TCW Re-watch: Failings of the Jedi

Star Wars: The Clone Wars offered such a rich variety of stories that there are an endless array of lenses to approach the themes within the series, both those unique to it and those that elaborate on the subject matter of George Lucas’s six-film saga. I’ve gone into this re-watch with a few particular themes and contradictions on my mind, and the most current reviewed episode, “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” (1.18), touches on most of them.

Most interesting to me is the tension between the apparent necessity of the war in the moment in contrast to the audience’s foreknowledge that the Jedi’s mere entry into the war was the trap that doomed them. This narrative emerges clearly enough in the films with the end of Attack of the Clones, with Yoda’s admonition that “the shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.” Perhaps more subtly, that theme is present in the decision on the part of the Jedi and the Republic to assault a Separatist planet in the midst of heightened political tensions to rescue two Jedi and a Senator who had infiltrated that independent system to perform acts of political espionage, sabotage, and murder, and who were being punished under the laws of that system. While leaving the trio to execution would have been an unacceptable ending to audiences and would have seemed too merciless, and while viewers know that the Separatists were preparing their own attack on the Republic, interfering with the laws of another government via open invasion is a shockingly imperialistic act for a group of alleged peacekeepers. And, of course, that theme of loss merely through engagement sees fruition in the collapse of the Jedi and the Republic in Revenge of the Sith.

The Clone Wars readily acknowledges this burden. Yoda does a lot of wrangling with this moral crisis and imminent loss throughout the series. While that’s perhaps most emphasized in the final season’s episodes, the theme is present in moments with Yoda–and in merely observing what the war does to Jedi and clones alike–throughout the show. As Yoda says in “Lair of Grievous” (1.10), “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is of losing who we are.”

And this theme manifests in at least small ways in almost every episode. Returning to “Mystery of a Thousand Moons,” we see the Jedi once again putting innocents in harm’s way in an attempt to win a battle. In this case, Ahsoka, Padme, and several clone troopers are infected with a super-virus and almost die before Anakin and Obi-Wan can provide a cure. Padme’s a senator. Ahsoka is literally a child who is nonetheless invested with the powers of a military commander. And the clones have been manufactured to fight and–as Rex notes in the episode–to die, yet the Jedi were perfectly willing to enlist them and use them as though they lacked in personhood or choice (a damning decision no matter how many Jedi befriended them between battles).

Yet that super-virus is another example of the seeming necessity of the war. The recreation of the Blue Shadow Virus for biological war in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” and in the virus’s eponymous episode (1.17) is a shocking atrocity, intended to quickly wipe out whole ecosystems on hundreds of planets. In the same arc, the Separatists have blockaded a planet with a force field that kills anyone who tries to leave orbit, seemingly with the intent of preventing the export of the one raw material that can be used to produce a cure to the virus. Similarly, in “Defenders of Peace” (1.14), the Separatists intend to test a weapon that wipes out all organic life in its blast radius but leaves droids behind–and their intended target is a village of pacifists. Messaging consistently reinforces a pro-war mentality, at least in the moment. “Defenders of Peace” and its companion “Jedi Crash” (1.13) have no room for pacifists; the ideology is portrayed as too naive to actually survive without outside intervention by occupying defenders. Certainly there are historical precedents where passive resistance or acquiescence have not halted or appeased a bloodthirsty oppressor. Yet, to complicate things further, the “Jedi Crash” arc is immediately followed by “Trespass” (1.15), which actually provides for a scenario in which peaceful diplomacy is the ideal solution in contrast to aggressive interventionism.

If nothing else, the show highlights how messy war and conflict are. Moral solutions are not always apparent. The Jedi, even early on in the show, frequently cross the line of acceptable behavior, but that line-crossing often achieves results. For specific examples, contrast “Cloak of Darkness” (1.9), in which Ahsoka brushes off Master Luminara Unduli’s warning that “terror is not a weapon the Jedi use” because her threat, which does (momentarily) convince an imprisoned Nute Gunray to cooperate, “wasn’t serious,” with Anakin’s threat in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” to kill mad scientist Nuvo Vindi completely failing to produce results (and actually giving Vindi another opportunity to gloat).

Lastly, one little item of head canon that I’ve been toying with for a while is that some version of the Mandalorian Wars and the subsequent Jedi Civil War of Knights of the Old Republic actually happened, and that this resulted in a radical shift in Jedi dogma. We at least have confirmation of a Mandalorian-Jedi War, but it’s the latter war that’s more significant to me. Revan and Malak rushed off to join the Republic in defeating the Mandalorians, in opposition to the Jedi Order’s mandate to stay out of the war, but their experiences turned them to the Dark Side. Revan’s later redemption was the only thing that could stop Malak, and he went on to pursue a larger threat outside of the galaxy. Other Jedi who went to war did not necessarily fall to the Dark Side. The Jedi Exile, for instance, chose a life of nomadic wandering following her actions at the Battle of Malachor (a battle that has been partially introduced to the canon, as well). Her eventual return to the major events of the galaxy stopped another festering Sith threat, and it is implied that she and her disciples helped rebuild a decimated Jedi Order. (Light Side decisions and their resultant outcomes in video games were typically perceived to be closer to canon during the run of the EU, and even in this canon-reboot era, that assumption seems to me a valid starting point for discussing the state of the old EU lore.)

The implications of the first two games are cast to the wind to enable the direction of The Old Republic and its companion novels, like Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan, which conveniently wiped Revan and the Jedi Exile off the board. I’m not so impressed by the idea of Jedi and Sith joining together to combat a larger threat; it happened surprisingly often in the old EU, it seems counter to the core messaging of Lucas’s films, and it seems like something that exists in Star Wars: The Old Republic largely as a justification for players to join the Sith faction without necessarily being pure evil. So let’s set aside the implications of everything post-KOTOR II.

With that division of the franchise in place, I rather like the idea that Revan, the Jedi Exile, and their followers would have forced a radical rethink in Jedi philosophy. Perhaps the Jedi, over time, would have felt that earlier official involvement by the Jedi Order in curbing the Mandalorian expansion would have stopped a lot of cruelty and death–and would have prevented the rise of the Sith Lords that followed. The Jedi Exile, in particular, would have been a model for a more interventionist Jedi Knight. This change in doctrinal thinking could have resulted in an over-correction that could have made the Jedi all too willing to hop into aggressive pursuit of peacekeeping operations. The reform spirit of the Jedi Exile would have faded into institutional tradition over the centuries, such that the shift in Jedi mindset would have only served as another pillar of dogmatic thought for later generations of Jedi leaders. Such a mindset would have primed them to hop straight into the Clone Wars, before cooler heads (mostly a more reflective Yoda) could prevail, and with the assumption that they were fully in the right. I think The Clone Wars and its depiction of the last years of the Jedi Order provide some ammo for that theory.

(By the way, in my full version of this head canon, which veers hard into amorphously formed fan fiction, Bultar Swan offers a lot of storytelling possibilities as a potential Jedi who quickly sees the entry of the Jedi into the business of war as detrimental. I tend to imagine her getting the hell out of the Order and the war shortly after Geonosis, after seeing just what it takes to kill and seeing the Jedi leadership all too willing to keep going down that path. But that’s getting way off topic for this post.)

I don’t plan on regularly discussing The Clone Wars over the course of this re-watch, but I do suspect that I’ll have an occasional update as this gradual viewing continues. I’ve only watched the show in full once before, and this new trip through has been quite enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Clone Wars Re-watch Go!

The official Star Wars site is leading a chronological re-watch of The Clone Wars, with new posts by the site’s Associate Editor, Kristin Baver, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If that sort of thing sounds appealing to you, you can find the first episode recap/analysis here and a list of all the episodes here; the show and the film are available in their entirety on Netflix.

It’s still fairly early in the re-watch, and the pace of two episodes a week is not too demanding, so it’s still an easy time to get started. As of this writing, they’re just now through the film.

There are two improvements about this particular viewing schedule.

First, there’s a more consistent narrative, and it’s easier to see the war–and individual battles–evolving. The show seemed to take a while to settle into itself and didn’t get into long-form storytelling until later on, but part of that is attributable to the fact that episodes were aired out of chronology. With a streaming service like Netflix, the effort involved in hopping between episodes (and seasons, and the film itself) is minimal and the payoff, in having a richer narrative immediately with clearer character development, is big.

Second, this re-watch breaks the film into three acts. Watching the acts on their own, as complete episodes in and of themselves, makes the film just another arc in the series. Its lower stakes (compared to the saga films), meandering pacing, somewhat jarring cuts between acts, and shifting tonal dissonance is forgivable when it’s understood that each episode is doing its own thing. We don’t need to have a galaxy-shaking event every week for the television show; The Clone Wars was often at its best when showing clone troopers with their boots on the ground. And it feels natural to make these divisions–after all, the film was originally a few different episodes of the planned television series, spliced together into a single theatrical release at the request of George Lucas.

Also, treating the film as its constituent episodes rather than a single component separate from the series means that it flows rather well with the supporting stories that chronologically take place earlier. We see Anakin and Obi-Wan break the blockade of Christophsis, deal with loss and betrayal, encounter Ventress, and then meet Ahsoka just in time for a final battle before racing off to beat the Sith to recovering Jabba the Hutt’s child. I wouldn’t point to any part of the film as one of my favorites in the entire series–a lot of it was silly, the animation and character models and storytelling still having had a bit of growing to do. But the Anakin defying Jedi orders in “Cat and Mouse” and the Rex who was just shaken by a betrayal of one of his own in “Hidden Enemy” meeting Ahsoka for the first time and being changed by her even as they provide guidance is a pretty cool thing to see. Plus, the Battle of Teth sequence, with its electric-guitar-and-exotica soundtrack, misty purple forests, and vertical firefight, is a fantastic television experience, even if it’s a bit short and (relatively) quiet for a theatrical sci-fi war film’s centerpiece battle.

Another takeaway from the re-watch: I don’t recall registering just how brutally the war was depicted. Maybe it’s the structure of the re-watch, or maybe I’m just registering because I already know that I got attached to some of these clones. So many die, often in heroically pointless ways. So much of the Battle of Christophsis, for instance, is repeated Jedi over-extension, with the clones dying for Jedi heroics. It’s not remarked on so much yet, but it’s very visible. And while the droids are played for laughs, it’s hard not to read them as sentient, many with full and unique personalities. While Anakin and Ahsoka are quite willing to mow down hostile droids, they do show an endearing love and respect for allied droids, especially R2-D2; similarly, while they are both willing to accept battlefield losses (at least later on), both are fiercely loyal to and protective of Captain Rex.

Similarly, the failings of the Jedi Order are really apparent to me now in a way that they weren’t on my initial watch. While Anakin is unwilling to leave an infant Hutt to die, he thinks it’s a very bad idea to work with the Hutts. Of course he would! They enslaved him and his mother! And Jabba is a notorious criminal! The Jedi and the Republic are willing to throw away principle and get in bed with a slave-dealing criminal organization for a strategic advantage. The war has already skewed their thinking. And while Ahsoka might be old enough to be a Padawan, placing her in command of troops and in the midst of battle is a terrible idea! The use of child warriors is shockingly poor judgment. It’s hard not to see the Jedi as radical religious crusaders at that point. Ahsoka sees so much killing and dying, and while she handles it well, it’s just wrong for the Jedi to have put her in that situation.

One of the weirdest things for me on re-watch is knowing that The Clone Wars represented a sort of soft canon reset before the official Disney reboot. Dave Filoni always showed himself to be aware of the Expanded Universe, even when he changed it. There was more respect for the EU setting than George Lucas ever showed, at least. But still, it was jarring to see an over-complicated, cluttered Clone Wars added to even further with so many new central characters and events when there was supposed to have been so much already documented post-Attack of the Clones. Re-watching with knowledge that this series represents almost the entirety of the “official” version of the Clone Wars relieves a lot of confusion and some mild frustration that younger me had (I’ll admit that I’m also just a lot mellower and less worried about canon issues than I was as a teen).

There’s a new, minor thing that bothers me now though: there is a level of familiarity with the old Expanded Universe, and that causes a new bit of confusion when those stories don’t “exist” within the current canon. Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ventress have a clear history together. They hint at it a lot in their sparring. At the very least, this would seem to incorporate the introduction of Ventress from Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars. This makes sense–prior to Filoni’s run, Tartakovsky’s show had been well-promoted, highly praised, and rather visible on Cartoon Network. In addition to introducing Ventress, the show introduced Grievous, and it also showed Anakin’s transition from Padawan to Knight! But we don’t have any canon versions of these happenings, and Tartakovsky’s series now has very little visibility to new audiences. I feel that, at some point, at least certain elements of Clone Wars should be retold in the new canon. We can iron out the continuity contradictions, dial back the hyper-stylized format, and develop certain plot points more, but introducing Grievous and Ventress, charting the early course of the war, and showing Anakin’s growth from Padawan to a Knight ready to train the next generation would be great material for new stories.

Finally, I am struck by how much the chronological re-watch clearly centers the show around Anakin, Ahsoka, and Rex. This is really Ahsoka’s story–she’s present almost from the very beginning, and what comes before in that story directly lays the groundwork for her entrance on the scene. Yes, I know the film came first, but it felt like a separate and detached experience. The show itself started with more of a scattered anthology approach. The impact is rather different when we get this focus on Ahsoka almost immediately, with just enough of Anakin and Rex to see where they are when they meet her. It’s a different experience than encountering the show for the first time with the one-off “Ambush” episode. (And I didn’t even watch the show episodically at first–I was very sporadic and really only got interested in the series after seeing the 1.15 episode “Trespass,” though I later went back and watched in order after picking up the DVDs.)

If it’s been a while since you’ve watched The Clone Wars, or if you’ve never watched chronologically before (or even never watched the show at all), now’s a great time to dive in.

Dark Disciple

Dark Disciple (Star Wars)Dark Disciple by Christie Golden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked Dark Disciple more than I expected, but I’m not sure that I can recommend it to everyone.

Don’t get me wrong. This was a good Star Wars book. It further explored themes from The Clone Wars and wrapped up character arcs that were left dangling with the abrupt end of the television show. Well, I say “arcs,” but this is a book mostly about Asajj Ventress and Quinlan Vos. It further explores Vos in the new canon, but he didn’t really have any dangling thread left from the show. In contrast, Ventress was left disillusioned and seemingly tempted by the Light, living life as a bounty hunter who maybe had loose morals but wasn’t exactly amoral. Here we see a resolution of that story of transformation and personal growth, providing a satisfying conclusion to Asajj’s story, and it’s actually a pretty sweet tragic romance at its core. To briefly summarize the plot: Vos is tasked by the Jedi to assassinate Count Dooku in an attempt to end the war; he must recruit Ventress, who nearly succeeded in killing the count before, to work with him to this end. Vos finds himself tempted by love and by the power of the Dark Side, and by falling to both temptations, he is set down a path that radically alters who he and Ventress are.

If you do not know who Asajj Ventress is, or who Quinlan Vos is, well. You might have made better life decisions than me. I think they’re great characters! (Or at least Asajj is! Her long arc from villain to hero is fascinating, and while I know to some degree new canon is covering old ground from the EU here, I think it’s well-done). But just because I think they’re great characters doesn’t mean that I think that everyone should have to invest in six seasons of a television show peripherally related to the poorly received Star Wars prequel trilogy just to have an adequate basis for understanding this novel.

In fact, it would have been better if the novel could have just been part of the series. After all, that was its original intent; the plot here is adapted from a whopping eight planned episodes from the show. I mean, what with the show being cancelled, I’m glad we got the story at all, and Christie Golden layers on mature themes (including torture and sexuality) and mature subject matter (like heavy alcohol drinking, including as a coping mechanism for grief) that probably would have been cut back more in the show. But it still feels more or less like a string of episodes tied together by an overarching plot, rather than a single story unit. I hope that makes sense, because that’s about as close to a description as I’m going to get. It’s disjointed. Some sections feel rushed. There are time skips. Thinking about how these episodes would have been broken out, the self-contained stories make sense, but Golden doesn’t quite manage to weave them all back together into a single narrative. I think she does a great job with what she has to work with, though; I imagine it’s difficult to shift media formats like that, and the prose itself is top-notch.

In fact, that prose is often quite moving and effective. Golden gets into the psychology of Ventress and Vos. She sells a slowly building, but fundamentally doomed, romance between the two. If you are a Star Wars fan, this book’s worth a read as a love letter to Ventress and to The Clone Wars, a lovely swan song for the series. If you are not a Star Wars fan, though, I think you’ll miss too much context. And references to other parts of The Clone Wars and Star Wars at large come pretty hot and heavy. Admittedly, most of the references are minor and should not disrupt enjoyment of the novel, and for character-important moments Golden typically provides light exposition in the form of in-character reflections. Still, I think what all those references indicate to me is that this book is part of a larger tapestry that loses some of its meaning when examined in isolation. I love that element of a lot of Star Wars, but I worry about the potential for insularity and opacity wherein every work loses something when not appreciated within the light of the preexisting corpus. Even the films are veering more and more down this route…but that’s really outside the scope of this specific review.

If you are a fan of the show, though, I feel safe in recommending this book. And honestly, Dark Disciple was a very interesting read in light of The Last Jedi! (The book was first published in 2015.) There are some pretty deep and interesting examinations of the nature of the Force and of the Jedi. Ventress believes that she has managed to find a balance straddling between Dark and Light, though the book leaves ambiguity here–Vos is not able to maintain that balance, and Ventress finds something special in the Light once she devotes herself to it in a moment of sacrifice at the end. But something beyond the Good/Evil binary of the pre-Last Jedi films is certainly suggested, a continuation out of what the Dathomiri witches had become. Also, the Dark Side is shown as a spectrum, ranging from cruelty, anger, passion–the normal human emotions–to a consumptive, possessive, wrathful sort of poison that dominates one’s soul and turns one against even those they love. I am very fascinated by the new canon’s use of the Dark Side as a representation of mental and spiritual imbalance and illness, and this book further explores that. And boy, the Jedi are at their absolute worst, beginning the book by agreeing to attempt to assassinate Count Dooku for the greater good. Willing to condone, in fact to order, murder sets the Order and Vos in particular down a very dark path. Obi-Wan, being pure and good, is opposed, and Yoda is reluctant and eventually course-corrects away from this. But Mace Windu is very insistent on following through with this. He is presented as the Jedi at their most cruel and arrogant, and I was surprised to see how much this version of Mace can be found in the Jedi Master of Revenge of the Sith. Much like how The Clone Wars deepened the characterizations of Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda, Padme, and even Jar Jar, this final chapter retroactively informs Mace Windu in very interesting ways.

Relatedly, the arrogance and aggression of the Jedi directly plays into Luke’s character in The Last Jedi. And, for that matter, it draws on the Knights of the Old Republic games (I think) (maybe not intentionally). The Clone Wars had some fun incorporating elements from those games, and no surprise there when Bioware’s title had such a great twist and Obsidian’s sequel explored elements of the Force and the Jedi that the new canon’s now grappling with. I think that Vos’s treatment at the hands of Dooku in the middle of the book echoes Malak’s turning of Bastila (down to the use of torture, confinement, and manipulation), and Vos’s redemption through love is (a) OF COURSE a subversion of Anakin’s own eventual fall to the Dark and (b) a pretty parallel to Bastila’s own (potential) redemption through love of Revan.

The book is pretty juicy in this sense. There are a lot of references to explore. There is a lot of content about the franchise’s core mythology to interpret. It’s a great book to launch a thousand conversations. But it’s definitely a book aimed at the hardcore fan–particularly a fan of The Clone Wars. If I am honest and divorce myself from my fandom, I suspect that a non-fan might find this book lacking, although I can always hope that I’d be wrong!

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Review: Kenobi

Kenobi (Star Wars)Kenobi by John Jackson Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Star Wars: Kenobi is on its face a Star Wars Western. This genre is acknowledged from the very beginning–quite literally, seeing as how it’s addressed by author John Jackson Miller in the Acknowledgments, where he says that it emerged from a challenge by his comics editor to write “Star Wars as a western,” which developed into a prose novel. But it’s also evident in a simple plot synopsis: the widowed Annileen Calwell runs a one-stop-shop trade post with her kids in the rural deserts of Tatooine, tending to moisture farmers; the mysterious Ben Kenobi sets up house on the borders of the wastelands and finds his path frequently crossed with that of Annie’s, often under dangerous circumstances; as Annileen grows to trust Ben, Ben also inadvertently stumbles onto a dangerous conspiracy that involves the local Tusken Raider tribes and criminal thugs from the big city of Mos Eisley, and must decide whether he can allow himself to become further involved or if he can simply leave the Calwell family to a potentially dark fate.

I was a little skeptical of how this would work out. After all, Star Wars has some degree of western embedded in its core; was a literal expression of that metaphorical framework necessary, or would it just be overkill? Turns out that this works quite well, and Miller adopts some of the slower pace that might be expected from a western, with plenty of time spent traveling over the blasted desert wastes or talking at the trading post bar. The literalization of the western imagery results in plucky pioneers, weary farmhands, a posse of vigilantes, feuding tribal people, violent gangsters, and of course the mysterious lone hero who wanders into the middle of it all. Most of this works rather well, and the tropes feel comfortingly familiar but fresh given the setting. The slower pace–compared to the high-stakes, explosive action of the films–also gives ample time to characterize Kenobi, who nonetheless remains intriguing and perhaps unknowable (he’s the hero, but is only a secondary protagonist, and while he is a viewpoint character, he is not the main one).

I have mixed feeling about the Tusken Raiders, though. The roaming raiders of the original film are an odd echo of old-school racist caricatures of Native Americans combined with other stereotypes about Arabs, compressed into a generic sort of Desert Tribal Savage. They play such a small role in that film, though, that it’s mostly in light of Lucas’s more obviously racist elements of the prequel movies that they seem more apparently odious (or in other words, what could be innocent seems a little more difficult to ignore in the context of a trend toward the use of stereotypes by George Lucas). And since Kenobi is a late-cycle part of the old Expanded Universe, John Jackson Miller had a certain amount of baggage that came with the use of Tusken Raiders; they’d been characterized at that point in three movies and several books, comics, and video games, after all. And Tusken Raiders are definitely part of the package with Tatooine. I think Miller did the best he could with them. He created a truly complex and interesting antagonist/antihero and viewpoint character in the Tusken warleader A’Yark. He presented through A’Yark a culture forced to make harsh changes in the face of potential extinction. And he showed the settlers to be almost as bad as the Tuskens, in the end, too quick to resort to violence, and often treacherous. Plus, the settlers’ hatred of the Tuskens is ultimately framed as fear of an unfamiliar culture, part of a cycle of retaliatory violence, and rooted in space racism. Nonetheless, the Tuskens are a culture defined by blood lust, violence, and domination over others, so the final effect is still that of the Noble Savage at best. Yes, they’re not a real human culture–they’re not, as far as I know, even human (though they do forcibly adopt humans into their tribes)–but the parallels to cultural stereotyping of aboriginal cultures are uncomfortable.

Still, Kenobi is a very interesting sort of Star Wars book. It is one of the last books of the old Expanded Universe, and it feels like it. In addition to the strengths inherent in its relatively quiet story, its often contemplative pacing, and its focus on character development, it also manages to draw connections to various events throughout the Legends timeline. It’s an interesting reminder of just how busy and important a world Tatooine had become to galactic events by the end of that continuity. Yet rather than feeling burdened by all the other linked events, it presents them with a fresh, new perspective. So in a way, it feels a little like it does for Legends what The Hand of Thrawn duology did for the Bantam Spectra line of books: reinterpretation, reconnection, and conclusion.

I think it would be fun to see elements of this novel adapted into any new Obi-Wan-focused film. While I thought the book was a good read, however, I think its appeal is probably limited to those who are particularly in love with this former Jedi Knight. For many others, it might be a bit of a plunge into the deep end.

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P.S. I typically take pictures of the copies of the books I read; these are the pictures that I use at the tops of the reviews on this site. You can tell which ones my cat especially loved, can’t you?

Maybe not the galaxy’s greatest

I’ve never really been active in any fan community. At best, I’ve been on the periphery. Suits me fine. But I am an observer, and from the periphery I’ve been observing the Star Wars fandom, especially through Twitter, more and more. The people I follow are people I like, with interesting things to say; they generally have warm, positive attitudes, which is impressive for an impersonal venue like Twitter. My little bubble blinded me to a lot of the gross, hateful elements of fandom, however.

My bubble’s been burst a little bit. I’ve watched from the periphery as fanboys flailed about in rage, insulted by the very idea that someone would publicly announce, in the context of an off-hand tweet, that they thought Boba Fett was boring. I have no role in that conversation, and I’m not going to involve myself there. It doesn’t affect me at all. But it did remind me of the toxicity and rigid adherence to nostalgia that fan communities so often become consumed by.

Again, I have nothing to say about that larger discussion. It has nothing to do with me, and it’s not my place. But it did make me reflect on my own engagement with Star Wars. While I try to critically engage any property, no matter how much I love it, at some point views do calcify. With something like Star Wars, where I’ve had exposure since a young age, it can be surprising to realize that my views have crystallized, sometimes in ways that would never have occurred to me.

I thought about Boba Fett in particular. I don’t love Fett, but I have (typically) thought he was a cool character. I started thinking about Fett and some of the other small, supporting characters I loved in The Empire Strikes Back, thinking about why I liked them, and trying to reexamine them from different angles.

Background characters from the film that I’ve been especially fond of are Admiral Piett, the bounty hunters, and General Veers. While I still like the characters, and I think they serve their roles well, I realized they may be less a collection of the galaxy’s most badass and more a collection of the galaxy’s…most simply bad. (Note that I’m evaluating the characters here based on the new canon, so things like Boba’s death-defying crawl from the Sarlacc are simply irrelevant to these versions of the characters).

databank_admiralpiett_01_169_18014135.jpegPiett’s an easy example of how my uncritical childhood fandom obscured flaws. I saw him as a survivor, someone who could course-correct and avoid the pompous ego of Admiral Ozzel. He seemed to have a healthy respect for Vader. And the fact that he made it to Return of the Jedi indicated (to child-me) that he was capable.

But really, Piett is a bumbling idiot. He gets promoted to Admiral by Vader not because of quality but because he happens to be the highest-ranking officer aboard the ship after Ozzel is killed. While it may be unfair to blame Piett for the many escaped rebel ships in the aftermath of the Hoth invasion, since he was left with what could be salvaged of Ozzel’s failed plan, he led a very ineffective search for the Millennium Falcon. And while it was Captain Needa’s crew that was fooled by Han’s quick flying, Piett did not uncover the deception. Nor did his fleet find Han–the bounty hunters he dismissed as scum did that job. And he fails to properly carry out Vader’s orders on Bespin: his troops fail to secure the prisoners, his technicians fail to droid-proof their sabotage of the Falcon, and his crew fails to seize the freighter before it makes its jump to hyperspace. Piett surely escapes death at Vader’s hands for the mounting failures only because the Dark Lord is distracted by his encounter with his son.

Then in Jedi, Piett dies, the whole of the Executor along with him, because he only recognizes the weakness to forward defenses in a reactionary fashion. He is emblematic of every other Imperial officer who fails to adequately assess the ability of the rebels until it is far too late.

He’s a decent military officer in the sense that he can comply with orders, he doesn’t seem to get a big ego (at first), and he manages to stay on Darth Vader’s good side. But he’s not a great officer, nor a clever tactician, nor even a challenging foe.

bountyhuntersAs with Piett, so with the bounty hunters. A couple of droids and a bunch of low-lifes in mismatched armor and bandages, the group does manage to at least look cool. But none of them do anything. I always viewed Boba Fett as a badass for two reasons: (1) the “no disintegrations” line, and (2) his capture of Solo. Not that his Return of the Jedi death by way of jetpack malfunction did much to help his image. But even the two reasons I’ve cited can be easily weakened. As many have pointed out, Darth Vader could be warning Fett, not because of lethal efficiency, but because the bounty hunter has a history of messy screw-ups and virtually-impossible-to-identify bounties. As for the second reason, and I’m surprised that I never realized this (or heard the theory circulated, not that I looked), but the only reason that Fett realized Solo’s trick and could find him amid the emptying garbage of the Star Destroyer is that Obi-Wan had pulled a similar disappearing trick on the back side of an asteroid during Boba’s formative years. Given that Obi-Wan’s escape soon after resulted in a sequence of events that left Boba’s father dead, the boy probably would have remembered it. Boba was not necessarily a skilled tracker; his prey just so happened to use the one trick that any prequel viewer would know he is very explicitly aware of.

The Clone Wars also establish Boba and his fellow bounty hunters as a lot of losers, for the most part. In “Death Trap,” Boba repeatedly fails at a covert mission to assassinate Mace Windu. Bossk, Boba, and their companions also screw up another attempt to take down Mace Windu in “R2 Come Home.” Bossk and Boba end up captured in the following episode. Bossk and Dengar fail to escort moving cargo in “Bounty,” and that same episode sees Boba outdone by Asajj Ventress. In short, they’re definitely not top-notch hunters like Cad Bane.

With a relative dearth of writing about the Empire bounty hunters in the new canon, we have not fully seen their stories developed. What there is remains mixed. For example, Boba is shown to be a brutal hunter when tracking down Luke in the Star Wars comics, although he fails to capture the boy in the ensuing confrontation.

On further reflection, I kind of like the idea that the bounty hunters are not aboard the Executor because they are the best, but instead simply because they could get there the fastest. Perhaps they’re just a bunch of desperate Outer Rim lowlifes who could hop into orbit around Hoth to get the mission almost immediately after the end of the battle because they were already in a nearby backwater sector.

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So that leaves General Veers for reexamination. What are his flaws?

Um, none. He’s an awesome bad guy. He successfully leads a massive Imperial land victory even after the Imperial Navy screw-up on approach. He obeys orders and keeps a cool head. He delivers. He’s great.

 

It’s okay if it’s time for the Jedi to end

On The Guardian, Ben Child asks, “Will The Last Jedi destroy everything we think we know about Star Wars?” Of great concern to Child is Mark Hammill’s now-infamous line from the first trailer for The Last Jedi: “I only know one truth: it’s time for the Jedi to end.” Reactions on Twitter certainly suggest that Child is not alone in his fretting and that the fan base is rather divided as to how to take the line.

That’s a lot of weight placed on a small piece of dialogue for a teaser-trailer months before the film comes out. There are plenty of potential contexts in which the line could be uttered–if it is said at all in the final film (see, e.g., “This is a rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel”).

Nonetheless, let’s play the over-analysis game. Let’s assume that the line is in the film, in a context similar to that suggested, and Luke is rejecting the reestablishment of the Jedi on a literal level. So what’s the problem? Child worries that the end of the Jedi makes the efforts of Luke, Obi-Wan, and Yoda in the classic trilogy somehow frivolous. Child would be okay with “a new, modern order,” but:

[W]ouldn’t dismissing the Jedi in such a manner rather undercut the original trilogy, in which Yoda and Obi-Wan are presented as untouchable paragons of virtue? If the order’s central doctrine is meaningless, then both of Skywalker’s mentors are little more than fools.

And a little further on:

[T]he Jedi somehow seem more fundamental to Star Wars . . . . The entire original trilogy was about Luke’s path from farm boy to powerful exponent of the Force. Are we now expected to accept that this journey was a false one, that he was obsessed with reviving an order that had long since fallen into ineffectuality, guided by a pair of elderly diehards still clinging desperately to long lost grandeur?

It’s dangerous to ask rhetorical questions if you’re not sure that your audience will agree with you. Presumably, Child expects the audience to agree that, yes, dismissing the Jedi would undercut the original trilogy and make Obi-Wan and Yoda out to be fools; yes, we are expected to accept that Luke’s original trilogy journey was a false one; and of course, those answers indicate a bad direction for Star Wars! I disagree.

At its most fundamental level, I think it’s dangerous to ever hold up sacred cows in Star Wars. Each film in the main saga has remixed what has come before. Vader is Luke’s father; Leia is Luke’s sister; young Anakin was actually a prophetic Chosen One, and the Force is sensed through midichlorian cells; Jedi are supposed to avoid the deep, loving attachments that would in some way define Luke’s development as a hero; the Jedi’s entrance into the Clone Wars condemned it to near-extinction by playing into the hands of the Sith; Anakin fell to the Dark Side not out of a lust for power or pure arrogance but because of a desperate urge to protect his wife and an increasing sense that the people closest to him did not trust him. And so on.

Perhaps it is true that the role of the Jedi in the original trilogy would be undermined by Luke’s decision to end the Jedi Order (if that’s what he means), but George Lucas was already quite willing to alter meaning and change significance in his later films. It may be easy to view the prequel trilogy as lesser-than, and it may be convenient to ignore them in one’s analysis, but they nonetheless represent the ongoing vision of the franchise’s creator, with the benefit of a couple decades of hindsight and reflection.

In the prequel trilogy and The Clone Wars TV series, the Jedi Order’s rejection of attachment, its adherence to strict rules, and its inability to understand or accept someone like Anakin ultimately lead to its downfall. Maybe even by merely being a functioning body of the government, the Jedi were doomed. After all, it is their entrance into the Clone Wars that leads to the rise of the Dark Side and the vanquishment of the Jedi Order. As an older and wiser Yoda notes, “Wars not make one great.” And besides the broad-scale suffering and violence that the Clone Wars brought to the galaxy, it also had the side effect of producing a great many fallen Jedi (Pong Krell, Barriss Offee, Quinlan Vos, and of course Anakin himself).

Furthermore, on a more individual level, where Yoda and Obi-Wan may be seen as “untouchable paragons of virtue” in the original trilogy, they are fundamentally flawed in the prequel trilogy; simply put, they fail Anakin as friends and mentors. This failure on a human level is observed again in Ahsoka Tano’s final arc in The Clone Wars, in which she was framed for a crime, was hunted by her former allies, and ultimately chose to leave the Jedi Order behind after she was vindicated.

While writing this post, I came across “‘The True Nature of the Force’ is Way More Complicated Than You Think” by Emily Asher-Perrin, which does a good job of showing the weaknesses of the Jedi Order and developing the ambiguity of what bringing balance to the Force actually entails. I believe that it provides additional support for the assertions I have made above.

The Jedi, simply put, are not meant to be perfect. And the Jedi of the original trilogy are not the Jedi of the prequel trilogy; Obi-Wan and Yoda have trained under the guidance of a spectral Qui-Gon Jinn, who has unlocked secrets of the Force that no other Jedi has. Their training of an adult Luke over what could not have been more than a few weeks or months, with an apparent emphasis on eliminating Sith Lords, would certainly seem heretical compared to traditional Jedi teachings.

It’s also misleading to suggest that having the franchise go in a direction where the Jedi exist no more, at least formally, would somehow contradict or undermine the efforts of Luke, Obi-Wan, and Yoda. Jedi training was always a means to an end, rather than a final goal, in the mentorship of Luke.

In attempting to prod Luke into action, Obi-Wan tells him, “You must learn the ways of the Force if you’re to come with me to Alderaan . . . . I need your help, Luke. She needs your help. I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.” And when Luke continues to reject his overtures, Obi-Wan says, “You must do what you feel is right, of course.” Rather than requesting that Luke begin Jedi training, or demanding adherence to a particular code of ethics, Obi-Wan wants Luke to help him accomplish a mission, believing that he will need a connection with the Force to complete that mission, and Obi-Wan only wants Luke to follow his conscience.

When training Luke aboard the Millennium Falcon, Obi-Wan states, “Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him . . . . But it also obeys your commands.” The Jedi here serve as an example of the ideal Force-user. This makes sense, given that Obi-Wan himself is a Jedi. But there is still no demand that Luke adopt the tenets of the Jedi Order.

Even when Obi-Wan appears as a Force Ghost on Hoth, he only instructs Luke to go to the Dagobah system, where he “will learn from Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me.” Obi-Wan had trained under Yoda as a youth, and Obi-Wan and Yoda both studied to master the secrets that Qui-Gon had unlocked. Yet again, mastery of the Force rather than adherence to the Jedi Code is what is important to Obi-Wan.

Yoda speaks in riddles and plays with language and perception, so some of his dialogue does suggest that Luke is to be trained as a Jedi. Luke tells him that he is seeking a Jedi Master, so Yoda, while still hiding behind the persona of an addled hermit, asks Luke why he wishes to become a Jedi. And in considering the training of Luke, Yoda remarks:

For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained! A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind . . . . Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things.

It is clear that Yoda would have Luke believe that he is training him as a Jedi. Yet what we see of Yoda’s training is focused almost exclusively on the physical, with the trial of the Dark Side cave and brief admonitions as to the seductive nature of the Dark Side serving more as warnings to avoid the path of temptation than as any deep spiritual or intellectual development. Yoda simply does not have the time. He is, as far as we know, the last remaining Jedi Master, and toward the end of his life. Even if Luke did not leave his training to face Vader, Yoda would not have had much time left to truly train Luke in the traditions of the Jedi Order. While Yoda worries that Luke’s departure to defeat Vader could be the undoing of everything, he does not actually condemn Luke’s compassion or attachment to his friends, though such attachment would have been strictly forbidden in the old Jedi Order.

By the time Luke returns to Yoda, Yoda tells Luke that he has had sufficient training, but he can only call himself a Jedi once he confronts Darth Vader yet again. And once more Yoda warns Luke to beware the negative emotions that make up the Dark Side.

In short, Yoda may have promised Luke that he would be a Jedi, but Luke does not have the formal training, the code of ethics, or the sense of history and tradition that other Jedi have. Luke was trained by Obi-Wan and Yoda, more or less, to face off against the Empire and to defeat Vader, to succeed where they had failed. And Yoda hopes that Luke will pass on his training–his ability to sense and control the Force–to Leia.

But if Luke were to continue the “Jedi,” they would be Jedi in name only. The Emperor succeeded in eradicating the Order, and by the time of the Galactic Civil War, Obi-Wan and Yoda were not the Jedi they were in the height of the Clone Wars. Their last act of rebellion against the Sith was to attempt to train an ultimately successful assassin.

Luke could train his sister and others to sense and control the Force. And he could warn them against the Dark Side. And he could focus his new group’s agenda on resisting the Dark Side and the threat of fascism and tyranny. But he probably could not restore the Jedi Order to what it once was, and, frankly, doing so would probably be a bad idea.

Admittedly, the new canon has already established ways in which Luke could gain further insight into the Jedi Order. We know there are collectors of Jedi and Sith artifacts and old, significant ruins ripe with secrets, as established in sources as far-ranging as The Force Awakens, the new Star Wars comics, the Rebels TV show, and books like Aftermath.

But more interesting than how the Jedi Order could be restored is how these new sources also establish a rich variety of alternative Force traditions across the spectrum from Light to Dark. We see that rather prominently in The Force Awakens, after all, with the wizened old Maz Kanata, who can feel the Force and is definitely not evil but not a Jedi, either (for that matter, whatever Snoke is, he does not appear to be Sith, and neither are Kylo and his Knights of Ren). In The Clone Wars we have the Father and his children on Mortis, the Dathomiri witches, and the Force priestesses who test Yoda in the final season. In Rebels, we have the Inquisitors, who work for the Sith but are not–so far as I know–Sith themselves (what with that whole Rule of Two), and we also have the Force-neutral Bendu. And I’m sure there are other examples being developed in the new canon that I have overlooked; there were certainly a variety of Force traditions developed in the Legends Expanded Universe.

Even if all of the above were not true, why should Luke want to continue the Jedi Order by the events of Episode VIII? One of his own students, his own nephew, turned to the Dark Side and slaughtered Luke’s other students, then went on to take a leadership role in a new post-Imperial fascist movement. Over the course of Luke’s lifetime, the Jedi Order has now been destroyed twice, and Luke probably feels partially responsible for its fall at the hands of Kylo Ren.

In Legends, Luke was awfully resilient in overcoming the frequent threats to the Jedi Order (see, for example, the spirit of Exar Kun and the fall of Kyp Durron or the hunt for Jedi by Yuuzhan Vong and Peace Brigade–but in contrast, see Luke’s own brief fall to the Dark Side). However, in the new canon, it is quite possible that Luke’s spirit could be broken by such severe tragedy as he has experienced. And even if his spirit remains intact, he could have rationally reached the conclusion that the Jedi Order could not be restored in the current galactic climate, or that the Jedi simply no longer had the same utility that they once did.

As fans, we can become rather hungry for more of what we like. But I’d rather have a well-told story than one that simply gives us what we think we want (and apparently a lot of us want more Jedi). There will be plenty of places to tell more stories of Jedi, and the Legends Expanded Universe was already bursting at the seams with Jedi after all. If Rian Johnson and crew have decided to let the Jedi die, at least for now, then let’s see how it goes. It wouldn’t corrupt the meaning of the older films, it wouldn’t dilute purpose, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad decision.

But let’s all take a collective breath and wait to see how things play out. The groundwork has been laid to allow this movie to go in a lot of different directions, many of them rather exciting. Whether this movie truly heralds the last of the Jedi or not, I have confidence in the direction of this saga.