Alan Dean Foster’s novelization for The Force Awakens begins with an excerpt from the Journal of the Whills, which predicts that the cycle of light and dark will be settled by:
“The resolving of grey
Through refined Jedi sight.”
The common interpretation (regardless of whether Foster had any insight into a grand sequel trilogy plan, which is doubtful, given no such plan existed) is that the trilogy is taking us into an era where the good-evil binary of the Force becomes more complicated and “grey”, and a new solution to the conflict must be found. But read the poem again. “Resolving” grey does not mean grey is the answer – it means grey is the problem which must be resolved. A closer reading of the sequel trilogy reveals that it may be the clearest portrayal of the battle between good and evil in all of Star Wars.
Space Nazis Must Die
The original trilogy seems, at first glance, to be a straightforward tale of good rebels fighting to overthrow an evil Empire. The prequel trilogy subverts this: the Clone Wars are a truly “grey” conflict, with both Republic and Separatists riddled with corruption, owned by corporations, and ultimately led by Sith Lords. The Clone Wars series complicates it further: the Separatists commit just enough war crimes to justify the cause of our heroes, but we also see their civilian side, and understandable disillusionment with the Republic. The Jedi fight side-by-side with white-armored troopers, symbols of evil in the original trilogy. War in Star Wars has never been as messy, or morally confused.
The war against the First Order is a reversion to the kind of conflict seen in the original trilogy, but with crucial differences which remove many of its greyer areas. The Empire is a legitimate government, and the Rebel Alliance are insurgents, easily portrayed in propaganda as terrorists – aided, in wider material like Rogue One and Rebels, by the actions of extremists like Saw Gerrera. The faces of the Empire are middle-aged British men, a bland and amoral bureaucracy out to maintain order. The stormtroopers are volunteers, driven by patriotism and a desire to avoid a repeat of the terrible Clone Wars. The Empire are bad…but it is easy to see how you could be led to believe that they are the “good guys”, or at least rationalize their cause to yourself.
The First Order is a different beast. They are the insurgents, an invading force obliterating the New Republic capital in an act of terror. Their leadership, personified by General Hux and Kylo Ren, are young, radical and angry. Stormtroopers now have to be indoctrinated from birth, because there is no rational justification for the First Order’s actions – only entitlement and hatred. All Hux offers in TFA is “we have to declare war on them to bring order to them”, which isn’t going to fool anyone. Leia’s Resistance is not a political movement, but a personal crusade against evil, because the abhorrent nature of the First Order cannot be allowed to spread. With their rallies and flags, Star Wars villains have never seemed more like Nazis, and have never been more clearly, capital-e Evil. Comparisons with the creeping re-emergence of fascism in our own world are easily made.
As evidence of the clearer moral lines of the sequel trilogy compared to the original, let’s look at two characters who fulfil similar roles in their middle acts – the “traitors”, Lando Calrissian and DJ.
Lando’s betrayal on Bespin appears, at first glance, to be an act of deplorable selfishness, and a story device to highlight Han’s development from the selfish smuggler we met in A New Hope. Yet the situation is more complex than this. Lando is responsible for the wellbeing of thousands on Cloud City, and knows the Empire would not hesitate to wipe them out to make a point. How do we balance the life of a friend against the lives of so many? He deals with the situation as best he can, waiting for the right moment to free Leia and Chewie and evacuate the city, sacrificing all he has built. Because his heroism is pragmatic, it is rarely celebrated (as Amilyn Holdo could attest). If there is a lesson in Lando’s story, it is that you can’t do a deal with evil, because it will keep taking more and more from you until you are forced to submit or take a stand. This is a nuanced glimpse at how ordinary people survive in the Empire, and the difficulty of remaining a good person under such tyranny.
Lando’s The Last Jedi equivalent is DJ. His role is to provide a counterpoint to Rose – where Rose teaches Finn the value of fighting for a higher cause, DJ argues that the galaxy is an amoral, uncaring machine, and that the only path is to look after yourself. As evidence, he points to an arms dealer supplying weapons to both sides. Although the selfish instinct is tempting, there is no question in the story that following DJ would be the wrong thing to do. His selfishness is clear to see (as is that of the Canto Bight partiers), and the amoral galaxy he describes is unconvincing, given we have seen the First Order murder everyone from Jakku villagers to entire star systems. We never doubt for a moment that Finn will follow Rose’s path. Though TLJ adds some complexity to Resistance politics through the conduct of Poe Dameron, there is no question that they are on the right side, and that this is a confrontation with an evil invading force.
Talking of “force”…
Protecting the Light
The popular belief is that the portrayal of the Force in the original trilogy is a clear battle of good versus evil, but it was always more complicated than that. As soon as we learn about the Force, we also learn that Darth Vader, the most evil being in the galaxy, was once a Jedi. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda teaches Luke the ease with which one falls to the dark side through negative emotions – anger, fear, aggression. Luke, like Lando, then faces the moral challenge of balancing the needs of his friends against the needs of the greater good, a dilemma with no clear solution. His experiences in the Dagobah cave and with Vader on Cloud City show him that the darkness is a part of him, as it is part of everyone, and he must confront, reconcile and master it. Even towards the end of Return of the Jedi, the possibility of Luke’s fall comes from good intentions – goaded with the deaths of his friends and losing Leia to Vader, he lashes out to protect them. The line between good and evil is so easily crossed you don’t even notice you have crossed it. Shocking though it may have been, Luke instinctively drawing a lightsaber on the sleeping Ben in the training temple in TLJ is merely an extension of this same internal conflict, a reminder that mastering your fear is a lifelong challenge.
In the prequels, the idea that the Jedi seek a cosmic “balance” is introduced, but the Jedi themselves are hugely flawed: cut off from the populace, entangled in the politics of a corrupt Republic, then leaping to action to defend it as warriors. Mace Windu begins the Clone Wars saying “a Jedi couldn’t assassinate anyone”, and ends it by walking into the Chancellor’s office to execute him. Yoda states in Rebels that by joining the fight and giving in to fear, the Jedi were “consumed by the dark side.” When fans speculate about “grey Jedi” they miss the fact that the prequel Jedi are the grey Jedi. They are not the champions of the light the galaxy needs, and the Force falls into darkness. Meanwhile, Anakin becomes a tyrant from the same instincts that almost corrupt Luke in the throne room – the desire to protect those he loves, growing into a belief that his newfound powers could protect everyone and bring order to the galaxy.
The motif of “balance” is present in TLJ, shown as a self-correcting ecosystem on the Ahch-To island, but the central theme uniting both Force and Resistance plots is the preservation of light – even if it means an act of sacrifice to allow the light to continue in a new form. In a deleted scene involving an attack on the Caretakers’ village, Luke warns Rey not to save them because a true Jedi “only acts to maintain balance.” This is the culmination of Luke’s argument against the Jedi: that they were too concerned with abstract ideas like balance to live up to their heroic legend, and “what the Resistance needs” is a true champion of the light, not “some failed husk of a religion.” Or as Rian Johnson puts it, for “the light to arise from a worthier source.” Luke ultimately realizes, to quote Johnson, that “it’s not the religion [at fault], it’s a personal failure”, and that the Jedi can still be the beacon of hope the galaxy needs. He gives Rey his blessing as the heir to the Jedi as she lifts the rocks to save the Resistance and preserve the spark of hope. If Rey is to be different from the Jedi of old, TLJ seems to argue that it should be as a purer representation of the light, looking to the need in front of her nose rather than grand concerns on the horizon about “balance.”
The term “light side” is never uttered in George Lucas’s six films – only “the Force,” and “the dark side.” By giving “the light” its own identity, the sequel trilogy makes the Force more binary than ever, even to non-Jedi: Leia speaks of Holdo’s sacrifice as “protecting the light”. Rey, as her name implies, is perhaps the purest avatar for the light side in Star Wars outside of the Mortis Daughter. She embodies the defining light-side traits of compassion and selflessness: Forces of Destiny repeatedly emphasizes her kindness to the monsters and thieves of Jakku. TLJ even frames her awakening as the light side’s response to the growth of Kylo’s darkness.
Where Luke struggled to reconcile his darkness and master his fear, Rey’s furious attack on Kylo at the end of TFA is forgotten in TLJ. Her brief moments of righteous fury are quickly tempered, with no foreboding, no sense that she could fall – she’s Rey, she’s good, and that’s that. Instead, Johnson centers her temptation on her insecurities about her place in the world. When she fails to find the answer from Luke, she turns to the dark side cave, and still not getting the answer she wants, her temptation is to lean on the understanding ear of Kylo for her identity – a weakness he is more than willing to exploit in the Throne Room. Yet we never for a moment believe she will agree to rule a military regime while her friends die. If the journey of a Star Wars protagonist is to master their dark side, Rey has already reached a state that Luke (and Anakin) didn’t achieve until the end of RotJ.
Kylo is the more conflicted soul, but he lacks the idealism or good intentions that initially drove Vader. He feels the pull to the light, but continues to choose the dark because that’s what he wants. He is simultaneously more complex than Vader, and someone whose motivations are purer “dark side” material, fueled entirely by his negative emotions and his unwillingness to let go of them. With Snoke’s death, his first instinct is to seize power, and he ends TLJ as the definitive example of Lucas’s conception of the dark side: corrupting your thoughts, making you want more and more, and leaving you with nothing. His brief alliance with Rey in the throne room is unsustainable, because the dark side in TLJ is what it has always been: an insatiable desire for power, and violently lashing out at anyone who may take it from you. “No prisoners.”
The prequel trilogy, then, is the truly morally “grey” era of Star Wars. Flawed and arrogant Jedi falling to fear, a corrupt Republic, a war where both sides are controlled by the Sith. In comparison, the sequel trilogy is a call-to-arms for the light side – to come to terms with the mistakes of the past, resist the rise of fascism, and avoid falling into apathy and selfishness. These ideas are exactly what we need at this moment in history.