I love Star Wars; it is not a stretch to say that it was the defining element of my childhood, far and above anything else. I wasn’t good at making or keeping friends. I didn’t have much interest in physical activity. No other franchise could grab and hold my attention the same way Star Wars would.
Whenever my mother’s siblings would visit us, I would arrange my Star Wars toys in my bedroom as a museum they could visit. I would watch the movies whenever they were on TV. I remember every summer, TNT would air the trilogy in a solid block; it was the only night my mother would let me stay up into the wee hours of the morning. I watched them on VHS. I played Star Wars: Tie Fighter and Yoda Stories obsessively.
When The Phantom Menace came out, I loved it. It was the first new Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi, a movie that was released six years before I was born (a concept I still didn’t get at that point). All I wanted was new Star Wars, and Episode I delivered for me. It wouldn’t be until I was in my twenties that I would realize how flawed Episode I was. I did not understand how poorly paced it was, how it focused on superfluous elements like politics, how tonally jarring and annoying Jar Jar Binks was.
But there was one thing I was lost on from the very beginning: the prophecy. Leaving aside the incredibly questionable decision to turn Anakin Skywalker from just a tragic hero to tragic Space Jesus™, I did not understand what it meant by bringing balance to the Force. How do you balance something by destroying half of it? The prophecy stated that the Chosen One would bring this balance by destroying the Sith. For years, I could not wrap my head around concept.
Indeed, it was only recently that I rethought it in such a way that it finally made sense.
You see, balance in this case doesn’t mean Yin and Yang, light and dark balancing each other out.
It means harmony.
Balance means allowing the Force to flow through the universe, uninterrupted. There may be light and dark elements contained within, but those elements are not discordant. The life cycle naturally involves death and rebirth. However, there are not forces within the stream disrupting it, causing strife and suffering.
This, of course, was the central goal of the Jedi, both on an individual level and on the whole:
There is no emotion; there is peace.
There is no ignorance; there is knowledge.
There is no passion; there is serenity.
There is no chaos; there is harmony.
There is no death; there is the Force.
The Jedi, in their purest form, seek only to maintain the harmony of the universe.
For the Sith, this was antithetical to their creed:
Peace is a lie. There is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.
For the Sith, the ultimate outcome of their actions, intentional or otherwise, would sow chaos and discord. The Sith would bring strife upon each other and war upon the innocent. At their very worst, the Sith would destroy entire worlds, stripping them clean of life and leaving wounds in the Force. And all the while, the forces of light and dark would battle against each other, dragging countless souls into the conflict.
As ill-conceived as it was (from a storytelling and lore standpoint), the crux of the Chosen One prophecy is that this cycle would stop. The darkness seeded into the galaxy during the first great schism of the Jedi would finally come to an end with Anakin Skywalker. Even if there was still darkness in the galaxy (and there certainly would be), the destructive horrors perpetuated by the Sith would finally come to an end. After nearly thirty thousand years of conflict, there would be harmony again.
Which brings me to The Last Jedi.
“Oh no, haven’t you already spent seven hours talking about The Last Jedi?”
I would spend seven more, too. In a sad way, it’s precisely because there’s something I dislike so vehemently (Episode VIII) in a thing I love (Star Wars) that makes me so engaged in the topic. I wouldn’t talk about it so much if I didn’t care so much on every conceivable level, be it about in-universe canon or storycraft. It is fascinating, in its way.
The thing about The Last Jedi is that Rian Johnson took the simpler interpretation of balance being “light and dark” when trying to explain who Rey is. Supreme Leader Snoke says that she is the light that has risen to face Kylo Ren’s darkness. She is who the Force has chosen (after a fashion) to balance him out. There are plenty of things I could say about this, I could even say it was not a terrible creative choice, but there is one thing that stands out to me.
If Rey has in fact been chosen by the Force to be Kylo Ren’s opposite, to be the light to his dark, then Rey, in fact, has no agency. She is not in control of her destiny because she is a vessel for a greater power, a power that seems to be giving her no choice in the matter. This upends the storytelling in there Star Wars saga in a very fundamental way.
Part of Star Wars’ appeal to the audience is the fact that all of the characters within the movies are making choices. They are independent actors, choosing their actions not because the narrative demands they do, but because they want to. One of the core aspects of well-crafted stories is that the characters act because they have the motivation and will within the narrative to make the decisions that drive the story. Barring stories where the goal is to show that mortal men cannot escape destiny and/or the will of the gods, this is more often than not true.
Anakin Skywalker chooses to pursue his own selfish goals; he is the ultimate cause for his own downfall. There is never a point where an outside force beyond his ken is making him marry Padme, or making him choose the Sith over the Jedi. There is no element that creates attachments for him or makes him fearful of losing those things he loves. All of that, in the end, is Anakin’s doing.
The same applies to his son, Luke. Luke chooses to pursue the path of the Jedi. He chooses to fight for the Rebellion. He makes the most important choice of the saga when he chooses to try to redeem his father, the most hated, evil man in the entire galaxy, simply for love of family. The choices of these two Skywalkers in their respective trilogies are the why of Star Wars.
It is not hard to see these two characters making different choices, as well. One can very easily see and believe Anakin Skywalker choosing to instead let go of his affections for Padme and dedicating himself wholly to the Jedi. If circumstances had even been slightly different: if Qui-Gon lived, if Obi-Wan had been a better mentor, if Anakin himself had held himself more accountable…. Luke, on the other hand, could very easily have taken Vader’s hand in Cloud City. It is entirely believable in that moment of deep doubt and confusion, Luke could have made the choice to follow his father, a man he’d idolized all his life, because it was the only option that made sense to him. There is never a point where the narrative of either the original or prequel trilogy makes it feel as though Anakin and Luke are forced to act in a particular way. Their choices naturally flow.
What about Rey? Perhaps this is just a case of unfortunate implications and not intended at all, but it seems to me that her destiny is set, that there is no real choice for her.
As I’ve discussed in both my Last Jedi Rant series and on our Star Wars episode of Nerd Rage, Rey always seems to make the “right” choice, the “good” choice. Despite two big opportunities to break this mould in The Last Jedi, she simply seems to “revert” to the good choice. She doesn’t question her path when she discovers Luke’s deception nor does she seem to meaningfully consider Kylo Ren’s offer to join with him and forge a new course. Part of me can’t help but wonder if this is a consequence of Snoke’s assertion that she is the light opposing the dark. For me, at least, there seems to be a subtle implication that she may not be able to do wrong at all.
Whereas Anakin, even though a character who seemed to rise in opposition to darkness, made terrible mistakes, Rey seems to make none. Luke spends his movies making difficult choices, choosing to be the light rising in opposition to the Emperor’s darkness, but this role just seems to fall into Rey’s lap. Rey feels like she is getting pushed around by the universe instead of forging a path through the tempest. Even when she does make a choice, notably when she goes to confront Snoke on the Supremacy, it never quite feels like she is a free moral agent. Her destiny feels laid bare, thus robbing her journey of all emotion and potential.
Star Wars, when you dig a bit, has always been about individuals making choices, for good or ill. For every Sith who chooses to destroy, there is a Jedi who chooses to meet them. The Force does not create heroes and champions, nor does it create villains; those individuals choose to use their gifts, they consciously choose harmony or discord.
Rey does not feel like she fits into this paradigm, leaving both her character and the story around her feeling…empty.