Fairy tales have happy endings. At least usually. And Star Wars has often been called a “space fairytale”.
The old trilogy has a very traditional “happily ever after” ending. The Emperor is defeated, Darth Vader is redeemed, Ewoks and Rebels are dancing around campfires and the ghosts of the fallen Jedi join the celebration.
The prequel trilogy was a different cup of tea. It ended with tragedy – as everyone knew it had to. It was the setup for the events afterwards: the reign of the Empire, the rise of Darth Vader, Luke and Leia becoming orphans hidden from the Emperor.
Despite that dark ending, however, the “big picture” remained happy. We knew that one day, Luke and Leia would grow up to become heroes and save the Galaxy. We knew that one day, the fallen Vader would become Anakin Skywalker again. And this was even hinted at in Revenge of the Sith’s bittersweet final picture, dubbed among the fans as “the Harry Potter scene”, with Obi-Wan presenting Beru and Owen Lars with baby Luke and them holding him while looking into Tatooine’s sunset.
The Bleak New Trilogy?
But what about the new trilogy? Its ending is more like that of RotS than RotJ. The tragedy seems to outweigh the joy.
All three endings are bittersweet, the loss and victory/hope are mixed, but RotJ still ends in a way that could be, in a book, represented by the sentence “…and they lived happily ever after.”
Incidentally, I believe this may be the greatest failure of the new trilogy: that we learn that they did not. It is perhaps realistic to show that the life continues with its struggles. Perhaps the story could have been still considered overall happy even with Han, Leia and Luke having to return to fight, perhaps even with them dying. But there are just too many other elements that make it impossible to finish the new trilogy with “…and they lived happily ever after”.
…They Didn’t Live
Firstly, the very line “happily ever after” has been disqualified by the existence of the sequel trilogy. After RotJ, we thought this was it. The good had prevailed, seemingly forever. There were losses, yes, but not so heavy, and everyone except for the pure evil Palpatine could be redeemed. The Galactic political system had failed once, but it returned back to freedom and democracy. The Sith were gone for good.
The Force Awakens crushed all these ideas mercilessly. In one generation, evil was back, with it the tendency to dictatorship, and the Sith as well.
And during the subsequent events, Han, Luke and Leia all died. Sure, their deaths were catalysts in redeeming the next generation and passing on the Jedi ideals. But still – could the victory have been achieved without them dying?
Too Much Death On The Scales
It seems like the makers of the new trilogy, J.J. Abrams in particular, got caught in the “Game of Thrones momentum” that seems to seep through today’s cinema culture: that is, you need to have heroes dying to properly shock and distress the audience. It sometimes works, yes. But it seems to be used too often as a rule – and in this case, needlessly.
And one more tragedy – the Skywalker bloodline has ended. Again: the idea that their legacy lives on through Rey, blood or no blood, is by itself beautiful. But Ben Solo’s death just added too much sadness on the already heavy “dark side” of the scales.
Let us go over this again. In the original trilogy, Obi-Wan died, which was sad, but it was one death of an old man who had managed to pass his legacy on. The same goes for Yoda, who was a hermit somewhat detached from the actual plot to begin with. Darth Vader died, but he was a villain AND an “old” man – someone of the previous generation, whose legacy now lived on in Luke and Leia.
The prequel trilogy ended with a tragedy on a massive scale – thousands of Jedi died, Padmé died, Anakin fell. But there was the light of the future. Incidentally: there was similar kind of feeling in the recently-finished finale of The Clone Wars. The end was bleak, but you knew there was hope in the future in those who still lived.
But the situation at the end of The Rise of Skywalker is many times heavier. Kylo Ren was no Vader – he was a fairly young man with his life still ahead of him. Instead of two dead Jedi Masters, there were also three dead Skywalker/Solos.
All in all, it is just too much for a “happily ever after”. Each of these elements alone would have sufficed.
A Way Out?
I do not share the opinion of some that the new trilogy was “ruined” from the start. But if we are talking about what was “ruined” in it, then it was certainly the fairytale element of the original Star Wars – the “happily ever after”.
I have no doubt the movie storytelling developing darker tones recently had a great impact on it. Already the prequel trilogy was influenced by that – it, however, had the advantage of being a tragedy to begin with. It was no problem that the generic mood had shifted towards darker stories, because it was supposed to end badly.
But the last trilogy should have ended on a much more positive note. I am not pleading for a cheap, syrupy happy ending. A master writer should, however, be able to create something like that even with all the problems and tangles the new trilogy came with. And J.J. Abrams et al simply found themselves lacking in that respect.
Thinking about this, I may finish with a sentence I, on the one hand, loathe to even think of. Perhaps we would, after all, need one more trilogy to provide a clear “happily ever after”. But it would have to be written with that intent and with a clear plan from the start. It absolutely should guard itself against falling to the opposite extreme and being just happy-go-lucky adventure. And it would really require very good writers who would manage to balance all the elements of a proper Star Wars story in a reasonable manner.
Perhaps, however, the lesson to be learned from the new trilogy is this one – that happy endings should be left alone.