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The Sequel Trilogy is a Fatherless World
The Mandalorian understands what made the original Star Wars films compelling, and why the story of Rey feels so dull.
The Mandalorian, the Star Wars spinoff series that has helped to propel Disney’s streaming service, recently wrapped up its second and possibly final season. The show has achieved a rare combination of critical and commercial success: nominated for major awards from the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild, and now the first Disney+ product to appear in a Nielsen chart of most watched TV programs.
Even better than its popularity with the general streaming public has been its welcome among Star Wars fans. Sure, the ending of season 2—featuring a digitally-aided cameo of a certain prominent Jedi Knight—was hotly debated among some who wanted the series to end on a less nostalgic and more forward-looking note. But the series as a whole has been overwhelmingly approved by franchise devotees.
This can’t be because Star Wars fans automatically flock to whatever production bears the name, because recent history suggests that’s not at all the case. Solo: A Star Wars Story, directed by Ron Howard, was an embarrassing flop, coming in drastically under the studio’s projections. The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker divided fans and seemed to signal a severe creative confusion at the top of Disney. Prior to The Mandalorian, the Disney era of Star Wars seemed adrift, resigned to marketing heavy-handed fan service in lieu of something rich that energized fans and inspired the kind of awestruck attention that the George Lucas films consistently achieved.
The Mandalorian is different. And one reason that it’s been received so differently has to do with a theme that is at the heart of the Star Wars films but was buried by the franchise’s new handlers: fatherhood.
George Lucas himself has said multiple times that this is the heart of his saga, and his two trilogies tell one unified story about a fatherless boy (Anakin Skywalker) who betrayed his father-figure (Obi-Wan) and became father to a son who ultimately redeemed him (Luke). The one biological father-son relationship depicted in Lucas’s two trilogies—Luke and Darth Vader—is the cornerstone of the entire mythology. Around this father-son dynamic orbit many other paternal relationships, such as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn (Episode I), Anakin and Obi-Wan (Episodes II-III), and Luke and Obi-Wan (Episodes IV-VI). Indeed, if you see the Jedi-apprentice relationship as a kind of metaphor for fathers and sons—and there all kinds of clues that this is what Lucas intended—the six original Star Wars films are almost singular in their focus on fatherhood.
Lucas is a Baby Boomer, and there are obligatory nods throughout his movies to the failures of parents toward their children, as one would expect from a child of the 1960s. But Episodes I-VI are unabashedly family stories. The foundational rule of the Jedi religion is to form no emotional attachments. Anakin’s journey constantly brushes up against this dictum, first through his mother (whom he leaves to train with the Jedi) then through Obi-Wan. “You’re the closest thing I have to a father,” Anakin tells him in Attack of the Clones. Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side climaxes with a duel between him and his father-figure, Obi-Wan, just like his turn back to the good side (in Return of the Jedi) climaxes with a duel between Vader and his son.
Though on the surface it is Anakin’s breaking of Jedi code to marry Padme that clears his path toward corruption, their forbidden love leads to the son who rescues his father and is the agent by which the evil Emperor is defeated and justice restored to the galaxy. Fatherhood, though forbidden by the Jedi code, plays the crucial role in the downfall of evil. Luke begins the original trilogy believing incorrectly that his father has died, and the penultimate scene in Return of the Jedi finds Luke unmasking his dying father. The narrative arc of the films could be expressed biblically: “turning the hearts of the fathers toward their sons, and the hearts of the sons toward their fathers.”
All of this casts a wide contrast against the Disney “sequel” trilogy. The main character of the Disney series is Rey, an orphaned scavenger who is courageous, kind, and like Luke Skywalker, haunted by the unknown fate of her parents. But Rey’s journey is radically different. The writers of the Rey saga give her no mentor, no parent figure to help her. The entire point of Rey seems to be that she doesn’t need it. She is born a leader, not a follower. Almost all of the companions Rey encounters end up deferring to her wisdom, her instincts. The first time Luke Skywalker held a lightsaber, a robotic probe poked him in the ribs, but Rey manages to duel the Sith Lord Kylo Ren right out of the gate (interestingly, it is the evil Kylo Ren who supplies the series’ only father-son relationship with Han Solo, and Ren is eventually saved—by Rey).
Rey’s character is a transparent effort by Disney to infuse the Star Wars universe with what Alastair Roberts has called the “strong female character,” a paean to gender equality activists who insist that a woman’s valor can be measured the same way as a man’s. It is telling though that in order to execute such a vision, Rey’s character must be totally self-made. Her parents are not just invisible, they are irrelevant. The Last Jedi’s interpretation of Luke Skywalker means that even Rey’s would-be father figure is a cynical old man whose greatest wisdom is to point Rey further inward. Worst of all, in the end the only ancestral revelation audiences get is the groan-inducing surprise (in The Rise of Skywalker) that Rey is Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter. To call this plot twist hokey would be an insult to hokes. But thematically it achieves what is apparently the trilogy’s only real ambition for Rey: to make her (and us) understand that her goodness is entirely her own, her identity is the sum total of her choices, and the only formation she ever needs is self-formation.
It’s no surprise that Disney would insert this kind of preachy expressive individualism into the Star Wars franchise. It has been the company’s key metanarrative for decades. The Incredibles films are a notable exception, but generally the rule at Disney is that heroes are self-created, and family members and structures are more likely than not to impede the hero’s journey rather than help it (usually the family reconciliation happens only when the hero’s family accepts and affirms the hero and repents of ever trying to make her like them).
What is interesting is how obviously the replacement of child-parent relationship with youthful self-authentication cripples a mythology like Star Wars. Visually, Star Wars has never looked better than in the sequel trilogy, and the script writers run laps around George Lucas when it comes to dialogue and humor. It’s the story that fails at an elemental level. A parable of not needing anyone else in order to become a hero rings especially false in a mythology such as Star Wars, which centers the master-apprentice relationship as an obvious proxy for fathers and sons. Rey’s journey is prepackaged and her triumph inevitable, and the series ends on a profoundly confused note as she adopts herself into the Skywalker family. The lesson Disney would apparently have us learn is that who you are and where you come from do not matter, unless you want them to.
Contrast this vacuous moralism to The Mandalorian. In the theatrical films Disney have given themselves over to a hollow ideal of radical individualism, but the Disney+ series strikes a much different (and older) note. The show follows a venerable storytelling tradition of the innocent child protected by the battle-hardened father figure, but with a brilliant twist: this time it is not the Force-wielding Jedi who defend the ordinary creature, but a gunslinging bounty hunter protecting the one who possesses extraordinary abilities. By reversing Star Wars’s typical protector/protected order, the series makes an egalitarian social point far better than the sequel trilogy’s forced feminism, all while offering a remarkably moving and intelligent portrait of fatherhood.
The complete absence of fatherhood from the sequel trilogy, and the gospel of self-creation that replaces it, are not accidents. The family drama and master-apprentice relationship at the heart of the first six Star Wars films are relics of a transcendent worldview that contemporary culture no longer abides. In the words of theologian Carl Trueman, modern people see themselves as “plastic,” not belonging to any sort of objective or organic purpose, but rather able to swap out any part of their identity (or even biology) to suit their self-perception.
Rey is a hero tailor-made for modern Western viewers, a cinematic symbol of radical independence and self-determination. But Star Wars’s literary connection to a wider and greater tradition of myth constantly brushes against Disney’s interpretation of the saga. It looks amazing, and feels hollow: a pretty apt description for more than these movies, I think.