This post discusses critical features of the story in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you have not seen the movie yet, read no further. The rest assumes the reader knows what happens in the film, or is fine with learning it here.
It's right there in the etymology. Renegade. More or less, the person who reneges.
That is Han Solo, the archetypal renegade, forever holding out some escape clause, whether it's a debt, a doubt or a bounty hunter on Ord Mantell. He always has an excuse for bailing. He sets low expectations for himself, preferring to make his commitments on an installment plan rather than all at once. He seems scared by the idea he's actually good at something that could help others, because of the obligation that would carry. In this way, Han Solo is the most relatable of any Star Wars hero, particularly for those with minds wandering the stars and a teacher or a parent forever remonstrating about their potential or responsibility.
Han Solo died. The place where he died isn't a place anymore, it collapsed into a star. There's not even a memorial to the man, a pirate so impossibly romantic he could only sail in a galaxy far, far away.
So we will make one for him here, after flinching from the emotional blow delivered by The Force Awakens. In the film, the only eulogy Solo got was a wordless embrace shared by Rey and Leia, and if that's closure for them, fine. For the rest of us, charmed head to toe by his smirk and those pants (especially those pants) and thrilled by his reckless feats and gold-hearted spirit, this is our formal farewell.
Once a small-time smuggler known mainly for making record time on a notorious bootleg run, Han Solo became one of the principal figures of a galactic revolution thanks more to a preternatural sense of timing and opportunity than his skill with any weapon. In our world, he was the reason so many girls and boys first learned the word "scoundrel," or wanted to be one for their first crush. Solo caused no end of lunchroom scandal with that Empire Strikes Back poster, closing in for an asphyxiating kiss on the rapturous Leia.
"You think a princess and a guy like me ..." he wondered in 1977, and the answer to that was immediately no. Luke Skywalker was supposed to get the girl, before we all learned the truth of the Star Wars family tree, and how little it forks. Even Solo's actor viewed him as a third wheel, pigeonholed into a supporting role. Harrison Ford argued for Solo to be killed in Return of the Jedi to give the character — if not the film as a whole — some gravity. Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter on Jedi, endorsed the suggestion, but George Lucas vetoed it. In an interview years later, Ford acerbicly attributed Solo's survival to merchandising. Dead Han Solo toys don't sell, he reasoned.
So it figures that with Kasdan and Ford reunited on The Force Awakens, and Lucas unable to interfere, these two would finish the job. And with his death wish granted, Ford registered his best and most human portrayal of Solo, one that rivals even the venerated Empire.
In The Force Awakens we saw the same prickly, don't-get-close vulnerability that defines Solo. Although Rey quickly proved herself to be the most capable spacefaring companion he's had other than Chewbacca, Solo had to verbally hedge his offer of a job aboard the Millennium Falcon, and then offload the idea to Chewie. When we catch up with Solo, he's avoided Leia for god-knows-how-long, unable to cope with what their son had become even if it may not be entirely his fault. We have no idea what Solo may have been like as a father, and whether sending the boy away was a mistake because Solo should have raised him, or because with "too much Vader in him," any kind of Force training would inevitably end in disaster. There's a self-fulfilling prophecy to Solo's abortive attempt to settle down or make any kind of a commitment, and in his return to the mean, freelancing, swindling lifestyle where any promise can be broken and anyone he burns probably had it coming anyway.
That's still the Solo we love, and that's why the insipid re-edit (and re-re-edit) of his encounter with Greedo in the first film was so infantilizing to us. Greedo was a hideous freak with a gun in his hand; he'd drawn on Solo, and anyone who watches cowboy movies knows that is cause enough to get blown away. The manner in which Solo did showed his cunning and formidable opportunism. Had Lucas re-edited the cantina scene so that Obi-Wan Kenobi sliced Walrusman's blaster in two instead of severing his arm, no one would have given a damn, because Kenobi's character was already shown to us in other actions. But with Greedo, Lucas took away a truly revealing moment on the patronizing assumption that we couldn't handle who Han Solo really was.
Solo never really got a shot at a soul-baring scene from Lucas or any of the other directors. Reunited with Chewbacca in Jedi, Solo appears to be crying but he's more likely shivering after being cracked out a block of carbonite. In Star Wars, he attributes his success to "simple tricks and nonsense," not any faith in an ideal, and certainly not in the Force. The closest we got was in the Cloud City freezing chamber. With John Williams' swooning theme filling our ears, Leia blurted out her love, and Solo's reply was 100 percent no commitment, no warranty, all goods sold as-is. It was just two words, a knee-buckling ad-lib so perfectly in character we could never again see a picture of Harrison Ford and not also think of Han Solo.
In The Force Awakens, Ford managed to outdo those two words with just one: the real name of Han Solo's son. It's not a call to him, or an appeal to return. It's pained, scolding and disappointed. The boy's parentage had been handled so matter-of-factly earlier in the film that we never saw the true shocker coming — the name, what it means, and the rare concession to sentiment Solo evidently made. We're still processing it all when Solo, at long last, gives his unconditional commitment to someone on screen. It is fitting that is this character's fatal mistake.
There will be another film with Han Solo, as a younger man and with Ford nowhere near the project. This was goodbye as professional as it was canonical, with all parties meaning it. There is a new trinity of heroes for this segment of the Star Wars saga, and in all of them is a part of Luke, a part of Leia, and a part of Han. The humble scavenger has the princess's steel and the pirate's resourcefulness. The lunkhead soldier has the smuggler's good fortune and a farmboy's naivete. The hotshot pilot is the original person in distress, with the swashbuckler's devil-may-care demeanor.
And in all of us there is some vestige of Han Solo, too, where loyalty and trust are mutually exclusive concepts. Where we've only known "scoundrel" as a term of endearment. Where your big friend is the first one you ever made and your best one for life. Where that vest you're putting on for the prom or a wedding gets a quick finger-pistol and a dashing smirk in the mirror. For as much as he's been a part of our lives, for nearly 40 years, it seems cruel that Han Solo would leave before we could say we love him.