(*** major spoilers for The Last Jedi are ahead ***)
The Force Awakens introduced us to many new heroes, but at the forefront was Daisy Ridley’s Rey, a lonely scavenger from Jakku who almost by accident got caught up in the wider galactic conflict, and by the end of the film she was wielding the Skywalker lightsaber in combat against Kylo Ren… and winning!
One of the most important things to Rey’s story was the mystery of her parents. She was waiting on Jakku for them to come back for her, but Maz Kanata tells her that the person(s) she’s waiting for aren’t coming back. Rey sees Han Solo as a father-figure, but watches him murdered by his actual child.
By the end of the film, Rey has found another: Luke Skywalker, the legendary Jedi Master. Rey is still searching for her place in this, and tells Luke as much in The Last Jedi. But the mystery of her parents still haunts her, and this becomes a key part of her storyline in the film (just like it was in The Force Awakens).
There were hints in The Force Awakens that she might be the daughter of Han Solo, while other hints perhaps pointed to her being the daughter of Luke Skywalker. Fans developed other theories, too, such as Rey being the descendant of Obi-Wan Kenobi or Emperor Palpatine. It prompted tons of debate amongst fans about who Rey’s parents were, spanning the two year gap in-between films.
The Last Jedi answered the question of Rey’s parents, and did so in an incredibly meaningful way. Spoilers are obviously ahead, so don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the movie yet.
Early in the film, Luke seeks to find out who this girl is, and when she replies that she’s from nowhere Luke says, “no one’s from nowhere.” In a humorous moment, Rey replies that she’s from Jakku, prompting Luke to say, “alright, that is pretty much nowhere.” This girl is from nowhere. Later on, Rey has a conversation with Kylo Ren in which she asks, with tears in her eyes, how he could kill his father who loved him. He tells her that her greatest weakness is that she can’t get past the question of her parents, instead turning to Han Solo and then to Luke Skywalker to fill that role. This eventually leads Rey to journey to a cave beneath the island strong with the dark side, because it offers her something she wants: the truth about her parents. In the sequence with multiple Reys, she asks to see her parents… and all she sees is her own reflection. She soon after touches hands with Kylo, and he later tells her that he saw the truth of who her parents are. All of this eventually leads to a dramatic scene between the two in Snoke’s throne room, when Kylo offers her the chance to join him. She declines, and Kylo yells that she can’t let go of her past. “Do you want to know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known?” Kylo asks her, and with tears in her eyes Rey admits that they were nobody. “They were filthy junk traders. Sold you off for drinking money,” he tells her. “They’re dead in a pauper’s grave in the Jakku desert. You come from nothing. You’re nothing. But not to me.”
Of course, for people who spent two years debating who Rey’s parents are and who convinced themselves that her parents must be a huge reveal that will be significant to the audience, this reveal feels cheap. But in reality it was in keeping with the mindset Rian Johnson had for this movie: he wasn’t interested in giving fans the fan-service they think they wanted (though there were some touching moments long-time fans will love); he was interested in telling a story. Rey’s parents aren’t significant to the audience, they’re significant to the character.
Rey spends the better part of two movies searching for the truth about her parents, but it seems she was just suppressing the truth inside her. She desperately wanted to believe that she matters, that her parents didn’t just abandon her, that they’re going to return for her. She can’t bring herself to believe that they’re nobodies who sold her for drinking money. That leads to her having her own Dagobah cave-like moment, journeying to the dark side of the island. She wants to see her parents, but sees herself instead. The message? Perhaps it’s that she needs to look to herself for her identity, not her parents. In many ways, Kylo serves as Rey’s teacher as much as Luke does in this film, urging Rey to let the past die. In order for her to reach her potential, she has to be able to move on from her obsession and over-reliance on her parents.
Rian Johnson’s approach with The Last Jedi was to start with the question of what would be the most challenging thing for each character. He recently explained to Entertainment Weekly how the most challenging thing for Rey to hear would be the opposite of an “I am your father” moment – it would be that she’s nobody.
“In our movie, it’s kind of the opposite,” Johnsons said. “The easiest thing for Rey and the audience to hear is, Oh yeah, you’re so-and-so’s daughter. That would be wish fulfillment and instantly hand her a place in this story on a silver platter.”
“The hardest thing for her is to hear she’s not going to get that easy answer. Not only that, but Kylo is going to use the fact that you don’t get that answer to try and weaken you so you have to lean on him,” Johnson says. “You’re going to have to find the strength to stand on your own two feet and define yourself in this story.”
I think Rian is absoltuely right: this is the best decision for Rey’s character. The audience might have thought they wanted a bigger reveal, but the reality is that all of the popular theories would carry with it other questions (which, of course, if any weren’t answered, would have generated more criticism for ‘plot holes’). Fans would rather be the omniscient observer when they watch a movie, but instead we find out the truth about Rey’s parents right when the character herself comes to accept it – just like we did when Luke Skywalker learned the truth about his father in The Empire Strikes Back.
As Johnson said, it would have been easier for Rey to hear another answer. If she were a Skywalker – either Luke’s daughter or the lost second child of Han and Leia – then she would have that “mighty Skywalker blood” and would be included in the galaxy’s most prominent family. But if she’s not a Skywalker, then why should she even matter?
That’s the beauty of the reveal: Rey is significant not because of who her parents are but rather because she picked up the lightsaber and thrust herself into the story, seizing the opportunity given to her and joining the fight. For seven films, the Star Wars saga has been all about the Skywalkers; the eighth one changed that. Now, Luke is gone, and Leia will be too because of the death of Carrie Fisher. Ben Solo is all that remains of the Skywalker line, and he wants to burn it all down anyway. The Last Jedi in many ways reclaimed the force, moving it from being a Skywalker heirloom to being something that flows through all living things. The force is available to all: to the mighty Luke Skywalker to a nobody scavenger from Jakku to a stable boy on Cantonica. That’s not the message Rey wanted to hear: she wanted the truth of her parents to validate the feelings she’s been having and her place in the fight. But the message that Rey needed to hear is that her identity is not consumed by who her parents are, and she has a place in the story because she responded to the call and picked up the lightsaber.
As Kylo told Rey, “let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become who you were meant to be.” Only when she comes to grips with the truth she seems to always have known about her parents can she then move forward and reach her potential in the force – not because she’s a mighty Skywalker, but because the force isn’t just for Skywalkers.