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Are We Sure the Jedi Are Good?

As the final film in the third ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ will have the last word on whether the Jedi are helpful or hurtful, necessary or dispensable

Disney/Ringer illustration

In the first scene of Disney’s Skywalker saga-concluding trilogy, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron meets Lor San Tekka, an explorer who gives him a fragment of a map that may lead to Luke Skywalker. San Tekka belongs to the Church of the Force, an affiliation of non-Jedi who nonetheless worship the Force and strive to restore the Jedi order. “I have traveled too far and seen too much to ignore the despair in the galaxy,” San Tekka tells Poe. “Without the Jedi, there can be no balance in the Force.”

With that exchange, The Force Awakens both brought the audience up to date and laid out a mission statement for the new trilogy. The balance brought to the Force when Luke coaxed Anakin Skywalker back to the light and Anakin literally overthrew Emperor Palpatine? Yeah, that lasted only as long as the real-life gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. When Disney needed a new trilogy, the galaxy went back to being broken. The only way to fix it, director and cowriter J.J. Abrams decreed, was to bring back the Jedi, blow up a planet-sized superweapon, and defeat the quasi-Empire (and, evidently, the Emperor) again.

It was not a new premise. After directing Star Trek Into Darkness—in which we learn that actually, Khan isn’t dead, and Captain Kirk has to fight him again—Abrams opted to undo (and redo) the resolution of another classic sci-fi film. In retracing the original trilogy’s path, he reaffirmed its message: The Jedi are good, and when the Jedi aren’t ascendant, the galaxy goes awry. Thus, the only way to heal it is for the Jedi to return (or awake, or rise).

In The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson controversially recast the creative recycling of The Force Awakens as a subversive and bleak commentary on the entire Skywalker saga. Maybe, the unkempt and hermit-like Luke of The Last Jedi suggested, the Jedi weren’t the solution; maybe they were the problem all along. The Jedi were oblivious to the existence of the Sith for a millennium, whiffed on the rise of Darth Sidious, acted as the puppets and Force enforcers of an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian Republic regime, created the clone army that eventually brought about the Empire, failed to prevent Anakin from turning to the dark side, and then fumbled again when it came to Kylo Ren and the First Order. There’s also the small matter of conscripting children and declining to free slaves on planets that weren’t governed by the Republic’s anti-slavery laws.

Disney

Naturally, some Star Wars fans were upset that Johnson had called a core tenet of the original trilogy into question, but one must admit that the track record of the Jedi in the Star Wars films is less do than do not. Baby Yoda is precious and perfect, but are the Jedi? “If you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure,” said Luke in The Last Jedi. “Hypocrisy, hubris.”

As the final film in the saga, The Rise of Skywalker will have the last word on whether the Jedi are helpful or hurtful, necessary or dispensable. Between the title, the handoff to Abrams, and the fact that the cast has spent the press tour doing drive-bys on Johnson, it seems likely that the movie will find in favor of the Jedi. But before Abrams ends the discussion, we can consider the question Johnson raised. Do the Jedi do more harm than good?

In the Star Wars galaxy, the prevailing perception of the Jedi depends on the period and the point of view. During the heyday of the Galactic Republic, we’re told, the Jedi were widely revered as noble peacekeepers. In the aftermath of Order 66—as illuminated in the new video game Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order—Imperial propaganda rebranded the Jedi as duplicitous traitors, and by the time the Rebellion began, some seemed to see them as charlatans. Remember Admiral Motti’s putdown of Darth Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways” and Han’s Force denialism and dismissal of “hokey religions”?

Luke’s heroics restored some of the Order’s lost luster, and he claims that the Jedi’s disappearance has made the galaxy grow fonder of its former guardians. “Now that they are extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified,” Luke tells Rey in The Last Jedi, although he may have overrated his order’s approval rating: At the start of The Force Awakens, Rey doesn’t even think the Jedi were real.

Among those who wield or have witnessed the power of the Force, though, the Jedi are still seen as the good guys. Leia and the Resistance think finding Luke is the key to defeating the First Order (just like Leia thought finding Obi-Wan was the key to defeating the Empire), and early in The Last Jedi, Snoke tells Kylo, “The seed of the Jedi order lives. As long as it does, hope lives in the galaxy.” But Luke indirectly rejects Snoke’s claim that the Jedi are the ones who keep hope alive. The Force, Luke says, “does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies is vanity.” Luke and Kylo are on opposite sides of the conflict, but they come to the same conclusion. Luke’s line “It’s time for the Jedi to end” echoes Kylo’s “It’s time to let old things die.”

For all The Last Jedi’s talk of killing the past, the movie doesn’t actually end on a nihilistic note. Yes, Yoda destroys the Jedi library on Ahch-To, but as he tells Luke, “That library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.” (As we learn later, Rey checked out the sacred Jedi texts before the library burned.) And after a pep talk from Yoda, Luke, who had cut himself off from the Force because he believed that Jedi worship was leading the galaxy astray, answers the call from the Resistance and goes out in a blaze of Force-projected glory.

Earlier in The Last Jedi, Luke holds himself accountable for disrupting the balance of the Force by bringing about Kylo’s fall. Bewitched by his nephew’s Skywalker blood, Luke took a too-confident approach to tutoring Ben. “In my hubris, I thought I could train him, that I could pass on my strength,” he says. His own past success at resisting the dark side’s seduction made him miss the anger building in Ben. It was me,” Luke says. “I failed. Because I was Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master. A legend.”

But that phrase—Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master—recurs in the last line of the film. This time, it’s uttered not bitterly, but in triumph, by one of the kids on Canto Bight who’s celebrating Luke’s last stand at the Battle of Crait. In this scene (which Johnson revealed was almost cut from the film), Luke is transformed into a legend again, in a good way. This action-figure version of Luke may not be an accurate representation of a flawed and fallible man, but his iconic confrontation with Kylo inspires a new generation of kids, including the Force-sensitive stable sweeper who wears Rose’s Resistance ring and gazes up at the stars. His hope is what Leia is alluding to when Rey asks, “How do we build a Rebellion from this?” and Leia answers, “We have everything we need.”

That stable sweeper, Temiri Blagg, exposes the problem with ending the Order. “Snoke, Skywalker, the Sith, the Jedi, the Rebels … let it all die,” Kylo says. One way to bring the Force into balance might be to have no one on either side: No Jedi, no Sith. But as long as there’s life, there are Force-sensitive life forms. And as Johnson take pains to point out, they aren’t all members of a legendary line. Blagg has humble origins, as does Rey (at least in Johnson’s telling). So even if the Jedi order dies out, the Force users will keep coming. Blame those pesky midi-chlorians.

One could argue that recruiting and training Force-sensitive kids makes them more likely to break bad and do damage. If Qui-Gon hadn’t taken Anakin off of Tatooine, Shmi’s son might have spent the rest of his life tinkering with droids. Without Luke’s intervention, Ben Solo might have been a brat who never tapped into his power and perfected his Force choke. If the Jedi never swoop in and take Blagg away from Canto Bight, maybe he’ll never advance beyond broom-moving. Granted, not training those sensitive to the Force would probably also stunt their potential to do good. But given that the galaxy has just gone through three incredibly destructive conflicts caused by powerful Force users in a span of 60 years that cost countless lives, that might not be a bad tradeoff.

Then again, the absence of structure and training might make it even easier for a fledgling, DIY Force-user to fall to the dark side. The Jedi aren’t the only Force-wielders in the Star Wars galaxy, and other orders with no ties to the Jedi—including the Nightsisters of Dathomir and the Zeffo—have also been decimated after letting the dark side consume them. In Fallen Order, former Padawan Cal Kestis experiences a Force vision of a Zeffo sage who explains where his people went wrong. “Despite our wisdom and technological achievement, we face extinction,” the sage says. “Dogma blinded us to the path of balance, and gradually we allowed our pride to corrupt us.” That sounds a lot like the downfall of the Jedi. At the end of Fallen Order, Cal opts not to try to restore the Jedi, foreseeing that the new crop of trainees would be killed or captured and turned to the dark side. And after screwing up his assignment to babysit Ben, Luke cuts himself off from the Force and resolves never to train another Jedi.

If the Jedi dissolve, though, other affiliations of Force users will eventually arise, and they’ll all have to suffer the same setbacks the Jedi did. Better, then, for the Jedi to course-correct and keep going. As Yoda reminds Luke in The Last Jedi, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” In addition to strength and mastery, Yoda suggests, future Jedi should also be taught about weakness, folly, and failure—“failure most of all.”

So yes, maybe a more humble Jedi order—one that learns from its mistakes and teaches trainees not to fear failure, but to learn from it—could produce a smaller number of students who end up killing countless innocents and wearing helmets that make their voices sound super deep. But could that humility be maintained over hundreds or thousands of years? Wouldn’t the Jedi eventually, inevitably, grow lax and complacent again?

Assuming Disney doesn’t want the takeaway from this trilogy to be that the galaxy is doomed to cycles of destruction and despair, The Rise of Skywalker’s climax can’t mirror the end of Return of the Jedi. If Rey lures Kylo back from the dark side, Kylo kills the Emperor (again), and the credits roll, we won’t have any assurance that the galaxy won’t descend into darkness again a few decades later. For thousands of years, the Jedi have stuck to the light side, periodically lost members to the dark side, and fought wars that ravaged worlds and crippled governments. Their strict light/dark dichotomy hasn’t served them well. Maybe there’s a middle path; after all, only Sith deal in absolutes. Rey, Kylo, or a combination of both will have to break the Star Wars wheel.

That may be the ending George Lucas had in mind. In a 1983 book, Lucas said that the third Star Wars trilogy would focus on moral and philosophical questions. “In Star Wars, there is a very clear line drawn between good and evil,” Lucas elaborated. “Eventually you have to face the fact that good and evil aren’t that clear-cut, and the real issue is trying to understand the difference.”

Lucas sold his franchise to Disney, but based on what we’ve seen so far, Disney seems to have preserved some aspects of his vision for the trilogy. The epigraph of the novelization of The Force Awakens reads:

First comes the day
Then comes the night.
After the darkness
Shines through the light.
The difference, they say,
Is only made right
By the resolving of gray
Through refined Jedi sight.

That passage is attributed to the Journal of the Whills, another Lucas creation. It’s a cryptic quote, but it points to a new direction for the Jedi, one that blends dark and light. In one of Marvel’s Poe Dameron comics, C-3PO translates a passage from Rey’s sacred Jedi texts: “The Force is the light, the Force is the dark. Jedi choose the light, for all it reveals.” If the Force is both light and dark, then pursuing light alone doesn’t sound like a workable way to achieve a lasting balance. As Snoke says in The Last Jedi, “Darkness rises, and light to meet it.” Rey, he continues, is Kylo’s “equal in the light.” Rather than battling to the death, they could try to team up. This time, perhaps, the Jedi and the Sith will finally free themselves to make a less simplistic and more sustainable choice—and what looked like a lack of originality on Abrams’s part may help heighten the contrast between the choices Luke and Anakin made in Return of the Jedi and the choices Rey and Kylo make when they find themselves in a similar situation.

Yes, Yoda said, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” But maybe Yoda was missing something. It wouldn’t be the first time. He also said, “In this war, a danger there is of losing who we are.” But who the Jedi were wasn’t working. They’ve had a horrible century, but even an ancient order can change. Take it from a slave that a Jedi once refused to free: “You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting.”