Questions for TROS

In my excitement and anticipation for The Rise of Skywalker, I’ve read a lot of reviews today. And those reviews have largely made me nervous about the outcome. But I’m going to try to reserve judgment until after I’ve seen it. And honestly, I end up liking just about every new Star Wars thing because it’s STAR WARS! Over on Eleven-ThirtyEight, editor Mike Cooper published an essay today explaining his feelings for Star Wars that resonates with me strongly. I can’t recommend reading that enough.

What I thought I’d do is write out what I want to see answered or addressed in The Rise of Skywalker. It’s not speculation, and I’m not going to try to preemptively respond to concerns raised in the reviews. It might be a little silly, now that Episode IX is being marketed as the culmination of the entire saga, but my questions mostly emerge from the state of the galaxy at the end of The Last Jedi.

  1. What is the fate of Kylo Ren? Will he be redeemed? Killed? Imprisoned? Could you even safely imprison a powerful Force user? And what would redemption look like for such a monster if it doesn’t end in death?
  2. What will Rey do with the legacy of the Jedi? Will she establish a new Jedi Order or something else? Will any of her compatriots be revealed to have Force powers as well?
  3. How will this trilogy’s romantic entanglements be resolved? There are quite a few implicit and explicit love triangles. Will Rey end up with Finn, or Kylo (I sure hope not!), or no one at all? How will Finn navigate his relationship with Rey and with Rose? And does Poe finally come out as gay? (Poe is gay. I’m convinced of that. Unfortunately, I doubt that will ever be confirmed in a canon source.)
  4. Now that the Supreme Leader has been replaced and Hux finds himself following a man he despises, does he stay loyal to Kylo? Does he lead a coup?
  5. Who was Snoke? Where did he come from? How did he influence Ben into becoming Kylo? And where did the First Order come from, for that matter?
  6. Does Kylo really hear from Anakin Skywalker? Does he suffer from some form of psychosis? Has Anakin become corrupted in the afterlife even after his redemption? Is there someone else impersonating Anakin? Why didn’t any Force ghost appear to Kylo to intervene?
  7. Who are the Knights of Ren?
  8. Were there any other survivors of the destruction of Luke’s training temple?
  9. How is the Resistance rebuilt? What allies join the cause, and why didn’t they respond to Leia’s message?
  10. What happens to Leia? How does she fit into the movie? It seems likely that she was intended to have a significant role, but how much can she really appear in the film with the untimely death of Carrie Fisher?

We’ll see what answers J.J. Abrams and company provide. And that leaves me with a final question: what if we saw an Episode IX written and directed by Rian Johnson, or someone new entirely, instead of the director known for making safe, slick stories reliant upon nostalgia?

War Criminals: The Mandalorian 1.1

I watched the first episode of The Mandalorian last night, and I’m finding that my opinion seems to conform to a pretty common set of reactions. I thought it captured the atmosphere of certain elements of the nineties Expanded Universe, for better and worse. I enjoyed watching an episode of television that was less than an hour in length, though I felt like it dragged on a bit, meaning I suppose that the show was effectively contained to a narrow time limit but wasn’t economical with its storytelling within that time. At the end of the episode, it felt like a fun adventure, but I also had very little idea of the characters or the overarching plot. The surprise revelation at the end truly was surprising, and it raises a lot of questions, but it has me more baffled than excited.

But after so recently re-reading Tales of the Bounty Hunters, I’m in the mood for more of The Mandalorian. I’m certainly willing to stick with it for at least a few more episodes to see where it goes and what it’s trying to do (then again, there are only eight episodes in the first season, so it’d be easy enough to watch it all).

If there’s something that stands out to me so far, besides the old Legends callbacks, it’s the setting. Set five years after the fall of the Empire, we’re in a time period that’s relatively unexplored within the new continuity. There are certainly echoes of the Imperial Remnant’s splinter factions and warlords from the old Expanded Universe, but I was especially intrigued by how much the show seemed to be reflecting narratives about the post-World War II era. I get that people are amused by the absurdity of a Serious Auteur like Werner Herzog delivering lines about Mandalorian beskar (and forgive me, but I can’t claim to have even the slightest familiarity with his oeuvre), though I instead found it striking to see an older gentleman with a German accent, draped in an ornamental costume and wearing a flashy medallion from his fallen Empire, negotiating for an illicit operation to abduct or kill a target with the promise of payment in ingots of a rare metal collected from a people subjected to a purge by his former military authorities. The Galactic Empire has always relied on a visual language that evokes Space Nazis, but there has been a gradual ramping up in the obviousness of that imagery over time. The First Order is draped in Nazi-esque fascist iconography, and it’s a common observation that the movement of Hux and Kylo Ren feels more than a little like the real-world resurgence of far-right movements across the globe. In The Mandalorian, the Imperial holdouts we’ve seen so far are like Nazi war criminals in hiding in the decades following the end of the war. This progression from aggressive fascist empire to scattered war criminals operating underground to a seething resurgence maps up with real-world developments all too well.

I wonder if this theme will tie in more directly to the developing plot. For now, anything else is pure speculation.

Review: Life Debt

Life Debt: Aftermath (Star Wars)Life Debt: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Life Debt is a considerable improvement over the first book in the Aftermath trilogy. Wendig’s sharp wit, (mostly) vivid descriptions, colorful language, and diverting “Interlude” vignettes return. And now we also have pacing turned up to eleven, a more clearly defined plot with greater forward momentum, a sharper focus on the main characters, and much better characterization of those characters. Dialogue really sparkles here, and each character had a distinctive voice and attitude. Reading Life Debt felt a little bit like meeting up with old friends–remarkable given that I had just finished the first book a short while ago, I barely knew these characters, and I felt that they all blended together, at least in voice, in the first book.

For fans hoping to see more of the original film trilogy’s stars post-Endor, you’re in luck. Life Debt largely follows the Imperial-hunting crew from the first novel as they attempt to track down Han Solo at the direction of Leia. The book ultimately builds to Han’s attempt to liberate Kashyyyk from the brutal yoke of the Empire, while Leia attempts to motivate the New Republic senate to send aid to help out. While we still get the most time with the new crew of characters (and that’s a good thing–they’re fun!), we also get considerable swashbuckling action with Han and impassioned politicking with Leia. I’ve mentioned before that Wendig does a great job with Han, and that’s definitely the case here; Han’s a standout character. Supporting characters from the films, especially Wedge Antilles, Mon Mothma, and Admiral Ackbar, have plenty to do. And there’s a tense spy games thriller as a running subplot, with Grand Admiral Sloane becoming increasingly suspicious of her mysterious mentor Rax and attempting to uncover more about him.

The book ends in an intense Manchurian Candidate-style climax, mirroring that familiar Star Wars trope of a dark middle chapter in a trilogy. In the wake of the disaster, which is only slightly lessened by the quick actions of our heroes, the team is assigned to capture or kill Grand Admiral Sloane, allowing the book to end in a way that feels complete and yet provides a clear hook for the next installment.

I would strongly recommend this book. I would in fact recommend reading Life Debt even without reading Aftermath; the first book can be enjoyed as a prequel after the fact, if you’re so inclined, but it’s not vital to understanding the characters or events of this installment. Life Debt is a fun time and a cool development of the setting.

That said, I do have one strong reservation regarding my endorsement. One of the characters, Sinjir, is an ex-Imperial Loyalty Officer who used a variety of interrogation techniques to extract information, including torture. Over the course of the book, Sinjir is troubled because he still uses torture techniques to help out the New Republic. He’s worried he might even enjoy it. It could be an interesting insertion of moral nuance in the Star Wars setting; can doing the wrong things for the right reason ever be justified? Historically, that answer has been no, but Wendig seems to say, maybe? However, torture is not effective in extracting information. It’s cruel, and it will break people into saying whatever they think their torturers want to hear, but there’s no convincing evidence that torture actually works (debate on that subject can be found at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/tor… while a more direct rebuttal of the use of torture is at https://www.scientificamerican.com/ar…). And torture, physically and mentally tormenting someone, ranks up there as one of the most heinous acts that humans can commit! Star Wars films have actually consistently supported this view: the torture of Leia yields no information and the threat of destruction of her home planet results in her giving out a name of a target, though it’s not a useful name; the Cloud City torture of Han, Leia, and Chewbacca is merely meant to elicit a disturbance in the Force to prompt Luke to show up, even though no questions are asked and no information is gained; the torture room in Jabba’s palace is portrayed as a demented place of sadistic torment and severe punishment, not a place for actual information-gathering; and Poe resists traditional torture, only divulging information under Kylo Ren’s Force-backed techniques, while Rey doesn’t break at all. To the best of my recollection, heroes never torture while villains frequently do in the Star Wars films. Yet in Life Debt, the question is only whether torture can be used in a way that supports a greater moral good; torture, or the threat of torture, is something Sinjir jumps to quickly, and we are to believe that he has an exceptional ability to read people to determine if the information provided is useful. This is propaganda in support of tactics that are immoral, inhumane, and ineffective. It fits into a long line of action movie and TV propaganda in support of torture. The book has many strengths, but this element demands objection.

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Sith Eyes

Guys, I promise, I’ll get over this wave of Star Wars posts eventually. It’s just on my mind a lot right now.

And something I’ve been thinking about is the physical manifestation of the Dark Side. In Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin turns to the Dark Side, his eyes go bloodshot and yellow. His eyes are still stained like this when we see him partially exposed during his fight with Ahsoka in Rebels. When Luke redeems him and removes his helmet, Anakin’s eyes are soft and friendly again.

 

 

Other Dark Siders may have yellow eyes. Darth Maul and Savage Opress both have those tainted yellow eyes. Pong Krell’s eyes are…yellow-ish. And Palpatine’s eyes are the bright yellow of a predatory animal, when he’s not wearing the kindly face of the Chancellor.

 

 

But I don’t think we ever see Count Dooku with anything but those dark eyes of his. Snoke’s eyes are not yellow. Asajj Ventress is known for her ice-blue eyes. And Kylo Ren’s eyes have so far remained a dark color.

 

 

We could say that perhaps the yellow-red eyes are just visual metaphor, signifying corruption, and not meant to be literally present. However, Dark Disciple confirms that the yellow eyes are visibly present, at least to some. When Ventress finds Vos after his corruption under Dooku, she sees that “Vos’s eyes were no longer a warm, rich brown. They were a blood-rimmed shade of yellow” (185). When Ventress briefly gets Vos to calm, the “yellow hue faded from his eyes,” but that “awful yellow hue returned to his eyes” when her entreaties fail and he returns to his impassioned attack (189).

Interestingly, Ventress later finds Vos without the yellowed eyes but knows he is still corrupted because she still feels “the fury inside him now” (209). Vos eventually admits that he had remained loyal to the Dark Side, that Ventress was correct.

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I don’t know if there’s a canon answer as to what causes a Dark Sider’s eyes to yellow. Speculation on Reddit suggests that it is an intense connection to the Dark Side. If so, how would Palpatine not always have those eyes, with his intense Dark Side presence and constant evil hatred and malevolence? I suppose he could mask his face the same way he masked his presence from the Jedi (and this certainly would not be the first time that someone has suggested that Palpatine only revealed his true face after his encounter with Mace Windu, that he was not actually “disfigured” at all then).

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My personal feeling is that the yellow eyes represent a loss of control. A Dark Sider strives to control the Force, but some let the Dark Side ultimately control them. For Palpatine, the Dark Side is a tool. For Anakin, the Dark Side is desperation and anger and confusion and fear all being unloaded at once.

What does that mean for Kylo Ren, though? I see Kylo as perhaps the most unstable Dark Sider yet, prone to violent rages and tantrums. But he has constant conflict in him; maybe he has never fully given himself to the Dark Side.

Or maybe this is just an inconsistent element that changes with the story being told and the creative team telling that story.

I bet that there’s at least a partial canon answer floating around in the minds (and files) of the Lucasfilm Story Group. But we don’t have a full answer yet.

Haunted: Kylo Ren

Kylo Ren, as we all presumably now know, wants the past to die; he’ll kill it, if he has to (I’m going to abuse the hell out of this line over the next few months and years, especially in casual conversation, if I haven’t already). Yet his past won’t let go of him. As Luke warns, for Kylo to strike his old master down in anger is to keep Luke with him forever–and since Luke gives himself up to the Force, this lingering imprint could very well be a literal presence, in addition to the figurative presence of haunting guilt that weighed on Kylo through most of The Last Jedi after killing his own father in the previous film.

I’m definitely a fan of a substantial lapse in time between VIII and IX. I wonder where that puts Kylo at the start of the film. Will he be haunted by Luke? Will we gain any knowledge into what sort of communication he has had with Anakin/Vader (if not purely rhetorical)? This reminds me of Cade Skywalker from the Legacy comics of the old EU, haunted by the spirits of his ancestors.

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Not that Cade and Kylo are anywhere near directly comparable characters. Cade at least was more or less always an antihero, while Kylo is so far pretty much a villain. Still, it’s something that will keep floating in the back of my mind, and maybe Luke will nag Kylo to confront what he has become in a way he did with Cade.

Still holding out for some literal representation of a spirit taking the form of Anakin having motivated Kylo to turn to the Dark Side, perhaps even warning him that Luke would one day act against him while he was still just a Jedi apprentice. Star Wars at times feels Shakespearean (ahem), and such a direction would echo the ghost urging Hamlet to avenge the death of his father, a path that would spell disaster for the prince and virtually everyone around him.

I still don’t know about Kylo Ren

Kylo Ren is not, and probably never will be, my favorite Star Wars character. But damn, Adam Driver delivered an absolutely amazing performance in The Last Jedi, and his acting combined with Rian Johnson’s writing and directing may have been the best I’ve seen in a Star Wars film–certainly the most raw and visceral and nuanced characterization present.

[Spoilers follow]

Johnson wrote the character down quite a fascinating path. By the end of the movie, he’s risen up to defeat Supreme Leader Snoke, and with the passing of Carrie Fisher, it is likely that Episode IX will find Kylo Ren successful in having completely vanquished his past. The only lingering connection he has to the Light is Rey, and she seems to have finally given up on him too by the end of The Last Jedi.

I still have so many questions. Sure, we now see how Luke’s training temple fell, how Luke abandoned the role of teacher and active participant in galactic affairs, how Ben Solo finally embraced the Dark Side, and what happened to Luke’s other students (at least in broad strokes–no pun intended). But it is now definitely confirmed that Snoke had been acting on Ben this whole time, corrupting him. Did Snoke reach out to Ben, opening a psychic link as he did between Kylo and Rey? Did Ben seek Snoke out? Is Ben a religious extemist, someone who felt apathetic and empty and out of place among his family and among the Jedi, someone who was converted by holonet forums and propaganda videos? We know the moment that Luke lost Ben, but we don’t truly know how Ben was corrupted early on, nor how he truly became Kylo Ren. And dramatically, we haven’t needed those answers yet, but I suspect they will play into how the final film of this sequel trilogy proceeds.

Kylo did a good job of eliminating his past over the course of these two films–killing Lor San Tekka and Han Solo and Snoke, attempting to kill Luke, and leaving Leia to fate. He also smashed apart his mask, his connection to Vader, and we see no effort on his part to communicate with Vader.

This gives me even more questions about That Scene in The Force Awakens, when he seeks aid from his grandfather. Is it rhetorical? Or is the strength in fact power infused in the artifact of the helmet? Is it some trick of Snoke’s, who is–or was–so gifted at reading minds and influencing people? Or is Kylo Ren mentally ill? Especially in light of The Last Jedi, where he was prone to temper tantrums but actually acted rationally and more clearly explained his motivations, I think it’s rather unlikely that any form of mental illness will have played a role in shaping who Kylo Ren is, but it’s something still floating around in the back of my mind.

I’ll never ship Kylo/Rey because (a) there’s way too much baggage associated with abusive relationships there and (b) I’m Finn/Rey all the way, but The Last Jedi did a phenomenal job of presenting Kylo and Rey as fundamentally lonely people who found some sense of togetherness and connection in each other, as much as they might not have liked to. I say this because it’s amazing to me how much The Last Jedi has shifted my perception of characters and relationships, especially regarding Kylo Ren. Now more than ever, it seems almost impossible for him to be redeemed; now more than ever, I want him to be redeemed. It will be truly fascinating to see where the final film takes this character, and I’m sure that I won’t be able to predict where that goes.

Is Kylo Ren Okay?

Re-watching the films yet again in anticipation of the release of The Last Jedi, I found myself uniquely struck by the scene in The Force Awakens when Kylo Ren is seeking guidance to withstand the temptation of the Light Side.

“Show me again the power of the darkness,” he asks of Anakin, kneeling before the deformed helmet of Darth Vader. We know he is definitely referring to Anakin, since he not only speaks to the helmet but addresses his “grandfather.”

This was always a powerful, emotional, creepy moment and showed just how deranged and obsessed Kylo Ren was. Keeping The Last Jedi in mind, I feel that this moment has to be elaborated on further in one of the sequels, by Episode IX if not VIII.

I remember a lot of rumors swirling about the Force ghost of Anakin Skywalker prior to the release of The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, I can’t point to a particularly credible source; there are many of the usual clickbait culprits with similar headlines, all cawing over the same old shreds of “news.” In example, see this Screen Crush article that purports to show concept art of Anakin’s spirit from Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I have not ever looked through this book and cannot independently verify its contents. The bottom line: the rumors suggested that Anakin’s Force ghost was developed and could have potentially transitioned between Anakin and Vader. It’s an interesting idea, and a compromised Anakin who is still partially claimed by the Dark Side could explain why Kylo Ren’s conversation with Anakin’s spirit would not have revealed Anakin’s apparent repentance and redemption.

In the old EU, there were many sorts of Force spirits, including those of powerful ancient Sith, so this idea does not seem so out of the realm of possibility. But the prequel films began to limit the scope of who could be a Force ghost: in The Phantom Menace we see that Qui-Gon does not become transfigured into a spiritual form; in Attack of the Clones we hear Qui-Gon’s voice during Anakin’s attack on the Tuskens, and Yoda is concerned; and then in Revenge of the Sith, we learn that Yoda has been learning about greater mysteries of the Force from Qui-Gon, who has uniquely learned how to survive death and will train Obi-Wan as well. The Clone Wars show also gives Yoda an arc to learn a little about the greater mysteries of the Force. This re-frames the dissipation of the bodies of Obi-Wan and Yoda in the original films as unique, and it also adds a considerable degree of mystery to Anakin’s own transition. In the new canon, the conclusion to be drawn so far is that Dark Siders are unable to undergo the transition that enables them to retain a personality in the afterlife. Regardless of why that is so, it does nothing to make clear how exactly Anakin would have the ability to transition–a selfish act, rescuing his own son, though self-sacrificing, should not be enough to make up for killing children and other innocents for decades, torturing many more, and being indirectly responsible for the deaths of billions. And Anakin would not have had any obvious opportunity to commune with anyone to teach him this power.

So we could see yet another reinvention of what a Force spirit represents in The Last Jedi. Though this does not mean that we will see Anakin’s Force spirit. What if Kylo Ren has been communing with a deceitful, even evil, Force spirit? Or an invention of Snoke’s? What if Kylo Ren’s communications with the dead are in fact entirely fantasy?

What if Kylo Ren is mentally ill?

What if Kylo Ren has not been talking to any Force spirit at all, but rather his own delusions? What if he experiences hallucinations, hears voices, receives commands? We know that his problems emerged when he was young, that Han and Leia sent him off to be trained by Luke because they weren’t sure of how to handle him. He sounds to be deeply troubled. And his manifestation of the Dark Side is almost always raw and unbridled. He lashes out with tempter tantrums. He is emotionally vulnerable, his voice quavers, he has difficulty committing to a single path. Perhaps he experiences psychotic episodes. Perhaps he suffers from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or some other uniquely Star Wars mental illness entirely.

I don’t know if this is a wise direction to take things. On the one hand, a redemption arc seems a lot more plausible even for a patricidal enforcer if he is acting under the impairment of his mental illness. On the other hand, it would be troubling to suggest that one can embrace the Dark Side simply by having a preexisting mental health condition.

Nonetheless, it certainly could offer a rather complicated and tragic narrative if handled very, very carefully. And it would explain how Kylo Ren could have received such a wrong message from his grandfather–it wasn’t his grandfather at all. Surely the evil Kylo Ren would be viewed as long-suffering Ben Solo then.

Regardless, we should have a partial answer to some of the above soon enough!