Star Wars has always had a different thing going on with the mothers, hasn’t it? Anakin’s mother, Shmi, is killed by the Sandpeople in the event that catalyzes Anakin’s descent toward the Dark Side of the Force. Luke Skywalker never knows his mother, and only has a mother figure in Aunt Beru. Leia herself claims to know nothing of her own birth mother beyond vague images and feelings.
In this new trilogy, Leia herself is a mother, and her son Ben is now Kylo Ren, the major villain of this saga. He fell to the Dark Side, and yet she has for some time held out hope that he could be rescued. By all reports, the forthcoming Episode IX was to have delved more deeply into this relationship, but Carrie Fisher’s death took that off the table. (For the record: I want no part in a recasting of Leia Organa, no matter who it is.) Now Ben Solo really will be the “last Skywalker”, as in, the last person with a claim to that bloodline. As for Leia’s death? I’m sure that sad event will be dealt with eventually. Perhaps some notable science fiction author will be allowed to write that story in a novel someday.
Meantime, we have The Last Jedi. Of all the shifts we’ve seen in the galactic and personal state of affairs between the events of ROTJ and TFA, I am least vexed by the developments in Leia’s life. Aside from Claudia Gray’s wonderful Lost Stars, I haven’t read any of the newly-canonized books in the Star Wars universe, so I don’t have much idea of what has officially been going on in Leia’s life prior to this. But her evolution from political figure to military one is utterly believable. Even with my issues with the state of things at the beginning of TFA, I had very little problem with the idea of General Organa.
Even better, the films show Leia being truly in command. She isn’t one of those movie generals whose role is to basically say “Make it so!” once her brilliant underlings think of something. Leia is really in command here. She really has plans and strategies, she is genuinely invested in her soldiers, and she is willing and able to hold them accountable when they screw up.
Leia was always a person of action in the Original Trilogy, a trait she doubtless inherited from her Prequel Trilogy mother. She is still a person of action in TFA and TLJ, even if now she must be more thoughtful about her actions now that anything she does has even larger ramifications than ever before. It’s telling that she is only shown having the very briefest of moments when she can sit down to mourn Han, and her son, and an entire life that she never got to have. And when she gets that moment, it’s in front of a window with hyperspace whipping by in the background. Leia’s whole life is spent either in battle or on a mission, or on her way to the next battle or mission.
What impressed me most about Leia’s story in TLJ is that the film actually didn’t shy away from the ramifications for her of Kylo Ren’s fall to the Dark Side. He has a moment early in the film when he could blast her away with one shot from his fighter, but he doesn’t; later on, however, he knows that she must certainly be among the Resistance fighters left alive in the fortress on Crait, and he gives the order for his forces to storm the fortress and leave no survivors. He knows he is ordering his mother’s death in that moment. He has to know it.
Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker arrives and talks to Leia before going out to face the First Order. He tells her that he is going to face Ben Solo, but that he can’t save Ben Solo. Leia nods, sadly, and admits that her son is gone. I honestly did not think that the writers were going to have the courage to confront this moment, and maybe if JJ Abrams had written this movie, he wouldn’t have been. Rian Johnson, however, does. He also does it in such a way as to acknowledge the Star Wars trope that when one turns to the Dark Side, one effectively destroys their former self. Kudos to Johnson for following that story thread to its logical conclusion.
The film hints again at Leia’s Force-sensitivity, which has never apparently never been developed with any real official “training”. Should Leia have become a Jedi? I don’t recall if the original “Expanded Universe” stories ever went that way, but in these films with their new canon, it’s clear that she has not. She can use the Force, though: she Force-communicates with Luke a few times over the course of the Saga, and in TLJ she calls upon the Force to get herself back to the ship after being blasted out of it and into bare space. (The visual here–Leia flying through space in a pose that looks very reminiscent of Mary Poppins–has been much derided, but it didn’t bother me and anyway I wonder if it wasn’t a visual tipping-of-the-hat to my other favorite space opera film of last year, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.)
In his exchange with Yoda on Ahch-To, Luke is taken to task for not having passed on what he learned. I wonder if Yoda is upbraiding Luke for not teaching Leia about the Force. Maybe all along it should have been Luke and Leia, working together.
But we don’t know that it wasn’t, either.
From everything I’ve read, Episode IX was to have featured Leia most strongly of all. Apparently this trilogy was to conclude with the final act in Leia Organa’s story. That can’t happen now, but the final Leia story that we actually got is a pretty good one, even if it ends on a sadder note than I would ever have hoped for the heroes I was watching onscreen when I was twelve.
The film does miss an opportunity in Leia’s last scene, though. Maybe Rian Johnson thought of it but it was too late to have Carrie Fisher re-record the dialogue, but at the film’s end, when all that’s left of the Resistance is now the Rebellion and it consists of about a dozen people on the Millennium Falcon, Leia sits down next to Rey, who is holding the broken halves of Luke’s lightsaber.
REY: How do we build a Rebellion from this?
LEIA: We have everything we need.
Surely, after Rogue One this exchange should have gone like this:
REY: How do we build a Rebellion from this?
LEIA: Rebellions are built on hope.
But think about that: when we first met Leia Organa, she was searching for Obi Wan Kenobi, saying “You’re my only hope.” Now, when we see her last, Leia is that new hope.