We all kind of expected to see her death. First we did … and then we didn’t. The Last Jedi made unmistakably clear that Leia Organa still has one last mission to complete. In a sense, just like Carrie Fisher.
Daring, feisty and independent
Leia Organa first came into view in Star Wars just minutes after that opening shot of A New Hope that everybody quotes at every possible occasion. But for me as an 11-year old in 1977 an equally awesome shot, and most definitely much more mysterious, was the first we see of Leia. A veiled person, undoubtedly a young woman, graceful yet evidently on a dangerous mission, feeding her droid with secret plans. The next time we see her she is facing Darth Vader and, unlike everyone else, doesn’t show the least sign of fear or anxiety.
Leia grows up, unaware of her Skywalker descent, in the home of Bail Antilles, her adoptive father and Senator for Alderaan to the Imperial Senate. Already at a very young age does she becomes part of Alderaan’s covert support for the emerging Rebel Alliance. When Luke is still wondering when he finally can hang-out with the guys at Toshe station, Leia is sharing life experience with Ezra Bridger like a seasoned rebel with a newby. She takes after her mother, she definitely does.
Leia comes into the story of Star Wars as a feisty, independent and hard-working young woman. She has a mission, always, and usually that mission demands putting up a fight, digesting losses and taking a stand. In fact, even when Han Solo and Luke Skywalker think they are coming to rescue her that attempt quickly deteriorates into a near-disaster that is salvaged by Leia Organa. The Star Wars Saga has no presents or easy victories for Leia.
In A New Hope Leia clearly is a Rebel leader and at the start of The Empire Strikes Back she still is. But the subsequent events place her in a role that is very uncomfortable for her initially. With Han at the controls of the faulty Falcon all she can do is rely on his piloting (and engineering skills) to get them out of their against C3PO’s increasingly dire odds. We see her fix parts of the Falcon as well, so she is not passive, but she is clearly not in the driver seat ever since their escape from icy Hoth. She uses the time to process and digest her feelings for Han. Her “I love you” that she utters during the finale of The Empire Strikes Back brings Leia’s initiative back to the forefront. She disrupts Boba Fett’s and Vader’s plans and starts a last ditch attempt with Chewie to free Han before Boba’s imminent departure.
Leia Organa comes out of Episode V as a different, more mature and more complete Leia. Not because of her relationship with Han, there isn’t much of one yet as he is frozen in Carbonite at the other end of the Galaxy. But because she has allowed personal feelings, her feelings for Han, to become part of her real life and her goals. But also, and perhaps even more so, because she has allowed herself to connect to the Force. From those last moments in Episode V where we see how she force-connects to Luke a new world opens up for her.
Leia & The Force
It is good to pause here for a moment. Leia knows about Luke’s force-powers and she, like many in the cinema audience, may have interpreted the connection between her and Luke as one emanating from Luke. In Return of the Jedi she says as much when she claims, just before Luke reveals their shared origins, that ‘she can never have such powers’. However at the end of Return of the Jedi we see her intentionally dip into the Force to check upon whether her brother is still alive. Han interprets that as a sign she loves Luke, misunderstanding the situation entirely and … unaware he is dismissing her ability to muster the Force.
When you think about this a little a pattern becomes clear: Leia is a connection-maker. As a rebel leader she connects, with her troops but also with the Ewoks. She does not crave rank or status, never dons a military uniform. She does quite literally what is always said about the Force: she units and binds together. It is possible to view this merely as a talent she inherited from her mother who displayed that skill in Episodes I through III as well as in The Clone Wars. But in Leia’s case there is more to it.
In typical Leia style however she largely remains silent about it. No ‘force training scenes with Yoda’ for Leia. Her path is not to become a Jedi-like Warrior-nun. Leia is a warrior, with or without the Force. But she does use it actively to connect. Be it, like in some of the Star Wars comics, to connect with events from a distant past on Naboo or to the creatures and sentient beings around her on her never-ending mission for justice and freedom.
Scarred by battle
In The Force Awakens we meet a Leia who still has that power to connect, again surrounded by a band of resistance fighters that are very loyal to her. She senses Han’s death, which is again framed as if she is a passive listener but in this case it is obvious that it cannot be that way. Rather, she is aware of what is happening because she is reaching out. She opens herself up to this pain, probably knowing its inevitability. The General Leia of the Sequel Trilogy is one scarred by a lifetime of battle and struggle. Yet, without it ever being explicitly said in Episode VII but clearly emphasized in The Last Jedi, Leia actively acts as a source of inspiration and hope.
Again it is interesting to reflect on this: A major component of Luke’s arc in The Last Jedi is that he needs to recognise his important role and a source of inspiration. Of course he ultimately does so and his final act is one of inspiration. But Leia already seems aware of this important aspect of working and living through the Force. In The Last Jedi we for the first time see an unequivocal force-use by Leia. Not only in terms of her connecting to Kylo, or her being the only one who recognizes Luke’s force projection as such!
There is no life in the void
A scene which caused quite a stir among movie-goers who thought they were Star Wars fans was Leia’s survival in the vacuum of space and her ‘force-flight’ back into the safety of her ship. Some mistakenly took this for a ‘return from the dead’ which it wasn’t in any particular way. Just before the bridge of her cruiser is hit you can see her draw breath. After the tumult of the explosion she awakes from what is probably more unconsciousness than death and steers her way back towards the ship. Surely an impressive feat that we have not yet seen previously in Star Wars. But surely not an unreasonable or unlikely one for a character whose entire force-use revolves around being a positive force that surrounds and binds the servants of good: “Life itself, creates it”.
Leia’s return from the void alive is a foreshadowing. She rests unconsciously and awakens when Luke gives up his disconnect from the Force. Before that we did see her actively trying to connect to Luke through the Force but not finding him. Again her Force use in connecting to Luke seems to be passive a first sight, but only if we ignore what happened just prior to it. That active interpretation of her unconsciousness is also suggested by the fact that immediately after her awakening from it, she draws a gun and stuns Poe Dameron thus ending a mutiny. Not the typical course of action for someone who was supposedly barely alive rather more like someone who completed one mission and now is on the next. Leia is always on duty!
All we need is right here
Many reviewers claim it would have been better to let Leia die in space. But they are missing a crucial point: her arc isn’t complete yet. In the final act of The Last Jedi she suffers another painful loss as she has to recognise that her voice in the Galaxy no longer has the reach it once had. Although the Resistance use her personal code, there is no response to their call for assistance. It is Leia’s moment to realize she too needs to hand over. That places the entire arc of Poe in a new light: she is training him to be her successor and in the final moments of their stay in the Rebel base on Crait she does.
But Leia is a woman of many missions. She is a force-sensitive and, in her very own way, a force-user. Yoda’s “pass on what you have learned” in Episode VI spoken to Luke, was interpreted by Luka also as relating to Leia. After suffering also the loss of her brother, Leia has one more batton to pass. And so in the closing shots of the film we see her in conversation with Rey. While the camera zooms out to a wide shot Leia and Rey are turned to eachother in conversation. All other Star Wars Episodes end with stares or gestures, but not with center-frame yet inaudible conversation. Leia and Rey have a lot to talk about! Leia has a lot yet to pass on to Rey what she cannot to Poe.
It had been rumoured from the start of the Sequel Trilogy that Leia would feature heavily in Episode IX. For practical reasons that seems a difficult thing to achieve on-screen, in particular as Lucasfilm declared early on not to consider creating a CGI-Leia for Episode IX. But in reality, not much is needed if we would come to see the transfer of Leia’s knowledge to Rey as the concluding act of her arc. It is clearly already starting in the finale of Episode VIII and there is no reason why much of it couldn’t happen of screen.
With Leia being perhaps Rey’s final teacher, the teacher that Luke didn’t want to be and that Kylo cannot be, the road lies open for a new kind of force-user, a new kind of Jedi. Leia’s force abilities have remained understated because they are so different from Luke’s. Luke was trained more like the Jedi of the Republic-era, Leia developed her senses and skills much more in silence while focussed on her mission.
From the youthful activist, the energetic fighter, the fearless combatant who could not be scared by Sith Lords nor Death Stars, Leia has evolved into a much more complete, much more life-embracing person. That trend had already started in the Original Trilogy and it is now being brought to its stunning conclusion in the Sequel Trilogy. Many fans were convinced that Luke and new apprentices training in his Academy would restore the Jedi Order. But it will be Leia who will be the last one to nudge the last Jedi into a new direction. Rey’s future with the Force will be as much Leia’s legacy as Luke’s, and perhaps even more Leia’s.
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