Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker marks the end of a story that began in 1977: the “Skywalker Saga,” a tale told, as George Lucas had once intended, across three distinct trilogies. Each occupies a different place in time and fandom consciousness, from the revered “Original Trilogy” of the ’70s and ’80s, to Lucas’ divisive prequels at the turn of the century, to the now-concluded Disney “Sequel Trilogy” that tries to tie it all together, often to mixed results.
Now that the singular story of the Skywalker family, told through these nine Star Wars movies, is complete, it leads to one major question: what is the true meaning of the Skywalker Saga?
Warning: full spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker ahead!
A Story of Power
The original and prequel trilogies told tales of how power wielded with anger and selfishness was a path to destruction — both politically and personally. The new films, adept though they may be at individual characterization, don’t seem to have anything approaching the same political outlook.
Chronologically, the Skywalker Saga begins with the virgin birth of Anakin Skywalker (which the Emperor later implies was the result of him being created by the Force). The power Anakin wields and how he wields it are central to the prequel films. The Jedi, protectors though they were, neither allowed Anakin to love, nor were they equipped to handle the festering rage of a former slave who saw his mother die brutally before him — at least, in any manner other than making him suppress that rage — and so he uses his strength for evil. The foreground of the prequel films was Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader, and how his pursuit of supernatural power to save his loved ones lead him to join Palpatine. The background, however, was the intersection of this relationship with the larger politics of the galaxy.
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While Anakin was being trained, Palpatine went from Senator to Chancellor, and from Chancellor to Emergency Dictator. He built his Empire from within the Galactic Republic, and rose to power by manipulating allegiances and by turning people against the Jedi through fear. For all their flaws, the prequel films were tapped into the era’s American zeitgeist just as much as the originals were. Under Palpatine, the Empire in the original films sought to “keep the local systems in line” through fear of its militaristic might; the Original Trilogy functioned as anti-Vietnam War movies — Lucas was set to direct Apocalypse Now prior to Star Wars — with ill-equipped rebels fighting to immobilize an advanced military superpower. The prequels, too, framed the Empire through a lens of American militarism. In Revenge of the Sith, made shortly after America’s misguided invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Palpatine uses an attack on him as justification to mercilessly wipe out the Jedi, while Anakin’s “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy” proclamation mirrors George W. Bush’s post-9/11 speech, in which he said “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” an extreme sentiment used to rally nations into unjust wars in the name of American imperialism.
Politically speaking, there was a simplicity to the saga under George Lucas, wherein imperialism and militaristic manipulations were the enemy, though the same isn’t necessarily true of the sequel films. In both the prequel and original trilogies, Palpatine’s function was to broadly reflect authoritarian control, but upon his injection into the sequels, his goals now center on familial legacy and mystical resurrection. Where lineage and Force powers were once means to political ends, they become ends in and of themselves in the sequel trilogy. Meanwhile, the Emperor’s plans for the galaxy at large — using hundreds of ships equipped with Death Star tech — appear to involve rampant destruction in order to convince Rey to accept his spirit (and the spirits of all the Sith), with any desire to reinstate his Imperial rule reduced to a throwaway line about Rey sitting on the throne in his stead.
In shifting the objectives of the series’ main villain — the man pulling the strings in all nine films — the saga narrows towards a comparatively apolitical bent. None of the three trilogies play coy with their iconography (Nazi-inspired images are rarely hard to spot), but Disney’s bookend to the series reframes what the story, thus far, has been about. With end-goals focused on bringing all the Sith to life through Rey, the Emperor’s real-world dictatorial ambitions no longer remain central to the saga. In fact, they’re retroactively made a secondary consideration; they’re replaced by the mysticism that once lay in the saga’s background, and acted as a platform for the Emperor’s political tyranny (the Sith, if you’ll recall, weren’t even mentioned in the original trilogy).
In The Rise of Skywalker, The First Order is eventually revealed to be an off-shoot of the original Empire (which, it turns out, was never defeated) but there’s little clarity as to who is fighting who, over what, and why, even once the Emperor returns. Does the First Order exist to re-establish the Empire, or to simply defeat the Resistance? In The Force Awakens, Hux’s speech hints at both possibilities, but the film never clarifies the relationship between the Resistance and the New Republic; does the Resistance exist to enforce the new galactic status quo, or to simply fight the First Order? With all these ideas left hanging throughout the trilogy, the most basic questions of the saga’s premise — once crystal-clear in the originals and prequels — become muddled: who has the power, who’s trying to take it from them, and how?
This political muddled-ness doesn’t kneecap the new trilogy, but most of these answers lie outside the films, in spin-off books and other media, which lends itself to a greater appreciation of what the films under Lucas had to say.
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Kylo Ren is perhaps the Disney trilogy’s biggest success — artistically, he’s the most alluring; financially, the most marketable — and he, too, is politically disconnected. His anger is potent, but personal. His goals pivot around singular grudges against family members who he believes betrayed him; tearing down old power structures and becoming Supreme Leader are mere byproducts of his revenge. His pursuit of political power is an incidental extension of his character, rather than a core ambition. He has no overarching outlook on the past or its politics beyond his relationships to Luke, Leia, Han and Vader, — and he arguably shouldn’t, given his function within the story as a Skywalker struggling with the Dark Side. But this near-exclusive focus on the individual and familial, in lieu of the broadly political, ends up holding true for all the series’ major players: for Luke, for Rey, for Snoke, and for the Emperor.
The power structures of the original and prequel trilogies extended well beyond “Jedi” and “Sith.” The political schisms between “Rebellion” and “Empire,” and between “Republic” and “Separatist,” drove the saga’s plot as much as (if not more than) battles between Force-users. The Force, lightsabers and the Skywalker family were but small parts of a larger tapestry, though with the Disney trilogy, they become absolutely, unequivocally central to the goings-on of the galaxy. Events no longer stem from the lust for power as it exists in the real world — that is, the lust for political power. Rather, they stem from characters seeking various mystical elements (lightsabers, Sith artifacts, other Jedi, and Force-sensitive children), which have trickled down from the older films and gone from world-building details to the world itself.
Where the opening crawl of the original 1977 film began with the words “It is a period of civil war” before laying out the galactic conflict, the sequel trilogy begins with the words “Luke Skywalker has vanished,” before expanding on how the First Order won’t rest until he’s dead. At the start of the new trilogy, the entire conflict pivots around the heroes and villains trying to find one single, powerful Jedi, and by its end, Rey assumes this position in the narrative, as the Emperor’s secret granddaughter. She speaks constantly about trying to find her place in the world in the context of family, but she never seems to express any relationship to that world in terms of who, beyond her immediate friends, might suffer at the hands of the First Order (or anyone else in charge).
The only sequel character with anything approaching a broad political perspective is Rose, who names the galaxy’s war profiteers as its true villains, and its child slaves as its true victims. This scene in The Last Jedi is the first time the saga zeroes in on the personal specifics of the galaxy’s power structures. However, both Rose and the stories she introduces are completely sidelined in the saga’s concluding chapter. In retrospect, given how the sequel trilogy continues the conflict of the originals, abandoning Rose’s story makes Star Wars a series willing to pay lip-service to pressing questions of war — Who suffers? Who profits? — though not one willing enough to explore them.
Instead, as the series goes on, its focus narrows to the story of a single family. Since the Emperor is both literal grandfather to Rey and, as the creator of Vader, spiritual great-grandfather to Kylo Ren, everything in the story now stems from his lineage (both his family, and his connection to the Sith) rather than from his political ambition. The “wars” in Star Wars cease to resemble actual military conflicts, as the saga becomes about legacy — the characters’, and the series’ own.
Family and Redemption
Rey, the sequel trilogy’s ostensible protagonist, is designed as both Luke’s equal and opposite. Like Luke, she lives on a desert planet and has dreams of joining a rebellion (she even makes her own Rebel action figure), but unlike Luke, she doesn’t actually want to leave her home, in case her parents finally return. This inversion is the core of her character, and it’s the core of what Star Wars has become: a story where questions of lineage are central to the saga and its characters.
Rey’s arc across the series is, at least nominally, about learning to let go of this idea and growing beyond it, in order to become someone who isn’t defined by blood and someone who can go out and forge bonds of her own. The reveal of her lineage in The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t necessarily clash with this concept, though the form it takes feels haphazardly strung together given that, prior to The Rise of Skywalker, the Emperor was a non-entity to Rey. Furthermore, it’s the series doubling down on the story it was already telling — and telling much more deftly — with Kylo Ren.
Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren forges an identity in the vein of his grandfather, Darth Vader, drawing from Sith iconography as he embraces the darkness his uncle once saw in him. From the very start of the trilogy, Kylo’s story is one of redemption, beginning with heinous acts for which he would need to be redeemed, and setting off an arc that, perhaps unbeknownst to him, would be much more in line with Vader the person, than with Vader the villainous icon. It was Vader who finally beat the Emperor in Return of the Jedi (or so we thought), choosing love over hatred, and choosing the life of his son over the power he could wield. In The Force Awakens, Kylo mentions being tempted by the light side of the Force, which is both a reflection of Vader’s story, and a more succinct inversion of Luke Skywalker’s, whose dilemma involved being tempted by anger, vengeance and all things “dark” — things Luke nearly succumbs to again when teaching young Ben.
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Darth Vader’s redemption narrative is the blueprint for Kylo’s arc. Along with characters like Han, a selfish smuggler who turns his back on the Rebellion before joining it, and Lando, who aligns himself with the Empire before helping his friends, redemption is a key theme in Star Wars, and characters atoning for murky pasts is something the sequels attempt to carry forward. Poe Dameron, like Han, was a smuggler who eventually joined the Resistance, while Finn was a former Stormtrooper who turned against the First Order. However both characters, entertaining though they may be, fit the mold for redemption in name only. Poe’s past comes up late into the third film, and he begins the saga already fighting for the rebels, while Finn breaks free from the First Order’s grasp in his very first scene. We never actually see either character do things for which they would need to be redeemed.
Similarly, Rey’s supposed battle with her lineage is all texture, as if ideas from the original trilogy have been superimposed on her. After The Last Jedi has her begin to accept her outsidership to the family saga, The Rise of Skywalker introduces the idea that she’s been central to it all along — how odd, that the Millenium Falcon, the map to Luke Skywalker and Palpatine’s granddaughter all happened to be a mile apart — but the late arrival of this family wrinkle means it’s never something Rey truly wrestles with.
Rey’s accidental use of Sith Lightning, while foreshadowing her lineage, occurs well before she learns she’s a Palpatine, while its supposed deadly consequence (the death of Chewbacca) is undone moments later. Neither this one-off occurrence, nor her eventual confrontation with the Emperor, leave Rey with any actions or parts of herself with which to reckon, the way Luke once reckoned with the rage passed down to him by Vader. Despite briefly losing her cool, the emotional hallmarks of the Dark Side, like selfishness or deep-seated anger, rarely manifest in Rey.
Even when the Emperor tries to tempt Rey, as he once did Luke, it’s not with the promise of power or vengeance, but with the promise of becoming an empty vessel for Sith ghosts of the past. Her potential path to darkness is a matter of mere aesthetics — her hooded, red-lightsaber-wielding vision of herself aligns with our understanding of what a Sith ought to look like — rather than any temptation which might make the Dark Side seem alluring to her. She’s presented with a throne, but she’s neither someone who’s sought power, nor someone who’s wrestled with the rage that might corrupt that power. In this instance, she’s merely a reflection of Luke’s story; ironically, she’s already an empty vessel for Star Wars’ past.
Echoing the Past
Each film in the sequel trilogy has something wildly different, even wildly contradictory to say. This is owed, in large part, to two vastly different filmmakers approaching the iconography of Star Wars in completely divergent ways: J.J. Abrams, whose The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker rely heavily on thematic re-treads, and Rian Johnson, whose middle chapter The Last Jedi attempts to subvert those same ideas. In the grand scheme of the saga, it’s Star Wars eating its own tail by becoming about Star Wars.
Divisive though it may be, The Last Jedi at least attempts to have its characters wrestle with the weight of the past, seeking to either destroy it or make amends with it. The film, however, is sandwiched between entries that seem to force its new, square-pegged characters into round nostalgic holes. Kylo Ren, a character who worships the iconography of Star Wars, breaks free of its shackles in The Last Jedi while proclaiming “Let the past die, kill it if you have to,” only to re-construct his Vader-inspired identity in The Rise of Skywalker. The identity Rey eventually chooses, “Rey Skywalker,” has little to do with her as a character, and all to do with audience wish-fulfilment. Her final scene takes place on a desert planet that has no meaning to her, and all meaning to viewers who have seen the original films: Luke’s home world of Tatooine. The nostalgia of the originals weighs heavy on the new trilogy to the point that it occasionally breaks it.
The aesthetics and character dynamics of the original films are vital to these new ones, from ships, weapons and costumes that echo their predecessors, to characters battling their lineage. However, many central themes of the originals end up muddled or malformed by the time they’re addressed in the saga’s climactic episodes. The Jedi are central to the story of Star Wars, but so are their failings; in the original trilogy, Jedi Masters like Yoda and Obi-Wan are certainly heroic, but their humanity comes from their mistakes. They’re wrong about Luke needing to defeat Vader through violence, rather than bringing him back to the Light, and when Yoda returns in the sequel trilogy he makes sure to allude to his oversight. Both Luke and Yoda failed at times, but their respectives students — Rey, and Luke himself — theoretically grew beyond their teachers, and improved on what came before. In the process, Yoda rightly went from preaching “Do, or do not. There is no try” to “The greatest teacher, failure is.”
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These lessons of failure carry through The Last Jedi, which feels in conversation with the themes of the originals. However, these lessons seem to be a non-factor in The Rise of Skywalker, which leans uncritically on nostalgia and familiar story beats, whether or not they fit the story at hand. When Rey’s mission involves hearing the voices of (and thus, embodying) all the Jedi of the past, the film essentially sweeps aside their faults, and their own contributions to the rise of the Empire, which Luke even mentions in the middle chapter. The Jedi, therefore, become a nostalgic cipher rather than a group of dogmatic individuals, whose rigid asceticism gave rise to not one, but two masked Skywalker villains — and whose scriptures Rey still possesses, with no indication that she’ll do things any differently.
Meanwhile, the end of Rey and Kylo Ren’s journey as heroes fits the paradigm of a “good/evil” binary, rather than a classically Star Wars tale where the truth complicates allegiances and motivations. In The Rise of Skywalker, both characters start out wanting to kill the Emperor, and they both end the film that way as well, without being challenged to find other means to end the conflict, the way Luke did in Return of the Jedi when he chose to redeem Vader instead.
Granted, Star Wars is, for all intents and purposes, a “good versus evil” story. It begins with the heroic journey of Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion, and their vanquishing of the evil Empire, before taking us back in time to show us how that Empire was built. But in simply bringing the Emperor back in Episode IX, the new series ignores some of the more nuanced lessons of earlier films, in addition to diluting its own themes of wrestling with the past and trying to improve on it. The new trilogy, in its totality, doesn’t seem to improve upon the original films either; with minor exception, it simply re-hashes them.
The final chapters of the Skywalker Saga sidestep what once lay at the series’ core. By its end, the story of Star Wars is no longer about how people — flawed, arrogant, fighting against their natures — function as smaller, conflicting parts of larger forces like empires and rebellions, like a well-meaning Luke butting heads with a selfish Han, or Obi Wan trying to keep Anakin on the straight & narrow. Instead, it becomes about how these larger forces succumb to stories about individuals and their immediate families. What once began as a grand, expansive saga now feels smaller and less significant.
However, that very grandeur still forms the saga’s foundation. As the series moves further from the original films, it attempts to replicate them more and more. Lucas’ oft-parodied “It’s like poetry, it rhymes” line has become its creative mantra, as the franchise continually creates carbon-copies, thus turning the story of Star Wars into one of history repeating itself, and of newer generations so burdened by the past they’re unable to escape its grasp — for better or worse.