Watching The Last Jedi After The Rise of Skywalker

When it comes to beloved genre film franchises, Star Wars stands alone. I’m not talking about in terms of box office numbers or household name recognition, but in the DNA of how the brand came to exist. Unlike The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, a galaxy far, far away doesn’t have the underlying structure of novels to hang its themes and narrative on. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe have decades of source material to mine, Star Wars does not have that luxury. Unless you count Legends lore, which is a gnarled tangle from which a handful of useful pieces have been salvaged. 

My point being that Star Wars is a multi-billion dollar machine that operates like a pantser instead of a planner. In fiction writing, there are two major schools of thought: planners are pretty self-explanatory. They like to have an outline, to know where the story is going and have a detailed plan for how to get there. On the downside, planners can get bogged down in the details, refusing to set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) until every single bit of minutia is locked down. Then there are the pantsers. These are the writers who have a vague idea of where their story is going and just fly by the seat of their pants, throwing themselves into the narrative and trusting the characters will lead the narrative where it needs to go. The downside to this can be that without an outline, stories can meander and peter out or hit a wall after the author writes themselves into a metaphorical corner. 

Of course, many writers blend the two. George R.R. Martin has called himself a gardener. He knows the basic outline and plants the seeds, then watches the story grow, pruning it into the shape it needs to be. By far my favorite method of fiction writing though comes from the late Sir Terry Pratchett. He called his style the “Valley of Clouds” in which a writer knows the big beats — the tops of the trees sticking out of the mist — and one must head down into the misty valley, fling themselves in the direction of the first tree and hope for the best.

All of this is simply a long way to say that Star Wars was never quite sure where it was going until it got there. You can see the seams in every film, even though it all gels together by the end. This is especially true of the sequel trilogy. Say what you will about George Lucas and the prequels, but it was his world and everyone else was just living in it. Without a single unifying creative force in charge of the sequels, Lucasfilm made it more difficult to parse themes and character motivations. But I’m surprised to say that after watching The Rise of Skywalker, my first rewatch of The Last Jedi put to bed a lot of the issues I formerly had with this film. 

Especially when it comes to Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master and Professional Grump.

Context is King

Full disclosure: I hated The Last Jedi when it came out. I hated it last year. I hated it after I saw The Rise of Skywalker, which I loved. I won’t go in-depth into my reasoning now, but you can see my thoughts at the time here, here, and here if you want. After re-watching The Last Jedi in the wake of the context of The Rise of Skywalker and supplemental materials such as the Kylo Ren comic, some of my former opinions have changed. 

Prior to my rewatch, I went back through a lot of the discourse that happened when The Last Jedi came out. Several points came up over and over again: that it was good the Luke had finally acknowledged that the Jedi were bad and needed to die; that Rey being “nobody” was subversive and to be taken at face value; that Snoke was a new player on the board and unrelated to the former war; and that “Let the past die; kill it if you have to” was a good and noble goal. After rewatching The Last Jedi, I wondered how so many missed the mark so badly. Every one of these is refuted within the film itself. 

Of course, the new context released since then helped me see it. It’s much like how knowing Vader is Luke’s father changes how we view A New Hope or how watching The Clone Wars adds depth to what is otherwise an unnaturally quick betrayal of the Jedi Order by Anakin Skywalker. Among the information I was armed with when diving back into The Last Jedi

  • How long Luke had been on Ahch-To (5 years max)
  • How old Ben Solo was when it all went sideways (23/24)
  • Luke knew who Rey was*
  • Luke’s imposter syndrome struggle
  • Leia’s Jedi training and Force vision about Ben’s fate

*There is some debate about if Luke knew before his death or if only Leia knew, but for the purposes of my rewatch, I did so with the lens of Luke being well aware of Rey’s ancestry.

A New Point of View

These five points forever change the evolution of Luke’s behavior in The Last Jedi, from the moment audiences first see him until the moment he triumphantly declares he will not be the last Jedi. To begin at the beginning, in the wake of the Battle of Endor, Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa traveled to Ajan Kloss so Luke could train his twin sister to become a Jedi. While she only trained professionally for a year or less, Leia was already well-versed in fighting styles thanks to her upbringing. The fact that she was able to build her own lightsaber with such a scant amount of training proves her competency with the Force was truly innate. She was the Hermione of Jedi Knights. 

Leia then had a Force vision that at the end of her Jedi training lay the death of her son. In a failed attempt to subvert fate, Leia abandoned that path and once again became a diplomat. We know from supplemental materials that Leia quitting gave Luke a crisis of faith. He disappeared shortly after Ben Solo’s birth, the implication being he was on a mission to learn more about the Jedi in order to properly train Ben and other Force-sensitive children instead of bumbling through it like an imposter. This is further born out by the Kylo Ren comic, which shows Ben and Master Luke on missions to recover lost Jedi knowledge. But it all went sideways five or six years before The Force Awakens, with Ben Solo becoming Kylo Ren and turning to the Dark Side. In shame, despair, and depression, Luke fled. Which is where audiences pick up the story in The Last Jedi.

Luke Skywalker Was Depressed AF

The entire narrative arc of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is him coming to terms with the fact that he’s been selfish and wrong to hide away on Ahch-To do to a massive and devastating setback. The Luke Skywalker that Rey finds feels like a failure, not a hero. In Luke’s mind, he failed to complete his sister’s Jedi training. He failed to understand the Force well enough to pass on the Jedi teaching to the next generation. He failed to see Snoke corrupting his nephew right under his nose for years. He failed Ben and his other students. Rey handing Luke the lightsaber that once belonged to Anakin Skywalker  — another failed Jedi Knight — must have felt like salt in the wound. A physical reminder that Skywalkers do nothing but mess everything up.

Then there’s the wrinkle that Luke Skywalker knows who Rey truly is. You can absolutely read the scene where he questions Rey about who she is and where she is from as him prodding to see if Rey knows her own origins. He doesn’t agree to “teach” her about the Force until he is satisfied that she has no idea who her grandfather is. But even that decision is still laced with fear. After all, in Luke’s mind he failed to train Ben Solo to be a Jedi and that was his own nephew, not the granddaughter of Darth Sidious. If the grandson of Darth Vader fell to the Dark Side under Luke’s tutelage, what chance would he stand in trying to teach Rey Palpatine to be a Jedi? 

This lends a whole new layer to Luke’s panic during Rey’s lessons. He has Rey reach out with the Force to feel how everything is connected. Then, immediately after going on a bitter rant about how the Jedi were full of hubris (okay, fair) and that the Light needs no enforcers, Rey feels the pull of the Dark Side cave. Luke metaphorically pushes her towards it with his own fear and self-loathing and then freaks out that she went straight to the Dark Side…like her grandfather before her. It also would explain why Luke was so determined to keep her and Kylo Ren apart, as well as his horror when she turned on him in the Ahch-To rain. It was his worst fear coming true; the rise of another Palpatine and all his fault. 

But by the end of The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker pulls it together. Why? Because of Yoda, the little troll. After Rey fled the planet in her misguided notion that Kylo Ren could be the savior of the galaxy, Luke headed towards the Uneti tree to set the Sacred Texts on fire. But he couldn’t do it and hesitated just long enough for Yoda to appear as a Force ghost. The scene that follows reads to me like a recalcitrant toddler (Luke) and a parent (Master Yoda). Luke threatens to destroy the Jedi texts; Yoda shrugs and basically dares him to do it. When Luke can’t, Yoda does it for him. 

This tough love Jedi parenting was the catalyst that made Luke realize he wasn’t ready to let the Jedi die. There was true anguish in him that Yoda would set such precious relics ablaze. Of course, Yoda clearly knew that Rey stole the books, but the point was that Luke didn’t. The extreme intervention by Master Yoda shook Luke from his depression and self-loathing to realize he been a jerk. When next the audience sees Luke, he has once again become a Jedi Knight, ready to defend the Light and die in the process if need be. He has put down the burden of shame, shedding himself of taking responsibility for the choices Kylo Ren (a grown-ass man) made of his own volition. A triumphant rebirth of the New Jedi Order.

Kylo Ren is a bad Person, Guys

Coming to terms with Luke Skywalker’s journey wasn’t the only change of heart I had in the wake of my rewatch of The Last Jedi. Thanks to the reintroduction to canon that Leia Organa was a Jedi Master of a sort, her survival in the vacuum of space and subsequent coma from the exertion it took plays better for me. Even before The Rise of Skywalker, I had believed Snoke was tied to Emperor Palpatine in some way but the clues are more obvious now. The dreadnaught destroyed by the bomber in the opening scene of The Last Jedi is a prototype of the ships the Sith Eternal used, and the battering ram brought down to Crait looks suspiciously like a version of the planet-killing guns that would appear in The Rise of Skywalker

But most importantly, in hindsight it was absurd to ever give Kylo Ren the benefit of the doubt about Rey’s parentage. As far back as The Force Awakens, the narrative showed that both Kylo and Rey could see each other’s darkest fears. Rey used it against him during his interrogation and torture of her, flinging it in Kylo’s face to throw him off-balance. Of course he would return the favor, especially as he was trying to manipulate Rey into abandoning the Resistance. After The Force Awakens mirrored A New Hope, it was almost expected that Rey’s parentage would be revealed in The Last Jedi as Luke’s was in The Empire Strikes Back. The only subversion was Kylo Ren lying. To think that in the second-to-last chapter of the Skywalker family saga it would be revealed that the current protagonist has no ties to that family’s history is complete willful ignorance of story structure. 

This is especially true in light of what happens in the direct aftermath of the Throne Room fight scene. For a hot minute, Kylo Ren and Rey team up as the enemy of your enemy is your friend. But once Snoke’s guards are dispatched, it becomes clear that Kylo Ren has not changed. He didn’t kill Snoke because Rey was guiding him back to the Light but because he wanted power and was angry that Snoke had manipulated him. Rey’s natural connection to the Force was simply another way to gain said power, if he could control it. First, he pulls directly from the pick-up artist playbook by negging her — “You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You are nothing…but not to me.” This quote is a parade of red flags. It is straight-up abuser talk, an attempt to isolate Rey and make her feel as if he is the only one who can validate her worth. But when that fails to sway her, Kylo Ren immediately falls back on his rage that she won’t let the past die. That she is weak, still holding on to hope. How we ever framed that as a failing in Rey is beyond me. 

But of course, we shouldn’t let the past die. We shouldn’t kill it. Like Luke Skywalker, like Rey Skywalker, we should study it and learn from it. Take the good forward and evolve from the bad to keep it from happening again. Burying the past only leads directly back to the sins of our ancestors. Kylo Ren is proof of that.

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