As everyone is well aware of by now, Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s handling of Luke Skywalker was…controversial. Even Mark Hamill wasn’t initially happy with what Rian Johnson did with the character. Although he has since given the story his blessing, it’s worth taking a look at his vision for how Luke might have dealt with the fall of Ben Solo and the destruction of his training temple. In his own words:
I said to Rian ‘Jedis don’t give up.’ I mean, even if he had a problem, he would maybe take a year to try and regroup. But if he made a mistake, he would try and right that wrong.
And that’s not a totally unreasonable read of his character, right? With a caveat or two (I hate Johnson’s explanation for why Luke cut himself off from the Force, for example), I really like what they did with Luke, but I also can’t help mourning the more balanced, less disenchanted character Hamill describes, one more in line with his portrayal in Timothy Zahn’s famous Thrawn trilogy. Fortunately, I think there’s actually a way we can have the best of both worlds, maintaining Luke’s exile on Ahch-To and disconnection from the Force without reducing him to quite the cynical old man Johnson did.
Most of this doesn’t even demand much reshuffling of the original plot, requiring only that we imagine a slightly different reason for Luke’s exile. In the current canon, Luke retired to Ahch-To after losing all faith in the order he’d tried to recreate, as well as his own ability to accomplish anything of value. He cut himself off from the Force so he wouldn’t be able to sense Han and Leia, removing any temptation to return and help them. Instead of this…uncharitable version of events, I want to have Luke intend to do exactly what Hamill said he would after the destruction of his temple: take some time to process what happened, then set out to make it right. More crucially, I want Ahsoka Tano to come into the picture—yes, that will probably be jarring to those who haven’t seen The Clone Wars or Rebels, but the idea that Ahsoka made no effort to contact her former master’s son (especially given his mission to rebuild the Jedi Order) seems improbable. Besides, if this is truly the end of the Skywalker saga, then we need to start tying up loose ends like this.
How would this meeting have happened, how would Luke have even found out about her? Well, I think Ahsoka would have sought him out as he started recruiting students. Ahsoka is heavily implied, both by the way she left the Order in The Clone Wars and (more blatantly) the grayish-white of her lightsaber in the Rebels series, to have adopted a more balanced perspective on the Force1Hell, the godawful piece of poetry at the beginning of the TFA novelization makes it clear that the philosophy of the Grey Jedi (or one very much like it) is the true path forward. How can you not bring Ahsoka into it, given how perfectly her character resonates with that theme? . As such, she’d naturally have…concerns about the revival of the Jedi, an organization whose motives and wisdom she’s had great cause to question. When she meets Luke, she tells her story and asks him to consider this new, somewhat radical perspective on the Force.
Luke, however, was trained by Yoda and Obi-Wan, two of the most dogmatic Jedi of the Old Republic. While he chafed against their insistence on patience in Empire Strikes Back, it seems that when his turn to train new students came around, even he felt compelled to live up to their legacy. Thus, he rejects Ahsoka’s teachings, warning that she’s allowed her experiences to cloud her judgment. He invites her to stay at his temple out of courtesy (and, perhaps, a hope that her faith in the Jedi might return), but she refuses, leaving without hope that the Jedi will ever be prepared to move beyond their rigid, pseudo-Buddhist philosophy.
After his temple’s destruction, however, Luke begins to question the basic tenets of the Jedi religion. He reflects on what he could have done differently, immerses himself in what remains of Jedi lore, and makes pilgrimages to sites sacred to the Jedi (e.g. the temple on Courscant, the ruins of Jedda, etc.). Finally, he tracks down Ahsoka, who agrees to instruct him in this new way of perceiving and using the Force. The central tenets of that philosophy, very briefly, include a synthesis of Jedi patience and Sith passion, a refusal to slavishly follow the will of the Force, and a more humanistic moral vision than that of the Jedi or Sith. Her stories of the Jedi before their fall cut through the fog of romance and nostalgia this time, and begin transforming his entire worldview.
Unfortunately, the trauma he’s endured, and the terrible guilt of his failure with Ben Solo, are wounds he can’t recover from, and he finds his connection to the Force gradually slipping away2The Force is a psycho-spiritual power as much as anything, after all. It makes sense that deep and lasting trauma can affect one’s ability to connect with it, just as it can damage our ability to connect with ourselves and others in the real world. . Ahsoka advises him to seek out the first Jedi temple on Ahch-To, hoping that it can restore his connection to it and serve as a practical demonstration of the Jedi’s folly. It certainly does the latter, but not the former. His Force-sensitivity fading as quickly as ever, he decides to stay on the island until he dies, seeing no point to returning or trying to put Ahsoka’s teachings into practice now that he’s an ordinary mortal once again.
The Last Jedi
Some of this backstory will obviously have to make it into the film. How much, though, is less important than conveying with specificity and clarity that Luke has undergone a radical transformation. Having his severance from the Force be involuntary is crucial here, as it allows Mark Hamil’s version of events to be true (or rather, true enough) without destroying the entire premise of the new trilogy. Luke made some bad decisions, to be sure, but he tried to recover and right that wrong. Alas, he was wounded too deeply, in the end, and couldn’t find the strength.
Thematically, I think this has great power, showing that trauma can have very real and potent consequences for even the strongest of us. As I see it, this makes for not only a better story, but a powerful acknowledgment of the true nature of trauma, and an empathetic stance toward those who suffer under its shadow. As one such person myself, and one of many who grew up inspired by Luke’s energy and idealism, that would have meant a great deal to me.
So what, then, does this mean for the story of The Last Jedi? Not as much as you’d think, actually—or, at least, not much outside of the structural changes that would need to happen anyway. I mean, we definitely need more time with Luke and Rey, and the B-plot3The Poe-Finn-Rose-Leia plot, that is. needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to close all its plot holes and eat up less screentime.
During her training, Luke needs to give Rey a much more detailed, substantial critique of the Jedi; the sweeping, abstract criticisms in the movie feel like badly pulled punches. In particular, he needs to bring up Yoda and Obi-Wan’s hubris, how their ridiculous commitment to emotional detachment and fatalism led directly to Anakin’s fall and the Sith’s ascendancy. He should also make a point of comparing Finn’s kidnap and brainwashing by the First Order when he was a child4It’s not hard to believe that Rey would tell him about such things off-screen; he can just namedrop Finn when he makes the comparison, opening with something like, “Your friend you told me about, Finn…” to the Jedi’s policy of recruiting only infants into their order. As a nod to Ahsoka’s teachings, the scene where Luke tricks Rey into rushing to the “aid” of the Caretaker village absolutely needs to stay in the movie this time, serving as his attempt to teach her the value of classically Sith ideals like passion, action, and aggression. And it needs to be explicitly framed in those terms.
Oh, and when he asks her where she’s from? Yeah, fuck the “Okay that is pretty much nowhere” line. Here’s what he should do instead: when she says “Jakku,” cutting him off mid-sentence as though to reject his “no one’s from nowhere” philosophy, he should get an irritated, even angry, look on his face. Then he should say, sardonically, “Fine. Why are you here, Rey from nowhere?”5The subtext being, of course, “Fine, if you’re so determined to be a nobody…” Luke is a defeated idealist; that shouldn’t mean he’s lost his idealism.
Throughout her training, Rey’s clumsiness, youthful exuberance, and sheer passion should remind Luke of his own training, and the simple act of teaching someone else to use the Force should spark something in him, laying the foundation for his reawakening, a moment that just sort of happened, unearned, in the movie. The news of Han’s death and the rise of the First Order needs to be dwelt upon longer, and we need to see him deal with the grief of that loss—an unforgivable omission in the movie, given how close those two characters were. The reminder that people he cares about are still out there fighting and dying, fighting and dying against an enemy he helped create, forms another catalyst for his reconnection to the Force.
He also needs to try harder to persuade Rey not to go to Kylo Ren in an attempt to redeem him. Her determination is clearly based (at least, in part) on the legend of Vader’s redemption. He should tell her to think, to remind her of the thousand little differences between the two situations, and of what she herself said earlier: “There’s no light left in Kylo Ren.” He should also warn her that visions of the future can be manipulated, and that her connection with Ben Solo is an unknown element, mysterious and dangerous.
This should give Rey pause, and brings us to a really interesting moment. Now that we’ve established Luke’s loss of Force sensitivity was involuntary, it becomes a central reason for his withdrawal from the galaxy. Only, by this point in the movie, he can use the Force. Thus, the moment when Rey holds his father’s lightsaber out to him once again becomes more complicated, because although he could fight at his full strength now, he still isn’t capable of saving Kylo Ren, and has no confidence in his ability as a teacher. So, even after everything, he can’t quite overcome his doubt.
And now we come to what was, for me anyway, one of the most disappointing scenes in the whole movie: Luke’s reunion with Yoda. Don’t get me wrong, seeing Yoda again made me absolutely giddy, and I loved the bit where he burns down the tree while cackling like a maniac. Hell, his admonition to Luke about passing on folly and failure as well as triumph was wonderful, retroactively improving his teachings in Return of the Jedi. And it was a nice moment when they sat watching the tree burn down, talking like the two old men they are about what it means to hand the torch on to the next generation.
Okay…so what’s the problem, again? Oh, right: Yoda’s a hypocrite. He’s always given terrible advice, and this was the perfect time for Luke to call him on it. God, where to even start with this? First of all, Yoda has never acknowledged the role his personal failures, his attachment to Jedi dogma, played in the rise of the Empire and fall of Anakin Skywalker. Second, he and Obi-Wan never passed on the lessons of that failure to Luke in the original trilogy, straight up lying to him about how it all happened. Third, they continued to insist on emotional detachment and a philosophy of patience and passivity despite its implication in the creation of Darth Vader.
If Luke is sincere in his condemnation of the Jedi religion, and sees his failure as (in part) the result of trying to live up to these absurd codes6As implied by his line, “Leia blamed Snoke, but…it was me. I failed because I was Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master.” , then now is the time to denounce them in the harshest terms, and the “folly and failure” line should kick off his speech. One specific line of thought I’d like to see: he should tell his old master that, after what happened in Cloud City, he honestly thought Yoda and Obi-Wan had been right to warn him against rushing off to save his friends, that following his impulse had been a mistake. Now, though, he sees that he was better off for ignoring that piece of “sage advice.”
And here’s what I want Yoda to do, because he owes it to Luke and Anakin. I want his Jedi dignity and cooky hermit personas to crumble as he says, “Failed your father, we did. And you. Forgot, we did, our own folly; afraid, we were, to face the shame, even after so long. Time it was for the Jedi to grow beyond us. And so you would have, if let you, we had.”
At this point, the conversation can take a more conciliatory tone. Luke’s said his piece, and confessed that he was “weak…unwise”; Yoda accepted all this with grace and admitted his own blindness. Luke should mention that he met Ahsoka Tano at this point, and Yoda should laugh in genuine joy that she survived Order 66. Luke should say, ruefully but gently, “I didn’t even know my father had an apprentice.” The generations understand one another, and are reconciled at last.
All that’s left now is for Luke to try in some small way to make up for his mistakes. However we end up there, Leia and the Resistance should find themselves in the same essential place as they did in the film: at the brink of defeat at the hands of Kylo Ren and his army. Luke appears as if from the shadows, reunites with Leia7I’d like to see a little more emotion on his part here, maybe some tears, or something. Watching them go through this catharsis, Luke taking responsibility for landing her in this situation, and her forgiving him, could’ve been dwelt on just a little bit longer. , and strides out to face Ben Solo, giving the remains of the Resistance time to escape.
Then, having done all he can, having reconciled with his old mentors, left Rey with a new philosophy that will ensure the rise of a stronger, wiser Jedi Order, and saved Leia’s Resistance—then Luke Skywalker can die whole and renewed, the hero we all remember.
Though much of what preceded it was incoherent and confused, which stops it just short of the ecstatic heights it might have reached, the ending of The Last Jedi from the moment Luke winks at Threepio8Infuriatingly, Rian Johnson directed Hamill to just ignore Threepio here; thank god he called bullshit on that one. I’m starting to think Johnson has the emotional intelligence of a toddler. was just about as perfect as you could ask for. Even without a more cohesive story backing it up, it still hit me like a fucking freight train. These are the kinds of moments that make me want to live in the Star Wars universe—or failing that, bring some of its bombastic, joyous energy with me when I come back to this one.
So, we find ourselves less than a week away from the The Rise of Skywalker, and I’ll be honest, I have mixed feelings going into the last episode of the Skywalker saga. On the one hand, I’m sure we’ll get as many “holy shit that was awesome” moments as we have from the first two installments. On the other hand, I don’t doubt it’ll also have the same sorts of flaws as they do—indeed, that’s inevitable, following as it does from both wonderful and deeply imperfect movies. I’m stuck both buzzing with excitement and, like I said before, mourning for the unbelievable story we might have gotten if this weren’t a product of the broken-ass corporate machinery that creates pretty much all our movies and TV these days.
As for how I’m going to tackle that film here…well, I don’t know yet. I certainly won’t be able to provide a breakdown like this one even a month after seeing it. If nothing else, Rise of Skywalker is going to kick me square in the feels, and I’m going to need time to recover, compose myself, and get enough distance to produce something even-keeled enough to, y’know, make any goddamn sense. I may move away from Star Wars for a little while until I can make that happen, but rest assured, we will be talking about Rise of Skywalker sooner or later.
So, until next time, a happy and safe Christmahanakwanzika to you all!
Okay, I’m getting all this copied into WordPress, right, and while hunting down all the articles I need to link to, I run across one on Io9 about a possible Ahsoka Tano cameo in Rise of Skywalker. Whaddya know?