“Age is just a number” goes the popular adage, one we usually adopt once birthdays start arriving with a feeling of dread instead of excitement. But in our detail-oriented pop-culture universe, the ages of our favorite characters can be much more than that, often becoming a problem for writers to solve or a continuity lapse for fan bases to obsess over. Why does Ewan McGregor‘s Obi-Wan Kenobi still look decades younger than his Alec Guinness counterpart, even though McGregor’s recent Star Wars show is set just a handful of years before A New Hope? Are we really supposed to just buy that Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut are younger in Better Call Saul than they were in Breaking Bad? Just how long are we going to pretend that those Stranger Things kids look young enough to be high-schoolers? And, ultimately, as viewers, is it fair play to even ask these questions?
Well, the short answer to that last question is: No, it’s not fair. Just shaddup and enjoy your shows! Now, to be clear, that’s not always the correct answer, and we’ll talk about some exceptions a bit later in this article. But, for the most part, strong dramatic storytelling usually involves at least some suspension of belief anyway, so it should not be a big deal to brush age-related concerns aside and enjoy the show or movie you’re watching on its own narrative. terms. For example, let’s look at Obi-Wan Kenobithe Star Wars show that recently wrapped up its (first?) season run on Disney +. Obi-Wan is set 10 years after Revenge of the Sith and nine years before A New Hope. And, yes, as many a Twitter user has pointed out during the duration of the show’s run, McGregor looks much closer to his Sith version of the character than he does Guiness’ white-haired desert hermit from the original trilogy. To some Star Wars fans, who value a strong sense of universal continuity over all else, this was one example of the show’s betrayal of established cannon – truly a path that can only lead to the dark side. To others, it was an inconsistency to be explained away – the modern Star Wars equivalent of the old Marvel Comics No-Prize. Those Tatooine suns are brutal you see, and they can no doubt age a man 30 years in just a third of that time. Plus, who knows what crazy shit Obi-Wan’s going to have to face off against over the next few years that could start turning all those white hairs?
Sure, you could make those arguments to “fix” the age issue … or you could truly take the high ground by just ignoring it entirely and acknowledging this simple fact: Ewan McGregor is a good-looking dude who is aging quite well. And, ultimately, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a show made for fans of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy. It would not make any sense to artificially age him closer to Guinness when there was much more emotion to be earned by having him look more like his prequel-era self while sharing the screen once again with Hayden Christensen. The correct creative decision was made here, even if it caused a small schism in the visual continuity of the character.
Of course, sometimes an age-based discrepancy isn’t so much a decision to make as it is a continuity quirk everyone is just forced to live with. The Obi-Wan Kenobi issue arose partially because it involves with a character played by two different actors. That’s not the case with Better Call Saulwhere a bunch of actors, including Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banksand Giancarlo Espositoare playing younger versions of characters they first originated on Breaking Bad. Taken at face value – it’s absurd. Banks in particular looks much older in Saul than he did in Breaking Bad, and putting a wig on Odenkirk (who’s now 59 years old) has never succeeded in believably making him look like the early-40-something character he’s supposed to be playing. And while you may occasionally see someone point out the discrepancy, it certainly has never gotten the type of Twitter attention the age issue in Obi-Wan Kenobi has. That’s partly because, once Vince Gilligan decided he wanted to make a Saul-based prequel to Breaking Bad, he did not really have any other option besides to ignore the age issue. Big-budget movies will sometimes use digital tools to de-age actors to match a character’s age, but that would obviously be cost-prohibitive for a cable television series. Not to mention that de-aging tech can work against an actor’s performance, something that no one who’s a fan of Better Call Saul would ever want from what might be TV’s best acted show. Heck, fans just went with the flow when Jesse Plemons‘character from Breaking Bad turned up in its spinoff film El Camino looking both older and significantly heavier, even though the movie is set immediately after the end of Breaking Bad. Why didn’t people care? Because it’s a pleasure to watch Plemons act, and it’s a fool’s errand to let nitpicks about appearance get in the way of that.
There is a scenario where concerns about the age of a character and the age of the actor playing him or her do become valid, and it’s when the kiddos are involved. Now, teens you can usually fudge, and TV has never been shy about doing so, casting older actors as high schoolers in everything from Welcome Back, Kotter in the ’70s to Beverly Hills, 90210 in the ’90s. Hollywood does better these days, although you still end up with 24-year-old Joe Keery playing 17-year-old Steve Harrington in the first season of Stranger Things. With pre-teens and younger kids, however, that’s harder to pull off, which is why for their middle-school characters, Stranger Things creators the Duffer brothers did a pretty good job casting close to actual age for that first season. Millie Bobby Brown was 12 years old, the same age as Eleven. Finn Wolfhard was only a year older. Noah Schnapp was actually a year younger than his character, Will Byers. The fact that everyone looked their part was a big reason the show was able to strongly connect with viewers in that first season.
What worked great for the first season has become a problem more recently, though, as the actors are aging twice as fast as the characters on the show. While season four takes place in 1986, only three years after season one, the actors themselves are now six years older than when they first started filming the show. Depending on how long it takes before cameras roll on the fifth and final season, that gap could grow even larger. And while you can cast 20-somethings who still look like teenagers, it’s much harder to cast 12-year-olds who will still look 15 when they’re actually 18 or older. So is it a show-killer for Wolfhard’s Mike to now be taller than most of the series’ adults? Or for Caleb McLaughlin‘s Lucas to look like he should be playing for Indiana University’s basketball team rather than riding the bench as a freshman at Hawkins High? No, to this point, it hasn’t been. But it is noticeable in a way that’s harder to hand-wave away than silly complaints about Odenkirk in Better Call Saul or McGregor in Obi-Wan.
That’s partially because kids change so much when they become tweens and then teenagers. But it’s also because, thematically, Stranger Things and TV shows like it are so much about being a kid and the process of going through puberty and growing up. Once the actors already look grown up, it’s much harder for the viewer to buy into that aspect of the show, even if we know the characters are supposed to be younger than the actors playing them. It seems like the Duffers understand this and realize they’ve pushed the matter about as far as they can, which is why they’ve recently admitted they’re considering a bigger time-jump when determining when to set season five. That’s probably a wise decision, and, hey, at least they’ve got a chance to course-correct before things get too out of hand. It wasn’t that long ago that the producers of Lost basically wrote poor Walt out of the show because poor Malcolm David Kelley was growing faster than the show’s tight timeline could possibly allow. And in a show like Lostwhere every small detail could be a clue in unraveling a larger mystery, a sudden age discrepancy that has no in-universe explanation could cause more harm than good.
So, yes, there are times when an age-based continuity problem is something the people making the shows need to address. But it is almost always when there are young children involved. Otherwise, it’s best to not let such nitpicks get in the way of just enjoying the story being told. It’s fine that Saul looks older in his own show than he did in Breaking Bad. And we definitely do not need to see McGregor playing an Obi-Wan with white hair. In those cases, it’s nailing the performance that matters – not nailing the age.