The Last Jedi is a lot of things. It’s a war movie, a heist movie, a political allegory, a morality tale, and more. In other words, it’s a Star Wars movie. We’ve already had a number of great articles discussing the film from various angles, but this article is focused on something highlighted in the first face-to-face interaction in the movie between General Leia Organa and Poe Dameron, wherein she comes face to face with her best pilot and surrogate son after he’s just come back from a mission… and slaps him across the face. Let’s look at The Last Jedi as a deconstruction of the traditional ideals of heroism.
One Hell of a Pilot
The character of Poe Dameron was little more than an archetype in The Force Awakens: an ace pilot who is jovial and friendly among his allies, and managed to maintain his banter even while fiery and intense during combat. We see him interact with Lor San Tekka, Kylo Ren and Finn within the opening ten minutes or so, showing us both the humor and warmth, and the focused intensity, that are cornerstones to his character. We also see the reckless determination that seems to inform his every move. Poe jumps right in with Finn without hesitation, then immediately takes the reins from him upon their escape so he can continue his mission. He is the epitome of an old-fashioned film hero, and might well have stepped out of a film serial from the 1930s.
The opening combat set piece in The Last Jedi continues that characterization, showing off his incredible skill as a pilot and his determination to earn a victory at any cost. Poe has gone a long way in his career on skill alone, and that’s given him a certain mentality toward his missions, namely that victory in combat outweighs all else. Even as we see him arguing over the comm with General Leia, he sticks with the plan, seeing only the enemy in front of him that he needs to destroy, and draws the pilots of Cobalt Squadron along with him. His efforts lead to the destruction of an enemy dreadnought, but once Poe gets back to the command cruiser, we see that the results are not at all what he expected.
Leia berates him (and physically strikes him) for going against her orders, which, while it did result in a victory, also resulted in him losing most of the pilots under his command, including all of their heavy bombers, losses that the ragtag Resistance can ill afford. Poe expects to be rewarded for his successes, and instead is demoted and humiliated in front of the entire command staff.
As much as it stings, though, he knows that he won’t fall too far; Leia needs him and values him, he’s her right hand and they both respect each other too much for her to sideline him for good. Then, the cruiser’s bridge is hit and the command staff is all but wiped out, with Leia put into a coma. All of a sudden Poe is out from under the General’s umbrella and forced to face the consequences of his actions head-on at the behest of a commanding officer not at all inclined to humor him.
Get This Man off My Bridge
Poe’s introduction to Admiral Holdo immediately puts them at loggerheads; Holdo is an old-school officer who treats Poe like a subordinate rather than a surrogate son, and as such does not feel the need to indulge him in any way after the fiasco of his assault on the dreadnought. Poe naturally chafes under this change in leadership, at what he sees as being unjustly shut out of making the big decisions, to the point where he basically hangs the entire fate of the Resistance on a brash plan cooked up by Finn and Rose that he deliberately obscures from Holdo’s attention.
Let me step out of the narrative and put on my story-analysis goggles for a second. This is a plot beat you see in movies of all stripes and colors, from the films of the black and white era all the way up to modern bombastic action blockbusters: the hero goes against his orders once again, and while things get complicated, they prove to be right all along, leading to reconciliation between him and the superior he clashed with and the two of them coming to some sort of understanding of one another in the process.
But that’s not what happens in The Last Jedi. Poe leads a mutiny, deposing Holdo when she takes actions that put his plan at risk, but the results are not at all what he expects. He barricades himself on the command bridge, waiting for a plan that never comes together, and almost destroys the entire Resistance. Once again we see his brashness has consequences, only this time there’s no upside, there’s nothing for him to point to as evidence to justify his actions. And once again it’s Leia stepping in, this time with a blaster, in an effort to save both Poe and everyone else from his poor decision making.
Poe is left to watch as Holdo, the officer he accused of being a coward and a traitor for not being as proactive as he is, does more to ensure the Resistance lives to fight another day than he did. His plan failed. Hers succeeded. Even more damning, if not for his actions, his authorization of Rose and Finn’s plan, it’s likely that all of the transports would have reached Crait safely because the First Order would never have found them. Poe may not have directly exposed the transports, but it was the chain of actions starting with his authorization of Finn and Rose’s mission that led to the deaths of dozens, if not hundreds of people.
The Fire That Burns
This sort of arc is not exactly groundbreaking, but it very rarely comes up in a genre film like Star Wars. If it happened in a traditional war movie, it would be incredibly dark and depressing, the sort of arc that would make people call it an “anti-war movie”. You see these things in films like Apocalypse Now, Bridge on the River Kwai and MASH. The hero is supposed to triumph against all odds, both against the enemy they’re fighting and against the superiors who don’t understand or underestimate them. Instead, Poe gets slapped down for his actions not once but twice, and a lot of people die because of him.
Poe never broods or bemoans his failures the way, say, Luke and Kylo Ren do. Neither Poe nor the movie itself really has the time, and he’s not that sort of person. He does, however, learn from his mistakes. When leading the defense of the Crait holdout, his first thought is the preservation of the people who now fall under his command. The painful stings of his own failure, the need to avoid that happening again, have turned him into more of a leader. He knows now that the goal isn’t to win the war that day, it’s to live to fight again, the same lesson that Leia, Holdo, and their generation were taught by the battle against the Empire.
It’s Poe who orders the attack on the First Order’s ground forces to draw their fire away from the base, then calls it off when it’s clear that their actions are pointless and only causing more casualties. And it’s Poe who recognizes Luke’s delaying action, finds their escape route, and manages to usher everyone left to safety aboard the Millennium Falcon without losing another man (or woman). With almost the entire command structure of the Resistance gone, someone has to step up, and the lessons that this movie teaches Poe Dameron are the perfect crucible through which to become that person. He’s gone from being one sort of hero to another, from being just a pilot to being a true leader.
The Last Jedi states, unequivocally, that the two-fisted heroism that is typically celebrated in movies is a double-edged sword. Actions have consequences, both intended and unintended, and by focusing on that instead of ignoring it, TLJ makes Poe that much more dynamic of a character. At the same time, it also brings everything back to one of the lessons of the film overall: that acknowledging and learning from the failures of the past is one of the best ways to create a better future. With Carrie Fisher gone, General Leia will not return to save the Resistance in Episode IX. It’s almost too fitting, then, that as they evacuate Crait, she points the remnants of her soldiers toward Poe and urges, “What are you looking at me for? Follow him.”