When Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire hit the shelves in 1991, it brought us out of a long drought of Star Wars material and gave us an idea of what the post-Return of the Jedi Empire might have looked like. It also gave us two characters that grew very popular over time: Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade.
Mara was introduced as the “Emperor’s Hand”, who could hear his voice anywhere in the galaxy and did his bidding. She was tough, ruthless, one not to be crossed.
This characterization is good. Star Wars has always done well with strong female characters, was in fact one of the first franchises to do so. Lucas took a lot of criticism in 1977 for giving Leia strength, sarcastic wit, a feisty attitude; for making her into a person who would rip the blaster out of her incompetent rescuers’ hands because “someone has to save our skins” instead of just saying “Thank you, you wonderful men, for risking yourselves to rescue me off this battle station.”
But for many of us girls who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, Leia was one of our early role models. She taught us to handle ourselves and not depend on the skills of any “rescuers.”
Mara, as she was introduced, was another strong female role model, albeit not on the “good” side of the story. Her talents as a spy and her lack of mercy in carrying out assassination missions have warranted comparisons to Black Widow of the Marvel Comic Universe, comparisons that are justified. This was Mara at her best; the Mara who, in her first scene in Heir to the Empire, received a promotion from Talon Karrde in his smuggling organization which did covert operations for what remained of the Empire. She was a woman who kept her past so well hidden under her tough-as-nails exterior that Karrde could only wonder why she hated Luke Skywalker so much.
Mara, upon her first meeting with Luke, let him know in no uncertain terms that she was not at all impressed with him and he could shut up or be killed. She told Luke, after they crash-landed and he asked if she were hurt, that it was none of his business. She then held Luke at blaster point as he talked her out of murdering him. He was only able to do by convincing her that he would be of use to her.
Her sardonic wit was hilarious, and her strength and fearsomeness impressive. Any reader who did not know in advance that Luke survives, might wonder how he would come out of such a situation with such a merciless woman who wanted nothing more than to see him dead.
Her expressed reasoning for wanting him dead—that he “ruined her life” by killing the Emperor and taking her from a life of luxury into a life of smuggling with Karrde—left something to be desired, but that can be easily overlooked given the characteristics that made her entertaining.
The Mara of the Heir to the Empire trilogy, the Mara who was so angry at the Rebel Alliance in general and Luke Skywalker in particular, was a fun, respectable, interesting Mara. Had her arc been left there, she would have been a character worthy of praise.
The beginnings of her transformation in The Last Command worked fairly well, with her silencing the Emperor’s voice in her head by killing Luke’s clone, and grudgingly joining the Alliance along with Karrde. Redemption stories have a certain appeal, one of hope, and Star Wars has done such stories well, beginning with Vader’s return to the light at the end of Return of the Jedi.
A newly light-side Mara could keep her feisty personality; in fact, it makes sense that she would. But would she still be calling Luke “pathetic” as he befriended her? Still throw so much animosity in his direction, enough that Luke noted any sign of politeness on her part as being “as polite as Mara got, anyway”? Threaten him if he so much as scratched her ship? That exchange in Vision of the Future was far less friendly than the exchange between Han and Lando on the same subject in Return of the Jedi, and neither of them are exactly even-tempered themselves. Zahn’s books describe Mara as “growling” quite often, usually at Luke.
And in the proposal scene at the end of Vision of the Future, Mara is amused at Luke’s awkwardness prior to saying “yes.” Not exactly romantic on her part. That scene seemed almost like a milder version of the proposal scene from Scarlett O’Hara’s first husband Charles Hamilton in Gone With the Wind, when Scarlett mused that Charles looked like a frog.
Luke Skywalker was always a mild-mannered person, except when he’s in a hurry to pick up power converters or find the “real” Yoda, and Mara took advantage of that mild-mannered personality and made him into her verbal punching bag at many times.
There are people in close relationships who squabble with each other without either party taking the verbal umbrage too seriously. Han and Leia are a good example of a couple who have this type of relationship, that of exchanging affectionate insults and recognizing them for what they were. However, as Han and Leia fell in love, the sarcasm and barbed insults on both of their parts were toned down. They treated each other differently in Return of the Jedi than they did in A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back.
Luke was never the type to snark back. He would tolerate Mara’s verbal abrasiveness and rarely respond in kind; he would sometimes even apologize for whatever had put her in such a mood. It seems as if she took advantage of the fact that he would never respond in such a manner towards her.
And the fact that he did tolerate such abrasiveness, from a woman who claimed to love him, weakened his character.
Mara’s attitude had been toned down by the New Jedi Order series; however, Luke was still diminished to a weakling in romance scenes that would make a Harlequin novelist cringe. A prime example of Old Mara mixed with Vong Disease Mara occurred in Balance Point, when Mara’s response to her long-awaited pregnancy was to blame Luke for her symptoms. The old “You did this to me!” joke from a pregnant woman to the man who impregnated her is most likely as old as time, as silly as it is when a woman does have a choice about the pregnancy. But the joke seems much less funny coming from Mara, a middle-aged woman with a disease that she was sure would render her infertile. It seems more ungrateful instead.
Another character in the Star Wars universe who once worked for the “bad” side but became more of a “grey” character, who has an aggressive, sarcastic attitude, is Asajj Ventress. Her trollish flirting with Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Clone Wars is enjoyable, with Ventress uttering such lines as “Don’t flatter yourself, Kenobi. You’ve never been much to look at.” Or, “I’ve learned from watching you” when asked if she wants to run.
Obi-Wan, with his dry wit, dishes such sarcasm back at Ventress in kind, and it works well when they are fighting.
What if, after Ventress had been rejected by Dooku and the Nightsisters and found herself on the run, she and Obi-Wan had fallen in love—and she had continued to talk to him in such a manner? How would such behavior resonate with the fandom? Would it seem as if Obi-Wan and Ventress had the ideal romantic relationship, or would it seem as if Ventress were being mean-spirited towards the good-natured Kenobi?
A straightforward manner is good, and a snarky, sardonic, even abrasive, attitude has its place. Such traits in a Star Wars character have made for fantastic interactions with other characters and entertainment in general. But even a character who faces the rest of the galaxy that way could be expected to behave differently around the person he or she loves most.
That is what we don’t see in Mara Jade. She treats the man who loves her, who marries her, with the same contempt that she treats the rest of the galaxy, but in the case of Luke, we are supposed to assume that she does not mean to be so contemptuous because she loves him, after all.
But would it be so difficult for her to return his affections in the same manner, to meet him where he is? Would it be so difficult for him to say, “Hey, don’t take your bad mood out on me?”
Their marriage did little to build either of their characters. Her character as a standalone could be, and was for a while, a great addition to the universe.
The mistakes started when she became a love interest for Luke, and ultimately his wife.
Mara should have remained a reformed Imperial spy now working for the Alliance, possibly trained under Luke to use her Force-sensitivity for the good of the galaxy. She could have then kept the sarcastic wit and tough take-no-prisoners nature that made her a great character at her introduction.
Zahn and the other EU authors should have never had her marry Luke Skywalker.