It was recently the fifth anniversary of The Last Jedi’s release, and as such I’ve been writing several pieces reflecting on different aspects of the film. I wrote about why it’s treatment of Luke Skywalker was so brilliant, then wrote about why Rose Tico’s famous line is such a fitting summary of one of the main themes of the whole Star Wars franchise.
Today, I’m turning my attention to some of the aspects of the film’s middle act that have been met with apathy and confusion, even amongst those who profess their undying love for the film. I’m speaking of the parallel stories centering around Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo and Canto Bight. Both of these stories have been the subject of disparagement and misunderstanding, yet they represent major plot points for Poe Dameron and Finn, respectively.
Poe’s Arc: Learning his lessons on his way to leading
Let’s start with Poe, which is where Holdo comes into play. Poe’s arc in The Last Jedi is all about him becoming the leader Leia knows he can be – and knows he needs to be. The opening sequence of the film is a thrilling dogfight in space where the heroic Poe Dameron takes on a whole First Order dreadnaught. But Leia’s response to this moment one of euphoric joy but of resigned disappointment. Why? It’s the first example in the film of our expectations being challenged. We’re not used to thinking that our hero is wrong, but what if he is? Leia wants him to realize that as a leader he’s responsible for the people under him, and his reckless actions led to the deaths of many good people. “Poe, get your head out of your cockpit,” Leia tells him. “There are some things that you cannot solve by jumping in an X-Wing and blowing something up! I need you to learn that.”
The Resistance has strong leadership with Leia, but moments later the bridge of the Raddus is attacked. The leaders are all killed, except Leia, who survives but is in a coma. In the absence of leadership, in steps Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, who is suspicious of Poe – which makes the audience suspicious of her. That’s precisely why one of the criticisms of this moment tells me that people misunderstand the whole nature of it. There’s a common fan sentiment that goes something like this, “it should have been Admiral Ackbar taking Holdo’s place in this story instead!” But that would totally undermine what Rian Johnson was going for: if it were Ackbar fans would have a trust in him that might make them think Poe was wrong; by it being a new character, we’re automatically trained to think that Poe is right and she is wrong. We’re being challenged right alongside Poe.
But sure enough our thoughts about Poe are being second-guessed. We’ve already seen how his “victory” on D’Qar led to much death, and then we come to see how his actions in commissioning Finn and Rose on a covert mission wind up endangering the survival of the whole Resistance (Holdo’s plan would have worked if not for that). In-between, there’s a distrust that exists between them, but it’s understandable: Holdo knows this hotshot pilot as the one who just lost their whole bombing fleet, and she’s not in a position where she wants to trust him to get them out of this dire situation. That’s why another criticism is unfounded too: “Why wouldn’t Holdo just tell Poe the plan?” Because she doesn’t trust him with that information! And the movie has already set up why through the lens of someone we trust completely in Leia. It’s important that it was Leia who demoted Poe, because she sets the stage for why Holdo wouldn’t trust him there. (Furthermore, good luck finding any military force, or even employer for that matter, who will tolerate insubordination simply because the ‘boss’ didn’t give enough of the why.)
Poe is a good-hearted but brash young pilot, and Leia sees both the ability and his heart. That’s why she wants to challenge him to be something more, knowing that the Resistance will need a new generation of leaders to step up and seeing in him that very potential. Poe like to take things into his own hands and be a hero. He needs to learn how to lead. That’s why, as the Resistance transports flee to Crait, Leia tells Poe, “She was more interested in protecting the light than she was seeming like a hero.” That is at the heart of the difference between Holdo and Poe, and it’s at the heart of the lesson Leia wants Poe to learn. The truly heroic thing, the way to truly lead, is to fight to protect the light even if it doesn’t seem as heroic.
So, on Crait, Poe does what he didn’t above D’Qar: he calls off the speeder attack. Realizing the odds they’re up against and not wanting to risk the others, Poe orders a retreat back into the base. And when Finn wants to rush out to help Luke Skywalker (more on that in a moment), it’s Poe who stops him. What Luke was doing was protecting the light, and that’s what Poe must do too. Even if it means turning from the fight and finding a way of escape. It won’t make him the hero who gets all the praise, but it will make him the heroic leader the Resistance needs. Because in that moment, he’s thinking more of protecting the light of the Resistance, protecting the spark that will light the fire.
In all of this, Poe has become the kind of leader that the Resistance truly needs. It’s why, as Poe leads them through the base in Crait, Leia grins and orders the others to follow him.
Finn’s Arc: Learning to embrace the fight
Now let’s turn our attention to Finn’s arc, which involves Rose Tico and Canto Bight and is equally as misunderstood as Poe’s arc – and even more criticized. That’s because actor John Boyega has publicly complained about it, thinking that The Last Jedi didn’t really give his character enough development. But he is wrong. In fact, if anything, it gives him the most of any film in the sequel trilogy.
We once more need to go back and set the context of where we find Finn at the start of this film. In The Force Awakens, Finn defected from the First Order but didn’t embrace the Resistance right away. His goal was to get as far away from the First Order as possible, and then he meets Rey. Even still on Takodana, he’s running away. He wants Rey to come with him, but he resolves to leave. He’s not in the fight; he’s trying to get away from it. And what is it that brings him back? Rey. The reason he returns, and the reason he takes part in the Battle of Starkiller Base, is because he wants to rescue Rey. That’s where The Last Jedi picks up, and it’s fitting that the first question Finn asks when awake from his coma is, “where’s Rey?” That’s his biggest concern, just as it has been in the previous film. So, then, what does Finn decide to do? Board an escape pod and run away, hoping to protect Rey in the process.
Finn’s character picks up at exactly the same place we saw him in The Force Awakens: wanting to run away from the fight and wanting to protect Rey. What he’s certainly not is committed to the cause of the Resistance. So it just so happens that as Finn is looking to escape he encounters Rose Tico, who most certainly is committed to the cause of the Resistance. And she is disappointed to learn that this Resistance hero, Finn, isn’t really the hero she thought he was after all.
But suddenly they come up with a plan that could save the Resistance, and they decide to head off to Canto Bight for it. Notably, Finn hands Poe the tracker that would lead Rey back home, trusting Poe to look after it. It’s the first sign that maybe Finn is motivated by something bigger than protecting his friend. Maybe he’s motivated by the cause! So they head off to Canto Bight, and while there, a few important developments happen.
First, the wealth and luxury of the casino offer a striking contrast to the horrors of war. And it is the business of war that gets these people rich. The lines between good and bad get blurred in a war like this, and it’s the rich in the galaxy who win.
Second, they meet a man nicknamed “DJ.” And the nickname arose in production to stand for “don’t join,” representing his stance to the war. DJ represents the path of not joining the fight and just being a pragmatist, like those who profit off the war and don’t much care whether they support the good guys or the bad guys. All that matters is their bottom line. Such is that path of not joining the cause. In this way, Rose stands as the glaring contrast with DJ. She’s committed to the fight and looking to make the galaxy better for others, whereas DJ doesn’t care and is just in it for himself. And in this they serve as the angels on Finn’s shoulders, pulling him in separate directions, giving him two choices. He can continue to run away from the fight, in which case he’ll wind up much like DJ, or he can commit to the cause, in which case he’ll wind up much like Rose.
Then they get caught, and DJ does what he does best: he looks out for himself, gets some riches, and doesn’t care that it comes from helping the ‘bad guys.’ He doesn’t seem to think it matters. But Finn does; “you’re wrong,” he defiantly tells DJ. Finn has seen the path that he’s on, seen the path that his running away leads, seen it in Canto Bight and seen it in DJ, and he wants nothing to do with it. So after beating Phasma in the battle that ensues, Finn makes sure she knows that he’s “Rebel scum.” He’s a rebel now.
And, just like Poe, it all culminates in the base on Crait. It’s Finn who is the one to suggest standing and fighting, whereas up to then he’s been the one suggesting running. The camera cuts to Rose, who smiles at Finn as he says it, because it’s Rose who has helped him to learn this lesson. And it’s Rose that helps him learn one final lesson: standing and fighting doesn’t do any good if you’re just motivated by hatred for the enemy. Finn overcorrects, deciding he’s going to throw his life away to try to take out the First Order canon, but Finn stops him. She tells him that it’s about saving what they love, not fighting what they hate. It’s this line that ties both Finn’s arc and Poe’s arc together. Poe has to learn that he’s fighting to protect the light, and Finn needs to learn that he’s fighting to protect the light. Poe needs to learn why he fights, and Finn needs to be inspired to fight. And in this, Rose helps Finn marry the two together: his desire to protect Rey is not bad. In fact, that should be the impetus behind him standing and fighting. What if he could stay and fight (instead of running away) precisely because he wants to protect the light he’s come to love?
In all of this, then, both Poe Dameron and Finn come to learn some very important lessons in the film that give richly rewarding payoff in the final arc and set their stories moving forward. So next time you’re tempted to think that the stuff with Holdo, Rose, and Canto Bight are pointless, remember that they’re pivotal moments in the character arcs. Each of the ‘main three’ heroes get a duo to challenge them: for Rey, it’s Luke and Kylo; for Poe, it’s Leia and Holdo; and for Finn, it’s Rose and DJ. Through this, each of the heroes are challenged but emerge from the challenge better for it.