Warning: The following contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
A lot happens in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. There are multiple space battles, huge losses on both sides, a bundle of great story beats, and general galactic adventure. It’s arguably one of the most action packed entries in the beloved franchise, but in its quieter and more intimate moments Rian Johnson’s gorgeous film finally deals with one of the most troubling aspects of the Star Wars universe: the abusive relationships between student and master that so much of the galaxy seems to hinge on.
From Obi-Wan and Yoda’s insistence to keep Luke in the dark about the identity of his father (lest we forget that Yoda literally died to protect that secret) whom they both wanted him to kill, to Palpatine’s desperate manipulations of Anakin that led to the fall of the galaxy and the death of his beloved Padmé, Star Wars movie canon is filled with destructive relationships that almost always seem to end in tragedy. These partnerships have become so iconic in their strangeness that they’re a cultural touchstone all of their own, with many fans wondering (half jokingly) out loud whether Obi-Wan and Yoda are just as bad as their Dark Side counterparts due to their constant “necessary” lies.
The historic importance of a student and their master has long defined the galaxy far, far away as we know it, with almost every important character being a part of one of these codependent-at-best and horribly-abusive-at-worst relationships. From Anakin to Dooku to Savage to Maul to Luke to Ahsoka, every one of your favorite characters has been a part of this galactic power structure which seems to ultimately do more harm than good. So it was unbelievably refreshing to see Rian Johnson truly explore and question this longstanding problem within the Star Wars universe.
It’s rare that emotionally abusive relationships are explored in pop culture, let alone in a Disney franchise like Star Wars. But in the quieter and more intimate moments of The Last Jedi, Johnson delved right into the heart of the impact of these tempestuous and often destiny-defining relationships. It’s a brave decision to hold beloved characters like Luke accountable and to use them as cyphers for this groundbreaking exploration.
Luke is a product of the abusive cycle of the Jedi. At a young age, he was trained to fight in a war he knew barely anything about. He was lied to, indoctrinated, and manipulated to kill his own father. So it’s hardly surprising that when he sees his young nephew unbelievably strong with the Force, he can’t think of anything other than training him and securing his legacy as a Jedi master. Such is the nature of abusive relationships; we often can’t help but repeat them, or at the very least find it incredibly hard to leave them.
Luke’s relationship with the Jedi order is a complex one, and yet when we find him at the beginning of The Last Jedi he seems to have finally extricated himself from the organization that’s caused him so much pain. And what was it that finally allowed him to cut himself off from the Jedi? His own abuse of his former student and nephew Ben Solo, of course. Luke could barely stand to see what his momentary lapse in faith had wrought on his nephew and the galaxy. The reality of Luke’s moment of weakness is that it was simply that, a moment. But to the child who was in his care, who trusted him and needed his guidance, all Ben saw was the man who was supposed to guide him instead about to strike him down with a lightsaber.
Kylo’s relationship with Snoke is another perfect example of the insidious nature of the student/teacher relationship. Snoke is the most directly abusive mentor we’ve seen in Star Wars, constantly gas-lighting Kylo, insulting him, building him up, and even utilizing his connection with Rey as a way to try and control his young charge. Just like Luke, Snoke is driven by a need to harness the power of Kylo. But unlike anyone before him, Kylo does something radical by breaking down the world of smoke and mirrors that the Jedi and Sith build around themselves, taking back his own life.
Kylo’s decision to kill Snoke is radical. It explodes our ideas of what power means in the Star Wars universe, and it’s also massively moving to me as a survivor of abuse. That moment shows the humanity of Snoke, that really he’s just one person manipulating another, and just like Palpatine before him he could be taken down by his own arrogance. But this time it was done before the end of his story, before decades of horror. But sadly for Kylo, the cycle of abuse is still strong, and even after he frees himself from his master he can’t help but attempt to engage Rey in a similar relationship. He even attempts to use her lack of lineage to manipulate her into staying with him. Though Kylo claims he wants to end the old order, he can’t help but repeat the same actions and structures he’s spent his whole life surrounded by.
To cement The Last Jedi’s message of critically looking back on the past, Force Ghost Yoda shows up to remind Luke that it’s the master’s burden to watch their student grow beyond them, and to teach failure as well as victory. In the end, it’s Yoda who burns down the remains of the Jedi temple, finally accepting the failures of the religion and teachings he’s passed on over centuries. Returning to Luke’s own master is a beautiful way to recognize and hopefully end the cycle of manipulation that’s infiltrated the galaxy for millennia. The future of the Force no longer relies on tired tropes or ancient texts but on a young woman without parents, an ex-Stormtrooper, a rebel technician, a stable boy and his broom, and an angry young man struggling to find his place in a crumbling world. And the galaxy is all the better for it.
Images: Disney, Lucasfilm