clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Rise of Skywalker leaves the Jedi in a state of confusion

What the mystical order means after nine Star Wars films

rey stands in a battle stance with luke’s lightsaber Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

During the climax of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Emperor Palpatine claims that the spirits of every Sith who has ever lived now reside in him, and if Rey strikes him down, they will possess her, too. In response, Rey turns to the Jedi — among them, Anakin Skywalker, Mace Windu, and Obi-Wan Kenobi — for the whisper of hope needed to defeat the Emperor for good.

In having Rey invoke the lineage of the Jedi, the film’s understanding of the mystical Order takes a significant step backward. There are, as far as we know, no more Sith left to defeat, and the Jedi have finally come out on top — but at what cost? And at this point in the story, after three generations of faults, failures, and tribulations, who are the Jedi, and what do they actually stand for?

The Rian Johnson-helmed The Last Jedi, which realigned the saga with its Buddhist influences, saw characters like Luke and Yoda acknowledge their mistakes and the mistakes of the Jedi at large. The original trilogy’s most vital scenes focus on Luke’s struggles with detachment and familial legacy — among them, his decision to go against Yoda and Obi-Wan’s instructions in Return of the Jedi in hopes of redeeming his father, instead of murdering him. This battle with detachment is retroactively set up in the prequels, in which the Jedi Order forbids the bonds of love, ultimately forcing Anakin to seek out Palpatine’s help to keep Padme alive. This same struggle echoes through the sequel trilogy, with Luke nearly killing his own nephew because of the darkness he senses in the young man (Luke ultimately comes down on the side of love, albeit too late).

The legacy of the Jedi that’s explained across nine films is a complicated one. The Order’s belief in the Force as a Light-Dark binary leads to didactic teachings about feelings like fear, anger, and hate. While the Sith preach giving in to anger and hatred, the Jedi instruct their young protégés to purge themselves of emotions in order to be more effective soldiers. The result on both sides, however, is strikingly similar. Sith violence stems from negative emotions, but the Jedi’s violence — while righteous in their own minds — does not take empathy into account. To the Jedi, the Sith are unequivocally evil, and must be vanquished at all costs; “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” Obi-Wan says, in absolute terms. Chronologically, the Jedi start out in the prequels as a galactic police force with their headquarters on Coruscant, but they also indoctrinate “younglings,” not unlike the First Order, which kidnaps and brainwashes children to raise as emotionless stormtroopers.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Last Jedi Lucasfilm

The Jedi’s emotionally repressive asceticism contributed to the birth of two masked villains: Darth Vader and Kylo Ren. Vader, pursuing powers of resurrection, wished to protect his wife and his new mentor; Kylo nearly became a victim of the Jedi’s dogmatic violence. The Emperor finally gave each of them some emotional leeway (as himself and through Snoke, respectively). Though the Sith had been hidden for some time until the events of The Phantom Menace, they would eventually become an emotional release valve for repressed Jedi, from Obi-Wan striking down Darth Maul in anger, to both Anakin and Luke being tempted by rage, and eventually to Kylo Ren, whose feelings of betrayal led him to kill his own father.

Kylo, a character obsessed with finishing “what [Darth Vader] started,” inadvertently achieves his grandfather’s goal of stopping loved ones from dying. He and Rey use the Force as a method of physical healing — an extension of the Force as communion and spiritual healing in The Last Jedi — but the thematic bridge between Vader’s quest for resurrection and Kylo and Rey’s achievement of it is nominal at best. Vader’s journey down this path was the linchpin for the entire saga; the Jedi apparently forbade these teachings because they were “unnatural,” and so the heroes of The Rise of Skywalker going down the same path ought to be at odds with the Jedi and their rigid dogma.

Instead, Rey communes with all the Jedi instead of taking on the burden of all the Sith. In the end, the film repositions the Jedi and the Sith along a simplistic binary, in which “good” spirits fight “bad” ones. Rey doesn’t work through any sort of complexity about her Jedi-hood or her place in the world the way Luke had to in The Last Jedi, when he faced his past mistakes. It’s as if Rey is simply “chosen” by the side of good, with its faults swept under the rug, rather than having to arrive at a version of goodness herself. When Kylo redeems himself by using the Force to resurrect Rey, his death isn’t deemed worthy of that same resurrection. It’s as if the Force, through familiar aesthetics and story beats that predetermine “good” and “evil,” makes these major decisions about life and death instead of characters being able to do so. Morality becomes mutable when the Force has plans of its own.

Similarly, when Finn mentions the Force having awakened the good in him (something fellow former stormtrooper Jannah experienced as well), there’s no attempt by anyone in the film to awaken this goodness in other brainwashed stormtroopers. The Rise of Skywalker is the rare Star Wars film where the camera dips downward to focus on fallen troopers after they’ve been shot — not as a statement about violence, but merely as gut-punch visual. It happens but once in the film, but its meaning is especially bizarre in this particular story. Finn and Jannah’s conversation grants personhood to these brainwashed soldiers, but the rest of the film never approaches them the same way. They continue to be treated as disposable extras, dying left and right despite their potential for good. The film frames Finn and Jannah as being “chosen” by the Force, rather than as agents of the Force who can, in turn, awaken the innate morality in others. Despite the film’s many callbacks to Return of the Jedi, a movie that crystallizes the Skywalker Saga’s redemption themes, Rise ends up as the anti-Star Wars.

luke skywalker stands in the shadows of the death star as he watches the emperor hurt darth vader Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

The final stand in The Rise of Skywalker is a direct echo of the one in Return of the Jedi, except for a key act of humanity. Luke vanquishing Vader or Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi would’ve meant succumbing to vengeful violence, so he throws his lightsaber aside. In contrast, Rey uses the combined sabers of Luke and Leia to finally kill the Emperor, which was her goal from the moment The Rise of Skywalker began. She is never challenged to seek an alternative the way Luke does, and it’s the addition of a second lightsaber that finally allows her to vanquish Palpatine, rather than a rejection of temptation or any change in her character. It’s as if her powers, and her victory over evil, depend entirely on the physical — specifically, on the number of swords she’s holding. (Perhaps General Grievous might’ve been able to defeat Palpatine too?)

The film even features a scene where Rey throws her lightsaber into a fire, but Luke catches it and tells her, “A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect.” The apologetic callback to Luke tossing his weapon off a cliff in The Last Jedi stands in contrast to the heroic climax of that film, which existed independently of Luke using an actual, physical lightsaber, and to the arc in Return of the Jedi that culminated with him symbolically discarding violence by throwing his saber aside.

The only time Luke wields a lightsaber in this new trilogy, he almost uses the weapon to murder his nephew in The Last Jedi — a mistake he eventually atones for. And yet, The Rise of Skywalker deifies the concept of the lightsaber as an emblem of morality rather than as a tool of violence (as Obi-Wan said in the prequels, “This weapon is your life”). When Kylo Ren has a change of heart, he discards his red lightsaber, only to use a blue one minutes later. Throwing away his sword isn’t a symbol of rejecting violence the way Luke did, but rather, a symbol of choosing a more acceptable form of violence instead. It’s the “Jedi way” as it existed in the prequels, and the way Luke’s masters taught it to him in the original trilogy, where they expected him to kill Vader instead of redeeming him. Rather than reconciling the flaws and paradoxes of the Jedi’s teachings, The Rise of Skywalker simply accepts them as gospel.

When the film ends, Rey symbolically puts Luke and Leia to rest by burying their lightsabers, as if these weapons are manifestations of the characters themselves. But this burial of the past doesn’t represent any sort of change for the saga’s status quo when it comes to conflict. Rey still has a lightsaber of her own, one she constructed from her staff as a symbol of her newfound individuality. By adopting the Skywalker moniker, Rey becomes a symbol of continuing the Skywalker story in name only, rather than embodying its underlying lesson about rejecting violence in favor of redemption.

In the process, Rey fails to establish an identity outside the flawed and rigid dogma of the Jedi Order. The Rise of Skywalker places the weight of that dogma upon her when she opens herself up to all the Jedi of the past, and treats this act not as a burden or an emotional hurdle to be parsed, but as a badge of honor. It does so without consequence, treating the Jedi and the Force as de facto good, rather than as ideas that flawed characters can use for self-betterment and for the betterment of others.

The film keeps the Jedi and the story of Star Wars in stasis, rather than letting them evolve. A shame, considering Yoda’s words in The Last Jedi, which apply both to flawed Jedi Masters teaching new students and to the old generation of Star Wars films as a new one comes along: “We are what they grow beyond.” Apparently not.