Last week, it was announced that The Americans star Keri Russell would be joining the cast of the 9th episode of Star Wars, to be directed by her old Felicity buddy J.J. Abrams. Almost immediately, the fan theories kicked into high gear, speculating that Russell could be playing Rey’s mother. This is a familiar narrative in the grand scheme of Disney-era Star Wars theories. Every white brunette woman who has joined the franchise since its revival has faced speculation that they would be playing Rey’s mother. It happened with Felicity Jones, Emilia Clarke, and even the blonde-turned-violet haired Laura Dern, just to keep things interesting. That these ideas continue to get major pride of place in the think-piece industry surrounding the film, even after The Last Jedi revealed the truth about Rey’s parentage speaks volumes to the way we consume this franchise and blockbuster storytelling at large.
Rey is nobody. She isn’t a Skywalker, nor is she the lost daughter of Jedi nobility. She isn’t a princess from a distant planet dumped on Jakku to keep her safe. Her parents weren’t Rebel soldiers who gave up their daughter for the good of the galaxy. After a film’s worth of typically Abrams-style mystery box set-up, Rian Johnson effectively subverted audience expectations by revealing that Rey was merely the child of nobodies.
They were insignificant non-players in this world who had no greater ambitions for their daughter or really any concern for her wellbeing. She’s not Luke’s long-lost child or Ben Solo’s twin. She’s just Rey, and therein lies the real beauty of that character. Of course, this is also what has caused so much controversy with a certain subset of Star Wars fans who like to make their feelings on the subject well-known to anyone who does or doesn’t want to listen.
I have always been baffled by the desperate hunger to see Rey revealed as a secret Skywalker or familiar player in this expansive world. That’s not to say that it surprised me. It makes sense from a fan point-of-view to want such a thing. We like things to be neat and for the dots to be joined with impeccable precision. We spend hours at a time wildly theorizing about what will happen in the next film and taking immense pride in being proven right. Star Wars is a franchise with its foot firmly in the past and the classic stories of older generations. It’s space opera, it’s Western, it’s a cheesy serial you watch before the big picture.
Crucially, it’s a soap opera. The reveal of Luke Skywalker’s parentage was an earth-shattering moment in many of our pop cultural childhoods. I still remember the gasp I elicited when I saw it with my parents, who took pure delight in being there for that generational gift. The Force Awakens established itself as a story of the past, giddily echoing the original trilogy in scale, structure and style, while injecting enough new elements to keep audiences hooked. Dropping in a big question mark over the mystery of Rey’s past cannot help but make fans think they’ll see history repeated. Abrams has his skills, but subverting expectations isn’t one of them. Everyone seemed to know exactly where that plot point was going.
Right up until they didn’t.
Rian Johnson has faced absurd pushback from those fans who see The Last Jedi as some sort of cultural betrayal. That’s obviously ridiculous but it’s particularly unfair in how it downplays Johnson’s savvy awareness of this franchise and these characters. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he explained his decision to have Rey’s parents be nobodies:
‘I was thinking, what’s the most powerful answer to that question? Powerful meaning: what’s the hardest thing that Rey could hear? That’s what you’re after with challenging your characters. The easiest thing for Rey and the audience to hear is, ‘Oh yeah, you’re so-and-so’s daughter.’ That would be wish fulfilment and instantly hand her a place in this story on a silver platter. The hardest thing for her is to hear she’s not going to get that easy answer. Not only that, but Kylo is going to use the fact that you don’t get that answer to try and weaken you so you have to lean on him.’
Rey has to be the child of nobodies because it’s the foundation of the primary theme of The Last Jedi: You are not defined by your past, and it does not get to carve out the path of your future. Kylo is ‘somebody’: He’s the son of a general and infamous smuggler, the nephew of the legendary Jedi who saved the galaxy, and he is heavily influenced by all of those things. Even in rejecting his past, he is ruled by it, and he has none of the freedom Rey has to take his own journey in life. Yet that’s also a strength for him because with that solid past and familial roots comes sureness that Rey lacks. He has a place in this story through his lineage. Rey is the outsider and is plagued by that notion. After all, she is nobody.
The fan eagerness to have Rey be ‘somebody’ feels limiting from a story perspective. This galaxy is vast and populated by myriad creatures and dynasties, so why must the lion’s share of players in this story come from the same tiny gene pool? This was something fans hated about the prequels, with the frantic need to have everyone connected to one another verging on comical (VADER MADE C3PO?!) There’s a point where metatextual explorations of nostalgia just becomes bad storytelling.
Of course, we cannot overlook a major reason Rey’s parentage upsets so many fans of a certain breed. Rey’s been plagued with ‘Mary-Sue’ accusations since her introduction, with certain people, including those whose names we won’t utter, flabbergasted by the notion of a woman not born from the Skywalker clan being a natural born Jedi. But how can she use the Force or fly the Falcon if she’s not a fan-fic style self-insert, they say. Making Rey a Skywalker or lost Kenobi child or the great inheritor of all Jedi power seems more plausible to some fans because they struggle to see female characters outside of the limited confines of stereotypes. The small-town boy who goes from riding a space-truck to the equivalent of a fighter jet in one movie is more plausible than the scavenger girl who takes the same path. Sexism can be found embedded in inept writing the world over.
J.J. Abrams could do an about-turn on Johnson’s characterization, and I’m sure there are fans who would welcome it. However, it would weaken the story as a whole. This franchise has to move forward and expand beyond the Skywalker Saga. Han is dead, Luke is gone, and we will see Episode 9 without Leia. The galaxy moves past them. Rey may be a nobody in this hierarchy but that doesn’t mean she isn’t somebody important, nor that the other nobodies of the universe can’t be heroes. Hope is born with the nobodies.