Lord Vader’s feelings aren’t clear in this matter. In the finale of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader gets a very important holographic call from a very important Star Wars character. And in this one chilling cameo, an inconsistent plot thread involving Vader’s authority is finally explained.
Spoilers ahead for Obi-Wan Kenobi Part VI.
Palpatine drops the hammer
After losing his duel with Obi-Wan, the finale finds Vader fully recovered on Mustafar and reporting to Palpatine that he’s not done tracking down his old master. Vader is furious at this moment, but also kind of making excuses to his boss. Yes, he used a lot of Imperial resources to chase Kenobi, but still failed and managed to lose the underground group smuggling Jedi and Force Sensitive people to safety.
In response, Palpatine doesn’t validate Vader’s anger. Instead, he reigns him in.
“You seem agitated my friend,” Palpatine says, almost amused. “I wonder if your thoughts are clear on this, Lord Vader.”
And just like that, Palps basically deflates Vader and puts him in his place. The line echoes a similar one Palpatine says to Vader in Return of the Jedi in regard to Luke Skywalker: “I wonder if your feelings on this matter are clear, Lord Vader.”
In that context, Vader was kind of lying, but in this scene, it seems like Palpatine’s subtle managing of Vader actually does work.
Vader’s subdued A New Hope role explained
In A New Hope, it would seem Darth Vader has all but given up trying to find Obi-Wan Kenobi. There’s also a kind of chain-of-command in place that appears designed to contain Darth Vader and prevent him from becoming a loose cannon. Leia even notes that she thinks Tarkin is “holding Vader’s leash.”
Obi-Wan Kenobi gives this line a lot of new layers. First, Leia is aware of just how unhinged Vader can get when he’s pursuing something directly. In Obi-Wan Kenobi, young Leia witnessed this kind of thing firsthand.
But Leia’s assessment in A New Hope is also correct. Tarkin gives Vader orders, not the other way around. Three years later, by the time of The Empire Strikes Back, Tarkin is dead and Vader is hell-bent on finding Luke. He’s basically back to how he behaves in Obi-Wan Kenobi, using all the resources of the Empire to pursue personal missions. By the time of Empire, nobody is left (other than Palpatine) to stop Vader. But in the Obi-Wan timeline, nine years before A New Hope, Palpatine yanks Vader’s chain, and it seems to work.
Vader is, for all intents and purposes, Palpatine’s attack dog. But, as demonstrated in Obi-Wan Kenobi, he’s also kind of feral. Between Obi-Wan and A New Hope, Vader’s role within the Empire is more formally defined (we assume). So by the time of A New Hope, Vader is more of a soldier than an attack dog. Of course, after Vader learns about Luke, all of that goes out the window again and he reverts to his self-centered methodology.
The biggest difference between the Vader-Palpatine relationship of Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Empire Strikes Back is subtle, but important. In Obi-Wan Palpatine wants to put Vader in his place, to retain him as a valuable asset. But in Empire, when Vader is running wild again, Palpatine is already thinking about replacing him. As the events of Obi-Wan reveal, Palps has heard this song before and knows how it goes.
Obi-Wan Kenobi is streaming now on Disney+.