The Crimes of Skywalker

I went to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker when it came out — too many times — and then I never went back. It’s been three years now. I want you to contemplate how weird that is (for someone like me). Or, let the magic of algorithms demonstrate: The Rise of Skywalker has been the first item in the “Recommended For You” list on my Disney+ home page, every single day, since the day the film went live on the platform.

It stays there, I assume, because I have never pressed “play,” in spite of every single metric that such systems are built on suggesting with near-certainty that, based on the entirety of my viewing history, The Rise of Skywalker should be the one thing in the Disney library that I would most want to watch.

I like to imagine that there’s a single Disney data scientist out there being driven absolutely insane by this information. It breaks every computational model they have built a career around; “I just don’t get it. He watches everything even tangentially related to Star Wars. He watches them multiple times. How has he not noticed that this film exists?!”

The answer, quite simply, is that I’ve spent the last three years putting a lot of effort into ensuring that I forget.

Shadows of the Sith

I read a Rise of Skywalker tie-in novel last month. This was my first, game effort to re-engage with the fact that whether I like it or not, the narrative shoe did drop. Whether I like it or not, Rey’s a Palpatine now; her parents were hiding from… Palpatine, I guess; that Lando has a daughter who was taken by the First Order; that Exegol is out there, covered in Sith cultists who make Star Destroyers and then bury them in the sand. And so forth.

Anyway, the book in question was awful. But I entered into it, I assure you, in good faith. Here’s why:

I am not the first, nor even the most qualified, to note that the best (ok, maybe second-best) thing about Star Wars is that as soon as any given piece of it exists in the world, it gets absorbed by the creative energy — sure, let’s call it the Force — of the fandom or the downstream creators in the official Lucasfilm hierarchy, and begins to become embroidered, expanded upon, rebuilt, recontextualized, and made more.

The gold-star example of this (in the canon space anyway) is Dave Filoni’s television series, The Clone Wars. That show took a 7-year approach to connecting some of the trickiest bits of the text of the Prequel Trilogy, and patching up many of its biggest holes and failures. The Clone Wars is by no means perfect — and post-Andor, it looks even less so — but it’s a game attempt by a secondary creator to retroactively engineer clear meaning onto something that, for all of its thematic ambition, was executionally muddy.

The Clone Wars needed to exist because the Prequels never really come out and say the thing that’s on their minds, which is that the Republic was a failed state and the Jedi its failed ambassadors, and that this was true before we even join the story at the start of The Phantom Menace. Republic: bad and Jedi: bad are basically the starting conditions of the entire six-film Star Wars saga as Lucas envisioned it; but, it’s tricky to dramatize that premise when the Republic is also the “good old days” of an existing trilogy, and the Jedi its greatest heroes: the “good guys.”

In the Prequel trilogy proper, however, Palpatine’s victory is actually less the endgame of a lifetime of individual, clever plotting, and more the outcome of centuries of institutional failure. Which slams directly into the fact that the prequels also go out of their way to suggest that Palpatine’s plotting was exemplary — that he is a Machiavellian schemer par excellence. The prequels, therefore, perhaps inadvertently create the takeaway that Palpatine was wholly, and solely, responsible for turning a galactic democracy into a fascist government, overnight!

Like I said: muddy. I think I understand what Lucas’ intent was; but I also think it’s pretty easy to think whatever you want to think when coming out of those movies, because Lucas is so relentlessly piss-poor at using basic dramaturgy to elevate his themes into tangible, character-driven story. This is especially true in the Prequels, when he had no Huycks, no Kasdans, to shore up the gaps for him. He attempts to connect the political dots to the personal dots through the narrative of Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, mirroring what happens to the galaxy with what happens to the boy; but Anakin’s story just ends up suffering from the same dimensional obstacles as the story of the galaxy writ large. There’s a gorgeous conceptual and thematic arc to the Prequel Trilogy, but you almost never catch it in the details of what actually happens in the films themselves.

But: here comes The Clone Wars! Which does a substantial job of clarifying, developing, and fortifying the Prequel Trilogy’s arguments; so much so that there’s an entire generation of fans, now, who probably wouldn’t understand what the fuck you were talking about if you told them that the Prequels ever seemed “muddy” to the first group of fans who watched them. The films and the TV series are all unified and equal in “the text” now; the definition of “the text” has merely expanded to include another sixty ancillary hours of story, after the six hours that my generation got between 1999 and 2005.

This happens over and over in Star Wars, and not just with the “expansion packs” of non-movie material (books, shows, comics, animation). The films react to one another — perhaps not as aggressively as new creative teams coming in for four successive Alien films (for example) — but visibly nonetheless. Return of the Jedi reacts to The Empire Strikes Back, course-correcting some things that got away from Lucas; Attack of the Clones reacts to The Phantom Menace, course-correcting again.

This becomes really important when we get to the Sequel Trilogy, because the Sequel Trilogy reacts wholeheartedly to both trilogies that came before it… and does it both in terms of the story, and in terms of a much bigger, much thornier, idea: it reacts to what Star Wars means.

Admittedly, this was inevitably going to lead to trouble.

Before delving into that trouble, I’ll say that the details of what the Sequel Trilogy is about have never been particularly muddy, at least in its first two installments. There are substantial narrative and conceptual gaps — the hand-waving around the nature of life in the galaxy after the victory in Return of the Jedi, and who the fuck the Resistance and First Order are in relation to that, is the biggest one — but the bones of a thematic idea, which is easily borne by the specific characters that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan create in The Force Awakens, is there.

Tragically, the narrative and creative sinkhole that J.J. Abrams smote upon the world with The Rise of Skywalker is so wide and so deep that for all intents and purposes, it gobbled up those bones in the eyes of most audiences, from the very casually interested, to the hardcore Star Wars fandom itself. It’s very easy to find people who say that the Sequel Trilogy was simply a complete creative failure, end-to-end; and it’s equally easy to find the major talking points about why: because the films didn’t have a single director, or a single unified vision, or an agreed-upon creative direction, prior to their inception. Secondary talking points follow, which usually break into the director-fanboy camps; the films are bad because J.J. Abrams is a bad storyteller (true), or bad because Rian Johnson blew up what Abrams did and broke the narrative (false). The films rely too much on familiar images and nostalgia (half-true) and don’t treat Star Wars reverently (half-false).

Yes, it’s absolutely bonkers that the Sequel Trilogy was greenlit without a story outline. I still can’t believe, on any level, that anyone in the business of making movies professionally thought this was a good idea. (To be fair, there reportedly was a story outline, or an intent to create one, when Michael Arndt was on the project; but, some maniac then hired J.J. Abrams, and approved throwing that story outline away.)

But the angsting about the competing visions of Abrams, Johnson, and (for a little while) Colin Trevorrow ignores the fundamental reality of post-Original Trilogy Star Wars, which I’ve tried to outline above: passing the creative baton from one person to the next, from one set of ideas to the next; embroidering and building and filling in gaps and taking the story in new directions suggested by old failings — effectively, using whatever is inherited from the story up till that point as a jumping-off point for the next portion of the story you’re going to tell — these are as integral to the whole thing as lightsabres and droids. There’s no reason Episode IX couldn’t have worked, if everyone was game for a bit of creative “yes, and” with whatever their predecessor had handed them at the end of the prior film.

The trouble, from my standpoint, comes from the guy who had gotten away from the franchise clean… and yet, decided to come back and play a big, ugly game of “no, but.”

“Somehow”

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that there is no thematic or narrative purpose to resurrecting Palpatine to serve as a kind of “mwa ha ha, it was me the whole time!” Big Bad in The Rise of Skywalker, the how of it isn’t particularly bothersome. The Jedi can shunt their identity into the Force when they die; a Sith Lord undertaking some necrotic version of the same thing at the moment of death isn’t out of pocket. Palpatine was into cloning; having a few backup copies of his body floating in jars in case the above happened, to take Force Ghosting one step further than the Jedi, is reasonable within his general “thing.”

Like a lot of things in the Sequel story, this line of thought tracks better without the Rey connection than it does with it, because that detail feels shoehorned into an otherwise plottable scheme. (Was Palpatine’s son, Rey’s father, a malfunction or something? Why wasn’t he one of the bodies for the big guy? How did he get away, and why on earth did Palpatine let him stay away long enough to raise a family?) Ditto Snoke-in-a-bottle, and don’t get me started on what we’re supposed to intuit about Palpatine’s theoretical relationship to the First Order that Snoke-in-a-bottle then leads. Again, with no clear map of the political reality of the galaxy at the start of The Force Awakens, it’s hard to establish what Palpatine could have been trying to establish through any of this, besides continuing to be alive.

But generally, “somehow Palpatine returned” feels more like a lightning rod for the general dislike of the movie that contains it, rather than the actual specific reason for that dislike. (See also: the aliens of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which, plus or minus one fridge, get more blame for that movie’s wholly separate failings than they deserve.) “Somehow Palpatine returned” is the shorthand for all the stupid decisions J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio made when crafting their “script” (and I think, for a variety of reasons, that we have to use that term very loosely here).

But, okay. For instructive purposes, let’s play “yes and” instead of “no but” with Palpy in Episode IX. Without working to determine how they amassed the resources to do it (which, post-Andor, is getting harder and harder to do), a cult of Sith-worshippers has been hiding out on a dark planet since before the war, building spaceships and armies and cloning vats, and they have a backup Palpatine, in case the O.G. ever bit the big one. All of this would have required proactive planning; there’s no way this was reactive to the Sith Lord’s death in Return of the Jedi, because by then it would have been too late. So, perhaps they’ve been at it since before Palpatine became Emperor, which suggests a story direction: maybe the Exegol cultists are the beginning of his plan, and also the end of it. A “Phase Two” of whatever Palpatine’s entire scheme has been, to give the Sith permanent control of the galaxy.

Phase One was using the rot within the Republic to create the scenario that allowed him to weaken, trap, and ultimately slaughter the Jedi (revenge!). Past that victory in Revenge of the Sith, however, it is not clear what Palpatine’s purpose in suborning the galaxy actually was, besides the simplistic (i.e., he’s a dick and he likes being mean to people). So, maybe this is it. Maybe Exegol is it. If the entire purpose of Palpatine’s plot was to take revenge against the Jedi for some Jedi vs. Sith shit-fight that happened millennia ago, Palpatine could have withdrawn into the ether ten minutes after he got on the phone to Commander Cody and told him to execute Order 66. Instead, he’s given himself a permanent power-up as the sole ruler of a techno-fascist police state, and he apparently continues to actively run it, for the next twenty years. What’s his objective, and how can we tie it to Exegol?

One of the details from the earliest eras of Star Wars that I always loved came from the novelization of the original film, and held that the Emperor (there quite a different conception from the character we eventually got) had long since withdrawn from public view, and that the Empire was in fact operated by a coterie of bureaucrats and vassals who claimed to represent Palpatine but were more likely pursuing their own profit and power by using his name as air cover. (In details like that, we can see the Dune influences upon Star Wars in more ways than just “spice mines.”) But in the actual lore of the Star Wars narrative, reinforced as recently as a couple months ago in the aftermath of the Aldhani raid on Andor, Palpatine is an active, persistent participant in suborning the galaxy. He’s not sitting on his victory from 20 years ago. He’s making calls. He’s talking to his guys. He can’t wait to see the Death Star — which he began building before the Rebellion started showing up to even suggest that the Empire’s grip on the galaxy could ever potentially weaken.

Maybe Nemik’s read on it is the best one: autocracy is brittle; it requires enormous maintenance and energy. You can’t just take over the galaxy and rest; you have to point towards greater and greater threats of violence if you ever hope to maintain control. This, ultimately, is where Palpatine fails: he could have given the entire galaxy a bunch of new programming on Disney+ every week to molify them into not noticing how badly their government is behaving (a thematic idea probably a little too on-the-nose for… y’know, Disney). Instead, the Emperor got up in everybody’s shit all the time, up to and including blowing up an entire planet. When that’s the alternative to resistance, resistance naturally flourishes, which Luthen is counting on (in Andor).

So anyway: back to the Sith Eternal. They’re out there on their freaky planet building spaceships, and they’re doing it simultaneously with Palpatine’s twenty years in power. And these guys are not the Empire. The Empire has a bajillion faults, but one (to me, anyway) real bonus: it brings a complete separation of church and state. There is no religious element to the governance of the Empire, which (as several other writers and commenters have pointed out) is kind of strange for a bureaucracy whose leader is a literal space wizard. In fact, rather than lean into its leader’s religion, the Empire has leaned away; we’ve seen the Empire use the eradication of local religious or cultural practice as a plank in building their autocratic control of the galaxy. Darth Vader is the last of a dead religion. The Jedi have been obliterated and discredited, and the Force is the belief system of a bygone age. The Empire’s leaders certainly aren’t pushing Sith beliefs on anyone (or even directly acknowledging that the Sith are in charge, as far as I can tell). Compared to real-world ethno-states, it’s paradoxical and somewhat admirable that Palpatine somehow kept faith out of the Empire on every level, especially given that even in the prior administration (the Republic), a tribe of warrior monks were central to the political environment.

Unless, of course, pushing the Sith into the forefront is Phase Two. And after the Death Star worked; after the Rebellion has been crushed; after Palpatine has decades of permanent, unchallenged, fear-based control over the galaxy… maybe whatever was happening on Exegol was the endgame: turning the people of the galaxy from broken, faithless atheists into a civilization of Sith acolytes.

All the pre-conditions didn’t happen. Palpatine was killed. But the cultists on their lightning planet just stayed on-mission anyway, because what is a cultist if not committed? And when a dark Force-user seized supreme control of the galaxy at the end of The Last Jedi, they saw their moment to finally throw Phase Two into gear — which creates a conflict leading into the Episode IX you’re about to write, given that Kylo Ren’s main thing in life seems to be throwing all of this religious sect, dogma-driven mumbo-jumbo onto the trash heap of history alongside the dangerous cults that created them: the Jedi and the Sith.

Anyway, that’s how you play “yes and.”

I’m not great at the parts that come next. I need more practice at turning sweeping, connect-the-dots pseudomythology into story, narrative, character; although I have at least, above, created a core tension between the bad guys (Exegol) and the bad guy who should flip back into being a good guy in this story (Kylo), from which the story could spring. As I close in on 50, though, I’m amazed at how much time I wasted not practicing, practicing, practicing that terribly tricky divide between intention and dramatization; or more practically, writing a million dramatizations and exploring how theme, meaning, idea coalesce in the creation of what seems like simple story.

Ideas are great, but they aren’t what hooks us in the tales we hold onto; “somehow, Palpatine returned” is stupid, but it would never have been the actual reason The Rise of Skywalker didn’t work. You can thread a million needles in a legend as broad and deep as Star Wars. Creating characters we love whose failures and hurts make us love them more and whose triumphs feel like our own, is a whole other supple, subtle art.

The girl from nowhere

I don’t recall much of Rey’s arc in The Rise of Skywalker. I gather she is concerned she’s turning into a Sith Lord, or something. Lightning from her fingers and all that. Almost killed Chewie (and then it was fine).

There are two things I do recall, though: first, that Daisy Ridley is quite good in the film. There is something different about how she performs under J.J. Abrams’ direction than Rian Johnson’s. I couldn’t say which I think is better — especially given the wide qualitative differences in the material — but the characterization is noticeably not the same. Ridley is very sharp in The Rise of Skywalker, and she’s sharp in the same way she was sharp in The Force Awakens.

The second thing I remember is that when the reveal happens — when Kylo Ren’s cracked and violent vocoder spits out the words, “you’re a Palpatine,” and the audience started to laugh — I should have gotten up and left the theatre.

Now, plausibly, such a thing would never happen. I would never have had the courage to bail mid-screening on a new Star Wars movie. I am not a briskly reactive person; sometimes it takes days, or weeks, or months, before I can really see my own reaction to something. But damn: I regret very little in my entire experience with Star Wars, but I regret not bailing on that stupid-ass movie after “you’re a Palpatine,” and never going back.

De-canonization is difficult, but in a way, it’s what I’ve been trying to do. Part of my brain has laboured at it since that weekend I watched The Rise of Skywalker, puzzling my way through what I’d been given. Part of the deal I made with myself when I realized that I was just never going to watch that movie again was, perhaps, an unspoken hope that by doing so, I could make a mental decision that The Rise of Skywalker didn’t “count.”

I’d arrest the narrative of the Sequel Trilogy at the end of The Last Jedi, if I could. Luckily, though only in hindsight, that movie has a fairly complete ending, at least for the story of Rey; and one can take its conclusion in a zillion different directions, for the galaxy at large. One can imagine a lot of story being generated by the last moments of The Last Jedi, and very little by the end of The Rise of Skywalker, another real deficit on the latter movie. The Last Jedi‘s conclusion is not a perfect ending, because it wasn’t meant to be (and the Ben Solo question is still very much unanswered), but it suggests closure, and a handoff to the audience’s imagination about what adventures could be had next, in a galaxy blown wide open, made so much bigger by a few simple calibrations of what the Force was and who it was for. Perhaps the story ended there instead, and “you’re a Palpatine” was just a shared dream.

Now, one of the strangest, and frankly mentally-unwell, things that has happened in the Disney era of Star Wars has to have been the petition to remove The Last Jedi from canon. Any such petitions, along with any petitions related to (for example) “The Snyderverse” or the final season of Game of Thrones, are not the products of well minds. “Your honour, we move that this be stricken from the record!” There is a curdled psyche there, and it is unpleasant to look upon. And yet I have entertained a fantasy version of the exact same thing for three years, wondering what it would be like if Disney just took the L and attempted to make Episode IX again, properly this time.

There’s no scenario where that ever happens and I know that, so maybe this thought experiment isn’t so troubling; I don’t feel entitled to a better Episode IX (even though arguably, we all were), so much as wistful that it didn’t happen. And as a thought experiment, this whole idea has spawned a lot of great conversations with friends over these pandemic days. I know “remake Episode IX” isn’t real (and never will be), so I can play in the sandbox a bit (and I have).

In my sandbox, the girl who grew up in the sands of Jakku, making pan bread with her rations and entertaining herself with yellow-filtered desert-gazing via a recovered pilot’s helmet (cuz there’s no TV on Jakku), remains the girl from nowhere. What Kylo Ren told her about her parents in The Last Jedi remains true. “They were worthless junk traders” (emphasis mine). In my sandbox, the lie isn’t that Kylo is (inexplicably!) making the whole thing up; it’s that he’s editorializing against the text (per my emphasis). Rey’s parents weren’t worthless, regardless of what they did or didn’t do. No one is worthless. No one is no one, as the lynchpin line in Colin Trevorrow’s script for Episode IX puts it. Whether they sold Rey off for drinking money or not, Rey’s parents were people trying to make a life in a galaxy that makes it difficult for anyone who isn’t an upper-echelon Coruscanti. (Oh look: some resonance.) Maybe Episode IX could have, at least a little bit, been about Rey finding some peace in that: she’s not defined by her parents; but her parents aren’t defined by their biggest mistake, either. If they actually were addicts as Star Wars defines the term, wow, so much the better. Let’s sing it louder for the people in the back: no one is worthless. No one is no one.

In my sandbox, I resurrect Rey from Nowhere, because a) that premise is actually the text of the preceding two movies, so fuck J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio all over the place; but much more so because b) it’s the most important thing the Sequel Trilogy had to say. If you leave aside the fact that the Sequel Trilogy was only made to make money, Rey from Nowhere is as close as it ultimately comes to having a distinct and contemporary point, a reason for existing. It’s a new idea, one that isn’t about the politics and values of the Original Trilogy. It’s a point about now, which is what movies are always about. Even when they don’t want to be, preferring to be warm, inoffensive nostalgia baths. Even when they don’t want to have a point, and would prefer to be Disneyfied “entertainment for all.”

Ok, let’s unpack all this. I should probably start with point a), above: while I fully acknowledge that The Force Awakens is a J.J. Abrams project and therefore intentionally leaves the door open for the plot to move in either, or any, direction on the subject of Rey’s backstory (because he can’t make storytelling choices, only the setups for same), I stand by my assertion that Rey being from nowhere is absolutely readable as a possibility, even likelihood, in Episode VII, long before it was canonized by Rian Johnson in Episode VIII. It’s an against-expectations story hook, to be sure — there’s a hell of a lot of “who’s the girl?” in the first movie for Johnson to eventually play against in the second — but that’s just structural stuff. If you’re familiar with… uh… storytelling at all, you know that those kinds of setups break the other way all the time, because working against expectations drives a lot of narrative “oomph.”

A more important fundamental, in the construction of The Force Awakens, is that the entire premise of legacy is under review. What is the legacy of Star Wars? Or, if you live in that universe as our characters do, the star wars (that ended thirty years ago over Endor)? The only child of the Skywalker/Solo legacy has broken bad; he picked up the mantle of his grandfather, not his mother and father, foregoing the fight for freedom that the heroes of the prior trilogy lived (and nearly died) for. The last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, did not evidently do what he was charged with doing after Return of the Jedi, foregoing his mentor’s mandate that he pass on his learnings to others like him. Meanwhile, we meet our heroine on a new desert planet, where she makes her living by literally excavating the remains of the prior trilogy. We learn that she knows the story of Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion and the Jedi, even if those stories are fading into myth as quickly as she recalls them. Like the other great Star Wars hero before her, Rey yearns for that adventure, even if her present-day responsibilities stop her from believing she can ever be a part of it. And then, through the rest of Episode VII, she becomes a part of it.

All of this surrounds the same basic theme. “What grows out of the remains of the legends we all grew up with?” is, effectively, the point of The Force Awakens. That point is equally made whether Rey is (unbeknownst to her) secretly a fairy princess connected to one the key players of that legend; or, like us, just a really big fan, who understands the prior tale’s diagram of what makes a person a hero and what makes a person a villain.

Both are equally viable and interesting explorations, but “what does it mean to carry a legacy of super-powerful Force blood?” is already being addressed in this trilogy — and for my money, more powerfully — via Ben Solo. Ben/Kylo is given all of the advantages of his bloodline but (again, with significant contemporary resonance) does not understand the point of the tales he grew up on. On the other side of the galaxy, Rey does. “What does it mean to live up to the legend you grew up with, on your own power?” is the thread that’s never been followed in this story, and Rey can follow it. I’m a simple fella, but I tend to think stories are more interesting when they explore two sides of a thing, instead of the same thing twice.

And now for b). It means so, so, so much to me that the hero this time is the person who calls the lightsabre to herself at the end of The Force Awakens, past the guy who is generationally “entitled” to it — that Rey’s triumph at the end of that film is a rejection of the notion of that entitlement in the first place. Because, uh, fuck entitlement. Fuck Kylo Ren. Fuck Reddit mouth-breathers going after Kelly Marie Tran. Fuck gatekeeping, which is the active-verb incarnation of entitlement. Fuck Gamergate. Fuck every single white boy who spent the 2010s (and before, and since) making life awful for women, and people of colour, and LGBTQIA+ persons, and everyone else. You can come from legacy and still be a colossal asshole (and in fact, it seems more and more like that’s the likelier outcome than not). You can come from nowhere and be a better and stronger person than any of the above, because legacy is horseshit, and dangerous horseshit to boot. This goes beyond “contemporary resonance.” This is fucking meaning.

The Kylo/Rey dyad (sure, let’s call it a dyad!) is interesting not because they’re joined together in the Force by some whateverthefuck Skywalker/Palpatine predestination paradox, and it was never going to be. It’s interesting for the very reasons Abrams himself set up in The Force Awakens, reasons that power the engine of that entire story: because Ren has everything, and learns all the wrong lessons from it; and Rey has nothing, and learns all the right ones.

No one is no one, and being a good person in a complex world is a set of actions that anyone can take.

All of this, of course, stops being a potential direction for the Sequel Trilogy’s thematic line in The Force Awakens, and becomes text in The Last Jedi. It becomes text in both directions: even Kylo Ren’s “let the past die” thing hews to the idea that the way things used to be was not necessarily good. (Wanna start a bar fight? Use this: Luke was right when he said it was time for the Jedi to end. Watch The Clone Wars.) And all of this is a big part, likely the biggest part, of why I love The Last Jedi so much. Rian Johnson made the film that said, in no uncertain terms, that virtue in this galaxy does not belong to one cult, one dogma, or one bloodline. Anyone can pick up the lightsabre (or broom), be inspired to action, and do the right thing because it’s right. This is the lesson all three of the heroes learn in various ways over the course of The Last Jedi, graduating from their self-concerns by connecting to something larger. (Hell, it goes beyond the trio. Luke re-learns this lesson too.)

If anything, it’s the easiest(/hardest) for Rey: her only obstacle to righteous action is her personal loss: the question of what happened to her parents. Rey never refuses the Call to Adventure, except the niggling detail about having to leave Jakku (and thereby miss her parents’ return) in order to heed it. She immediately, and naturally, helps people who need help (first BB-8, then Finn, then the entire Resistance). She knows what good looks like; she knows why she wants Luke to train her. The only thing she can’t get past is the thing she sees in the mirror, in the mirror cave: herself. Kylo Ren clears that blockage away — and naturally, he does it for purely selfish reasons. The results, though, are the explosion of power that he was trying to forestall, because with that question of her vanished parents finally answered, Rey already has everything she needs. She’s a good person; she never even considers taking Kylo Ren’s hand when she realizes that what she saw in her vision was not she and he joining together to topple a dictator. (Johnson’s modulation of “a certain point of view,” via the Snoke/Rey/Kylo mis-reading of the Force, is another reason The Last Jedi is my favourite.)

Instead, Rey — and the entire Skywalker legacy — explodes into light. Shatters and gives way, on its way to becoming something new.

All of that was in play, pre-TROS. And that’s why I hate TROS.

The Leap

There is a shot in the teaser trailer for The Rise of Skywalker, at the end of the trailer’s prologue (because trailers have act structures now), where Rey leaps backwards over the wing of a TIE fighter that is chasing her down, in slow motion.

In context, it’s difficult to make out what anyone’s objective is meant to be at that moment in the story. Rey, inexplicably, starts running away from the TIE fighter after psyching herself up, because her foot speed will help, I guess, in the backwards-leap thing? Kylo Ren, on the other hand, is in (as far as I can tell) a spaceship, but chooses to hurtle towards Rey along the ground, at jumping height. To… run her off the road? She’s on foot. There isn’t a road. What?

Regardless, as a pure image, the shot transcends time, space, context, and meaning. It’s beautiful, a visual ballet of Star Wars signifiers in close concert with one another. Anxiously awaiting the release of the final Star Wars movie — about which I had had the proverbial “bad feeling” since three months before The Last Jedi came out, when Abrams was announced as writer/director — I sort of fell in love with that shot. That shot is the only Easter egg we ever actually put into the code of the web site that I run.

There’s not really much reason to indict J.J. Abrams in further detail than has already been done by all and sundry since the release of The Rise of Skywalker, but to shorthand it: he is great at shots like that (or at trailers, generally; which, to extend the idea further, also applies to first episodes of things — i.e. TV pilots). He is great at meaty visual signifiers rioting together in prismatic captures of time and space. He shoots things that look like they’re going to be cool. This differs from things that actually are cool, and certainly differs widely from any tacit skill set around the telling of a good story — because Abrams, by any objective metric we can align against such a thing, has no functional understanding of how a story works.

Somewhere along the way, J.J. Abrams developed his “mystery box” thing. And when we as an audience were feeling kinder to him than we are right now, we might have taken that artist’s statement as merely describing a facet of his overall toolset, one of the things he likes about the job that he does. In recent years, though, I’ve come to realize that it’s actually the only tool on his belt. He thinks the point of a story is to reveal what’s in the secret box, and (as a corollary) to do anything and everything he can to keep the audience from being able to guess what’s in the box ahead of time. His understanding of the mystery box premise does not even extend as far as needing to do any of the legwork required to earn the audience’s interest in, or understanding of, what’s in the box; in fact, his efforts to occlude the “answer” can and do supercede any intentions towards building such an understanding. The fact that it’s in the box is, in Abrams’ mind, fascinating on its own; and revealing it, again solely in his mind, is the whole point of the game.

That’s hogshit, of course.

Anyway, that’s J.J. Abrams. Now: let’s be charitable and acknowledge: it was fundamentally impossible for Episode IX to work, under the conditions in which it was made. The one-two punch against this thing was brutal. The first punch is the one people like to talk about, that I’ve referenced above: yeah, it was damn dumb for Disney, Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, and anyone else you want to blame, to try to do this trilogy without a confirmed story outline. Unprofessional, to the point of incompetent. We don’t know the nuance and context around that decision, of which I’m sure there was plenty; but, there it is.

But it was punch two that sealed the deal: no one has ever made a Star Wars movie in less than 3 years. Ever. Some of the good ones even took more than three years. (Although it is merely rumour, Rian Johnson’s conversation about taking over Episode IX purportedly began and ended with the fact that they would not give him three years.)

So, Bob Iger’s requirement that Disney+ launch in November 2019 and that The Rise of Skywalker hit theatres a month later, to essentially seal his tenure as chief executive of the company with a one-two punch of his own, pretty much destroyed Episode IX in the womb. There’s no version of the story where this film could have been produced credibly, let alone capably. The only grace I can give the whole creative team (including J.J. Abrams) is that, having been party to a few professional shitstorms in my day, I wholeheartedly believe that those two years were the professional shitstorm that will define the art form for at least the next ten or twenty years.

An amusing thought experiment, of course, is the one in which Iger does give the creative team the time to make a good movie, instead of The Rise of Skywalker. The team is hired in the fall of 2017 and told they have to hit… Christmas of 2020. And in that alternate reality, the final Star Wars movie sits on the shelf for a year or two as theatres remain closed (best case), or (more likely) gets dumped on Disney+.

On Disney+, Star Wars did in fact utter its death rattle, as the more troubling principles of The Mandalorian degenerated into the awful Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi. It got about as bad as any early nightmare scenarios of Star Wars brand management under Disney could possibly have been, in those three years between the launch of the platform and the early, quiet weeks when Andor launched without much of a fanfare, and viewership data suggesting nothing but head-scratching on the part of the clapping monkeys.

Andor, of course, was the first professionally-produced piece of Star Wars to convince me there was still life in this saga since the release of The Rise of Skywalker; and perhaps this whole (now very lengthy) piece of writing comes from me cautiously creeping out of the cave that TROS shoved me into, to see if the sun has come up on my relationship with this thing yet.

But in terms of unprofessionally– (or to phrase it more kindly, fan-) produced pieces, the first candle in the darkness was lit not by Maarva Andor or her brethren, but much earlier in the year, after the release of the otherwise execrable Book of Boba Fett. Because: if you can dig down into that heaping pile of stink and come out with something as touching, resonant, and outright fannish — so richly soaked in a clear love of Star Wars that it shames me — as N.D. Stevenson’s This Place Was Home, then it somewhat doesn’t matter what comes out of the Disney profit machine at all. The breadth and depth of the legend, the myth, the pop cultural entertainment, the thing we call Star Wars, is all summed up in the simple act of one artist sharing their weird, personal corner of someone else’s made-up world.

This Place Was Home is the net outcome of Stevenson (who I’ve followed throughout their career, and who showran the outstanding She-Ra and the Princesses of Power for Dreamworks) having a lifelong crush on Zam Wesell, a throwaway character from Attack of the Clones. It happens that I also had a strange fixation on that character, in spite of her early and ignominious death in the film. I’m fairly sure our mutual fixations are the reason I found Stevenson’s work on Tumblr, and the rest all followed.

In the text — by which I mean the canonical, approved-by-Lucasfilm Star Wars text — Zam Wesell was a colleague of, and ultimately victim of, Jango Fett, the father (well, DNA donor) of Boba Fett. Zam Wessell died when Boba was a child, and the two never (canonically) met. Stevenson and I might be among the handful of people who noticed, when Ming-Na Wen’s character was introduced on The Mandalorian, that Fennec Shand’s costume bears a few line-and-form similarities to Zam Wesell’s, albeit in black (vs. the original’s mauve). I didn’t do much with the realization that Boba was hanging out with a lady bounty hunter with more than a passing similarity to a lady bounty hunter his dad Jango hung out with. Stevenson, on the other hand, took the connection and ran with it.

This Place Was Home makes no effort to match the tonal universe it is slotting itself into; it takes the piss out of The Book of Boba Fett and Attack of the Clones and all that came between, while showing a surprising amount of reverence for both (given they are both, by most folks’ yardsticks, among the worst things ever to bear the name Star Wars). The whole comic, which emerged in installments, seems like a gag for a long, long time; and then as you read through you realize it is exhuming a deeply rich vein around themes of personal identity and personal grief, using made up characters from a galaxy far, far away. And (spoilers!) true to anything built with hope in its heart, it also gives all of its characters a kinder ending than the franchise proper ever could.

Familiarity with Stevenson’s work is its own kind of reward so I won’t big them up any more than I’ve already done; read, watch, absorb everything they’ve created. There’s a lot there, and there’s more “there” in This Place Was Home the more you know about Stevenson’s transition and personal history and the pointed, visible relationship they have with their childhood self throughout their work.

What This Place Was Home also pointed towards, for me anyway, was that “there’s a lot there” in Star Wars, too; not just in quantity of content (although, hoo-boy, that’s a lot), but in veins to be mined in any direction if you start with the same basic premise of taking the emotional reality of the stories seriously and seeing where that takes you. Jango Fett musing on what selling his DNA for the creation of an army means? Boba meeting clones his age and seeing the distance between himself and them? Jango and Zam having… something…? Something slash-fictiony but weirdly real and full, at the same time?

There’s a lot there.

When I dial up a new episode of A More Civilized Age and they tear exuberantly into a Clone Wars cartoon arc, a series for literal children, being serious about it without being assholes about it, finding political nuance and character details that enhance and subvert the Prequel Trilogy?

There’s a lot there.

Drew McWeeny grappling with The Rise of Skywalker one year ago, and ending up teaching a five-part master class on storytelling while doing so, and contextualizing his relationship with the entire saga (and movies) in the process?

There’s a lot there.

This piece you’re reading right now, whatever the hell it is, some (now-) 46-year-old grappling yet again with some piece of this sprawling legendarium, both within and without its text, the latest chapter in a lifelong text that brought me to movies, kept me in movies, and keeps me optimistic about what movies mean to the people they mean something to?

There’s a lot here.

Maybe I’ll close with something from the teaser trailer for The Last Jedi, which bore out in that film’s very premise, and serves as a mission statement for what that film was trying to do with the Force, with the potential for power in the Star Wars mythology, and for the nature of Star Wars storytelling itself:

“It’s so much bigger.”