The following post contains minor spoilers for Obi-Wan Kenobi Episode 3.
If you were expecting Obi-Wan Kenobi to build its entire season around one climactic confrontation between its title character and his former apprentice Darth Vader, then this week’s episode gave you quite a surprise. Vader was all over “Part III” of Obi-Wan. He shows up early in the episode to offer Moses Ingram’s Reva the title of “Grand Inquisitor” if she manages to track down Obi-Wan, and then in the show’s final moments he personally confronts Obi-Wan on the mining planet of Mapuzo, where they have a brief lightsaber duel before the Jedi escapes.
Some of the specifics of this episode felt a little more suspect than Obi-Wan’s two-part premiere. For example, if the Empire has Stormtroopers hunting Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Obi-Wan basically looks like a slightly older and slightly dirtier version of himself from ten years earlier — even down to his tattered Jedi robes — how does no one recognize him? The Empire sent these guys looking for one of the most famous Jedi in history, but they don’t give them a picture of the dude they’re looking for? Wouldn’t it make their jobs much easier if they did? How do you find someone if you don’t know what they look like?
What carries the third Obi-Wan Kenobi episode along is Vader himself. Physically portrayed by Hayden Christensen and voiced by James Earl Jones, he returns here as this overwhelmingly menacing force — a reminder that before he became a fallen, tragic hero redeemed by his son, and then an annoyingly adorable kid who grew into a whiny Jedi in training, he was one of the all-time great villains in film history.
The first Star Wars movie doesn’t begin with Luke Skywalker or Han Solo; it begins by introducing Vader as this overwhelming malevolent force hunting Princess Leia and trying to reacquire stolen plans for the Empire’s Death Star. He arrives as a fully formed avatar of evil: The helmet and full face mask, the cape and hulking physique, the unnatural, ominous breathing. He doesn’t need to say a word to strike fear into the audience — and then he speaks in James Earl Jones’ booming bass.
That’s the Vader that shows up in Obi-Wan Kenobi, and it’s refreshing and exciting to have him back. He gets a showcase sequence where he walks through one of the communities on Mapuzo using the Force to intimidating the populace. He doesn’t even really try to interrogate anyone for information on Obi-Wan’s whereabouts; he just walks around choking people and hurling them through the air. It’s barely even about finding his old master. It’s just about displaying his enormous power.
With the notable exception of his brief appearance in Rogue One, that’s the Vader that’s been missing for decades, at least in live-action action form. In the years since A New Hope, Vader has slowly been supplanted as Star Wars’ primary villain by Emperor Palpatine. The Emperor was barely event mentioned in the original film and yet by Return of the Jedi, he was the franchise’s real Final Boss. Then in the prequels, the younger Palpatine becomes even more central, as both the manipulative Senator and the secretive Darth Sidious engineering a political crisis to seize power. The recent Star Wars sequels set up several new villains then revealed in The Rise of Skywalker that Palpatine was the guy engineered everything yet again.
From The Empire Strikes Back through Revenge of the Sith George Lucas and his collaborators worked to turn Vader into a more psychologically interesting figure, not to mention a more relatable character. But when you want a villain at the center of your story for your audience to fear, one who can instill intense concern for the well-being of the heroes, you just can’t beat Vader 1.0. (Literally; the whole impression that’s left by this Obi-Wan episode is that no one, including Obi-Wan, could possibly defeat this guy. He’s an actual killing machine.) In that context, it seems notable that the Emperor is totally absent from Obi-Wan Kenobi. As in A New Hope, Vader is once again at the center of the Imperial drama.
I’m not sure how Vader’s presence here jives with the events of A New Hope. Now that the Empire and Obi-Wan have renewed their hostilities, how is Obi-Wan going to sneak away and go back into undisturbed hiding on Tatooine for another 10 years? Hopefully the final episode of Obi-Wan addresses that question. In the meantime, I’m just going to enjoy Obi-Wan’s return of the Jedi, and especially the revenge of the Sith.