Do you care about what happens to the characters, whether evil or heroic or neutral? Was the acting, music, pacing, special effects, cinematography, and editing competent? Was the dialogue intelligent or was it painful and cliché? Did they foolishly attempt a CGI human face? And so on.
Understanding anyone’s judgement of a Star Wars film or show requires knowing how it compares to the others, so consider the following rankings, which have changed here and there over the years but typically not by much. I judge A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back to be 10s. Return of the Jedi earns a 9, primarily for the ridiculous “plan” to save Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt that involves everyone getting captured, and for recycling a destroy-the-Death-Star climax. The Mandalorian (seasons 1-2), The Force Awakens, and Solo hover at about 7 for me. Solo is often unpopular, but I think I enjoyed its original, small-scale, train-robbery Western kind of story, which preceded The Mandalorian. The Force Awakens created highly lovable characters, but lost most of its points for simply remaking A New Hope. Rogue One is a 6 (bland characters, save one droid), The Last Jedi (review here) is a 5, Revenge of the Sith a 4.5, and The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and The Rise of Skywalker earn 4s if I’m in a pleasant mood, usually 3.5s. It’s an odd feeling, giving roughly the same rank to the prequels and sequels. They’re both bad for such different reasons. The former had creative, new stories, and there’s a certain innocence about them — but mostly dismal dialogue, acting, and characters (Obi-Wan Kenobi was, in Episodes II and III, a welcome exception). The sequels, at least in the beginning, had highly likable characters, good lines, and solid acting, but were largely dull copy-pastes of the original films. One trilogy had good ideas and bad execution, the other bad ideas and competent execution. One can consult Red Letter Media at its hilarious Mr. Plinkett reviews of the prequels and sequels to fully understand why I find them so awful.
Kenobi was actually hovering at nearly a 7 for me until the end of episode three. Ewan McGregor, as always, is wonderful, little Leia is cute enough, Vader is hell-bent on revenge — here are characters we can care about. The pace was slow and thoughtful, a small-scale kidnapping/rescue story. If you could ignore the fact that Leia doesn’t seem to know Kenobi personally in A New Hope, and that a Vader-Kenobi showdown now somewhat undermines the importance of their fight in that film, things were as watchable and worthwhile as a Mandalorian episode. Some lines and acting weren’t perfect, but a plot was forming nicely. I have become increasingly burnt out of and bored by Star Wars, between the bad productions and it just having nothing new to say (rebels v. empire, Sith v. Jedi, blasters and lightsabers, over and over and over again), but maybe we’d have a 7 on our hands by the end.
Then the stupid awakened.
At the end of part three, Vader lights a big fire in the desert, and Force-pulls Kenobi through it. He then puts out the fire with the Force for some reason. Soon a woman and a droid rescue Kenobi by shooting into the fuel Vader had used, starting a slightly-bigger-fire between protagonist and antagonist. Vader is now helpless to stop the slow-moving droid from picking up Kenobi and lumbering away. He doesn’t walk around the fire (this would have taken five seconds, it’s truly not that big). He doesn’t put out the flames as he did before (I guess 30% more fire is just too much for him). He doesn’t Force-pull Kenobi back to him again. He just stares stupidly as the object of all his rage, who he obsessively wants to torture and kill, gets slowly carried off (we don’t actually see the departure, as that would have highlighted the absurdity; the show cuts).
This is astonishingly bad writing. It’s so bad one frantically tries to justify it. Oh, Vader let him escape, all part of the plan. This of course makes no sense (they’ve been looking for Kenobi for ten years, so him evading a second capture is a massive possibility; it’s established that Vader’s goal is to find him and enact revenge, not enjoy the thrill of the hunt; and it’s never hinted at before or confirmed later that this was intentional). The simpler explanation is probably the correct one: it’s just braindead scene construction. Vader and Kenobi have to be separated, after all. Otherwise Kenobi’s history and the show’s over. There’s a thousand better ways to rescue Kenobi here, but if you’re an idiot you won’t even think of them — of if you don’t care, and don’t respect the audience, you won’t bother. (It’s very much like in The Force Awakens when Rey and Kylo are dueling and the ground beneath them splits apart, as the planet is crumbling, creating a chasm that can conveniently stop the fight — only it’s a million times worse. Now, compare all this to Luke and Vader needing to be separated in Empire. Rather than being caught or killed, Luke lets go of the tower with the only hand he has left and chooses to fall to his death. That’s a good separation. It’s driven by a character with agency and morals. It’s not a convenient Act of God or a suddenly neutered character, someone who doesn’t do what he just did a minute ago for no reason.)
Bad writing is when characters begin following the script, rather than the story being powered by the motivations of the characters. Had the characters’ wants, needs, decisions, actions, and abilities determined the course of events — like in real life — Vader would have put out the flames a second time, he and his twenty stormtroopers would have easily handled one droid and one human rescuer, and Obi-Wan would have been toast. But I guess Disney gave Vader the script. “Oh, I can’t kill him now, there’s three more episodes of this thing, plus A New Hope.” So he stood there staring through the flames like an imbecile.
Anyone who doubts this was bad writing simply needs to continue watching the show. Because the eighth grader crafting the story continues to sacrifice character realism at the altar of the screenplay.
In episode five, Vader uses the Force to stop a transport in mid-air. He slams it on the ground and tears off its doors to get to Kenobi. But surprise, it was a decoy! A second transport right next to this one takes off and blasts away. Vader is dumbfounded. Why does he not use the Force to stop this one? “Well, it was like 40 meters farther away.” “Well, he was surprised, see. And they got out of there quick.” OK, I guess. All this time I thought Vader was supposed to be powerful. It’s crucial to have limits to Force powers, and all abilities, but this is a pretty fine line between doable and impossible. “I can run a mile, but 1.1 will fucking kill me.” It’s strange fanboys would wildly orgasm over Vader’s awesome power to wrench a ship from the air and then excuse his impotence. Either we’re seeing real fire-size and ship-distance challenges Vader can’t meet or the writing here is just sub-par. There are other, more realistic ways to get out of this jam. At least when Kenobi and Leia had to escape the bad guys in the prior episode, snow speeders came along and shot at the baddies (though don’t get me started on how three people fit into a snow speeder cockpit designed for one).
But that’s not even the worst of it. Minutes later two characters violate their motivations. In this episode, it is revealed Third Sister Reva is out to kill Vader, a smart twist and good character development. She attempts to assassinate him, but he runs her through with a lightsaber. Then the Grand Inquisitor, who Reva had run through in an earlier episode, appears. (How did he survive this? You think the show is going to bother to say? Of course it doesn’t. The writers don’t care. Alas, lightsabers suddenly seem far less intimidating.) Vader and the Grand Inquisitor decide to leave her “in the gutter.” They do not finish the kill, they simply walk away. Darth Vader, who snaps necks when you lose ships on radar or accidentally alert the enemy to your presence, doesn’t kill someone who tried to assassinate him! The Grand Inquisitor essentially was assassinated by Reva — wouldn’t he want some revenge for being stabbed through the stomach and out the spine with a lightsaber? “Oh, they’re just leaving her to die” — no. The Grand Inquisitor didn’t die, remember? He and Vader do, it just happened. To be kabobbed in this universe isn’t necessarily fatal (naturally, Reva survives, again without explanation). Is it all just a master plan to inspire Reva to go do or be something? Or is it bad writing, with Reva needing to be shown mercy by Sith types because she’s still in the show?
Happily, the Kenobi finale was strong. It was emotional and sweet, and earns a ranking similar to the first couple episodes. Consternation arose, of course, when Vader buries Kenobi under a mountain of rocks and then walks away! Wouldn’t you want to make sure he’s dead? Can’t you feel his presence when he’s close by and alive? Fortunately, this was not the end of their battle. Kenobi breaks out and attacks Vader. This time their separation makes sense given character traits — Kenobi wounds Vader and, being a good person who never wanted to kill his old apprentice, walks away. Similarly, Reva over on Tatooine tries to kill Luke (though it’s not fully clear why — she’s been left for dead by Vader, then finds out Luke and Obi-Wan have some sort of relationship, so she decides to kill the boy to…hurt Obi-Wan? Please Vader because she hurt Obi-Wan or killed a Force-sensitive child?) Luke escapes death not from some stupid deus ex machina or Reva acting insane. Though Reva appears to be untroubled by torturing Leia earlier on, a real missed opportunity by the filmmakers, we at least understand that as a youngling who was almost slaughtered by a Sith that she might hesitate to do the same to Luke.
In conclusion, series that blast the story in a direction that requires characters, in out-of-character ways, to go along with it will always suffer. As another example, The Walking Dead, in addition to forgetting to have a main character after a while and in general overstaying its welcome, was eventually infected with this. (There’s no real reason for all the main characters to cram into an RV to get Maggie to medical care in season 6, leaving their town defenseless; but the writers wanted them to all be captured by Negan for an exciting who-did-he-kill cliffhanger. There’s no reason Carl doesn’t gun Negan down when he has the chance in season 7, as he planned to do, right after proving his grit by massacring Negan’s guards; but Negan is supposed to be in future episodes.) Obviously, other Star Wars outings have terrible writing (and are worse overall productions), from Anakin and Padmé’s love confession dialogue or sand analysis in Attack of the Clones…to The Rise of Skywalker‘s convenient finding of McGuffins that conveniently reveal crucial information…to the creatively bankrupt plagiarism of the sequels. But I do not believe I have ever seen a show like Kenobi, one that puts heroes in a jam — a dramatic height, a climax — and so lazily and carelessly gets them out of it.