What’s More Important: Mystery or Character?

In this article, I discuss what I think is more important, mystery or character, in stories in general, and The Last Jedi in particular. Read more if you want, but:


One of the criticisms some viewers of Star Wars: The Last Jedi have voiced is that writer/director Rian Johnson threw away the mystery of Rey’s parents set up by J.J. Abrams in The Force Awakens. But while the final answer may be anti-climactic (if that was a thing you were waiting for), I think the choice is a good one for the character of Rey and for the franchise as a whole.

Parentage as a mystery or twist in Star Wars is sometimes taken as a central part of the story. After all, several iconic moments in the series revolve around parentage. The spoiler of all spoilers — that Darth Vader is Luke’s father — established the Skywalker Saga as THE STORY of Star Wars, and although less momentous, Return of the Jedi revealed Leia as Luke’s twin sister to continue that idea. The prequels focused less on this, but still included the idea that Shmi conceived Anakin from the Force, making his parentage part of his being the Chosen One. Thus, it’s understandable that fans thought the identity of Rey’s family was important. A closer look, however, reveals that while parentage in The Force Awakens WAS important, the identity of Rey’s parents WAS NEVER important.

For context, it’s important to remember that the identity of Luke and Leia’s parents wasn’t a mystery, despite the big reveals in Empire and Return.  Luke knew his father was Anakin Skywalker. He was interested in finding out more about him, of course, but that’s the extent of it. At the time of Star Wars‘ release in 1977, Obi-Wan’s story that Anakin was killed by Darth Vader was the story, a straight-forward account of what had happened, without any “certain point of view” shenanigans. Leia’s parents were also not a mystery: the Organa’s were her parents. The later movies recontextualized lines like “You served my father in the Clone Wars,” and for many of us, it’s that version of the story that we have in mind when viewing The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

Of course there is a twist reveal in The Force Awakens, when it is revealed that Kylo Ren is Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia. Why would there need to be a second mystery for Rey? Daisy Ridley is even on record as saying that she was surprised to find out that there was any mystery at all. So why did the fandom think there was?

I think mostly this is a result of the obsessive nature of Star Wars fans. Because Rey’s parents aren’t explicitly shown or named, either in the movie or in supplemental material, the fan mind kicked in to supply answers, and so the theories sprung forth. Fans analyzed everything from Rey’s accent to the color and shape of the engines on her parents’ ship, seeking clues throughout all seven films (and the eight films when Rogue One was released) and even the non-canon Extended Universe titles. In specualtion about The Last Jedi, “Who are Rey’s parents?” was probably the top question, followed closely by “Who is Snoke?” To many, it seemed that those were the central questions that needed to be answered.

And what was the answer?

Her parents were just junk salvagers who sold her to Unkar Plutt, and they were buried in a pauper’s grave on Jakku. That’s it.

To some, this invalidates Rey and her vision in Maz Kanata’s castle. She doesn’t have the vaunted Skywalker-Kenobi-Solo-Palpatine-whoever lineage behind her. And based on some reactions I’ve read, this “makes no sense.” Rian Johnson has thrown away the carefully-plotted mystery set up by J.J. Abrams, and everything in Star Wars from here will be terrible, the future of the franchise in jeopardy.

But there’s one important detail that the speculations have always had to deal with that none of them that I heard or read dealt with it in a satisfactory manner. If Rey was a Skywalker or a Solo (the two main theories), why did Luke, Han, or Leia leave here with, of all people, Unkar Plutt?

This has never made any sense for those characters. Even if they were trying to protect her from something, Plutt seems like such a terrible choice that only someone desperate with no other choices would have left him with a child. The heroes of the Rebellion, even if desperate, would have had other, better, more sensible choices. And so I think the answer we get in The Last Jedi is the only one that makes sense.

But I think the answer is important for another reason. This isn’t only the answer that we deserve. It’s the answer that we need.

Star Wars fans need to be reminded that people watch movies for characters, not for plot reveals. Yeah, it might have been a big moment when Darth Vader said, “No, I am your father,” but that was only a big moment because it forced Luke to rethink everything he had ever known. Rey’s parents being nobodies is important for her deciding who she is. It fits thematically, especially with Kylo Ren’s focus on throwing away the past and moving on; Rey can finally forget about waiting for her family on Jakku and move on.

This also puts her in contrast to Kylo Ren. Whereas he feels strongly the pull of his blood connection to Anakin Skywalker, Rey is free, able to make her own destiny without the terrible pull of history and blood. In the end, I think it is also freeing for us. We don’t have to keep trying to connect every character to every other character, thus making the Star Wars Universe larger instead of it just rotating around the gravitational pull of the Skywalker Saga.

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