Spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker follow below.
One of the big questions—and for some, concerns—going into The Rise of Skywalker concerned Rey’s parents. While The Force Awakens set up a mystery about who Rey’s parents were, having sold Rey (Daisy Ridley) into slavery and left her on Jakuu as a child, writer/director Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi provided a dramatic answer: her parents were nobodies. It’s not that this answer in and of itself is objectively “the best” answer, but it was that it fit perfectly in line with the thematic thrust of The Last Jedi. From Rey to Finn to Poe to Rose to Holdo, that movie was about challenging the traditional ideas of “heroism” and proving that, at the end of the day, anyone has the capability to stand up to adversity and challenge evil head on, regardless of parentage or regality. TL;DR Rey doesn’t have to be a Skywalker to be a badass Jedi.
The answer was also devastating to Rey in that she had hoped all this time that her parents left her on Jakuu for a reason, and would be back for her posthaste. The worst possible thing she could learn after that Throne Room showdown was that her parents were dead nobodies who sold her into slavery for some spare change. She’s felt alone her whole life, and in that moment Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) makes her feel somehow even lonelier. The perfect position for someone he’s hoping to turn to the Dark Side.
Well The Rise of Skywalker kind of says “hogwash” to all of that, as writers J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio instead posit that Rey’s parents were actually related to Emperor Palpatine—specifically her father was Palpatine’s son—which thus makes Rey a Palpatine.
So, um, why? Abrams explained his decision at the Academy screening of Rise of Skywalker last week, noting that “you’re nobody” wasn’t quite devastating enough for his taste:
“I think one of the themes of the movie is that anyone can be anything regardless of where you’re from, and I don’t know if it resonates for everyone but I think there are quite a few people who appreciate that idea of not coming from a place that you’re not particularly excited about following or proud of. And though I completely understand ‘you’re nobody’ is a devastating thing, to me the more painful, the more shocking thing was the idea that you’re from the worst possible place. And is that thing that you feel that you know is part of you somehow, that you’re haunted by, is that your destiny? And the idea that there are things more powerful than blood, as Luke says, that thing was a really important thing to convey for us.”
I’d counter that The Last Jedi already sets this up pretty perfectly. Rey isn’t “proud” to come from people who sold her off willingly just to make money, and recreating herself as a powerful Jedi is about the biggest counter to her heritage that I can think of. And while I understand that Abrams is basically saying that the theme of Rise of Skywalker is, “What if you found out you were Hitler’s granddaughter?” I don’t think that tracks. For one, the film isn’t interested in delving into the politics or ideology of the Sith other than “they’re bad,” but for another, Palpatine isn’t just some random fascist. He’s an iconic Star Wars character. Palpatine as a stand-in for Hitler doesn’t work because he’s so bogged down in mythology from past films, and Rise of Skywalker actively embraces that mythology.
Regardless, Abrams went further to note that the idea of making Rey a Palpatine was to create a sense of inevitability for the entire Star Wars saga, and underlined the film’s connections to today’s resurgence of Nazis:
“This whole trilogy, 7, 8, and 9, is really sort of about the generation that follows the Great Generation, and the idea of bringing balance to the force—which is the whole point of the Chosen One, Anakin, and the original trilogy. What I loved was the idea that balance brought to the force doesn’t mean that it’s forever. It’s not immediately everlasting, and I think the idea that if we’re not careful, the ultimate evil will rise again. We have to be proactive in doing what we can to maintain the balance, and how does the generation that follows the Great Generation do that? The idea that these two main characters, both the grandchildren of these crucially important characters, Palpatine and Skywalker, the idea of these two houses coming together in this next generation felt like there was an inevitability to it. And if one were to watch I through IX 50 or 100 years from now, hopefully you’d feel like these stories were inevitable.”
Again, that’s an admirable theme, and I don’t think Abrams is being disingenuous here, but I also think Rise of Skywalker fails to effectively execute this theme. This idea of a second generation fighting the resurgence of an ancient evil doesn’t come into full view until Rise of Skywalker, which “reveals” that Palpatine has been pulling the strings all along—but the reveal poses more questions than answers, and again getting bogged down in mythology hinders the film’s thematic impact.
Co-writer Chris Terrio was also on-hand for the Academy screening and also discussed the whole Rey’s parents thing, saying that The Last Jedi didn’t create a “present-tense dramatic problem” for the story:
“We had a post-it in our room that said, ‘You don’t discover who you are, you create it,’ and if Act 2, the middle act from Rian [Johnson], was discovering who you are, we felt like we really needed to take on the idea of recreating who she is. And of course to find out she’s a Palpatine is a present-tense dramatic problem. You can find out you come from nothing and that’s not necessarily [a present-tense dramatic problem]… I come from a family of teamsters, I come from a great illustrious royal family, that’s not a present-tense problem for me on this stage. If I found out I come from a family of the greatest enemies of J.J. Abrams and he has hired me and is my boss, and that’s my deep dark secret, that’s a present-tense dramatic problem. It’s more interesting for Daisy to play and for us it was a more interesting story.”
Now this, honestly, is kind of B.S. Rey finding out she’s Palpatine is no less a present-tense dramatic problem than finding out she’s a nobody. It would have been far more interesting to witness this “nobody” rise up as the galaxy’s primary hero while the last Skywalker (Kylo Ren) fights for the Dark Side, and then to see the dramatic arc of fighting for Ben Solo’s soul. This “nobody” is tasked with bringing the Sith/First Order/Whatever-the-hell down, but she’s also compelled to save Ben Solo from himself based on her relationship with Luke, Han, and Leia.
Also, doesn’t “create who you are” fit directly into Rey being a nobody? Wouldn’t Rey being a Palpatine be more of a recreation than a creation? This movie makes less sense the longer I think about it…