TROS and the questions that were answered

I finally saw The Rise of Skywalker for the second, and presumably last, time in theaters with my wife. It was her first time. She wasn’t a big fan of it (for the record, her favorite of the sequel trilogy was The Last Jedi). I found that I still rather enjoyed it. I’d started to dread watching it again because I recognized so many weaknesses in the story, and I had read so many critical reactions that I found I agreed with. I felt there was no way that I’d be able to enjoy it as much as the first time, if at all. Thankfully, I was wrong on this count.

This very well could be the dumbest main Star Wars film, but it’s full of emotion, a resounding score, and amazing visuals. I wish the trilogy had ended on a stronger note, but it is what it is, and while the story has many flaws, there are a lot of interesting plot threads that can be expanded in future stories. There is a lot condensed into this movie, even as relatively long as it is, and there are plenty of additions to the characters and larger mythology that can be mined for years to come. No Star Wars film is perfect, and the original final chapter in the Star Wars saga, Return of the Jedi, sure had its share of problems. So yeah, TROS can be dumb, and I’ll still incorporate it into my larger appreciation for Star Wars over time (even as I simultaneously become more interested in considering Star Wars in three categories: George Lucas’s vision as told in the first six films and The Clone Wars; the parallel universe created through licensing under Lucas’s rule, which at times influenced his own design and story choices; and the new parallel universe that covers much of the same ground with new stories and claims to provide a “canon” continuation to the original saga under Disney).

I started a post that was attempting to address questions left from The Last Jedi that The Rise of Skywalker answered. Whether one likes the answers provided or not, TROS did at least feel like a response to its predecessor, even if it feels more connected to The Force Awakens. That attempted post was heavy with spoilers, though, and I felt like it would be good to have at least one more view before moving forward. After finally getting that second viewing, I feel ready to share this post, now that the movie’s been out for so long that anyone concerned with spoilers should have seen it already. If you haven’t seen the movie yet for some reason, please beware of the massive spoilers that will follow.

The questions I’m responding to are those I specifically discussed in a previous post before the release of Episode IX. Since I’d raised those questions in particular, it seemed worthwhile to see how TROS dealt with them.

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?

Well, this is sort of the center of the plot of TROS. We learn that he is redeeemed and killed. I guess we don’t know what redemption without death could look like. Ben’s ending works well enough, and his final sacrifice to restore Rey to life is truly a selfless act that is at least on par with Anakin’s own final sacrifice for his son. I think it would have been more interesting to see a version of Ben who has to work to atone for his past actions in some way, but that’s a lot to ask for one already bloated last chapter.

I’ve resumed my rewatch of The Clone Wars with the approach of its new season, and I’ve realized my question about imprisoning a Force user has been answered quite thoroughly in the new canon. We had the Citadel specifically for imprisoning Jedi, and a battalion of clones successfully imprisoned Pong Krell. For that matter, Obi-Wan was successfully imprisoned in Attack of the Clones, and it was only a screwy staged execution and subsequent rescue mission that spared him. Ben seems to be on a unique level of power, but it seems theoretically possible to imprison any Force user.
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?

One of my favorite things about TROS was that Finn was revealed to be Force-sensitive. I guess not everyone registered that on viewing, but it seemed quite evident to me, and I remember reacting excitedly to moments demonstrating his Force sensitivity. His conversation with Jannah did everything but explicitly say, “I feel the Force.” I also read that conversation as indicating Force-sensitivity in Jannah and some or all of her comrades. And on second viewing, I felt the movie may have been hinting at Force potential in Poe (especially given his apparently impossible abilities with hyperspace-skipping). This suggests to me that the broad awakening of Force abilities and inspiration of a new generation of Force users thanks to the actions of Luke and Rey that was suggested in The Last Jedi has been preserved and expanded upon. I think much like the Jedi Exile in KOTOR II, Rey seems to draw unaware Force users to her, awakening their powers as their bonds with each other are strengthened.

Rey has become a Jedi and embraced the legacy of the Jedi. We don’t know, though, if she will actually train others. Her legacy is still up in the air, maybe to be explored further in canon another day.
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, or no one at all? How will Finn navigate his relationship with Rey and with Rose? And does Poe finally come out as gay?

Rey ends up with no one at all, but she seems the closest to romance with Ben, unfortunately. I think the kiss is ambiguous, but it’s certainly there. Of course, they kiss and then he dies, so on the one hand that frees her up again, but on the other hand that could be deeply traumatizing for her. It’s crucial to me that the kiss is between Rey and Ben, not Rey and Kylo–he’s happy and light and good, having cast off his Kylo Ren persona entirely and sacrificed a lot to get there. Still, Ben and Kylo are the same person. Ben never really died, just like Anakin never really died when he became Vader. They have their excuses and dramatic metaphors, but at the end of the day, they chose to do evil. And they continued to do evil at every opportunity. Sure, they found redemption in a loved one at the end, but that doesn’t erase everything they’d done.

Finn doesn’t navigate his relationships at all. (How could he explore a relationship with Rose when J.J. and Terrio barely allow her onscreen?) He’s given a new female companion he spends his time with, who just so happens to be a female black former stormtrooper. That seems a bit too neat, and while they don’t become romantically involved, it feels a little convenient that Finn is paired off with another woman and Poe is as well, as if to suggest that they have heterosexual options and thus need not end up with each other, while also clearing the deck for an uncomplicated Reylo climax. I’m uncomfortable with the racial, sexual, and gender politics in this decision. Jannah is a cool character but underused, and she largely appears in support of and alongside Finn. I don’t think that’s a particularly well-thought-through decision.

More frustratingly, Poe is bonded to Zorii Bliss. Poe didn’t need a new romance story. Poe didn’t even need a new background, for that matter! His subplot and backstory feel incredibly arbitrary, like J.J. and Terrio decided to insert answers to questions that were never asked because they felt Poe wasn’t interesting enough. The inclusion of his history as a spice runner feels like a desperate bid to make him even more like Han Solo–and on this second viewing, I was all too aware of the reactions from fans who were troubled by giving one of the few Latino actors in Star Wars a character with a background as a drug smuggler. On top of this, Poe already had a backstory that was deeply associated with the Resistance and with the inter-generational legacy of the Rebel Alliance in non-film media, so this felt out of left field.

But back to Poe and Zorii. I was really bothered by Poe’s recurring attempts to get a kiss from Zorii. Even though they never do kiss, it felt like an unnecessarily defensive, hetero-normative reaction to FinnPoe. No, folks, not only is he not interested in Finn, he’s actually had an ex-girlfriend he wants to get back together with this whole time. Frankly, Oscar Isaac seems so half-hearted in his efforts that I’ve convinced myself that Poe and Zorii are in fact both gay, and that this is an inside joke between them. They’re just two old friends who know he’d never kiss her even if he could. While this works as a head canon, it’s incredibly disappointing that the filmmakers went in this hetero-romantic direction at all, especially when the only explicitly queer moment in this film (in any Star Wars film, for that matter) involves two background characters briefly kissing in the celebratory crowd at the end.

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?

Hahaha! He does not stay loyal to Kylo. He also doesn’t lead a coup. He becomes a spy for the Resistance out of spite, and he gets shot dead like a dog.

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?

Snoke is a clone, apparently. A clone of what/whom? I don’t know. Sounds like the comic series The Rise of Kylo Ren is addressing Snoke’s influence on Kylo, but I don’t know when or if we’ll learn more about what Palpatine was really doing with Snoke. And it seems that we still have an incomplete idea of what the First Order was or where it came from, let alone the newly revealed Final Order. Although Palpatine’s weird Sith cult activities and hidden Imperial military might fit in rather nicely with elements of the Aftermath trilogy, there are still a lot of questions.

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?

Turns out it was all Palpatine. Why did no Force ghost intervene, though? That’s unclear to me. In many ways, TROS didn’t give a fuck about the mythology of this universe.

Example 1: All the Jedi apparently live on in Rey. They speak to her and give her power in her final battle. But George Lucas had previously established over six films and The Clone Wars that most people, including Jedi, merely become one with the Force on death. Only those who lived selflessly could freely preserve their identities in death, not for personal benefit but so that they could instruct and guide others. Prior to the sequel trilogy, the only ones who preserved their identities after death were Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin, and while Anakin had a great sacrifice at the end, it’s always been something of a mystery as to how he achieved this feat. Qui-Gon didn’t even take his body into the Force. But now everyone’s back, for some reason.

Example 2: Before the sequel trilogy, Force ghosts seemed limited in their abilities. Obi-Wan could not help Luke in his fight against Vader, and he tells Luke as much. Obi-Wan often provides advice and information, but I don’t recall him actually acting on the physical world. The same with Yoda. The Clone Wars and Rebels provided interesting spirits and creatures that were specially in tune with the Force, but these were separate from the Force ghosts I’m talking about. The Last Jedi had Yoda striking the tree with lightning, but this was mystical and calling on a natural element; it’s not clear to me that that suggests he could have lifted an X-Wing or tossed a lightsaber. Luke has such a physical presence in TROS, and it becomes quite curious as to why Force ghosts wouldn’t more directly meddle in putting down evil.

Example 3: Anakin was supposed to restore balance to the Force, and while it was never certain what exactly that meant, it was generally agreed that he did do exactly that by the end of Return of the Jedi. And yet Palpatine wasn’t truly defeated, only deferred. I was more on board when we were dealing with a new awakening in the Force–Kylo rising in power within the Dark Side, and the Light answering with the rise of Rey. It feels like Anakin only inconvenienced the Dark Side for a few decades, in the end.

Example 4: The Sith had never before discovered the power to escape death. It was one of the ironies of Star Wars: if you’re selfish enough to do anything to survive death, you aren’t able to do so. We had Sith spirits in Legends, but even then they were typically bound to a particular physical element–perhaps a temple, a tomb, an amulet, or a weapon. They were not free. The Dark Side, at best, provided them an immortal prison. Now, it turns out that the Sith actually retain some form of immortality by inhabiting their successors. When a Sith disciple strikes down her master, she apparently inherits the spirits of all the previous Sith. This could be a cool thing–and it still bounds the Sith to one physical element–but it doesn’t sit easily with the existing mythology. Also, what is the trigger for this transfer? If Rey would be possessed whether she struck Palpatine down in a moment of anger or in ritual, why is there an exception if she gets Palpatine to destroy himself by deflecting his Force lightning back at him until he dies? How much was Palpatine lying about this? Perhaps he wanted her to kill him in the ritual tradition, and hate alone wouldn’t do it? But then again, wanting someone to strike him down in hate suggests that he would have actually been fine if Luke had killed him in Return of the Jedi, and that’s an interesting idea. Imagine that: Palpatine feels he’s in a win-win situation. No way the Rebellion can win, the Emperor thinks. That leaves three scenarios: (1) Luke is killed, and Vader has nothing left to cling to; (2) Luke kills Vader and turns to the Dark Side, thus becoming Palpatine’s student; or (3) Luke kills Palpatine and is possessed by all Sith, becoming a powerful, young new host body. Luke’s decision to stop fighting, and Vader’s decision to aid his son and defeat Palpatine, are unfathomably remote options for the Emperor. And it turns out he had contingency plans for if everything went wrong, anyway.

At the end of the day, while I find these new bits of lore difficult to reconcile, they are interesting. This is a movie that concludes a whole trilogy about legacy. Appropriately, some of the key new insights into the Force and Force practitioners relate to legacy. The Jedi are able to commune with those who precede them. The Sith literally embody previous Sith, spiritually consuming them. All Sith live within one body, the closest they can come to immortality, I guess. No wonder there can only be two Sith at any one time–and no wonder that the Sith are unique for Dark Siders.

Finally, while not playing light with the mythology, I have way too many questions left about how Palpatine came back. I have only read the first arc of Dark Empire, and that Legends comic seems more relevant than ever now. Certainly, Aftermath also hints at some of the Dark Side occult elements involved in resurrecting the dead. It’s not at all clear to me if this is somehow a reconstructed original body of Palpatine (and this seems unlikely, given how he died) or if it’s a greatly corrupted clone body. How will destroying this Palpatine prevent him from coming back? Are we really sure all Sith cultists were killed in that end battle? What about the Snoke clones in the canisters that were missing by the time Rey arrived? What connection does Snoke have to Palpatine? A lot of questions to presumably be answered some other day.

7. Who are the Knights of Ren?

Kylo Ren’s boy band. “Ghouls.” That’s all. Disney wants us to make sure to read all the ancillary materials, I guess. Star Wars has always seemed larger and deeper because of the references to things that aren’t developed within the movies, but this seems a big thing to leave so blank, especially when they serve as (nameless, faceless) tertiary antagonists in the film.

8. Were there any other survivors of the destruction of Luke’s training temple?

I guess we still don’t know.

9. How is the Resistance rebuilt? What allies join the cause, and why didn’t they respond to Leia’s message?

Again: I guess we still don’t know. Lando assembles a People Power fleet. Maybe people were motivated by the story of Luke’s sacrifice and the survival of the Resistance. Maybe Leia’s message did get through but people couldn’t react in time. The film starts about a year after The Last Jedi, but the Resistance is still more or less in shambles until Lando brings in the cavalry.

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?

She appears almost enough for the plot that was ultimately provided for her character. She proves pivotal to the final reformation of Ben Solo. On second viewing, it’s more apparent how little she appears and how much the movie is molded around what available footage they had of Carrie Fisher. Harrison Ford comes back as a vivid hallucination/memory to provide the final push, and I wonder if they would have used Leia in that scene if Carrie had been available. Another bizarre mystery of the Force: why does her body remain until Ben also dies? For that matter, the Leia material offers another example of J.J.’s apparent disregard for the new unified canon: it’s hard for me to reconcile Leia’s training under Luke so soon after Return of the Jedi with her portrayal as someone who had never undergone Jedi training in Bloodline. For the record, I was fine with her display of Force abilities in The Last Jedi because training isn’t essential to use the Force. But having her training basically completed, and then giving up her saber and the Jedi path, doesn’t quite fit with what is suggested in Bloodline. (For that matter, how does she know Rey is a Palpatine? When does she learn this? When did Luke learn this? And if she knew some of Ben’s tragic fate, why did she make the choices she did in allowing him to train as a Jedi?) That said, it’s not explicitly contradictory, either…


As a bonus round, I’d just point out that Lando appeared as sort of a retired trader / elder statesman, but the subject of L3-37 and her final fate is left unresolved. Bummer.


So, those were the questions I had going into The Rise of Skywalker, and those were the answers I took away from it. They weren’t always the answers I wanted to see, some of the answers seemed like very poor options out of the many available choices, and sometimes there wasn’t an answer at all, but it’s still clear that TROS continues on from The Last Jedi, continuing to develop themes and character arcs from that film even while making some course corrections to apparently better align with J.J.’s original vision. It’s very Star Wars of the saga to end with answers that often prompted even more questions!

That’s a wrap: The Mandalorian 1.8

Hoo boy, that was a good finale. Plot threads dangling throughout the season were resolved, there’s a clear sense of closure for this season, and there’s a clear and direct focus for next season. The Mandalorian and the Child are bonded like father and son, and they have allies who may come to stand by them again in the future (while unfortunately losing other allies in this explosive climax). And this final episode brought in a lot of elements from The Clone Wars and Rebels, in particular regarding the Mandalorians and one very special weapon.

I dearly hope that The Mandalorian honors its narrative promise to pursue the homeworld of Yoda’s species in this new season. But at the very least, the Mandalorian now believes he must care for a child of a culture (the Jedi) that has historically been an enemy of his adoptive people. That’s meaty enough to warrant another season or more by itself.

Escaping Expectations: The Mandalorian 1.3

[Note: spoilers for the first couple episodes follow.]

The story that this series is telling has become increasingly satisfying. In the first episode, we meet the Mandalorian, who takes on a dangerous job and successfully secures a vital target, which turns out to be a baby of an unknown species (or known–it’s not really clear to me how much people know about the species of Yoda and Yaddle in-universe). In the second episode, he must go through trials to get off-world, in so doing forming a bond with the youngling and learning that it possesses special powers; in the timeframe we’re in, it appears that most of the galaxy isn’t familiar with the Force and may not believe that the Jedi were ever real, so the Mandalorian does not appear to understand what he’s observed. In the third episode, he delivers the bounty–and then retrieves it. It feels like a complete story with a three-act structure over these past few episodes.

Now the story feels free to do…just about anything. Much like with the end of The Last Jedi, I can’t anticipate where the story might go; it feels complete in and of itself, even though there are plenty of threads to continue pursuing. I am sure we will learn more about the Mandalorians and what happened to them. I imagine that the story’s central Mandalorian will have more opportunities to advance within his culture, and it looks like we’re starting to get more and more details about his past. And we might have big answers about that Yodaling, or we might not.

This is turning into a great show! At the same time, I recognize the response from fans who note the lack of on-screen women, especially in speaking roles. It’s true that there aren’t many speaking characters at all, but it is also a little bizarre that all but one character with lines of dialogue so far is a man. When we see the Mandalorians together in this episode, for instance, it’s disconcerting that their apparent leader is a woman but all of her followers speak in deep masculine voices. Perhaps we’ll find that the Mandalorians we’ve seen are just a fraction of them all, that there are more offscreen, or that some of the ones we’ve seen are women and we just haven’t heard them speak. And it’s my understanding that there are more female characters coming soon. But this absence in representation is noticeable, especially given the franchise’s movement to better incorporate diversity overall and increase the number of prominent female characters within its stories in particular. Still, while this is disappointing and something that I certainly hope is corrected in future episodes, it’s an otherwise strong episodic narrative.

I’m happy that this show exists, and I want to see where it goes (and hope it fixes its representation issues), but more generally The Mandalorian has given me hope that we can see more live-action Star Wars stories in the future, and that they can continue to deliver quality story-telling while truly embracing the diversity of the human experience.

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.

Forces of Destiny, Round 4: Season 2

Forces of Destiny keeps growing on me, and I don’t know whether it’s simple exposure to the series or an actual improvement in overall quality. I liked most of the eight episodes that have comprised Season 2.

My favorites were “Unexpected Company,” “Bounty Hunted,” and “The Path Ahead.”

“Unexpected Company” has Ahsoka as a last-minute addition to Anakin’s escort assignment with Padme. Anakin’s initially frustrated that his alone-time with Padme was ruined, but Ahsoka helps them out in an unexpected starship battle, and she and Padme share a moment at the end of the episode. I think it’s implied that Ahsoka was able to deduce the relationship between Padme and Anakin because of the events of the episode, choosing to silently accept it with a knowing smile and some careful words.

“Bounty Hunted” provided the (potentially) canon explanation for how Leia got Boushh’s armor. The encounter with Boushh is a little silly and arbitrary, but I’m willing to accept coincidence when Maz seems to intuit this occurrence through the Force. Seeing Maz and Leia meet–and Maz and Chewie embrace!–definitely made the episode special, though. And I’ll take any explanation for how Leia got her armor over the EU account with rapey Prince Xizor.

Finally, “The Path Ahead” shows a moment in Yoda’s training of Luke. Yoda gives Luke some sage advice that sounds appropriately cryptic and mystical. At the conclusion of the lesson, Yoda remarks, “Trust what you see [through the Force], not what you think you see [through your senses].” When he says that there will be more training through tree-climbing pathways, Luke asks, “Are we trying to get somewhere?” And Yoda replies, “Always, yes, always.”

Most of the other episodes were fine–mildly adventurous, or humorous, or heart-warming, but not particularly remarkable vignettes.  The only episode I did not like was “Shuttle Shock,” starring Finn and Rose as they approach Canto Bight. It’s actually a fairly good character moment, but the bit of action squeezed into the segment feels like too much loaded into what was otherwise a relative moment of brief quiet in the film itself. I didn’t like the episode for the reason that I didn’t like many other Season 1 episodes–there’s the sense that everything is overstuffed with moments of action and suspense, as if the movies actually trimmed down on the heroes stumbling through one gun fight or narrow escape after another.

In the end, Forces of Destiny will probably never provide essential Star Wars moments, but it does seem that with each new batch of episodes, it gets closer to the promise of consistently joy-filled short stories.

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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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.