“I Am Your Father.” The legacy of parental trauma in Star Wars

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The Star Wars universe is one made up of doomed mothers and distant fathers whose children struggle to live up to their image. While the galaxy far, far away has all the ornaments and trappings of fantastical science fiction, the focus of the series is parentage. Whether faced with competing with the idealized reputations of their parents, or to live in the long shadows that they cast, tragedy lurks in the arc in each trilogy. Darth Vader is the result of Anakin Skywalker throwing away everything in trying to preserve his family, only to be betrayed by Emperor Palpatine. Luke and Leia’s destiny is to override their father’s actions and restore balance to the force, but they’re both partially responsible for the turn to the dark side that Kylo Ren took.

That’s why The Mandalorian was so frustrating. Din Djarin was so close to doing the right thing as a father figure, but he handed Grogu off to (uncanny valley) Luke Skywalker and sealed his fate. The Mandalorian achieved a full reversal of episode one, where he was ordered to deliver the child to the Empire. He grew to care for Grogu and wanted to raise him under the ways of the Mandalor, mirroring his own childhood. But in trying to do the right thing for the force-sensitive Grogu, he inadvertently placed him in the new jedi temple where — we know — Kylo Ren kills all future padawans.

Parents are supposed to create a better world for their children. They’re supposed to make life easier in ways that wasn’t possible for them when they grew up. Of course, the decisions that they make doesn’t always work out for the best, in fact, they can have the opposite outcome. Anakin’s prophecy foretold that he would bring balance to the force. What the Jedi didn’t know was that he would bring down the light first. The death of Anakin’s mother came at a volatile time, thrusting him onto the path of the dark side before he understood what was happening. Years later, and on the verge of becoming a father, Anakin feels the pang of mortality that was left unresolved from his mother’s death. That fear makes him relent to the Emperor’s offerings in hopes for an eternity with his wife, Amidala. Without consulting, or conveying any of this to her, Anakin begins a path that results not only in his destruction, but the destruction of an entire republic, and, ultimately, Amidala.

Vader eventually redeems himself by (what we thought at the time) destroying the Emperor and making peace with his son, but there is little reason for Kylo to make a similar turn. Reconciliation is not on Kylo’s mind as he chooses to violently disconnect from his parents. Even his current name (formerly Ben) is a rejection of Leia and Han’s contributions. Though, he eventually mirrors Vader in Return of the Jedi. Certainly, one could call the cyclical nature of this franchise lazy, but that trivializes the impact of similar strategies used successfully before in The Godfather saga. Our parents’ decisions determine our futures. Their choices set us down paths before we’re old enough to even understand how we wound up where we are.

In A New Hope, Luke is posited as the true prodigy that will save the galaxy, but, first, he’ll have to stop Darth Vader. Previously a moisture farmer on Tatooine, Luke now has the burden of saving the entire galaxy on his shoulders, perhaps a strain too large for an angsty teen. Once the two meet, a fight to the death turns ends with a horrific revelation for Luke, who finds out Darth Vader and his father are one and the same. Presented with the option of ruling over a corrupt empire with his father, Luke chooses to leap to his death instead. Rian Johnson explains the strange relationship between Luke and Vader: “In the original trilogy, Vader is the father — he’s the one you’re afraid of and who you want the approval of.” Fortunately, Luke and Leia chose to reject that approval and resolve to safeguard the Republic, piecing it back together after the destruction of the Empire.

If Luke and Leia represent the conscious effort to disconnect from your parents, then Kylo is the unhealthy desire to sever all ties to one’s past. However, it’s not unfair to say that Kylo had some justification for his actions. Leia and Han both led lives singularly focused on one pursuit; for Leia, it was galactic peace, for Han, smuggling, neither lifestyle made room for a child. Parents are supposed to build a better world for their children, but Han, Leia, and Luke find that task creates unanticipated problems. Creating a new Jedi Academy should help stabilize the New Republic, but for Ben, the near-mythic reputation of his uncle and mother proved too heavy. Yet again, good intentions resulted in a new radical terrorizing the galaxy.

Kylo Ren is so haunted by the specter of his grandfather that he takes up his pursuit of darkness. Rey sensed some hope left in Kylo, faith that seemed rewarded when Kylo dispatched of Snoke in a thrilling throne room battle, but she had her hopes dashed when his true motivations were revealed. Kylo didn’t eliminate Snoke out of some sense of duty; he did it so that he could run the First Order in his image. Kylo Ren hasn’t evolved throughout this new trilogy, but the audience’s sense of him does. Specifically, the schism that exists inside of Kylo that hates his heritage but also longs for the power that his grandfather possessed. He wore his helmet — despite not needing it — because he knows that he’s a weak man. So he created a costume of his own that presents a fearsome visage. Kylo knows that he can’t live up to that reputation, and he loathes himself because of it. His new helmet has been pieced together, but the fractures are still evident. In that way, the helmet is a visual synecdoche for Kylo: his mask can no longer hide who he is.

Just as George Lucas wrote the prequel movies to “rhyme” with his original films, so has the new trilogy felt the echoes of previous films. Obi-Wan’s peaceful exile on Tatooine inspired Luke’s self-banishment to Jakku, though Obi-Wan was much more accepting of the events that put him there. Luke’s exile is plagued by shame for creating the next Vader, and he almost turns away from his own redemption in the form of young Rey.

Rey’s parentage as a Palpatine is now known, but she still doesn’t know herself. She’s not that far removed from staring wistfully into the Jakku sunset, hoping to pull her parents from the horizon into her arms. Throughout most of The Last Jedi, Rey hoped to learn more about her past, but she keeps being thwarted. Her experience in the Mirror Cave is supposed to be illuminating, but instead, she gets a bitter pill to swallow. There are no relatives to explain her place in the world to her, no easy explanations for her gifts, just a harsh reminder that she’s alone. The final insult comes when Kylo divulges that Rey’s parents were nobodies who deserted her for money. That crushing sense of abandonment gives Rey added incentive to join the Resistance — something resembling a family. It’s also what makes Kylo so unfathomable to her. Everything she ever wanted, he was given and rejected with prejudice. Despite not knowing her parents, Rey is haunted by them. In never knowing them, she should be free of their failings, but just like Luke, Leia, Jyn and Kylo Ren, she feels obligated to atone for actions committed before she was born. After finding out she is a descendant of the most evil presence in the galaxy, Rey’s feelings of guilt are amplified.

While the original trilogy would seem to suggest that heroes are born for specific times, the new trilogy’s motif is that characters are defined by agency — not destiny. The Last Jedi deconstructs the notion of heroes and villains and posits Han, Luke, and Leia as real people dealing with the circumstances that life has dealt them. Luke Skywalker is regarded as a legend, but that ignores how brash and reckless he was during the events of the original trilogy. Han and Leia are heralded as the heroes of the old Rebellion, but they were overmatched parents who watched their family dissolve. Kylo (then Ben) couldn’t live with the disillusion of heroes failing to live up to their reputation, so he decided to tear it all down. No prophecy will define his character arc, the final choice that Kylo Ren makes in Rise of Skywalker is his own. He overthrows Palpatine and joins his grandfather in casting aside the Sith in his last moments rather than be subsumed by the pagan scream that defined so much of his life.

Star Wars has largely been defined by lightsaber duels and dogfights in space, but it’s when the spectacle has subsided that the series transcends into the larger than life phenomenon that’s it become. The interpersonal dynamics between characters is what made Star Wars into a cherished franchise; the emotion and drama of Han’s capture and his response to Leia when she says she loves him, Vader’s confession to Luke and the anguish it brings, and Vader, finally, turning on his master to save his son’s life. These moments of pure catharsis are what cemented Star Wars into a cultural touchstone that has spanned decades. Not the razzle-dazzle, whiz-bang homages to Flash Gordon old serials, but the quiet moments that really grab viewers. The moment when the frame dissolves and all we’re left with is our relationships with our own parents and children.

Film critic w/ bylines in ThatShelf, Birth.Movies.Death, Little White Lies, ScreenCrush, and Movie Mezzanine (rip). LVFCS Member. Follow me at @wordsbycbiggs

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