Written by: Needs_More_Sprinkles, robotical712, Josey
In the first article we explore how the themes of the movie and franchise belie the idea Rey is just someone caught in the middle of the Skywalker family drama. Our belief is, in making Rey appear unrelated, the movie is actually thematically necessitating her inclusion in the family’s ranks.
This article is also available as a podcast:
Family as Protagonist
You have too much of your father’s heart in you, young Solo.
In a saga as rich as Star Wars, it’s often easy to miss the forest for the trees. If we look at the overall shape of the story thus far, it is clear that the narrative backbone of the (presumably) nine-part saga is the journeys of three successive generations of the Skywalker family. Familial relationships between the Skywalkers – especially inter-generational conflicts – are the key motivating factors within the plot, and shape its most pivotal moments. Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side begins with the death of his mother, and is cemented by his desire to protect his wife and unborn child. Luke’s great triumph – his decision to not to kill his father, at the likely cost of his own life – is spurred by his desire to redeem him. And Han, Leia and Luke’s arcs in the sequel trilogy are defined by their relationship to Ben, their respective son and nephew. If the entire triad of trilogies can be said to have a single protagonist, that protagonist is the Skywalker family.
So what happens when, in the penultimate chapter of the story, the only remaining person who can carry on that family’s lineage has near-singlehandedly undone everything that the previous two generations of his family had achieved? Even if Kylo truly did redeem himself at the end, this renders the entire 9-film arc nearly moot–Anakin causes destruction, Luke fixes it. Kylo causes destruction, and then fixes it (or at least stops causing it). We’ve ended right where we started, and the only conclusion to draw is that the galaxy would be just the same whether or not the Skywalkers had ever existed at all.
In order for our “protagonist,” as it were, to have any sort of character development or significance, we need to end the story with a sense that they have not only achieved something, but will continue forward to do greater things in the future. If Kylo is the last Skywalker by the end of the sequel trilogy, the overall saga will either end with the audience cheering the annihilation of the family we’ve been caring about for 9 films, or it will end with the great “triumph” of its last descendant finally deciding to stop being quite so evil (and before you say, “but maybe he’ll go on do to lots of good things in the future!” take a moment to imagine if the original trilogy had ended with Luke and Leia dead and a “redeemed” Vader as the only surviving Skywalker, and think about how warm and fuzzy you’d ACTUALLY be feeling when those end credits rolled). But if, as Yoda put it, “there is another,” a Skywalker who is demonstrably good, kind, and valiant, who is able to undo the wrongs of the past as well as forge a path for goodness in the future, the narrative opens itself up for a feeling of true growth and potential.
Even if everything else the Skywalker family has done has canceled itself out through alternate phases of triumph and destruction, their journeys, struggles, failures, and hardships led to something ultimately positive and meaningful–the birth of Rey, and all she will go on to achieve.
Thematic Cohesion Across the Franchise One of the most important themes in Star Wars is broken relationships between parents and their children and the characters’ attempts to restore those relationships. We see the relationship between Anakin and his mother break in The Phantom Menace and his attempts to restore it in Attack of the Clones. Most of Anakin’s issues in Revenge of the Sith stem from the loss of his mother and the film ends with the breaking of the family yet again as Luke and Leia are hidden from their father. In Rogue One we see Jyn try to reconnect with her long lost father. In A New Hope Luke decides to become a Jedi mostly in an attempt to become closer to the father he never knew. In The Empire Strikes Back we see Vader’s attempt to restore his relationship with his son. In Return of the Jedi we see Luke’s attempt to restore his relationship with his father. In The Force Awakens we see Han’s attempt to rectify his relationship with his son. If Rey is the daughter of dead nobodies, she can’t be used to explore this theme. If she’s a Skywalker, it becomes the central theme of the sequel trilogy.
When I found you, I saw what all masters live to see. Raw, untamed power. And beyond that, something truly special. The potential of your bloodline. A new Vader.
“Family” vs. “Bloodline.” Given the villains’ fixation on the superiority of the Skywalker bloodline in this trilogy, as well as the presence of a “nobody” protagonist, it’s not surprising that much of the audience took the message of The Last Jedi to be “The family you came from doesn’t matter.” This, however, directly contradicts one of the most central themes of the preceding trilogy–that is, it is important to accept and embrace the family you came from, with all their flaws, and that the bonds of familial love are among the most powerful forces in the galaxy. So how can this trilogy underscore Kylo’s wrongness about his heritage while also not destroying the messages of the 6 films that came before it? By noting the difference between a “bloodline” and a “family.” Snoke emphasizes the cold, clinical, elitist aspects of family: the “superiority” of certain genetic lineages, the concept of Kylo as a blood heir, and so on. Notably, the word “family” never appears in the movie. The words used instead, somewhat pejoratively, are “blood” and “bloodline,” words with connotations of both elitism and violence.
All discussions of the Skywalkers are in relation to their pedigree, not the loving bonds that exist among them. Meanwhile, Rey extends that sort of familial love and devotion to all members of the Skywalker family–healing Luke, saving Leia, trying desperately to understand Kylo–without ever knowing them as family members or realizing she’s done so. This trilogy is not trying to draw a dichotomy between “family” and “individuality,” it’s drawing one between “family” and “blood.” Rey can be a biological Skywalker and still fit in with this theme, since her relationship to her family is rooted, first and foremost, in love. Her family does not define her, but through a demonstration of the same selfless and courageous love as her father, Rey defines her family.
The Burden of the Past
Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.
– Kylo Ren
Where The Force Awakens took comfort in the nostalgia of the OT, The Last Jedi takes those symbols and destroys or discards them (at least on the surface). Not even the saga’s linear story-telling style – previously consistent across seven films – is safe. This film features flashbacks, voiceovers and is perhaps the most self-aware film to date. The symbols of the old Rebellion, X-Wings, Calamari Cruisers and even Admiral Ackbar are unceremoniously disposed of. The film gives us by far the most absurdly oversized Star Destroyer to date and it too is gone by movie’s end. The message is clear, to move forward Star Wars cannot be beholden to the symbols of its past.
It is this message that defines the travails of the Skywalker family. For the named Skywalkers are each haunted and burdened by their own and their family’s past. In Bloodline, Leia lost everything upon the discovery of her true parentage. Luke is a man shattered both by his personal failures and the destruction his bloodline has wrought upon the galaxy. Luke and Leia sought to shield Ben from the horrors his grandfather suffered and inflicted by hiding his heritage, but wound up losing him to it.
For many years, there was balance and then I saw Ben. My nephew with that mighty Skywalker blood. And in my hubris, I thought I could train him, I could pass on my strengths.
As the grandson of Darth Vader, Ben Solo becomes the target of those who seek to create a new Vader. Manipulated by Snoke, Kylo Ren first seeks to claim his fallen grandfather’s mantle while cutting all ties to his personal past by destroying those that formed it. When that fails, he kills his dark master and moves to abandon all traces of his identity as a Skywalker. Far from a gift, the power and name of the Skywalkers proves to be a terrible curse. To survive, it must escape the shadow of its fallen patriarch, Darth Vader. Yet the three known members are completely shackled to it.
Saving What Matters
That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.
In The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson speaks about some of the core themes he wanted to address in Episode VIII. “The only way to go forward is to embrace the past, figure out what is good and what is not good about it,” Johnson says. “[T]he notion of, ‘Nope, toss this all away and find something new,’ is not really a valid choice, I think.” It’s clear from this quote that the surface read of this film–that the past should be thrown away in favor of the future–is inadequate in expressing what Johnson is really trying to say. Both Kylo and Luke are proven to be wrong in their views of the past, Kylo by actively destroying it and Luke by dwelling on it.
Time and again, the story shows us images to underscore this theme, where the outer trappings of old, sacred things are destroyed, while the heart of them remains, however weakened, to be carried forward into the future. The Jedi tree is set ablaze, but the sacred texts inside are rescued. The Skywalker lightsaber is shattered, but its kyber crystal is saved. The Resistance forces are decimated, but the core of the rebellion survives. What is the common theme among all these things? Rey is the one who saves them. Without knowing it, Rey’s greatest achievement so far has been rescuing things from destruction so that they can go on to build new things in the future–a Jedi order, a lightsaber, a rebellion. The only thing that remains (seemingly) shattered beyond repair by the end of the film is the fate of the Skywalker family. Unless, of course, somebody in their midst has managed to unknowingly save their future too.
Yoda’s Wisdom, In Context
Yoda’s speech to Luke, ostensibly about the trials and burdens of being a master/teacher, features a callback to a line from Yoda’s death scene in Return of the Jedi. “Heeded my words, did you not?” Yoda asks Luke in TLJ, “Pass on what you have learned.” But Yoda wasn’t referring to a generic student when he first said this line (the same one he references in his conversation with Luke in The Last Jedi). The full line is as follows: “The Force is strong in your family. Pass on what you have learned. Luke…there is another Skywalker.” He’s not simply telling Luke to become a teacher someday, he’s specifically telling him to share his knowledge of the Force with his surviving family (ie, Leia). The purpose of this line, in context, is meant as a lead-in to revealing that Luke has a living family member he did not know about. To recontextualize it to refer to Rey, knowing full well how heavily she is suspected to be Luke’s daughter, would require at least some awareness of the connection being drawn.
In telling Luke to pass on his failures as well as his strengths, Yoda is telling Luke he must pass on the lessons of the past. In failing to tell Ben of what became of his grandfather and the dangers that face him, Luke and Leia inadvertently made him vulnerable to one who would twist Vader’s true nature and fate.
Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.
Luke has drawn the wrong lesson from that mistake and is trying to shield Rey from her family’s strengths or weaknesses. Instead of guiding Rey to a new path, it alienates her and drives her to the only person seeming to understand and offer what she’s looking for – Kylo Ren. Yoda admonishes Luke for withholding what she so clearly needs.
So when Yoda asks Luke, “Heeded my words, did you not?” we may not be wrong to wonder which words, exactly, he is referring to.
Everybody is “Somebody”
You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing.
– Kylo Ren
One of the themes many audience members drew from TLJ was the idea that heroism can come from unlikely places. Rey, an ostensible “nobody” from “nowhere,” rises to become as powerful as her enemy, one of the strongest Force users in the galaxy. Finn, who just one movie prior was a faceless foot-soldier, has now become an icon in the eyes of the Resistance. We even close the movie with a shot of a young, nameless stable boy using the Force to lift a broom.
This theme continues over to the expanded universe book The Legends of Luke Skywalker by Ken Liu, which repeatedly emphasized how Luke Skywalker, legendary galactic hero, spent much of his time after the Battle of Endor wandering the galaxy as a near-pauper, able to blend into his surroundings as a kind but unassuming face in the crowd (LoLS 1: The Myth Buster). At one point, he is even shown to be earning his keep salvaging scraps after the battle of Jakku (1) and piloting a run-down A-Wing (2) –certainly an odd detail to include for a character with no connection to another junk scavenger/pilot we know.
Just as somebody from humble origins can rise to greatness, LoLS shows that somebody great can still be humble. The fact that Luke bears the Skywalker name, and the Skywalker legacy, does nothing to diminish the fact that he is still a “nobody” in the eyes of those around him. “Anybody can be a somebody,” after all, even the kindly scrap dealer fixing travelers’ droids in the Jakku desert. So in this sense, Rey Skywalker, as a parallel to her father, would still support the theme of “anybody can be a somebody,” without sacrificing deeper themes of family and legacy already present in the plot.
One of the chief critiques of The Force Awakens was how closely Rey’s journey mirrored Luke’s journey in the Original Trilogy. The Last Jedi, for all its subversiveness, was more or less the same in this regard. Rey goes to a distant planet to train as a Jedi, she has a vision that makes her decide to leave prematurely, winds up in the hands of the enemy, confronts the Big Bad in his throne rome and is rescued when the more ambiguous antagonist kills said Big Bad (albeit with a different final outcome). If Rey is, in fact, just a “nobody,” her parallels with Luke are either a shoddy retread of the plot of the Original Trilogy, or else a complete waste of her character arc meant to serve solely as an extended misdirection teasing her as Luke’s daughter. However, if she is Luke’s daughter, those parallels become–and remain–significant and poignant: a girl whose heart is so similar to her father’s that she walks in his footsteps and carries on his legacy without ever realizing it.
Think of what the mirror cave is telling Rey: if you want to know the answers you seek, look inside yourself. Or, in other words, “You’re a spirited, compassionate young Jedi embarking on a quest to save the galaxy by confronting and redeeming your nemesis through love and forgiveness. Whose child are you? Take a wild guess.”
Darkness rises, and light to meet it.
Good and Evil in Star Wars are presented as interconnected, as two sides of the same coin. They balance each other. Fear, anger, and hatred are balanced by peace, patience, and compassion, selfishness by selflessness. Both the Dark Side and the Light are part of the Force itself and can never be fully eliminated. But this does not, as many often believe, mean accepting the Dark side as a moral equivalent to the Light–the Dark side is consistently portrayed as destructive and dangerous by its very nature.
The “balance” lies in accepting the presence of the Darkness, both in the galaxy and within ourselves, while letting the Light quite literally “outshine” it. This is, of course, most distinctly reflected in the character of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, a man who, throughout his life, embodied both the very best and very worst of human nature. But his ultimate redemption as a character did not come from learning to embrace the Dark and Light side equally, it came from allowing the Light in him–his true identity, Anakin Skywalker–to overpower the Darkness that he had allowed to run rampant for so many years.
My worthy apprentice, son of darkness, heir apparent to Lord Vader.
So when we are presented with Kylo Ren, a character who is explicitly referred to as both the biological and spiritual heir of Vader (notably, not to Anakin), it seems reasonable to expect that his narrative purpose is, in part, to keep the shadow of Vader looming large over the Skywalker family. If his most direct and personal rival, Rey, is a “nobody,” then their conflict becomes simply one of good vs. evil (or, as some suggest, Light and Dark learning to exist as peaceful equals–something that the very nature of the Dark side renders impossible) and the Skywalker family a plague. But if she is the only other grandchild of Anakin Skywalker, their rivalry suddenly ties into the deepest and most profound through-lines of the entire 9-story arc.
When Rey and Kylo fight, it is not simply a good person fighting an evil person, it is the embodiment of the good side of one individual battling the embodiment of the evil side of that same individual.
Their rivalry becomes symbolic of the single most important theme of the Skywalker Saga: “both Light and Dark exist within us–but which of them determines our legacy?” If Rey is a Skywalker, then the saber flying past Kylo and into her hand in The Force Awakens becomes more than a cool stunt–it becomes a deeply moving and uplifting answer to that most fundamental question.
It is worth noting that Rey and Kylo share similar characteristics and parallel the good and evil parts of Anakin’s life, respectively. Rey, like Anakin, was raised on a desert world in conditions that were slavery in all but name. She is a talented pilot and mechanic. She was shown in the Force Awakens to have had hang ups about leaving home that had to do with fears that she would never see her family again if she did. She has Anakin’s Lightsaber. Kylo, like Vader, is the traitor apprentice that destroyed the Jedi Order. He served as Dark Side master in the upper ranks of an evil military and then he turned against that master and killed him. Kylo has Vader’s helmet. If they are indeed the two grandchildren of Anakin Skywalker then their fight is ultimately what will decide his legacy. Will the Shadow of Vader continue to loom large over the galaxy or will Anakin’s legacy finally be redeemed as he was?
1: After an hour or two, he would return, sometimes empty-handed but often carrying pieces of machinery or electronics he had salvaged.
Liu, Ken. Journey to Star Wars The Last Jedi: The Legends of Luke Skywalker (Star Wars: Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) (Kindle Locations 586-587). Disney Book Group. Kindle Edition.
“Those things have more independent systems,” he muttered to himself. “Better salvage…Ah, there’s a nice hole blasted in the leg.” He turned to me. “Might as well take a nap. I’ll be gone a little longer than usual.”
Liu, Ken. Journey to Star Wars The Last Jedi: The Legends of Luke Skywalker (Star Wars: Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) (Kindle Locations 599-601). Disney Book Group. Kindle Edition.
2: The ship wasn’t something you saw every day: a two-seat starfighter with an A shape, a worn paint job, and plenty of marks and dents all over the hull. It was probably an old military surplus vehicle that had been converted to civilian use and patched and repaired so many times over the years that it was hard to say if any original components remained. “Need a ride?” The pilot’s boyish, happy eyes twinkled. The lived-in state of the cockpit told me he had been traveling for a long time. “Hop in. I’m Luke.”
Liu, Ken. Journey to Star Wars The Last Jedi: The Legends of Luke Skywalker (Star Wars: Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) (Kindle Locations 2400-2404). Disney Book Group. Kindle Edition.
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