The Conclusion of the Skywalker Arc
I’m going to assume that by now, everybody who wants to has seen Star Wars IX, The Rise of Skywalker (“TROS”). So we should now be able to discuss the plot freely, though I will hang out a
just in case.
And we are now in a position, after forty-odd years, to reach conclusions about the story as a whole. We can consider the main storyline or central arc of Star Wars complete. That universe is already expanding (for the second time) into side stories and prequels; and it’s quite possible that we’ll see more stories set after the end of TROS, even including some of the same main characters. (Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing about four separate spinoffs from the ending of TROS—for reasons discussed below—as long as there are NO MORE DEATH STARS.) But it appears we’ve seen a conclusion to the main story.
There are, of course, a lot of things one might say about the nine-movie saga. The one I want to consider here has to do with love stories.
Star Wars and Romance
Star Wars isn’t primarily a romance. But adventure stories, particularly of the swashbuckling sort that Star Wars set out to revive, frequently do end up with a pair of characters getting together romantically. Sometimes more than once; I’m looking at you, Indiana Jones. Even James Bond movies always end with a sex scene.
So it’s not unreasonable to expect a sweeping space opera like this to include, as a minor element, at least some romantic achievements. Do you recall how many successful romances, in the sense of “happy ever after” (“HEA”) endings, we see in the entire Star Wars saga?
Not one romantic combination in the entire series leaves us relatively content with a couple’s life story, despite the number of such combinations that are teased over the course of the movies. This fact strikes me as remarkable, and it’s puzzling how to account for it.
The Original Trilogy
The original Star Wars movie (the title later changed, for those of us too young to remember, to A New Hope) did suggest a conventional romantic development—although with some ambiguity.
Luke is recruited into the Rebellion through seeing an image of a beautiful damsel in distress. He’s clearly infatuated with her (I always enjoyed the fact that even in stormtrooper armor, you can see the bashfulness in Luke’s tilt of the head when he finally meets Leia in her prison cell). Just before they swing across a pit, she gives him a quick kiss “for luck.”
And then there’s Han. Though he starts out merely kidding Luke about taking an interest in Leia (“Do you think a princess and a guy like me—”), by the end of the movie, one imagines the interest could become real. The three of them exchange characteristic glances at the final ceremony, showing a certain affection, but leaving it up in the air whether a genuine romance will develop in either case.
When the first movie became a howling success and Lucas decided to continue the trilogy, he had to pick a side. Empire gives us a pretty straightforward Han-Leia romance, albeit one interrupted by a cliffhanger. (“I love you.” “I know.”) In Return of the Jedi (“ROTJ”), the writers terminate the competing Luke-Leia possibility permanently by making them siblings. To all intents and purposes, the finale of ROTJ includes a traditional HEA conclusion, in which we can expect a successful marriage between Leia and Han.
Nobody else in the original trilogy has a romance going on. Lando doesn’t get a girl, at least not onscreen. It would be entertaining to imagine a Madame Yoda (especially now that Baby Yoda is a worldwide favorite), but we don’t see that either. But at least we did have Han and Leia. From 1986 through 2015, we could assume that the series had achieved one HEA ending.
The Prequel Trilogy
A romance is in some degree central to the plot of Episodes I-III. Anakin Skywalker’s troubled attraction to Padmé Amidala is a major motivator in his descent into the dark side.
One of the things for which I admire the prequel trilogy is a convincing depiction of how a basically decent, if unstable, person can gradually be corrupted into an evildoer. There are a number of factors involved, some of which could be attributed to “the system.” I’ve never been convinced there was a good reason for the Jedi order to take children away from their parents when barely toddlers, or to forbid them to marry. And the fate of Anakin’s mother Shmi is another strong driver. But his fixation on Padmé is where we see his “Face-Heel Turn” working itself out in action.
For a nine-year-old, the boy Anakin is already oddly focused on Padmé in The Phantom Menace (episode I). Attack of the Clones (episode II) lays out a burgeoning love affair between them as young adults, culminating in a secret marriage at the end. Unfortunately, this star-crossed romance is handled ineptly by the movie-makers, IMHO; there is absolutely no chemistry between the characters on-screen. Nonetheless, the plot requires us to consider this a compelling romance, in order to set up the third episode.
In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin is besieged by nightmares of Padmé dying in childbirth. His desire to protect her makes him more and more obsessed with acquiring forbidden powers to save her life. In a well-managed ironic turn, this obsession takes him down a path that ends with Anakin killing Padmé himself.
Given the backstory we already knew from the middle (original) trilogy, it was clear that the Padmé-Anakin romance was fated to fail. Anakin would become Darth Vader, and something was bound to happen to Padmé, since the children (Luke and Leia) were raised separately by foster parents. So no HEA for the main characters was in store. While there are various side characters involved—most notably Obi-Wan Kenobi, who seems to have faithfully carried out the marriage proscription by never having a romance at all—none of them contributed anything to the tally of Star Wars love stories.
When the new third trilogy opened, the writers of the first movie, The Force Awakens (episode VII, “TFA”), made a crucial decision: to sour the one romance standing by undermining the ending of Return of the Jedi (VI). In the intervening years, Han and Leia’s son Ben (Kylo Ren) has turned to the dark side. Lucasfilms might have depicted this tragedy as pulling his parents closer together. Instead, it apparently shattered their marriage.
TFA shows Han and Leia meeting each other again after a long separation, in which both of them have gone back to their earlier selves. Leia is leading yet another rebellion, while Han has returned to pointless smuggling. The characters have regressed rather than progressing. The character arcs we thought had been completed in the original trilogy have been reversed.
More important for our purposes here, Han and Leia’s love affair in retrospect seems limited and bitter. One hopes they had happy years together while Ben was a child. But we don’t see any of that. And any hopes for a long-term return to a life together are eliminated when Ben kills Han.
One must admit this outcome is realistic. It could happen that way. But it’s also unsatisfying, in a particularly frustrating way: it undoes the happy ending of the middle trilogy. This is a classic fault in sequels—to negate or deconstruct what the characters achieved in the previous episodes. And that fault occurs in the Star Wars saga in more than one way.
We might expect that at least some of the numerous new characters introduced in the sequel trilogy might find love. But while the writers tease us with all sorts of possibilities, they never deliver on any of them.
Thus, TFA suggests that Rey and Finn will end up a couple. But they don’t. In episode VIII, The Last Jedi (“TLJ”), Finn is involved with another new character, Rose Tico, who at least is clearly in love with him. Nothing comes of it. The final episode, TROS, hints that Finn might become involved with still another woman, Jannah, who like Finn is a former stormtrooper. But there’s no suggestion at the end that they’re actually going to get together.
Meanwhile, we keep getting hints that Rey is eventually going to get together with Kylo Ren, the redeemed Ben Skywalker. They are supposed to be a “Force dyad,” whatever that means. But Ben gives up his life to save Rey, as they share one kiss. There’s thus no real Rey-Kylo romance (fortunately, in my view; I never liked Kylo anyway). Nor does Rey get together with anyone else. She doesn’t have to; she’s a great character regardless. But it’s one more romantic potential that came to nothing.
Poe Dameron, the third main character of the sequel trilogy, finally gets a possible soul mate in the last episode. This is new character Zorii Bliss, an armored fighter with a grudge against him from earlier events. He actually extends an invitation to her at the end—and she turns him down.
It’s not impossible that some of these tenuous relationships might turn out to develop into something later. I wouldn’t mind seeing Poe and Zorii continue their prickly antagonism into some kind of romance; or Finn getting together with somebody; or Rey having further adventures, in the course of which she might meet that special someone. But as far as the nine-movie main storyline goes, we’re left with nothing.
There’s nothing wrong with an adventure story that doesn’t contain a romance. But as I noted above, going through nine episodes in this genre without a happily-ever-after is a little peculiar.
Look at classic space opera for a minute. The archetypal space operas, E.E. Smith’s Lensman and Skylark series, each include more than one satisfactory romance. Jack Williamson’s pulp-style epics, such as the Legion of Space series, generally gave the stalwart hero an irresistibly beautiful woman to rescue and marry. Edmond Hamilton, credited by Wikipedia with creating the space-opera genre along with Smith, often did the same, as in The Star Kings. On a more popular level, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers had their Dales and Wilmas.
Of course this isn’t a universal rule. Early SF authors could be so focused on imaginary technology and adventure that romance wasn’t a consideration. For example, John W. Campbell, a close competitor to Smith with galaxy-spanning adventure tales in the thirties (later a formative editor in the field), not only eschewed romance but seldom even included women in stories like The Black Star Passes.
Why were romances common in old-time space operas? A HEA ending was part of the reward for the hero, who “gets the girl.” (Or vice versa, in principle.) More than that, I think, the preservation and fulfillment of beauty and love is part of what save-the-world stories are trying to achieve; they show vividly what is at stake. Thus a romantic commitment, or even a wedding, is a natural part of the celebratory ending of an upbeat adventure story.
By and large, then, one tends to associate colorful, sweeping space opera with a romantic element, even if it’s not very sophisticated or central to the story. So why is that factor absent from this nine-episode extravaganza? All the lonely Star Wars people: where do they all come from?
We can ask this “why” question in two ways. Internally, from a narrative standpoint, what is it about this universe that seems to discourage HEA endings? And externally, from the writers’ point of view, why didn’t they put some in? Of course, we can only speculate about either matter. (If anyone knows of an explanation from the screenwriters or showrunners that would shed light on the latter question, I’d love to hear about it.)
In terms of the narrative itself, maybe the answer is that the Star Wars universe just isn’t hospitable to happy endings. It’s a very violent world, for one thing. Slavery on the outer planets, the ascendancy of tyrannies on the more civilized worlds. When you come right down to it, how many people do we see living happy, contented lives anywhere in the Star Wars ’verse?
This cheerlessness is itself an odd thing, given the way the series started out. The relatively lighthearted original trilogy, and especially A New Hope taken by itself, gave us the sense that once the Death Star was destroyed, the galaxy could prosper in some kind of freedom. But the more detail additional episodes added to the background, the grimmer the universe seemed to become. In the end, post-Episode IX, it just doesn’t seem like a very nice place to live.
In terms of the authors’ intent, it seems to me that changes of directing or authorial handling may have taken a toll. The J.J. Abrams–Rian Johnson team that handled the final trilogy is a different ‘voice’ than that of Lucas’ original trilogy. Johnson’s middle episode of the last trilogy, TLJ (VIII), seems to have devoted itself deliberately to deconstructing all the expectations created in TFA (VII). And Abrams’ partial re-reversal in TROS (IX) didn’t save the love affairs. Apparently the third-trilogy directors simply didn’t want a HEA romance.
But why was that? I don’t know, of course, but I think part of the answer is simply that times have changed—again.
The original A New Hope in 1977 was a blockbuster precisely because it broke a long string of jaded, cynical movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It invited us to enjoy a kind of upbeat adventure story that had long been out of fashion. And that atmosphere was one in which a relatively light, upbeat romance could also flourish.
But any romance in the prequel trilogy, as noted above, was bound to be downbeat. And the sequel trilogy directors/writers seem to have felt that audiences today wouldn’t buy a sentimental HEA ending—or to have been so bent on defeating expectations that they were unwilling to close the deal on any romantic interest, because a romantic happy ending is something we expect.
Personally, I think the sequel trilogy would have been better off with one or two successful romances, out of the several possibilities. But that isn’t the story we’ve got. So, until someone decides to remake the whole Star Wars saga from scratch—and at the current turnover rate of remakes, maybe that’ll start in another ten years or so—we’ll have to enjoy Star Wars for virtues other than those of the happily ever after.