Victory cannot be won without sacrifice. While absolutes are less than desirable, this one does seem to hold true. In whatever form victory may take place, something must be given. Career success usually means sacrificing vacations and family time. Being healthy means sacrificing cookies and ice cream. These are always tough choices to make (I’m looking at you Ben and Jerry’s).
According to Star Wars, redemption requires the sacrifice of one’s life. The most obvious and important example of this is the redemption of Anakin Skywalker, which established this as a central theme in Star Wars lore. Whereas most would expect that the Knight with shining saber, Luke, would defeat the villain in the mask, Darth Vader, standing over him heroically with his foot squarely on his neck, George Lucas went the path of empathy instead. Forty-plus years of storytelling in the galaxy far, far away have followed suit.
Star Wars is mythology, not history. Myths speak to our subconscious, the dreams and ideals of who and what we want to be. So, in a way, myths speak to our higher selves, not the “justice must be served” western philosophy that has become prevalent over the last century. While it is implausible for our minds to wrap around the idea of Anakin living in the New Republic after all that Vader did, myth does not concern itself with such literal interpretations. It begs us to become more.
It makes sense that Anakin had to give his life to save his son, especially when considering the story told in the prequels. In his attempt to save Padme’s life, he inadvertently killed her. Later, Obi-Wan tells him, “If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” This creates cognitive dissonance within Vader because he has lost so many people, and none of them become “more powerful.” But when Anakin sees Luke ready to give his life rather than succumb to the dark side, a switch is flipped and he sees exactly what Kenobi was talking about. One’s life can mean more than the pieces that make it up.
Later, Luke learns a similar lesson. Our mistakes do not define us, but our reaction to mistakes does. Luke has a sense that he is in control of it all because he was, “Luke Skywalker. Jedi Master. A legend.” But he learns the same lesson that Anakin and the Jedi Council learn in the prequels. Pride cometh before the fall. Still, Luke can redeem himself by his actions on Crait. He is not able to redeem Ben Solo at this point, but he can show the galaxy (and the Resistance…. and Rey) that a hero’s journey never ends.
That is until they’re dead. Like his father before him, Luke’s act of redemption is also his act of sacrifice.
Thankfully Luke can reincarnate as a Force ghost, and thus is able to reconnect with the ethereal world. Other characters, such as Asajj Ventress, aren’t so lucky. Ventress’s arc across The Clone Wars is one of the most satisfying pieces of the show, although it doesn’t provide a true conclusion to her story. Dark Disciple, a novel based on unproduced episodes of Clone Wars, does. In the novel, Ventress shows Quinlan Vos how to use the dark side in an attempt to assassinate Count Dooku. The two become romantically entangled, a matter complicated not just by Vos’s status as a Jedi Master but also by his turn to the dark side. While Ventress cannot quite be defined as a hero at this point, she is more or less able to keep the dark side at arm’s length. Vos is not able to do so. Ventress, like Luke does with Anakin, believes that there is still good in Vos. Ultimately, she dies a hero to prove that point.
Then there is Ben Solo. Ben/Kylo encapsulates the tension that is the Skywalker bloodline. As the metaphors for the Force, there is a constant struggle in every Skywalker, some more than others, between the light and the dark. Ben is surrounded by Han, Leia, and Luke, so it would seem safe to assume he would grow up to be the next poster boy of the light. This weighs on young Solo, who gets told who he has to be rather than being allowed to be who he wants to be. This will ultimately lead to Luke pulling his lightsaber on a sleeping Ben, who sees the act as the culmination of years of people telling him what he was going to be. So he does. He becomes Kylo Ren.
As Ren, Ben can justify his actions due to his heritage in the dark side through Vader. But the light, as it does for all Skywalkers, fights back. He struggles with his own identity more and more. Then Rey enters the picture and he has met his equal, not just in the Force and not just in the Dyad, but his equal in terms of that tension between light and dark. The same fight that he is having to endure, she is having to endure. For once he feels like someone can understand him. When she eventually shows him the compassion he doesn’t believe he deserves, Ben can realize that our lives are not defined by who people say we are, but by who we act like.
Jump to Exegol. Rey is dead. Ben crawls out of a literal pit of darkness, crawls over to the body of the only person he feels has ever really understood him, and realizes what must be done. As she did for him, he transfers what is left of his life Force into her, reviving her from death’s gate. And fade.
Oh, not Star Wars scene transition fade. Star Wars Skywalker bloodline hero fade. Ben fades into the Force, his redemptive act being his ticket to death like two generations before him.
A character fading away clearly means they are transitioning into the Force. Every one of them shows up later in the story, but Ben does not. Cannot if the marketing is true and Rise of Skywalker is the end of the saga. While alone this is not necessarily a bad thing, in the larger narrative of the saga and the story it begs the question, “Haven’t we done this before?”*
Creators need to look in new directions if Star Wars is truly going to be eternal. There are ways to redeem characters while also keeping them alive. Just ask Dave Filoni. Plus, themes of love, hope, forgiveness, sacrifice, and fighting for something bigger than yourself can all still be present. Just looking at Filoni’s work, there are a plethora of examples. Ezra can redeem himself from the selfishness that plagued him in season one by taking Thrawn out of the fight. But he didn’t die. Ahsoka can redeem herself by learning how to live as a Jedi without being a Jedi. But she didn’t die. Agent Kallus can redeem himself by joining the Rebellion and eventually going to live with the Lasat. But he didn’t die.
It is no coincidence that episode eight of The Mandalorian is titled “Redemption.” Filoni’s fingerprints are all over the series and as the heir apparent to George Lucas he has adamantly worked to keep Lucas’s themes alive in everything he touches. But he is not the only one making stories, and he alone cannot redeem creators from falling back too much on the same old same old. There are some phenomenal Star Wars stories, even beyond Filoni’s work, that show characters being redeemed without dying because of it. The third act of Rogue One raises the stakes of the original trilogy because of the cost paid to even set those events into motion. Nevertheless, it is not a retelling of the same story. The sacrifice of Jyn, Cassian, and the rest means something different from Anakin’s sacrifice for his son. Iden Versio and Del Meeko get to live their life, have a child, and raise her to be a hero for the Resistance because they survived their redemptive act of leaving the Empire. Lando is able to redeem himself after betraying Han, and he gets to live, go on more adventures, and eventually help save the galaxy once more.
In a time when the world is at our fingertips and in our pocket, old themes need to be taught in new ways. The Internet and “cancel culture” is an environment where mistakes live forever. Kids don’t need to just see that they can overcome their mistakes, they need to see that they can grow from them, become better people, and live lives that are not defined by one moment, good or bad. If Star Wars is going to mean something for this generation, and for future generations, redemption has to include more than dying. Otherwise, Star Wars will be dead and might not be able to redeem itself.
*While redeemed characters like Luke and Anakin have come back as Force ghosts, the narrative does not provide an adequate understanding of how influential they can be on the tangible. Anakin only shows up for a moment and does nothing; Luke can communicate pretty freely with Rey on Ach-To, but that is a planet strong in the Force. Further, Rey is in great need. Obi-Wan makes it clear to Luke that if he goes to Bespin Ben will not be able to help him, thus it seems that Force ghosts are more or less handicapped. This is not to diminish their importance, but to emphasize that they are limited.