Killing Sacred Cows: The Last Jedi’s Portrayal of Luke Skywalker

Oh, this post is about The Last Jedi and Jane Eyre.  Spoilers for both.




Almost a year ago, I addressed the Reywalker theory (the theory that Rey was Luke Skywalker’s son) by explaining the only way that I would be OK with this plot line.

I will make one exception to the idea of Luke Skywalker as Rey’s father.  If they use that dynamic to set up Luke Skywalker as a villain, then I would be fine with that.  Here is what I mean.  If Luke Skywalker is Rey’s father, this means that he abandoned her on Jakku.  He left his daughter to die.  This is not the same thing as Obi Wan leaving Luke in the hands of his aunt and uncle, whom he knew would feed and raise Luke.  If Luke truly is Rey’s daughter, then he threw her out like a piece of trash. Furthermore, Maz tells Rey that her family is simply never coming back for her.  This means that Luke abandoned his daughter to die and had no intention of ever coming back for her.  What an asshole.  Imagine what Rey would feel when she discovers that her father, a legendary great man, left her to die without any intention of ever rescuing her.  Imagine how the audience will feel when they discover that the hero of their childhood has become the kind of man who leaves his children to die without any intention of rescuing him.  Imagine if Disney had the guts to completely discredit Luke Skywalker, to transform him into terrible person, a callous, villainous man who the audience would be forced to hate!  I would totally see that.

So, needless to say, the most controversial element of The Last Jedi, was one of the parts I appreciated the most.  #NotMyLukeAndILoveIt

fanboy tears

Mmm, your tears tastes like green milk freshly squeezed from an alien’s teet.   😉

The big theme of all of my Reylo posts is that Star Wars needed to take chances and potentially piss off a lot of people.  Fortunately, Rian Johnson did just that, and I while his movie is flawed (I’ll get into that in later posts) I will forever thank him for slaughtering some sacred cows.  And there is no greater sacred cow in all of Star Wars than Luke Skywalker.

Star Wars has been a part of popular culture for 40 years now.  Two generations grew up and have grown up with Luke Skywalker as a hero, a knight.  Most of the online videos on Youtube (cough *Collider Video* cough) are all about fanboys drooling over the opportunity to see Luke Skywalker in action again, fighting Snoke, fighting Kylo Ren, fighting Rey and Kylo Ren together  (No, I am not making that up!) etc.  The fanboys wanted so badly to see what they never got to see, and what they were never going to see.  The problem is, what fans want to see and what is good for the story is rarely the same thing.  A good storyteller knows this.  A good storyteller is mean to their characters and mean to their audience.

A perfect example of meanness is found in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, which has nothing to do with space.  In the book, Jane Eyre (despite her assertion that she has no tale of woe) has lived a miserable childhood.  She is an orphan who lived with family members who hated her, and was sent to a cruel, Puritanical boarding school.  When she grows up, she becomes a governess, which despite the fact that it gave a woman an income, was still a perilous life.  However, while she is at Thornfield Hall, caring for her young charge, she falls in love with the wealthy, mysterious Mr. Rochester the ward of the young girl and the owner of Thornfield Hall, a grand estate.  You would think that this would be a good chance to give our heroine a very well deserved happy ending.  But no, you would be wrong, for Charlotte Bronte is a cold-hearted bitch who understands the value of being mean to characters.  On Jane Eyre’s wedding day, she discovers a horrible truth.  Mr. Rochester is already married.  His wife is insane, and he keeps her locked in the attic.  Jane cannot marry Mr. Rochester, so he attempts to persuade her to become his mistress, as many other women have done.  Jane must choose between her love for Mr. Rochester and her faith, her conscience, and her integrity as a person.  She chooses the latter, runs away, and nearly dies on the moor.  (As I said, Charlotte Bronte is a bitch.)

It would be utterly wrong to proclaim that Rian Johnson is a storyteller on the level of Charlotte Bronte, but his treatment of Luke Skywalker shows that he is not afraid to be mean.  Rian Johnson does not make Luke the villain, but he literally takes the fan’s expectations of Luke Skywalker and throws them over Luke’s shoulder, along with Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber.  Indeed, much of Luke Skywalker’s portrayal is all about shattering the expectations of the fans. Rian Johnson knows what fans want, and makes a conscious decision to disappoint them.

I couldn’t be happier.

fanboy tears

Slurp, slurp, slurp.

So, why am I thirstily drinking up all of the fanboy tears?  Is it pure schadenfreude?  Almost, but not entirely.

Is it because I predicted that Luke Skywalker’s portrayal in The Last Jedi would be very unsettling to fans?  Also part of it, but not entirely.

Here is why I like the portrayal of Luke Skywalker is actually a good thing in the film.

1 Our protagonist is not Luke Skywalker.  It is amazing how few people understood that.  Collider Videos were filled with arguments about whether or not Luke would fight Snoke, etc, etc, as though Rey was a placeholder protagonist for Luke.  This frustrated me to no end, and was due to fans being unable to let go of the sequel films that they would never get to see.   Luke does not show up to save the day because he is not the protagonist.

2 Rey is our protagonist, and Rey, and she is a young woman.  Everyone associates Star Wars with Joseph Campbell.  Joseph Campbell wrote Hero of 1000 Faces and talked about The Hero’s Journey.  These ideas and books were very influential on George Lucas when he wrote Star Wars.

Both the podcasts Star Wars Connection and Scavenger’s Hoard have alluded to this, but have pointed out that Rey is not on a hero’s journey.  Rey is on a heroine’s journey, and one of the important steps in a heroine’s journey is Confronting the Powerless Father.

The idea of a heroine with a powerless (or dead) father is a well established trope.  Jane Eyre, which I mentioned above, is an example of one such character.  In most versions of Cinderella, and Snow White, her father has died.  Belle in Beauty and the Beast has a father, but he is somewhat silly and ineffectual, and she is separated from him almost immediately.  Psyche’s father is told by the gods to abandon her on a mountain, and he acquiesces.  Atalanta’s father exposes her at birth, and she is suckled by wolves and raised by hunters.  Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Margaret Hale have disinterested, silly, or weak fathers.  This stands in stark contrast of heroes, who must have powerful fathers or mentors that the hero must supplant.

The reason for the powerless father trope is quite simple.  In times and places where women had limited or now power of any kind, a woman without a protective father figure is in an especially dangerous situation.  She has nothing but her wits to defend her.  It elevates the stakes for our heroine.

By making Luke Skywalker a fallen hero, they also make Luke Skywalker a Powerless Father.  They continue Rey’s journey as a heroine.

3 Luke Skywalker’s Powerless Father figure is essentail to Rey’s development as a character (such as it is.)

This is a continuation of the last point, but Rey’s main weakness as a character (such as it is) is the fact that Rey is looking for her parents.  (Yes, her desire for her parents is a weakness.)  She began to move away from her weakness for her parents in The Force Awakens.  She abandons Jakku, accepting that her parents will never come back for her there.  However, she quickly transfers this desire to Han Solo, a man she has never seen and has known for about two days.  Then he is murdered by Kylo Ren.  She goes to Luke Skywalker, once again looking for a father figure, and once again she is disappointed.  In her Force Bond discussions (skype?), Kylo Ren correctly points out that Rey is looking for a father figure, and that this is a weakness.  Rey must learn to stand on her own feet, without a father.

By making Luke Skywalker a failed father figure, Luke serves Rey’s character development.

4 I don’t want to see one dimensional characters.

The characters in Star Wars have always been a little shallow.  This stems from the fact that Lucas is drawing on the serial tradition of the 1930’s and 1940’s, as well as archetypal myths.  However, he did allow for some character growth to all of his characters.  Except Leia.  (More on that in a future post.)   Luke Skywalker begins as an impulsive adolescent who grows into a man.  He is forced to confront the truth about his past and his family and to make a difficult moral choice.

There is no reason to think that just because Luke conquered his challenge at the end of The Return of the Jedi that he would never fail ever again, or at the very least be tempted.

I actually think that Luke’s momentary lapse with his nephew makes sense to me.  Luke has already seen the destruction caused by the Empire.  It’s not abstract.  He lived it.  He senses the darkness in Ben Solo and he knows through experience what this will mean.  (Does he even sense his brother in law’s death?)  He also knows that he is growing older.  Luke senses his physical powers waning and knows that he will be less of a match for a powerful Force side user.  Considering this, it makes sense to me that Luke would have a moment of weakness and ignite his lightsaber.

5 Luke’s imperfection in this film continues what J.J. Abrams set up in the first movie.

People argue that Rian Johnson ignored everything that J.J. Abrams set up, but this is certainly not true in this case.  J.J. Abrams establishes that Luke Skywalker is in self-imposed exile.  Han tells us that after Ben turned against Luke and destroyed everything, Luke was overwhelmed with guilt and he walked away.  This is not the action of a hero.  A hero accepts a failure but returns to fight again.  Plus, at the end of The Force Awakens, Luke does not accept the lightsaber and he is not happy to see Rey.

Rian Johnson correctly gets that J.J. Abrams set him up as a fallen hero and continues this motif.

6 Luke’s failures contribute to the blurring of the lines between good and evil.  Rey goes to Ach To looking for answers and guidance.  She is looking for a black and white world where she can have easy answers.  She does not get that.  Instead, Luke is revealed to be flawed, and Kylo Ren is revealed to be conflicted.  (More on their relationship to come in later posts.)  I have to brag.  I called thisMore than once.  🙂  This also positions Rey to create Grey Jedi, Jedis who use both the Dark Side and the Light Side.  I think that could be interesting.  (I’ll talk more about my hopes for Rey in the last film of the series in an upcoming series.)

7 I actually like Luke’s ending.  I found a video on Youtube which reviewed The Last Jedi.  He pointed out that there are good reasons for keeping Luke on Ach-To.  First of all, Luke’s ship has been sunk in the ocean for years.  Even if he pulled it out, it still could not run.  Second of all, Luke realizes that if the galaxy keeps doing the same things over and over, the war will never end.  They have been fighting this for more than 30 years.  They must do something different if they wish to end the war.  I wish I could find the video again because the creator is absolutely correct.  The galaxy cannot continue the war for another generation.  Luke knows that they must find another way.  This, I think, is part of his desire to see the Jedi end.

8 By not allowing Kylo Ren to kill Luke, the writers keep a certain degree of ambiguity around his nature.  If Rian Johnson wanted to show that Kylo Ren is truly evil, the easiest way to do that would be to have him kill his mother.  The second easiest way would be to have him kill Luke Skywalker.  That might even be more significant considering that Luke Skywalker was the protagonist for the original series; the hero for two generations of children.  And yet, Luke does not give Kylo the chance to kill him.  Kylo does not take Luke’s life; he lays it down of his own accord.  This actually paves the way for the last image of Kylo Ren as a broken, powerless figure.  Rian Johnson refuses to give the audience two things that they want: a one dimensional hero and a one dimensional villain.  J.J Abrams is the better off for it.

Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is not a perfect film.  But the portrayal of Luke Skywalker is not one of its flaws but rather one of its strengths, providing a moving end for a legend, an important element for the protagonist, and leaving J.J. Abrams with a more complex world for the last film.

fanboy tears


Drink up everyone!

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