Obi-Wan Kenobi may have one man’s name in the show title, but one of the show’s strengths is that there are multiple supporting characters who have their own personality that is as well-defined as that of the titular protagonist.
I have talked about how important it is that the show nails the “missing link” between prequel and old Obi-Wan and Anakin/Vader elsewhere; I mentioned also the compelling performance of Joel Edgerton as uncle Owen. Now let us take a look at other supporting characters – who may not be simply “secondary”, but are, in fact, as important to the show as Obi-Wan himself.
The Little Princess
Chief among those is obviously little Leia (portrayed by Vivien Lyra Blair). It is a daring feat to try to write a character so well-established as Leia is and equally daring to try to portray her (remember the recast of Han in Solo that created mixed feelings).
To Disney’s credit, both have succeeded brilliantly. Vivien Lyra Blair nails the performance and the writing is also such that you can see little Carrie Fisher in Obi-Wan Kenobi‘s portrayal of Leia. She has the correct mix of her trademark sassiness and the realistic shock of a little child finding herself in such completely insane circumstances as where the show puts her.
Little Leia is essential to the story not just because she is the reason for getting the plot rolling, or because she evokes the feelings of nostalgia for old fans, or because she fills the same niche as “baby Yoda” by providing a cute child to complement the adult guy protagonist. She offers glimpses at the story and the world that is presented in Obi-Wan Kenobi from a different perspective: that of a privileged child who wakes up to the reality of what the Empire is. Among other things, the show is on a good track to make us say, by the end of the series, “now I understand why Leia became the way she was as an adult”. Not a mean feat.
Jar Jar Binks? Not At All
I am likely not the only one who was pleasantly surprised by Haja Estree (Kumal Nanjiani). His appearance in the story is executed (ahem, no pun intended) with meticulous planning. We first meet him as a con-man pretending to be a Jedi. It is not clear whether he is a good guy or a bad guy, and by the time Obi-Wan meets him, it becomes clear that he is at least a liar. However, later he gets a second chance, where he shines.
And that could be said both for the character and the actor – Kumal Nanjiani may be generally known mostly for comic relief characters. And to be fair, the moment I saw him, I feared that he could be, in the worst case, a new Jar Jar Binks. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to see that Haja Estree is a well-defined, realistic-seeming character, who is by no means just a flat, black-or-white comic relief.
And like Leia, he plays an important role in worldbuilding, or rather in showing to the audience what is this historical period like that we find ourselves in. Haja Estree allows us a glimpse to the world of the common people fleeing the Empire, to the situation of those in the bottom of the society, but also makes us understand how some of the common people see the Jedi at this time. We know what the Jedi are to the Inquisitors: an enemy all but defeated, the remnants that just need to be “cleaned up”. Obi-Wan himself essentially has the same perspective, only from the other side – he, too, believes himself defeated.
To people like Haja and his clients, the Jedi are a people of legends, but still embodying goodness, despite the Imperial propaganda. To Haja, the Jedi represent a symbol and an ideal that has its use even here and now, in the dark times.
Does Obi-Wan Need Sidekicks?
The last character that needs to be remarked on is Tala (Indira Varma). This character “steals the show” in the third and especially in the fourth episode. Without her, Obi-Wan’s trip into the Fortress Inquisitorius would be completely impossible. She gets him in, hacks into the security systems to tell him where to go, keeps him updated about dangers on the way, provides distraction when needed and extraction in the end.
She even gets some scenes of her own where she completely shines – bluffing her way past the security checkpoint or getting rid of a snoopy officer. Obi-Wan would not be able to pull this off without her. Which is absolutely fine!
The fact that Obi-Wan has to rely on a “commoner’s” (well, in fact, she is a highly skilled Rebel operative, but let’s say non-Jedi’s) help does not make him “weak”. It is not, for that matter, the first time Obi-Wan needed someone else’s help: even in the prequels and during the Clone Wars he had to often rely on clone troopers, underworld associates, droids and other “nobodys”. Compared to many of them, Tala is even clearly a bigger fish, better skilled and more experienced (over five years being undercover says something).
We can say that despite the fact that Obi-Wan Kenobi is a show with one man’s name in its title, it is not a one-man show. And that is good. The presence of others does not diminish Obi-Wan’s personal story. The supporting characters add depth to the worldbuilding and to the tale itself. But not only that. They are not merely there as extras Obi-Wan can talk to, they have their own stories and they seem like real people. And that is one of the important factors that separates a flat, boring story from a good one, and paves the way for a great one.