The Last Jedi is in a difficult spot in Star Wars history. The Force Awakens survived by cannibalising the beloved storyline of A New Hope and capitalising on nostalgia. Wisely, The Last Jedi focused less on legacy and more on forging its own path forward in its own small ways. Episode Eight was less of a shock to the system than Rogue One, but a decisive step towards a new vision for the Star Wars universe. Space casino maguffins aside, Rian Johnson has presented a brave new world for fans, particularly in its core conflict between hero Rey and villain Kylo Ren, whose struggle to understand one another brings a complex new dimension to the battle between the light and dark side of the force.
SPOILERS ahead for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Both in the interest of the best narrative for Star Wars fans, and the preservation of what she cares about most, Rey makes the wrong decision at a pivotal moment in The Last Jedi. In Rey’s choice to return to the Rebel Alliance, the opportunity to explore a potentially beneficial relationship with Kylo is squandered in favour of conflict of a more familiar flavour.
At around the halfway mark of The Last Jedi, Rey decides she must meet with Kylo Ren, in order to capitalise on what she senses as a weakness for the light side of the force in him. She believes he can be turned, but upon her arrival Kylo hands her over for an intimidating meeting with the scarred and deformed Supreme Leader Snoke. It’s a familiar situation in the Star Wars universe – selfless good faces down underestimated evil: cue monologue. When all looks lost for Rey, Kylo redeems his actions by striking down Snoke (with some pretty cool force-cleaving) and joining Rey to fend off the Praetorian Guard. If ever there were evidence Kylo Ren feels an innate urge to return to the light side of the force, this is it.
With the last of the rebellion escape transports under fire from General Hux, and the throne room burning around them after their battle, rather than yielding to Rey’s wishes, Kylo Ren asks her to join him at the head of a new world, built on the ashes of the old. This isn’t the traditional ultimatum we have seen posed to characters in previous entries to the saga. Kylo is a new, murkier brand of Sith, surely the most nihilistic character in the history of the franchise, and his prerogative is to burn the established order down – family, light, and even the dark side which had previously claimed him. An invitation to end the familiar conflict between the Jedi and the Sith, the First Order and the Rebels through means of total annihilation has a certain appeal to it, after all. And with seven canonical films in the series flogging the same ideals of good and evil, it is tempting from a narrative perspective to explore new territory. How many more times can we watch the light succeed, only for the dark to rise in a new form?
Knowing now the immediate ramifications of her decision to leave Kylo Ren to return to the fleeing Rebels, perhaps Rey would be tempted to hear Kylo’s proposition out. At the end of The Last Jedi we leave the Rebels undefeated but close to ruin on Crait, their numbers depleted and their call for help from the reaches of the galaxy unanswered. There are hints at a new wave of rebels in the force-using stable kids on Canto Bight, but these sprogs hardly look like First Order-smashers for now. And after a particularly strenuous force-face off with Kylo Ren, Luke Skywalker is heading for the blue ghost treatment. From both the perspective of the Rebels, who are left facing an uncertain future, and the perspective of Star Wars 9 director JJ Abrams, the events of the third film must feel daunting.
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The expectation, should the canonical follow-up to The Last Jedi follow the mould of Lucas’s original trilogy, dictates the Alliance rise up again and defeat the First Order with a devastating attack, and the Jedi face down the Sith who has dogged them through their adventure. On both accounts, these events would feel unnatural given how things stand at the conclusion of The Last Jedi. Other than a significant time-gap between the movies, which would account for a plausible time-frame for the Rebels to recruit and regroup their forces, a grand assault on General Hux by what remains feels like folly, where the plot armour guarding the story’s key characters will play a bigger part than logic.
The conflict between Rey and Kylo is more complex than the relationship which existed between Luke and Vader, or even Obi Wan and Anakin. The previous two movies in the new trilogy have used a lighter touch to keep the pair from feeling like adversaries – less head-butting good and evil, more differing world views or ideologies. To see these two characters face off to the death – or to see Kylo yield to the clearer-cut light side of the force, after posing his own muddy world view – would feel forced.
Let’s imagine a timeline where Rey decides to side with Kylo in Snoke’s chamber. First, let’s see how events might have played out differently had Rey returned with Kylo to the First Order after their battle in the throne room. Hux finds Snoke’s bisected body and confronts Kylo, who up until this point has been presented as the unprotested power player in their relationship. Hux is persuaded or imprisoned, and Kylo continues his pursuit of the Rebels on Crait while Rey attempts to dissuade him. Rey watches the assault on the stronghold takes place, and, as Kylo meets Luke on the salt plains to duel it out for the final time, she joins the fight, conflicted internally, her lightsabre still in one piece given the resolution in the throne room. The trio battle to a standstill, or until Kylo is subdued, not killed. Luke goes to the Rebels to free them through the rock-blocked exit, and Rey and Kylo escape on the Millennium Falcon to continue their adventure apart from the First Order and the Rebel Alliance.
This version of events leaves Luke alive to help rebuild the Rebel Alliance, the First Order are left in a weaker standing, their Sith influence either dead or absent with the inept Hux next in line, and Rey and Kylo have become unknown quantities – characters who have shed their narrative weights and expectations, able to break new narrative ground for the franchise and return to bring something new to the galaxy – and Star Wars audiences.
With time to regroup alone and work out their differences, Rey and Kylo’s journey could have been a genuinely interesting one to follow in the final instalment. Imagine if both become more moderate to each other’s views – Kylo agreeing to spare the last of the rebellion and abandon his worship of Darth Vader, Rey attempting to harness and control the power of the dark side which has openly tempted her in the past. They could create an alternative to the established conflict. Part three in the new trilogy could follow the pair recruiting their own forces, travelling the galaxy to spread the word of this compromised but balanced ideology to overthrow the totalitarian First Order. With Kylo returning to Hux, a mole willing to cut the head off the snake from the inside, and Rey redoubling the near-extinct Rebels with her own faithful followers, now the destruction of the First Order feels less a desperate struggle between good and evil and more a coordinated, rightful dismantling and repurposing.
Is this the clear-cut triumph of the light over the dark audiences craved in the seventies and eighties, as Darth Vader’s body burned on a pyre under the shattered Death Star? No, this would be a more nuanced finish which leaves Rey’s and Kylo’s motives and feelings in question. It’s a new approach, with unforeseen problems and consequences. How will Rebel fighters and the First Order faithful stand together under Rey and Kylo’s banner? This will be a true entente – shaky, volatile, but holding in the final minutes of Episode 9. This, thinking ahead to the trilogy which will follow Abrams’ and Johnson’s stint, leaves a myriad of opportunity to explore fresh plotlines in this weird and dangerous new alliance. Audiences could watch relationships break down and implode, subterfuge and sabotage from the inside, or unexpected friendships between characters who were originally set on opposing sides. Hell, maybe we could even see what peace in the galaxy looks like for 120 minutes or so?
Wishful thinking. For now, while The Last Jedi was an exciting burst of activity, Abrams must be concerned what he has left to work with in the final instalment of the trilogy. Without retreading old ground or forcing the implausible on his audience, where are weleft to go in the final instalment? A simple narrative tweak in the throne room could have opened up so many other possibilities.