Looking at ‘Last Jedi’: Luke’s grief and Holdo’s patience

All this week, in lieu of a longer review, we’ll be publishing a series of spoiler-filled micro-essays about different aspects of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, which, to our surprise, has become the most controversial film in the series. Today, we dig into Luke Skywalker and Vice Admiral Holdo, and why they’re essential to the story. Of course, SPOILERS follow.

A Brief Explanation of Luke

I think my favorite thing about The Last Jedi aside from the whole sequence of events surrounding Snoke’s death (that gleefully shocking scene, that the fanbase took as a personal slight, will be covered soon) is Mark Hamill’s portrayal of the grizzled ol’ grumpy bastard we used to call Luke Skywalker. People aren’t responding to this take on the character for whatever reason, but I feel like Hamill actually did his best here to include what they ultimately wanted from the character.

We see glimpses of his boyish humor when he’s training Rey on Ahch-To, when she literally reaches out to feel the Force in front of her and he tickles her hand with a leaf, and we see both his earnestness and his steadfast commitment to his ideals in the day-to-day duties of his self-imposed exile. His absolutism feels rooted in the earlier iteration of the character as well — it’s not hard to see that the person who gave up in frustration after trying to do a handstand while balancing rocks might react even worse once life hands him another setback, this time rooted in a personal transgression.

Sure, it might be true that we’ve seen Luke take the L on a larger level than this before, in Empire, where he fails to defeat Vader in combat and, in the process, has his self-image shattered by the revelation that the Sith Lord is his actually his father. At that point, he’d only failed himself (Han’s imprisonment in Carbonite happened prior, and wasn’t totally his fault), and he suffered the negative effects of said failure in a physical way in the loss of his right hand. But Ben Solo’s transformation into Kylo Ren is psychically damaging in a number of additional ways: For one, he’s losing his nephew, the son of his sister and his best friend, to the Dark Side. Secondly, he contemplated killing him in his sleep to prevent the damage he’d bring upon the Galaxy, and that’s a miserable abdication of his responsibilities as a teacher and a refutation of his legacy.

Luke was, after all, the person who believed that Vader could have been saved, and in turn, was able to do so. But he gave up on Ben, just for that one second. That’s pretty traumatic, especially if you happen to buy into your own reputation as a hero for even one second. Finally, Ben destroyed everything that he’d built, and killed all of his students and the other teachers. The fall of the New Jedi Order is his fault, and, I’d say, that would fuck a person up pretty badly.

So Luke isolates himself on Ahch-To, and cuts himself off from the Force. He’s totally unaware of the Galaxy’s problems, and he’s had years and years to solidify his ideals and refute the wisdom that he’d spent his entire life working to accumulate. As such, you can imagine that his social skills have frayed a bit, and the patience that he must have had with his prior students has evaporate. He just wants to be left alone, and he wants his order to die, because it’s both bad for the Galaxy and because he couldn’t make it work. The stubbornness and the “whining” he did as a youth has finally metastasized and consumed him. Then, in his despair, Rey comes along (and brings him a lightsaber that he promptly discards), begins reintroducing him to old friends like Chewie and Artoo, and tells him of the war that’s consuming the Galaxy. On the one hand, Rey and him are quite similar, and on the other, he doesn’t want to get anyone killed once again. He’s still in the depression stage of his grieving, and she will be the catalyst for him to move on.

It makes a great deal of sense to look at Luke’s story as not an abdication of responsibility towards the Galaxy at large, but rather the struggles it takes to overcome grief. Her presence, and her connection with Kylo Ren, forces him to deal with the reality of his actions: That he played a role in pushing Ben towards the dark side, but that he has an opportunity to prevent him from additional harm. That revelation, of course, sends him into a rage and inspires him to burn down the Jedi Temple, but it also allows for Yoda’s intervention (and, well, for Yoda to burn down the Temple with a bolt of force lightning, which I buy, given that the Force is what we need for it to be to serve the story).

I’m not going to lie, I think the heart of the film lies in this scene, and I got totally choked up watching it. Yoda, the master of obfuscation, speaks to him clearly, and tells him what he needs to know: That masters will always fail their pupils, and that the role of the master is to give the pupil something to grow beyond. He’s still a trickster, of course — he tells Luke that Rey has all she needs to know, without mentioning that she saved the ancient Jedi texts — but it’s a moment of clarity that has emotional resonance beyond the kind of zen koan we’re used to from him. But it’s in sitting with Yoda and watching the Jedi Temple that Luke is finally able to forgive himself, and this enables him to help save the Resistance on Crait. It allows him, finally, to become the Luke Skywalker of legend once again.

Force Projection seems to be the sticking point for most of the fanboys outraged by Luke’s presence on Crait, though I’d like to point out that it was the trajectory of the Original Trilogy to expand upon the powers of the Force in each installment and find reasons for its prior exclusion (say, Vader’s inability to use Force Lightning like the Emperor), and, if not for the prequels, we probably would have seen an expansion of these powers in subsequent films. So, I really don’t mind that he’s there via projection (which makes sense once you add that he’s able to see what’s going on the planet’s surface thanks to his connection with Leia), and you can find whatever canon excuse that you want to in order to justify it.

The reason he’s able to block Kylo’s saber is the same reason that Yoda’s able to hit Luke on the head with his cane, and I’m assuming he taught that to his former student. The reason he has his blue lightsaber is two-fold. Kylo doesn’t know that the saber exploded — he was knocked unconscious by the blast on Snoke’s ship — and he assumes that he’s physically there, having been given the saber by Rey. The other, less interesting reason, is that it’s a tell for audience members who have been paying attention that he is not actually there with them, in case his visage, styled as he was in the flashback, wasn’t enough for you. He threatens Kylo with his potential immortality, and in the process, allows for his sister and the Resistance to escape, all without harming a single person.

As such, he attains enlightenment, under a twin sunset, and disappears into legend. Why this ending for him bothers people, I’ll probably never understand.

Holdin’ Out for a Holdo

Last Jedi’s second most divisive new character, Vice Admiral Holdo (right behind our girl Rose; I wonder what they have in common that fanboys might dislike?), is awesome precisely because we don’t know her motivations. Sure, she could have communicated with Poe better, but at the exact same time, she uses his anger to teach him a palpable lesson about the chain of command. Sometimes you don’t know better than your superiors, and sometimes you have good reason to continue on the course that you’ve charted out, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

Let’s also not forget that it’s Poe’s fuck-ups that ruin Holdo’s plan to escape to Crait, so she was right, perhaps, to try and conceal those facts from him in hindsight. Her sacrifice, in addition to being epic as fuck and the main reason Rey and the Resistance are saved at the end of all this, helps to solidify his arc. He’s changed and moved by her sacrifice, and becomes a better leader by her example. Leia and Holdo give Poe the room to fail and to learn from his mistakes. There are other pieces out there that go into more detail than I do here, but I wanted to devote some space to say how much I love Laura Dern.

Finally, the weirdest complaint I’ve seen so far from all corners is that Holdo’s dress is both out of place for a Star Wars film and unbecoming of her rank. The answer to why she dresses the way she does is easily available to you if you just look for it, but it’s not like the saga doesn’t have a precedent for dress-wearing heroines. Perhaps it’s because she’s assertive and doesn’t bow down to an aggressive dude? Who knows?

Image via MoviestillsDB. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.