J.J. Abrams shouldn’t change Rey’s parents, because Rian Johnson’s answer is the best one

Recently there has been a lot of talk about whether J.J. Abrams in Episode IX will have a different answer about Rey’s parentage than Rian Johnson did in The Last Jedi, fueled in part by Johnson saying that he would be ok with whatever direction Abrams takes it.  Recent comments by Abrams suggest that he’s not exactly going to be re-doing what Johnson did, as Abrams explained that he has to continue Johnson’s story, but fans have discussed this topic quite a bit in recent days.

But here’s the thing: The Last Jedi gave us the best possible answer to Rey’s parentage, and it’s the answer that fits most naturally in the story the sequel trilogy is telling.  It’s the best answer possible, and I hope that Abrams keeps it that way.  So there you have it.  That’s my conclusion.  And now I’m going to spend the rest of this article explaining why I firmly believe that.

WHAT WE KNOW:

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Abrams in The Force Awakens sets us up to wonder about who Rey’s parents are, and without a doubt it’s definitely a focal point and a mystery that isn’t just apparent to hardcore Star Wars fans (general fans don’t wonder whether we’ve seen a Bothan or not, but they do wonder about Rey’s parents).  It’s right there, and it’s in the film.

We’re first introduced to Rey on the desert planet Jakku, as a lonely scavenger struggling to survive by herself.  She is thrust into the story when she encounters BB-8, but she explains that her parents are coming back for her.  She even keeps a count of how many days it has been, continually longing for their return.  Even when she departs the planet with Finn and BB-8 (and then later Han Solo and Chewbacca), she wants to go back to Jakku, because that’s where she has to wait for her parents to return.  But at Maz Kanata’s castle, as Rey is drawn to the Skywalker lightsaber in the basement, Rey has a vision, which includes a young girl being held by Unkar Plutt pleading for a ship to “come back!”  Maz arrives and explains, “I see your eyes.  You already know the truth.  Whomever you’re waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back.  But, there’s someone who still could.”  Rey realizes through tears that this is Luke, and Maz adds, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.”

But also throughout the film we are given hints that Rey is important.  Near the beginning, when Kylo Ren hears that the droid was spotted with a girl, he reacts in anger and says, “What girl?”  Rey clearly knows how to fly and work a ship, and her relationship with Han Solo is very interesting.  When Rey leaves, Maz Kanata asks Han, “who’s the girl?”  The Skywalker saber calls to Rey.  She’s the one who is sent to find Luke.  So on and so forth, both direct and indirect, there are hints throughout the film that Rey might be the daughter of Han Solo, and then there are hints that Rey might be the daughter of Luke Skywalker.  The film is meant to make us wonder about who Rey’s parents actually are, and in the two years following the release of the film, fans wondered: many thought it’s Han, many others thought it’s Luke, and still others made up theories (some logical, some crazy) that she was the daughter of Palpatine, or of Obi-Wan Kenobi, or…

And when we come to The Last Jedi, we find Rey more clearly than ever articulate what she’s feeling.  When she’s talking with Luke Skywalker, she says: “Something inside me has always been there.  But now it’s awake, and I’m afraid.  I don’t know what it is, or what to do with it, and I need help.”  Even more directly, when she’s talking with Luke later, she says, “I need someone to show me my place in all this.”  This is very important: in TFA and in the first part of TLJ, Rey’s focus is on finding out where she fits in to this story… and I think it’s no coincidence that fans are left wondering that same thing.

We’ll get to that in just a moment.  Anyway, a bit later on, Rey has another Force conversation with Kylo Ren, and their discussion goes like this:

REY: “Why did you hate your father?  Give me an honest answer.  You had a father who loved you, he gave a damn about you.”

KYLO: “I didn’t hate him.”

REY: “Then why…”

KYLO: “Why what?  Why what?  Say it.”

REY: “Why did you… why did you kill him?  I don’t understand.”

KYLO: “No.  Your parents threw you away like garbage.”

REY: “They didn’t.”

KYLO: “They did.  But you can’t stop needing them.  It’s your greatest weakness.  Looking for them everywhere.  In Han Solo, now in Skywalker.”

Kylo Ren articulates to Rey what the audience ought to have picked up on by now: Rey’s searching and longing to figure out her place in this story has led her to look to first Han Solo and then to Luke Skywalker as a father figure of sorts.  She’s desperately trying to find her parents.  So, perhaps, the hints that we were given in TFA weren’t actually indicators of who her biological parents are but indicators of who she considers to be parental figures.  And that’s actually addressed pretty directly in TFA, too: when Kylo Ren is interrogating Rey, he searches her mind and says that she views Han Solo as the father she never had.

Before long, though, Rey’s confidence in Luke Skywalker continues to be shaken – including by Kylo telling her his version of the events of that fateful night.  Rey heads off to the lower part of the island, to the caves, where there’s a strong presence of the Dark Side.  Rey experiences a Force sequence in the cave, where she asks the Force to show her her parents… only to see herself reflected back in the mirror.  She’s disappointed, and after talking with Kylo and confronting Luke, she leaves the island to try to save Ben Solo.  She fails at that, but Kylo does kill Snoke and the Praetorian Guards while fighting alongside Rey.  And after that battle, Kylo gets at the issue.  Earlier, Kylo told her that he saw who her parents were, and he was sure that it would lead to her turning to the Dark Side.  So here, in Snoke’s Throne Room, we finally get the reveal:

KYLO: “Rey, I want you to join me.  We can rule together and bring a new order to the galaxy.”

REY: “Don’t do this Ben.  Please don’t go this way.”

KYLO: “No, no, you’re still holding on!  Let go!  Do you want to know the truth about your parents?  Or have you always known?  You’ve just hidden it away.  You know the truth.  Say it.  Say it.”

REY: “They were nobody.”

KYLO: “They were filthy junk traders, who sold you off for drinking money.  They’re dead, in a pauper’s grave in the Jakku desert.  You have no place in this story, you come from nothing.  You’re nothing.  But not to me.  Join me.”

Note that Rey is actually the one to say who her parents were, and then Kylo adds to that.  And so, just like that, we found out who Rey’s parents actually were: they were nobody.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

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Rey’s parents being nobody is the hardest possible thing that she can hear at that moment, and it seems that she has always known it.  That actually gets at the same thing that Maz Kanata told her: she has always known that those she is waiting for are never coming back.  Much of Rey’s life, then, has been lived in denial.  She knows that her parents aren’t returning, but she continues to hope they will.  She knows that her parents were nobody, but she continues to hope that they were somebody.

On this matter, I think this is very, very important to remember: Rian Johnson was not so much interested in giving fan service as much as he was telling a good story.  The laziest thing he could have done is say, “Rey is a Skywalker!”  That would answer any questions about how she was so powerful, and it would immediately make her ‘deserve’ her place at the forefront of the sequel trilogy.  But it also would have created plenty more complex storytelling problems.  She’s the daughter of Luke?  So he left her behind, or didn’t know she existed/was alive… and fans automatically assume they’d be ok with that version of Luke Skywalker when they so obviously can’t handle anything different than the original trilogy version?  Suuurrre.  She’s the daughter of Han?  So he had another kid besides Ben and just didn’t care about her, or left her behind somewhere, or lost her?  And I thought some fans already complained that the sequel trilogy didn’t honor the legacy characters well enough.  Oooookkkkk.  And you can go into the other theories – Palpatine, Kenobi, etc. – and find similar problems that one must answer.  Without a doubt the easiest answer to hear for fans would be that she’s related to somebody, but that would also be the laziest route… and Johnson instead went the route with the best story.

But here’s the thing: nobody was led astray by the mystery of Rey’s parents because that was exactly the question we were supposed to be asking – because that’s the same question Rey was asking!  She’s trying to figure out her place in all of this, just like the audience is.  She’s waiting for her parents to show up and explain everything, just like the audience is.  In this story, we’re along for the ride with Rey.  We’re supposed to feel things with Rey.  We’re not the omniscient observer in this story when it comes to Rey, we’re journeying right there with her wondering and longing.  The answer to who Rey’s parents are isn’t significant because of its impact on the audience but because of its impact on Rey.  We, as the audience, are simply supposed to feel the emotions along with Rey.

And that’s why her finding out her parents are nobody is the best storytelling choice possible, and one I applaud Rian Johnson for.

In many ways, this reveal is actually patterned after the reveal from The Empire Strikes Back, the middle chapter of the original trilogy.  Both of these reveals centered around parentage, but the more basic common denominator is that it’s also centered around the hardest possible thing for the protagonist to hear.  And lest you think I’m reading too much into it, here’s a section from a Vanity Fair article with quotes from Johnson explaining the decision:

Johnson compared his decision to the Darth Vader revelation in The Empire Strikes Back. The reason the “I am your father” line resonates so strongly, he explained, is not just because it’s a surprise—but because it’s the “hardest possible thing that Luke, and hence the audience, could hear at that moment.”

“You’ve had a bad guy that you can hate, that you can project your shadow on to just cleanly—and he’s evil . . . With that one line, ‘I am your father,’ suddenly that easy answer gets taken away from you, and he’s something that our protagonist has a relationship to,” Johnson said.

By comparison, Rey learning that she was related to someone like Luke Skywalker would have been “the easiest thing she could possibly hear.”

“The hardest thing to hear is, ‘Nope, this is not gonna define you,’” Johnson added. “And, in fact, Kylo is gonna use this to try and undercut your confidence so you’ll feel you have to lean on him for your identity . . . you’re gonna have to make the choice to find your own identity in this story.”

This idea actually mirrors the characters’ respective Force visions earlier in these films, too.  In ESB, Luke ventures into the Dark Side-strong caves of Dagobah and faces his biggest fear: Darth Vader.  In TLJ, Rey ventures into the Dark Side-strong caves of Ahch-To and faces her biggest fear: the truth about her parents.  In ESB, Luke sees himself… in his worst enemy.  In TLJ, Rey sees herself… all alone.  It’s like poetry; it rhymes.

That subtle parallelism shows up again in that sequence mentioned earlier.  In ESB, Luke is facing off against this horrible, faceless monster who has just cut off his hand… only to realize that this man is his father.  In TLJ, Rey has just fought alongside this conflicted villain, who prompts her about her parents… only to confess that her parents are nobodies.  The commonality in both of these scenes goes far deeper than just a parental reveal: it goes to the very heart of their darkest fears, telling them the last thing they ever wanted to hear.  For Luke Skywalker, the last thing he wanted to hear is that this horrible villain who has done so much evil is actually his father.  For Rey, the last thing she wanted to hear is that her parents are nobodies, meaning she has no easy place to fit in.  Kylo even says as much: “You have no place in this story.  You’re nobody.”

And the audience is supposed to be disappointed, because that’s exactly what Rey is feeling!  We’ve been on this journey with her up to this point, feeling the mystery of her parents largely with her rather than with anyone else, so we’re supposed to feel the way she does her.  It’s supposed to disapoint us.  It’s supposed to make us question.  We’re supposed to ask the same question that has been at the forefront of the parental mystery all along: what is Rey’s place in this story?  Many hoped the same thing that Rey did: that her place in this story would be determined by who her parents are.  But we’re now left with the reality that Rey’s parents don’t matter… so why does Rey?

WHY THIS FITS:

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And that leads into a theme of the sequel trilogy that is especially prevalent in The Last Jedi: The Force isn’t just for the Skywalkers, and it’s not just for the Jedi.  That’s one of the main lessons that Luke wants to teach Rey, but in many ways she doesn’t fully understand it until after she leaves him.  Then she finds herself confronting her place in this story once more, only now having confronted the truth she’s always seemed to know: she doesn’t belong.  Not by familial standards, anyway.  This is the Skywalker saga, after all.  What’s this protagonist doing not being related to the Skywalkers?  Perhaps that’s what has led people to falsely assert that Rey is a “Mary Sue;” were she the daughter of Luke Skywalker (this powerful male hero), I doubt many people would claim that Rey’s powers are unrealistic.  But that’s the very point: the Force isn’t just for the Jedi, and it’s not just for the Skywalkers.  The Force, as we know it in the sequel trilogy, isn’t first and foremost about midichlorians or bloodlines, it’s about the energy flowing through all living things.  Within the context of this larger theme, a non-Skywalker taking the lead isn’t all that out of place.

And so the question that fans have been wondering about, just like Rey, is ultimately answered.  Think of one of the last scenes in TLJ, aboard the Millennium Falcon, as the surviving heroes are reunited.  Rey and Poe Dameron finally meet, and Poe introduces himself.  “Rey,” she responds back, but Poe answers, “I know,” which is met by a big smile by Rey.  She’s no longer nobody.  But the answer to why she belongs didn’t come from who her mother and father were; it has instead come from Rey herself.  Just like when she looked in the mirror in the cave and saw only herself, her place in this story has been defined by her, not by her relation to others.

Rey has finally found her place in this story.  And I think it’d be a mistake to change that.

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