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With Darth Vader, less is more, according to the screenwriter of Obi-Wan Kenobi

‘You don’t want to see Vader sitting around looking at a scrapbook.’

A masked Darth Vader (Hayden Christensen) is illuminated by flames on a dark background in Obi-Wan Kenobi. Image: Lucasfilm
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Obi-Wan Kenobi on Disney Plus is about ... Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. But there’s no talking about Obi-Wan — or at least not McGregor’s Obi-Wan, established with a trim beard, dry wit, and athletic grace in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel films — without talking about Darth Vader. That’s the standpoint of Joby Harold, at least.

“If you’re going to tell the Obi-Wan story and show what that character is living with and struggling with vis-à-vis the past,” Obi-Wan’s screenwriter-slash-showrunner told Polygon via Zoom, “you’re doing a disservice to the Vader character if you don’t in some way acknowledge — even if it’s subtext — Vader’s side of the equation.”

Vader’s rage, his intimidating power, and his sheer physical presence have been among the most iconic images of the Star Wars franchise for nearly half a century. Bringing him into live-action television for the first time (played by Hayden Christensen, who spent precious little time in the iconic suit during the prequels) came with its own considerations, which Harold shared with Polygon.

First of all, there’s a limit to how emotive Star Wars’ ultimate boogeyman can be without flipping the script into parody, but you’ve still got find ways to put Anakin Skywalker’s pathos on the screen.

“You don’t want to see Vader sitting around looking at a scrapbook,” Harold said with humor. “But getting to see how [when he attacks Obi-Wan] in episode 3, there’s an anger, there’s a rage there. He’s more emotional, it’s made manifest in a very, very specific way that makes him just a little bit — he’s our Vader for our show, he’s not just the plug-and-play Vader. That was really, really important because otherwise it feels like a disservice to Obi-Wan’s story. You need both sides of those to be doing the same thing.”

On top of that, Harold sees part of his job on the show is to illustrate the transition between Anakin in the final moments of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Darth Vader in the opening moments of Star Wars: A New Hope, set two decades later.

“There is a little piece of incomplete storytelling for me from the Anakin/Vader side. You can’t just say ‘He puts on the mask, and then he is the guy we meet in A New Hope.’ It’s a lot to ask the audience if you would just put those back to back [...] that’s a lot to embrace.”

And then there’s simply the matter of taking a character just as impressive in 2022 as he was in the less excessive days of 1977 cinema.

“Everything about [staging] Vader is very difficult,” Harold told Polygon. “Just from regards to the quarter inch of where he’s standing and his helmet being [held at the right angle] and all the bits of the puzzle, very practically, on the day. Less is always more with him. You want to see him on Mustafar, you want to see him looking at the lava fields. [...] When he’s on Mustafar, he is throned, that is his domain. So he can be imperious in that throne, but it can’t feel like he’s sitting in a chair from IKEA. [...] Balance is always really, really important — as it is with the Force — but again, it comes down to the design, to the director, the performance and all those things coming together.”

Comparatively, the main character of the show may have thankfully been easier to bring to the screen.

“The great honor of getting to work on a legacy show is you’re not hoping that they cast the part well,” Harold told Polygon. “We all know. It’s Ewan, and we all know what he’s gonna do with it, and he’s so extraordinary in this part.”

Here, Obi-Wan Kenobi has an advantage that Vader — and the last two protagonists of Star Wars’ Disney Plus shows — lacks: He’s not a character known for wearing a mask all the dang time. Harold told Polygon that he was able to write emotional beats to be nearly wordless, knowing that between the talents of director Deborah Chow and McGregor, everything that needed to be communicated would make it to the screen.

Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi reacts in silent horror as he finds out after ten years that Anakin Skywalker is still alive in Obi-Wan Kenobi (2022). Image: Lucasfilm

“The ‘Anakin’ at the end of [episode 2], being able to have that be storytelling that is present on him seeing and realizing — with the audience getting to watch his face as he realizes — that which haunts him is alive. And then say the word, and the word being hard to even say, that’s all scripted. Deb and I are in such a lockstep in regards to the character and the stories that it’s another way of saying to the reader and to production, Ewan’s got this, Ewan will carry the day here. Let’s put the weight on that which isn’t said, let’s put the weight on the character and on the audience seeing, in Obi-Wan’s eyes, everything that haunts him. And Ewan runs with that. It’s amazing what he does. It’s amazing.

“I had at one point, like, half a page just describing Ewan’s face,” Harold said.

Obi-Wan Kenobi’s final two episodes will air on June 15 and 22, and judging by what’s happened so far, there’ll be plenty of emotional devastation for Ewan McGregor’s face to express.