Last Jedi’s Strength is Character Development

Rebel heroes each have a lesson to learn in Star Wars’ latest installment.

For the first time in my life, Star Wars — and its characters — are in uncharted territory.

Sure, there were some surprises in the prequels, but we all knew where the characters were headed. Obi-Wan changed little aside from his hairstyle. We all knew where Anakin’s character was headed. And as for the series’ big plot twist — that Chancellor Palpatine masqueraded as the series’ baddie, Darth Sidious? Most fans saw that one coming a mile away. But with the latest film in the franchise, The Last Jedi, perhaps more than any other entry in the series, forces our characters to develop, learn, and grow in ways we haven’t seen Star Wars characters evolve before. On the first viewing, Poe’s mutiny and Finn’s foray on the casino world of Canto Bight didn’t make much sense — until the second viewing, where I realized that Episode VIII’s sole purpose is to force our older heroes to bow out gracefully and pass the torch to the next generation.

In this sense, the plot is simple: Each of our new heroes — former stormtrooper Finn, Jedi-in-training Rey, and brash pilot Poe — has a lesson to learn, an antagonist to teach it to them, and a mentor to put the lesson into context. This is critical for Episode VIII, as our new heroes must carry the story to its conclusion, given Han and Luke’s in-story deaths and Leia’s presumed departure from the series following the death of actress Carrie Fisher. Making the transition easier, however, is the fact that each of our new heroes has a direct callback to their counterparts in the original trilogy.

Finn, the former FN-2187, is Han Solo of the sequels. With no love of the First Order, but no real loyalty to the Resistance, he’s motivated by friends more than anything. Recall how quickly he was ready to jump ship in The Force Awakens, or how his sole motivation to infiltrate Starkiller Base was to rescue his newfound friend Rey. At the beginning of The Last Jedi, Finn’s back to his old ways, trying to jump ship and link up with Rey in deep space — subplot which calls back to Han’s repeated attempts to leave the Rebellion in The Empire Strikes Back. Finn, however, teams up with Rose Tico, a mechanic in the Resistance who’s lost everything to the First Order and given everything to the rebellion — including her sister in the film’s opening act. The pair links up with a shady computer hacker named DJ on the casino world of Canto Bight. DJ offers Finn a glimpse of what his life could be if he flees the rebellion — a future with no good guys, no bad guys, just loyalty to the highest bidder. And when Finn discovers DJ’s highest bidder turns out to be the First Order, Finn finally decides where his loyalty lies — not just with his friends, but with the Resistance. Facing off with his former boss, the chrome-plated stormtrooper Captain Phasma, Finn takes pride in being not just scum, but “Rebel scum”. Soon after, Finn’s become so committed to the Resistance he’s willing to lay down his own life in a suicide run — averted only thanks to Rose’s timely intervention.

Next, there’s Rey, arguably the last Jedi by the end of the film, who constantly struggles to understand where she comes from — not unlike Luke Skywalker’s constant quest to understand what happened to his father throughout A New Hope and later in Empire. And just like Luke before her, Rey learns the truth about her lineage from the Dark Side, not from her Jedi teacher. Indeed, both Luke and his fallen apprentice, Kylo Ren urge Rey to forget their past and move forward — a lesson Luke finally takes to heart by finally returning to aid the Resistance and face his former student in a dramatic lightsaber battle. That said, while Rey may have let go of her past, she hasn’t given up on what little remains of the Jedi Order, as the final shot of the film shows the sacred texts smuggled aboard the Millennium Falcon and the shards of Luke’s old lightsaber.

Finally, there’s hotshot pilot Poe Dameron. Sure, he may have Han’s swagger and Luke’s skills with an X-Wing, but throughout the series, he has more of Leia in him than perhaps any other character. (Which also explains why Poe’s always hiding secret messages in droids and getting rescued from Imperial detention facilities) Like Leia, he’s committed his entire life to the Rebellion. And as we see from the first few minutes of The Force Awakens, it’s clear each holds the other in high esteem each other in high esteem. But following a strike against an Imperial dreadnaught, Leia rebukes Poe, admonishing him that some problems can’t be solved from the cockpit of a starfighter. It takes a failed mutiny to teach Poe to stop being a glory hound and to start thinking like a leader — at the end of the movie, Poe’s greatest contribution is to call off an attack on the First Order and to plot the Resistance’s escape. It’s even more crucial for Poe to develop as a leader given that he’s likely all that’s left of the Resistance at this point, assuming Leia won’t be back for the next installment.

It’s an exciting time for Star Wars — we simply don’t know what will happen next at this point. With Kylo Ren now at the helm of the First Order, Star Wars is in completely uncharted territory. And after a franchise plagued with prequels and filler stories, that’s probably just what we needed.