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.