As a Star Wars fan, this wasn’t my favorite film in the saga. But as a person with a Dark Side-inclined family, I think 'The Rise of Skywalker' had something interesting to say.
Did Rey’s parents name her after anyone? I’ve been considering this since watching the hold-onto-your-butts conclusion of The Rise of Skywalker. In the allegedly “final” episodic Star Wars film, we learn about Rey’s complicated backstory (spoilers!), and also that her parents were… pretty nice people? Her grandfather, however, is a galactic-level asshole, the wheezing embodiment of a type of toxicity all-to-familiar to many parents. Star Wars has always had a lot to say about generations, but now, at the end of history in a galaxy far far away, it seems like the Force is saying what we all know to be true: It’s okay to hate and fear your grandparents. In fact, it’s kind of natural.
Grandparents have been a theme for the last few films, with Kylo Ren obsessing over his maternal grandfather, Darth Vader, in a way that scans as weird to many fans. But I get it. My daughter is named after my grandmother, a woman I never met. Like Kylo Ren, I’ve mythologized a grandparent and decided — at least somewhat arbitrarily — what she stood for and represents. My grandmother and my daughter’s great-grandmother was a poet, a teacher, and a non-taker of shit from anyone. Or so I’m told. To be honest, I haven’t much looked into it. Myths have an appeal that facts often lack.
In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey joins the complicated-relationship-with-grandpa club when she finds out that she’s a Palpatine and her first conversation with the Emperor goes to shit in hurry. Watching, I was reminded of the time I spent with my living grandparents, who I disliked immensely. My grandfather almost never left his armchair, smelled like cigarettes, and was totally uninterested in me as a person. He was also a drunk who would occasionally yell at my grandmother, or, my sister and me if we walked into a room without being asked first. Like my grandfather, Rey’s Sith Lord relative is content to sit around and explain how life really is to an unwilling audience (though, in his case, a mob at least turns out). When I see Emperor Palpatine, I see my father’s father — a bitter old man who I can never recall saying one nice thing to me when he was alive. And there’s no way I’m alone on that. Lots of grandparents suck.
Because here’s the thing with parents who are my age; We’re a little too young to truly identify with Luke Skywalker (the dude is basically a virgin hobo) and at this point, as much as we love Han Solo, we’re sort of suspicious he was not the best dad to Ben Solo. So, we’re looking for analogs in the big saga, and really only finding Baby Yoda.
There’s a common complaint about the Star Wars movies, which goes like this: The films don’t need to be about bloodlines and dynasties but invariably pivot in that direction, often without clear narrative justification. And that’s a fair point. But it’s also true that Star Wars is — we can say this with certitude now that the nine-film arc is over — about family. It just is. And The Rise of Skywalker feels very much a Star Wars movie of its time. It celebrates chosen family over actual family. If the first film in the Star Wars Saga, A New Hope, posited that you can’t go home again. The last film in the Star Wars saga posits that you probably wouldn’t want to anyway.
As adults, we might like the idea of the past, but it’s a shitty place even for a short visit. Even Ben Solo figures this out.
Which brings us back to Palpatine. If Palpatine represents a grandparent I loathed, sedentary, selfish, and entitled in the manner of certain members of the “Greatest Generation” (which also produced actual Death Stars, FWIW), then I’m whoever Rey thinks of has her father, so maybe Luke or Han Solo. Or maybe I’m Rey’s dad. Either way, this provides some insight into my own parents and my own parenting.
Rey’s dad was Palpatine’s son. Beyond that, who cares? We don’t need more information to relate to the guy relative to Palps, because he ran out on a shitty family situation and we all get that. The notion of sending his kid to live on a terrible planet in the middle of nowhere seems ill-considered, but the impulse is super relatable. I can comfortably say that the Dark Side runs strong in my family. I was born in Arizona (Tatooine) and after a decade in New York City (Courscant), I now live in Maine; which is kind of like Hoth or Jakku. I mean, it’s not Jakku, but it is another world; one with fewer frightening grandparents for my young daughter to encounter.
Here’s the thing. My daughter will have no memories of her paternal grandfather, who is dead, and a few of her paternal grandmother, who is close-minded, angry, and kept at arm’s length. She’ll be able to mythologize these people if she wants. Or, alternatively, she’ll be able to reject their whole galaxy-consuming vibe. Either way, it’ll be her call.
Whatever The Rise of Skywalker gets wrong — which is plenty — it does get this right. In Return of the Jedi, Luke refused to kill his asshole father, because he believed there was still good in him. In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey refuses to kill her dickwad grandfather because she’s not playing his stupid game. Rey doesn’t need to forgive a previous generation for their crimes in order to become complete. That’s powerful. It’s something worth thinking about. Because when Palpatine’s face melts off and the dark side disappears into the ether, a lot of emotional family bullshit goes with it.
The Rise of Skywalker is out in wide release now.