Read Part 1 of this analysis here. This segment continues where we left off, diving right into the madness we’re supposed to accept as appropriate storytelling out of Poe’s and Finn’s arcs through The Last Jedi. Poe will learn that leadership is subservience and that ignorance is knowledge, while Finn will learn that no cause is ever good enough to warrant dying for. Except sometimes when it is.
In Which Poe Has to Learn to Obey Authority Unquestioningly
To review: Poe has no arc prior to the events of The Last Jedi. In fact, he has no character, either, aside from a handsome face for toy boxes and movie posters. All we know about him is that he’s apparently a really great pilot.
We begin the movie with a daring and inappropriately slapstick scene in which Poe demonstrates his piloting finesse, reminding us of his prowess behind the controls and demonstrating his willingness to stake his life on the success of the Resistance. Ostensibly, he’s buying time preoccupying the First Order’s fleet while the evacuation of a rebel base completes, yet his actions seem to have very little to do with the orbital bombardment that his adversarial ship is dishing out in spades. Instead, after knocking out their point-defense canons, he calls in a massive bombing attack on the enormous Dreadnaught cruiser—a ship so powerful, he exclaims, that it could easily wipe out the pittance of a fleet that the Resistance has left.
All of this is well and good, except that he’s doing it against orders. After clearing out the point-defense turrets, he’s recalled back to the Resistance’s command ship so they can jet out of there. Seemingly, his job preoccupying the fleet is done. But now plot ceases to make sense; there’s the dramatic tension of defying orders written into the script, as if he had taken complete command of the assault team and hijacked the entire operation on the spur of the moment. But the problem is that this isn’t what seems to be depicted on screen. He defies the order to retreat and withdraw, and instead takes this newly-opened opportunity to send in a large squadron of humorously lumbering bombers in order to take out the enemy Dreadnaught. And he succeeds, although only at the cost of the entire squadron. While this does diminish Resistance materiel and manpower, and while it comes across as something of a pyrrhic victory, the objective that Poe set was met—a fleet-destroying super ship was taken down at the cost of a dozen or so bombers and their three-man crews. In other words, an enormous battleship sunk at the expense of thirty-six heroic lives. That doesn’t seem bad for an engagement involving most of the First Order’s fleet.
He returns to the ship, they jump into hyperspace, and as a penalty for disobeying orders, he’s demoted. Fair enough, but then Leia utters the first of many idiotic lines that comes to define the plot of The Last Jedi: “Dead heroes,” she says, were all out there assaulting the Dreadnaught, “but no leaders.” And yet leadership is exactly what Poe demonstrated. Bad leadership, perhaps, depending on the tactical viability of sacrificing a dozen bombers and their crews, but they seemed to attack on his orders and by his lead, and they accomplished the mission that was before them. And this is in addition to the fact that the bombers were already primed and ready to go before the events of Poe’s initial turret-clearing escapade. The dialogue suggests that it was an impromptu decision to bomb the Dreadnaught into smithereens, and yet the entire operation from the beginning seems geared toward doing just that—far from a spur-of-the-moment decision on Poe’s end, this operation had to have been planned before they even left the hangar bay. So while central command may have decided that the risks were too great after Poe had cleared the way for the bombers, that isn’t what we’re told. What we’re told is that Poe took matters into his own hands and ordered a bombing run that got a bunch of brave Resistance men and women killed, but what we watched was Poe ignoring central command’s trepidation and following through on a dangerous mission to annihilate a weapon far more dangerous and costly to the First Order than the losses the Resistance incurred. Insubordinate he may be, but nothing here implies that he didn’t behave as a leader is supposed to.
In any case, this is the starting point of his arc: Leia’s direct assertion that dead heroes don’t make leaders, with the added implication that heroism and leadership are two distinct qualities that are mutually exclusive. Poe spends much of the rest of The Last Jedi attempting to reconcile this obvious contradiction in terms, and, like the audience, he doesn’t.
After his demotion, the bizarre and insufferably condescending Admiral Holdo is instated while Leia recovers from a plot-induced aneurysm. At this point, the Resistance has been tracked through hyperspace and attacked again, a feat previously considered impossible. With the odds stacked so completely against them, Poe suggests a variety of military operations to Holdo only to be shot down again and again; the only orders he’s ever issued is to remain on standby and to shut up. Left completely in the dark, without even the assurance that his commanding officer has any plan, much less one of his, he’s left to his own devices.
Later on, Poe learns of the method with which the First Order was able to track the Resistance through hyperspace, and he quietly sends Finn and Rose—volunteers, in fact—on what’s effectively a suicide mission to disable it. We’ll get to how that goes when we address Finn’s arc, but the in short: it fails, as expected at this point, and we quickly move on. Poe, having found out that Holdo wants to use the transports and abandon the capital ship altogether, is incensed at Holdo’s apparent inability to plan and willingness to send the Resistance to their cold deaths in the vacuum of space. The transports, he exclaims, will be easy pickings for the First Order fleet, while the capital ship at least offers some defenses for the time being. Holdo, again tight-lipped and unwilling to explain the situation or her plan, just tells him to go away. Instead, Poe has revolted and commandeered the ship in hopes that Finn and Rose pull through. Upon finding out of that plan’s failure, Poe is subdued by a serendipitously-revived Leia and forced into a transport vessel for evacuation.
So it all works out—or seems to. Poe, having been given an appropriately condescending dressing-down by Leia and Holdo, is brought into the loop: there’s an old rebel base that they’ve been fleeing to on sublight power this whole time, and if he’d only followed the orders Holdo had given him—do nothing, and continue to do nothing—everything would have been fine. Indeed, true leadership, this enigmatic quality that Poe has been searching for this whole movie, is to listen resolutely to your orders and never to question them when they seem to be leading everyone you care about into certain death. Leadership, too, means emulating Holdo or Leia, which is to say, “act as condescendingly as possible toward those under your command and never to explain your orders to anyone, even those tasked with making your orders legible to the troops in the field.”
These are, in fact, bizarro-world definitions of leadership, in case anyone was wondering.
Now I get it, everyone gets it—it’s not a military leader’s prerogative to explain his orders nor is it a captain’s right to know how his piece of the operations fits into the broader picture. But that isn’t the point; different circumstances call for different operations. If Holdo was, in fact, as good a leader as we’re told she is through the dialogue, then she would have found how to use Poe as an asset instead of stubbornly trying to keep a blindfold over his eyes and sequester him in a closet. We’ve seen demonstrated time and again that Poe’s first and only priority is to the survival of the Resistance and what it stands for; leaving an asset like that, who has demonstrated some of the hardest principles of command while he’s under fire, in the dark about a such a simple plan of evacuation is beyond the scope of mere incompetence and bleeds dangerously into a petty political game to bolster Holdo’s ego. All this information and action has done is make Holdo look like a legitimate lunatic.
And it’s about here in the story where hell really breaks lose, because it turns out that the very thing Poe had warned Holdo of—using transports instead of the capital ship they left behind—is coming true. Their transports are being picked off as target practice for the First Order, and from the looks of the action, less than half of them actually reach their target destination. So Poe was right after all: using the transports was a horrifyingly bad decision. Even though he was forced into submission, he finds out that even had he obeyed the order to board the transports, it wouldn’t have mattered because the plan to leave the capital ship in the first place was a deadly one.
So what exactly is the movie trying to say? Apparently, that Poe was right all along about the definition of leadership, and that the women who commanded him were just incompetent lunatics more interested in grandstanding (Holdo) or too tired to think clearly (Leia).
This is not a good storyline. Poe has effectively spent his entire arc spinning his wheels, second-guessing himself, and trying to make ends meet, only to find out that he was right all along and that there was no point in anything that he tried to accomplish. Rather than a meditation on the nature of failure, this is outright nihilism.
Poe’s arc effectively concludes by the time they reach the surface of this mysterious new planet, but one pivotal scene remains. We’ll discuss that in the next section, as that scene serves as the anti-climax to Finn’s arc, despite the obvious parallels it holds to the opening of Poe’s.
In Which Finn Has to Learn to Not Fucking Kill Himself
We move on to Finn.
Finn was, surprisingly enough, given the beginnings of an arc in the previous installment, The Force Awakens. And then unsurprisingly enough, that arc was cut short and rendered meaningless before the movie ended. To recap:
Finn, an ex-janitor-turned-stormtrooper inexplicably handpicked for a special-ops mission led by Kylo Ren himself, has misgivings about the First Order after his friend gets killed in combat, so he defects with the help of Poe. Through a series of events, he meets and befriends Rey, and soon enough, they end up at a galactic crossroads where they could go their separate ways. Rey feels betrayed when he decides to jump ship and get as far from the First Order as he possibly can, but he shakes that feeling of betrayal off and hitches a ride with some sketchy characters to God-knows-where. A cowardly move, he knows, but at the same time, he reasons, anyone dumb enough to attack the First Order head-on deserves what they’re going to get.
But he has a change of heart, and decides that Rey really is his friend after all. Reversing course and deciding to help her, he prepares to meet his redemptive climax and rescue her from the clutches of his old psychopathic boss, only to discover that she doesn’t really need him to do that. She rescues herself effortlessly and without explanation, leaving Finn—and the audience—wondering why he had decided to come back in the first place. But that’s okay, because he’s given another chance to defend her from his old psychopathic boss, dramatically taking the duck-masked villain on mano-a-mano in a snowy forest on a planet about to be destroyed. But it turns out, to nobody’s surprise, that his old boss is actually really, really good at mano-a-mano combat, and he dispatches Finn almost instantly and puts him in a coma. Poor Finn!
Finn begins his arc in The Last Jedi approximately where it left off in The Force Awakens: a coma. He comes to, immediately thinking of Rey, a girl he’s only known for a couple of hours and had maybe two conversations with—one of which was mostly a pack of lies. Rey is still his friend, though, and he wants to make sure she’s okay.
This is why we find him attempting to slink away on an escape pod after an attack by the First Order incapacitates Leia. Leia, it’s mentioned, has some kind of transponder that will lead Rey back to the Resistance after she’s found Luke. Finn ends up in possession of this transponder when Leia is taken out of the action, and he decides that Rey coming back into the middle of this nightmare would be a disaster for her. So his plan is to get himself, and the transponder, as far away from the First Order as is possible.
This doesn’t really make that much sense, given that the whole purpose of Rey’s current adventure is to bring Luke back to the Resistance so he can do some Force magic and fix everything, and all Finn would be doing in this case is leading them further astray, but it’s established already that Finn isn’t exactly the brightest bulb on the block and he’s at least looking out for his friend’s well-being.
In any case, he’s discovered by Rose, and the two of them, using their janitorial knowledge, figure out how the First Order was able to track the Resistance through hyperspace. They go to Poe with this knowledge, figure out a way to disable it, and then Poe sends them on the dangerous mission to disable it. But he leaves the transponder with Poe, which calls into question his original reason for jumping ship. Maybe he’s still a coward underneath it all and was just using the transponder thing as an excuse to bail on the Resistance. Hard to tell, really.
Through a clumsily handled-escapade on the casino planet, Finn learns through Rose that good things are good (this is almost a line of dialogue), and that, presumably, they’re worth fighting for. Unfortunately, he learns this after they have used the help of enslaved children to steal a group of race horses, only to leave all of the enslaved children in captivity. But apparently, rescuing enslaved children never crosses either his or Rose’s mind.
But, having learned that good things are good, he’s confronted with a morally ambiguous code breaker character who bemusedly explains that all those bad rich men who sold the First Order their big bad guns also outfitted the Resistance with their X-Wings, so maybe good things aren’t always good. Maybe, Finn starts to think, things are actually complicated. They make it back to the First Order’s fleet and smuggle themselves onto the ship carrying the special tracking mechanism that started this tangent, only to get captured and sold out by our morally ambiguous code breaker character. Good things might not be good, but man, bad things are definitely bad, and Finn finds that out first hand as his other old psychopathic boss, the silver-clad Amazon woman who calls everything scum, is about to have him beheaded. Amusingly, Finn insists that the code breaker’s detached cynicism and pragmatic opportunism might be the wrong way of going about things, and that good things might very well be good, after all. It is the code breaker’s humility that allows him the response, “maybe.”
Over the course of a climactic fight, Finn beats up his Amazonian boss and declares his allegiance to the Resistance, having decided that good things are still good even if they seem complicated. There’s no clear line of reasoning as to how he arrived at this conclusion, other than probably thinking that the First Order wants to kill him and the Resistance wants to prevent other people from getting killed. His mind and heart resolute, he escapes with Rose back to their fleet—which has landed now on that secret planet with the old rebel base. The First Order tracks them all down, there’s another giant laser involved, and one last line of defense is erected to push the First Order back while they eagerly await the arrival of Luke Skywalker—who they don’t realize yet isn’t coming.
And here comes the climactic moment which is, in theory, supposed to parallel the events of the opening scene. Instead of leading a taskforce of bombers to assault a heavily-reinforced Dreadnaught, Poe instead leads a small taskforce of junk speeders to assault a giant laser capable of blasting open their base. And, right as the speeders are within range of assaulting the laser directly, despite having taken heavy losses, Poe—in contrast to his earlier call against the Dreadnaught—calls off the attack. According to script-writing, this would exemplify and validate Poe’s arc, having learned something over the events of the movie and demonstrating proper leadership in the face of insurmountable odds. But there are two big problems: first, we’ve already established now that Poe’s arc was meaningless because he hadn’t really learned anything. And second, the nature of the mission itself is not an adequate parallel to the mission at the opening of the film.
Finn decides, against orders, to ram the laser in a suicide attack. He refuses to break off the assault, claiming that he’s in range to do some real damage and, quite possibly, save his friends from certain death. He decides this course of action in the moment and on the fly, it wasn’t in the pre-planned briefing back in the hangar bay like the bomber squadron’s orders were at the beginning. This was a conscious, impulsive, and pretty heroic move to take out the enemy’s sole method of entering their base using the only means he had at his disposal.
But of course, true to Star Wars’ treatment of Finn, he gets his arc hijacked yet again! Rose, in a daring move that nearly kills them both, crashes her speeder into his before he has the chance to take out the laser. Crawling to her cockpit to figure out what the hell her problem is, she declares her love for him and claims that instead of fighting their enemies, the Resistance will win the day merely by protecting what they love. In her case, that means crashing a speeder into it. Kamikaze attacks, she implies, are to be used only against your friends, while your enemies must be allowed to take and conquer and destroy whatever of yours they can get their hands on. With friends like Rose, who needs enemies? For that matter, with characters like Rose, who needs villains?
So we have the next ludicrous parcel of morality spoon-fed to us: love is selfishness, and self-sacrifice is a form of vice. Good things are good, Rose seems to be saying, but only when she says they are, and they aren’t worth dying over. Better to strike your friends than to hit your enemies.
Or, more likely, the movie is simply depicting Rose as having been so psychologically broken by the events of the war that she has gone completely mad. That has to be it. Then laser goes off and blows a big hole in the rebel base, by the way, leaving the entire project exposed to the First Order’s shelling.
Just to reiterate, Rose sacrifices herself to save what she loves, in order to prevent what she loves from sacrificing himself in order to save what he loved. So self-sacrifice seems to be good when it’s done it for selfish reasons, but it’s apparently bad when it’s done in the interests of a broader, common good. That can’t be right, because just a few scenes earlier, that crazy admiral Holdo sacrificed herself in a move that took out most of the First Order’s fleet and did catastrophic damage to an incomprehensibly gargantuan threat—and it worked.
It’s almost like this movie just wants women to be thrown into harm’s way and is telling men to step on back and let them get killed.
Man, that really makes you think.