Throughout the course of our lives, our relationships are shaped by what we learn or what we teach. Most of those kinds of relationships fall into predetermined roles of parent/child or teacher/student. But not every relationship leads to the same conclusion.
Obi-Wan Kenobi was first seen in 1977 as a sage with the wisdom to set a young moisture farmer on a path towards destiny, but one of the first things we learned about Obi-Wan is that he had failed with a former pupil. And that failure became known as Darth Vader. Obi-Wan makes up for that mistake by helping Luke Skywalker on his quest to become a Jedi, but he does so with just enough guidance that Luke is allowed to come into his own through his own choices. Those choices define the kind of Jedi Luke eventually becomes.
The Last Jedi is a film that challenges that preconception in ways the franchise never has before. The mentor’s responsibilities do not fit into neat and tidy boxes; our feelings about these relationships can seem at odds with what is presented on screen.
What is the responsibility of a mentor?
Where does an apprentice turn when a mentor refuses a request for guidance?
Are mentors allowed to stumble and fall, and what are the lasting consequences of those actions?
At what point must a student turn his back on a teacher if they are no longer providing sufficient answers?
A Child In A Mask
In some relationships, the student feels pressure to conform to the demands placed upon them. In the case of Ben Solo, that pressure comes at him from all sides. He is born into a family of heroes. It is a legacy that is thrust upon him but not one he has earned. His bloodline is powerful and volatile, so Leia sends him to train with his uncle in an attempt to keep his abilities in check. It is while he is under the tutelage of Luke that Ben learns the truth about his family’s history: he is actually the grandson of Darth Vader. For the first time, the dark side offers something more than just purpose. It offers Ben validation. It offers him a birthright that he can make his own if he will fully embrace it.
Even after Ben Solo turns to the dark side and becomes Kylo Ren, he is restless. He betrays Luke and follows the teachings of Supreme Leader Snoke, but quickly learns that committing terrible deeds and crafting a new lightsaber are not enough to be reborn. He still hasn’t let go of the things that were holding him back. Snoke convinces him that attachment is what stands in the way of his destiny and pushes Kylo to take Han Solo’s life to prove his commitment. But the murder of his own father does little to ease Kylo’s inner turmoil.
Kylo Ren is an apprentice searching for answers about who he is and what he is capable of, yet none of his mentors have provided those answers to his satisfaction. His mother sensed his potential darkness and sent him away to become someone else’s problem. His uncle saw the same darkness as something to be destroyed. Snoke seemed to be the first teacher who was capable of showing him the man he was destined to be, but even that relationship proved to be a lie.
Snoke uses humiliation as a means to control his student, and reminds Kylo at every opportunity that he is less than what he aspires to be. For Snoke, it is all about control. He offers Kylo guidance but what Snoke really wants is servitude. His knowledge of the dark side is a means to keep Kylo enslaved, much the same way the Emperor controlled Vader. Snoke rebukes his student for being beaten in combat by a girl with no training. And he belittles his hero worship of Vader as nothing more than being a “child in a mask.”
Snoke’s consternation is a bitter truth. Kylo Ren will never reach his potential while he is conforming to someone else’s idea of greatness. Snoke’s trials were designed to turn Kylo into the perfect servant, but instead they show him who his true enemy is. Himself. He had allowed Luke Skywalker to define his destiny. He turned to Snoke who did the same. Kylo realizes that if he is to live up to his full potential, he cannot rely on others to determine his identity. He understands that his role as student must end and he will have to create his own destiny if he is ever to rise above these feelings of inadequacy.
“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” These are the words rattling in his head as Kylo smashes the mask and sets upon the task of ridding himself of all the mentors who have failed him.
Dead Heroes. No Leaders.
Disappointment in the mentor/apprentice relationship is a theme that runs strong through The Last Jedi. But sometimes it is the student who fails the mentor.
General Leia Organa sees great potential in the ace pilot Poe Dameron. In him she sees the future of the Resistance. But Leia soon realizes that Poe is a long way from being ready to take up the mantle of leadership. He is brash and arrogant and headstrong. These are traits that have served him well as a flyboy who takes chances (which usually pay off). But what Poe has to learn is that luck is not for leaders. He may be the best pilot out there, and may win nine out of ten. But that one can cost lives. That one should be what haunts a leader and defines a hero.
The Resistance delivered a powerful blow to the First Order when they destroyed Starkiller Base. The First Order’s retaliation is swift and brutal. General Organa orders the D’Qar base to evacuate. Leia sends Poe out to meet the destroyers and to stall for time in order to give the Resistance a chance to assemble their fleet. In a stunt of spectacular piloting, Poe manages to take out most of the dreadnaught’s dorsal cannons. But when Leia orders him to bring the ships back for the retreat into hyperspace, Poe defies her order. He believes they have an opportunity to destroy the dreadnaught once and for all. Enter hero.
He commits several Resistance bombers to a plan of attack that is poorly planned and executed. Several ships and lives are lost. The last bomber, with the help of a surviving crew member, is able to launch its payload over the massive enemy ship and take it out. As the crew of the command vessel Raddus celebrate at the sight of the fiery spectacle, Leia, the consummate leader, the woman who lost her planet but saved her sorrows, who always moved forward because the Rebellion needed her guidance, who stepped up to start the Resistance when her reputation had been shattered, looks at the fiery display and sees something else. She cannot share in the victory celebration. The battle shows her dead heroes, but no leaders.
Decades of leadership have given Leia the wisdom to know when to press an attack and when to pull back. Under normal circumstances, Poe would be allowed to learn from this error in judgment, but nothing about this fight is normal. Leia cannot afford such costly mistakes. The Resistance is too small and too vulnerable to indulge ego and arrogance. Most of all there is no room for insubordination, so Poe is demoted and confronted with the fact that he let his commanding officer down. Sometimes the most valuable lesson a leader can teach is that all actions have consequences.
Unfortunately, this is not a lesson that Poe takes to heart. Later, when Leia is injured in an attack and recovering in a coma, the Resistance promotes Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo to take her place, much to the surprise of Dameron. He knew that Leia was grooming him for leadership, so he is taken aback by the announcement. Throwing away everything he should have learned about humility, Poe continually challenges Holdo’s command decisions. As they flee a pursuing First Order and start running out of options, Poe demands answers from his superior officer. Holdo is quick to put him in his place, however, reminding him that Leia demoted him for a reason and that his place is at his post.
But Poe continues to do everything he can to undermine the chain of command. For a while, the audience believes he is right. After all, we’ve seen time and again that being headstrong and rebellious often leads to victory. Han Solo piloted the Falcon through an asteroid field that should have left his ship in a million pieces but he managed an escape nevertheless. Jyn Erso defied the decision of Mon Mothma, but Jyn’s team of rogue soldiers helped the Rebel Alliance steal the Death Star plans, which resulted in their first victory against the Empire.
The Last Jedi, however, makes it clear that trusting in the experience and wisdom of our leaders may not always easy, but it is vital to success. Poe’s unwillingness to accept the decisions of his superiors shows that he is slow to learn from his own mistakes. Only after a series of failures, which include a mutiny that results in Leia firing a stun blast at him, does he finally understand that his arrogance has been his Achilles heel.
By the time the Resistance reaches the mineral planet Crait and makes their final stand, they have suffered heavy losses. Poe is given one more chance to prove his leadership skills, and this time he meets that challenge by showing restraint and responsibility. It has been a difficult road but Leia looks at Poe Dameron again as the hope and future for the Resistance.
And finally, the third time being the charm, Poe delivers and saves the Resistance from utter annihilation.
I Need Someone To Show Me My Place In All This
“Who are you?”
It’s the question everyone seems to ask when they first meet Rey.
The lonely scavenger grew up among the wreckage of the galaxy’s past on the desolate planet of Jakku. She spent this solitary existence believing she was part of something special that was coming back for her. Unlike a farm boy looking to the horizon and longing for a life of adventure, Rey was content to stay on Jakku if it meant one day she would experience a life of belonging. Fate intervened and Rey found herself caught up in a tale more exciting and terrifying than she ever imagined. Nonetheless, she was no closer to answering the question of who she was than when she first began.
So when she finds Luke Skywalker on Ahch-To, she offers the lightsaber, imploring him to answer the galaxy’s call. But she is not there only because the Resistance sent her. She is also seeking the truth about her own destiny. Rey needs a teacher. But Luke tosses the lightsaber aside, and with it, Rey’s hopes for easy answers.
This last Jedi, a man of myth who saved the galaxy from the evil Empire, was nothing like she expected. She found a bitter hermit living a life not unlike the one she left behind on Jakku. But where her days were spent trying to survive using her wits and her resourcefulness, Luke Skywalker seemed content to merely persist on a daily routine of spear fishing and sea cow milk. Rey came to the island planet seeking a mentor and what she found was the broken shell of a man. She found only disappointment.
Where do we turn when our role models let us down? This is the question Rey must ponder on the windy cliffs of Ahch-To. Sometimes mentors reject their responsibility out of a sense of hopelessness or shame. They no longer see the value in what they can pass on because it failed someone else. Luke Skywalker followed the advice of his mentor when Yoda told him to pass on what he learned to the next generation of Jedi. The result was a burned Jedi Order, dead students, and Kylo Ren. Luke believes the galaxy is better off without him – better off without any Jedi.
When faced with a hero in decline, Rey could have simply given up. But she persists. She challenges him. In some relationships, the student holds a mirror up to the teacher and shows them an uncomfortable truth. She convinces Luke to teach her about the Force. However, he does not show her the same Force that he was shown in the swamps of Dagobah. He shows her the Force that he knows as an aging man on a lonely island. Luke’s Force does not belong to him, or to the Jedi, or the Sith, or girls with secret destinies from backwater planets. His Force is eternal. It exists alongside all those things but outside them as well. And he believes it will go on with or without him.
Who are you?
Luke Skywalker is not willing or capable to provide this answer to Rey. Instead, a cave strong with the dark side of the Force calls to her with the promise of truth. Inside it Rey finds an endless horizon of Rey’s all single-minded in their desire: to know her parents. The answer presented to her coalesces from two shadowy figures into one. And it’s her own reflection staring back at her. The dark side is seductive and consuming but it rarely lies. Just as it did with Luke in the cave back on Dagobah, the dark side shows Rey the truth about herself. She did not ask for the names of her parents. She wanted to see them. Rey is more than the sum of two parents, for better or worse. Her identity is not defined by lineage or genetics or even destiny. It is defined by what she is capable of: Rey may be the result of two parents, but her destiny lies within and will be defined by her own choices.
This is something Luke Skywalker, as a mentor, could never teach her, even though it’s a lesson he learned as well when he became his own kind of Jedi decades ago by throwing away his lightsaber and refusing to fight. But it is something that Rey has to learn for herself. Self-discovery can be a lesson all its own.
But the greatest teacher of all may be the one that frightens us the most…
Failure The Greatest Teacher Is
In the years following the end of the galactic civil war, Luke heard some of the legends surrounding his deeds and accomplishments. A part of him likely bought into his own hype. He was, after all, the one who brought Darth Vader back from the darkness and helped put an end to the Sith once and for all.
Yoda entrusted him with the future of the Jedi Order and Leia trusted him with her only son, who needed someone strong in the Force to guide him and keep him in the light. But Luke sensed he was losing Ben, and he caught a glimpse of the boy’s future. It terrified him. For an instant, he considered one and only one option to prevent the suffering he saw ahead. It was a fleeting thought, gone in the blink of an eye. But it was too late. When Ben’s eyes met Luke’s, he saw the expression of a teacher who had given up on his student. Ben saw a loved one who found nothing in him worth saving. The darkness in Ben exploded.
Luke Skywalker had failed.
In Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the hero must enter a cave or an abyss where all the lessons he has learned will be put to the test. In this cave he is challenged in ways he never has been before. George Lucas used this symbolism as inspiration for the cave on Dagobah. That scene is a tiny reflection of this approach to mythology. But with The Last Jedi, we see Luke in the “real” cave. His cave is the solitude of despair. This is the ultimate test of everything he has learned, and he’s not doing a very good job of passing it. He believes the galaxy would be better off without him because he has studied the history of the Jedi and the Sith and recognizes his part in an endless cycle that will continue unless he puts a stop to it.
Rey’s arrival is an unwelcome reminder of how Luke failed to fulfill Yoda’s final request to pass on what he had learned. She is powerful and she has a tendency to embrace darkness that reminds Luke of the potential evil in all powerful force users. She wants someone to show her how she fits into this story, but Luke’s shame over his moment of weakness with Ben prevents him from being there for her. By not being the mentor she expects, Luke’s detachment forces her to rely upon herself. She chooses to seek out Kylo Ren (not unlike how Luke embraced the idea that his father could be redeemed).
When Rey departs Ahch-To, Luke decides to burn the tree down containing the ancient Jedi texts. His interactions with Rey have awakened his connection to the Force, so after many years Yoda is able to appear to Luke at just the right time to give him the gentle nudge he needs. Master Yoda returns to help the student. He even goes one step further by burning down the tree for him. Yoda knows, of course, that Rey has already taken the books, but he uses it as a teaching moment nevertheless. The tree and the texts are the past. There are certainly mistakes in the past, but when we try to erase our mistakes, they end up having more power over us. Failure is the harshest teacher of all because in order to work, it has to become part of us. It makes us stronger, but only if we are open to learning from it.
Yoda says that his dying wish was that Luke would pass on all that he had learned, including the failures. Lessons from failures are what will guide the next generation to greatness. It is on the backs of failures that victories are possible. But there comes a time when every teacher must allow the student to chart his or her own path.
Masters must bear the burden of knowing their students will grow beyond them, in failure and success. When Luke made his own choice that saved Vader from darkness, he surpassed the teachings of Obi-Wan. He even surpassed Yoda. In Luke’s lowest moment of despair, Yoda returns to remind him that he is the embodiment of this promise.
Luke Skywalker failed, but he is not a failure.
Rey told him that the galaxy needs a legend, and like the true hero he has always been, Luke rises to meet that challenge. He does so by remaining true to all that he learned becoming a Jedi. His face off with Kylo Ren on the planet Crait becomes a story that is passed from person to person, spreading across the galaxy like wildfire. His final act as a hero is to provide hope again. Luke passes the greatest test he ever faced, and he came out on the other side the stuff of legend.
Without being challenged and confronted by his own demons, Luke would have gone down in history a pillar of virtue, spotless and infallible. He would have been that legend that the galaxy needed, but it wouldn’t have been an honest portrayal of the hero’s journey. The Last Jedi takes the hero’s journey down to the darkest of places and challenges the practice of placing mentors on pedestals. If they fall from that height, can we not take inspiration from their struggle? And if they do pick themselves back up are they not to be commended? Because overcoming despair for the sake of good is the truest mark of a hero if ever there was one.