Thursday, January 2, 2020

Narrative Rules by the Numbers (The Rise of Skywalker)

If I were to do my usual pop-culture-critique-by-way-of-autobiography thing vis-a-vis Star Wars: Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker it would probably run on for like twenty thousand words, and that sheer quantity of verbiage is not the "numbers" to which the post's title refers. So let me just jump to the bottom line: I liked it, on balance. It had flaws, and it had bright spots. I reacted to it very emotionally, which I mean in a good way. And I could also dissect what worked and what didn't and what was perfect and what should have been done differently or not at all for another ten thousand words, minimum, but in the interest of finishing a blog post for once, let me just offer an illustrative compare'n'contrast. SPOILERS ABOUND. I mean, come on, people.

The Rule of Three versus The Rule of Two

I never really shipped Kylo Ren and Rey, but by the end of TROS I bought into it. I think the movie did a good job handling Ben Solo's redemption arc (so much so that it makes me want to go back and rewatch Episodes VII and VIII to see how the whole thing hangs together knowing how it ends). And the thing I genuinely appreciated the most was the bittersweet ending, with Ben willingly giving his life to save Rey's, via magic Force/Life(Love) transfusion. It might have struck some people as a deus ex machina, especially inelegant given that never before in the saga have we ever seen a Jedi use this particular Cure Critical Wounds spell Force power. (Unless you count Baby Yoda in The Mandalorian. Which of course we are supposed to; Disney's not stupid and the timing of the Mando episode where this is a thing compared to the release date for TROS is the furthest thing in the galaxy from a coincidence.) BUT, at least I can give the screenwriter credit for correctly employing the Rule of Three, wherein we don't just see the healing Force power come out of nowhere at the very end. We see it three times; once when it doesn't matter, once when it does matter, and once when it means everything.

  • First, Rey uses it to heal the serpent on Pasana. It's a nice character moment, showing that Rey is a gifted Force adept capable of doing new things no one taught her to do. And it further underlines that she's a noble soul who finds non-violent solutions to problems, is at one with nature, can do more than just destroy, etc. etc. All of which is legit great storytelling. I merely classify it as "doesn't matter" because there were other ways to get out of that plot obstacle. Between herself, Chewbacca, Poe, Finn and BB-8, they doubtless could have fought their way past one giant angry snake. The fact that the characters had other options makes it seem like less of a violation of narrative logic, the whole "since when can Jedi do that?" question notwithstanding.
  • Then during the duel on the wreckage of the second Death Star, Rey impales Kylo Ren on his own lightsaber, which is more good character work, showing how Rey is more than just a vessel for fairytale nobility, though of course she immediately regrets it and therefore her very next action is to heal her enemy. This time it's much more consequential; the story goes in a wildly different direction if Rey just leaves Kylo Ren there to die. This is how the Rule of Three is supposed to work. The new idea gets introduced lightly, which feels like a set-up for something later, and then there's a callback, which feels like a payoff. BUT THEN ...
  • ... Rey expends all her energy besting Palpatine in Force combat and burns herself out and dies. Ben Solo reappears and finds her lifeless body and grieves for a moment before making a last-ditch attempt to save her. So now it becomes clear that it didn't just matter that Rey saved Kylo Ren, so that he could come back and help her fight Palpatine, but also she taught this cool new Force trick to him so that he could use it later, and also also by showing him mercy and the healing power of love she kickstarted his ultimate redemption which climaxes in his own self-sacrifice to bring her back. And that, of course, means everything because in the end Rey is the hero who survives and Ben is the reclaimed villain who dies, every archetype aligning with the pattern.

Also, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo's arc is better than Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker's. Come at me!

So that was great. The Rule of Three is solid. As opposed to the Rule of Two, which is the utter worst and one of my biggest storytelling pet peeves (which is saying something). And to be clear, I'm not just talking about the first two-thirds of the Rule of Three here. It can be perfectly well and good, depending on the story and its scope, to have a set-up and a payoff and no additional third layer after that, to introduce something in a slightly misdirectional way and then return to it later more emphatically and then be done with it. I'm ranting here about a specific usage of the Rule of Two, which I'll highlight in the movie and then rant about some more.

  • When we first see Rey in TROS she is meditating and trying to contact the spirits of Jedis past. Her mantra is "be with me." But it isn't working, and she's beginning to doubt it will ever work. Given that she is floating in lotus position and creating intricate orbiting patterns of large rocks, the problem does not seem to be her level of power of degree of control or amount of training she has received. What could the underlying issue be ...?
  • ... welp, guess we'll never know! Because on Exegol, when she tries again to get the Jedis past to be with her, this time they respond. She hears their voices, their platitudes of encouragement, and finds the inner strength to rise and face Palpatine again. Super-duper amped-up-with-the-power-of-all-the-Jedis Rey turns Palpatine's own dark power back on him and he lightning-flays himself to nothingness, Which, don't get me wrong, was cool. But bafflingly unexplained.

This is not showing a thing once in a smallish way so the audience accepts it as a viable thing, then bringing it back again later having already obviated the need to pause to introduce it so it can just be a rad element in the moment. In TROS's good Rule of Three, the first time we see the healing trick Rey can definitely do the healing trick. How she learned it, how she's able to do it, how she knows how it works, all of that is irrelevant. Here's a thing she can do, and this may be important again later on. In the bad Rule of Two, the first time we see the "be with me" we're actually seeing its absence. Rey definitely cannot do it. In any human understanding of narrative, of how stories work, this implies a journey of discovery; if she can't do it now, she has to learn how to do it, or figure out why she can't do it, or build herself up to be able to say she's earned it, or something. But TROS doesn't give us that journey. Like, at all. Why does the thing that didn't work on Ajan Kloss work on Exegol? There's really only one answer that holds any water, and it's "because that's when the story needs it to work" which is always the WORST possible way to justify something in a narrative.

There's a not-at-all uncommon trope in the pulpy kind of stories I like which goes like this: a two-fisted hero brawls his way through adventure after adventure. Then he encounters a villain who doesn't go down for the count with one punch. So the hero punches the villain again, but the villain still doesn't go down. In fact, the villain hits the hero and for once, the hero gets knocked down. So the hero has to shake his head, collect himself, and then ... punch the villain one more time! Really hard this time, and down he goes! And that is the end of the villain, phew. It is deeply, deeply dumb. It is literally the old chestnut about trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but actually getting the desired outcome. It is a brain-dead variation on the Rule of Three which makes it kind of feel like a story is supposed to go, and in very select circumstances it can totally work, while in others it works if you don't pick at it, but it always sticks in my craw as lazy and unsatisfying. I vastly prefer a story where the ending hinges on some element of surprise or discovery, by all means put the hero in peril by having the old reliable approach not work but then have the hero improvise or realize a new approach! Show me something clever, or thematically resonant, or ideally both at once, please and thank you.

Clearly TROS failed to fulfill this humble request. And I'll just go ahead and play Monday-morning quarterback and say it wouldn't even have been that hard for the story to follow basically the same outline but not fall prey to the bad Rule of Two. Most of the ingredients were right there. At the beginning of the movie there's clearly a tension between Rey and Poe about whether the Resistance or her Jedi training is more important. She agrees to go on the mission to locate a Sith Wayfinder for the Resistance, but really that is an extension of her training, too. The whole crew of heroes override her wishes to go alone. But over the course of the story she's always going off on her own anyway, in the weird astral battles with Kylo Ren, aboard the star destroyer when she ends up in his trophy room, on the ocean moon when she takes a skimmer to the wreck by herself, on Ahch-To where she tries to exile herself, and in the Sith temple right up until Ben Solo shows up. Ben is of course a fellow Jedi, as are the spirits that ultimately give her the strength to overcome her adversary.

But imagine how much cooler it could have been if after all of that Rey had realized that compartmentalizing her Jedi life to one side and her Resistance life to the other was wrong. That the Jedi have always been a bit wrong, holding themselves separate from others, not allowing themselves to love and form families, isolated inside their Temple (just like the Sith), inducting children into their ranks with no meaningful consent (just like the First Order). If Rey had realized that connections with real flesh and blood people all around you from all different backgrounds was far more important than connecting with ancient traditions held by the dead. Not that all traditions are bad! Not the honoring the past is meaningless at best or evil at worst! But just imagine if Rey had had one moment of clarity that bridged point A and point B in her bad Rule of Two. If at her lowest point she had tried again to reach out to the dead Jedis, and failed again, and then tearfully reached out again to the sky above, to Finn, to Poe, and reached out further, to Maz Kanata and Rose Tico, to the random Aki-Aki on Pasana and the old junkscrubber lady on Jakku, to all the living rather than the dead, not to ask for their power or wisdom or secrets, just to acknowledge commonality and love and life. AND THEN that could have been the gateway, to truly being one with the Force, and being able to hear the voices of the elders who had gone before. The fact is, if we look at the whole nine episode saga, that when Palpatine revealed himself, Mace Windu couldn't destroy him. Yoda couldn't destroy him. Anakin fell under his sway. Obi-wan didn't have a clue how to stop him. Luke managed not to be seduced, but still couldn't defeat him. Vader dealt him a setback at best. And even the dyad of Rey and Ben Solo couldn't stand up to him (well, him and, as we learned, all the souls of all the Sith for all time). The idea that Rey could finally, ultimately destroy Palpatine with the help of the other Jedi - who had all individually failed up to that point! - is a bit underwhelming. It's just punching the Emperor again, but really hard this time. Oh but what could have been if, instead of pitting the light religion and its adherents against the dark religion and its devotees, the lasting victory was achieved by Rey drawing strength from the common people, the non-Sith and non-Jedi which both Palpatine and the other Jedi had always dismissed as relatively unimportant. That could have been something really special.

And then, if I had my druthers, when our hero got to the point of rechristening herself, she wouldn't have chosen a name that hearkened back to prophecies about the Balance of the Force, that was inextricably linked to both Jedi and Sith, but rather a name that reflected (dare I say it?) multiple generations of public service for the greater good, from serving in the Senate to adopting orphans to fighting in the Rebellion and the Resistance. Keep all the imagery in the epilogue the same, exactly the same, show the force ghosts of Luke and Leia smiling beatifically in the desert sunset. Just change one word.

"I'm Rey."

"Rey who?"

"Rey Organa."

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