How to Ruin Rey with Retcons: Written by Rian Johnson and Lucasfilm

This is the fourth in a series of articles examining how Lucasfilm’s Sequel Trilogy deconstructs the mythos and story of George Lucas’s Star Wars.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV <
Part V

Like many, I was disappointed by Rey’s story in The Last Jedi, and also her conclusion in The Rise of Skywalker. Some will argue that my “head canon” or “lofty expectations” are to blame, but the truth is, after careful analysis, I find Rey’s story and conclusion to be lacking in vulnerability and emotion when compared to other successful heroes (stay tuned for Part V). Agree or disagree with me, this article simply aims to define the *why* behind my disappointment. So, where to begin?

Rey Intentionally Anonymous Nobody Palpatine Skywalker

Our story of Rey begins safely, and intentionally, anonymous….

“I will only say about that that it is completely intentional that [Rey’s and Finn’s] last names aren’t public record.” -JJ Abrams

Anyone familiar with classical storytelling could’ve immediately told you the implication to story – such a technique is commonly used to anonymously introduce someone of known or relevant lineage, that once revealed, adds context to the ongoing story or backstory of the no-longer anonymous hero. See: little orphan Arthur and The Sword in the Stone, or the mysterious ranger of the North, Strider, and The Lord of the Rings.

It is for this reason, among several others, that many were therefore unsatisfied with Rian Johnson’s focus on subverting audience expectations instead of growing Rey’s story naturally from The Force Awakens. And as if this story of Rey Intentionally Anonymous, now a Nobody, couldn’t get any more convoluted, The Rise of Skywalker states that Rey is now a Palpatine by blood –

“You’re a Palpatine.” -Kylo Ren
“You’re a Palpatine.” -Luke Skywalker

Did they think she forgot or….?

– only to later assume her title as a Skywalker.

Rey Intentionally Anonymous Nobody Palpatine Skywalker.

This would seem to point to a major issue behind the scenes at Lucasfilm Ltd. – there appears to have been no guiding vision for what would ultimately define their leading heroine. The resulting story of Rey feels more like a tug-o-war between identities and philosophies than a narrative through line nurtured from conception. And to be clear, the message that The Last Jedi delivers for our heroine is by far the most damaging to her purpose in the story. This is because we are never given the impression, whatsoever, that Rey believes or hopes that her parents are relevant to the story in The Force Awakens. So, why was Rey’s biggest challenge hearing that they weren’t?

As robotical712 points out:

“The consequence of a plot driven more by subverting audience expectations is the nominal protagonist is subverted out of her own story. As the movie is still part of the Skywalker Saga, it remains driven by the dynamics of that family. Yet, as Kylo tells her, the Skywalker story is not hers which makes Rey an observer. By reducing Rey to an observer, the movie strips her of any of her own motivations and characterization and she becomes a vehicle for the audience.” -robotical712

In a franchise filled with the themes of found and adopted family morals, why was Rey being a “nobody” so important to the so-called “Skywalker Saga?” In my attempt to address the *why* Rey’s story and conclusion fall flat, I believe we highlight just how much of Lucas’s mythos, and JJ Abrams’s original treatment for Rey, was thrown out by Rian Johnson and Lucasfilm Ltd.


What’s in a Surname?

Upon further consideration, the Palpatine “reveal” is delivered in a manner so as to remove any personal or family dynamic. More specifically, both Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker tell Rey she is a title: “You’re a Palpatine.” Note also that Rey is not distinctly or consistently represented by any specific role among a family, found or adopted or by blood. What’s the difference? Think about this for a moment in the context of how Lucas described relationships and characters in Star Wars:

“No. I am your father.” -Darth Vader

“Your father?!” -Leia Organa

“The other [Yoda] spoke of is your twin sister.” -Obi-Wan Kenobi

“Is Darth Vader my father?” -Luke Skywalker

“General Kenobi. Years ago you served my [adopted] father in the Clone Wars.” -Leia Organa

“Do you remember your [biological] mother?” -Luke Skywalker

“I have no memory of my [biological] mother.” -Luke Skywalker

“I can’t kill my own father.” -Luke Skywalker

“It’s not like that. [Luke’s] my brother.” -Leia Organa

“The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. And my… sister has it.” -Luke Skywalker

“No, my father didn’t fight in the Clone Wars. He was a navigator on a spice freighter.” -Luke Skywalker

“That’s what your uncle told you.” -Obi-Wan Kenobi

“Yes. I was once a Jedi knight, the same as your father.” -Obi-Wan Kenobi

“How did my father die?” -Luke Skywalker

“Don’t say that, master [Obi-Wan]. You’re the closest thing I have to a father.” -Anakin Skywalker

“You were my brother, Anakin! I loved you!” -Obi-Wan Kenobi

My wife and I will take the girl. We’ve always talked about adopting a baby girl.” -Bail Organa

“Your thoughts dwell on your mother.” -Ki-Adi-Mundi

Mom, you said that the biggest problem in the universe is no one helps each other.” -Anakin Skywalker

“But what about mom? Is she free too? You’re coming too, aren’t you mom?” -Anakin Skywalker

Son, my place is here, my future is here. It is time for you to let go.” -Shmi Skywalker

“You should be very proud of your son. He gives without any thought of reward.” -Qui-Gon Jinn

“There was no father.” -Shmi Skywalker

Lucas reminds us time and time again about the specific family role each character plays within our generational protagonist, from mothers, sons, and newfound sisters to adopted fathers and brotherly bonds. In Lucas’s story – every character has role within said family, and the only titles that mattered for resolving the central conflicts of these stories involved the heart-felt dynamics associated with those specific roles. For example, Vader does not threaten “Leia,” and this is a significant point. The only thing that succeeds in getting Luke to give into his fears is Vader threatening his sister. Luke was tempted to give into fear and anger at the loss of his friends only moments before, but resisted. Luke could not resist the temptation to strike his father when his sister is specifically attacked.

This is why the names of our protagonists were only nominally important as identifiers, and they were not significant to the story as it related to choice, and certainly not power (See: The Skywalker family making both terrible choices and heroic choices; suffering both great defeats and rising to great successes).

Yes, Palpatine refers to Rey as a “grandchild,” and mentions Rey’s “parents” once, but presented in the final act of the final movie in a 9 part saga is a far cry from the emotional momentum of the Skywalker family through Episodes I – VI. Here, “grandchild” and “parents” are used more as a structural playbill to the plot versus a role associated with a well-established family dynamic (as is the case with Lucas’s Star Wars).


Retconning Rey Intentionally Anonymous

Ultimately, Lucas believed that children would see and understand his themes of adopted and found family, and that his audience would know that they too could become “The Skywalker” of their own story. Lucas’s message was never that you or myself had to be blood-related to be the hero – we needed only to think for ourselves, and follow our own hearts to be a hero:

“My films have a tendency to promote personal self-esteem, a you-can-do-it attitude. Their message is: ‘Don’t listen to everyone else. Discover your own feelings and follow them. Then you can overcome anything.” – George Lucas

In stark contrast, Lucasfilm asserts that it was important for children to literally see a non-Skywalker be told that she is specifically not a Skywalker (twice), and then adopt the Skywalker family name in order to understand that they too could metaphorically become “The Skywalker.”

Not surprisingly, this philosophy is as convoluted as Rey Intentionally Anonymous Nobody Palpatine Skywalker. Lucasfilm’s story group member, Pablo Hidalgo, implies that the story was lacking in the themes of found and adopted family, or that having Rey be unrelated to the Skywalkers would somehow introduce a new or untold aspect of our story (when Finn is right there), or that children are incapable of understanding the themes or morals of stories. His quote further seems to suggest that the Skywalker family represents empowerment and significance through blood relation alone – a message Lucas never made. In this way, the Sequel Trilogy ignores the roles that each character plays in relation to the Skywalker family-as-protagonist and assigns more meaning to their last name, chosen or given.

But did this idea originate from Pablo Hidalgo? Further, if this quote is from 2014, does that mean that Rey was always intended to be a Nobody? The answer to both questions is an objective: No.

Examining the creative process and creator commentary more closely reveals that Rian Johnson retconned The Force Awakens, and this effort was supported by Lucasfilm. Take a look:

First, it is well-documented that Rian Johnson started writing The Last Jedi BEFORE The Force Awakens was in production.

Second, Rian Johnson states that Rey’s origins of being irrelevant was his idea, and that he landed on the notion that Star Wars needed to “break from the notion that the Force is this genetic thing that you have to be tied to somebody to have.” All this despite Lucas iterating and reiterating the themes of found and adopted-family, in addition to showing a plethora of Jedi and Force-users in The Prequel Trilogy and also The Clone Wars series.

“I went through all the possibilities of who [Rey’s] parents could be. I made a list, with the upsides and downsides, [and landed where I did because I was fond of] breaking out from the notion that the Force is this genetic thing that you have to be tied to somebody to have. It’s the ‘anybody can be president’ idea, which I liked introducing. The foremost thing, though, was just dramatically, storytelling-wise.” -Rian Johnson

But why does Rian Johnson believe he introduced ‘anybody can be president’ to Star Wars? Was this not the original message of Star Wars? Yes, yes it was:

“My films have a tendency to promote personal self-esteem, a you-can-do-it attitude. Their message is: ‘Don’t listen to everyone else. Discover your own feelings and follow them. Then you can overcome anything.” – George Lucas

Third, we know that Rey’s origins of being relevant was JJ Abrams’s original intent:

“…what J.J. kind of intended—or at least what was sort of being chucked around. I think that’s kind of been undone slightly by [The Last Jedi]. There was some talk of a relevant lineage for [Rey].” -Simon Pegg

Pairing this with knowing that Rian Johnson created his “notion” BEFORE The Force Awakens was even in production, it is clear that Lucasfilm’s Pablo Hidalgo was supporting Rian Johnson, but not JJ Abrams’s original intent for Rey. Thus, we have our first unequivocal retcon of the Sequel Trilogy, which was also publicly acknowledged by The Force Awakens editor, Mary Jo Markey:

“It’s very strange to have [The Last Jedi] (inaudible) consciously undo the storytelling of [The Force Awakens].” –Mary Jo Markey


Too Little, Too Late

And that brings us back to Rey Palpatine Skywalker. In sum, the Sequel Trilogy devalues the themes of found and adopted family by choosing instead to have the literal narrative tell this story through dialogue instead of the characters embracing and fulfilling important family roles. Following, the family dynamic of the Sequel Trilogy is quite barren: does an adopted family dialogue result in a more satisfying conclusion to the “Skywalker Saga” than the themes of found and adopted family played out by specific family roles? That’s obviously for you to decide.

If we look elsewhere for the conclusion to our Skywalker family, the last “Skywalker” by blood is Ben “Solo.” Unfortunately, the perspectives of Rian Johnson and Lucasfilm were well-supported behind the scenes, as having a blood-related Skywalker in the Sequel Trilogy was treated more as a story quota or “requirement” rather than it being a narrative through-line and natural progression of Lucas’s vision:

Regardless of how you feel about Rey adopting the Skywalker name, is Kylo Ren being the last Skywalker a satisfying conclusion to Shmi’s great-grandchildren and our family-as-protagonist story? Are we pleased that the last Skywalker murdered his father, and attempted to murder his uncle and mother? Are we fulfilled that the fall of Ben Solo led to a family so broken and separated that Luke, Leia, and Han were never filmed on screen with one another? Is Ren’s redemption without reconciliation to these wicked acts, and in the absence of all of his blood family, in any way earned? Lastly, whose “requirement” was met by this conclusion to Shmi’s great grandchildren?

I have my own answers to all these questions, but I’ll leave you to decide yours. After all, it’s what George Lucas would’ve wanted each of us to do, though I fundamentally believe he wouldn’t have told this story.


So, what’s in a surname? If the title “Skywalker” is where our focus should now turn according to Lucasfilm’s new generational protagonist of Rey, then what type of message does Rey Skywalker’s triumphant victory send in The Rise of Skywalker?

Unfortunately, I find that Rey’s victory lacks vulnerability. Perhaps most problematic is that Rey’s final test has little to do with Rey’s moral idealism, which is also poorly, if at all, defined. More to come in Part V….

11 comments

  1. Not going to lie… I feel like all the “You don’t have to be born a Skywalker to be a Skywalker” and the “You can grow beyond your bloodline” stuff feels to me like it needs and asterisk* after it and a footnote at the bottom saying “Kylo Ren is exempt from this statement, and must be considered a Skywalker by blood-right above all else.”

    And that Matt Martin’s phrasing is probably less “We’ve filled a checkbox for having a Skywalker present” and more “Well, Kylo is the Skywalker, and we think that’s awesome, and I don’t get why you don’t like that.”

    Because seriously, everything that Rey Palpatine “Skywalker” is supposed to argue is contradicted and undermined by the way LFL treats and coddles Kylo/Ben. And I think a lot of the convolutions the Trilogy goes through to put him and Rey together, and to have Ben Solo “rescue” Rey at the end of TROS, is out of a casual believe that he has to be equal to Rey because of his bloodline, and that Rey *needs* him to help establish that connection and importance.

    In fact, I think TROS’s confrontation with Palatine is something of a behind the scenes struggle between trying to make Rey act like Kylo’s sidekick/damsel in distress to sell him going through a conventional story, and trying to make sure Rey isn’t a sidekick/damsel in distress because that would hurt her standing in the story… with, unfortunately, enough of the damsel in distress stuff surviving to leave the ending toothless for Rey.

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    • I definitely see where you’re coming from re Matt Martin’s quote, but as you go on to say, it only exacerbates the issue that the “story group” has little understanding of stories or why many fans might not be satisfied that the central protagonist of the story was not a Skywalker, and the last in that line was a murderous fascist. The moral story of the Sequel Trilogy as it pertains to the generational protagonist of the Skywalker family within the concluding chapters of the “Skywalker Saga” is…. something else. When you listen to Dave Filoni talk about Star Wars, none of these issues arise – he truly is an extension of George’s original vision. It leads me to believe that the story group not only didn’t like working with JJ (present article), they probably don’t like working with Dave.

      Re some of your thoughts on the conclusion of TRoS – I’ve always held that Rey and Finn were our co-protagonists, and like Rey’s relevant reveal being undone by TLJ, it is difficult at best to argue that this wasn’t also undone by TLJ. Finn is at the heart of our story in TFA, but then segregated from the main plot in TLJ along with every other person of color (where the main plot takes place in isolation on a literal and narrative island with the leading white folk….). I think Rey and Finn would’ve worked beautifully together as a team, and avoided all the damsel in distress issues because Rey and Finn established that she was not such in TFA.

      And I do agree with many of your other points about plot lines and narrative being forced, perhaps from the studio judging by other commentary from several directors? I personally hope we can learn more about the missteps.

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  2. They ruined her from the get go. She picks up light saber instantly knows how to use it their is know saving the Those Star Wars movies retcon then and move on.

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    • I really don’t think she was ruined from the get-go at all; what she was, in fact, was vulnerable to writing mistakes that were the flip-side of a coin with the other being enormously beneficial ideas they could have used instead.

      For instance, Rey’s quick adaptation to and use of the Force in TFA did start her out closer to a prodigy than Luke was in the OT, and he defeat of Kylo did threaten the dramatic tension of their antagonism… but TFA had also planted the seeds for Rey having an even more pragmatic-bordering-on-ruthless POV than Anakin did, stoked the fires of her anger and pain at Kylo’s hands, and not only added several extenuating circumstances to Kylo’s defeat (including him holding back even after being injured multiple times)… but also promised he would “complete his training” in the next film.

      TLJ leaned into Rey as a blandly powerful in the Force but spiritually and mentally weak and shallow person especially around Kylo, with all threats he poses neutered… but it could have just as easily been about Rey embracing vindictiveness against Kylo, being overconfident, and getting trounced while simultaneously tainting herself with the dark side in their rematch, making Kylo a physical threat because he can beat her and a spiritual threat because fighting him automatically pushes her towards the dark side – creating a complex conundrum going into the last movie where Rey’s more Anakin in personality than Luke.

      TFA’s overall success was not just the product of Star Wars’s brand appeal and the OT cast’s return; that got people in the seats. What pushed it to record breaking excitement and box office was from good word of mouth about strong starting points for new characters with immense potential.

      TLJ, unfortunately, directly undercut and undermined the excitement and potential of the characters, and arguably damaged TFA retroactively with abysmal and boring interpretations of the story there.

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      • For any of its faults, I do have to agree with Bobcat56! in that The Force Awakens opened the door to any number of excellent opportunities to grow Rey’s character. Unfortunately, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is a story driven by subverting audience expectations and not moving the story along naturally into new and exciting directions (as robotical712 elegantly points out in his most recent article relative to this one).

        I agree with Bobcat56! about the reason for TFA’s success as well, which is supported by the fact that the film sustained 10 total weekends among the contemporaneous top 10 films, whereas TLJ was knocked out of the top 10 after only 6 (tied for last place with Solo among the Disney Star Wars feature films). Supporting this is the fact that TFA had the largest opening weekend among the ST, but TLJ’s opening weekend contributed the greatest percent profits toward its final box office earnings – meaning fans continued to poor in for TFA, and TLJ captured an initial wave likely due to brand loyalty and the positivity held over by TFA, but then quickly trailed off by negative word of mouth.

        TFA Rey is by far my favorite Rey, and I believe JJ’s original treatments for her character’s arc are likely much more satisfying than what was given to us in TLJ (and we know Rian threw out said JJ treatments).

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