As regular readers of the site may know, I do not interpret The Last Jedi as romantic. However, I understand many of the reasons why others do, even if I don’t agree. Romance has always been a part of Star Wars, and many relationships end up being mirrors of each other. For my part, I can read romance into The Last Jedi from that angle, though it’s not necessarily a positive spin. With parallels to the previous Star Wars romances visible, I can see this film as a commentary on The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones.
Movies are a type of communication. And like any type of communication, movies can communicate their ideas well, poorly, or anywhere in between. So when I speak about how the two previous “middle chapters” of Star Wars fail in their romances, I am not discussing the idea of Anakin or Han as romantic leads, nor am I critiquing fans who see either of them (or Kylo) as just that. I’m discussing how the film communicates those ideas of romance. This is a Doylist discussion.
The Last Jedi in general is a wonderful exercise in Watsonian and Doylist interpretations. “Watsonian” is from the universe: John Watson explaining the events of his adventures with Sherlock Holmes. “Doylist” is from the meta: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle explaining why he wrote those events.
For example: a Doylist explanation of the distrust audiences have of Vice Admiral Holdo relies on a lot of sexist tropes. We’re not used to seeing women in command, especially not women who look like Holdo, especially when such women go up against our charming flyboys. However, the Doylist explanation of sexism doesn’t fly in-universe. Poe clearly has respect for women and women in leadership. He’s following in the steps of his mother, and his mentor is our princess. The Watsonian explanation, in contrast, relies on actual aspects of Poe’s character. He is a charismatic, impulsive flyboy. Holdo is a threat to him not because she is a woman, but because she doesn’t respond to his charisma or impulsiveness the way he is used to from others.
Poe isn’t sexist, but the film language uses sexist expectations to get its point across.
I know we’re all tired of the “subverting expectations” description of The Last Jedi, but I do think there is a certain merit to how director Rian Johnson plays with expectations. He uses film and storytelling language familiar to us to prompt reactions and associations (Doylist) that will put us in a similar emotional state as the characters (Watsonian). Therefore, regardless of the reasons, both we and Poe distrust Holdo.1
Therefore, when I say that the romantic language of The Last Jedi holds The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones accountable, I’m looking at things from a Doylist perspective2. I won’t call Han or Anakin predators or manipulators, as their actions are framed as romantic in the Watsonian explanation of events. I won’t say that anyone who ships any of these three couples is glorifying toxic relationships. However, I will say that the film and storytelling language used in The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones to communicate certain things as romantic is…bad.
Han and Anakin aren’t bad men in these films; they’re our heroes (Watsonian), but The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones portray romance using unhealthy tropes (Doylist). The Last Jedi uses those same tropes to portray the dynamic between Rey and Kylo as a counterpoint to the romances of the previous middle chapters.
Let’s start with poor Anakin in the oft-maligned Attack of the Clones, where I actually think we are on the cusp of a decent romance on both the Watsonian and the Doylist perspective. It just has two crucial aspects that keep it from that point.
One can be addressed by rearranging scenes to put their first kiss later in the narrative. The other is unfortunately too embedded in Anakin’s character for that type of fix: Anakin is never shown being kind to anyone but Padmé and Shmi. Notable is Jar Jar Binks, another childhood friend whom he has not seen in years. Jar Jar expresses joy at seeing Anakin, a joy that is dismissed by Anakin because Padmé didn’t notice him. The Lars family is likewise on the receiving end of Anakin’s dismissal – the people who rescued and loved his mother, the people who were also grieving from her loss.
We see in other media that Anakin is kind, but Attack of the Clones Anakin is dismissive of anyone from whom he is not trying to gain a relationship. It is a framing that paints Anakin as emotionally manipulative (Doylist) when he is supposed to be our romantic hero (Watsonian). In contrast, Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi is our villain.
He is a conflicted villain to be sure, and it’s clear that there is a genuineness to his feelings for Rey. Even some of the interactions they have together display him as kind. His assertion that she’s “not alone” and his defiance of Snoke to save her are two highlights of that characteristic. Also similar to Anakin is that his softness extends to his mother, upon whom he cannot bear to fire.
However, the emotional manipulation in The Last Jedi isn’t just a Doylist reading of Kylo Ren. Director Rian Johnson describes (at 15:13) Kylo’s line of “You’re nothing…but not to me” as a strategy to make Rey rely on him. Kylo may mean that Rey is important to him in all sincerity, but it’s still a manipulative tactic. Additionally, Kylo Ren’s dismissal of others – his refusal to help the doomed fleet – causes Rey to turn on him. Kylo is held accountable both in the Doylist and the Watsonian interpretations of The Last Jedi for things on which Anakin was given a pass in the Watsonian interpretation of Attack of the Clones.
Now Han’s actions in The Empire Strikes Back are usually given a huge pass by the fandom, but Pop Culture Detective – a YouTube channel that explores depictions of masculinity in film – notes that his actions follow an uncomfortable trend. It points out that many romances that starred Harrison Ford had predatory behavior portrayed as romantic, including Han’s interactions with Leia:
The (kissing) scene only lasts about a minute and a half, during which time, [Leia] rebuffs [Han’s] advances eight different times with both verbal and non-verbal communication. And he ignores and disregards her each time.
Han is not a predator (Watsonian), but The Empire Strikes Back portrays romance using predatory behavior (Doylist).
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Kylo predatory in The Last Jedi. The Force Awakens has a stronger case for that, but as I am disregarding the first and last films of the other trilogies – which would soften our perspectives on Anakin and Han – I won’t use The Force Awakens to harden the perspective on Kylo. However, in The Last Jedi alone, Kylo does not respect the boundaries and the agency that Rey tries to assert in their relationship.
Despite agreeing that their Force Skype call happened at an inopportune time, as he was partially dressed, Kylo dismisses Rey’s request for him to put on a shirt. It’s a minor thing, but she displays discomfort at the degree of intimacy brought on by his state of undress, and he ignores that boundary. In that same interaction, he also pushes her to cross an additional line of verbalizing Han’s murder, another act that causes emotional distress, another level of intimacy that he has not yet earned.
Later, Kylo and Rey do achieve a degree of intimacy together in an act of consensual, physical contact, in which they see a glimpse of each other’s futures. Rey responds to this intimacy by again asserting her agency in the relationship. She goes to save Ben Solo. “I’ll help you,” she tells Kylo, who responds to this offer of further intimacy by undercutting that same agency. According to Kylo, Rey is wrong and her choice void, because they will be together on his terms, not hers.
Kylo only responds to intimacy in this way, rejecting both offers and boundaries that Rey sets if they don’t serve him. Once again, the Watsonian interpretation calls him on this. Unlike Leia – who is proved to be hiding her feelings for Han, melts into the kiss from him, and later confesses her love – Rey is distressed by every violation of her boundaries by Kylo. She shuffles uneasily, she physically recoils, she openly weeps, and in the end, she closes the door on him. This is the response that Han’s (Doylist) actions should have received.
There is a final space in which The Last Jedi acts as a commentary on the romances of the previous two middle chapters, and that is the portrayal of its female characters. This is what ultimately placed Attack of the Clones higher than The Empire Strikes Back in my esteem. Well, this and Dexter Jettster, but he doesn’t factor into this discussion.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Leia wields a great deal of authority and power on Hoth. She’s forced to make difficult decisions, she rallies troops without anyone questioning her position, and she is one of the very last to evacuate. Yet upon leaving Hoth, Leia is placed in a situation where she loses all of that authority, following Han’s lead as he makes all the major decisions, including in their relationship.
Padmé, in contrast, asserts her authority and agency throughout Attack of the Clones, even telling Anakin to follow her and trust her expertise on places like Naboo and Geonosis. In this, Padmé matches Rey in The Last Jedi, as Rey likewise asserts her opinion and wields her agency to make decisions that drastically affect the plot. She is not always right in her decisions, but the movie never takes the ability to choose away from her.
Despite Padmé retaining her agency, there is still one place that not only Attack of the Clones but the entire prequel trilogy fails her in the same way the original trilogy fails Leia. In these films, the leading ladies are not allowed a character arc outside of falling in love. Leia has a strong personality and a clear moral compass, but while Luke struggles with his destiny and Han works through his knot of insecurities, Leia falls in love. From A New Hope to Return of the Jedi, that is the change granted her character. Had the Rebellion scenes in Revenge of the Sith been kept, an argument could be made that Padmé’s arc in the prequel trilogy includes the loss of her faith in the Republic. As the trilogy currently stands, her internal journey is centered around Anakin and her love for him.
This is an issue not restricted to Star Wars, where the internal lives of women are rarely allowed to be about anything but romance, and where men get to have a romance alongside other character aspects.3 It is, however, an issue that The Last Jedi soars above. Even if we interpret Rey as being romantically attracted to Kylo, it’s not the only factor in her arc, any more than it is for Han or Anakin. She is also trying to discover her worth, trying to find her place in the Force, and she finds it not within a relationship but within herself.
However, The Last Jedi may still have one holdover from the previous middle chapters. Padmé and Leia were ultimately there in service to Anakin’s and Han’s arcs, in whose internal journeys the writers and directors were far more interested. The Last Jedi has drawn some similar critiques in its focus on Kylo Ren and Luke, especially in the final act where Rey is largely absent. The middle-chapter romances, it could be argued, still weigh far too heavily on the male perspective at the expense of the women. A fair concern, as a man both wrote and directed the The Last Jedi. We have yet to have a female voice guiding a romance in a Star Wars film.
Nevertheless, it is satisfying to see Johnson hold a male character accountable for things that have been portrayed as romantic in the past. We see the consequences of Kylo’s actions both upon Rey and upon himself. Without declaring either Anakin or Han a bad person (and Johnson believes even Kylo isn’t irredeemable) The Last Jedi makes it abundantly clear that, even in romance, women have their own internal lives and that certain behaviors on the part of men are simply unacceptable.
- How Johnson’s decisions affect the audience will of course depend on individuals. Not everyone will approach the film or the film language with the same expectations. Hence why “subverting expectations” has become a bit of a dirty phrase in the fandom. [↩]
- Doylist does not mean “objective truth”; my interpretations are still mine, born from what I bring to the text as a viewer. [↩]
- The romance genre itself doesn’t factor into this critique, because there, romance is supposed to be the central emotional arc of all main characters, regardless of gender. [↩]