Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – An Explication

Film Fisher Blog

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – An Explication

In December of 2019, at the close of a decade, Star Wars came to an end – from a certain point of view, at least. The Rise of Skywalker, or Episode IX, concluded not only the trilogy of sequels that began with The Force Awakens in 2015 but also the trilogy of trilogies that began with the original film in 1977. While spin-off series seem set to continue streaming indefinitely on Disney+, The Rise of Skywalker consciously brought the central drama of Star Wars to a close, and was advertised accordingly. “The saga comes to an end,” portended the film’s teaser trailer, twenty years after the teaser trailer for 1999’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace pronounced, “Every saga has a beginning…” The circle, one might say, was now complete.

All things considered, though, The Rise of Skywalker came and went with curiously little fanfare. For the most part, audience responses seemed to range from incredulous contempt to outright vitriol to simple indifference. On the weekend of its release, the epic multimillion-dollar conclusion of a forty-year-long saga was overshadowed by a new episode of The Mandalorian. At the time of this writing, no new theatrical Star Wars movie has been produced since.

After the contentious response to 2017’s The Last Jedi, a film misunderstood by apologists and detractors alike, The Rise of Skywalker seemed doomed to satisfy no one. For those who loved The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker was a betrayal; for those who loathed it, the sequel trilogy was already scorched earth. The lackluster reception to the film was not altogether surprising, nor was it altogether unjustified. In many respects, The Rise of Skywalker is simply unsuccessful; like the Millennium Falcon, it often seems to be barely holding itself together.* It resembles the Millennium Falcon in at least one other way, though: it may not look like much, kid, but it’s got it where it counts.

The most common complaints – that The Rise of Skywalker is merely an unimaginative retread, a nostalgic, incoherent cash-grab adding nothing substantially new to the Star Wars mythos – miss the mark. It is true that The Rise of Skywalker liberally lifts and remixes elements from the previous eight films. It is true that, as the conclusion to the sequel trilogy and the nine-part saga, it fails to offer satisfying resolutions to certain core dramatic questions. After a few years mulling over The Rise of Skywalker, though, I cannot judge the sequel trilogy to be either a superfluous addendum to Lucas’ six-film cycle or an integral extension of it. It is somewhere in the middle: not necessary, strictly speaking, but worthwhile. Far more than The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams’ first foray into the galaxy far, far away, The Rise of Skywalker evinces a firm grasp on the core thematic and structural principles of Lucas’ work and advances them in new and compelling ways. Ultimately, whatever its shortcomings, this final episode makes good on its ambitions to bring the saga to a fitting end. By the time the credits roll, the circle is indeed complete.

*This essay does not aim to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the film’s craftsmanship. However, it should be noted that while the film is frequently hampered by sloppy, hasty editing, Abrams’ direction and Dan Mindel’s cinematography deserve far more credit than they have received. In certain respects, The Rise of Skywalker is a genuinely remarkable effort, especially in light of its rushed production. Speaking solely in terms of sophisticated camera setups, it is likely the most successful of Abrams’ many attempts to recreate the visual magic of his idol, Steven Spielberg.

Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Part I: An Old War

The first few minutes of The Rise of Skywalker introduce a number of important plot elements. Both heroes and villains are searching for Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a key figure from the original films, whose whereabouts are unknown. In order to find him, Leia (Carrie Fisher) sends agents, including Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), on a secret mission. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) seeks out a map to his location, slaughtering villagers in the process. Palpatine, it turns out, is hiding in an ancient Sith Temple maintained by cultic devotees. Kylo Ren uses the map to travel there and brandishes a lightsaber at the cloaked and hooded old Sith Master.

From L to R: The Force Awakens (2015), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

All of these elements recall The Force Awakens in significant ways. In that film, the key figure from the past, the subject of the heroes’ and villains’ search, is Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Leia sends Poe Dameron to retrieve a map to Luke’s location; Kylo Ren initiates a massacre of villagers in his attempt to find the same map. Luke is hiding in an ancient Jedi Temple, which is (as we learn in The Last Jedi) maintained by an order of devoted caretakers. When Rey (Daisy Ridley) reaches Luke – a cloaked, hooded, aged Jedi Master – she extends a lightsaber to him in a shot that mirrors Kylo Ren’s first interaction with Palpatine.

At this point, viewers (and readers) may throw up their hands in exasperation. Does J.J. Abrams have no imagination? Is he good for nothing besides recycling other movies, now including his own? None of this should surprise us, though. There is rhyme and reason to Abrams’ repetition. The first and third entries in a Star Wars trilogy always form a pair of bookends, opening and closing the story. The Rise of Skywalker parallels The Force Awakens in the same way that Revenge of the Sith parallels The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi parallels A New Hope. Abrams and his cowriter, Chris Terrio, are not hacks; they are only diligent students of the poetry of Star Wars, a poetry that is by no means limited to the sequel trilogy.

The opening passages of The Rise of Skywalker do not merely resonate with The Force Awakens, nor do they merely foreshadow the film’s closing passages. They do both these things while also recalling the beginnings and endings of Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi, the films that conclude the other two Star Wars trilogies. Consider:

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith begins with a Skywalker (Anakin) on a mission to rescue a Palpatine (the Chancellor) and ends with a Palpatine (now the Emperor) on a mission to rescue a Skywalker (Anakin/Darth Vader).

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi begins with a Skywalker (Luke) on a mission to rescue a Solo (Han) and ends with a Skywalker (Luke) on a mission to rescue a Skywalker (Anakin/Darth Vader) from a Palpatine (the Emperor).

Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker begins with a Skywalker/Solo (Kylo Ren) on a mission to destroy a Palpatine (the Emperor) and ends with a Skywalker/Solo (now Ben) on a mission to rescue a Palpatine (Rey) from a Palpatine (the Emperor).

This is not a lack of imagination. This is intertextual interweaving at a rather fiendishly complex level. But how does it all work? What does it all amount to?

As laid out by Mike Klimo in his remarkable piece on “Star Wars Ring Theory,” the six parts of Lucas’ original saga follow a rigorous chiastic structure, or “ring composition.” A chiasmus is, essentially, a circular composition: it begins with one idea, reaches a turning point in the center, and then doubles back on itself to return to the idea it began with. As we have seen, each trilogy forms a chiasmus: after a crucial turn in the second installment, the third installment circles back to form a mirror image of the first. Moreover, Lucas’ original sextet comprises a larger chiasmus, with The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi acting as the opening and closing bookends and Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope forming the central “turn.” In Lucas’ own words – “It’s like poetry; they rhyme.”

One might wonder how three additional entries could possibly amount to a coherent extension of something so meticulously constructed. Somewhat miraculously, though, The Rise of Skywalker does not merely confirm the sequel trilogy’s status as its own cohesive chiasmus in the same vein as the prequel and original trilogies; it also acts as the final piece in a nine-part chiasmus that encompasses all nine numbered Star Wars episodes. As complicated as this is starting to sound, the overarching design is rather simple, even intuitive. In essence, the nine Star Wars episodes become a veritable onion of chiastic structure:

We should take particular notice of the way that two films play revised roles in the new design. As the fifth of nine installments, The Empire Strikes Back is now the midpoint, the central hinge on which all of Star Wars turns. (It is well suited to the position; it was originally designed as the midpoint of its trilogy, after all.) And, while The Phantom Menace still corresponds to Return of the Jedi in significant ways, its primary counterpart is now The Rise of Skywalker.

From L to R: The Phantom Menace trailer (1999), The Rise of Skywalker trailer (2019)

As the first episode – the “beginning” – The Phantom Menace acts as a kind of prologue to Star Wars. Separated from the other films by a time jump of some ten years, as well as various tonal idiosyncrasies, The Phantom Menace is a thematic and symbolic microcosm of Star Wars, a relatively self-contained adventure that encapsulates virtually all of the saga’s most important ideas and motifs. In similar fashion, The Rise of Skywalker – the final episode, the “ending” – acts as a kind of epilogue to Star Wars. It is less of a standalone story; the time jump separating it from The Last Jedi (about one year) is not nearly as significant, and it relies heavily on the context provided by its predecessors. It is almost as microcosmic as The Phantom Menace, though, recapitulating the central drama of the entire saga – the drama of light and darkness, reason and passion, intellect and appetite, conscious and unconscious.

In Star Wars, evil always has its origin in the shadow side, the unconscious part of the psyche. The dark side of man’s soul, the appetitive or passionate part, must be integrated with the light, with reason and intellect. If the dark side is given free rein, vice flourishes: see the reign of the Empire in the original trilogy. On the other hand, the dark side cannot simply be repressed, because it is most dangerous when it is unacknowledged: see the fall of the Republic and the rise of Palpatine in the prequel trilogy.

Like The Phantom Menace, The Rise of Skywalker begins with Palpatine lurking in the realm of the unconscious, secretly plotting his takeover of the galaxy. The opening crawl even refers to him as “the phantom Emperor.” As Kylo Ren’s starfighter approaches the Sith planet of Exegol, the camera turns upside down – a visual cue recalling the first shot of Attack of the Clones, which inverts the camera in the same way for Padmé’s descent into the clouds of Coruscant.

In Attack of the Clones, the clouds shrouding Coruscant’s cityscape are a visual expression of the spiritual fog masking Palpatine’s presence. In Yoda’s words, “The dark side clouds everything.” Exegol recalls other domains of the dark side from Attack of the Clones, too. Like Kamino, birthplace of the clone army, it is a stormy planet where clones are grown in artificial wombs. Also like Kamino, it is a hidden world, a place that cannot be found on ordinary maps. When Kylo Ren arrives on Exegol, he is presented with a Faustian bargain: a made-to-order army is ready for him to command, but if he accepts it, he will be playing into Palpatine’s hands. It is the very same deal with the devil that was presented to his namesake, Ben Kenobi, on Kamino. As an arid planet with underground factories and a massive, circular, stony arena, Exegol also echoes Geonosis, birthplace of the droid army and site of Anakin and Padmé’s love pledge in Attack of the Clones – but more on that later.

In The Phantom Menace, the heroes never recognize Palpatine’s true nature; even in the midst of their apparent victory, he is secretly sowing the seeds of their downfall. As a direct counterpoint, The Rise of Skywalker begins with the heroes making contact with the world of the unconscious and thus becoming aware of Palpatine’s presence. In this key early scene, the Millennium Falcon is being piloted by Poe Dameron and Chewbacca, two characters strongly associated with the belly – the passions and appetites. Also onboard is Klaud, whose slug-like appearance marks him as a benevolent variation on Jabba the Hutt, though he is also a Jar-Jar Binks type who keeps freaking out in the background of the scene. The Millennium Falcon enters a network of tunnels beneath a mining complex in order to receive a secret message from a spy in the First Order. All of these elements indicate that we are descending into the underworld: the realm of the appetites, the passions, and the unconscious.

In the tunnels, the heroes meet up with the messenger: a green-skinned alien named Boolio. Boolio’s animalistic, almost monstrous appearance links him to the belly or appetite, while his human voice and apparently idealistic character link him to the head, the intellect. (He will later die by beheading.) This unusual mixture of traits, together with his green color, associates Boolio with the spirit, or “chest” – the part of the soul that mediates between the head and the belly. Is it coincidence that he is voiced by Mark Hamill, who portrays Luke Skywalker, one of the few Jedi to integrate light and darkness, attain balance, and wield a green lightsaber?

Boolio only interacts with one other character: Finn (John Boyega), who also represents the chest. Finn helps Boolio transfer the message to R2-D2, who will convey it to Leia. As balanced characters, Boolio and Finn play a vital role in establishing a link between the dark side and the light (the latter represented here by R2-D2 and Leia).

With Poe piloting the Millennium Falcon, the heroes are able to make a narrow escape. Poe’s passionate nature leads him to make reckless choices that the headier Rey would disapprove of, but it also means the underworld is familiar territory to him; he knows how to navigate it. Like Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan journeying through the planet core to warn Padmé of an impending invasion in The Phantom Menace, Finn and Poe hasten back to base to deliver Boolio’s warning to Leia. The sudden appearance of a giant monster, threatening to eat the heroes’ ship, underlines the parallel between the two sequences.

The Resistance has established a new base on Ajan Kloss, a lush green jungle planet. Like Naboo in The Phantom Menace or Endor in Return of the Jedi, this green world is a place of balance, where the three parts of the soul can come together in harmony. This is not happening at the beginning of the film, though. The tripartite soul, as embodied by the trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe, is out of balance. Rey, the head, is frustrated by Poe’s recklessness. Poe, the belly, berates Rey for detaching herself – for training and studying instead of fighting. Finn, the chest, makes a valiant but futile effort to mediate between the other two.

Ultimately, Finn sides with Poe, and in this context, he is right to do so. When we first see her in The Rise of Skywalker, Rey’s detachment is frustrating her attempts to achieve balance. She is in the jungle by herself, levitating, but is unable to “hear the voices of the Jedi who came before.” Soon after, we find her in a cave overlooking the Resistance base, reading the sacred Jedi texts. Both scenes indicate that Rey is living out the quintessential flaw of the Jedi philosophy: she is elevated but isolated, having withdrawn from active relationship with others in order to practice a purely abstract spirituality.

This is a surprising move for Rey, who has always been more compassionate and balanced than the average Jedi, but it is explained by her relationship with Kylo Ren. The spiritual states of the two characters are always connected: Rey is the light and Kylo Ren is the dark. In The Last Jedi, they made an attempt to integrate, with Rey adopting a darker costume and Kylo Ren removing his mask. This effort to achieve balance went poorly, though, and The Last Jedi ended with Rey closing a door between them, cutting off their spiritual bond. By the time The Rise of Skywalker begins, the two characters have fled to opposite extremes. Rey has changed out her dark grey costume for one of pure, pristine white, while Kylo Ren has his mask repaired by a mysterious, beastly creature who looks like a kind of ape or gremlin:

Though Rey has taken steps to distance herself from Kylo Ren, her Jedi training on Ajan Kloss forces her to confront her dark side, as Luke was forced to confront his on Dagobah (another lush green planet). As part of an exercise, she cuts a red ribbon down from a tree and carries it with her. Immediately after, she runs into some dark woods – the same kind of setting where she first encountered Kylo Ren – and Abrams begins to intercut the training scene with Kylo Ren meditating over Vader’s helmet in his chambers. As Rey’s anxiety and frustration mount, she starts to act out of anger, and when she violently destroys the red training droid, her Force bond with Kylo Ren is reestablished, resulting in a vision that combines past traumas with ominous portents for the future.

Rather than isolating herself out of fear, as the Jedi of the prequels might have done, Rey moves towards balance. “You were right before,” she tells Poe, beginning to reintegrate her passions with her reason. The heroes’ subsequent quest for a Sith Wayfinder that can lead them to Exegol is a marked contrast to the flaws that characterize the heroes of the prequel trilogy. Instead of separating from each other, burying their feelings, and trying to deny the reality of the dark side, the heroes work together to search out what has been hidden and confront it. This episodic “treasure hunt” plot plays like a kind of “greatest hits” reel, remixing key elements from all of the films that came before, not unlike the first acts of Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi.

The first destination is Pasaana, where this backward-looking quality becomes rather explicit. Upon their arrival, the heroes stumble into the “Festival of the Ancestors,” which takes place “once every 42 years” – a cheekily metatextual touch, winking at the 42 years that elapsed between the release of the original Star Wars in 1977 and that of The Rise of Skywalker in 2019. The heroes’ journey into the past doubles as the film’s journey into the past. The desert locale recalls Tatooine and Jakku; each Star Wars trilogy begins in the desert and returns to the desert.

Furthermore, there is a dramatic performance in the third installment of every trilogy. In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine regales Anakin with the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise while they are watching an opera, luring him to join the Sith. In Return of the Jedi, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) acts out the story of the original trilogy for the Ewoks, inspiring them to join the Rebel Alliance. Both scenes have a metatextual quality, framing the act of storytelling as one that influences the moral formation of the audience, for good or for ill. At the Festival of the Ancestors – which, as we noted, is also nodding to the real-life impact of Star Wars – Rey sees a puppet show being watched by an audience of children, recalling the childlike Ewoks. (The performance depicts a figure being thrown into a fire, perhaps alluding to the cremation ceremonies that conclude both The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi.)

Descending: Revenge of the Sith (2005), Return of the Jedi (1983), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

While Rey is watching the performance, she is approached by a diminutive alien child named Nambi Ghima. Nambi Ghima’s green robe marks her as another character, like Boolio, who acts as a redemptive link between the dark side and the light. Innocently, she prods at Rey’s deepest anxieties, which center around the mystery of her absent parents: “She would be honored to know your family name,” C-3PO translates. “I don’t have one,” Rey says, trying to smile, but the uncovering of her buried feelings reopens her Force bond with Kylo Ren. At the end of the ensuing conversation, Kylo Ren seizes a necklace from Rey through the Force. The carved wooden necklace, a gift from Nambi Ghima, recalls the trinket Anakin gave to Padmé as a child in The Phantom Menace. Just as that necklace linked Padmé to Anakin, this necklace links Rey to Kylo Ren – a parallel that will only deepen as the film goes on.

From L to R: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), The Phantom Menace (1999)

The Pasaana sequence features a number of other parallels to past films. As in Return of the Jedi, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) appears in disguise, his face obscured by a large helmet, and gives the heroes aid. Lando explains that Exegol can only be reached with a Sith Wayfinder, of which “Only two were made” – recalling The Phantom Menace’s emphasis that Sith come in pairs. Per Yoda, “Always two there are. No more, no less.”

After meeting with Lando, the heroes flee into the desert on speeders. The subsequent chase is one of the film’s most overtly referential sequences, hearkening back to the podrace on Tatooine in The Phantom Menace, the speeder chase through the Endor forest in Return of the Jedi, and the Millennium Falcon’s escape from Jakku in The Force Awakens. In all four sequences, the heroes must navigate through a narrow space – a canyon, a tunnel – at high speed. There are also numerous obstacles along the way, such as trees or course markers. At a key turning point, one of the vehicles flies up into the sky, gaining altitude, and lingers in the air for a moment before coming down again. Finally, the sequences in The Phantom Menace, Return of the Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker all end when the villains’ vehicles get entangled with the heroes’. In each case, the heroes use this entanglement to their advantage, resulting in the destruction of the enemy vehicle.

The speeders on Pasaana also look like boats or skiffs, drawing a parallel to the battle around the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi. The correlation is reinforced by the comically violent fate of a jetpack-wearing Stormtrooper, which recalls Boba Fett’s ignominious demise. The heroes then find themselves trapped in quicksand – a connection to the sinking sand on Jakku in The Force Awakens – and descend into a cave, where they encounter a brown serpent that bears a strong visual resemblance to the Rancor, furthering associations with the first act of Return of the Jedi.

In both instances, the monster’s fate foreshadows the fate of the film’s primary villain. Luke has to kill the Rancor, but its keeper weeps over its death; at the film’s end, Luke sheds tears over the death of Darth Vader. Although Poe wants to simply “blast” the serpent, Rey overcomes her fear and acts out of compassion. Seeing that the creature is wounded, she heals it: “I just transferred a bit of life… Force energy from me to him.” The use of a masculine pronoun for the serpent highlights its connection to Kylo Ren, whose wound Rey will later heal in the same manner. After it has been subdued, the serpent leaves, creating a hole that brings light into the dark cave, just as Kylo Ren will later turn from darkness to the light.

From L to R: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), Revenge of the Sith (2005)

There is another, subtler parallel with monsters in the Pasaana cave. In addition to the serpent, the heroes find the bones of Ochi of Bestoon, the previous custodian of the Sith Wayfinder. Ochi is described as a “Jedi hunter,” and his bones, splayed on the floor, resemble the skeletal-looking corpse of the Jedi-hunting General Grievous in Revenge of the Sith. In the same way that the Rancor’s fate foreshadows Darth Vader’s, the fate of General Grievous foreshadows the fate of Anakin Skywalker: both suffer a fiery defeat in combat with Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Afterwards, Anakin becomes a cloaked, heavily breathing cyborg, like Grievous.) Moreover, just as Kenobi escapes in Grievous’ starfighter after his death, the heroes of The Rise of Skywalker flee in Ochi’s ship after finding his corpse.

Ochi has a clue to the whereabouts of the Sith Wayfinder: a dagger inscribed with Sith runes. Although C-3PO is able to read the dagger, learning the location of the Wayfinder, he is unable to share this knowledge with the others: “My programming forbids me from translating it… I am mechanically incapable of speaking translations from Sith. I believe the rule was passed by the Senate of the Old Republic.” This conceit is directly connected to the psychological themes of the prequel trilogy. In essence, C-3PO is repressed; he has knowledge of the dark side, but it is locked away inside him, consigned to the unconscious. It is entirely apt that this block was put in place by the Senate of the Old Republic, the main representative of repressive consciousness in the prequels. When Poe is aghast that C-3PO cannot tell the forbidden tale of the Sith Wayfinder, the droid deadpans, “Irony, sir.” The word choice draws a connection to Palpatine, who intones “It’s ironic” while sharing the forbidden story of Darth Plagueis.

To access this repressed knowledge, the heroes have to descend further into the world of the unconscious, traveling to the snowy planet of Kijimi, where Poe has to confront his own hidden past. Kijimi is a seedy underworld, occupied by the First Order and inhabited by a pirate gang led by Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell). In other words, it is hostile to the intellect: “I want to see your brains in the snow,” Zorii spits at Poe (emphasis mine). This makes it an ideal place to bypass the restrictions set by the Senate of the Old Republic: “We’ve got to crack this droid’s head open and fast,” Poe says of C-3PO (emphasis mine). Zorii’s dynamic with Poe is an inverse of Leia’s relationship with Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back: whereas Leia wanted Han to abandon his scoundrelly ways and join the Rebel cause, Zorii resents Poe for leaving piracy behind to become one of Leia’s Resistance fighters.

After allying with Zorii’s band of outlaws, the heroes enlist the help of Babu Frik, a diminutive “black market droidsmith,” to make C-3PO translate the Sith runes. The tiny Babu Frik, who speaks an unintelligible alien language, is of the same stripe as the Jawas who enslave C-3PO in A New Hope, the Ugnaughts who nearly smelt him down in The Empire Strikes Back, and the Ewoks who worship him in Return of the Jedi.

The procedure necessitates a “complete memory wipe,” essentially resetting C-3PO. The erasure of C-3PO’s memories echoes the end of Revenge of the Sith, when Bail Organa – a Senator of the Old Republic, not coincidentally – has the protocol droid’s mind wiped to keep the whereabouts of Anakin’s children secret. As a “death” of sorts for C-3PO, the scene also brings the saga full circle to his “birth” in The Phantom Menace. Certain visual details, such as the presence of a Trade Federation Battle Droid in the back of Babu Frik’s workshop and C-3PO’s exposed wiring, underline the parallel.

From L to R: The Phantom Menace (1999), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

C-3PO’s forbidden knowledge – which turns his eyes red, a kind of parallel to his red arm in The Force Awakens – leads Rey and the others to the wreckage of the second Death Star, submerged in a roiling sea, the archetypal Jungian symbol for the psyche’s turbulent depths. Each stage of the heroes’ journey represents a further descent into the realm of the unconscious. The deeper they go, the more Rey’s conflict with Kylo Ren intensifies, and the more she tries to suppress her feelings, the more she acts out of uncontrolled emotion. As the embodiment of Rey’s dark side, Kylo Ren persistently goads her to face what has been repressed. On Pasaana, he pushes her until she shoots uncontrollable Force lightning – a dark side power – from her fingertips, destroying a First Order transport and seemingly killing Chewbacca. Ironically, it is precisely Rey’s attempts to overcome her passions that lead her to act out of unruly emotion, lashing out (unwittingly, in this case) against a character associated with the appetite. The same thing happens between her and Kylo Ren; when he pushes her to confront the truth about her parents, she makes a violent effort to silence him, attacking him with her lightsaber and shouting, “Stop talking!” In the course of their duel, a pot is slashed open and red beans spill out – an apt touch, given that Kylo Ren is about to “spill the beans,” so to speak.

The suppressed truth – that Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, who had her parents killed by Ochi of Bestoon – makes an opening for Kylo Ren to tempt Rey to join the dark side. “We’ll kill him together and take the throne,” he says, removing his mask and offering her his hand, a gesture that recalls their attempted integration of light and dark in The Last Jedi, as well as Darth Vader’s offer to Luke: “You can destroy the Emperor… Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”

It may seem odd that the reveal of Rey’s true parentage is delayed to the third film in the trilogy. After all, the infamous revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father comes in the second entry in the original trilogy. However, we should also consider that Anakin’s virgin birth is revealed in the first prequel. The nine-part chiasmus, then, turns out to be neatly symmetrical: the heroes’ origins are revealed at the beginning, at the midpoint, and at the end. Like Luke, Rey is shocked to learn of her biological relation to evil; instead of accepting an offer to join the dark side, kill the Emperor, and rule the galaxy, she makes a dangerous jump from a high place. Moreover, the revelation that Rey and Kylo Ren are a “dyad in the Force” recalls Qui-Gon Jinn’s description of Anakin as a “vergence in the Force,” and like Qui-Gon fleeing from Darth Maul, Rey leaps onto the boarding ramp of a flying ship to make her escape.

From L to R: The Phantom Menace (1999), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

The film’s journey into Star Wars’ past is also a journey into Rey’s own past, culminating in her arrival at the ruin of the second Death Star – “A bad place from an old war.” Rey, a descendant of the Emperor, grew up in the ruins of the Empire. In The Force Awakens, we first meet her climbing around inside the hulking remains of crashed Star Destroyers and making her home in an abandoned AT-AT. In The Rise of Skywalker, when she scales the decaying Death Star in search of the Sith Wayfinder, it is as if she is going back to her roots.

From L to R: The Force Awakens (2015), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Rey may be able to reach the Wayfinder, but she is hardly ready to face Palpatine when she still has unfinished business with Kylo Ren. “The only way you’re getting to Exegol is with me,” he says before destroying the map, and she reacts with rage, proving his claims that the dark side is “in [her] nature.” The subsequent duel combines the climactic duels of both previous trilogies. Like Anakin and Obi-Wan battling amidst a raging sea of lava in Revenge of the Sith, Rey and Kylo Ren duel against the backdrop of a tempestuous ocean – and, more overtly, their duel begins in the very same throne room where Luke fought Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi.

For all the similarities between the sequences, though, it is their differences that reveal the truly striking progression. In Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan defeats Anakin by severing his limbs, laments the end of their brotherly love, and leaves him to burn, marking his transformation from Anakin into Darth Vader. In Return of the Jedi, Luke defeats Anakin by severing his hand, but reaffirms his filial love for him and refuses to take his life, instigating his transformation from Darth Vader into Anakin. In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey defeats Kylo Ren, but reveals her romantic love for him and heals his wound before leaving him, precipitating his transformation from Kylo Ren into Ben Solo.

Descending: Revenge of the Sith (2005), Return of the Jedi (1983), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

The way Rey defeats Kylo Ren, stabbing him through the belly with his own red lightsaber, explicitly echoes the way he killed his father in The Force Awakens. Moreover, it brings the saga full circle to the climactic duel of The Phantom Menace, which concluded with Darth Maul stabbing Qui-Gon through the belly. The death of Qui-Gon led to imbalance in the Force and the rise of Palpatine. When Rey chooses to heal Kylo Ren’s wound in the aftermath of the saga’s final lightsaber duel, she is healing the wounds of the past in a number of ways, setting the stage for the restoration of balance and Palpatine’s ultimate downfall.

Part II: What Our Mothers and Fathers Fought For

Across all nine episodes, the cosmic drama of Star Wars – the spiritual drama of light and darkness – is always playing out on three levels: the political or military level, the family level, and the religious level. It is on the political level that the sequel trilogy leaves the most to be desired: the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order is not as clearly defined or compelling as the fall of the Republic or the Rebellion against the Empire. At a first glance, it seems as if The Rise of Skywalker merely rehearses the political conclusion of Return of the Jedi: the tyrannical, fascistic empire is defeated, ushering in a nebulous new era of peace and freedom. If this is the case, we may wonder whether or not this peace will last. What will prevent the rise of another First Order? The Rise of Skywalker does not quite pose a satisfying answer to that question, but it does advance the political drama of Star Wars in some significant ways.

We have noted that the heroes’ quest for the Sith Wayfinder leads Rey and Poe to confront their respective pasts. In fact, this pattern corresponds fairly neatly to the stops along the way: Pasaana is the planet where Rey’s past comes to light and Kijimi is the planet where Poe’s comes to light. Fittingly, then, it is on Kef Bir that Finn comes in contact with his past. Like Rey, Finn, a former Stormtrooper, was raised in the ruins of the Empire. On Kef Bir, the heroes do not only find the ruins of the old Death Star; they also find a contingent of Stormtrooper defectors like Finn, led by Jannah (Naomi Ackie).

With their ragged clothes, scrappy demeanor, and shaggy, wild-looking animal mounts, Jannah and the other former Stormtroopers are like a troupe of lost children. Like Finn, they are orphans, taken from their families and pressed into the service of the First Order. Living in uncultivated grasslands by a tempestuous ocean, they are attuned to the unconscious: Jannah tells Rey, “I can take you [to the Death Star] by water” (emphasis mine). These lost ex-Stormtroopers are the “primitives” of The Rise of Skywalker, analogous to the Gungans of The Phantom Menace or the Ewoks of Return of the Jedi. Carl Jung propounds his idea of the “primitive” thus: “[H]is psyche is essentially collective and therefore for the most part unconscious.”

In The Force Awakens, Finn starts out as one of Jung’s primitives – a nameless member of the First Order collective. When he is “awakened” from his First Order brainwashing, and thus freed from the domination of the collective unconscious, he begins to make his own decisions. After deserting from the First Order, though, Finn does not immediately commit to the cause of the Resistance; that development only comes about at the end of The Last Jedi. The Finn we meet in The Rise of Skywalker, then, has reached a new level of maturity. He has individual agency, but uses that agency to make rational choices guided by larger ideals instead of reacting to stimuli or following his passions. As we saw earlier, he has become a balanced character, mediating between the extremes of the head and the belly (as embodied by Rey and Poe, respectively). As such, he is well suited to form an alliance with the former Stormtroopers, just as Padmé formed an alliance with the Gungans and C-3PO formed an alliance with the Ewoks.

Finn’s crucial conversation with Jannah takes place in the bowels of the Millennium Falcon. The scene has strong red and blue lighting: this is a space where the conscious and the unconscious can come together and forge a connection. Jannah’s description of her company’s mutiny explicitly recalls Finn’s own awakening: “They told us to fire on civilians. We wouldn’t do it. We laid our weapons down.” She does not know how to explain this experience, to put it into words, but Finn does. He attributes this moral instinct, this “feeling,” to the Force: “The Force brought me here… brought me to Rey, to Poe… It’s real. I wasn’t sure then, but I am now.” Finn’s testimony recalls the first time he heard about the Force, from another former skeptic who became a believer of sorts after experiencing a moral awakening. In The Force Awakens, during another key conversation on the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo tells Finn and Rey, “I thought it was a bunch of mumbo jumbo: a magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is, it’s true. The Force, the Jedi… all of it. It’s all true.”

The film’s political vision leans heavily on the importance of preserving continuity with the past. Just as Finn draws inspiration from Han Solo to lead the ex-Stormtroopers, Poe draws inspiration from Leia and Lando Calrissian to lead the Resistance. In his speech to rouse the troops before the final attack on Exegol, he stresses the importance of these bonds: “What our mothers and fathers fought for, we will not let die… Today we make our last stand, for the galaxy. For Leia.” These final words accompany the image of the Rebel Blockade Runner – Leia’s ship from the first scene of A New Hope, an icon of the past – rising out of the jungle to fly into battle.

However, Leia’s legacy in the sequel trilogy – like the other heroes’ – is complicated. In the opening scene of The Force Awakens, Poe refers to her as “the general,” prompting an intriguing comment from Max Von Sydow’s old sage: “The general? To me, she is royalty.” Elsewhere in The Force Awakens, Leia wistfully reflects that, after losing their son, she and Han both retreated into old patterns. “I went back to the only thing I was ever any good at,” he admits; she replies, “We both did.” The implication is that Leia was more comfortable as a general, a military leader in wartime, than as a princess, a political leader in peacetime. Perhaps this tells us something about the instability of the New Republic that arose after Return of the Jedi and was summarily destroyed in The Force Awakens. Perhaps the heroes of the Rebellion were good at tearing down an evil Empire, but less adept at establishing a new government in its stead.

In The Rise of Skywalker, Leia does not repudiate her role as general – she passes it on to Poe and Finn – but she does reclaim her role as princess. In death, she is shrouded in pure white, recalling her iconic original costume from A New Hope, in contrast to the green and purple military uniforms that have comprised her primary wardrobe in the sequel trilogy. The shift in her legacy is recognized by friends and foes alike. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) eulogizes: “Goodbye, dear princess.” Palpatine, meanwhile, spits: “The Princess of Alderaan has disrupted my plan, but her foolish act will be in vain.”

Of course, Leia’s death is far from vain. Her disruption of Palpatine’s plan will ripple out until it leads to his destruction and the defeat of the Final Order. As a princess, she embodies an ideal, inspiring Poe to rise up and lead as she once did. She is not only a military-political mentor to Poe, though. She is also a spiritual mentor to Rey, and in her death, she becomes a third thing: not only a general, not only a princess, but also a Jedi Master. Like Obi-Wan and Luke before her, she faces her fear and dies a martyr’s death, giving up her life for something beyond herself. After death, her body dematerializes, passing into the Force as theirs did.

Poe becomes Leia’s heir as the military leader of the Rebellion, while Rey inherits other legacies in the political sphere: those of Padmé and Palpatine, two senators from Naboo whose decisions determined the political course of the galaxy in The Phantom Menace. Exegol, Palpatine’s new home and the site of his attempt to reclaim political domination of the galaxy, recalls two worlds from the prequel trilogy: Naboo, his birthplace, and Coruscant, where he first rose to power.

From L to R: The Phantom Menace (1999), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

The enormous stone statues on Exegol echo the huge, crumbling statues in the Gungan “sacred place” on Naboo – another hidden location where the conscious and the unconscious meet. It is in this sacred place that Padmé compromises her pacifist principles in The Phantom Menace. Although she begins the film staunchly declaring, “I will not condone a course of action that will lead us to war,” Queen Amidala ultimately uses the Gungans’ army to take back her planet by military force. She acts out of emotion, rather than principle, undermining her conscious ideals in order to meet her unconscious desires. It is the same thing that happens in the senate chamber on Coruscant. Palpatine whispers in Padmé’s ear – like the serpent in the Garden, whispering in Eve’s – that the current Chancellor is too weak to resolve the crisis. He creates anxiety in her and encourages her to let that anxiety dictate her actions. She succumbs to the temptation, voting out Chancellor Valorum and paving the way for Palpatine to take his place – a chain of events that ultimately leaves her watching in helpless dismay as Palpatine becomes Emperor and liberty dies “with thunderous applause.”

From L to R: Revenge of the Sith (2005), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

We hear the same thunderous applause in the throne room on Exegol, which visually resembles the senate chamber on Coruscant: it is a vast, circular auditorium with Palpatine presiding in the center, multitudes thronging around him. Here, Palpatine tempts Rey the same way he tempted Padmé, creating a situation where she must seize power to save her embattled people: “Strike me down. Take the throne. Reign over the new Empire and the fleet will be yours. Only you have the power to save them. Refuse, and your new family dies.” He also offers a perversion of the generational continuity championed in Poe’s speech: “You will be Empress. We will be one.” Rey, however, resists the temptation that Padmé fell to. Instead of making a pact with the unconscious to bring about a desired result, she chooses nonviolence and refuses the throne.

The throne on Exegol is not the first dark throne Rey sees in The Rise of Skywalker. In the ruin of the Death Star on Kef Bir, she encounters the decrepit remains of Palpatine’s previous throne – a fitting icon of the ultimate fate of any empire based on the lure of material power. In the end, evil is self-destructive: Palpatine is destroyed by his own lightning, just as General Pryde’s (Richard E. Grant) Star Destroyer is destroyed by its own cannon. (As in The Phantom Menace, the heroes win by destroying the command ship that is broadcasting a signal to the enemy army. Moreover, the way Finn and Jannah commandeer the cannon on Pryde’s Star Destroyer recalls the way Luke and Leia use the cannon on Jabba’s sail barge in Return of the Jedi.)

Evil proves self-defeating – also note how General Hux (Dohmnall Gleeson) betrays Kylo Ren for the pettiest of reasons – but the forces of good win by working together in harmony. At the beginning of the saga, the galaxy is fragmented, atomized; according to Shmi Skywalker, “The biggest problem in this universe is nobody helps each other.” The main conflict of The Phantom Menace bears out Shmi’s claim. When Naboo is invaded by the Trade Federation, the Senate is too apathetic to take effective action, pushing Padmé to take matters into her own hands. We should notice how completely the climax of The Rise of Skywalker reverses the situation. In the first film of the Star Wars saga, a good planet in the outer reaches of the galaxy is blockaded by evil forces and the central systems cannot be bothered to do anything about it. In the final film, the forces of good are trying to blockade an evil planet in the outer reaches of the galaxy, and the central systems come to their aid at the eleventh hour – a full-scale populist uprising to combat the threat of fascistic tyranny. “Where did they get all these fighter craft?” General Pryde asks incredulously. “They have no navy.” “It’s not a navy, sir,” his aide replies. “It’s just… people.”

These “people” are summoned by Lando, who, like Finn, is well qualified to serve as a mediator by his varied life experience. Lando started out as a scoundrel, became a respected businessman, and then became a Rebel general; he is able to rally both lowlifes like Zorii Bliss and war heroes like Wedge Antilles. Just as the Death Star is destroyed by a lone fighter in A New Hope and the Empire is toppled by the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, the Final Order’s defeat comes from unexpected sources; the technocratic Pryde is bewildered when Finn and Jannah lead a cavalry charge across the surface of his Star Destroyer, using the ex-Stormtroopers’ horses from Kef Bir. (This tactic, harnessing nature against technology, recalls the Gungans as well as the Ewoks.)

The end of The Rise of Skywalker ends with a broader, more comprehensive picture of societal unity than Return of the Jedi. Its most satisfying vision of harmony, though, is not at the political level but at the interpersonal level. “We had each other,” Lando tells Poe. “That’s how we won.” Returning to Ajan Kloss for the victory celebration, the three heroes embrace, an image that directly contrasts against their bickering at the beginning of the film. Finn, ever the mediator, hugs Rey and Poe together tightly; Poe, who was previously averse to handholding, clasps Rey’s hand. The three have achieved balance internally, within themselves, and externally, in relationship to each other.

Part III: The Destiny of a Jedi

The Rise of Skywalker does not only resolve the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order, the latest variation on the Star Wars saga’s perennial struggle between liberty and tyranny. It also brings the age-old conflict of the Jedi and the Sith to a close.

At the end of the previous film, Rey inherited the mantle of “the last Jedi” from Luke Skywalker, demonstrating her Force powers by “lifting rocks.” When this episode begins, we see her picking up right where she and Luke left off, levitating in a lotus position while stones float around her. Throughout The Rise of Skywalker, Rey acts as the representative of the Jedi, for good and ill. Her arc over the course of this one film reflects and recapitulates the arc of the Jedi Order across all nine films.

From L to R: The Last Jedi (2017), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

As we have already noted, Rey is living out the greatest Jedi flaw when The Rise of Skywalker opens. Like the Jedi of the prequels, withdrawing into their ivory tower on Coruscant, she is detached from those around her; Poe accuses her of ignoring their practical, material needs while she is meditating alone and poring over the sacred texts Luke was so concerned about. Not only is Rey cut off from relationships with living persons, she is unable to commune with the spirits of past Jedi: “I’m starting to think it isn’t possible to hear voices of the Jedi who came before.” Rey’s spirituality has become arid and impersonal, leading her to doubt. She repeats the mantra, “Be with me,” but still feels alone.

Lest this critique of the Jedi seem too simplistic and one-sided, we should notice that Rey’s training pushes against her detachment, rather than fostering it. Her exercises on Ajan Kloss are physically strenuous, not merely abstract or intellectual; they bring her passions to the surface instead of burying them. Moreover, it is from the sacred Jedi texts – which Luke guarded on Ahch-To but failed to read himself – that Rey learns about Exegol and the Sith Wayfinder.

Presumably, it is from these same ancient texts that Rey learns the power of Force healing – a power never used by any Jedi in any of the eight preceding episodes. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin tells Padmé that compassion is “central to a Jedi’s life,” but there is little evidence that the Jedi we meet in the prequels are actively living up to such an ideal. In fact, it is precisely Qui-Gon Jinn’s compassionate nature that sets him apart from the other Jedi Masters of his time. The Rise of Skywalker suggests that the radical compassion of Jedi like Qui-Gon, Luke, and Rey is not a deviation from Jedi philosophy but a reclamation of the Jedi’s true mission – a mission largely forgotten during the time of the prequels. The true Jedi way is not one of self-imposed, self-protective isolation, but of radical self-donation – of giving one’s own life to heal others’.

Rey’s struggle with spiritual isolation comes to a head after she attacks Kylo Ren on Kef Bir, acting out in anger, mortally wounding her foe, and indirectly bringing about the death of Leia, her own Jedi Master. In the wake of this failure to follow Jedi teachings, she flees to Ahch-To, intending to cut herself off from the rest of the galaxy. This attempt at ultimate detachment echoes Luke Skywalker’s crisis of shame and despair after his own failure with Kylo Ren. It is no coincidence that Rey chooses the same spot for her own exile: “I’m never leaving this place. I’m doing what you did,” she tells him. Like Luke, Rey tries to throw away the Skywalker lightsaber, but he catches it and gives it back to her, reversing their roles from The Last Jedi. Now it is Rey who, afraid of her own potential for evil, is trying to reject her role as a Jedi, and it is Luke who is urging her to take it up again. Their subsequent conversation recalls Yoda’s talk with Luke in The Last Jedi, though the roles have shifted: now Luke is the ghostly master firmly setting his apprentice straight. (In both instances, the master appears when the apprentice tries to set fire to an icon of the Jedi, and the pyre continues to burn in the background of the scene.)

From L to R: The Last Jedi (2017), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

“The greatest teacher, failure is,” Yoda told Luke in The Last Jedi, and the Luke we meet in The Rise of Skywalker has taken the lesson to heart. “I was wrong,” he tells Rey plainly. He proceeds to teach her by interpreting his own failure: “It was fear that kept me here.”

Rey – like Luke, like the Jedi Council of the prequels – fears fear itself. She believes that being a Jedi means suppressing and denying fear. Recall Yoda’s words in The Phantom Menace: “Fear is the path to the dark side… Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” However, Luke knows full well that striving to hide from fear is only another way of being enslaved by that fear. He redefines a Jedi’s relationship to fear, telling Rey, “Confronting fear is the destiny of a Jedi.” Luke corrects his master’s old errors, even as he lives out his teachings. Yoda trained Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, but Luke ran counter to his teaching methods in The Last Jedi. Rather than confronting the dark side, he urged Rey to avoid it. Now he is aligned with Yoda, raising his X-Wing from the waters as Yoda did and sending Rey to Exegol to face her grandfather, just as Yoda sent him into the dark cave on Dagobah where he came face to face with his father.

From L to R: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Leia also plays a part in adjusting the legacy of the Jedi. In the previous trilogies, Yoda was reluctant to train Anakin and Luke in the ways of the Jedi, fearing the darkness in their uncertain futures. Luke carried the same fear while training Ben. Leia, however, decides to train Rey as a Jedi even though she knows she is a Palpatine. “She still trained me,” Rey says, both stunned and heartened by the revelation – a pointed contrast to the chips Anakin, Luke, and Ben carried on their shoulders because of their mentors’ reticence.

While the emotionally aloof Jedi of the prequels played a significant part in Anakin’s downfall, the compassionate Jedi of the sequels are instrumental in Ben’s redemption. Anakin turned to the dark side because Palpatine promised that he could save Padmé from death with the power of the Sith; Ben returns to the light because Rey Palpatine saves him from death with the power of the Jedi. After turning to the dark side, Anakin went to the Jedi Temple and destroyed his former allies, the Jedi Knights; after returning to the light side, Ben goes to the Sith Temple and destroys his former allies, the Knights of Ren.

From L to R: Revenge of the Sith (2005), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine tells Anakin that “The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way.” The designs of their respective temples highlight those similarities and differences. Just as Palpatine’s observation tower on the second Death Star was almost identical to the tower atop the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, the Sith Temple on Exegol and the Jedi Temple are both roughly triangular in shape. The Jedi Temple is a triangle pointing up, with the Council residing at the uppermost point, in the tower. In direct opposition, the Sith Temple is a triangle pointing down, with Palpatine’s underground throne room at the bottom. The visual contrast is significant. The Jedi are always oriented towards the immaterial – “Luminous beings are we,” Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back, “Not this crude matter” – but the Sith are always oriented towards the material. To reach the Jedi Council, one must ascend; to reach the Sith Throne, one must descend. For the Jedi, power comes from above; for the Sith, power comes from below. In The Last Jedi, Yoda summons lighting from the heavens; in The Rise of Skywalker, Palpatine shoots lightning out of the depths.

From L to R: The Last Jedi (2017), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

The opening crawl for The Rise of Skywalker begins: “The dead speak!” This is true of both Jedi and Sith, but they seek immortality in radically different ways. When Kylo Ren finds Palpatine on Exegol, the Emperor croaks, “I have died before… The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.” It is the same line he used to seduce Anakin, but here we clearly see the toll that an unnaturally prolonged life extracts. Like Darth Vader, this Palpatine is a cyborg, maimed and disfigured. (There is a similar control plate on his abdomen.) Darth Vader and the resurrected Palpatine are not quite human, not quite alive; there is a hint of Frankenstein’s monster about them. “Look what you have made,” Palpatine says to his throng of Sith cultists (emphasis mine). The Palpatine we meet in The Rise of Skywalker also recalls another classic movie monster: he has become a kind of vampire, hiding in a crypt in a world of perpetual night, staying alive by sucking the life out of others. Is it coincidence that Rey defeats him with a lightsaber cross, bringing light into his realm of darkness?

Sith resort to “unnatural” means to stave off death, seeking to bend nature to their will. The Jedi of the prequels, in contrast, practice a stoic submission to nature. “Death is a natural part of life,” Yoda says in Revenge of the Sith. “Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not.” Anakin’s dissatisfaction with Yoda’s advice is only natural; such indifference to death is nearly as inhuman as the Sith’s artificial immortality.

Over the course of the saga, the Jedi attitude towards death shifts. The Jedi of the prequels do not believe in a personal afterlife; in The Clone Wars, we learn that they dogmatically deny such a possibility. At the end of Revenge of the Sith, however, Yoda tells Obi-Wan that Qui-Gon has “learned the path to immortality” and “returned from the netherworld of the Force.” This paves the way for Obi-Wan’s pronouncement in A New Hope: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” When Obi-Wan gives his life on the Death Star, he becomes one with the Force, but does not lose his personhood; though disembodied, he lives to guide Luke, first as a voice and then as a visible spirit. Paradoxically, Jedi become immortal precisely by giving their lives away.

These different ideas of immortality inform the Jedi and Sith’s different ideas of mastery and succession. Kylo Ren seeks Palpatine out because the existence of this phantom Emperor poses a threat to his own power as Supreme Leader. “I killed Snoke,” he says. “I’ll kill you.” The Sith always practice this kind of violent, Darwinian succession: the apprentice remains an apprentice until he is able to overcome and supplant his master or until he is replaced by an apprentice with the strength to do so. When Rey arrives on Exegol, she intends to break this cycle – “I haven’t come to lead the Sith. I’ve come to end them” – but killing Palpatine would only perpetuate it. “You want to kill me,” he says, sensing her hatred and anger. “That is what I want. Kill me and my spirit will pass into you, as all the Sith live in me.”

Palpatine’s invitation reveals the Sith ethos as a warped echo of the Jedi ethos. “We are what they grow beyond,” Yoda tells Luke in The Last Jedi. “That is the true burden of all masters.” For the Jedi, the master decreases so that the apprentice can increase, and through this process, the apprentice receives a portion of the master’s spirit. Luke tells Rey, “A thousand generations live in you now.” Qui-Gon tells her, “Every Jedi who ever lived lives in you.” And Yoda says, “Alone, never have you been.” Though there are always two Sith, the ultimate goal is to be the last one standing. When Rey stands against Palpatine, she has Ben at her side and a host of Jedi at her back.

Rey is only able to hear the voices of the Jedi who came before when she has come to the end of herself, to a place of complete physical weakness. Lying prone on the ground, she looks up, beyond the material world, past the hopeless battle that makes it seem like the only option is to seize power. The camera drifts upward into a star field, in a moment that recalls the final battle of A New Hope: when Luke hears and obeys Obi-Wan’s instruction to “let go,” the camera briefly becomes unmoored, floating away, up and out of the Death Star trench, towards the stars. To commune with her masters, Rey must let go, as they did. And yet, we should note that she communes with specific persons, not with an abstract, impersonal force. “In the heart of a Jedi lies her strength” – not, that is, in her head.

In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine christens Anakin Darth Vader and tells him to “rise” as a Sith. In The Rise of Skywalker, when the Jedi tell Rey to “rise,” she has become a true Jedi. Just as Palpatine is the representative of “all the Sith,” Rey is the champion of “all the Jedi,” living out Yoda’s teaching that “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” Rather than striking Palpatine down in anger, she allows him to destroy himself. By refusing to grasp for power, she becomes more powerful than he could ever imagine. By dying, she lives.

Part IV: The Last Skywalker

When Emperor Palpatine dies, a last master with no apprentice to take his place, the Sith die with him. The temple on Exegol crumbles, apparently burying the cult of the Sith forever in its fall. At the same time, Rey Palpatine, the last Jedi, dies, and it is almost as if the Jedi Order has died with her. The Star Wars saga ends with the burial of two blue lightsabers: icons, perhaps, of the last two Jedi Masters.

An intriguing progression emerges when we look at the titles of the final episode of each trilogy. The prequels build to Revenge of the Sith, the original trilogy culminates in Return of the Jedi, and the sequel trilogy ends with The Rise of Skywalker. The religious gives way to the familial: in The Rise of Skywalker, the conflict between the Jedi and the Sith – two religious orders – runs parallel to, dovetails with, and is finally superseded by the conflict between two families: the Skywalkers and the Palpatines. It is the story of how Ben Solo, the last of the Skywalker line, is redeemed from the way of the Sith to the way of the Jedi. And it is the story of how Rey, the last Jedi, is redeemed from the Palpatine family to the Skywalker family.

Rey and Ben embody dueling aspects of the Skywalker family legacy. In The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren meditates over the helmet of his grandfather, Darth Vader: “Show me [the power of the darkness], grandfather, and I will finish what you started.” Early in The Rise of Skywalker, Rey tells Leia, “I need to finish what Luke started,” her phrasing directly echoing Kylo Ren’s. The two protagonists of the sequel trilogy mirror the protagonists of the two previous trilogies.

Descending: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Force Awakens (2015), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

The smoke coiling out of the eyehole of Vader’s mask in The Rise of Skywalker visually recalls Luke’s vision on Dagobah, in which Vader’s helmet opens to reveal his own face, with smoke trailing from one eye. Luke and Kylo Ren are both troubled by their kinship with Vader, but for almost diametrically opposed reasons. Luke is afraid he will become like Vader, while Kylo Ren is afraid he will fail to become like Vader. He is forever trying to live up to Vader’s legacy – and forever falling short of it, as Rey perceives in their first face-to-face meeting: “You’re afraid that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader.” This impossible, Sisyphean goal seems to have been set by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), whose original intention in turning Ben Solo to the dark side was to fashion him into “a new Vader.” When Kylo Ren confronts Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker, the Emperor poses the same temptation with a new twist: “Kill the girl, end the Jedi, and become what your grandfather Vader could not.” According to Palpatine, Ren could do more than just measure up to Darth Vader; he could surpass him.

In The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren meditates over Vader’s helmet, while Rey dons a Rebel helmet like the one Luke wears in A New Hope. Like Kylo Ren, Rey is a student of the past. Though she thinks Luke Skywalker is a “myth,” he is a myth that has shaped her. Just as Kylo Ren exhibits Anakin’s vices, Rey exhibits Luke’s virtues: she is compassionate, but not ruled by her emotions. Rey lives alone, but staves off loneliness by communing with icons of the past. As Joshua Gibbs writes, “Every act of imitation is an act of becoming,” and when Rey dons Luke’s Rebel helmet in The Rise of Skywalker, she has become like Luke, just as Luke became like Yoda. When Luke raises his old X-Wing from the ocean, it is as if he is raising his own myth out of the collective unconscious to become a lived reality again. When Rey sends a signal from this X-Wing to guide the Resistance to Exegol, R2-D2 tells C-3PO he is “receiving a transmission from Master Luke.” As the opening crawl puts it: the dead speak.

From L to R: The Force Awakens (2015), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Luke and Anakin reconciled at the end of Anakin’s life, but the Skywalkers’ conflicting legacies continue to clash through Rey and Kylo Ren, all the way up until their final duel in the ruins of the Death Star. Similarly, the wounds of broken paternal relationships live on in Ben and Han. The Skywalker pattern of strife between father and son is finally healed after the duel between Rey and Kylo Ren, in the same place where Vader and Luke made peace with each other – though this time it is the son who is penitent and the father who is extending forgiveness.

From L to R: The Force Awakens (2015), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

After Kylo Ren impales Han Solo in The Force Awakens, Han tenderly touches his face, tracing the path of the scar that Rey will leave there minutes later. The scar over Kylo Ren’s eye, then, becomes a reminder of the patricide that “split his spirit,” as Snoke puts it in The Last Jedi. Similarly, in Attack of the Clones, Anakin says that he hopes the kiss he received from Padmé “will not become a scar”; when we see him in Revenge of the Sith, an unexplained scar has appeared over his eye. For both Kylo Ren and Anakin, physical scars are symbolic of emotional wounds. Ben is much like his grandfather after all, though not in the ways he might have hoped. In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey stabs Ben just as Ben stabbed his father – but when she heals him afterwards, she also heals the scar over his eye. Rey wounds Ben physically, and then heals that bodily wound, but his emotional healing is only completed in the subsequent conversation with his father. The dialogue between Han and Ben on the Death Star explicitly echoes their dialogue on Starkiller Base, before Han’s death. In both scenes, Han affirms his unconditional love for his wayward son, telling him he is missed and exhorting him to “come home.” In the first scene, Ben tells Han his son is “dead,” replaced by the persona of Kylo Ren. In the second, he repeats the same line, but Han’s reply is firm: “No. Kylo Ren is dead. My son is alive.”

Both scenes culminate with Ben saying, “I know what I have to do, but I don’t know if I have the strength to do it.” In the first scene, he is working himself up to murder Han with his lightsaber; in the second, he is steeling himself to cast that same lightsaber into the sea, repenting of his patricide and accepting his father’s forgiveness. In a way, the death of Han Solo was the birth of Kylo Ren; it is only right, then, that the death of Kylo Ren should echo the death of Han Solo. The actions of the reborn Ben Solo mirror those of the father he once described as “weak and foolish.” He charges courageously into the temple on Exegol, shooting down the guards without looking where he is aiming (a trick pulled by Han at Maz Kanata’s castle), faces down his enemies with a cocky shrug of his shoulders, and finally falls down a pit that visually recalls the one Han fell down in The Force Awakens. “As once I fell, so falls the last Skywalker,” Palpatine says before throwing Ben down into the chasm, but Ben’s fall is not really like the fall of a Sith, like Maul in The Phantom Menace or Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. He is a Solo, like his father before him; like Han, he returns from the depths to bring healing, not revenge.

From L to R: The Force Awakens (2015), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Ben’s relationship with Leia is also restored in The Rise of Skywalker. A flashback to the last night of Leia’s Jedi training illuminates how mother and son became estranged in the first place: “Leia told me that she had sensed the death of her son at the end of her Jedi path,” Luke explains. Reacting to this premonition, Leia surrenders her saber to Luke and abandons her training, which means she is unable to train Ben as a Jedi herself. Instead, she must send him to Luke, a mistake she laments in The Force Awakens. “I just never should have sent him away,” she tells Han. “That’s when I lost him.”

In the flashback, Luke has a green lightsaber, representing balance, and Leia has a blue one, representing reason or the intellect. They are fighting with training helmets that cover their eyes; like Luke under the tutelage of Obi-Wan, they are learning to live by faith, not by sight. However, blue overcomes green: Leia defeats Luke in the sparring exercise and then opens her helmet, revealing her eyes, as she is overwhelmed by fear over her vision of Ben’s future death. The flashback takes place in a foggy jungle, recalling the early scene where Rey trains in the jungle while wearing the same kind of training helmet to cover her eyes. In both cases, the green, lush jungle is a place where the Jedi’s training brings them into contact with their passions, but Leia fails the test that Rey later passes. She reacts to her emotions and detaches herself, giving into fear and reopening the original wound of the Skywalker family: the separation of a son from his mother.

This wound begins to be healed at the end of Kylo Ren’s duel with Rey on Kef Bir. Leia uses the last of her strength to reach out through the Force and connect with her son, staying his hand from delivering a final blow to Rey and, in turn, allowing Rey to mortally stab him. Leia originally abandoned her Jedi path because she feared the death of her son; she returns to it when she overcomes that fear and helps Kylo Ren to die. Just as Leia gave her son physical life when he was born, she gives him spiritual life when he is reborn as Ben Solo.

This act forges such a profound connection between mother and son that when Rey stabs Ben, it is as if she has stabbed Leia at the same time. (We might even recall the prophet Simeon’s words to Mary, mother of Christ: “A sword shall pierce through your own soul also.”) The two scenes take place on separate worlds, but they are connected by water: Rey and Ben are drenched by the ocean on Kef Bir, while it is pouring rain on Ajan Kloss when Leia dies. In the end, the bodies of mother and son pass into the Force together, at the same moment.

Anakin’s separation from Shmi at an early age haunted his Oedipally tinged relationship with Padmé, leading him to cling to her so desperately that he choked the life out of her and shattered the Skywalker family. The restoration of Ben to Leia breaks this pattern, enabling Ben to truly give himself to Rey rather than fearfully grasping after her. Anakin’s failure to save his mother portended his failure to save his wife, but Ben, restored to his mother, is able to save Rey.

From L to R: Attack of the Clones (2002), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

It is in this sense that Ben finishes what his grandfather started. He is able to save the one he loves from death – not by grasping for power but, paradoxically, by giving it away. The vast auditorium on Exegol where Ben resurrects Rey recalls the opera house where Palpatine regales Anakin with the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise. Plagueis “could save others from death, but not himself” – a fate that must strike Anakin as bleakly ironic, because Anakin’s desire to save Padmé is ultimately self-focused. He wants to prolong her life so he can continue to possess her: “I can’t live without her,” he tells Palpatine before pledging himself to the Sith. The true irony, of course, is that Anakin’s fate is the inverse of Plagueis’. He cannot save the one he loves, but carries on a dreadful half-life without her. Ben essentially acts out the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise in the auditorium on Exegol: he saves others, but not himself. Ben’s desire to save Rey, though, is truly other-focused: he gives his life to her even though it means the end of his own. His death, then, is not bleakly ironic, but redemptive and peaceful.

Rey’s white costume in The Rise of Skywalker recalls Padmé’s in Attack of the Clones, and the throne room on Exegol recalls the arena on Geonosis where Anakin and Padmé declare their love for each other and kiss, paving the way for the marriage that brings Padmé into the Skywalker family.

From L to R: Attack of the Clones (2002), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Though Rey and Ben are not able to have a ceremonial marriage, they become one through their actions on Exegol. Ben, restored to loving relationship with his Skywalker family, extends the love of that family to Rey. Rey dies as a Palpatine and is raised as a Skywalker, fulfilling the deepest desire of her heart: the desire for a family, for a home. When she identifies herself as “Rey Skywalker” in the film’s closing moments, it is not merely metaphorical. She has been spiritually grafted into the Skywalker family tree; the life of the Skywalkers lives on in her.

The Skywalker family embodies a way of life that has a great deal in common with the Jedi way, but is not quite the same. The Skywalkers, like the ideal Jedi, practice a compassion that finds expression in radical self-donation. However, they replace the Jedi emphasis on disembodiment and detachment with an emphasis on familial bonds, some of the most profound (and profoundly bodily) attachments of all. Even so, the story of the Skywalkers – like the story of the Jedi and the Sith – ends with the immaterial transcending the material.

In the last scene of Revenge of the Sith, the swaddled Luke is left at the Lars farm on Tatooine, separated from his twin sister – completing the fragmentation of the Skywalker family. In the last scene of The Rise of Skywalker, Rey swaddles the twins’ lightsabers together before burying them on Tatooine. Anakin’s children are united as Rey Skywalker’s adoptive, Platonic parents. At the end of the saga, the Skywalker family – which had a mysteriously immaterial beginning in the form of Anakin’s virgin birth – comes to a material end and continues by mysteriously immaterial means. Ben, the biological child of Han and Leia, dies; Rey, the spiritual child of Luke and Leia, lives.

I do not believe Rey is literally carrying Ben’s child at the end of The Rise of Skywalker, but it is a provocative detail that Ben places his hand on her womb when he transfers his life into her. Rey is not literally pregnant, but we can only imagine that she will carry on the Skywalker name by some means, and so she has become a kind of virgin mother. The saga begins with Shmi and ends with Rey: two Skywalker women, alone on Tatooine, carrying new life in the Force.

From L to R: The Force Awakens (2015), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

In the final scene of the saga, Rey returns to her own roots, as well as those of the Skywalker family as a whole. At the Lars homestead, she finds a piece of scrap and uses it as a sled to slide down a sand dune. The visual, together with John Williams’ gently chiming theme, returns us to her days in the desert of Jakku. At the end of her journey, Rey returns to the childhood home where it began. The moment carries a great deal of quiet wistfulness, nostalgia, and bittersweet finality. As Rey looks around the old, abandoned Lars homestead, I am reminded of the moment in American Graffiti where Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), an autobiographical stand-in for George Lucas himself, walks through the empty halls of his old high school one last time, trying the handles of lockers that are now forever closed to him.

From L to R: American Graffiti (1973), The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

After looking back into the past, Rey turns again and looks forward, to the future. After burying Luke and Leia’s blue lightsabers, she ignites her yellow lightsaber. We have never seen a yellow or golden lightsaber in the saga before, but in Lucas’ works, the color yellow is associated with youth – an association that goes all the way back to the yellow hot rod in American Graffiti. Rey’s creation of a yellow lightsaber hearkens back to Anakin’s creation of the golden C-3PO and his yellow podracer on Tatooine in The Phantom Menace. Anakin’s continued association with the color yellow (his speeder in Attack of the Clones, his starfighter in Revenge of the Sith) symbolized his failure to reach maturity, but Rey’s yellow lightsaber represents renewal, not regression. In one sense, Rey has grown up; in another sense, she has become a child again.

The red lightsaber, a symbol of the Sith, has been cast into the sea. The blue lightsabers, symbols of the Jedi, are buried in the earth. The yellow lightsaber – pointing to the heavens, to the twin suns Luke and Rey look at with such yearning – is a symbol of the Skywalkers, who give their lives to overcome death and bring new life.

It is a beautiful legacy.

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