As Episode IX steadily approaches, a year and a few months away from release, debate around the parentage of Rey has continued almost unabated, arguably intensified by The Last Jedi’s “surprise” revelation. Some fans still seem to want an easy way to connect the dots from Rey to the core family of Star Wars, even indirectly, as if the term “Skywalker saga” was a mission statement rather than a convenient identifier.
Part of this stems from how the information is revealed in The Last Jedi: a terrific anticlimax, prompted by Kylo Ren. Prompted…but not issued. The text of Rian Johnson’s film builds this up and suggests it through Rey’s tendency to look for parental figures wherever possible, even when those whom she latches onto are inadequate in some way. The “reveal” isn’t some fake-out gotcha, it’s a natural progression from what we’ve already been given, albeit couched in Abrams’s typically coy storytelling tendencies in The Force Awakens. We’ve been conditioned to expect reversal, so much so that a greater surprise comes from straightforward progression.
In a way, The Last Jedi fleshes out the thread that can make the sequel trilogy a truly essential addition to the epic of Anakin and Luke Skywalker: a story of individuals within the galaxy far far away interpreting and reconciling the tales that have come before to carve out their own path. And perhaps the best torchbearer for this journey of interpretation, emulation and discovery is someone who is a nobody from nowhere, someone without the baggage that weighs so heavily on the new arch-villain Kylo Ren. Rey, as it turns out, operates very differently from her predecessors, the Skywalker boys. She is grappling with entirely different types of problems – no more or less difficult, but complex in a different way. To that end, the scenarios in which we find each of Star Wars’ three core protagonists when first introduced to them (chronologically) hugely inform their stories to follow, both in nature and resolution. In some ways, Rey is far ahead of the Skywalker boys when we first meet her. In other ways, she isn’t. It is this contrast that helps drive this new generation forward, and helps reshape what it means to be a Jedi with “the most serious mind”, and the appeal of a nobody in the galaxy far, far away.
Crises of duty and faith
To best understand how Rey functions as a protagonist and what that means for the saga more broadly, it’s worth revisiting the introduction and origins of her predecessors, Anakin and Luke Skywalker. An oft-repeated criticism of George Lucas is his decision to retroactively kick off his saga with Anakin Skywalker as a nine-year-old boy, rather than someone of a more typical or compelling age for an action hero. This, however, is essential to what is going to guide Anakin for the rest of his story, the specific moment at which he sets off on his journey. He becomes a commodity in short order, a weapon of sorts to be leveled against the enemies of the Jedi, but there is very little consideration as to the needs of a nine-year-old boy. Nobody stops to consider that in this moment he may need his mother more than he needs to be a Jedi prodigy. The one character who does consider this is Padmé – a juvenile herself who perhaps unwittingly establishes a quasi-maternal bond with Anakin that will start paving the path for disaster later on.
The Phantom Menace leaves the central hero of the prequels in an extraordinary state of arrested development. A child star in the Outer Rim for his podracing prowess, who was forced to live as property. An accidental war hero who has left his mother behind…and can’t go back for her. Star Wars often explores the quest for parental figures in some way, shape or form, and its prevalence here is telling. Anakin’s quest for a father figure is later echoed by that of Rey, albeit in a different format. The warped nature of his predicament at the end of TPM will ultimately shape Anakin’s future, as he tries to find a father in Obi-Wan, who in turn sees him as a brother. There is a maternal and paternal quality respectively to scenes with Padmé and Palpatine throughout the rest of the trilogy, but while those characters seek to nurture and (if ostensibly in Sheev’s case) help Anakin, the belonging he does have, to the Jedi Order, offers him cold bureaucracy and admonishment.
Lucas extrapolates the original scenario of The Phantom Menace through that prism in the later films, and crafts a sharp contrast to Luke. The farmboy of A New Hope is a different prospect – he has the same petulance and entitlement of Anakin, but he has learned to be an adult of some kind. He has learned about responsibility and propriety, raised to an age by Owen and Beru Lars where he can have his own agency, and make his own decisions.
Both Skywalkers are of course also central to the agendas of the grand dejarik masters of the galaxy in Yoda and Palpatine, and so there is a shape to the events that they are going to participate in that they can only affect to a certain degree – at least at first. Much musing is done on how powerful Luke and Anakin are or will be, but something that is routinely ignored by viewers is that this is never ever important in the films themselves. The wizard battles are left to the elder statesmen – our protagonists grapple with issues of emotion and morality, battling through scenarios that could be faced by you or I. Anakin and Luke are driven in many ways by a pure love for the families that they find, and their ability to deal with these emotions is why one falls and one triumphs. It has nothing to do, in the end, with “Force powers” in the most typical sense, and everything to do with each character making a moral decision – one which correlates with the quality of their upbringing.
For Anakin, his relationship with the Force is a quest for power and supremacy, spurred by the pain of being unable to save his mother. He has faith in the Force, he just can’t reconcile what he has been told about his place as the Chosen One with what he feels as a person – in his two sequels his interest is less in the supposed conquest of the Sith than in his relationships with people. Conversely Luke has no problem interacting with people at all with the exception of a few drunken thugs, but he struggles with his faith in the Force. Much of his story is about him progressively learning to trust the Force, to focus himself and develop that “most serious mind”. The scenes on Dagobah are not truly about Luke becoming “powerful”. The things that Yoda wants Luke to do are things he would be capable of before he even arrived. Luke is not more powerful from one film to the next, and neither is Anakin. They are simply more mature, in one way or the other.
Crisis of self
The choice to buy into the erroneous “game mechanic” view of the powers of the Force has lent much to the conversation around Rey, that and her complete lack of notable parentage in a saga that has gradually adopted soap-opera family dynamics. Much of the criticism of Rey as a character is that she falls ass-backwards into Force mastery, and is better at everything than everyone, et cetera. This isn’t entirely unfair; it could be argued that The Force Awakens handles this concept inelegantly. With The Last Jedi, however, the game has changed somewhat, and the focus of this trilogy has apparently become all the more clear. With it, how Rey functions as a character is repositioned, and it is repositioned as a total contrast to her Skywalker predecessors.
Again, the key is in how we find and meet the character. This time, only ten minutes into the film – much earlier that her counterparts, but in a far more striking scenario than either of them. While the Skywalkers are introduced rather innocuously, strolling into frame, beckoned by a gruff older figure into a business transaction, Rey is clambering among the wreckage of the war that those Skywalkers wrought, trying to make a living under her own agency. It is perhaps the most solitary, isolated five minutes of Star Wars there is, calling to mind R2-D2’s lonely trek through the Jundland Wastes or maybe Luke’s wayward misadventure on Hoth more than anything else. Abrams even breaks from the standard flow of Star Wars storytelling – Rey is introduced without context, divorced entirely from the proceedings at the village earlier.
Unlike Luke’s breathless appreciation for a hero of the Clone Wars, Rey’s aspirations are chiefly centered around reunion with her parents; she watches wistfully as ships depart Jakku, but it’s a concession she has already made, and her first panicked thought when she does leave the planet for the first time is that she needs to get back. She ultimately goes on her own journey, but vitally, her behaviour is distinct from her forebears. She possesses a single-minded drive that the Skywalkers do not, and is rarely overwhelmed when there is a need for decisive action – this is perhaps because she has lived a solitary, serious life that has required resourcefulness on a daily basis.
Notably, Rey does not readily choose her adventure as the Skywalkers do, at least not until much later in her story. John Williams provides a clue, as we are given a reprise of the “Burning Homestead” cue when Rey finally takes up Anakin’s lightsaber to battle Kylo Ren. Again though, this is a scenario where there are few other options – she is on a big Death Star with snow and trees and things which is being attacked, her best (only) friend just got brutalized and there’s an unhinged young man running around with a burning sword. In her second film, she feels that her main objective, initially, is to retrieve the great warrior and bring him into the fight, for someone else to take up the sword and strike down the enemy – first Luke and then, almost comically, Kylo Ren himself.
She wants tutelage not so she can slay the dragon, but so she can come to terms with herself. This is the opposite of Luke’s and Anakin’s journey; she has already learned the lessons that they needed to learn when we met her but she is at the other end of the spectrum. She feels that she has no self-worth, she cannot reconcile with the burgeoning powers within herself and grapples with their distribution. The absence of destiny, of any real plan gives her a greater sense of inertia that she must combat. In her quest for heroes and leaders, she doesn’t think to look at herself because she believes she is of no importance. The cuts away from “What girl?” and “Who’s the girl?” in The Force Awakens no longer indicate a mystery, but rather suggest that those questions can only end the conversation – there is no answer that will satisfy these characters, she is just Rey the scavenger.
Ultimately, Rey isn’t our hero because it is fated, because she’s another Chosen One… she’s our hero because the trouble begins on Jakku, and that’s where she lives. She is who BB-8 happened to chance upon in his quest. Rey does indeed has an easier path to accessing the Force, because her personality is more ideally what makes for a model Jedi – unassuming, dedicated, humble. Selfless. We don’t need Rey’s narrative to have the same pitfalls as Luke’s or even Anakin’s because we’ve got those stories already. Instead what we have is something boldly different, an inverted set of challenges to provide an important contrast to this new story, something that perhaps we can connect to as we all interpret the earlier story of the Skywalkers in our own way.
And so, we have been given a character who is wholly distinct. She is not a braggart, she is not petulant. She is not at ease with the idea of adventure, she is not ambitious, and she doesn’t think she matters. Rey’s accomplishments are also extremely contained compared to the Skywalkers – in total, she assists in getting the Skywalker map to the Resistance, leaves Kylo Ren with a duelling scar, runs interference during the ultimately abortive Battle of Crait, and saves the remainder of the Resistance from the mine. It has taken me some time to value the more subtle inversions of what Abrams established with The Force Awakens, but perhaps the best one is that the weight of legacy is on the shoulders of the villain rather than the hero. And it is the villain who grapples with the reconciliation of his various influences, from his parents to his grandfather to his uncle, to live up to his own interpretation of what he is meant to bring to the galaxy.
Taking the story on its own terms rather than what we wanted it to be (a healthier way to enjoy movies and art in general), the reasons for wanting Rey to fit within the story due to bloodline are thoroughly weak, a misplaced sense of a need for narrative symmetry, and a blind eye turned to the text itself and everything Abrams and Johnson are telling us. It’s important to remember that Star Wars was already great before Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father, or Luke was Leia’s brother. There’s so much to offer within this saga, and it is curious when fans insist on the soap opera angle being ever-present (and as mentioned, it’s already there in Kylo Ren’s story). At its most basic core, Star Wars is often driven by basic storytelling conceits of wants versus needs, and how characters respond to crisis and incident. It is about family in a sense, but not in the literal sense, unless you think Lando and Chewie, et al. don’t deserve to be in that final shot of Return of the Jedi.
So why not embrace someone else having the center stage? Why not relish the opportunity for a different type of story that isn’t the same thing we’ve seen done, sometimes expertly, within Star Wars already? We have seen what happens when someone with humble beginnings, great potential and grand ambitions goes bad, and what happens when a similar person finds his faith and does good for the galaxy. It is time for something new, and to retcon that to keep everything pat and “uniform” is simply throwing away a damn good, arguably unusual and singular premise, and a new type of hero who doesn’t overshadow her predecessors, but instead complements and recontextualizes their story through her involvement in it. If that is preserved, the saga can truly return to where it all began, with a seemingly insignificant individual being the ultimate force for good. And perhaps deep down, that might be the common element that entranced us all in the first place.