Spoilers for: The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens
How the Characters Experience Failure
The Last Jedi follows Poe, Finn, Rey, and even Luke on parallel character arcs. Each character makes mistakes and faces real consequences.
- Poe destroys the First Order dreadnaught but loses his fleet. Later, his mutiny fails, ending in the restoration of the old Resistance leadership (who did know what they were doing, thanks). In fact, the mutiny makes things worse. The plan he should have trusted was weakened because he interfered.
- Finn fails to escape and lead Rey away from the conflict. Then, he and Rose fail to find the code breaker they were sent for. Their mission to deactivate the First Order’s tracker ends in failure when their supposed ally betrays them. Worse, this ally reveals the Resistance’s escape plan to the First Order. Near the film’s end, Finn tries to make a suicide run to take out the battering gun, but he fails at that too.
- Rey tries to get Luke to train her, and he never suitably does. She tries to get him to come back with her, and he never properly does. She goes into the cave looking for answers about her parents, and she finds nothing. She tries to turn Kylo to the light side, and he definitely doesn’t.
- Before the movie takes place, Luke failed to restart the Jedi Order or train his nephew, Ben Solo. Instead of preventing Ben from turning to the Dark Side, Luke encouraged it. Then, he failed the galaxy a second time by deserting it. During the movie, he fails to end the Jedi Order. He also wants to give Rey three lessons but only manages two.
These actions might seem like a zero-sum gain. From a tactical standpoint, the characters wind up in situations similar to or worse than the ones they were in before. Yet all of these failures have a deliberate purpose: to help the characters grow.
How Failure Can Be a Teacher
Master Yoda, the wisest character in the Star Wars universe, says, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” The film doesn’t just state this message — it proves it. Each of the characters’ failures leads to important lessons, character development, and thematic revelation. There is an inverse relationship between the success of the characters’ plans and the lessons they learn, which is the way life often works.
It is only because the characters fail that they learn what they learn and grow the way they do. What they want is different from what they need. Separating character want and need is a classic storytelling technique that this movie executes successfully — the characters pursue what they want, and they don’t get it. Instead, they get what they need.
Poe Learns How to Be a Leader
Poe wants to be a heroic one-man army. When all you have is an X-Wing, every problem looks like a Death Star. He needs to learn that, as General Leia Organa says, “there are things you can’t solve by jumping in an X-Wing and blowing something up.” Through his failures, he learns that he needs to value other people’s safety over his personal glory, retreating when losses are unacceptable. He learns to respect others’ abilities instead of the piloting skills that let him escape while everyone beside him dies. He learns to use his brain rather than his weapons. Because he never took the deaths of his comrades lightly, and because his intentions are good, he grows from being a warrior to being a leader.
He also needs to learn to respect women in authority. At the beginning of the film, he thinks he knows better than the women in charge. He is proven wrong twice: first when General Leia teaches him to retreat when the odds are too high, and second when he learns that Vice Admiral Holdo had a better plan than he did. Eventually he comes to respect her, as shown when he echoes her words: “We are the spark that will light the fire that will burn the First Order down.” By listening to Holdo and Leia, he starts strategizing, observing, and reflecting. This allows him to pause before running out to help fight the First Order with Luke. Instead, he finds a hidden escape route and leads everyone toward safety.
Finn Learns What’s Important
Finn wants to lure Rey away from the rebel ships. He fails to steal an escape pod and instead gains a valuable ally in Rose. He is awed by the splendor of the casino’s patrons until Rose teaches him that people only become so rich at the expense of the most vulnerable (a timely lesson for America, as we face increasing income inequality).
Finn also discovers opportunists who create conflict for their own gain, demonstrating that “good” and “bad” are complicated. He encounters traders who sell weapons to both the First Order and the rebellion. He promises payment to a code breaker in exchange for helping the rebels break into a First Order ship, but the code breaker sells them out. Finally, when Rose stops Finn from taking out the battering gun, she teaches him that what you save is more important than what you destroy.
Rey Finds Her Own Agency
Rey wants to find her parents, or at least a parental surrogate who can reveal what her “place is in all this.” When she fails, she learns that she needs to trust in herself and choose her own place. Master Yoda teaches Luke: “We are what they grow beyond — that is the true burden of all masters.” Just as students grow beyond their teachers’ leadership, Rey’s failure helps her grow beyond the desire to find parental guidance.
Rey wants to convince Luke to return, and then she wants to turn Kylo Ren, believing they are the only hope for the Resistance. Her failure to do either allows her to stop searching outside herself. She fails to retrieve the hero the Resistance wants, so instead she becomes the hero the Resistance needs: not a legend or a defector, but a protector.
Rey achieves the overarching goal of the entire movie: the survival of the rebels. Rey could have marched out on the salt plains and tried to fight Kylo Ren, but, like Holdo, “she cared more about protecting the light than seeming like a hero.” So rather than trying to become a symbol or destroy her enemy, Rey uses her power to preserve other people, nameless people. She provides cover for the rebel speeders, draws off the TIE fighters, and then opens the back door. It’s an unglamorous, essential action — exactly what the Resistance needs.
Luke Learns to Face His Mistakes
Luke wants to destroy the Jedi Order and die alone. Most of his failures take place in the past: he failed to restart the Jedi Order, failed to save his nephew from the dark side, and failed the galaxy by turning his back on it when he refused to deal with his mistakes. He needs to accept that his students’ futures are beyond his control, stop closing himself off from the Force, and reach out to the sister who needs him. He fails in his professed goals, but gets what he needs when he learns to confront the consequences of his mistakes and failures instead of running from them.
The failures of The Last Jedi come from the characters’ motivations, misconceptions, good intentions, and hang-ups. They stem from how these characters would believably behave if put in these circumstances, and they further the characters’ development.
How The Audience Shares These Failures
The Last Jedi lures the audience into making the same mistakes as the characters. We understand their motivations, view the story from their point of view, and share their knowledge of plots that succeed in the Star Wars universe. We share in both their failures and their revelations.
- Like Poe, we underestimate Holdo. We put our faith in flashy hotshot heroes we know over an unknown woman we are told is competent, partly because we are used to stories like A New Hope. We are both proven wrong.
- Like Finn, we root for risky individualistic schemes. In another Star Wars movie, those could have been successes. Finn and the audience both see such plans go wrong.
- Like Rey, the audience is lured into thinking Kylo will turn. After all, Vader turned in Return of the Jedi. Then we share her discovery that he never wanted to turn, and all hints to the contrary were part of his power grab. Likewise, we share Rey’s belief that her parentage will be important, as it was for Luke in Empire Strikes Back. We share her disillusionment when we learn the truth. As the YouTube channel Folding Ideas states, the reveal is deliberately disappointing. We are meant to feel what the characters feel when they are faced with failure.
- Like Luke, many fans are dismayed by the failure of this future to live up to the hopes set by Return of the Jedi. Many audience members are also disgusted by what the Jedi hero almost did — and so is Luke. We are in the same place as he is; we are no more disappointed in him than he is in himself. It is a painful history, but that is the point. By sharing in his disappointment, the audience can share in his redemption.
The Present Day in a Galaxy Right Here
Through the characters’ failures, The Last Jedi makes timely statements relevant to current events. Because we share the characters’ mistakes and failures, we share in their lessons. We come out of the movie stronger and wiser.
- Poe’s arc teaches about the dangers of toxic masculinity and how well-intentioned men can overcome that training and become better allies. It shows that men should listen to experienced and qualified women, trust that they might know what they’re doing, and not mansplain their jobs to them.
- Finn’s arc reveals the evils of uncontrolled capitalism. It shows us how the super rich live glamorously through the exploitation of the poor. It warns against those who sell dangerous and unethical products to anyone regardless of how they will use them.
- Rey’s arc teaches us to embrace our own agency. This extends to spheres we’ve been excluded from, such as the violent traditionally “masculine” forms of heroism common to male Star Wars heroes, and spheres that are looked down on, such as the traditionally “feminine” act of protection.
- Luke’s arc teaches how those with visibility and privilege can use those advantages to help marginalized people.
The Last Jedi teaches us how a free movement can survive a totalitarian extermination: by protecting what we love rather than destroying what we hate, using brain rather than brawn, respecting women, working as a team, retreating when necessary to fight another day, and even learning from failure itself. These are values that patriarchal societies, like America, traditionally associate with women. Now that liberal America is facing the aftermath of a crushing defeat, such lessons are more essential than ever.
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