In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey learns that her grandfather is Emperor Palpatine. Feeling more like a backtrack than a step forward, this new information is a betrayal of Rey’s newfound identity. Suddenly, she didn’t come from nothing. Suddenly, she’s of noble birth. The Rise of Skywalker leads us to believe that Rey is who she is not because of her strength and determination and her ability to survive against all odds, but because of who her family is.
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Rey scrounges for parts inside the husk of a long-abandoned Star Destroyer. Her clothes, colors of white and tan, are tattered and stained with dirt. She practically blends into the world around her. Invisible. Part of the scenery. The immense size of the once-great battleship dwarfs her – a grain of sand on a planet covered in it. From there, Rey takes her findings to trade in exchange for food. She eats her one-quarter portion beneath the setting sun, an orange-ish haze filling the air. She places an old pilot’s helmet on her head and looks to the horizon. Her home is a rusted, broken-down ATAT. On the walls, she marks down each passing day since her parents left her, believing that one day, they will return and make her life make sense.
Rey has no place in this story. She lives among the relics of the days gone by, among a history she doesn’t know or understand. Ghosts of the past haunt The Force Awakens: the crushed remnants of Vader’s helmet, the Millennium Falcon on its last leg, a lightsaber thought lost forever. The legacy of Star Wars looms large over Rey, asking, who are you? Where do you belong?
Unlike Anakin, the Force-sensitive kid who went from Slave to Jedi, to the iconic, fearsome, Darth Vader, Rey is not the chosen one. That much is clear. Like Finn, the ex-stormtrooper who was taken from his family and conditioned to obey every order – no matter how heinous – Rey is just a cog in the machine. An outsider – the very bottom of the food chain. And unlike Luke and Leia, Rey has no legacy, no wise, old mentor to explain her place in the world.
Historically, Star Wars has always been about the underdog, about a ragtag group of rebels going up against an entire empire, with the odds always stacked against them. In The Force Awakens, it’s clear what drives this franchise – what has endeared it to so many for so long. The call to adventure can come to anyone, at any time, no matter who they are. Finn is just a soldier following orders until he doesn’t. Rey is just a girl from nowhere until she isn’t.
Rey and Finn enter the larger story – the epic battle between good and evil, still raging after all these years – even though there is no place for them. For Rey, it often feels like she’s a wrinkle, a glitch, interrupting a family melodrama decades in the making. Rey is an outlander, a variable no one planned for. As Phasma says to Finn, “You’re just a bug in the system.”
Rey’s defining moment of The Force Awakens, the moment she goes from an unwilling participant to our hero right before our eyes is when she takes Anakin’s lightsaber from Kylo Ren. This is the moment she stops being a little girl waiting for someone to save her and carves out her own place in the story. Whether or not she was supposed to be here, she is. Anakin’s lightsaber doesn’t call to her because she’s entitled to it. Rey taps into the Force simply because she can – because she’s sensitive enough to let it in.
Because she’s just a girl and that’s enough.
The battle between Kylo Ren and Rey in the forest, snow and sweat drenching them from head to toe, the light of their sabers – blue and red against the black night – symbolizes not a fight between good and evil, but a fight between the past and the future. It’s a fight for the legacy of Star Wars itself. On one side, there’s Kylo Ren: son of Han and Leia, grandson of Darth Vader, heir apparent to the throne. He is the crown prince of darkness, tempted by evil – still drawn to the light. His family is a long line of names we’ve grown up with, names that conjure up a chaos of emotions simply by uttering them: Skywalker, Solo, Organa, Amidala. It’s a legacy of queens and senators and generals. To Kylo Ren, Anakin’s lightsaber is his birthright. It belongs to him.
But Rey is not burdened by destiny. By bloodlines or prophecies or inheritance. Rey has no ground to stand on, and yet she stands her ground. For Kylo Ren, Rey represents a different path for him – a way to stop all the pain. His curse is his family, the pressure of needing to be the next Han Solo or Darth Vader. Bound by the teachings of the Jedi and the Sith, Kylo Ren must choose between the light and dark. It’s tearing him apart.
Standing on opposite sides of a planet on fire, being destroyed from the inside out, Rey and Kylo Ren leave each other as equals – two sides of the same coin. Foils of each other.
In The Last Jedi, Rey continues her journey by finding Luke Skywalker – Jedi Master, living legend – until it all went wrong. Though Rey’s job is to bring Luke back to Leia so that he can help the resistance, Rey is really here for herself. She’s accepted that she’s now part of this story, that something inside of her is awake and hungry, but she doesn’t understand what her role will be. The aftermath of Han’s death and her battle with Kylo Ren leaves her angry and confused and unable to cope with losing the only father figure she’d ever known. And that frightens her.
But Luke wants no part of this fight. After the trauma of losing Ben Solo to the dark side and being forced to watch his temple burn to the ground, Luke believes it is time for the Jedi to end. Luke went from being a simple farm boy to being the Chosen One in a matter of months. His destiny comes at him fast; and despite the advice from Obi-Wan and Yoda, two Jedi Masters who failed his father and played a large role in the downfall of the Republic, Luke chooses compassion over revenge and saves his father. And with him, the whole galaxy. But Luke, bound by the Jedi Code, with the failures of his family embedded into his DNA, can’t help but repeat the past. It is only after Ben Solo becomes Kylo Ren that Luke becomes disillusioned with the Jedi and himself.
But the Jedi do not need to end. They need to be reborn.
Being Rey from nowhere with no formal training as a Jedi is vital. She carries with her none of the religious indoctrination of those who came before her. Rey doesn’t censor her emotions or bury her doubts and fear. She does not deny her feelings. Anakin’s fall to the dark side was partly due to his inability to manage his emotions. And the Jedi offered him no help or guidance. Instead of being taught how to deal with his pain and anger, he was told to simply let it go. But Rey confronts her feelings head-on. Instead of shutting out the darkness, she lets it in. It is the acceptance of her fears that allows her to see past them. Despite what Luke believes, the underwater cave in which Rey finds herself, when she goes looking for answers, does not give her what she wants. It gives her what she needs. Instead of showing Rey her parents, the mirror in the cave merely shows her a reflection of herself. Rey’s path is clear: she must stop looking to the past to find herself. Discovering who she is has nothing to do with who her parents are. It’s her own choices that define the person she will become.
This revelation leaves Rey feeling more alone than ever, but she is not. Because of her compassion and her willingness to open herself up to others, Rey forms a bond with Kylo Ren. Their connection, unwanted at first, allows each of them to engage with the other without fear of retaliation. There is no possibility of violence; only listening and understanding. Instead of fearing Kylo Ren like so many do, like Luke did even before he fell to the dark side, Rey can sense the conflict in him. When Rey and Kylo Ren touch hands, a sensual moment when the light finally meets the darkness, it’s clear that it’s not about choosing a side, it’s about finding balance.
In the aftermath of the throne room scene, fire raining down around them, Rey looks to Kylo Ren, the man who just killed for her, and hopes to see Ben Solo. But when he offers his hand to her, a proposal of partnership, he does so as Supreme Leader, further solidifying his fall to the dark side. To convince Rey to join him, Kylo Ren asks her if she wants to know who her parents are or if she already knows and she’s been too scared to face the truth.
“They were nobody,” Rey says with tears streaming down her face. The story of her family’s demise is deeply ordinary. There’s nothing remarkable about where she came from. We don’t even learn her last name and that’s the point. It doesn’t matter. Kylo Ren expects this to break her, but it doesn’t. It sets her free. Accepting that her family is gone and that they weren’t special allows Rey to finally become her own person. The news fans wanted so desperately, an explanation of why Rey is allowed to exist in this story and be this powerful with the Force never comes. Rey doesn’t have to prove that she belongs. She just does. The idea that anyone could be Force sensitive, that anyone, regardless of rank or class, can be a hero, is made even more apparent when we see the little boy with the broom in the final shot of the film. It’s there to tell us that you don’t need to come from a certain bloodline to be a part of this story. Star Wars is for everyone.
Until it isn’t.
In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey learns that her grandfather is Emperor Palpatine. Feeling more like a backtrack than a step forward, this new information is a betrayal of Rey’s newfound identity. Suddenly, she didn’t come from nothing. Suddenly, she’s of noble birth. The Rise of Skywalker leads us to believe that Rey is who she is not because of her strength and determination and her ability to survive against all odds, but because of who her family is. In changing Rey’s origin story, Star Wars tells us that even a girl from nowhere must be someone to matter. Instead of forging a path forward and creating something new, something that is neither Sith nor Jedi, something that acknowledges the light and dark in all of us, the climax of The Rise of Skywalker centers this moment not on Rey, but the Jedi Order. Lying on the ground, covered in sweat and dirt and blood, Rey watches as the resistance is massacred. Force lightning illuminates the sky, obliterating everything in its path. At this moment, Rey asks the Jedi to be with her, and they are. Obi-Wan and Yoda and Mace. Those whose ignorance and self-righteousness brought about their own demise: Anakin, who speaks to Rey but not to his own grandson; Ahsoka, who left the Jedi Order after they put her on trial for a crime she didn’t commit. Instead of acknowledging the failures of the past and learning from them, this moment ignores them entirely, deciding to focus on an Order that has long since been exposed for its flaws and corruption. The Jedi stand behind Rey as she uses their power and hers to destroy Palpatine once and for all. Having used the last of her strength, Rey falls to the ground – dead.
Ben rises from the hole Palpatine hurled him into and crawls over to Rey. He cradles her lifeless body in his arms. Ben uses his life force to bring Rey back to life. Love has saved Ben Solo, just as it saved Anakin. And love has saved Rey. But The Rise of Skywalker does not say anything new about redemption. Ben Solo may have redeemed himself, but death is still his punishment, as was Anakin’s. There is no place for atonement.
And so the Skywalker Saga ends where it began. Rey buries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers beneath the sands of Tatooine, a place Rey has no emotional connection to. It’s the planet where Anakin witnessed his mother’s death and where Leia was bound in chains. It’s the planet Luke wanted desperately to get away from. Rey returns to the ordinary world as a shell – a vassal for the Jedi and for Star Wars itself. Her journey feels incomplete because she was finishing someone else’s. And when a passerby asks Rey who she is and she says Rey, the woman asks, Rey who? Rey looks to the Force ghosts of Luke and Leia for the answer, not inside of herself. Eventually, she says, Rey Skywalker. Her face is happy, serene, but there is a certain sadness to this moment. Rey spends most of The Rise of Skywalker being defined by Palpatine and ends the film defining herself by the Skywalkers. She gazes up at the twin suns and the audience is left wondering, but who is Rey? Where does she belong? In a film franchise that is just as much about identity as it is about space wizards and laser swords, the answer never comes. Instead, the music swells and the credits roll, and Rey Skywalker fades from view. The girl from nowhere ends up right back where she started, gazing up at the horizon, lost inside a story that was never – and would never – truly be hers.
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All images are screenshots from the film.