In 1977, Obi-Wan Kenobi battled Darth Vader aboard the Death Star. At the time audiences had only a partial understanding of the relationship between the Jedi and the Sith, unaware the confrontation was the culmination of decades friendship and betrayal. After crossing blades and words, Obi-Wan took a final look at Luke Skywalker and accepted his fate, falling to Vader’s blade. But what looked like a battle of titans when Star Wars was first released started to resemble the frantic bumbling of two elderly men once fans realized what Jedi and Sith were capable of in the prequel trilogy.
But with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story last year, and now the latest episode of Star Wars Rebels, Lucasfilm is laying the groundwork that could explain why the final encounter between the Master Jedi and his Padawan is so lackluster in hindsight.
WARNING Spoilers for both Rogue One and the “Twin Suns” episode of Star Wars Rebels beyond this point.
When Luke declared there is “still good” in Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi, no one would’ve blamed the audience for being dubious. Up until that point, there had been no indication Vader retained a single iota of goodness in his mechanical body. But the brilliant thing about Lucasfilm’s story group is how they’re able to find tiny moments in the original trilogy and break them open into meaningful character development. Vader’s treatment of Obi-Wan in their initial fight is one such moment. We now know that Vader was holding back. His duel with Obi-Wan chronologically takes place days or, at most, weeks after the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Vader attempting to retrieve the Death Star plans before they’re delivered to Princess Leia is one of the more memorable scenes of the film. This is the Vader of legend; powerful, merciless, terrifying. Had he chosen to, Vader could’ve been far more aggressive with his former master. But, as shown years previous with his inability to kill Ahsoka Tano, Vader still holds affection for friends from his former life.
But what of Obi-Wan? “Your powers are weak, old man,” Vader states, mid-duel. However, the most recent episode of Star Wars Rebels shows otherwise. Darth Maul, who has been kicking around since the animated series The Clone Wars as being sliced in half by a weapon that instantly cauterizes wounds isn’t as deadly as you’d imagine, turns up on Tatooine to finish the job he started back in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The episode had been touted as the battle royale between ancient foes. Yet, like Indiana Jones shooting an adversary he doesn’t have time for, Obi-Wan kills Maul with little to no fanfare. It is the act reminiscent of samurai films, something showrunner Dave Filoni confirmed was an inspiration to io9. Filoni also says they debated a prolonged battle between Kenobi and Maul, but it felt wrong for the scene.
Yes, Star Wars Rebels takes place a few years before the beginning of A New Hope, but there’s nothing to indicate Obi-Wan suffer from a sudden onset of old age. In fact, his Zen approach to killing a long-standing foe suggests he’d have an even greater reluctance to strike down his former best friend. Instead of being weak, could Kenobi have been masking his powers or holding them in an iron grip to keep to Jedi tenets in the face of his former apprentice? The confrontation with Maul hints at yes.
With all this information, one’s perspective of the fight on the Death Star in A New Hope changes. Instead of two old men batting ineffectively at each other in an attempt to reclaim their glory days, it becomes a precise dance of reluctance and grief. The gulf between the former friends is insurmountable, but neither wants to be the first to strike. It is only when Obi-Wan needs to distract Vader from Luke’s escape that he sacrifices himself for the sake of the Chosen One, a Jedi to the last.
Of course, death doesn’t hold the same terror if you know you’ll be back as a ghost.