A much-anticipated episode of the Disney show Star Wars Rebels aired last night featuring, for the first time in animation, the ?Alec Guinness?-version of Obi Wan Kenobi facing an equally-older Darth Maul, who was cut in half in The Phantom Menace but survived because of ?Sith magic? and enjoyed a second life in The Clone Wars animated series.
The decision to bring Darth Maul back was controversial (as the comments here indicate), but everything Star Wars has done since Return of the Jedi has pissed off at least a third of the hardcore fans. In fact, when I discovered that Maul was coming back in The Clone Wars, I was one of the ones who thought it was a terrible idea.
As someone who thinks a lot about how to build fictional stories with amazing nonsense but still grounded in some kind of reality or stakes, The Clone Wars writing staff led by (fellow Yinzer) Dave Filoni were in an impossible position. Unless you plant a seed for it in the first act of the first thing a character is in, bringing them back from the dead is a hard sell. It works for Wolverine, because his healing factor can do that, I guess. When Gandalf the White pops up out of nowhere in The Two Towers we?re happy, so we buy it, but deep down you know it feels like a cheat.
Maul?s arc in the series was much more satisfying than I initially thought. He was a fun ?legacy? character to dump into the show, but he always felt extraneous to the narrative about the war and really only served as a red herring for the Jedi to flop around after because they had no idea who the real Sith Lord behind the war was.
When he resurfaced in Rebels, that was also kind of fun. Again, he was a dude who knew the Force and had a lightsaber to add a villain who wasn?t a stormtrooper or an imperials in a special outfit. The best part about this show are its glimpses of these legacy characters from the movie and the previous cartoon to get a sense of what life under the Empire was like.
The show?s main characters are likable enough, though it?s tough to really care about them, especially Ezra and Kanan, the two Jedi. We know that they aren?t around in A New Hope, because there are no Jedi left. So either they are dead; they?e disappeared; or they?ve somehow been conveniently had their connection to the Force cut off so that by the time of Rogue One they are just regular old rebels.
It?s episodes like ?Twin Suns? that fans should live for, because they do show us characters that we fans care about a great deal, like Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. His small appearance in this episode is fantastic and significantly deepens our understanding of the character. Also, like the infamous exhaust port retcon in Rogue One, it?s also a chance to justify one of the biggest complaints about Old Ben compared to Prequel Obi-Wan.
Since they promoted the confrontation between Maul and Kenobi, this video clip serves as your bulwark against spoilers. To repeat, here is your spoiler warning. We?re getting into the details of the episode, so if you?ve not seen it do so and then come back and read onwards.
We?re going to work backwards from the end, starting with this fight that is frankly one of my favorite lightsaber duels (if not the favorite) in the Star Wars canon. The moment where Kenobi observes a young Luke from afar is pure fan-bait, but still a nice moment. It sounded like they actually used Shelagh Fraser?s voice when Aunt Beru calls him inside (another example of Star Wars getting ?new? performances from dearly departed actors).
Yet the rest of the episode was one of those times when the ?silly little kids? cartoon? delivers the kinds of literary stories Star Wars fans love. What?s to follow is the result of tedious scholarly research, by which I mean I watched the PR video where they interview the show creators and actors in which they break down the influences of the fight, watched the episode, and then watched the fight itself like ten more times.
Star Wars has deep Kurosawa roots, so the samurai-vibe was baked in the foundation of the Jedi and the Sith. Vader?s helmet was inspired by the armor of the time. The two-handed lightsaber grip another reference to this. So that is why this three-point, two-second fight is one of the most perfect realizations of this.
It?s the old trope that experienced, master swordsmen (especially who have faced each other before) have their battles in their mind?s eye. Thus the actual fight is over very quickly. As the creators state in the video, Maul rushes into face Kenobi, who blocks the first strike. Maul then uses the hilt of his weapon to bash Kenobi in the face, the move which killed his master in TPM. Kenobi, no goddamn fool, anticipates this and slices the hilt of the double-bladed lightsaber, and Maul himself, clean through.
Note the pose in the image atop this post. That?s the ?Alec Guiness? Obi-Wan taking the fighting stance that the ?Ewan McGregor? Obi-Wan took before facing General Grievous. Yet, we know that he?s been living in exile since the Republic fell, doing not much but meditating on the Force and other such training. So when he sees Maul?s stance, he opts instead to go for the one he uses when he faces Vader in the Death Star?s hangar bay. Then he moves his saber into the starting position Liam Neeson deployed as Qui-Gon Jin in that fatal battle.
It was almost as if, faced with his old enemy, he reacted with instinct to a different ?form? of (laser)swordsmanship to the one we?re familiar with from the Death Star. Yet, that fight has long been lambasted as timid, slow, and weak. Fans have explained that it?s because the characters are ?old? but that doesn?t fit with the ?lore? that has followed that film. Others say Vader was holding back, and he probably was. Others say Obi-Wan was holding back to buy time for the rest of the gang to escape, also likely true.
Not so with Maul. Obi-Wan cuts him down quickly. Like the old masters of the samurai, he doesn?t waste a stroke on flourish, and we know how younger Obi-Wan liked flourish. This fight establishes that Kenobi had not lost a step but perhaps skipped a few unnecessary ones. This re-contextualizes that fight in the Death Star as well. Maul was the same old Maul, assuming Kenobi was the same old Kenobi. When he came face-to-face with Vader, they were both so different, so changed there could be no long stare and quick battle. Instead they had to probe and poke at each other, while harboring the ulterior motives as theorized above.
Still, this scene adds a layer to the older Obi-Wan that enriches his actions in A New Hope. While Obi Wan was always less reticent to kill than Anakin, he never backed down from a fight (because the stories would have been boring, otherwise). Yet, in this episode, he reveals to Ezra that he never intended to fight Maul at all. As much as people want anew movie with an older Ewan McGregor kicking ass as Kenobi somewhere on Tattooine, it appears Old Ben avoided conflict, unless he had to protect Luke.
This episode can also serve as a kind of meta-commentary on the state of the Star Wars films, the legends as they were set up and the conflict that arises with ongoing stories that need to feature well-known characters. The conversation between Obi-Wan and Ezra actually makes an argument against telling these kinds of stories.
Unlike The Clone Wars, which would spend four episodes following droids around or a two-parter with Jar Jar and Mace Windu, Rebels follows their ensemble pretty closely. We never see a story without at least one or two of them in it. In all honesty, there is no reason for any of these characters to ever go to Tattooine. The Hutts are bastards. There?s too many bounty hunters, and there are no rebels there. It?s also a giant dirtball.
So when Obi Wan tells Ezra he is in a place ?he was never supposed to be? (more on that later), he could be talking about how Old Ben and young Luke shouldn?t really have fallen into this show?s orbit. Yet, because of the Maul thread, they had an excuse to go there.
For what it?s worth, if this is a message the staff is trying to subtly send, I reject it. As these ramblings should hopefully indicate, I found this to be a great Star Wars story. It was a necessary character moment for Ezra, to fail like this and despair when his droid buddy ran out of juice. He, as he always has in the series, just barrels forward on an impulse, which is a perfectly age-appropriate thing for his character (a teenage boy with magical powers) to do.
Yet, to keep it on the meta-commentary, this is a common flaw in many protagonists in a lot of the genre stories out there. The hero is all balls and no brains. Protagonists just dive headfirst into situations they know are traps, make terrible decisions, and generally make things harder for themselves. Now, this is all the components of a thrilling adventure, but it?s also a well-worn trope.
Still, this story is earned. They brought Maul back in the last animated series, put him in comics and novels, and now finished his arc on this series. It was something they had to do, both because that?s the only story that made any kind of emotional sense and the fans deserved closure. Even this was part of the meta-commentary of this episode.
The opening scene, Maul wandering somewhere in the Jundland Wastes and soliloquizing, wondering if he?d just die out there forgotten. Of course he wouldn?t, because we, the audience, know that Maul (especially as played by Sam Witwer) is alwas worth watching. Yet, in the Galactic scheme of things, he?s a nobody. His monologue is delivered to no one, because there is no one who cares about Maul. (Except maybe Ezra, but that was just a guilt thing.)
I pity those who feel that the current plan to crank out Star Wars-themed stories is a bad idea or somehow cheapens the value of the original films. None of the expanded universe stuff has ever affected my affection for those original movies. Though I hated the old post-ROTJ EU because they had Luke go dark side (negates the resolution of ROTJ, which is my favorite movie of all time). But you know what I did? I just dismissed it.
That?s what you can do with these extraneous Star Wars things that are out there. I mean, I have never seen The Freemaker Adventures and never plan to. But, if you?re patient and keep an open mind, they can come up with gems like this episode or the Rebels Season Two premiere and finale that tell great stories about characters you love, giving you even more tiny threads to pull on until the next one.