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The Case of the Disappearing Generals

"We're going to be generals? No way that lasts."
“We’re going to be generals? No way that lasts.”

The modern-day Expanded Universe is built on one great, big, foundational mistake.

In his “A Case for Starting Over” series, Alexander has been looking at ways a new Disney-era Expanded Universe could improve the post-Return of the Jedi stories. I tend to disagree with that outlook: I don’t think that a few small mistakes or missed opportunities, many of which can simply be remedied with additional stories, call for starting over and throwing out the entire vast enterprise of the EU. But if I were to look forward to any possibilities to be found in a fresh start, correcting this glaring error would be the one.

What’s the mistake? The decision to have Han and Lando resign their commissions.

This might seem like a trivial issue. Han and Lando have dipped in and out of the military so often since Return of the Jedi that there are some works that feature them as generals. They weren’t introduced as generals, we didn’t fall in love with them as generals, and they continue to play major roles in stories, so what’s the harm in having them frequently out of the military? But the truth is that this represents a major failure to follow through on their character development from Return of the Jedi — a regression in characterization that has stranded them narratively, especially Han as he has grown older, and prevented their character arcs from continuing. It’s a much bigger drag under the surface of the post-ROTJ narrative than it seems.

The burden of responsibility would be great material for the EU
The burden of responsibility would be great material for the EU

I’ve harped on the importance of character arcs here already. Without them, stories are just a series of actions by a character; with them, they are stories about the characters, taking them on a personal journey. All of the characters went through arcs in the films that left them, at the end of Return of the Jedi, with direction going forward. After revealing the heart of gold under his cynical, mercenary exterior, Han showed his dedication to the Rebel Alliance by accepting a commission as a general and risking his life on a mission to destroy the Death Star’s shield generator. This left a perfect arc to continue: how does the independent spacer cope with respectability and responsibility? How does Han grow into the burden of leadership that he has accepted? Lando’s commission likewise signaled that the former traitor was now all-in, and raised the question of how the once studiously neutral, smooth-operating scoundrel would adapt to a life of idealistic service and sacrifice. There was a clear forward progression — one that has been thoroughly followed through upon for Luke and Leia — yet in a great disservice to the films, Han’s and Lando’s arcs have somehow been dropped like hot potatoes. Those two have been left adrift, their film arcs sabotaged, by authors who failed to take their final-film growth into account.

When Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire came out, it immediately set the tone for the EU going forward. Leia was in politics, Luke was studying the Jedi and hoping to revive them, and . . . Han and Lando were reset to their The Empire Strikes Back selves, as if Return of the Jedi had never happened. Lando was a business administrator with a new exotic mining venture, and Han was a guy who gallivanted around in the Millennium Falcon, ferrying Leia to and fro and cracking wise at Threepio. In most of the succeeding EU, these basic roles were followed — Lando had some crazy business scheme he was running, and Han was the guy vaguely associated with the New Republic but without a real job, who flew around in the Falcon with the characters who had actual things to do. There were some exceptions — Dark Empire and the excellent Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor featured General Calrissian, while Han got brief stints as a fleet-commanding general in the Wraith Squadron X-wing books and The Black Fleet Crisis, as well as being name-dropped as a general without an actual assignment in a few of the Falcon-chauffeur books, but these were intermittent diversions at best from a status quo of character stagnation.

Han and Leia in the cockpit is all well and good, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, and it gets pretty stale as the only dynamic out there

I will focus on Han for the moment, because it was his regression that did the most damage. By taking Han out of the military, Han became a character without a defined role. Luke, as Jedi, and Leia, as a senior government official, fit naturally into any story by virtue of their roles in the galaxy and in the story. Han, without a job, had no natural entry point into any given story via his own agency. He was reduced to tagging along in the story via his connections to other characters, like Luke and Leia, who did have roles. At most, he served as a sort of unofficial troubleshooter called on by his official friends. This was not a disastrous model throughout the Bantam era, as Han’s marriage to President Leia gave him ample cover to serve as her companion in storylines, but it frequently made integrating Han into the story awkward any time he wasn’t paired with his wife in a First Husband storyline. See, for example, the incredibly contrived scenario of The New Rebellion, in which Han was suspected of bombing the Senate and fled to clear his name by investigating the bombing (this was a really dumb book), or how irrelevant Han became in Planet of Twilight when the plot required Luke and Leia to both go through the story alone. Han was left to wander around in a few scenes looking for his wife.

The problem only grew in The New Jedi Order, when Han’s circle of friends, including Leia, had moved out of political power. Now merely the captain of the Millennium Falcon, Han was stuck in a paradigm where his ability to play a role in a galactic-war plotline was severely limited. As a general, he could have commanded fleets on the attack against the invaders who killed his best friend, led secret missions, and commanded his daughter as she flew for Rogue Squadron. Instead, authors used to thinking of Han merely as a ship captain rather than a military figure were left to find ways to stick Han and the Falcon into the story. The level of contrivance has increased even further since that series, as the jobless Han has been stuffed into stories or used as a mere Jedi auxiliary. Fate of the Jedi reached record proportions of awkwardly-contrived makework plotlines for Han, who had no natural entry point into the story.

General Solo, hunting Warlord Zsinj at the head of a New Republic fleet. This is Han at his post-ROTJ best.

Yet stories that have dared to use Han as General Solo have been among his very best, showing a focus, vitality, and depth of character rare among Han-as-chauffeur tales. The Wraith Squadron books chronicling his campaign against Warlord Zsinj, especially X-wing: Solo Command, exhibited Han-as-general as a driven warrior, a man uncomfortable with responsibility and bucking against the official trappings of command, but determined to do his duty and do it well. He was still the witty scoundrel we love, but he was also more than that, a scoundrel being forced to mature, take on responsibility, and deal with the consequences of his actions. Author Aaron Allston developed Han and imbued him with depth rather than simply recycling The Empire Strikes Back dynamics for cheap laughs. In The Black Fleet Crisis, General Solo was used to provide a distinct perspective for Leia — that of an experienced military officer — and naturally fit into the naval-conflict plotline. In Legacy of the Force, Han was at his best when he returned to his military role for the Corellian faction, resonating with a sense of purpose and direction capable of holding down an actual ongoing plotline rather than stumbling from contrived B-plot to throwaway supporting role to B-plot. One of Han’s most interesting usages in The New Jedi Order was not as a general, but as a refugee camp administrator in Balance Point. It trod the same thematic ground in depicting Han as a matured authority figure taking on responsibility while maintaining his iconic personality.

It is not as if having Han as a general would have been too limiting, either. The Black Fleet Crisis posited Han as a senior general whose official posting was as military liaison to the president of the New Republic — his wife — leaving him available and flexible. General Solo could tag along with his wife, or be sent on covert or diplomatic missions (Zahn and Anderson had the right idea in sending Han as an unofficial ambassador to smuggling concerns and Kessel, respectively — they just got the “unofficial” part wrong) — but he could also lead fleets against the New Republic’s enemies, too. This would also give Han more story options as he grew into maturity — Han playing a leading role in the Yuuzhan Vong War alongside Wedge Antilles and Garm Bel Iblis, and opening into other authority-figure roles afterward, perhaps as Galactic Alliance Minister of Defense, or taking over Talon Karrde’s information-sharing organization, giving him a way to stay relevant in stories without staying in the field in his seventies or relying on contrived plotlines.

Han started out as an Imperial officer — he is a military man. His arc is completed by becoming a New Republic officer, not a freighter-flying scoundrel.

The real point is not that Han should have been used exclusively as a military commander, but that authors should have taken the hint of Han’s character development in Return of the Jedi and conceptualized him as a character who was now a military officer, taking responsibility, continuing through an arc of maturation, and committing visibly to the New Republic — indeed, Han was closing the circle that began when he entered the Imperial military, idealistic, talented, and eager to serve. Instead, authors undid Han’s development by having him de-commit to the New Republic ASAP — a cardinal sin in material purporting to continue the films’ story — and undercut further development by leaving him to bum around in The Empire Strikes Back mode while Luke and Leia matured and accepted greater responsibility. Two out of the Big Three grew via the Expanded Universe; Han shrank. Rather than being the scoundrel who bought in to the Rebellion and volunteered as a general, he became the general who abandoned the New Republic in the middle of its war to retake the galaxy because he found it easier to be a scoundrel and pitch in on his own terms than sacrifice his scruffy independence to a cause larger than himself. Talk about making a character look bad and missing the whole point of the movie — the authors might as well have had Luke decide he didn’t want to be a Jedi after all.

Lando committed to the New Republic when he became General Calrissian. Don’t ignore that.

Lando’s case has been slightly less deleterious, as the pre-Return of the Jedi status to which he was reverted allowed him a relatively defined role with some agency and relevance. Lando the businessman was at least a role of authority and maturity to begin with, and authors have been able to parlay that into distinct roles in the story. This was especially so from mid-The New Jedi Order afterward, when Lando settled into the role as the successful head of Tendrando Arms, outfitting the heroes with advanced technology and enjoying a mostly-quiet retirement from which he could slip in to lend a rich, charming hand.

Lando’s retirement from the New Republic shortly after Return of the Jedi — like Han’s, well before the New Republic had its war won — presented the same problem of diminishing his character, however. Rather than continue to show his developing commitment to a cause larger than himself — putting aside his prized independence and search of profit to put his life on the line for freedom — the Expanded Universe had Lando quit after a year or so and go back to trying to make money in the middle of the New Republic’s fight. Even putting aside the authors’ subsequent failure to understand what to do with him for the next ten years out-of-universe and twenty-plus in-universe (bouncing him from failed business venture to failed business venture to semi-successful business venture everyone else ignored to the most spectacularly misguided plotline of all, a coldly mercenary search for a rich heiress to marry), it cannot help but be a thematically bad idea for the Expanded Universe to promptly roll back the critical character development of Return of the Jedi.

More Lando’s Commandos, less Lando’s exotic mining venture #18

Like Han, the few glimpses we have of Lando as a general — the leading military character in Dark Empire, a cunning and vital commander in Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, an unconventional troubleshooter in the Tales comic Lando’s Commandos: On Eagles’ Wings — are among his best moments. It would have done little harm to delay Lando’s return to business until after the Empire’s 11 ABY collapse, while maintaining Lando’s growth as a character and emphasizing his aspects as not only an entrepreneur, but also an officer — a multidimensionality that would also give him more depth and more narrative options if only authors would keep it in mind.

It is that multidimensionality that is a real loss here, for both Han and Lando, as well as the disappointment and lost opportunity of their compromised arcs. By painting these two vital characters into the corner of their initial characterizations, only rarely to escape, we have been denied the opportunity to see them play the roles they grew into and really mature and expand as characters the way Luke and Leia have. With these two crucial protagonists, the Expanded Universe has unfortunately failed to live up to the promise of its name and mission.

Lucas Jackson

Lucas Jackson

Lucas Jackson's biggest interests are history, political theory, the art of storytelling, and talking about any of the preceding three interests. Star Wars captivated his imagination at age nine when he learned that not only were there amazing movies, but an entire galaxy of interconnecting stories to discover. That appeal, of an interconnected set of stories in an almost impossibly deep setting, has kept the Expanded Universe a constant part of his life ever since. Since age seventeen, as Havac, he has enjoyed discussing that passion online with friends, strangers, and strangers who become friends, primarily via the Jedi Council Forums and Wookieepedia. Now someone has been stupid enough to give him his own forum in which to spout off.

6 thoughts to “The Case of the Disappearing Generals”

  1. The main problem I always had with Han Solo as General, is that there is no reason why he needs to be one for what he does in ROTJ, as the Rebels seem to be handing Generalships out to just about anyone taking part in the Battle of Endor. He is already clearly an Officer of the Alliance in Ep 5, especially given how he is bossing around Echo Base personal, just because he is leading a 20+ team onto Endor (from which he pretty much splits immediately and sticks to his friends) there was no reason for him to need the rank other than a quick laugh in the briefing scene. It is actually almost on the level of Jar Jar getting made a General just for the fun of it.

    The ironic thing is that character wise Han would actually have made more sense to turn into some kind of business leader pretty quickly (Zahn at least tried making him a Merchant Liaison) rather than stick to being a General, which as you mentioned only the X-Wing books kind of make work, and even there he does not need to be a General, but would have been fine as an advising Officer, since the Mon Cal Fleet captain he gets does most of the actual fleet stuff anyway.

    Lando sticking to General for a while longer (as he did), also works, until like he does he would clearly just get bored of it and stop seeing a future in it, especially once the Military becomes more formalized and him doing something like he does in Black Fleet makes the most sense for him in that regard.

  2. Han is presented as “doing it for Leia” when he accepts the mission to go after Zsinj, and resigns his commission some point after ‘Courtship’ and the Thrawn Trilogy.

    This is what has always seemed out of character for me.

  3. I think, the EU certainly has some flaws, but Han in/out of the military is not one of them. Fans fell in love with him because of his Scoundrel nature. Even as military he was unconventional and while in the movies it showed a story arc for him ending, it is not where he needs to get stuck with in the EU! Furthermore the EU continued his arc well: First he was kept as General, then he resigned and became “First Lady”, a new role that allowed him to be a father and go into politics himself kinda with many diplomatic roles he took up for Leia, even bringing in and assisting to bring into legality many former smugglers and rogues through the Smugglers Alliance and other means. While he had his on and off military stints, his on and off adventures as scoundrel but for the Bantam run he had progressed into a respectable diplomat with connections to his old life.
    Only thereafter did he regress into scoundrelhood but that was not bad either since it in a time of war makes more sense and helped more than playing fair might have. But I agree that, from a Sequel Movie perspective this last part is not optimal. Still, I do not share your views on his lack of an arc in the EU. Especially since he got dropped back into his “old life” by crisis and loss of Chewbacca, not voluntarily. And from that angle it makes sense. Turning him, Leia, later even Jag and all into Jedi support crew though is not optimal indeed.

    As for Lando.. we all know Lando’s Commandos rocked. But what you advocate is to get them stuck in their ROTJ roles which is as bad as getting them stuck in any other role! Lando did evolve too, after his military career he turned to making money legally and become a business man big style. He shaped and changed the commercial and industrial side of the GFFA and thus progressed nicely from his TESB self into a man uniting assets for big projects successfully. In that he grew and we got Politics covered with Leia, Jedi with Luke, Rogue connections despite his legal diplomats job for Han, and Commerce for Lando. A nice split and it hold up well. Lando was a rolemodel business leader: fair, inventive, innovative and staying grounded in reality, doing stuff himself a lot. He even had his nice archeology side-missions that called back to his old Lando Adventurs very well!

    So as you can see your sticking them in military ever since does not hold up to the claim you make about a character arc at all. Quite the contrary. It only to me shows a love for military and military stories, which is ok, but not everything SW should be about and is luckily.

    or in short: I disagree!

    CeiranHarmony

  4. I think the the resignation that is more ironic is Skywalker resigning his commission. Remember, all the older Rebels would remember Jedi as Generals — that’s what he’s supposed to be. And then, he steps down… and… well… does… something? At least Han only resigns his commission a few months before the Zahn triology.

    1. Yoda: “Warriors Jedi are not.” Wars do not make one great. I wish America would some day understand some crucial core elements of the Saga. The Jedi of the Prequels were flawed and turning into Generals was the biggest sign of their flaws. Their doom ultimately. The Prequel Jedi are less of a rolemodel Jedi, which more or less Prequel rogue Jedi were that were not always following the Council. Those like Qui Gon, etc. were way more the ideal Jedi template than any other Prequel Jedi. Skywalker resigning his commission is a good sign of him not doing the same mistake. And even better, others like Han do that too since the galaxy does not need generals or wars but something else way more.

      1. But it is still ironic. Even Obi-wan is addressed as “General Kenobi” – there is that thrust and expectation that would be there – especially as Luke is already an officer in the Rebellion.

        I don’t know what America has to do with this.

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