Connective Tissue: How The Force Awakens’ Characters Inform The Last Jedi – and Vice Versa

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Reviews and reactions to The Last Jedi—a film released seven months, and also an eternity ago—have become well-worn by this point. But beneath heaps of praise, as well as tiresome accusations of feminist cabals destroying the Galaxy Far, Far Away, a curious middle ground has emerged—the notion that The Last Jedi, while a perfectly competent film, was a bad follow-up to The Force Awakens.

To be clear, Episode VII and VIII are very different films, but I’ve been irked by how often “TLJ ignored TFA” is accepted as fact. Other writers have addressed TLJ’s solutions to TFA’s supposed “mystery boxes”, but I find discussions surrounding TFA’s new Big Three much more interesting. While much of the common wisdom around this film holds that TLJ jettisoned the character arcs of TFA to tell its own story, evidence shows the opposite is true.

More than I expected on first viewing, TLJ sticks to TFA’s character arcs with near reverence, often relying on subtle moments from TFA to ground interactions. And on the flip side, after watching TLJ, TFA’s characters feel incomplete without the resolutions provided by the trilogy’s second volume.

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Rey – Becoming a Hero

In The Force Awakens, Rey is defined primarily by two traits. The first is physicality. Far from a novice in need of training, TFA establishes Rey as proficient enough in combat to impress a man trained in combat since childhood. This may seem like basic hero stuff, but contrast her with Luke, who swings his lightsaber like a flashlight in A New Hope, and Rey comes out on top. This isn’t because of some Mary Sue nonsense. On Jakku, fighting for your life is an everyday occurrence. Rey and violence are inextricably linked.

The Last Jedi carries this trait forward, placing Rey in the film’s only major fight scene (incidentally pairing her up with Kylo Ren, a character also defined by violence). Her success in this battle should not be surprising; it is informed by an already-established aptitude. Simply put, Rey knows how to smack a dude.

Rey’s second major attribute in TFA is optimism. Unlike young Luke, Rey’s optimism does not include her own agency. Throughout TFA, Rey declines a role in the story far past the required rejection of the mythological call-to-action. Her climactic summoning of the lightsaber would seem to complete her heroic journey, except that minutes later, the film ends with her offering that power to someone else.

Many fans assumed Rey would seek training, but it is instead Luke who insists she needs a teacher, perfectly in line with her insistence in the second act of TFA that she is “no one.”

Indeed, it’s not until The Last Jedi that this character arc is completed. Kylo brings her greatest fear out into the open: “You have no place in this story.” And once she’s forced to face it, plainly, truthfully, she’s freed from it. The self-confidence on her face as she lifts the rocks on Crait shows us she’s accepted her agency. And if we needed any more evidence, Poe’s greeting makes it clear:

“I’m Poe.”

“Rey.

“I know.”

Rey isn’t “no one” anymore.

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Finn – Becoming a Rebel

In the leadup to The Last Jedi, much of the speculation revolved around Finn. Other than his friendship with Rose, his arc was something of a mystery. Would he be revealed to be Force-sensitive after his duel with Kylo? Would he volunteer for a super-secret spy mission to give the Resistance the victory they desperately needed?

Not quite. Instead, he tries to jump ship at the first opportunity—which is exactly his strategy at the end of TFA before Rey’s kidnapping interrupts him.

It’s underappreciated how novel this decision is. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to heal Finn offscreen, jump his character development forward a few months and make him a full-fledged member of the Resistance. This is precisely what The Empire Strikes Back did with Han Solo, and while it’s an exaggeration to call that decision a “betrayal” of the character, it’s a shortcut at the very least.

Finn’s storyline, more than any other in TLJ, belies the assertion that the film was written in a vacuum. His entire arc is dependent on the fact that he never technically joined the Resistance, a subtle development in TFA even many passionate fans failed to notice. In the scene on the Resistance base in TFA, note how he asks Poe for help in rescuing Rey, rather than offering his own in taking down the First Order.

Viewed this way, Finn’s TFA arc is wholly incomplete. He begins the film disillusioned with the First Order and trying to get as far away from them as possible, and ends the film with much the same attitude. One could imagine TFA ending with Finn’s triumphant self-identification as “Rebel Scum”, but it’s the sequel that gives the audience this resolution and makes Finn the insurgent many assumed him to be.

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Poe – Becoming a Character

Poe Dameron is the first major character portrayed in The Force Awakens, and yet he’s more of a MacGuffin jumpstart than a dynamic character. That’s not a criticism; most side characters are plot devices (Rose in TLJ serves this role. Why her character got more criticism than Poe did after TFA is an exercise left to the reader).

To give Poe an actual narrative arc, TLJ relied on four major character traits established by Episode VII:

  • One, Poe is one helluva pilot.
  • Two, he’s cocky and a little bit reckless, as evidenced by his conversation with Kylo Ren on Jakku. Even Han Solo dropped the comedy routine in the presence of Darth Vader.
  • Three, Leia trusts him more than anyone in the galaxy, possibly excepting Luke.
  • And four, he’s hopelessly in love with Finn. (Fine, this one might be speculation.)

Johnson had a huge blank canvas on which to paint Poe’s character. He could have easily made Poe Force-sensitive, skeptical of the Resistance, a deadbeat dad, and none of this would have contradicted TFA, because there was nothing much to contradict.

But instead of upending Poe’s TFA attributes, Johnson bases his entire arc around them. He’s cocky, and a great pilot? Okay, make hotshot piloting his catch-all solution, to a fault. He’s Leia’s most trusted soldier? Okay, let’s have him take that trust for granted and push it to its breaking point.

One of the most common criticisms of TLJ is that Poe’s story is an out-of-the-blue commentary on toxic masculinity that isn’t relevant to his character, but on the contrary, Poe’s actions in TLJ build directly on his character in TFA. While valid criticisms of the Poe/Holdo storyline exist, the claim that it dropped the ball passed by TFA is not one of them.

After the mistakes caused by taking these traits to extremes, Leia’s trust of Poe implied by TFA proves crucial to his redemption. Assuming everyone trusts him the way Leia does catalyzes his conflict with Holdo. But accepting the responsibility bundled with that trust, instead of merely the privileges, transforms him into the leader the Resistance needs. Talented, cocky, a little bit reckless, and ultimately cognizant of how to find the balance in himself.

*     *     *     *     *

None of this to say that The Last Jedi isn’t mold-breaking. If you consider lightsaber duels and Sith Lords requirements for a Star War, character discussion matters little. But if the criticism offered revolves around character or thematic consistency, consider how much of that is consistency between the film and fan speculation as opposed to the film and its predecessor. Examining the evidence shows that, when placed side by side, the characters in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi flow together so seamlessly that the individual films feel incomplete without the other.

13 comments

  1. Leo Charles M. says:

    Nearly every conclusion you make goes unexplained or requires illogical leaps, but you’re using terms like perfect, seamlessly and “breaks the mold.”

    Jedi need training. There is nothing else to it. Until Rey, every single Jedi needed to be trained. That’s why Luke said she needed training, because she wanted to be a Jedi and that’s how you did it until Rian Johnson changed the rules.

    But the real point is that it is the 2nd installment of a 3 part series: None, and I repeat none, of the character arcs should be complete. You’ve written an entire essay about how fleshed out these characters are by the end of TLJ, but it’s only the second movie. These characters shouldn’t be full circle already.

    Think about this: The 2nd movie in the trilogy is over and Luke, Snoke, Carrie Fisher, and Han are all dead. If Rian Johnson failed to make Rey, Poe and Finn strong enough characters to post billion dollar ticket sales for JJ in ep 9, then they better hope Billy Dee Williams saves their asses.

    You’ve also failed to note that all of your conclusions are drawn by the characters as they are established in the opening shots of TLJ, NOT in TFA. Poe was not a pigheaded dick in TFA–that started in the opening scene of TLJ, the Poe of TLJ has nothing to do with the Poe of TFA. Finn has the exact same storyline in TLJ as TFA with very minor changes in detail, all that made Kylo’s story interesting and unique is effectively over, and Rey has had “all she’ll ever need” all along so development or training be damned. (Luke literally says he’s not going to teach her how to lift rocks with the Force, then she does it to save the day, like, smdh)

    And I find it disingenuous to write an article about character development in TLJ without mentioning what Rian Johnson did to Luke. Not only has Luke fallen from friends and family and his faith, but he’s a coward who refused to face down the evil he some-crazy-how created in the first place. What a horrible, terrible, awful way to treat Luke and his legacy, and Mark Hamill for that matter. All to do what? To make Kylo a little more conflicted? (which actually hurts his origin story because if he’s so conflicted, what the hell did Luke see in his vision?)

    Or is it to make Rey more likable by comparison to a 60 year old grandpa telling stories about the time he almost murdered his nephew in cold blood? It is shameful what Rian did to Luke’s legacy, and the characters he was trusted with.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      I think most of your points are either addressed in the piece or don’t really need to be relitigated here and now, but as the piece’s editor I do want do note one thing—the entire premise here is character arcs being carried over from TFA to TLJ, and Luke is only in TFA for ten seconds, so he doesn’t apply. Whether one approves or disapproves of Luke’s TLJ characterization is beside the point the piece is making.

    • JediDuck says:

      So many of the comments on this sharp, really good piece are buck wild

  2. PatrickH says:

    I think Rey’s “temptation” in TLJ has been mishandled by Rian Johnson. My takeaway from TFA is that Rey wanted to be reunited with her family, but there was no indication that she cared about whether they were important people or not. So Kylo Ren saying that Rey was a nobody was weak in terms of temptation. A stronger temptation would have been for Kylo to say to Rey “I know who your parents are. They are still alive. Join me, and I will take you to them.”

    Also, other than a vague notion of Rey being a counter to Kylo, there was no explanation for why Rey was so connected to the Skywalkers. Why did the light saber “called out” to Rey in TFA?

    • I can definitely see your point re: her parents being nobody. I saw it as a more nuanced point about her view of her role in the universe, and more specifically, “the story.” But I think you’re definitely right that, plot-wise, TFA-Rey’s obsession with finding a family vs. the revelation that her family wasn’t special is a bit mismatched.

      I don’t quite agree with her lack of Skywalker heritage being a story fumble, though. I know a lot of people wanted to see Rey Skywalker because of what it represented: a woman in the “mystical hero of legend” role. And while I totally respect that, and think it could have been done well, I personally loved TLJ’s criticism of the idea that having “good genes” [dat midichlorian count!!] and a famous family is the most important thing in the galaxy, especially since it ties into Luke’s assertion that a large number of Jedi tenets were totally wrong.

      For me, the lightsaber calling to her over Kylo wasn’t because she was a Skywalker; it was because, even though she’s *not* a Skywalker, whatever Force woo-woo energy is still linked to the saber recognizes her as closer to the light embodied by its former masters. A fact which, of course, enrages Ben, who sees himself as inheritor of the Super Cool Skywalker Genes and therefore the most powerful badass in the universe.

    • Sannom says:

      “Why did the light saber “called out” to Rey in TFA?”
      She is the new Chosen One and that lightsaber was wielded by the last 2 of those.

  3. Sannom says:

    “Rose in TLJ serves this role. Why her character got more criticism than Poe did after TFA is an exercise left to the reader”
    Aside from the obvious, I would say that a good answer to “why” is because Rose had a bigger role and a more defined character. As you said yourself, Poe was a blank canvas in the first movie and so the worst he got was “Is he really supposed to be part of the new Big 3?” and after reading that he originally wasn’t supposed to be, with his survival tacked on at the last minute, people simply went “Oh. That makes sense!”.

  4. I wanted to tackle Finn here, because I think the most damage was done to his character in TLJ. I actually agree with your interpretation of Finn about 90%. I think the ending of TFA reveals just a LITTLE rebel in him. Like, he went back for Rey and that’s it. But he also took care of the shields first. He could’ve ditched Han and Chewy to find Rey on his own. They could’ve found a ship she could pilot, so it’s not like he was doing it for a ride. He recognized the need to stop Starkiller, too. Rebel.

    Secondly, something you left out in your recap of TFA Finn is his best traits, his use of agency, his tactical genius, and his natural moral compass.

    Finally, I’m not sure that it’s a part of his “become a rebel” arc, but the way he faced down Kylo at the end did a WHOLE lot for his “Run vs. fight” arc. He didn’t just fight him because it was the only option. He wanted to fight back. He was done running.

    And this is why TLJ was so disappointing to me–not because Rey was still his priority. That much is obvious from TFA. No, my biggest problem with TLJ is the way they framed his character at every turn–and Rose is a huge part of this, perhaps contributing to people’s dislike of the character. (There are much bigger and more toxic reasons that need to be done away with, but there’s valid ones, too)

    When Rose takes a taser to Finn, this is messed up on so many levels. 1. He never joined the Resistance, he should be free to leave. 2. Even if he had joined the Resistance, isn’t it a volunteer organization? Aren’t all of them free to leave until this movie? 3.She never gave him a real chance to explain himself, an all too real reaction in our own world with a black man. 4. She calls him a coward for trying to save someone he loves instead of fighting what he hates (interesting, that).

    Now, you can tell me that Rose was in the wrong, fine. But the movie doesn’t say that, and that’s far more important. Rose never apologizes. Finn feels guilty for his reasons for wanting to leave and is relieved when Poe doesn’t find out. And beyond that, Rose then spends the rest of the movie treating Finn like a little child who needs to be told why this place with child slavery is bad (I mean, come on, to a child slave who freed himself??), and how he needs to save what he loves instead of fighting what he hates (as if she didn’t call him a coward for it earlier, and as if they can’t both be true)

    So, Finn’s greatest traits in TFA are taken away in this movie by Rose. Agency: he never makes a single choice in this movie–Rose tases him, the FO catches him, Rose runs into his speeder. Tactical genius: Rose magically knows everything he does about the potential tracking system, Rose is the one who comes up with the last-minute horse-plan (Finn used to be the one to come up with those, and they were successful back then, too), fails spectacularly at Canto Bight and on the Supremacy. Moral compass: Is told he’s a coward for wanting to save a friend, needs to be rose-splained about why Canto Bight is bad, and is called a dummy when he tried to blow up a gun, because apparently the only explanation for that is he hates the gun, and that’s a bad reason to fight it.

    That final scene on the speeder shows the great damage done to Finn’s character. He was going to be a hero. And then Rose comes in, taking away his agency. She then makes him (and the audience!) think Finn was a “dummy” for trying to blow up the gun, and then spews moral nonsense at him that he already knew at the beginning of the movie!!

    I loved Finn’s interactions with DJ. THAT is the character arc Finn needed. To see his foil, a guy who doesn’t pick a side and just goes through life. Standing up to Phasma was the Finn arc we needed, and shame on Rian Johnson for not building it up appropriately, and then cutting the fight and additional confrontation for time (it’s clear whose story he cared about).

    Everything with Rose is insane, and a complete misunderstanding of the character of Finn. If the movie had framed her as poorly dealing with her sister’s death and taking it out on Finn, I could’ve let it slide. Instead, the movie acted like Rose was the angel on Finn’s shoulder, and thank goodness she’s there to help this poor baby grow up.

    It was a disservice to Finn and his fans. I was sick leaving the theater. I can’t believe I can write as much as I just wrote about it, but that just goes to show how much this hurt. We could’ve had more hints at Force-sensitivity. We could’ve had a build-up of the Phasma conflict. We could’ve had a second Kylo/Finn conflict to further illustrate that Finn is the co-protagonist with Rey, and the perfect foil of the main antagonist.

    Instead, we got a B-plot that only affected the overall story in a negative way. We got a hamstrung climactic battle that was over before we remembered who Phasma was. We got a Finn who isn’t heroic save for one line “Rebel Scum.” People left the theater, and you know what they didn’t do? They didn’t talk about Finn. And that’s a tragedy.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      That’s…a pretty fair take, actually. I don’t agree with a lot of it but I can understand how you’d see it that way.

      • Yeah…wish I didn’t see it this way. I love Star Wars. Right after the movie, I contacted some people to convince me TLJ wasn’t terrible. Unfortunately, I see what I see. And I saw a neutered Finn whose development was overshadowed by a meaningless storyline that effectively removed him from the Force plot and hid his character growth behind a character who could have gone through the exact same plot without Finn and not changed the movie one bit. Great way to treat the first black lead of Star Wars, who was already used as a bit of a Red Herring in the marketing of the first movie. At least in that one he was given a hero’s journey to mirror Rey’s and drove the meaningful plot forward at every turn.

        But I’ll hang on to his interactions with DJ and his fight with Phasma, and, as you wonderfully point out, his growth from caring about Rey to caring about Rey AND a cause. Even if that only made up about 15% of his screen time.

    • Master Ki-Aaron-Mundi says:

      Given how much longer the Finn/Rose storyline was originally intended to be and the way Canto Bight featured in a lot of early press, my perception is Rian thought he’d written a major arc for the story, only to discover in the editing room that it was in fact a B plot.

      I’ll also note most of the characters’ actions affected the story in a negative way–Finn’s and Poe’s plans both went awry, and Rey’s confrontation with Kylo did not go “the way you think.” Much of the story structure was about subverting the traditional expectations for what makes a hero’s narrative and how a hero succeeds.

      That doesn’t mean your complaints aren’t valid, but I wanted to point that out.

      • I don’t disagree with you. If anything, that’s my point. It sucks for Finn and Poe (and Rey and Luke) fans that Mr. Subversion himself, Rian Johnson, was in charge of their character arcs. They don’t get to be traditional heroes. And while many will shout from the rooftops how wonderful it is that it didn’t go as expected, those of us who wanted a heroic Finn were left shafted. What did the subversion accomplish, beyond splitting the fanbase, leaving half of the fans vehemently defending the movie while the other half just feels sick about it all? I mean, at the end of the movie, he unsubverted everything anyway–Rey is the new Jedi, the Rebellion is just being born, and the war is just beginning. He could have accomplished that end without dragging Finn’s character (and Poe and Rey and Luke) through the mud, giving fans almost nothing to cheer for and be happy about.

        The fact that he found out Finn’s storyline could be cut to pieces in the editing bay just goes to show how little care he put in to it relative to Kylo Ren’s fake sob story. He made Finn and Poe (and Rey and Luke) lesser so that he could make Kylo the star of the movie. This was supposed to be Finn and Rey’s trilogy, but now all everyone talks about is Ben Solo. Some subversion.

        That’s why I appreciated this piece so much–it finally put the focus back on Finn and Rey, and even added Poe for good measure. Sadly, in doing so, I still can’t help but realize how little the movie did for them.

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