WARNING: Major spoilers for The Last Jedi.
On my first viewing of The Last Jedi (TLJ), I was completely overwhelmed. It’s the longest Star Wars movie ever, and there’s a lot packed into it. While I had mixed feelings about the movie as a whole after my first viewing and still have criticisms, after a second watch I have come to appreciate how Rian Johnson had each character grow significantly in some way during TLJ.
Rey is clearly the protagonist and hero of this new trilogy. Luke was the hero of the original trilogy, but, as Mark Hamill said, “It’s not my story anymore.” Therefore, Rey’s character arc in TLJ is all about her realizing this truth and taking her place as the hero of the galaxy.
Although Rey takes it upon herself to get BB-8 and the map to Luke Skywalker back to the Resistance in The Force Awakens, she does not accept a larger role in the galactic struggle of good against evil. Maz Kanata begs Rey to take up the mantle of Anakin and Luke Skywalker and become the hero that the galaxy needs:
“The saber, take it.”
However, Rey rejects the idea that she might have a larger role in this conflict, and runs away into the forest:
“I’m never touching that thing again. I don’t want any part of this.”
By the end of The Force Awakens, Rey does accept the mission to go to Ahch-To in order to try and bring Luke Skywalker back to the Resistance so that he can save the galaxy. But, this only further illustrates that Rey has not accepted that it is she that’s the one who must save the galaxy. Though Rey wants to literally hand the baton (or, lightsaber in this case) off to Luke so that he can return as the hero, it’s Rey who has been chosen for this task. The Force “awakened” in Rey so that she could combat this evil. As Snoke said:
“Darkness rises, and light to meet it…I warned my young apprentice that as he grew stronger, his equal in the light would rise. Skywalker, I assumed. Wrong again.”
Throughout almost all of the TLJ, Rey is trying to figure out her place in the galaxy. She wants to know what her destiny is. At first, she hopes Luke will give her guidance:
“Something inside me has always been there. Now it’s awake, and I’m afraid. I don’t know what it is or what to do with it. I need help.”
“I need someone to show me my place in all of this.”
Unfortunately, Luke gives her next to nothing. All he tells her is that “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” Despite two attempts to hand off the lightsaber to Luke, he rejects the call to adventure, and doesn’t advise Rey about her place in the galaxy. As a result, Rey has to look to someone else for answers: Kylo Ren.
In Kylo, Rey sees someone who can save the galaxy. When Rey offers Luke the lightsaber for the second time and he rejects, Rey says:
“Then he [Kylo] is our last hope.”
Rey doesn’t yet realize that it’s really she that’s the galaxy’s last hope, and so she tries to pin this responsibility on Kylo instead.
Besides hoping that Kylo will be the one to save the galaxy, Rey also looks to him for answers about her own role. Rey tells Kylo that when she went down to the Dark Side cave on Ahch-To, she thought “I’d find answers there.” Specifically, she wanted to know about her parents:
“My parents. Please.”
However, she gets no clarification in the Dark Side cave. All she sees is a reflection of herself. Similarly, she gets no answers from Kylo. Although he reveals to Rey who her parents are, this doesn’t give Rey any resolution about her place in the galaxy:
Rey: “They were nobody,”
Kylo: “They were filthy junk traders…You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing.”
If Rey’s parent or grandparent was Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Emperor, etc., then that would’ve give her an easy answer about her destiny. For example, it would be really easy for Rey if she were Luke or Obi-Wan’s daughter/granddaughter because then she would know that she was born to follow in their footsteps by becoming a Jedi and fighting the Dark Side. However, Rian Johnson wanted to challenge Rey as a character and not give her any easy answers. Happily, this was one of my predictions that I got right!
Ultimately, Kylo also rejects Rey’s plea to become the hero that the galaxy needs:
“Rey, I want you to join me. We can rule together and bring a new order to the galaxy…Join me. Please.”
This leaves Rey in a tough position. Nobody has given her good advice about her role in the galaxy, and nobody has stepped up to be the galaxy’s savior. Therefore, in Snoke’s throne room, it’s up to Rey to choose her path. Will she join Kylo and become evil, or be the hero that the galaxy needs? Fatefully, she chooses the latter. After almost two films, she finally embraces her role as the protagonist. Luke dies and becomes one with the the force in this film, but he says:
“I will not be the last Jedi.”
For most of the TLJ, Luke has lost hope, purpose, and a sense of his destiny. Just like Rey, Luke’s destiny was also to be a hero. Although Rey is the main protagonist in the fight against the First Order, Luke still has a role to play, just like he has always had. However, from the very first scene of TLJ, Luke rejects his destiny. He throws his ancestral lightsaber over his shoulder like a piece of garbage, rejects Rey’s call to adventure, and tells her to “go away.” At this point, Luke doesn’t think he has anything to offer the galaxy. The best thing he can do for the universe is to live out the rest of his days in isolation and die:
“I will never train another generation of Jedi. I came here to die.”
Nevertheless, just like Rey rejecting her destiny, Luke rejecting his is a mistake.
Luke is right that he played a role in Ben Solo’s fall to the Dark Side, and that the Jedi Order has had problems in the past that led to similar failures. What he is wrong about is how to respond to these failures. Luke thinks that the best course is for “the Jedi to end” and for him to retreat from the galaxy. But, why can’t he learn from his failures and use this knowledge to construct a better Jedi Order? As Yoda said:
“The greatest teacher failure is.”
Every philosophy and organization has problems, but things only get better if you engage with these issues and try to improve them. However, Luke has lost all hope and purpose, and doesn’t even make an attempt to make things better. His pessimism and shame has clouded his better judgement. Even after finding out that his best friend has been murdered and the Republic he fought so hard to build has been destroyed, Luke rejects the call to adventure three times:
- When Rey first offers the lightsaber to Luke in the beginning of the film.
- When R2 plays Leia’s message to Obi-Wan, which was Luke’s original call to adventure.
- When Rey again offers Luke the lightsaber right before leaving Ahch-To.
It’s because Luke rejects all three of these calls and gives very little constructive advice to Rey that she turns to Kylo for advice. There was simply no one else that could help her. If Rey didn’t have such high moral character, she may very well have turned to the Dark Side because of Luke’s neglect.
Ultimately, however, Luke regains his hope, purpose, and sense of destiny after Rey leaves and Yoda talks some sense into him:
“Time it is for you to look past a pile of old books…Lost Ben Solo you did. Lose Rey we must not…Pass on what you have learned.”
You can see Luke’s growth by the end of TLJ, as he projects himself across the galaxy in order to give Leia, Rey, and the rest of the Resistance enough time to escape. Even though the effort ends up killing him, it was worth it, as he re-discovers who he really is:
Rey: “Luke is gone, I felt it. But it wasn’t sadness or pain, it was peace and purpose.”
Luke began TLJ ready to die because of his sadness and pain, but ends it dying peacefully and with renewed purpose.
In The Force Awakens, Finn, a stormtrooper, makes the brave choice to leave the First Order. He has seen their evil ways, and wants no part of it:
“In my first battle, I made a choice. I wasn’t going to kill for them…I’m done with the First Order. I’m never going back.”
However, for much of The Force Awakens, Finn has no interest in fighting the First Order and wants to run away:
Maz: “I’m looking at the eyes of a man who wants to run.”
Finn: “There is no fight against the First Order. Not one we can win…We all need to run.”
While he does end up helping the Resistance lower the shields on Starkiller Base, the only reason he does so is to help Rey.
“[Starkiller base is] where my friend was taken. I’ve got to get there fast.”
Finn has no interest in helping the Resistance fight the evil of the First Order. All he wants to do is help his friend. This pattern continues early on in TLJ, as all Finn wants to do is find Rey and help protect her. He has little to no interest in helping the Resistance in their hour of greatest need, and is even willing to become a deserter to achieve this goal:
“How’s Rey going to find us now?”
“This fleet is doomed and if my friend comes back to it, then she is doomed too. I’ve got to get this beacon far away from here, and then she’ll find me and be safe…We can’t outrun the First Order fleets….They can track us through light speed.”
When Finn goes on the mission to Canto Bight with Rose, he is seemingly only doing so to help Rey, not the Resistance. Furthermore, DJ (Benicio del Toro) encourages Finn to stick to his guns and not join the Resistance’s fight against the First Order:
“Finn, let me learn you something big. It’s all a machine partner. Live free, don’t join.”
However, by the end of TLJ, Finn fully embraces the Resistance and joins the fight against evil. When Captain Phasma tells Finn he is scum, he replies:
So, by this point, Finn has not only rejected his previous identity as a stormtrooper, but has embraced his new identity as a member of the Resistance. This growth in Finn’s character is illustrated even more vividly during the Battle on Crait, as Finn refuses to retreat and is willing to sacrifice his life in order to save the Resistance:
“No, I won’t let them win.”
By the end of TLJ, Finn has fully embraced the Resistance and is all-in against the First Order.
Poe, Leia, and Holdo’s Journey
Although Poe is the one of these three that has a real character arc in this film, Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) are the ones that help Poe on this journey. At the beginning of TLJ, Poe is impulsive and reckless. As the Resistance is evacuating D’Qar, Leia tells Poe to:
“Disengage now, commander. That is an order.”
Nevertheless, Poe ignores Leia and proceeds to order a bombing run on a Dreadnought-class First Order ship. Poe doesn’t think strategically and simply sees an opportunity to blow something up:
“No, General we can do this. We have a chance to take out a Dreadnought. These things are fleet killers. We can’t let it get away!”
Though Poe’s insubordination does lead to the destruction of the Dreadnought, the costs for the Resistance are high: their entire bombing fleet. Poe was right that the Dreadnought is a dangerous ship, but destroying one ship when the First Order likely has dozens of these doesn’t significantly further the interests of the Resistance. They needed to save those bombers and pilots for a more strategic mission that had a real chance of defeating or significantly weakening the First Order.
Leia wants to groom Poe for a future leadership role, and so demotes Poe in order to teach him a lesson:
Leia: “You’re demoted.”
Poe: “What? Wait. We took down a dreadnought.”
Leia: “At what cost?”
Poe: “You start an attack, you follow it through.”
Leia: “Poe, get your head out of your cockpit. There are things you cannot solve by jumping in your X-wing and blowing something up. I need you to learn that.”
Poe: “There were heroes on that mission.”
Leia: “Dead heroes.”
Leia needs Poe to learn because she knows she won’t be around forever (RIP Carrie Fisher) and wants Poe to be ready for when he needs to lead the Resistance. As a leader, you need to think strategically and keep the big-picture in mind. You may win the battle by “blowing something up,” but in the process you may lose the war by piling up “dead heroes.”
Even after this Lesson from Leia, Poe continues to think in terms of explosions. When Finn and Rose inform him that they are being tracked by one of the First Order ships, Poe immediately says:
“So we blow that one up.”
After Leia is injured and Holdo takes over, we also see a demonstration of Poe’s flaws, starting with Holdo’s description of Poe:
“I’ve dealt with plenty of trigger-happy fly-boys like you. You’re impulsive, dangerous, and the last thing we need right now.”
Although it doesn’t make much sense why Holdo doesn’t inform Poe and the rest of the crew about her plan, Poe’s reaction to this is also meant to illustrate his flaws as a character. After discovering that Holdo plans to escape using the transport ships, Poe loses his cool, starts kicking chairs, and makes a dramatic accusation:
“We’re abandoning ship? That’s what we got? Those transport ships are unarmed, unshielded. We abandon this cruiser, we’re done. No, you’re not just a coward, you’re a traitor.”
Moreover, Poe decides to initiate a coup to remove Leia’s chosen interim leader from power:
“Vice Admiral Holdo, I’m relieving you of your command for the survival of this ship, its crew, and the Resistance.”
Clearly, after it’s revealed by Leia that Holdo had a good plan all along, we’re meant to believe that Poe’s takeover attempt was reckless and wrongheaded. However, Holdo could’ve easily avoided this situation by communicating her plan to Poe. The only reason Rian Johnson has her withhold this information is to create drama between her and Poe. Even though I think this is a flaw in Johnson’s script, his intention was clearly to demonstrate Poe’s character flaws, and so let’s just roll with that.
Just like Finn, by the time Poe gets to Crait, he has grown as a character and learned from his mistakes. Acting on the teachings of Leia and Holdo, Poe recognizes when it’s time to fight, and when it’s time to run. When Finn wants to carry out a suicide mission to destroy the First Order’s canon, Poe calls him off:
“They’re picking us all off, we’re not going to make it….The canon’s charged, it’s a suicide run. Retreat Finn, that’s an order.”
While earlier in the film he advocated for attack no matter the costs, he recognizes here that Finn’s sacrifice wouldn’t be worth it. At most, it would delay the First Order’s assault by a few minutes, which isn’t worth losing a Resistance hero and leader over.
Additionally, when Luke walks out with his laser sword to face the whole First Order by himself (which Luke said, verbatim, he absolutely wouldn’t do earlier in the film!), Poe is the one that figures out Luke’s plan. Though Poe was impulsive earlier in the film, here he is the one that stops and thinks through things before acting:
“He is doing this for a reason. He’s stalling so we can escape.”
Although Finn wants to go out and help Luke, Poe realizes that the survival of the Resistance is more important:
“We are the spark that will light the fire that will burn the First Order down.”
Finally, Poe is seeing the big picture! After figuring out Luke’s plan, it’s Poe who suggests that the Resistance must find a way to escape Crait so that it can live to fight another day. Poe says “follow me,” and Leia says:
“What are you looking at me for? Follow him.”
This is the moment where Leia ceremoniously passes the torch to Poe. Of course, with Carrie Fisher’s tragic passing, this is an emotional moment.
When Poe shakes hands with Rey in the closing moments of the film, it’s essentially the new leadership team meeting each other. We know that Leia will likely not be in Episode 9, and so I suspect that Poe will become the leader of the Resistance. Therefore, Poe and Rey will play similar roles for the Resistance as Leia and Luke did for the Rebellion.
Of course, Poe was only able to grow in TLJ due to the lessons that Leia and Holdo taught him. So, their character arcs in TLJ were principally as teachers.
While there are plenty of criticisms we can levy against TLJ, I believe that Rian Johnson did a great job having each of our main heroes grow by the end of the film. The focus on characters was, perhaps, the best part of TLJ.