The following includes spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Right Hand Man,” the song in Hamilton that introduces the story’s protagonist to Gen. George Washington, he first tells the story of Hamilton’s daring theft of British cannons before bringing him and Washington together. Here’s the key exchange:
WASHINGTON: It’s alright, you want to fight, you’ve got a hunger / I was just like you when I was younger / Head full of fantasies of dyin’ like a martyr?
WASHINGTON: Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.
Miranda himself has noted that this is his version of the famous truism that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. There’s an idea we have about fighting and revolutions and rebellions. They’re glorious. To live is a thrill and to die an honor. We picture ourselves storming the barricades, perhaps if you’ve seen Les Mis you even hum “Do You Hear the People Sing?” to yourself as you imagine it. The reality of these things, of course, is harder, grittier.
One of the great themes in recent western lit has been our reckoning with the hardness of revolution. You can hear it in Owen’s bitter “Dulce et Decorum Est.” You hear it in George R. R. Martin lamenting Tolkien’s decision to mostly ignore the practical politics of Middle Earth. You even see something like it in the wonkish turn that journalism has taken in recent years, less political rat race and more policy analysis and wading into the weeds of legislation and politicking.
This is the backdrop for understanding and thinking about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, the character who radiated hope in the original trilogy, at times to the point of laughable naivety, is now world-wise and weary. He tells his kinda-sorta pupil Rey, the closest thing to a character who embodies pure goodness in the new series, that “this is not going to go the way you think.” That’s the anthem of The Last Jedi.
The original trilogy and much of the prequels runs on an oddly dualistic narrative. There are hints toward a sort of monism in A New Hope, but talk of balance in the force mostly disappears when we get to Empire and Return of the Jedi. Even the prequels only gesture toward balance in the force in an odd and disjointed way with the Jedi, who see themselves as the Force’s guardians, talking about balance while simultaneously raging against the dark. This dualism doesn’t only create the light/dark conflict that we all know. It also gives rise to a number of other related dualisms: The goodness and love of the light and the power and greed of the dark, the non-violent force abilities of the Jedi and the terrifyingly violent powers employed by the Sith. The Jedi and Sith themselves, of course, are another duality. And all of these dualities depend upon the idea that there is an essential difference between the two things that goes beyond simple ambition or desire.
The Last Jedi does away with these dualities. It does it both directly and indirectly. By refusing to give us explanatory backstories on Snoke and Rey, writer Rian Johnson refuses to insert two of his most interesting characters into the established moral universe of the films. But he’s also more explicit: After killing Snoke, Kylo Ren turns to Rey and tells her, for the second time, to let the past die. He tells her that Snoke and the Sith are done but, crucially, so too are Luke and the Jedi.
Strikingly, Luke seems to basically agree with Kylo’s assessment. Both embrace the monism that earlier films flirted with but never fully endorsed: The Force belongs to no one. It cannot be controlled, limited, or defined by the Jedi or the Sith. It is greater than both.
Of course, if we reject dualism, one might wonder where the conflict in the story comes from. If the struggle is not one of light versus dark, what are the Star Wars stories going to be about? Chaim Saiman has smartly noted in The Atlantic that The Last Jedi takes a 21st century “spiritual not religious” turn in its treatment of religion. Its treatment of politics is similarly modern. In Johnson’s Star Wars you cannot treat the Resistance as being essentially good in some way that the First Order is not. Both groups are political entities seeking power—and we shouldn’t expect them to be more than that. We shouldn’t expect heroism or reward martyrdom. That’s the way to folly. It’s striking that at the end of the film’s opening scene Poe says to Leia that “there were heroes on that mission,” and Leia’s response is a bitter, “dead heroes.”
Throughout the film this point is driven home: Things are not going to go the way you think. The heroic gestures end up meaning very little: Rey’s trip to save Kylo doesn’t rescue him; it only kills Snoke and inadvertently cements Kylo’s move toward darkness. Luke’s final gesture to save the Resistance is, quite literally, a mirage. Things are not as they seem and the heroic or romantic is never actually heroic or romantic. One of the film’s big reveals is when we learn, from Benicio del Toro’s character, that the same arms dealer Rose and Finn have been attacking so viciously, has not limited his dealing to the First Order. He’ll sell to the Resistance too—if the price is right.
So what drives a story in a world where there isn’t really innate goodness or badness, but only power? It is the question of how one wields power. Here the much maligned Canto Bight scene is essential. If there is not some kind of inner quality that makes one side good and the other bad, why should we cheer for the Resistance? The answer is in that scene: The First Order uses its power to enrich itself—and will enslave others to grow its own strength. The Resistance, in contrast, uses its power to free the enslaved. This is seen, again quite literally, when Rose lets the horse-like creature they ride for their escape go free at the end of the scene.
That said, this is a key point: The Resistance is better than the First Order purely because of how it chooses to use power. But in the quest for power, we shouldn’t expect purity. Obtaining power requires compromise and even dealing with horrid people, as del Toro shows Finn and Rose aboard the stolen ship.
In this sense, we might say that the most dominant figure of the original trilogy in The Last Jedi is the one we never see: Han Solo. Han was always the odd one in the original series, the calculating skeptic who looks out for number one and doesn’t let sentiment drive him to stupidity. While Luke is constantly looking for his next suicide run that lets him ‘die on the battlefield in glory or / rise up’ Han is detached and cynical. He doesn’t trust anyone and doesn’t let the potential for a good story drive him to take unnecessary risks. He is a relentlessly calculating figure when we meet him and continues to have shades of that wry skepticism throughout the first three films.
If Johnson’s direction in The Last Jedi is embraced by J. J. Abrams in Episode IX, then we should expect that this modern approach to politics, a cynical move to gain power which can then be used in hopefully good ways, will continue to define the series. Of course, one can protest that this is itself a deadening way of looking at the world, that it is too cynical. If The Last Jedi has a weakness, this is it. But, then again, if cynicism is a weakness in a work of art, then there are many other popular modern stories we will need to reckon with before we turn to the last chapter of Star Wars. Indeed, even if you reject the cynicism of this latest installment, you would do well to be grateful for this: Even if the films don’t recognize any kind of innate goodness or badness, they still discern power rightly wielded. And that, at least, is something.