By Devan Coggan
December 21, 2019 at 03:00 PM EST
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Star Wars sure loves a family tree. For a series ostensibly about interstellar military conflicts, the Lucasfilm saga boasts more familial drama than a daytime soap. Force sensitivity is inherited, secret fathers (and twin sisters) are revealed, ancestral legacies are grappled with. The fate of the galaxy frequently comes down to a few members of the same Skywalker bloodline, famous for their profound connection to the Force and their tendency to lose hands.

Which is why the story of Rey felt so refreshing: Daisy Ridley’s lonely scavenger joined the galaxy in 2015 with J.J. AbramsThe Force Awakens, a Jakku outcast haunted by memories of parents she barely knew. When the interplanetary clash between the First Order and the Resistance came crashing onto her desert doorstep, she joined the fight, revealing herself to be a powerful Force user who could more than hold her own against a Skywalker heir.

Writer-director Rian Johnson cemented Rey’s nobody status with 2017’s The Last Jedi, revealing that her parents were nothing but “junk traders” who abandoned her and left her to die. The revelation devastated Rey, but also gave her strength: Power wasn’t necessarily tied to pedigree, and whatever path she chose would be her own. The Last Jedi took a deeply democratic view of the Force, suggesting that, yes, children born to legends can shape the galaxy like Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren, but so too can the children of forgotten scroungers.

That is, of course, until The Rise of the Skywalker undid all that.

***SPOILERS BELOW***

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Credit: Lucasfilm

The final installment of the Skywalker Saga declares that Rey is actually the granddaughter of Sheev Palpatine, the senator-slash-secret-Sith-Lord best known as the Emperor (played once again by Ian McDiarmid). It’s a baffling surprise, and not only because the last time we saw Palpatine, in Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader was chucking him into the Death Star’s reactor core. Making Rey a secret Palpatine undermines the recent saga’s most compelling character arc, reducing Rey’s emotional journey to lame, unearned plot twist.

It’s hard not to feel cheated after The Last Jedi teased a bold new direction, and Rise of Skywalker retreated into the saga’s oldest, most overused trope. That isn’t to say Star Wars should never again tell stories about family legacy; after all, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is all about family legacy and wrestling with its complications. But making Rey a nobody provided a sharp contrast to Kylo’s messy ancestry, suggesting that anyone — including you, me, or anyone else watching — could be a hero too.

Dramatically, the Rey reveal doesn’t deliver much of an emotional punch. Palpatine’s speech about Rey’s Sith legacy feels like an anticlimactic echo of Darth Vader and “I am your father” in The Empire Strikes Back. Our beloved protagonist learns that they’re descended from the galaxy’s biggest bad? Didn’t we already tell this story better back in 1980? The Vader-Luke reveal worked because the two had a shared history, and Luke believed Vader had not only murdered his father, but Obi-Wan Kenobi too. Rey and Palpatine have never met before Rise of Skywalker, so their connection lacks the same narrative weight.

Rey’s Palpatine connection continues Star Wars’ frustrating pattern of returning to the same stories instead of crafting new ones. Throughout Disney’s Star Wars run, the films have created new, compelling villains like Kylo Ren but have never been confident enough to let their new creations stand alone. Instead, the never-ending franchise keeps resurrecting the same old threats, as if to say, “Remember the Star Wars baddies who terrified you as a kid? They’re back — and exactly the same!” (Solo: A Star Wars Story stands as exhibit A, inexplicably bringing back a certain crimson, pointy-headed Sith lord.)

Returning to the same narrative well with Rise of Skywalker not only undermines the new stories Star Wars is trying to tell, but it makes the galaxy seem smaller. We know that the Force works in mysterious ways, connecting people as the universe (and the plot) sees fit, but the same few families keep bumping into each other, making space seem less like an empire and more like a small town where everyone at the cantina knows everyone else’s mother. One of the most magical things about watching the original trilogy was how vast the galaxy seemed, with planets mentioned that we’d never get to visit and characters we’d meet once before they disappeared into the wider world. The new Star Wars films feel desperate to explain away those mysteries, providing answers to unasked questions and connecting characters who don’t need to be connected.

(Notably, Star Wars isn’t the only mega-franchise guilty of unnecessary family tree additions. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter continuations are littered with them, and between Fantastic Beasts and The Cursed Child, it seems as if everyone in the Wizarding World is a secret Dumbledore or Voldemort relative, suggesting that in order to be important, it helps to have a famous last name.)

Rise of Skywalker somewhat redeems Rey’s arc in its closing scene: Our heroine journeys to a familiar little moisture farm in the Tatooine desert, burying the Skywalker family lightsabers and taking their name as her own. Rey’s choice to align herself with the Skywalkers is moving because it’s exactly that: a choice. The lonely little girl who dreamed of a family finally stops waiting and chooses to forge one of her own.

After all, who Rey has been is far less interesting than who she chooses to be.

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