The story of Luke Skywalker — how he struggles with fear and anger; grows up and into himself, and finally takes the reins of his own destiny — is intimately known by Star Wars fans. The hope was that the sequel trilogy, and the final turns in this week’s The Rise of Skywalker, would give the same depth to Rey, a character crafted to be his successor both as a Jedi, and as the lead of a genre-defining, blockbuster franchise.
Fans have focused with laser-like precision on the question of who Rey’s parents are, a focus that raged on undaunted by the answers provided in The Last Jedi. Now that The Rise of Skywalker is here, we can finally look at Rey’s journey in its entirety, and see how its final installment definitively answers the question Force Awakens proposed: Do Rey’s parents matter? And what was the story of Rey about in the end?
The movie’s final scene has one answer, but the rest of Rise has a very different one.
[Ed. note: This piece contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.]
In the final line of The Rise of Skywalker, Rey codifies her new identity, as Force ghosts of Luke and Leia look on — she is Rey Skywalker, and her destiny is what she makes of it.
Which wouldn’t otherwise be so confusing, if Rise hadn’t introduced a big revelation about her parentage: Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, and the key to an apparently pretty big plot to bring about Sith domination of the galaxy. This huge revelation is set up as if it will sow some self-doubt in her mind — but Rey’s story has always been about letting go of her past.
Rey, her parents, and the path of The Force Awakens
Rey begins the trilogy not just by escaping the physical prison of her home planet, but by escaping a more psychological prison she’s created for herself.
Force Awakens tells us that Rey longs to leave Jakku. In one of her early scenes, understated and effective, Rey scrubs grit from the machine parts she’s gathered to trade for bare nourishment. She looks up from her work to see a wrinkled old woman doing exactly the same. It’s a vision of her own future, and the realization strikes her so hard that she stops, lowering her arms as if suddenly tired.
But at the same time we learn that Rey is terrified to leave the planet, clinging to her last memory of her parents, who said they would come back for her. Rey begins Force Awakens as the heart-tugging fusion of a young hero about to embark on her greatest journey, and Fry’s dog.
As the movie continues, it repeatedly emphasizes that Rey cannot fill both of these archetypes at once. No less a mentor figure than Han Solo gets in on the messaging. When Rey says she’s never imagined there could be so much green, the camera lingers on him staring at her — then he immediately offers her a job. When she affirms her intention to go back to Jakku, Han makes a quintessentially Harrison Ford-ian quirk of the mouth.
“That’s too bad,” he says, “Chewie kind of likes you,” but we all know how good Mr. “I Know” is at deflecting emotion.
Thanks to Solo: A Star Wars Story, we have a lot more context for Han here. His story was the inverse of Rey’s Force Awakens arc. He spent years trying to get back to Corellia to find a childhood friend, only to find out she hadn’t sat around preserved in amber waiting for him. She did what she needed to do to survive and thrive, instead of waiting around for a rescue. In the end, he was the one who’d held himself back, just by clinging to their past.
But where Han is characteristically vague, Maz Kanata, the closest thing The Force Awakens has to a Yoda, is as blunt as a stormtrooper’s helmet.
“You already know the truth,” she tells Rey, “Whomever you’re waiting for on Jakku — they’re never coming back.” Rey’s future is with Luke Skywalker, and training as a Jedi.
Every time The Force Awakens touches on Rey’s parents and past, it is to say that she needs to stop thinking of them as a story with a forthcoming end, and start thinking of them as a cage to escape from. Her arc in the film is truly completed in two moments: When she realizes that she’s found someone who will come back for her — Finn, who bends the entire Resistance around an ill-conceived and halfway unnecessary rescue attempt — and when she communes with the Force within herself, drawing on it for the strength to resist Kylo Ren.
She lets go of the idea of her birth family, and seizes a new identity for herself. What matters is not her parents, or the mystery of her past, but what she does with her present.
Rey’s parents didn’t define her in The Last Jedi
Rian Johnson’s film, the middle child of the modern Star Wars trilogy, takes the idea that Rey needs to step beyond the past several rungs further than where J.J. Abrams left her. First, with the revelation that Luke can’t be the magical solution to the problem of Kylo Ren and the First Order, and Rey’s insistence that he train her in the ways of the Jedi so that she can work in his place. She is not a bit player seeking the hero: She is the hero.
But Rey’s real character moment is in the climactic scene between her and Kylo Ren. She’s come to Snoke’s flagship to bring him back to the Light Side, a mirror of Luke’s appeal to Vader. Unlike his grandfather, Ren rejects her — rejects the Jedi and Sith dichotomy entirely when he hisses “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”
To help her closer to his way of thinking, he seeks to destroy the last vestiges of her self image. He tells her, brutally, that he’s looked into her, and her parents were junk traders who sold their only child for a bit of extra money. A heinous act, but one of millions of sad stories in the hardscrabble underbelly of the Star Wars galaxy, in which even the Jedi turned a sad but tolerant eye to slavery.
Rey’s triumph comes when she rejects Kylo’s maxim. Her lowly origins don’t make her want to tear the galaxy down, nor does it bar her from realizing her potential as a Jedi. She doesn’t have to kill the past, she can just let it go.
She has forged her own path, a theme underscored by Yoda himself, when he tricks Luke into thinking he’s burned the ancient Jedi texts. “That library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.” It’s time for something new, Yoda says, and Rey is already fully capable of shaping the future of the Jedi.
The Rise of Skywalker undermines and completes Rey’s arc
J.J. Abrams’ return to the sequel trilogy feels defensive. We open on Rey executing the longest and most challenging turn on a training course that we’ve ever seen a young Jedi complete on the big screen — coming out swinging not just against laser-firing orbs but every video essay that insisted she hadn’t earned her talent with a lightsaber the way Luke had. Two minutes of half-hearted, blast shield training hammers the point home.
Rise never quite gets on solid footing with Rey, because, in a similarly defensive manner, it’s trying to have the issue of “Rey’s parents” both ways. From one side of its mouth, the movie insists that Rey is capable of forging her own destiny, but from the other, it tells a story in which her lineage is the direct focus of the plot.
The film delivers a sweeping retcon to The Last Jedi, establishing that Kylo Ren was wrong, and Rey’s parents were not mere junk traders, but the fugitive son and daughter-in-law of Emperor Palpatine. Luke, in Force ghost form, tells her that he and Leia knew it the whole time they were training her, but chose not to tell her.
Both The Last Jedi and even Abrams’ own The Force Awakens tell us a story about Rey realizing that her parentage is irrelevant to her destiny, which is hers to forge. The Rise of Skywalker turns that character development into a red herring, a distraction from the fact that she’s intimately connected to the biggest mover and shaker in the galaxy.
The movie does this with the expectation that we’ll be worried that having a Sith lord for a granddad might cause Rey to embrace this missing piece of her identity and turn to the Dark Side, even though we’ve spent two movies watching her learn that her past doesn’t define her.
She doesn’t turn to the Dark Side, of course, not even a little bit.
The Rise of Skywalker tells us that Rey is the heir to the Sith legacy, and the late-but-not-late Emperor has been waiting 30-odd years for her to return to him, strike him down and become the vessel of every former Sith master. On the surface, she mirrors Luke in Return of the Jedi — but Luke’s parental origins only became a concern after Vader springs the truth on him at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.
When Luke finds out Vader is his father, it gives him the emotional key to bring a fallen hero back from the Dark Side and topple a galactic tyrant. By the time Rey finds out Palpatine is her grandfather, she’s already spent two movies rejecting her past. The Rise of Skywalker tries to dial back Rey’s character development — even her The Force Awakens character development — to make a dramatic reveal that ultimately has no effect on the story.
The movie’s final scene knocks any remaining legs out from under the idea that Palpatine’s reveal impacted Rey. She travels to Luke’s childhood home on Tatooine — a place she’s never been — to bury the last remnants of the Skywalker family’s past: Luke and Leia’s lightsabers, one of which belonged to Anakin. As she does so, she takes a bit of enjoyment from the twinning of her origins to Luke’s, sliding down a sand dune on a piece of scrap, just as she used to on Jakku.
An old woman ask her who she is, and she gives her first name, before pausing meaningfully as Force ghosts of Luke and Leia appear in the distance. There’s no indication that she gives any thought to her actual parents, who she now knows to have been two entirely loving people who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep her safe.
She gives her surname as “Skywalker.” Her destiny, and her legacy, is her own to craft.
And we knew that because we watched two movies about it.
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