Star Wars: Who is Rey (And Why Do We Care)?
Let’s wildly speculate.
Rey, (arguably) the main character of the new Star Wars trilogy, was introduced with a conspicuous mystery in tow: Who is she? Where does she come from? Who are her parents?
Of course, dubbing this mystery as ‘conspicuous’ is part of a larger trend (or problem, depending on your level of cynicism) currently dominating pop culture, and Star Wars in particular. This article will be twofold. First, let’s address the movie’s main mystery: who are Rey’s parents? Perhaps a trite discussion, but fun to engage in nonetheless. Then the more important aspect: Why do we care?
Part I: Who is Rey?
The Force Awakens revealed the following: Rey has lived alone on Jakku ever since her parents/guardians abandoned her when she was very little, already sporting her signature triple-bun. She survives as a scavenger, taking parts from old imperial ships and selling them in attempts to earn a meager living. Then, of course, we discover that she is highly force-sensitive (to an almost–and perhaps intentionally–ridiculous degree) and with some initial reluctance, she instinctually starts the path to becoming a Jedi, or otherwise.
Let’s start with the most likely theory: her father is Luke, which explains her force-sensitivity and not much else. The implications of Luke having a child are his complete foregoing of the Jedi code, which requires celibacy, among other things. This retcon would largely destroy Luke’s thematic resolution, perhaps the best part of Return of the Jedi. In it, Luke stood in solidarity against an oppressive evil; he adopted a green lightsaber to reflect an introspective fight against the dark side, rather than an exclusively aggressive ‘blue’ one. His entire arc was based in his journey to becoming a Jedi, with all that the status entails, rather than just a powerful force-user like his morally ambiguous father. He needed to learn the duty that Yoda taught, and abandon rebellions against good forces–Jedi and otherwise–as that was how his father fell into the ways of the Sith.
That was old Star Wars: black and white, Jedi and Sith. Luke’s world seems a separate entity from that of sympathetic Kylo Ren and loyalty-challenged Finn. An arc of ignoring Jedi traditions might be embraced for say, Ahsoka (of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the prequel series’ spin-off cartoon), whose arc is based in coming to the light side apart from the traditional Jedi path. But for Luke? Having a child renders his character entirely changed. Perhaps the new direction for Luke is a sort of anti-hero, which might explain the uncharacteristic abandonment of Leia’s forces by the same man who once chafed against his duty of staying on Dagobah. Loyalty comes fiercely and naturally to him, yet he still ran away? Is this indicative of a new arc forthcoming? A move like this could retroactively cheapen all the best parts of Return of the Jedi, if handled poorly. The true question here, then, is whether or not the filmmakers are wiling to, and capable of, taking that risk.
The plot-based implications of choosing Luke are almost more significant than the thematic ones. He abandoned his child? Many suggest this was the classic “I can’t be around you because I have to protect you” angle, but the series doesn’t seem the type to attempt something so tired. Luke lived as a recluse but left a map, meaning he had no intention of returning to Rey and reclaiming her. For a largely sympathetic character, a move like this seems nonsensical. Of course, it could be made to work; even a round peg will fit in a square hole if you cut enough off of it. But one cannot help but feel that Luke, the series’ ultimate representation of ‘good,’ deserves better. And Rey does too.
A significantly less ‘damaging’ possibility is that she is the daughter of Leia and Han Solo. This makes a bit less sense in the plot, because Han has little to no reaction to the mention of Jakku, and the unequal treatment of the couple’s two children would be illogical. Perhaps the figures Rey reaches for in her flashback are not her parents but her kidnappers, and her belief that her parents are ‘coming back for her’ lies in a potential discovery, rather than in a temporary abandonment. Having these parents would explain Rey’s strangely emotional hug shared with Leia near the film’s end, despite the two hardly knowing one another. In the aftermath of Carrie Fisher’s death, however, one ponders on the likely-planned catharsis Rey was intended to experience upon discovering this origin. Now, the light-hearted Star Wars franchise will have to deal with an orphan’s depressing realization that—she’s still, in fact, an orphan. It could play well, an homage to Fisher and Ford alike as she reminisces with Luke about the lost parents that she hardly knew. But it would take her character nowhere, leaving the mystery stagnant as it is solved. This sort of reveal could be an interesting reflection of the disappointments of real life, but one can’t really see that happening in such a traditional narrative steeped in Campbell-isms. Therefore, real world occurrences make this particular set of parents increasingly unlikely.
A stranger one, Obi-wan Kenobi. Though the official timeline is confused and untrustworthy, it’s doubtful that Rey is descended from Obi-Wan given that he’s long dead around the general time of her birth. This, however, could be a plot point. Was Rey in stasis for the events of A New Hope onwards? It’s unclear whether the notoriously soft science fiction that Star Wars champions (‘the Force’ being some of the softest sci-fi of all time) would gel with a ‘harder’ sci-fi concept like stasis (though one can imagine a magnificent montage accompanying this sort of reveal). Additionally, choosing Obi-Wan as Rey’s father would hold the same thematic problems as choosing Luke. He too, was a committed Jedi whose only near-straying from Jedi celibacy came with the Mandalorian duchess Satine (In The Clone Wars cartoon).
However, Obi-wan’s arc is somewhat ‘lesser’ (with regards to both in-story emphasis and actual degree of change) than Luke’s. Breaking his vow could either denigrate or enhance his entire character: he saw his best friend Anakin get destroyed by straying from the path of the Jedi, so there could be myriad emotional complications as he struggles against loving another, having seen what horrors such emotions can produce. That itself seems worthy of its own film—but perhaps without one, it would seem random and unearned. The emotional difficulties would, of course, be further complicated by the necessary stasis (or naturally/artificially slowed aging?) plot line, which could either play to the narrative’s advantage or detriment, depending on the writer-director team that would take such a story on. The emotional and thematic complexity this decision could introduce makes it infinitely compelling. Perhaps “the last Jedi” refers to Luke, and Rey instead strays from the traditional path of a Jedi like her father before her. That arc sounds preferable to a million Force Awakenses.
There is, of course, the sub-theory that Rey is descended from Obi-wan, rather than directly being his daughter. This theory has the same plot-based problems, just without a need for the stasis/slowed-aging plot line. What did this force-sensitive Baby-wan do during the rise of the First Order? Do midichlorians skip a generation? Thematically, there can only be the hope that this yet-undetermined child contributes to Rey’s personal emotional journey.
In actuality, one could pin Rey on literally anyone if one factors in adoption; however, an adoption-based theory doesn’t account for her strength with the Force, which Lucas’ midicholrians retconned into being genetic rather than random. [It’s less so Spiderman, and more so The Amazing Spiderman 2: a wearied ‘chosen one’ narrative that sucks out all the wonder of “I could be Jedi/Spiderman too!” once a child glances over at their average nine-to-five parents.]
If one considers the extended universe, there are hundreds of compelling options, each less likely than the next. It would be very interesting to incorporate Star Wars Rebels, The Clone Wars, or the franchise’s countless novels/comic books/video games/etc., but a general audience member is expecting a reveal they’ll ‘get.’ Apologies Ezra, but you don’t fit the bill. We’ll see where Rebels leads us, but it’s highly doubtful that the end product is Rey.
A particularly interesting plot-based theory: Rey is a clone, and/or some genetically-modified human. This is why she can use the Force so quickly with no training: she had the instincts implanted into her. It could also alternatively be a Palphatine-is-Anakin’s-“father” type storyline (With Snoke? Anything’s possible). Somehow, Rey’s abnormal strength with the force is artificial. Maybe the ‘family’ that’s coming back for her is actually a group of people who freed her from her creators, and they had to leave her behind to throw off the scent (one of the few ‘leaving behind to protect’ theories that makes logical sense) but died or got captured before they could return.
This theory is made more compelling by the fact that it isn’t reliant on any pre-existing characters to strengthen it, which also makes it less likely. The Force Awakens was widely criticized for being A New Hope’s near-direct analogue, so getting away from Empire’s reveal as much as possible would benefit the series enormously. After all, practically the entire audience is expecting her reveal to tie in with pre-existing characters and plots; what would be more surprising than subverting those expectations that Star Wars has cultivated in us? Again, themes and emotions could also tie in with a synthetic Rey: How will she accept her gifts if they aren’t truly hers by fate? Does origin matter more than the existence of things in the present? What does it mean to come into existence without a true origin (what do these mean with regards to meta-commentary)?
Star Wars meta-commentary is always a good time.
This of course leads us to Part II.
Part II: Why do we care?
Rey, as a character, thus far, is largely a thematic blank slate. We know her character decently enough, but almost exclusively with regards to traits. The closest thing to the beginning of an arc thus far is:
A) Her path to becoming a Jedi/other
[As much as the Internet touts the existence of grey force-users, it’s likely that Rey is traveling towards becoming a Jedi because The Force Awakens set up no significant romantic involvement for her (Finn seems to hold a platonic position) and she was established to have a strong sense of duty when she questioned Finn’s eager abandonment. A journey away from duty would be interesting, as it would hold internal dissent towards her family that abandoned her whom she feels duty-bound to wait for; however, typically only traditionally juvenile themes are used in what is partially children’s entertainment, and one can’t really see Lucas Film encouraging young Star Wars fans to abandon their duties or parentally-determined paths.]
B) Her emotional change/acceptance with regards to her abandonment, or
C) Her movement towards vulnerability and openness, as seen in her relationship with Finn. – Less obvious than the first two, but still certainly there. She begins this journey by opening up to Finn and BB-8 as friends, despite her fiercely independent lifestyle on Jakku. This arc could work well with her joining the Resistance, as she could learn to work as a part of a single organism rather than using her extensive gifts all alone. It could also factor into her training with Luke, as an effective training narrative requires something internal holding the trainee back.
All three of these arcs could be strengthened by Rey’s origins and her reaction to them (let it be noted that characters can have multiple arcs). While A and C seem to lean towards broad and bold thematic statements that could apply to both Rey and an average viewer, B–the most likely candidate to be affected by her mystery–only speaks to her particular character’s reality. We always ask too much of Star Wars, but we will still ask this: please make a statement with the main character’s arc. Allow it to speak to us as human beings.
Everyone seems so fixated on the actual plot nowadays (or perhaps, always) that they neglect the greater truths of each story, every story. And this attitude has amassed itself in no greater form than in the search for Rey’s parents.
Parentage has always been integral to Star Wars, though it was infinitely less conspicuous in A New Hope. Obi-wan tells Luke that his father was a brave Jedi Knight in the Clone Wars, and that they were good friends. This fuels Luke’s identity narrative and character motivation: in a very small way, his journey to becoming a Jedi is based in admiration for the heroic father he never had. It further informs his struggle against the Dark Side when Luke believes that Darth Vader killed his father, as it offers him confirmation bias on his status in the world: his people are good, their people are bad. This is the strength of Empire’s reveal: the subtle simplicity with which Luke regarded the world was entirely shattered by the reveal that he himself was susceptible to darkness. Therefore, his parentage has internal significance, and the cautious way he operates his new hand whilst staring into the void of space speaks volumes with regards to his rebirth as a character. It is a new world, and it is a newly conflicted Luke, a classic coming of age. His lineage matters a great deal to his character, while Han’s, for example, isn’t even mentioned. Yet this still set a Star Wars precedent, and now Rey’s parentage is a patented topic of pop-cultural conversation.
Admittedly, that this trend is far from unique to Star Wars. Lineage has been held as meaningful throughout human society, and may even be inherent in our nature. But while many other pieces of culture are as steeped in parentage as Star Wars, few are as relentless in their mysteries. Others exist without lineage-based elements entirely. The question here is why Star Wars in particular seems to be so strongly wedded to the concept. Without the question of origins, would the franchise still be as compelling? Does the element of parentage make for a strong narrative, or does it reduce the characters in question to nothing more than someone’s child? Will the reveal of Rey’s parents hold any significance that isn’t based in plot? Will it contribute to her character arc, or just serve as a little ‘got-cha’ moment?
In 2007, JJ Abrams gave a TED Talk fresh off the success of Lost. In it he details his ‘mystery box’ approach to writing, which is integral in understanding the greater character of all of his works. It’s required viewing for all who wish to properly analyze his works. In it, he states the following:
Mystery is the catalyst for imagination…maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge…then there’s the thing of mystery in terms of imagination, [withholding information] intentionally is much more engaging….you love it because you don’t [know the truth].
Essentially, he suggests that withholding information makes something, the “mystery box” more interesting to the audience. Characters can become boxes, vessels for mystery. The main storytelling problem arises when the conclusion to the mystery is underwhelming, and the audience loses interest. Alternatively, the mystery is the only thing interesting, and without it, the audience is left with an ordinary cardboard box.
The strange thing is that, if The Force Awakens existed in a void, Rey’s origins would be a non-issue. Few are questioning Finn’s origins, despite them being hinted at the same amount. The audience knows that he was taken from his parents as a young age, which seems to make them conspicuous objects in the story, yet nearly no one discusses it outside of the obvious: “he’s black, he must be related to one of the two black characters in the story.” No, Rey is the one fixated upon (perhaps for racial reasons, perhaps because she’s more force sensitive than him), not because of the emotional realities she faces from her abandonment, but because it’s a little mystery for us all to solve. Almost bait for the fan community to advertise the film series on behalf of its creators.
Is Rey’s mystery just the legacy of The Empire Strikes Back at work? Of course Rey’s parents are significant because she is ‘the new Luke’ and Luke’s parents were significant enough to warrant three entire movies and one-point-five spin-off shows. This is the detriment to copying A New Hope; Abrams trapped himself in his own Death-Star-shaped mystery box, and now he has to play to expectations . He can’t get out.
Rey is not allowed to exist in a void within the new worlds that can be created: she lives on new-Tatooine. She’s naturally gifted and naturally good; she’s the female Luke, without his “power converter” whine and without the need to actually develop her skills. Once Rey’s secret is revealed, it will completely make or break her character. Is she an interesting character without a mystery? Is she destined to fascinate us, or will we be let down? Will we be let down solely because of the expectations we’ve built around her?
This is part of a larger trend as of late, the epitome of this trend being ‘spoiler culture.’ Don’t tell me the ending! If I know [WHAT HAPPENS] I won’t care about [HOW IT HAPPENS]. Audiences give aspects of a story a clear pecking order, and plot is always at the top. But film is a multi-faceted experience, and very few stories are ruined when one happens to know part of the plot. For every Shutter Island that actually is strengthened by its reveal, there is a Deadpool (a narrative whose greatest strengths reside outside of the plot, but rather in the dressing). Empire was still an exceptionally strong movie without its famous ending. In fact, without the reveal, it would still objectively be the best of the original trilogy because of its thematic messages and emotional depth. The plot wasn’t all that mattered. Rey’s parents are far from what really matters.
In the words of the brilliant Film Crit Hulk, “By obfuscating clarity in the name of a grandiose puzzle, we can’t help but get in the way of the optimal emotional resonance in our stories.” Focusing on the story, the mystery, does nothing for the greater narrative. And it’s not like The Force Awakens was praised for its beautifully crafted Death Star III storyline and unforgettable Rathtars. Its strength was in its visuals, its action, and above all, its characters. So why do we care so much about a singular plot detail? The optimists say because we care about her character, but the cynics assert that we’re addicted the the mystery and that, without it, we are left with nothing else worthy of excitement.
Of course Rey’s origin and lineage matter (though the two may not be one in the same). But if it’s a one and done surprise that does nothing to inform the character’s emotional realities, why put it in a mystery box in the first place? Perhaps the strength of an Abrams mystery is the opposite of that of a Christie: the strength is in the mystery, rather than in the reveal and its implications. We’ve now wildly speculated. Was that the entire point?
What do you think? Leave a comment.