Ending Star Wars: Episode IX and Michael Arndt’s “Philosophical Stakes”
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
A long time ago, in pandemic-free world far, far away…
In December 2019, the Star Wars sequel trilogy came to a close with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Critical reaction was far from glowing, and fans weren’t too hot on it either. Rather than concluding on a note of triumph like Return of the Jedi, or of hope, as in Revenge of the Sith, the ‘Skywalker saga’ ends with kind of a sour taste.
In putting my finger on why it was such an unsatisfying finale, an idea I found helpful is what Michael Arndt calls “philosophical stakes”. Arndt is the Oscar-winning writer of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, and he was the first writer on The Force Awakens before he was replaced with JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, partly out of time pressure (which has been a defining theme of the sequel trilogy).
In a video called “Endings: The Good, the Bad and the Insanely Great”, Michael Arndt talks about three kinds of stakes in a story: external, internal and philosophical. At the heart of the film should be a clash of competing values: an underdog value embodied by the protagonist and its opposing value by the antagonist. This is especially true for a story like Star Wars that aspires to a mythic quality. The elation and catharsis of the ending comes from that philosophical conflict playing out until the very last moment — and feeling like a lost cause — only for the hero’s faith in their convictions to ultimately win out against devilish odds.
I use Arndt’s ideas to suggest what the philosophical stakes of the Star Wars saga as a whole might be. In a nutshell it’s the conflict that Luke and Anakin grappled with: how do you find strength without turning to the dark side? How do you resist its temptation when you fear losing the people you love? If the unfeeling ways of the Jedi always result in someone going astray, what’s the right way to use the Force? The Rise of Skywalker fails because it doesn’t grapple with these questions, much less build on them and synthesize nine movies into a satisfying answer.
“I wonder if he really cares about anything… or anybody…” “I care!”
What are philosophical stakes? Handily for our purposes, Arndt uses A New Hope as an example. There, the external stakes at the end of the film are: will the rebels destroy the Death Star or suffer obliteration and complete domination by the Empire? The internal stakes for Luke are: does he have a greater destiny than life on Tatooine or should he just be like his uncle? And the philosophical stakes are whether we are connected to each other and choose to live with altruism and community, rather than give into fear as the Empire would have us do. It’s the difference between Luke getting in that X-Wing with the rebels and Han leaving with his debt money.
The protagonist’s values are necessarily underdog ones (otherwise there isn’t much conflict). In the end, it must feel like those values have failed, only for the protagonist to still act by them (in an act of true conviction and faith) and ultimately win out. In A New Hope, it’s the Death Star run. Luke chooses to have faith and use the Force at the most desperate moment where it feels like a lost cause. Even then, Vader destroys R2 and is about to destroy Luke. It’s over. Until, at that last moment Han comes back and embodies the same values as Luke does. They win together: rebels triumph (external stakes); Luke self-actualizes as a would-be Jedi (internal stakes); and selflessness and community win against fear (philosophical stakes). It’s exhilarating.
Return of the Jedi is satisfying for the same reason. The external stakes are: will the rebels defeat the Empire or be obliterated; internal: is Luke right that there’s still good in his father and that he can turn him back; philosophical: can Luke resist using the dark side to overpower the Emperor, or is the Jedi way a recipe for martyrdom? Luke lashes out at Vader at the mention of his sister — he succumbs to darkness for a moment and pummels his father. At this precipice he sees what he could become. And he rejects it, throwing down his lightsaber. “I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, your Highness. I’m a Jedi. Like my father before me” — even though it swiftly becomes clear that this is a death sentence (until the prequels established that you can block Force lightning with a saber). But then, Luke’s faith in his father, choosing love over hate, is vindicated as Vader destroys Palpatine.
What about the prequels? In Revenge of the Sith, the stakes are: will Anakin give in to fear and possessiveness, or will he be dispassionate and unfeeling like the Jedi expect? The Sith code says “through passion I gain strength”. The Jedi code says “there is no emotion, there is only peace.” Put another way: can you save the one you love without drawing on the dark side?
That is in essence the same as the conflict that Luke grappled with in Empire and Jedi. Does he give in to his fear that Han and Leia will die, or does he take that risk and “honor what they fight for” by completing his training? “Only your hatred can destroy me,” Vader says on Bespin. Aboard Death Star II, the Emperor and Vader try to goad Luke into fighting back: “your hate has made you powerful” … “strike me down with all your hatred” … “give yourself to the dark side…it is the only way you can save your friends.”
The third part of both trilogies seems to boil down to: does the protagonist give in to fear of loss and turn to the dark side, or do they resist it even if it means losing everyone? Anakin falls. Luke comes close. An antagonist’s role is to create impossible hurdles for the protagonist that force them to make the choices that define them. Darth Sidious puts the Skywalkers in a trap: only by turning to the dark side can they be powerful enough to destroy him and save their loved ones — but in the process he wins; they become the Sith.
Hold up. Is all of this just needless overthinking? I don’t think so. Star Wars is a fun, action-packed space opera but it’s also a modern day myth. I’d argue that what makes it endure is that it taps into something deep in our psyches.
“A good question…for another time”
With the completion of its sequel trilogy, Disney calls the nine films the “Skywalker Saga”. It’s a “trilogy of trilogies”. One way to look at this is: thesis (4–6), antithesis (1–3), synthesis (7–9). In other words, a sequel trilogy ought to build on what went before, explore new dimensions of Star Wars, and culminate in a conflict that gets at the very heart of what the saga is about.
I don’t get the impression that the sequels were approached with this in mind. Look at The Force Awakens. Preoccupied with battling the straw man of the prequels, its goal was to replicate the sense of fun from the original 1977 film in a fresh and contemporary way. It did that very well, and it introduced some promising new characters. But that’s about all it did. In terms of big picture conflict, we were plunged into a galaxy that looks essentially the same as it did in A New Hope: big evil empire vs underdog rebels, a Jedi student who has turned to evil and killed everyone else and whose master is now in exile. Every accomplishment in the original trilogy was undone. The biggest question for me in The Force Awakens was: why are things like this? What happened in those thirty years? How did our heroes seemingly screw up in the same way as the previous generation? The film doesn’t seem to regard these as questions worth caring about, much less try to answer them.
The Last Jedi tries to offer some answers. It gives us a plausible reason for why Luke would run away: he created Kylo Ren. It’s very controversial — but I would say, if you have depression and complex PTSD like he must have done, and you’re left to figure out alone what generations before you couldn’t, you might freak out too. So Luke concludes that the Jedi need to end, because the old ways keep leading to the same problems. Ben Solo turned to the dark side because he felt weak — just like his grandfather. Rey tries the same tactics that Luke did with Darth Vader, but they backfire. As Luke warns, “this is not going to go the way you think.” Kylo Ren becomes a fully self-actualized Dark Lord of the Sith. At the end of the movie, Rey asks “how do we build a rebellion from this?” Because that’s what it’s about: building something. There’ll always be Kylo Rens until you find a new way for the Jedi to both use the Force and be human (or alien). Ben Solo represents the idea that without the dark side you will be weak and vulnerable. How will Rey, a resilient young woman with abandonment issues and no heritage to lean on, find a way to turn the light into strength and build something that will endure?
The Rise of Skywalker isn’t interested in any of this. Instead, according to co-writer Chris Terrio, it is driven by two questions. First, “who is Rey?” The fact that Abrams reportedly couldn’t decide on Rey’s parentage until the last minute (Palpatine or Obi-Wan) shows how empty a question it really is. Second, “how strong is the Force?” What does that even mean? How long is a piece of string? How chocolatey is a cacao bean? To me, these aren’t compelling questions for the final chapter of the Star Wars saga.
But anyway, what’s at stake in TROS? “Somehow” Palpatine is back. The external stakes are, I believe, stopping him from blowing up a bunch of planets for revenge. Rey’s internal stakes are: who is she, where does she belong, and does her newfound dark heritage mean she has to be dark? And the philosophical stakes? I’d venture to say it doesn’t have any.
And the answers to Terrio’s two questions? 1) Who is Rey? She’s a Palpatine but, unsurprisingly chooses to be a Skywalker. Other than briefly wanting to avenge her parents, the grandfather reveal never creates plausible temptation for Rey or any real risk that she’ll embrace darkness. 2) How strong is the Force? Really effing strong when you are suddenly “all the Jedi” (turns out all you had to do was chant “be with me”) and you have two lightsabers. But all of this is superficial, rather than tapping into what animates Star Wars at the deepest levels. And that’s why it feels so empty.
The conflict for the protagonists of Star Wars has always been about the pull between light and dark, Jedi and Sith. The Skywalker boys were emotionally unstable young men who tried to adhere to the monk-like emotional denial and discipline of the prequel-era Jedi, but found their personal attachment getting in the way. The Jedi ways made them feel too weak to save the people they love, and that’s why the dark side was so tempting.
Antagonists are meant to push heroes’ buttons and create impossible hurdles for them. In ROTS and ROTJ, Darth Sidious essentially creates a trap for the Jedi. The Dark Lord of the Sith is so powerful that only by using their anger and hatred can they destroy him and save everyone. The way he obliterates the four Jedi who come to arrest him, besting even Mace Windu, shows how he cannot be beaten except with the dark side. Of course the trap is that once you fall prey to that, you become his slave (years later, Kylo Ren surpasses that, fulfiling the Sith Code: “through victory, my chains are broken”).
In TROS, Palpatine tells Rey that in order to save her friends, she has to kill him and then his spirit will possess her. Rather than heightening the conflict, it feels like a convoluted plot device thrown atop the ROTJ version of this beat, where Palpatine goaded Luke into using his anger. A lot of people ask why Rey wasn’t ultimately possessed when she killed Palpatine at the end. The answers are technicalities: she reflected his hate back at him, or she didn’t do it out of hate, or the Force dyad brought him back to life so it didn’t matter. For this to be the crux of the climactic moment of Star Wars feels insulting. Rey ought to have won the star war by accomplishing something more profound and hard-earned than holding two lightsabers up against Force lightning. She needed to be forced to make a difficult, character-defining choice that felt like the culmination of everything the heroes had learned. Luke’s choice to throw down his weapon in ROTJ was just that. The deus ex machina of “I am all the Jedi” is not.
“Let me learn you something big”
The prequels introduced the concept of “balance of the Force”. They don’t define it, but here’s what George Lucas meant by it:
“You’ve got the dark side and the light side — one is selfless, one is selfish — and you wanna keep them in balance. What happens when you go to the dark side is it goes out of balance and you get really selfish and you forget about everybody.”
It’s not about equal numbers of Jedi and Sith, or a “grey Jedi” who uses both light and dark powers (as in Knights of the Old Republic). Lucas explains further:
“If good and evil are mixed things become blurred — there is nothing between good and evil, everything is gray… “As evil begins to take over, it pushes the Force out of balance.”
Similarly Dave Filoni, showrunner of The Clone Wars and Rebels and essentially Lucas’s padawan, explains:
The Force naturally exists in balance; that balance is thrown out when someone chooses to give in to their fears and then spirals out of control making selfish choice after selfish choice.
The Sith twist the Force for their own personal whims, throwing it out of balance. The Jedi see themselves as custodians of the Force, listening to its will, but as Luke tells us, “that Force does not belong to the Jedi”. When they became the army of the Republic, they picked a side that wasn’t the Force itself. The dark side clouded their vision. Anakin achieved balance by destroying the Sith — but perhaps also by destroying the Jedi as they were.
The Republic-era Jedi ways seem to draw on stoic philosophy. The word “stoic” conjures up someone cold and unfeeling. But that’s somewhat of a misconception. Jonas Salzeberger explains in The Little Book of Stoicism:
The goal isn’t to eliminate all emotions [but] to not get overwhelmed by them despite their immense power… The Stoics weren’t unemotional people with hearts of stone. They acknowledged that desires and emotions are part of nature, but we have it within our power to rise above them and not get (too) disturbed by them… The Stoics do care for their loved ones and fellow citizens; they just tame their emotions so they won’t get irrationally overwhelmed by them … The Stoics want us to conquer our passions by becoming stronger than them and not by eliminating them.
You can see Luke and Yoda’s debate on Dagobah in here. In a deleted scene from The Last Jedi, Luke claims the old Jedi would just leave a village to be massacred by marauders, partly as he thinks fighting off the marauders will just bring more. “Act only when you can maintain balance”, the old Jedi would say (which is why he thinks the Jedi ways need to end). In both these scenes, the Jedi masters are preaching some level of surrender to the will of the Force. Life and death are natural and Jedi can’t save everyone. It doesn’t mean you don’t try — compassion is central to the Jedi. But it’s not about you. When you make it about you and you try to control the Force, you spiral to dark. If you take yourself out of the equation — if you strive to be selfless — that’s how you can make peace with the world.
Still, we’re human, we have attachments, and we fear loss. We understand and relate to Anakin’s frailty and Luke’s protectiveness of his friends. The old Jedi way asks them to pretend away their pain, and they can’t — so they’re left to deal with it on their own. And if you deny your pain, it comes out in other, unhealthy ways (your “shadow”). How do we become stronger than our shadow? What does a light side version of strength look like?
The switch in time that didn’t save IX
There’s a version of Episode IX that did grapple with all of this: Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly’s abandoned draft Duel of the Fates from December 2016 (turned in only a few days before Carrie Fisher’s tragic passing). This script isn’t perfect, being an early draft, but it had a lot going for it, and it certainly shows more than a superficial understanding of Star Wars.
This script builds to an epic final battle on Coruscant between a First Order that’s cemented its oppressive grip on the galaxy, and a Resistance that’s galvanized the people of the universe after Luke’s last stand on Crait. Finn’s story pays off with a stormtrooper rebellion, and Rey has grown into a confident Jedi who draws cheers from among the oppressed. She’s also dealing with the same thing that Anakin did — personal attachment. Here it’s a budding romance with Poe (which I bumped on a little at first but it won me over). Rey holds back because of “Jedi rules”.
Supreme Leader Kylo Ren finds a power to drain life with the Force. “To take life is to cheat death”, he’s told, in a reference to Revenge of the Sith. Rey follows him to the planet Mortis (introduced in The Clone Wars series, it embodies the light and dark). Faced with confronting Kylo, Rey questions Luke: “Dark suffocates the light. Light extinguishes the dark. Over and over. How is that balance?”
When Rey confronts Kylo, she learns that he killed her parents. She unleashes her anger and they fight furiously. She breaks his mask. And he slashes her face, blinding her. She’s given the strength to get up, not by the voices of dead Jedi but those of her family around the galaxy — Leia, Finn, Poe and Rose. As she faces Kylo, she says “Our Masters were wrong. I will not deny my anger. And I will not reject my love. I am the darkness. And I am the light.” She bests him, breaking his lightsaber and behanding him. “Kylo is stunned by the powerful being before him. She’s almost glowing. Unfathomable LIVING FORCE within.” He drains the life from her. When she’s almost gone, she still reaches out with her hand. And Leia calls to her son. Finally, “Kylo feels the very thing that destroyed Anakin. But it doesn’t make him feel weak.” Love. He gives his life force to Rey, and dies as Ben Solo. Rey herself collapses and visits an astral plane where she’s greeted by Obi-Wan, Yoda and Luke. Yoda says Rey has succeeded where they failed:
YODA: Narrow was our point of view. LUKE: You chose to embrace the Dark Side and the Light. To find balance within. YODA: Co-exist, they must, as such feelings do in all of us.
Duel of the Fates explicitly makes itself about balance of the Force. It makes Rey and Ben find new answers to the questions that Skywalkers and Jedi have struggled with for generations. Kylo thinks he’s found the ultimate fix for his feeling of weakness. Ultimately he sees that selfless love is strength, and that’s what Anakin didn’t understand. Against the threat of Kylo, Rey draws on her anger and it helps her survive and fight to a point, but then love is what makes her win. The love of a ramshackle family she finally found (getting over her abandonment issues), which she then embodies in giving her hand to Ben even in death. Ben saw love as weakness. Rey (who’s never had it) shows him it is strength. TROS kept this to an extent, via Rey offering her life force to heal Ben, and his returning the gesture. Don’t get me started on Force heal.
But DOTF’s solution has its issues too. The film answers the balance question with a “Grey Jedi” solution — “balance within”, as Luke calls it. Rey draws on both dark and light. It’s an intuitively appealing idea. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, right? But it undermines the obstacles that Luke and Anakin faced. If you can in fact dabble with the dark side without being totally consumed by it, how come didn’t Luke figure that out? How did a thousand generations of Jedi never think of this, but Rey figures it out on her own like it’s the most obvious thing in the world? Sure, the prequel Jedi were dogmatic and narrow-minded, but they developed their rules precisely because it’s not as easy as this. And what does it mean in practice? The script needed to make Rey work harder to figure her new truth out, and make her discovery more sophisticated or innovative, for it not to feel like every Jedi who preceded her was just a bit dim.
But this script was gunning for the right things, and it manages not to be hamstrung by the choice to have the sequel trilogy repeat essentially the same conflict as the originals. It was an early draft, and with some refining, I think it would have made for a satisfying finale. Rey is the ideal person to show selflessness as strength. She has serious abandonment issues. Her biggest fear is that she’ll be forgotten about and cease to exist. Isolating her from the resistance, having Kylo perhaps drain the life from them on Coruscant, and making her willing to sacrifice herself for the galaxy, would be an immensely powerful act on her part.
The Rise of Skywalker was made in difficult circumstances — none more so than the devastating loss of Carrie Fisher. For all its flaws, the film pulled off a remarkable feat in how it used Carrie — it made her central to the story, gave her a worthy send-off, and did it all in a way that felt respectful. The love that it shows far surpasses its slightly clunky execution. That’s something valuable in the film. Nonetheless, it’s a damp squib of an ending to the saga. Far from fueling excitement for Star Wars the film seems to have dampened it. Bob Iger has admitted they put out these films too fast. And Kathleen Kennedy recently said that Lucasfilm is taking time to “step back and really absorb what George has created.” It might have been an idea to do that eight years ago.
Star Wars as a coming of age myth deals with questions like: how can you feel strong without being destructive? How do you deal with fear and anger? How do we define ourselves? The sequel trilogy doesn’t really feel like it’s about anything. JJ Abrams says it’s about the “sins of the father.” But wasn’t that already what Luke dealt with in the originals? Repeating the same conflict but just with new faces isn’t compelling on its own. The new heroes needed to be pushed to find answers that eluded everyone else before — and then fight over that in the climax. The lack of any clear philosophical stakes in The Rise of Skywalker is a big part of why it feels inert as a finale. As my in-laws would say when ordering dinner, the stakes should have been well done.
Sanj Krishnan is a screenwriter with a huge love of Star Wars.