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What 'Obi-Wan Kenobi' teaches us about love and hate

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Disney’s recent Obi-Wan Kenobi series — and arguably the entire Star Wars saga — hinges on the complicated relationship between the show’s titular character and its main villain, Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. Outside of the Star Wars universe, their relationship also teaches us important lessons about the broader interplay between love and hate in human relationships.

Born without a father and taken from his mother at an early age, Anakin works hard for the admiration and recognition of those around him, including, especially, Obi-Wan Kenobi, his Jedi master. However, despite Anakin’s desperate need for a parental figure to replace two lost (or missing) parents, Obi-Wan treats their relationship more as a brother would, emphasizing advice and hard lessons over love and support. While Anakin values these gifts (and holds Obi-Wan’s abilities as a Jedi in high esteem), it leaves him wanting for a deeper connection with his master.

Obi-Wan Kenobi touches on this dynamic in Part 3’s Attack of the Clones-era flashbacks. Anakin and Obi-Wan engage in a friendly training duel inside the old Jedi Temple. While Anakin shows remarkable strength and ability with a lightsaber, he is eventually disarmed, with Obi-Wan mostly overlooking Anakin’s otherwise stellar performance and concluding the session with a light admonition: “Your need to prove yourself is your undoing.” Obi-Wan is correct that Anakin is trying to prove himself in this scene, but what he doesn’t seem to realize is that he’s trying to earn the approval of Obi-Wan himself (which Obi-Wan fails to bestow).

The lopsided nature of their relationship is further represented by Anakin’s unique degree of loyalty to his master. His willingness to risk his life to save Obi-Wan’s is displayed (and alluded to) multiple times throughout the prequel trilogy, and it reflects the deep sense of devotion Anakin felt toward him. We never really see Obi-Wan reciprocate this attitude or behavior in the films, and Anakin’s eventual fall to the dark side is partly caused by Obi-Wan’s inability to satisfy his padawan’s need for devotion and loyalty.

This break between the two is put on heart-wrenching display at the end of their Revenge of the Sith showdown on Mustafar. In a deleted scene (it’s unclear if this is considered canon), it’s revealed that, shortly after his dismemberment and prior to his immolation, Anakin pleads with Obi-Wan to save him (“Help me, master”), to which Obi-Wan responds regretfully, “I love you, but I can’t help you.” This would have been the ultimate betrayal in Anakin’s eyes. Here was Obi-Wan’s chance to save his life — and possibly his soul — after the numerous times Anakin saved his. His refusal confirmed to Anakin what he suspected and feared all along: Obi-Wan simply didn’t love him the way he did. This final abandonment by his would-be father figure marks the completion of Anakin’s moral transition into Darth Vader.

What follows is a passionate, decades-long hatred of his former master, which, conversely, only seems to further reinforce Vader/Anakin’s need for the respect and admiration of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Dr. Aaron Ben-Zeev writes in Psychology Today that in some circumstances, “hate serves as a channel of communication when other paths are blocked, and it functions to preserve the powerful closeness of the relationship.” In other words, when there remains a desire to be emotionally close to another but healthy channels like love and friendship are no longer available, hatred sometimes fills that void. One might wish to stay connected to another, but since they can’t love them, they resort to hatred.

Something similar seems to be at play in Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s post-Revenge of the Sith relationship. Throughout the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, Vader’s intense hatred for his former master borders on outright obsession, which even causes Emperor Palpatine to briefly question the loyalty of his apprentice. Palpatine suspects what is surely happening beneath the surface: Vader still wants to maintain some kind of passionate, emotional relationship with Obi-Wan, which circumstance now requires to be hate-filled. This is further rooted in the entombed Anakin’s need to feel loved, respected and admired by his former master. While certainly a reason for Palpatine to be concerned, it does represent the persistent humanity of Darth Vader, even at this stage, more than a decade before his Return of the Jedi redemption.

We gain this window of insight into Vader’s inner world toward the end of their final duel in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Part 6 finale. Vader enters the fight under the false assumption that Obi-Wan hates him as much as he does and wants to kill him with equal vengeance. He begins their duel with the words, “Have you come to destroy me, Obi-Wan?” While Obi-Wan responds with his classic “I will do what I must” line, it isn’t clear that that’s what he’s there to do (subsequent events would prove he likely had no intention of killing Vader). However, it does hint at the nature of Vader’s thoughts and feelings: He not only wants to kill Obi-Wan, he also wants Obi-Wan to want to kill him.

At the conclusion of their duel, Obi-Wan has once again emerged victorious, with Vader severely wounded and unable to continue fighting. Obi-Wan, instead of finishing Vader off once and for all (which would have easily been within his power), takes the Jedi approach: He apologizes for his part in Anakin’s fall and shows his old friend mercy. (It’s important to note here that this is a sincere display of love and forgiveness from Obi-Wan, which Vader does seem to briefly acknowledge through his facial expression but quickly ignores.)

As he walks away, Vader twice cries out his name. On the surface, this sequence looks like a deranged and delusional attempt by Vader to continue fighting, despite his certain defeat and likely death that would result. Within the broader context of their relationship and Vader’s continued need for connection with Obi-Wan, however, this moment looks more like a cry for attention, an invitation for Obi-Wan to demonstrate a shared hatred by killing him. This is the bedrock of Vader’s feelings for Obi-Wan: He wants his former master to hate him because he wants him to care enough about him to hate him.

Obi-Wan’s refusal to kill Vader is an inverse parallel to his refusal to help Anakin at the end of Revenge of the Sith. He does not oblige in either case, which is deeply distressing for Vader and, in both instances, only seems to worsen his hatred.

In addition to giving further depth to the relationship between Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the series sheds light on the interconnectedness of love and hate. Arguably the two most charged, volatile emotions in the human experience, love and hate are usually considered opposites, but as the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin rightly demonstrates, they both serve as outward manifestations of humanity’s deepest need and desire: meaningful emotional connection with others.

Many religious and spiritual systems consider hatred to be a form of evil, but that doesn’t make those who hold hate in their heart irredeemable. More than a decade after the events of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker is ultimately resurrected by his son’s unshakeable faith in the humanity of Darth Vader. This might be the Star Wars saga’s greatest moral lesson: Hatred — even virulent, violent hatred — is a sign that the deepest human need for connection still exists, and that the potential for love remains. Perhaps that is why so many traditions and mythologies — from Star Wars to Christianity to Buddhism — consider love to be the only appropriate response to hate.