This article contains major The Rise of Skywalker spoilers. You can read a spoiler free review here instead.
The final scene of Star Wars: The Last Jedi doesn’t include any of the Sequel Trilogy’s main characters. It doesn’t include any mention of the Jedi, the Sith, or the Skywalker name. Instead, it features a Canto Bight slave boy going about his chores.
While the ultra rich carelessly gamble away money they don’t need in a casino nearby, the indentured boy casually uses the Force to call a broom into his hand. The boy half-heartedly sweeps up hay before he is distracted from his task, staring off into the stars and imagining a better life for himself than the one the galaxy has given him thus far. As “The Force Theme” swells, the message is clear: You don’t have to be a Skywalker to be strong with the Force. Even the child who sleeps in the same fathier stables he cleans could become the next Luke Skywalker.
The final scene in The Rise of Skywalker goes in a different direction. In it, we see Rey return to the Tatooine moisture farm where Luke grew up. She buries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers deep in the sand and pulls out her own, her Jedi training finally complete.
When an older woman walking by asks Rey for her family name, our hero stares off into the desert. She sees the Force ghosts of mentors Luke and Leia, and tells the stranger proudly that she is a Skywalker. It’s a moving, thematically-rich sentiment and a lovely ending for anyone who has ever wanted to be a Skywalker. Rey has not only chosen her destiny; she has finally recognized that she has the power to define herself.
Superficially, these ending scenes may seem similar, but, thematically, they are galaxies far, far apart. In The Last Jedi, even the “nobodies” of the galaxy could be the next Luke or Leia Skywalker. In The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams backtracks on The Last Jedi’s reveal that Rey’s parents weren’t anyone we knew, to give her a familiar lineage: Palpatine.
With this latest twist, the next Skywalker isn’t a “nobody” whose parents sold her for drink money. She’s from the same tiny social circle as most everyone else who has power in this world. In the end, the Skywalker saga leaves us with this message: It’s all about who your parents are—a disappointingly realistic message to get from one of our aspirational, myth-making franchises during a time when we need mainstream stories that subvert the increasingly unequal, dynastic status quo more than ever.
In the United States, income inequality is at an all-time high, with the gap between the richest and poorest U.S. households now the widest it’s been in at least 50 years. Currently, the top one percent own 40% of our country’s wealth. Our country is tearing itself apart while those in positions of extreme power (which is to say wealth) grow even more powerful. If we think of the American dream as the possibility for all people living in this country to improve their lives economically through hard work, then the American dream is more mythical than ever, and people are understandably angry about it.
The latest, final twist in the truth of Rey’s parentage isn’t disappointing because it backtracks on what happened in the previous movie; it’s disappointing because it casually depicts the same kind of oligarchy we have all come to accept as normal in real life. It’s seeing that picture of Boris Johnson and David Cameron as college kids together at a private dining club for wealthy Oxford University students, and realizing how similar and elite their backgrounds truly are. It’s the fact that, in a country with 80 million families, Hillary Clinton was nearly elected into the same, highest public office as her husband. It’s thinking of this as normal because two of our previous four presidents were father and son.
Stories about inherited power are common in our mainstream culture, which isn’t surprising given that most of the men making our blockbusters have been fortunate enough to inherit privilege, of various kinds, themselves. This kind of depiction isn’t problematic in and of itself. It is a reflection of the real world, and one that we desperately need to process and unpack as a culture. However, when it is presented in the same, unintentional, uncritical ways, it is both redundant and problematic.
Stories like The Rise of Skywalker—which centers on two characters who are powerful because of their lineage—reinforces the idea that inherited power is a natural state rather than a socially-constructed one dependent on systemic oppression. Fictional stories that portray inherited power as something biological rather than built—an idea centered in the Star Wars universe through the ill-advised introduction of midi-chlorians—reinforce the idea that passing down privilege to the elite few from generation to generation is natural, the only possible way forward, rather than something that makes our society unhealthy. Rather than something we have the power, collectively, to change.
This depiction of the Force, as something that only an elite few have access to, works contrary to the franchise’s initial presentation of the Force as an energy field that links all life in the galaxy together. While there has been a dynastic quality to Luke and Leia’s story since Darth Vader first told Luke, “I am your father” in The Empire Strikes Back, Force-sensitivity was originally framed not as something to be inherited, but something to which all living creatures have some degree of connection—a connection that could be honed with study and practice, a process Luke begins with Obi-Wan and then with Yoda. In this way, Force power was something that could be taught and cultivated, rather than something you’re either born into or not.
For me, the most aspirational, hopeful films are the ones that don’t try to tell me something akin to the American dream is alive and well—these days, that rings false—but rather that there are better, more equitable dreams to work towards. Dreams based not around the accumulation of material wealth for some people at the expense of others, but around a more egalitarian restructuring of society for everyone.
If The Last Jedi believed that the child who sleeps in the same fathier stables he cleans could become the next Luke Skywalker, it also believed that we don’t need another Luke Skywalker. We’re meant to believe that a better life is possible for the boy not because he is Force-sensitive, but because he wears Rose Tico’s Resistance ring on his hand. Because he was part of the urchin force that rebelled in whatever little way they could, releasing the fathiers from the stables and helping Rose and Finn escape. Because he is part of the fire that will burn the totalitarian regime down.
The Canto Bight slave boy’s Force sensitivity matters, sure, but it’s not the thing that will save him. Or, if it could save him, it won’t save everyone. It won’t save the other kids who live in the stables, indentured to a lifetime of servitude for a debt they had no role in wracking up. The Resistance, made up of people with various degrees of power and privilege, must do that. This is a truth that Leia understood, and one Hollywood with its entrenched systems of privilege is slow to learn.
We can’t all be Skywalkers or Palpatines, but we can all be members of the Resistance. That is the destiny we can and must choose.