“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”
“Closing Time,” Semisonic
“There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.”
The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan
Sometimes, someone articulates an idea that has been rattling around in your brain with such simple clarity, that it unlocks a new way of looking at familiar things. That’s what Darren Mooney did in The Escapist Magazine when he said that all of The Lord of the Rings is one big ending.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I take the last line from the teaser trailer for The Last Jedi as confirmation of all the above.
(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: 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.
(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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Who is Rey?
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?
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?
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.