What We Talk About When We Talk About Skywalkers

The Skywalker Saga—what we old-timers knew as Star Wars—is over. I refrained from adding my hot take on The Rise of Skywalker to the pile of hot takes because a saga that spanned 42 years of my life needs time to settle, and honestly, nobody cares about hot takes.

But I have been doing some deep thinking about endings, as I did for The Matrix, the Battlestar Galactica remake, Lost, Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time, and all the other long-form stories that I couldn’t binge. In all those stories there was time to speculate, to wonder, to consider what would be a good ending, and what would not.

In a writer’s reckoning, a satisfying ending is a function of the story’s structure. Structure, more simply, means promises and payoffs. In a Whodunnit, we’ll find out who done it. If a youth on a farm is dreaming of adventure or some undefinable “more,” we’re going to go on an adventure with significant stakes. If a cryptic prophecy hints at salvation or doom, we’ll see which it is. If someone loves someone else from afar, they’re going to get their shot. In short, something changes, and that change addresses the questions, the needs, raised at the beginning. That’s a story.

Whatever Lucas’s shortcomings are with dialogue, he’s a master of structure. (See this wonderful discussion of Star Wars Ring Theory.) Star Wars is the go-to exemplar to illustrate Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” monomyth, a structure that’s ubiquitous in adventure stories. Consider how the promises and payoffs build on each other in the two Star Wars trilogies under Lucas’s vision.

  • Episode IV: A backwater farm boy wishes for life of excitement and significance. He gets swept up into an adventure that ends with him harnessing a mystical power and striking a crippling blow to the evil Empire.
  • Episodes IV – VI: A farm boy, secretly the son of the galaxy’s most feared agent of the evil Empire, wishes for a life of excitement and significance. He learns to master his father’s mystical power, and instead of falling to evil, uses it to redeem his father and destroy the Empire.
  • Episode I: A boy with the potential for enormous power, is enslaved on a backwater planet. He is spirited away by a mentor who believes in him, and he is put on a path to stand against a mysterious evil.
  • Episodes I – III: An evil Sith Lord uses his mystical power to create an avatar of that power, a “Chosen One” of the Jedi establishment who oppose him. He corrupts the avatar into destroying the Jedi who oppose his rise to authoritarian dictatorship.
  • Episodes I – VI: An avatar of a great, mystical power is created by an evil Emperor to help subjugate the galaxy. He is redeemed by his own son and destroys the Emperor who created and corrupted him, freeing the galaxy.

It’s amazing how the story reinterprets itself and expands its own circuit, beginning as a hero’s rise and evolving into a full-on mythology of the corruption and redemption of the Force itself in human form. Anakin is alternately a tragic hero, a villain, a redeemed hero, or a demigod, depending on the scope. Luke is the hero, the instrument of the hero’s redemption, or a demigod version 2. And the Skywalker line itself changes from representing embattled heroes to a human incarnation of the Force itself.

But George Lucas envisioned his saga to be a trilogy of trilogies. I had heard those rumors way back when I was processing the shocks delivered by The Empire Strikes Back. So in the fourth decade of speculating about this story, with the franchise under new management, it was natural to wonder whether the concluding trilogy would stick the landing. And what “sticking the landing” even meant. 

If the Ring Theory analysis held, there would be arcs of Episode VII, Episodes VII – IX, and Episodes I – IX that built on one another. The Force Awakens gave it a promising start. 

  • Episode VII: A tech scavenger named Rey with a natural fluency in the Force waits for the return of her parents on a backwater planet. She is drawn into an adventure that ends with her harnessing a mystical power and striking a crippling blow to the evil First Order.

Looks pretty similar to the Episode VI arc, except Rey didn’t long for adventure. And the question of her lineage lingers. But with The Rise of Skywalker a mirror of the original trilogy forms.

  • Episode VII – Episode IX: A tech scavenger, secretly the granddaughter of the evil Emperor behind the First Order, joins a battle against the First Order. She learns to master her grandfather’s power, and instead of falling to evil, uses it to redeem the fallen Skywalker bloodline and destroy the First Order.

It’s a little clunky. The promise of Rey’s parentage is a red herring, along with the mutual gravity between her and artifacts of the past, like the Skywalker lightsaber and the Millennium Falcon. It’s fitting that Palpatine would be the final antagonist, as he was the one who set the Skywalker Saga in motion, using Shmi Skywalker as a Force Madonna. Supreme Leader Snoke was revealed to be a proxy for Palpatine (I mean, what else could he have been?), but Palpatine should have been more of a presence throughout the final trilogy. The First Order is indistinguishable from the Empire anyway, and if Palpatine were going to use a puppet proxy, why wouldn’t he choose a beautiful, charismatic form than something that just looks like the Emperor, smooshed a little differently and using a dumb name?

But more significantly, this is the Skywalker Saga, and whether you found this ending satisfying probably hinges on how you think of the Skywalker bloodline and the prophecy of the Chosen One. Palpatine used the Force to induce the midi-chlorians to create life in Shmi Skywalker. Anakin Skywalker was the Force made flesh—a mortal incarnation of the Force. The Jedi of the time even had a term for it: a “vergence” in the Force. They also had a prophecy around it: a Chosen One would be one such vergence, and he or she would “bring balance to the Force.”

As the incarnation of the Force merged its bloodline with human beings by having children, the poetically minded among us might suppose the Force acquired a human soul, capable of moral agency. There was Luke, trained by Jedi of the old order. There was Leia, untouched by both Jedi and Sith philosophies. And then there was Leia’s son Ben, trained by Luke in his own reconstruction of the old Jedi way, but corrupted by the Palpatine proxy. And then there was Rey: Force-intuitive on her own, offered training by the fallen Ben, refused but then grudgingly granted training by Luke, and finally trained by Leia.

But Rey ended up a Palpatine, not a Skywalker. At least by blood.

So what does the whole saga look like, in terms of promises and payoffs?

Episodes I – IX: The Force is incarnated as prophecy’s “Chosen One” by the machinations of an evil Sith Lord who seeks to corrupt him away from his purpose, but…

…but the Sith Lord’s granddaughter redeems the Chosen One’s grandson, and together they destroy the Sith Lord?

It lacks poetry. Yes, a Palpatine corrupted the Force incarnate, and generations later, another Palpatine redeemed it and set it free. And yes, at the end, Rey adopts the name “Skywalker.” But what about that prophecy about bringing balance to the Force? Did that just translate to “kill Palpatine and make sure he stays dead?” That isn’t satisfying at all. Especially since the saga seemed to be dropping clues about a deeper meaning, right up until the end.

  • Trilogy 1: The aloofness, arrogance, and lack of empathy of the Jedi order enabled Palpatine to divide Anakin’s loyalties, and it was a only a violation of the Jedi code—loving, marrying, and having children—that set in motion Anakin’s eventual redemption.
  • Trilogy 2: It is only when Luke defies Yoda out of compassion for his friends, and Darth Vader exposes Obi-Wan’s lies by omission, does Luke seek to confront his father with love. In the confrontation, his fear for his sister drives him to batter Vader into submission, but a flash of empathy makes him stay his hand instead of killing him. It was emotion that enabled Luke to turn Vader against the Emperor. And it hints at what a balanced Force could look like.
  • Trilogy 3: An untrained girl uses the Force like a natural, and seeks the last Jedi master for instruction. Luke says he was wrong, and the Jedi order was wrong. He says he must be the last Jedi. Rey intuitively reaches for the Dark Side of the Force, and Luke is terrified. All around the galaxy, more Force-intuitives begin to awaken, without any Jedi or Sith dogma. Rey uses both Light and Dark powers to serve her own purposes, remaining true to her heart throughout.

It really seems that the prophesied balance to the Force was going to be a union of the so-called Light and Dark sides, the disciplined head and the emotional heart, focus and passion. The final, encompassing ring could have elevated the mythic saga of I – VI to a statement about the human condition.

Maybe this would have been the story if we hadn’t lost Carrie Fisher. Leia, of the incarnated Force’s bloodline and free of the influence of both Jedi and Sith, could have taught Rey a third path. Or better still, redeemed her own son, not through combat, but through love. Leia, Yoda’s fallback “other hope,” could have been the key to ushering in an era of the Balanced Force that none of the others could imagine.

Episodes I – IX: The Force is incarnated into the human Skywalker bloodline to balance itself, and the Jedi and Sith war over their hearts and minds with their binary philosophies. The one Skywalker left unindoctrinated finds the truth of the balance.

That’s the sort of ending that would have satisfied me.

Before the End of Game of Thrones

SPOILERS for all but the last episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

As we enter the closing gambit of Game of Thrones, social media commentary shifts from what might happen to how what’s happening is wrong. It’s natural. The story is sprawling and complex, and those who developed an investment have fitted the details to their own moral and narrative models. Now is the time those models will be validated or violated. And Game of Thrones is a story that thrives on violating expectations.

Depending on our lens, the central question is anything from “who will sit on the Iron Throne?” to “will the strong female characters tear down the corrupt patriarchy?” Those with the latter lens have already expressed their disgust with this season: the hope of the superior woman ruler has been dashed by the show’s penultimate episode. There’s a meta element here. In the conflict for the throne, all the adherents pin so much hope on their contender, and all such adherents have had their hearts broken–their hearts at the very least. Every single claimant has failed to hold onto power. If there’s a thesis statement that forms a through-line of the story, it’s Varys’s riddle about the nature of power.

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the name of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?” The answer Varys gives is both profound and simplistic. “Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.” We’ve seen the permutations of this for eight seasons.

In the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, Daenerys faced a moment of choice. She could honor the surrender of King’s Landing, as Tyrion pleaded, or she could utterly annihilate her opposition. Her choice broke the hearts of the viewership (and elicited accusations of bad writing and misogyny), but the seeds of her decision were planted in the very first season, when a girl, told from childhood that her family had a right to rule a land of which she had no memory, was given three weapons of mass destruction that steadily grew in power. Daenerys is not at all a bad person. But if she has has a defining trait through most of her story, it is her unwavering certainty that she is the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. This will to power made her spectacularly formidable. It also prioritizes power over compassion, especially when crossing the Narrow Sea leaves her friendless, loveless, and delegitimized. Cersei murders Missandei before her eyes, brutally destroying the symbol of her most worthy accomplishment, the freeing and elevation of slaves. All Daenerys has left to assert her claim, her very identity, is her one remaining nuclear bomb. Using it basically destroys the throne itself. It’s a very Game of Thrones outcome. It’s tragedy in the Classical sense. It’s supposed to hurt. No one is unscathed by power.

The one remaining permutation of power is that of god itself. It’s alluded to after the battle against the Night King, when Davos comments that the Lord of Light supposedly stepped in and then buggered off without a sign. Game of Thrones has not been subtle in noting fate and causal chains; how each character’s past formed the events bringing them to their ultimate destiny or (more often) doom. And of course Bran, who is now the closest thing to God in this world, notes that without Jaime shoving him out the window, he would never have become the Three Eyed Raven, a being capable of tinkering with history. Of writing the narrative. If I’ve correctly gleaned the story Game of Thrones intends to tell, Bran has been spending his time shaping the past so the exact events we are watching can come to pass.

And when we see the ultimate conclusion, we will be left to argue, was it just? Did the good outweigh the bad? Was Bran the Old God a virtuous ruler or a tyrant? Should he have done more to reduce the net suffering in the overall ledger? We won’t have an easy answer. Because, like the characters, we view this story through our own lenses and our own moral frameworks. We see–and judge–the narrative we’ve built in our own minds, which is not necessarily the narrative being spun by God. Or the authors. We’ll say Martin, Weiss, and Benioff were geniuses or hacks, depending on how the story delivers what we want from it. But the truth, much like power, may just be shadows on the wall.

So what the heck. Now, just before the end of things, I’ll indulge in some predictions.

  • ARYA, the rider on the pale horse, will kill DAENERYS, possibly wearing GRAY WORM’S face. Maybe Drogon will eat her. Maybe the two will go off and have adventures.
  • AEGON “JON SNOW” TARGARYEN will have rulership thrust upon him, much as Eddard Stark did, but unlike his adoptive father, he will flee north of the broken Wall, to pal around with Tormund and reunite with Ghost. The one happy ending.
  • TYRION, the dead Queen’s Hand and the only survivor whose will to power was trumped by compassion, even for Cersei, will step in. But to administer, not rule. He’ll draft a new type of governance document, uniting the rulers of seven independent kingdoms.
  • SANSA, Queen in the North, will be the first to sign.
  • BRAN, nodding at what he considers the best possible outcome, transfers his mind into the Winterfell heart tree, leaving his empty, broken, mortal body in the Godswood.

The Last Jedi: The Kids Are Alright

[SPOILERS for Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi]

“This is not going to go the way you think.”

Luke Skywalker said this to Rey, but he was talking to us. And by “us” I mean the Generation X folks who saw the original trilogy in the theater a zillion times, daydreamed about it endlessly, and made Star Wars a cultural fixture. He’ll forgive our skepticism. The new movies are packed with echoes of scenes we know by heart. We’ve seen this before. This is a Ring Cycle, the pattern is repeating. Until it breaks free. Episode VIII’s message is that the past is baggage, and it’s time to burn it down. Generation X had its own trilogies. Star Wars belongs to the kids now. It’s bittersweet, but it’s a good thing. That’s how passing the torch works.

Leia knows. The new kids, inspired by their elders, want to charge head-first into danger to pull off daring capers. But the war against the First Order isn’t like the fight against the blind stormtroopers of the Empire. For every mistake, entire fleets die. Every victory is Pyrrhic. Every significant blow is a suicide mission. The cost of repeating the past is unthinkable. Leia needs Poe Dameron to be less of a Han Solo, and more of a, well, General Leia.

Luke gets it. He didn’t fly off to the ancient, uncharted Jedi temple to unearth some secret knowledge of the true nature of the Force. He left because he had failed the next generation. Luke is the dad who suddenly realizes he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. He was trained by the last remnants of the previous generation to be something he barely understood, an acolyte of a religion of which he was the sole surviving practitioner. Trying to rebuild the Jedi order, he feared he was doing more harm than good. His fears were justified. The old orthodoxies don’t stand up to modern scrutiny. Like Old Ben before him, Luke realizes that the best he can do for the next generation is to give his life to buy them time.

Supreme Leader Snoke is the ugly face of the past, building the First Order in the spitting image of the Empire. Is he really Emperor Palpatine, who survived his fall or cloned himself anew? Probably. But it doesn’t matter. This isn’t Snoke’s story any more than it was Luke’s. Snoke is dead and chopped to pieces in only the second act of the trilogy, because this time, Kylo’s redemption arc is more complicated than Vader’s dying act of love.

Kylo Ren is a man nearly crushed by the legacy of his grandfather. He wore a ridiculous helmet to honor it. Uncle Luke feared him for it. Snoke shamed him for not living up to it. He’s the last scion of an immaculate conception by a Sith lord, a living avatar of the Force. So many expectations. Kylo hoped to free himself of the past by literally destroying it: taking a new name, nearly murdering his mother and uncle, and murdering his father and master. But even when he does, he remains trapped in a role made for him, not by him.

And what is the secret lineage that defines Rey’s destiny? Who is she, and why is she so powerful? Wrong questions, Generation Xers. This is the new Star Wars, breaking free from the old. Anakin Skywalker’s bloodline may have been born of Dark Side voodoo, but in the new world, the Force isn’t the private domain of a couple of elite warring sects. The Force is in everyone, and can awaken in an abandoned girl with no special lineage, a young rebel who gives her life to drop bombs on a dreadnought, or an indentured boy sweeping stables. This Force isn’t a divided binary of Light and Dark, it’s a complexity, like the souls of people. The new Star Wars isn’t about Light vs. Dark, it’s about the future vs. the past. Rey doesn’t need an old Jedi Master to shape her — even if she wants him to. She is in the vanguard of the New Order, rising up everywhere against Kylo’s First Order.

In my generation’s Star Wars, the Rebellion fought to bring back the glory days of the Old Republic. It was motivated by looking backwards. Even the prequels looked to an ancient prophecy. This generation’s trilogy rejects that thinking. The new Rebellion, much like Disney’s Star Wars franchise, is fighting to become something completely new, on its own terms. This new generation embraces diversity. It distrusts binaries and understands moral complexity. It trusts itself. It harnesses the power of both anger and love. It opposes oligarchs as well as fascists. It listens to, but doesn’t always trust, anyone over 30. And it’s going to do fine.

The older generation just has to move out of the way.

 

Star Wars: Who Is The Last Jedi?

Now we know that Star Wars Episode VIII will be called The Last Jedi. So who is the last Jedi? Let’s not belabor it. It’s Luke. The Last Jedi is Luke Skywalker.

I’ve laid out what the prophecy of “bringing balance to the Force” means in terms of Star Wars’ ring cycle. [In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Answers Hide In Plain Sight] It bears repeating that in Episodes I-III, we see Anakin Skywalker turned to the Sith — the dark polar end of the Force. In Episodes IV-VI, we see him brought back to the light polar end — the return of Anakin the Jedi. Structurally, it makes sense that the final ring in the saga will be the emergence of the prophesied balance between dark and light.

Luke Skywalker figured it out. He wouldn’t have saved his father in Episode VI had he not tapped the strength of the Dark Side to physically defeat Vader, but then brought himself back under control to spare Vader, once beaten. Luke was never indoctrinated into the Jedi’s pitiless stance against forsaking duty to rescue loved ones. Guided by his compassion instead of Jedi dogma, he was able to do what Obi-Wan and Yoda could not.

By Episode VII, Luke has suffered a disastrous failure trying to be a Jedi Master, and his students are dead by the hand of his Dark-seduced nephew. So he fled to an ancient and lost Jedi Temple, to learn something that neither Obi-Wan nor Yoda had taught him. It’s not a stretch to guess that, spurred by his experience with Darth Vader, he was in search of the true nature of the Force, one that neither Jedi nor Sith had mastered. He has learned about the Balance.

Now Rey has come to him, a Force-strong young woman in need of training. Luke won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. He will remain the last Jedi. The purple light that bathed Rey’s and Kylo Ren’s faces as their blue and red lightsabers clashed was no accident. When Luke trains Rey in the Balanced Force, she will become something new, requiring a new name. And after the Revenge of the Sith and the Return of the Jedi, I’m confident that the new name will figure into the title of Episode IX.

UPDATE 1

The non-English movie posters have revealed that “Jedi” in the title is  being used as the plural. So it’s not just Luke. But no matter how many there are, the fact that they’re the last is what’s significant. The reasoning stands. After this set, Force practitioners will be something else.

Oddly, the French translation of Return of the Jedi was Le Retour Du Jedi — singular. Which rather minimizes the impact of Luke’s journey.

UPDATE 2

I take the last line from the teaser trailer for The Last Jedi as confirmation of all the above.

 

 

 

The Myth of Darth Vader

(With apologies to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”)

(Some SPOILERS for Rogue One)

The Emperor condemned Darth Vader to live in a castle straddling a river of lava, on a planet where he had killed his wife in anger, and was betrayed, maimed, and burned by his one-time mentor and friend. The Emperor had thought, with some reason, that there was no more effective a way to tether Vader’s loyalty to the Dark Side than to be constantly faced with the worst day of his life.

If one believes George Lucas, Anikin Skywalker, the child who would be Vader, was plucked from enslavement by a Jedi who believed him to be an instrument of prophecy. Presented to the High Council, he was chastised for feeling fear and being too old — things over which he had no control. The Council accepted him only after the Jedi who took him from his home — without informed consent — vouched for his behavior. In this way, Anikin was passed from one form of bondage to another. The rules of the Jedi demanded the abjuration of passion and strict loyalty to the Jedi order. Beyond that, the Jedi held expectations that he would “bring balance to the Force,” without having any consensus on what that meant.

Anikin trained under a system that wasn’t equipped to deal with students with his — or any — life experience. His natural talents and innate power grew, but the yoke placed on him by the Jedi chafed and provided no succor. He had but two friends outside the Jedi order. The first was a woman he knew since childhood, the only woman he knew well. The second was a man who admired his instincts instead of condemning them, and was willing to discuss topics unspoken inside the Jedi orthodoxy. Anikin’s acts of volition, and there were only a few, were considered acts of defiance. He set off to rescue his captive, dying mother. He married the woman he loved. He fought against what he saw as the unlawful arrest of his friend. At this point, he passed to his third form of bondage: accepting Darth Sidious as his master, and embracing the Dark Side of the Force. It is in the Dark Side’s grip that Anikin — now Darth Vader — killed his wife and battled his former friend over the lava flows of Mustafar, resulting in yet another form of bondage: to the machines necessary to keep him alive.

You have already grasped that Darth Vader is the absurd hero, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the Jedi, his hatred of betrayal, and his passion for the freedom to pursue his own desires won him that unspeakable penalty in which his whole being is exerted toward accomplishing his master’s goals, which are meaningless to himself. If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Encased in black robotic armor, Darth Vader understands that the few choices he exercised led him to this state of utter servitude. A moment of anger and violence led him to become a machine of anger and violence, an attack dog on the Emperor’s leash, kept alive and functional to serve a purpose outside himself.
In those quiet moments in his hell-castle home, when the Emperor has no need of him, Darth Vader may contemplate his fate. He can no longer lie in repose or take his ease as other men. When he is not being used as a blunt instrument, Darth Vader hangs naked in a bacta tank, letting the medicinal organisms soothe what cannot be healed. Perhaps, during those moments, he broods over what could have been had he rejected vengeance, love, or justice. But during those ruminations, suspended like a specimen in a jar, he must also see that in different choices he would have found different servitude. His very conception was by another’s design, he was born into slavery, and at no turn in his life was he left answerable only to himself. And as the fatigue of railing against his fate becomes tedious, he must realize that at that moment, his thoughts are his own. The world inside his tank is the world of his own unfettered imagination. Boredom of monotony alone would inspire him to imagine joy instead of rage. And eventually he would realize that external forces are so intent on controlling his actions that his actions could just as well go on without the presence of his mind. At that moment, he is free. One must imagine Darth Vader happy.

 

Rogue One and the Other Face of the Rebellion

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Star Wars: A New Hope are two adjacent tales, told forty years apart. The graphical wizardry that creates some of the important connective tissue is breathtaking. But even more stunning is how the modern Rogue One reinterprets A New Hope even as it expands on it. It’s like learning the more complicated, adult underpinnings of a family history you’ve known since childhood. In that way, Rogue One feels like a film speaking directly to my generation of fans. And it has a lot to say about the concept of rebellion.

The Rebels in A New Hope were easy for Americans to identify with. Americans were once rebels, after all, and we were (per our own mythology) plucky and righteous, with the idealistic goal to found a new nation on liberty and self-determination. In 1977, despite withdrawing from Vietnam in disgrace, the Cold War narrative of freedom-loving underdogs resisting the oppressive militarized might of an Evil Empire was strong. There were complications, and there was ugliness, but on principle, America stood with the Rebels.

In Rogue One, we are still with the Rebels — their cause is righteous — but they look less like the mythologized “us” and more like the fighters we see on the news: urban guerillas ambushing tank patrols in town, spies who will coldly kill an ally in order to escape, or paranoid, cave-dwelling militants who share traits with Star Wars’ most iconic villain. Children get caught in the crossfire, and soldiers are haunted by things they’ve done in the name of the cause that they still believe in, despite everything. They are willing to die for their cause, and that is exactly what they do. These hardened, violent rebels are recognizable to Americans, but most often as the “other” in our geopolitics. Sometimes, this kind of rebel in the real world is our enemy.

In the universe of Rogue One, the Rebel Alliance — the one we know with Mon Mothma and Bail Organa — is a splintered and toothless confederacy that dithers and leans toward Imperial appeasement. It’s significant that they are mobilized to war by their radical fringe. A faction of rebels who admit to doing terrible things — and will sacrifice themselves to ensure it was worth it — go rogue (ta-DA!) and draw the entire Rebellion into a desperate play that leads directly into A New Hope. We know now that the destruction of the Death Star and the rise of Luke Skywalker only happened because a few days before, a motley bunch of doomed radicals called for unity in violent revolution.

Clos du Bois Sonoma Coast Reserve Pinot Noir 2013

A colleague used to work for Constellation Brands, distributing various American wines. He shared his Friends and Family discount, and I used it to buy a “mystery” mixed case for $15/bottle. I just cracked the first bottle, and I’d like to tell you about the 2013 Clos du Bois Sonoma Coast Reserve Pinot Noir ($35 retail).

I liked this one a lot, and it changed what I thought of Clos du Bois. It’s a pretty looking wine — brick to Christmas red. In your nose it’s all cherry and vanilla, telling you exactly what you’re getting: American pinot noir in French oak. This one is silky smooth and a little fuller bodied than I’d expect — the website reveals why: 14.5% ABV. If you’re into doing that, you can really make the legs run down the side of your glass. In the mouth, it’s bright, ripe fruit: cherry on the attack, strawberry in mid-palate and finish, with vanilla throughout. The finish is longer than I expected, and made me think of a cherry compote with game like venison, duck, or boar. Of course, I haven’t had dinner, so factor that in.

This is a great surprise to get in a “mystery case” — a wine I probably would never have picked up on my own, but one I’d now shortlist, drawing me away from being just a Willamette Valley/Burgundy/Russian River snob for Pinot Noir.

Donald (Do You Want To Drop the Bomb?)

(Sung to the tune of “Mother” by Pink Floyd)

 

Donald do you want to drop the bomb?

Donald will you sue me for this song?

Donald do you think it’s time to break some balls?

Ooh, ah

Donald should we build a wall?

 

Donald will you run for President?

Donald I don’t trust the government!

Donald when will the U.S.A. be great?

Ooh, ah

Donald I’m just filled with hate.

 

Hush now angry White guy, don’t you cry.

Donald’s gonna make liberal nightmares come true.

Donald’s gotta put all of his fears into you.

Donald’s gonna redefine this nation’s Right Wing.

Donald’s gonna make us great friends with Putin.

Donald’s gonna make America mighty and strong.

Ooh babe, ooh babe, ooh babe,

We’ll make Mexico pay for our wall.

 

Donald will the world be good enough

For me?

Donald is the world too dangerous,

To me?

Donald will they tear our way of life apart?

Ooh ah,

Donald when’d it get so hard?

 

Hush now angry White guy don’t you cry.

Donald’s gonna close down all the borders for you.

Donald won’t let anyone Muslim get through.

Donald’s gonna armor our country’s thin skin.

Donald’s gonna fix it so America wins.

Donald knows that truth can depend how you feel.

Ooh babe, ooh babe, ooh babe,

Show them we’re not yet a dying breed.
Donald, did it need to go so low?

In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Answers Hide In Plain Sight

(Spoilers for Star Wars Episodes I-VII, obviously)

I enjoyed my second time at Star Wars: The Force Awakens even more than my first. The second time, I could relax, pay attention to the story structure, and enjoy the nostalgia, gorgeous visuals, and the uncynical charm of the new characters. It was old, it was new, and it was undeniably Star Wars. Like many fan-favorite fantasy universes, Star Wars hints at the worlds beyond the boundaries of its story. It hooks into an aspect of human cognition concerned with filling in partial patterns and encourages among its fans a rich “head canon” of history, anthropology, and xenobiology. We’re the fans who not only notice that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs; we provide theories of why for that race, shorter distances denote faster ships. We imagine deeply into the Star Wars universe, filling in details, reconciling contradictions, and bridging gaps.

This obsessive “scholarship” leads us also to try to unravel the story’s mysteries by scrutinizing the details we’re given. This is where our mastery of minutia almost always leads us astray. We lose track of the fact that first and foremost, Star Wars is a story with a structure that calls for certain types of resolutions. Instead of looking where the thematic arc leads, we look to the evidence — the more obscure the better, because then only the real fans (us) can reach the insights we’ve had. Since before opening night, fans were buzzing about Rey’s lineage, the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke, and the truth of the Chosen One prophecy. A vocal segment of fandom vehemently oppose the idea that the answers to those questions are the obvious ones. They want something unpredictable and “original.” They don’t want leitmotifs, they want a puzzle with a shock-twist solution that challenges and surprises them, perhaps in the way Luke’s paternity shocked them when they were young. But Star Wars isn’t an Agatha Christie mystery with red herrings and layers of obfuscation. It has a different structure, with different aims.

Star-Wars-Ring-Theory-2

Star Wars is epic mythology, structured in a ring composition. (This article does a masterful job of demonstrating the point, and is required reading for any fan: http://www.starwarsringtheory.com/) Star Wars contains cycles within repeating cycles, and now that we are embarking on the third of the three trilogies of the saga, there’s reason to believe that the filmmakers are paying special attention to honoring the established structure and completing the circles. Consider one of the “rules” of ring composition cited in the above article.

Closure at two levels. Finally, the ending of a ring composition must join up with the beginning and make a clear closure on both a structural and thematic level. “The exposition will have been designed to correspond to the ending. When it comes the reader can recognize it as the ending that was anticipated in the exposition.”

In other words, we should expect this final trilogy to bring us full circle on the plot, theme, and emotional arcs established by the preceding films. We should not expect it to veer off in completely new directions.

What can we glean from the first two “rings” of the Star Wars saga? Let’s take a look at them in the chronology they were released.

Cycle 2: Episodes IV-VI

The original trilogy was a fantasy adventure that followed, beat for beat, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey template. What made it special (and at the time, shocking) was that against the backdrop of a galaxy at war, this trilogy was also about the healing of a family fractured by the dark side of the power they wielded. In this cycle, we perceive the Force to have a good side and an evil side, and the Skywalker twins and their father are both representatives of these sides, and agents for survivors of the previous cycle’s war — Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda on the side of the good Jedi, and the Emperor on the side of the evil Sith.

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The core conflict is the battle for the soul of Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader tries to lure Luke to the dark side of the Force with the truth that he is Luke’s father. Obi-Wan and Yoda try to keep Luke on the light side by hiding that truth, and the truth that he has a twin sister who is their backup plan if Luke fails. They even try to make Luke place his Jedi training ahead of the safety of his friends, so afraid they are that Luke will succumb to the dark side. And indeed, after his first confrontation with Darth Vader, Luke sports a mechanical hand like his father and the next we see him, he is dressed in Sith black and is Force-choking Gamorrean guards. Even as the two sides vie for Luke’s soul, Luke senses good remaining in his father’s soul, and is determined to redeem him. It was Vader who convinced the Emperor that Luke would be better turned than dead. We don’t learn it until the Cycle 1 trilogy, but the nature of the Sith (one master, one apprentice) is such that if Luke’s life were to be spared, it would be at the cost of Vader’s. Darth Vader was willing to sacrifice himself for the life of his son, though it would mean a life of servitude to the Emperor. Cycle 2 completes when Vader goads Luke with a threat against Leia, Luke gives in to his rage just enough to stop his father, and then stops himself, allowing his father to break free of the Emperor. Luke’s solution was one neither the Emperor nor Yoda seemed to have envisioned. One soul had to dip itself in darkness to pull another soul up into the light.

Cycle 1: Episodes I-III

If Cycle 2 was the hero’s rise, Cycle 1 was the villain’s fall. Anakin’s journey is similar to Luke’s: plucked from obscurity and trained as a Jedi, while being tempted to the dark side through his concern and desire to protect those closest to him. In this cycle, the flaws of the Jedi order are more evident: their arrogant aloofness, their denial of passion, their lack of compassion. At the end of this cycle, after Anakin’s fall to evil, the twins Luke and Leia are born as the preamble to Cycle 2. It is significant that the only reason the twins were conceived was because Anakin defied the Jedi to marry Padme in secret. His transgression against the Jedi was the one thing that enabled their return, a generation later.

shmi_and_anakin

Cycle 1 recasts the entire saga as a battle for the soul of Anakin Skywalker, but it also elevates the saga from adventure to myth. We learn of the prophecy of the Chosen One, who was destined to bring balance to the Force (whatever that means), and that Anakin may be that Jedi of prophecy. We also learn the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, who could influence the midichlorians — the tiny organisms that are the conduit to the Force — to create life. Darth Plagueis taught his apprentice everything he knew before his apprentice killed him, and it is strongly implied that the apprentice, Palpatine, the man who would become the Emperor, induced the virgin birth of Anakin Skywalker. Thus Anakin was not just a man strong in the Force, possibly with a mythic destiny, but a living avatar of the Force itself. The battle for the soul of Anakin Skywalker became the battle for the disposition of the Force.

Cycle 3: Episodes VII-IX

Cycle 3 is the final ring in the Star Wars saga, the one that must bring the mythology full circle, resolving the prophecy of bringing balance to the Force and revealing the purpose behind the Force’s manifestation as Anakin Skywalker. By now it’s clear that the battle for the soul of the Force is waged through Anakin’s bloodline. The conflict between Jedi and Sith must reach its conclusion through the Skywalker family.

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By the opening of Episode VII, Luke Skywalker has fled to the site of the first Jedi temple, which is almost certainly the origin of the Chosen One prophecy. Having wielded both light and dark sides of the Force, Luke has a unique perspective through which to seek answers about bringing balance to the Force. Supreme Leader Snoke, an ostensible Sith Lord, has created the First Order as a near twin of the Empire, seduced a Skywalker-descendent to the dark side as an apprentice, and built a super-weapon to dismantle the Republic. Symmetrically, Leia has rebuilt a Resistance mirroring the old Rebellion. The not-yet-a-Sith Kylo Ren, son of Leia and Han Solo, throws tantrums and struggles over his love for his family and his allegiance to his master Snoke, whom he knows is just using him. Kylo’s greatest fear is that he will not be as strong as Darth Vader, an intriguing concern since Kylo’s strength in the Force seems to be more than a match for his grandfather. Darth Vader was arguably at his strongest when he broke free of the Emperor’s influence and saved his son by throwing the Emperor down a pit. And then there’s Rey, a wilder, a Force natural, an instinctive pilot, fighter, and linguist. She can resist and reverse Kylo Ren’s mind probes, dominate weak minds with the Force, see flashes of the future, and feel a summons from Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber.

Episode VII has set the stage for fundamental revelations about the Chosen One prophecy, which in this go-round must provide the conclusive factor in resolving the struggle between light and dark sides of the Force. If this cycle repeats the motifs of the previous two (and it will), the relationships among the Skywalker family will manifest this struggle, and the ideologies of the old Jedi and Sith orders will be found lacking. Exactly how this plays out is the source of the excitement that will have us standing in line at the theaters. But we can put to rest some questions based on what we know now.

Answers

Who is Rey?

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There should be no doubt that Rey is Kylo Ren’s opposite number in the Force’s internal conflict and as such is certainly a descendent of Anakin Skywalker. Her aptitudes and past deliberately echo Anakin’s and Luke’s, she receives prophetic and historic visions, and she is “chosen” by her grandfather’s lightsaber. Also consider that Rey was on Jakku within reach of a resistance leader who considered Leia “royalty.” Consider that the Millennium Falcon just happened to be parked nearby. Consider Han Solo’s heartbroken expression when he sees Rey marvel at the greenery of the planet Takodana. Consider how quickly Han intimates that Rey could join his crew. And consider the wordless embrace Rey shares with General Leia after Han’s death. Rey is the daughter of Leia and Han, hidden away for her protection much as Luke was hidden away. That makes Rey the sister of Kylo Ren. Their bond is evident in each of their confrontations, and she clearly rattles Kylo to the point where he even offers to train her, a weak echo of a Sith attempting to corrupt a Jedi. Episode VI seeded the idea of Skywalker siblings squaring off against each other, and the idea is compelling: the embodiment of the soul of the Force split into dark and light manifestations, in a struggle against itself. It’s a yin-yang image, which is also a symbol of balance. No other origin or destiny for Rey would serve the needs of the story structure so well.

Who is Supreme Leader Snoke?

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) Ph: Film Frame © 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved..

The adversary who put this saga into motion, and who wielded the corrupting influence of the Dark Side on the Skywalker family in the first two cycles went by many names: Senator Palpatine. Darth Sidious. Chancellor  Palpatine. The Emperor. Snoke is Palpatine. The Skywalkers will wage a decisive battle against the Dark Lord of the Sith who bedeviled them for three generations. Ring closure demands no less.

What is the meaning of the Chosen One prophecy?

you_were_the_chosen_one

At this point, we can only speculate, but the past cycles can tell us what it isn’t. It isn’t represented by the Jedi society of the Old Republic. It isn’t the dominion of the Sith. And because this third cycle ought to elevate the theme from the mythological to the moral, the prophecy probably does not refer to a numerical balance between Jedi and Sith. The Force is made flesh in the Skywalker line, and their souls are at stake. Now is the time for the truest, purest nature of the Force to be revealed, free of the historical dogma that surrounded it. Balance in the Force means suppressing neither passion nor control. Luke found that out when he redeemed his father. Let’s see whether it will allow Rey and Kylo to save each other and defeat Snoke once and for all.

Brown Like Him: Jindal, Jindians, and Brown Boxes

White Jindal/Brown Jindal

I’m trying to work through something, so I’m going to try writing it here. Let me say up front that I don’t like Bobby Jindal’s politics. So anything that follows should not be considered an endorsement.

With Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal in the news, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity politics recently. Transgender. Self-identifying as another race. Who is allowed to identify as what, and who sets the conditions of membership. In both cases, I’ve been struck by how personal the formation of their identities must have been, and how publicly those identities were laid open to criticism. And how quickly these individuals became a shorthand for issues beyond themselves. I see parallels to how the public once spoke (and in some circles still speak) of homosexuality. Personal forces put up for public judgment.

Which brings me to Bobby Jindal. In my post “Brown Like Me,” back in 2009, I wrote of my own discomfort over how he has calculatedly distanced himself from his Indian heritage. Many of those sentiments still hold true for me today, but as I re-read it, I realize that I was talking about a sense of forced solidarity with Indians, as minorities in this country. And how the public actions of one of us reflect upon our “tribe.” A community, like a political party, feels the impulse to keep its members in line.

Recently, Indian-American comedian Aasif Mandvi started a “Jindian” hashtag on Twitter, poking fun at Bobby Jindal’s desired “whiteness”. Scrolling through the jokes (from various contributors), I started getting the uncomfortable feeling that the tribal sentiments were surging. The ethnicity police were out, saying that because of his brown skin, he has a duty to be more Indian, to fit better into the ethnic identity box they constructed. He isn’t allowed to run away from his Indian identity when it is clearly written on his face. He isn’t allowed to self-identify as an unhyphenated American. The jokes have the edge of a tribe betrayed.

I’ve been called a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside) and an ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) too. These epithets always come from other Indian-Americans, and they’re not compliments.

Certainly much of Jindal’s behavior is for the advancement of his political life. The vast majority of politicians carefully tailor the optics if their identities for political gain — it just looks more foolish when the contradiction is visible on your face. But Jindal has been moving away from Indian-ness since his childhood. And I think I know why. My parents, like his, came to this country more than four decades ago. The mindset of that wave of Indian immigrants was not to re-create India in America — especially when they settled in places like Wisconsin or Louisiana, where Indians were few. The mindset was to succeed through assimilation and hard work. They believed that to enter and succeed in a new country, you had to become a part of its culture. “Ask not what your new country can do for you.” The politics of waving your cultural identity as a banner had not yet made it into those immigrant communities in the 60s and 70s. Their culture was something kept within the home. They encouraged their children to go out and do what the American kids were doing. To BE American kids. Because that’s how they would succeed. And you can’t argue with Bobby Jindal’s success.

None of this is to say Jindal’s way is “right” in any general or broad sense. These are just the forces that shaped him and colored his particular shade of Brown. And that’s where I think there’s an important distinction to be made. As voters, we have every right to condemn his voting record, his policies, his stance on how science is taught (despite having a degree in biology), and so on. But condemning him for how closely he identifies with his Indian heritage? That’s a judgment none of us is truly qualified to make. That’s personal.

In a few more generations, it’s going to be as hard for non-white people in America to identify with any one ethnicity as it is for many white Americans to identify with any one aspect of their of European blend. People will start answering in percentages. It’s my hope that most people won’t even care to ask. Identity politics while collapse under the weight of their own complexity. And then maybe we’ll talk about things that matter.