Darth Vader is Star Wars’ ultimate villain. We’ve always known that, but the revived era of the franchise has dug deep into Vader as a character beyond his iconography to re-establish why we’re fascinated with him, why we’re so scared of him, and why we ultimately invest in him. Obi-Wan Kenobi understands this in returning Hayden Christensen under Vader’s mask, but also crucially understands something just as important: Anakin Skywalker is the galaxy far, far away’s pettiest drama queen.
The third chapter of Obi-Wan Kenobi delivers a moment fans have been waiting for ever since an Obi-Wan Kenobi series was first confirmed: a decade before they would fatefully clash on the Death Star in A New Hope, Obi-Wan and the fallen Anakin Skywalker — now clad in the armour of a Dark Lord of the Sith — locked sabers in horror and anguish, as the former learned the truth of his brother-in-arms’ survival after Mustafar. This may not have been the epic duel that some fans wanted of this powerful reunion. An abandoned quarry on the new mining planet Mapuzo is hardly, perhaps, quite as visually dramatic as the slag and molten hot rivers of Mustafar’s fiery shores. And yet, Obi-Wan Kenobi still hits all the beats you’d want, if this pre-ANH fight must exist between the two former Jedi.
Vader stalks the dark, less the unstoppable object we saw in Rogue One’s hallway scene and more a slinking shadow, playing up on the absolute terror Obi-Wan feels in coming face-to-mask with his fallen apprentice. Vader teases, he switches his lightsaber on and off only to strike in moments of surprise between dirt piles before their duel really begins. Obi-Wan, so compromised by his emotions, can barely stand up, let alone match the brutal assault Vader unleashes upon him when the hunter decides to turn on the hunted. It’s not really a duel, but a sloppy beating as Vader strikes, and strikes, and strikes again. This is the Darth Vader that Star Wars fans idealised across generations of nostalgia for the original trilogy: the ultimate evil, the terror and the power, the Big Badass.
But Obi-Wan Kenobi’s nostalgia is not really for the original Star Wars. It is a reflection of the renewed embrace of the prequels, and with it, the recognition that behind Vader’s mask — metatextually or otherwise — is the Anakin Skywalker that both Hayden Christensen and Matt Lanter have brought to life across those movies, and then Clone Wars as it in turn carried on their legacy. The Darth Vader of Obi-Wan Kenobi cannot be just this reflection of the idealised original trilogy Vader we hold in our heads, he has to also be Anakin Skywalker. Which means one thing above all — remembering that the Chosen One was petty as all hell.
And it does indeed remember. From the moment Vader enters the picture on Mapuzo, the terror of that masked image is presented in tandem with a throughline of dramatic excess that is so thoroughly the cocky bragadoccio of the prequel saga’s Anakin. The cruel performance of casually snapping necks and dragging villagers around with the Force to coax Obi-Wan out, the theatricality in the quarry hunting Obi-Wan, even the simple act that Vader, in a rare sight from what we see of him in the movies, is casually, single-handedly batting away Obi-Wan’s lightsaber when he strikes in their battle. Anakin Skywalker is in all these little moments, deep down, because it’s a performance. He is looking in the eye of his former master and showing him what he has become, the man he could always be, and relishing every moment. Because at this point, even if you’ve not read the comics where this is made explicitly obvious — there’s more than enough in the text of the movies and Clone Wars alone to make it obvious, really — but what is more Anakin Skywalker than holding a moody, bitter grudge?
Throughout the prequels and Clone Wars, we saw him do this in ways grand and small, from his petty tête-à-têtes with Dooku and Grievous, to figures like Padmé’s former lover Clovis Bray. Anakin loves a chance to prove himself the upstart, and has the confidence and power to do so, and we see him indulge that side of him across those movies and that show over and over. So it’s fitting that Obi-Wan Kenobi culminates its own Battle of the Heroes with an act that is over-the-top and dramatic as hell too. In a moment of opportunity, Vader holds a Force-grappled Obi-Wan over a scattered container of fuel crystals, and calmly lowers himself just enough so that his lightsaber can set them all alight. “Now you will suffer, Obi-Wan,” Vader growls, with almost a rare sense of satisfaction seeping through his voice. “Your pain has just begun!”
Flinging Obi-Wan down to drag him through the flames, Vader watches just as Obi-Wan did when Anakin burst into fire and unleashed agonizing screams on the shores of Mustafar. There’s is some of that George Lucas-isan rhyming poetry here, of course, to see this duel climax as their prior clash did. But it’s as much emblematic of the kind of person Anakin always was — this man of such power that still couldn’t help but indulge his bravado with a quip here and a comeuppance there, a perpetual grudge holder always eager to cash that dramatic check — as it is evocative of Star Wars’ love of poetic echoes. It is, just as much material exploring Vader in the Disney era of the franchise has been, a wonderful enmeshing of the Vader we have in our mind’s eye from the original movies, and the Anakin Skywalker we met, and then lovingly memed on, in the prequel era.
As equally horrifying as it is petulant, it is the Vader moment that Obi-Wan Kenobi needed to give us perhaps more than any duel or snappy line, a chosen one bringing balance to the duality of Anakin Skywalker on screen as has been brought to the fore in books and comics. It’s perhaps why, as the episode ends, we almost have an answer as to why Vader would simply let his prey go momentarily — he has had his moment of delicious, dramatic revenge, and doesn’t actually need more of his former master for now. And who are we to deny that to a petty Sith who lives for drama?
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