Luke Skywalker has had a rough few years lately.
Star Wars audiences first learned about Luke’s exile via The Force Awakens, driving the main characters’ actions in that film. We come to learn that one of his students turned to the Dark Side and destroyed the newly-formed Jedi Academy, slaughtering Luke’s students and burning the academy to the ground. Once Rey is able to track him down to Ahch-To, Luke’s story becomes much more complicated. It was Ben Solo, his nephew, who destroyed the academy, but it was inspired by Luke’s abandoned attempt at assassination. Luke, recognizing his failure and culpability for the tragedy, exiled himself to the most remote yet spiritually rich places he could find. There he planned to die along with the knowledge he had gathered over the years, hoping to never again inflict the pain of good-Jedi-gone-wrong on the galaxy, exiling himself not only from his friends and family but from the very Force itself. Being inspired by Rey to reestablish those long-untended relationships, Luke buys enough time for the remnants of the Resistance to escape from the First Order. This extracts a heavy toll on his weary body and, in the last moments of The Last Jedi, we see him catching a glimpse of white shores, and a far green country.
That’s all in-universe. What has happened to him extra-universally has been even more traumatic. His late appearance in TFA was not exactly what people had been hoping for nor what they expected, but it did establish some high hopes for the next installment. And while TLJ certainly gave us more to him and what he had been up to, you might say that the public reaction was… mixed.
On one side of the spectrum of responses is complete acceptance: Luke going into exile made perfect sense given what he had done and what he had allowed Ben to become; Luke deserved to be in exile because he had done so much harm to the galaxy. On the opposing side was utter rejection: this portrayal of Luke was a disgrace to what he had done in Return of the Jedi and there was simply no way that they could even be the same character; not only that, but it demonstrated a visible disdain for the original character of Luke, from which the following Star Wars material would never recover. As with many spectrums describing reactions of massive fanbases (such as this one), the extremes represent just that: the extremes. But what happens when we analyze key aspects to Luke from ROTJ up through TLJ and try and understand what evidence the films provide and how they connect or fail to connect? How far from the character of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight, did Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams actually stray? What are his interactions with Ben and Rey actually indicative of and how can we better understand their individual journeys in light of what happened to Luke?
Not Ready For the Burden, Were You
Clashing Sabers has been going through a revisit of each of the Star Wars films throughout this year in preparation for Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker. July concluded the Lucas era with ROTJ, and a corresponding discussion with some friends at Unmistakably Star Wars, where we talked at length about Luke’s education in the ways of the Jedi. It would help to recap and re-analyze some of that information here so we can better understand what happens to him post-ROTJ, especially considering his development off-screen.
Watching Luke’s performance in ROTJ in light of keeping the events of all seven other mainline SW films in mind was more sad this time around than I can remember. Not sad as in, “I have such pity for Luke,” nor “how miserable he has become,” so much as, “look at how he is actively going off the rails that Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi wanted him to be on.” You can watch ROTJ-Luke slip deeper and deeper into the Dark Side with each scene, and you can sense the film’s disappointment with him in that slide. There are visual clues to this descent as well as contextual interpretation that we can implement in order to understand that Luke is giving into the Dark Side throughout the film, recognizes that descent on Dagobah, and finally confronts it on the Death Star II above Endor.
Visually, Luke’s arrival at Jabba’s Palace is remarkable because of how different he looks from the last time we saw him. Gone are his gray fatigues from Bespin and the white hospital gown from the Redemption; now, he wanders through the heat of Tatooine’s twin suns in head-to-toe black. Star Wars has been mostly consistent with its applications of colors-as-representational, considering the starkness of most of the characters’ appearances (Vader, stormtroopers, Leia in ANH, etc.) as well as set design, staging, and lighting (consider the duel on Cloud City, the cave on Dagobah, and more). An all-black outfit cannot help but evoke Vader’s armor (and helps slim some of us down but that’s a story for a different blog). But when it is our hero, our main character, the audience’s entry-point into the story itself dressed this way, we are meant to sit up and take notice. Luke is emulating Vader with his design and it is meant for us to understand that Luke is closer to the Dark Side than he has been previously.
Additionally, when Luke travels from Tatooine to Dagobah, he takes a moment to pull his glove over his mechanical hand, damaged by a blaster bolt while escaping Jabba’s sail barge. This establishes a connection to the later sequence on-board the Death Star II after Luke amputates Vader’s hand. Luke makes the connection between himself, with a mechanical hand, to his father, also bearing mechanical limbs. We see Luke making the connection that he is still in the process of becoming Vader-like, even down to his physicality. And that physicality, for our analysis here, is a manifestation of his internal, emotional, and spiritual emulation as well.
That may be how Luke looks but how does he behave? The first act of this film establishes Luke as the swashbuckling hero, ready to break down doors and start rescuing fair maidens. He chokes the Gamorrean guards, mind tricks Bib Fortuna, and attempts to assassinate Jabba. When that plan goes awry, he uses his newly-constructed lightsaber to hack-and-slash his way to rescuing Jabba in attempts to get the gang back together.
Now reread that from the perspective of a Jedi Knight who was taught that the Force was for knowledge and defense, never for attack.
Luke is enjoying his newfound mastery of the Force in pursuit of rescuing Han, but he is doing so at the cost of employing the Dark Side to get what he wants. The only other character we have seen use the Force choke is Vader himself. Luke overrules Bib Fortuna’s agency as soon as Bib starts to put up some sort of roadblock against Luke seeing Jabba. Luke, not caring who gets in his way, is able to summon the blaster pistol of one of the denizens in Jabba’s court from across the room. He even gets a shot off, although it is misplaced as a result of the Gamorrean guard’s interference. But think about what Luke was trying to do: he summoned the blaster before anybody else had moved. He was trying to shoot Jabba.
Luke is certainly in tune with the Force, there is no doubt about that. He has become much more confident in his abilities and is willing to use them to gain any and every tactical advantage. However, he has become willing to use even the Dark Side of the Force, perhaps unknowingly, to do so. Luke breezes through these encounters with ease because he has the Force mastery at hand in order to make things go the way he wants as opposed to a Jedi who would use the Force to understand how things are going. It is a fulfillment of Yoda’s warning from Empire Strikes Back when he describes the Dark Side as, “quicker, more seductive.”
In a closely related line from that same scene, Yoda says that Luke will know the difference between the good and the bad sides of the Force when he is, “at peace.” Demonstrating Dark Side actions would demonstrate a lack of such peace within Luke. Yoda tried his best to warn Luke off from rushing to Bespin for perhaps this very reason. Yoda foresaw (or perhaps intuited) that Luke was not emotionally or spiritually mature enough to deal with the revelation of his true parentage. The burden of knowing that he was the son of the most feared being the galaxy would ruin Luke’s ability to maintain proper focus, balance, and perspective. We see that manifested and fulfilled when he uses his Force powers as he does. Yoda even calls attention to this in ROTJ on his deathbed: the truth was not what Yoda feared, but the burden of that truth without proper understanding and preparation to handle it.
Yoda knew what it meant to be unprepared. He watched the Jedi Order disintegrate because they were not ready to be generals in a war. Obi-wan was not ready to take on Anakin as a Padawan. Anakin was not ready to lead his troops into battle, nor was he ready for a Padawan of his own. We like to interpret Yoda as the wizened mentor who sees so much more than his students do, and that his decisions can be counted on with absolute certainty; that he understands more than he lets on and that confidence can be ours as well. However, it should not be missed that Yoda’s conclusion after seeing the method in which the Clone Wars ended was that he had completely and utterly failed; he failed everyone and everything. He failed to see the creation of the clone army; he failed to properly equip the Jedi for their role; and he failed to stop Palpatine. On Dagobah, he was trying to prevent Luke from falling into the same trap.
When Luke visits Yoda on Dagobah in order to complete his training, Yoda gives Luke one last lesson before breathing his last. Here, something very special happens. Once Yoda confirms for Luke that Vader is indeed his father, Luke is angry with him and accuses Yoda of hiding the truth from here. Here, Yoda says that it was not to hide the truth from Luke, but that Yoda knew he was not yet ready to know it; his next warning is that a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force, but the Dark Side grows under a canopy of anger, fear, and aggression. Yoda warns Luke of the power of the Emperor and the danger in underestimating it; to improperly evaluate the Emperor’s power would lead Luke to become the new Vader.
Yoda sees the same qualities in Luke that made Anakin so susceptible to Palpatine and Yoda is doing everything he can, literally to his last breath, to prevent that from occurring again. The Emperor’s power rested in taking the embers of anger, fear, and aggression that existed in a person already and fanning them into firestorms. Anakin had that in his own life and now Luke was approaching the same destiny. Luke’s reaction shots here seem to indicate that he is putting the pieces of that puzzle together. He looks shocked, taken aback, and even a bit offended. None of those reactions would be appropriate if Yoda’s warning was simply, “The Emperor can throw lightning at you, better be on guard for that.” Rather, Yoda’s warning is, “You are likely to end up as Vader unless you change your ways this very moment; you will lose everyone you care about and every cause you fight for.”
I am a Jedi, Like My Father Before Me
The confrontation on the Death Star II over Endor is, simply, monumental. Luke’s entire journey culminates here. However, he still has to experience the lowest of points in order to confront the darkness that has swirled around his heart. Here, we can examine his motivations, his actions, and the ways in which he struggles with the Dark Side.
We see Luke give himself over to Vader with two main objectives: 1) distract from the rebel strike team’s mission; and 2) confront Vader in the hopes of turning him back to the Light Side. However, while Luke relies on the paternal affection he desperately craves himself to be compelling enough to overturn Vader’s corruption, Vader does not yet believe in himself enough to fight back against the darkness: “It is too late for me, my son.” Vader can understand what Luke wants to see happen; Vader likely wants to see it himself. However, after two decades under the crushing weight of Palpatine’s influence has left him depressed, diminished, and defeated. With that, he takes Luke to meet the Emperor.
Luke’s experience on the DSII is a condensed retelling of his journey throughout the saga up to this point. He goes into the confrontation with the idealism of a Tatooine farmboy. He reaches out to stop the ultimate evil in the galaxy like he just landed on Bespin. But he also strikes out in anger and aggression when he fears that Vader seeks to hunt Leia next after disposing of Luke. He taps into that rage and fear, all in the name of protecting the ones he loves, not unlike Anakin’s motivation in Revenge of the Sith. However, the temptation of the Dark Side has but one trick: use the cover of protectionism as a means of installing a sense of power and control that is illusionary at best and delusionary on the average day. Anakin was deluded to think he was in control when it was the Dark Side, through Palpatine, that was in ultimate control. And, again, Luke believed he was in the right when in fact he was being empowered and spurred on by that same Dark Side power, presumably through Palpatine.*
Once Luke has amputated Vader’s saber hand, Palpatine sees his ultimate moment of victory open up. He engages in the conversation in attempts to push Luke over the edge into the full embrace of the Dark Side. However, Luke is able to resist when he sees Vader, broken and beaten, and connects him to what the future would hold for Luke himself. He recalls the warnings Yoda drilled into him about how the Dark Side would consume and dominate him. Then, with the strength of a boy fighting for his father again, he can turn, look the devil in the eye, throw away his weapon, and say, “Not today, Satan.”
Here, Luke grounds himself in the strength of the Light Side, claiming the mantle of Jedi Knight. He is willing to accept his own death at this point, which is not something that he could have allowed in moments prior. He understands that the important thing is not self-preservation, but making sure this ultimate evil does not get to see another day dawn.** With that, the Emperor’s plan shifts from conversion to destruction. Nonetheless, through Vader’s recognition that his son was willing to die for him, Vader is empowered to likewise stand up to the evil within and without to protect those he cares for, even at the cost of his own life. The Emperor is deposed (and disposed), ensuring Vader’s own demise yet simultaneously restoring his soul. Luke drags Vader to the ramp of a shuttle in order to escape the destruction of the DSII where the two see eye to eye and soul to soul. The father newly redeemed his subsequently surrendered to the Force; Luke loses his father again.
It Looks Like I’m Going Nowhere
But what of Luke? What has he learned here? His victory over Palpatine and over the Dark Side (as synonymous as those two may be) came from 1) rejecting the path of violence; 2) allowing his ultimate demise to be the price paid for the service provided; and 3) it takes a team to overcome the evil even within an individual; no one can do it on their own. There are three other particular items that stand out as important, though, that teach us one final lesson: even those who have mountain-top experiences are still vulnerable to later failings and temptations. This is demonstrated in that Luke does not change his outfit after the battle; he is still dressed all in black, and while we may be inclined to consider this as a petty nit to pick (“you really think he would have changed outfits between landing the shuttle, burning his father, and joining the party?”), the decision to clothe the character in such a mantle to display his leanings and temptations at the beginning of the film is not something that would simply evaporate by the time it is over (it is all part of the same film language; why would it change at the end?). He burning of Vader’s body and armor is incomplete: the helmet survives to the point where Kylo Ren later venerates it as if it were a martyred saint’s. While we do not have a minute-to-minute accounting of the armor and what happens to it (and no, I do not feel a need to know it), we know that at least part of it survived and that should tell us something: there is a lack of completion, like a surgeon who excises the cancer but leaves the wound open to infection. Luke keeps his lightsaber on his hip; while he threw away the weapon in order to show that he would not strike down in anger, and although we have heard that, “it is the weapon of a Jedi Knight,” we cannot be blind to the problems caused by Force-users with a penchant for violence. If Luke was not willing to permanently throw out his weapon now, it leaves him open to the same sort of savior-status-temptation that pushed him towards the Dark Side at the beginning of the film. You might even say, he would become, “a legend.”
Where does that put Luke then when the credits role? What has his journey been like and on what trajectory does it put him? We have seen him rise from obscurity to Rebellion hero, grow from average person to man of faith, learn that the same darkness that corrupted his father not just lives in him as well but is also out to corrupt him. We have seen him revel in the strength of his new Force powers, allowing the Dark Side to creep its way up his skin and towards his heart. However, we have also seen that he has the capacity for correction: when confronted by his mentor, he can analyze and understand his own shortcomings. He learns (by the end of ROTJ) how to recognize those failures on his own; the difficulty is that it took him going right up to the edge of total embrace of the Dark Side to finally be able to stop himself. And in the moments after he is able to resist that temptation, he finds a way to continue his journey; however, he is not able to completely extricate the darkness inside him from his desires to do right. He is not yet willing to put aside the way of the sword. He may yet come to… regret that decision.
Stay tuned for Part II.
*Cut to internal monologue, Sheev: “These Skywalker boys are so simple to manipulate, it’s like using a microwave: push one button and you’ve instantly got your Hot Pocket ready to go. Except in this case, the Hot Pocket is a new Sith apprentice!” /maniacal laughter, maniacal laughter.
**Poetic metaphors like this lose a lot of strength when the characters live in space and probably haven’t seen an actual sunrise in years.