Since the latest episode of Star Wars Rebels, titled Twin Suns, came out this past weekend, I have received a lot of notifications for my take on it and run in to many more instances of friends and colleagues in the lightsaber community and star wars fandom altogether arguing over the way the final confrontation of Obi-Wan (now Ben) Kenobi against the (now former) Darth Maul. I felt this needed a look and discussion. It should go without saying but consider this a MASSIVE SPOILER for the episode. For those of you who want to see the fight, google it. I’ll wait…good, you’re back.
A lot of the arguments about the confrontation is that the fight is short. In fact, the entire fight is in three hits. Compared to the previous battles between Obi Wan and Maul over the years from Phantom Menace and the Clone Wars, this is ludicrously short. Much of this fight is in the subtext, what the characters are doing from the beginning of their confrontation to the final fade.
These are two characters with thirty years of backstory. Both have been in hiding for the last seventeen years (Rebels takes place 2 years before A New Hope, 19 years after the Clone Wars). They have fought several times, the greatest of these being their initial duel. Maul has obsessed over (amongst other things) Kenobi removing the company of Maul’s original legs. Maul is responsible for death and destruction of countless people, including Kenobi’s master.
The final confrontation between the two of them is a discourse on where these two have ended up nearly twenty years after their last encounter. Maul is a hobbling shell fueled by anger and rage. His Sith and Dark Side teachings to use his hatred is what is keeping him going throughout the remainder of his years. He has manipulated Ezra and others to attain his obsessions, and that is exactly what they are.
Obi Wan has secluded himself in the desert, protecting Luke Skywalker. Removed from distraction and his youthful arrogance, Obi-Wan has found a level of peace, or at least acceptance. He tells Ezra he had no intent to fight Maul, but it’s inevitable now that they are all there. Obi-Wan tells Ezra to go and find his home, and Maul dismisses him arrogantly. He had done his job.
What comes next is why I refer to this as a confrontation. You’re seeing two rivals, two contemporaries, meet after a generation has passed them by. Maul finds Obi-Wan’s position ridiculous, and Obi-Wan has moved the fuck on from the bullshit he even had as a young Knight. When Maul is called out on the fact that his life of anger, malice, and violence, ultimately means nothing, he draws his saber. Obi-Wan doesn’t. He doesn’t even react, not until Luke is mentioned in passing. One of them is willing to kill over ego and open wounds. One is ready to die if he has to, and fight if it means protecting the one he has sworn to protect.
What happens next is a rare amount of fight psychology in a lightsaber fight. Obi Wan immediately goes in the his Soresu stance (Saber up high, his offhand outstretched in a warding gesture), then he switches to a mid guard. This is the same stance he had as a padawan, back when he was studying with Qui-Gon. This is a subtle tell to Maul (and us) that he’s using Ataru, the same style used in their first encounter.
The standoff ends when Maul (impatiently from the sounds of it) rushes forward. Obi-wan doesn’t move, and defends the first two blocks. If this were Ataru he would be moving and hitting hard. He’s sticking with Ataru. The third strike Maul tries to land is a staff strike to the face. This is the same move that opened up Qui Gon’s defenses and got him killed. Kenobi, who you have to believe has replayed that fight numerous times over the years (or else why switch styles?) and saw the opening his master didn’t. One clean strike. We never even see the wound, only some smoke.
What happens next is the pay off of the entire thing. Maul’s last words aren’t about how much he hates Kenobi. He’s asking what Obi-wan was willing to die and kill for. He asks if that person is The Chosen One. Obi-Wan reveals that he is. Maul states his belief that the Chosen One (Luke) will avenge “Us”. He means a lot of people here. Himself, his brother, his people, and Kenobi as well. He knows the Sith have destroyed all their lives. He accepts that his life is a ruin because of his training. He also knows that Kenobi is a victim in this too. His last words, and last act, is one of acceptance. He doesn’t fight it. He knows it will fall to someone else.
Kenobi closes his eyes, and holds him. He’s holding him the same way he held Qui-Gon, who made Obi-Wan promise to train the Chosen One (He meant Anakin, but what’s a generation?). Here he is now, holding his master’s killer, confirming he is protecting the Chosen One. There’s a beautiful symmetry in this.
Many people are displeased about the brevity about the fight. I appreciated the quickness of it. There was more done in those three hits than in most of the prequel fights. It’s also worth noting that this wasn’t the next chapter of the book of Maul v Kenobi. This was the period to it, the summation and the end. It showed these two men, who had attained the extremes of their religion: Maul with his obsessions and hatreds keeping him alive, and Obi-Wan willing to sacrifice it all for the potential good of all.
The fight was a component of the confrontation. It was how the two of them normally spoke. It was inevitable, but what was said was already said a dozen times. In an article about the episode, Executive Producer Dave Filoni said this:
“The instinct would be, and probably, I admit, the expectation, is for some kind of prolonged lightsaber battle. But I’ve done a lot of prolonged lightsaber battles over the years and I think what’s most important about any kind of confrontation is what’s riding on it. What’s the tension going into it? It starts to matter less and less how you swing a sword or how creatively you do it if there’s not a lot riding on it.”
A fight does not need to be long to be epic. With the right build up, the right amount of tension, an entire conversation can be had (and an essay written) within those three strikes. To quote a friend: “[The rivalry] started as Bollywood (meaning the elaborate choreography) and ended with Kurosawa.” Considering that the original source of Kenobi and Star Wars itself is The Hidden Fortress, I think this was intentional.
A lot of my critiques about fights revolve over whether they serve a purpose in a story or if they are a set piece the story is written around. What is this fight telling us about the people and the stakes they are fighting for. We see in this that Kenobi is willing to die and fight for someone he protects, wheras Maul is willing to fight because that is all he knows and all that keeps him going. This was about them, these two inherently doomed characters, not about their fight. And a fight that reveals the nature of characters is a fight I’m always willing to see.