Star Wars: The Return of the Stakes, or The Failure Frontier

Warning: The following contains multiple spoilers for the Star Wars franchise, the Whedonverse, Tolkein, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries - oh, and King Arthur, Beowulf, Hercules, Gilgamesh and the Bible.

Also note: This is long.  There are pictures.

To give you a running start, though, we'll begin with a bit of family history.  Cue the familiar scroll...

I'm here to look pretty and kick ass.  And I just ran out of ass.

A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Right Nearby

My family tree has pirates.

Alright, we've got privateers, which are just legal pirates, but still: I've got outlaw-rebellion-Browncoat-blood running in deep within my veins.

The story goes like this: in the War of 1812, the Mackie brothers were fishing off the Island of Skye when they were impressed into the British navy.  Not caring for this, they jumped ship as soon as they made port in New York City, and joined up with a famous privateer recently hired by the US Government to stop those rascally Brits.  They helped build their pirate ship, the General Armstrong, and went back to sea: this time letting loose upon those periwigged poppinjays.

However, it wasn't long before the General Armstrong was caught by a fleet of British men-of-war crafts headed across the Atlantic to strengthen the English forces in the second Revolutionary war.  The British, recognizing the privateers, directed the entire fleet to give chase, eventually trapping my ancestors on the island of Faial in the Portugese-controlled Azores.

The crescent moon shaped bay helped the scrappy group of privateers to hold off the considerably larger fleet, including three men-of-war vessels, to staggering success.  Among the British, about 200 men were killed or wounded, compared with only two wounded Americans on-board the General Armstrong.

However, when it became apparent that the numbers were simply against them, the privateer captain gave the order to overturn the Armstrong, set it on fire, and take shelter in a Gothic convent on the island - hacking away the drawbridge as they did so.

The British gave pursuit on land, but when their captain's threats against the neutral Portuguese government proved ineffective, the captain asked for the return of two men who had jumped ship - presumably my ancestors, the scrappy Mackie brothers.  The Portugese refused, the British had to turn around and go back to England to deal with damages, and it's possible (at least according to Teddy Roosevelt) that this delay was sufficient to turn the tide of the War of 1812 in favor of the Americans.

(You can read a bit more of the history here.)

Pretty awesome stuff, right?  Scrappy Americans win the day!  David triumphs over Goliath again!  Teensy Rebellion army with a nautical Millennium Falcon trump your enormous Death Planet, or whatever you've got going for you these days.

It's the stuff the American Dream is made of.

Except for one thing:
     It wasn't our actions that won the day; it was our failure.
Mything the Point

We don't like to talk about failure much in our modern day myths.  Going in to see Wonder Woman or the latest Avengers flick, or just about any sci-fi franchise, we enter knowing that the good guys are going to win, and the bad guys are going to lose.  We enter knowing that our screen will be divided up, unambiguously, between "good" and "bad" - the light and dark side of the force, Heaven and Hell, Indiana Jones and face-melting Nazis, Browncoats and the Alliance - hell, even Gryffindor vs. Slytherin.
     We like our myths like we like our brandy: neat.
There certainly is room within mythology to look at the world without ambiguity.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy makes no bones about the irredeemable nature of Sauron, which in turn necessitates the total destruction the One Ring.  In fairy tales and lore, there's a moral absolutism which allows us to kill allegorical wolves with impunity.  In fact, I remember the outrage from my kindergardeners, once, when I tried to tell Peter and the Wolf as it's actually written: with the wolf put in a zoo, and the duck still trapped in its belly.  Sixty pairs of eyes looked at me with contempt and requested the proper ending: with the wolf very, very dead.  (The duck's fate was debated, with myself at last deciding that the wolf burping before his death so the duck could escape was the better part of educational valor.)

There may even be good reason for savoring unambiguous mythology.  As C. S. Lewis describes in the second novel of his Space Trilogy, Perelandra, when Ransom is astonished at the rightness of his truly justified anger at the Un-man; as Christ Himself displayed when He overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple; as so many felt when the abuser priests of Boston came tumbling down a decade ago - sometimes, there really are good guys and bad guys.  Sometimes it's helpful to simply remember there is good and there is evil.  And we're fighting for good.

When these are the stakes, of course, failure is not an option.  Good-enough is insufficient when your aim is Paradise.  And that may be true in the grand eschatology of our souls - but here on earth?  Well, Oscar Wilde said it best: "The good end happily, and the bad unhappily.  This is what Fiction means."  Or, to bring it back to one of my favorite shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

BUFFY. Does it ever get easy?

GILES. You mean life?

BUFFY. Yeah, does it get easy?

GILES. What do you want me to say?

BUFFY. Lie to me.

GILES. Yes. It's terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and...everybody lives happily ever after.

BUFFY. Liar.

Failure and the Fanboy

One of the major complaints lobbed at the latest Star Wars outing, The Last Jedi, as well as its immediate predecessor, Rogue One, is that so many of the missions fail.  "What was the point of Finn and Rose's side adventure?" they ask (as in this great video from Channel Awesome).  "Why was so much time spent on something that failed?"

Or as Rob Bricken wrote on io9:

Everything is perfect.  And nothing truly bad will happen after this moment. 
Except more winning.  By winners.  Winning.  Because: Winners.
"Luke Skywalker was my hero. It’s not that I necessarily considered him the best hero in pop culture, it’s that he was The Hero...When he becomes one with the Force, things are infinitely worse...[than] before Luke starts his journey. Evil rules the galaxy. There are no more than a dozen members left living in the neo-Rebellion...His adventures, his sacrifices, his victories in the three movies that dominated my childhood accomplished nothing, meant nothing."
The underlying assumption, of course, is that age old and peculiarly American belief that individual success is everything.  We are on the Hero's Journey: singular.  It's not about Goodness itself, it's about this winning guy winning.  It's the American Manifest Destiny, the myth of the "Chosen One," of the Nobody fated to be the Somebody, promulgated from every Disney Channel movie to this terrific lampoon by Frye and Laurie.  It's very, well, Charlie Sheen.  Or in the vaguely plural, Trump.

The other assumption at play is the uniquely American Evangelical "saved once, saved always" canard, which in some iterations promises us untold riches if we subscribe to a Jesus of magical thinking; which stops existence as soon as we reach "Happily ever after," as though we could force Heaven on earth; as though Time doesn't march onward and demand not just that we choose goodness once...but that we keep choosing to do good.  Day after day after boring, green-milk swigging day.

The last assumption, and perhaps the most pernicious, is the belief that there is no point to suffering.  That if you cannot reap, you had best not sow.  That success is a zero-sum game, and failure is absolute, unwavering, and eternal.  That we cannot learn from what we lose.  And therefore, in the Siren song of Hollywood, we ought to be young and rich and beautiful forever and ever amen.

The problem of these assumptions is that, ultimately, they are selfish.  It's juvenile solipsism: the belief that the world revolves around myself (or my on-screen avatar).  I must be the hero.  The story ends when I am at my best.  There is no winning if I am not the one who won it.

In this view, there is no room for anyone else to succeed - including my enemies.  In this view, there is no room to keep learning, keep growing; there is only the pinnacle of immobility, and a future frozen in carbonite.  In this view, failure is not just a temporary set-back, or part of every day life.  Failure is nihilism in extreme.  To fail is to suffer cataclysmic defeat, from which there can be no redeemer, because I am the Redeemer.  And what a small redeemer I must be!

To quote G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, addressing the man who "believes in himself":
"Are there no other stories in the world except yours; and are all men busy with your business?...How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers."

It's the End of the World As We Know It

Which brings me back to the question of myth and reality that we began with - and how to look at failure.

The privateers in my family "failed."  Rather than continuing to attack the British forces, they gave up everything like the Rebellion fleet, and rushed to safety to preserve whom they could.  In the end, foreign diplomacy, not themselves, saved the Mackie brothers - and because of that "failure" to keep fighting, I am alive 205 years later to write this blog.

Nor are our myths and legends full of "winning men winning."  King Arthur certainly was the chosen one to be king, but he was not worthy of the Holy Grail.  His own sin caught up with him, as his bastard son destroyed the kingdom he created.  Yet Arthur is a hero.  Hercules certainly succeeded in his twelve trials, but he only underwent those trials because he went mad and murdered his wife and children.  We can attribute his madness to Hera's curse, but it's because Hercules accepted the responsibility of his actions that he sits among the greats.  Beowulf defeated Grendel and his mother, true, but he died in a dragon's maw.  His last act was a failure, and yet he is a hero because he persevered.  Gilgamesh, that ur-myth, faced the failure we all must suffer - that is, Death.  And although he was a half-god, he could not defeat our final end but surrendered all to it.

King Arthur's death, by John Mulcaster Carrick

Such large and epic defeats may be easier to bear, but the pressing complaint is that of Poe's defeat, Finn and Rose's fruitless mission, the multiple deaths of Rogue One.  To which I say: Bravo.  Bring it on.  And here's why:

Let There Be Stakes!

Beyond any philosophical or theological argument, one of the dangers of "The Chosen One" manifesting destiny in a Single Winning Bloodline of "Good Guys" that there's simply no drama.

Amp up the action all you want: I personally get bored of watching X-wing fighters aiming for conveniently placed plot holes time and time again.  The Prequels suffered the same fate, albeit on the other side of the coin: Would Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side of the Force?  Yawn.  And get your Jar-Jar CGI off my damn lawn.

I'm not the hero, but I'm going to fight you anyway.

It's my same problem with the early Harry Potter novels: Gee!  Will he get through it?  Well, whose name is in the title?  (Personally, I've always been team Neville.)  Suzanne Collins managed to avoid this trope somewhat in the Hunger Games books (not the movies) by writing in first person, present tense, so that although the story was narrated by Katniss Everdeen, since we were reading "in real time," our protagonist could theoretically bite it at any second.

Falling into this trap of "The Good Guys Are Always Safe Because" is the trope, too common among CW shows of a certain genre, such as Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries, wherein each season hinges on whether so-and-so will get pulled down to Hell and Die Forever And Ever...Until Next Season.  Year after year slogs on in a Chosen One see-saw effect of Lead #2 taking Lead #1's place in (Supposedly) Eternal Damnation.  So that the following season reverses this as Lead #1 takes Lead #2's place...until the next season where Lead #2 jumps back into death for Lead #1, who the that I end up yelling at my screen: "ONE OF YOU DIE ALREADY!"

But they can't die.  They can't fail.  They are "chosen."  There are no stakes.

I can't remember, Dean!  Whose turn is it to die?

Compare this to the Whedonverse where everyone is notoriously on notice.  In the movie Serenity, when Wash died, just as soon as our scrappy crew seemed to be in the clear, it hurt.  It hurt because we, the audience, were on the verge of success - finally.  And then just as Wash piloted us to safety like a leaf on the wind, he was impaled.  And Joss being Joss: that's it.  Should the crew of the Firefly ever get together again, it will be without that dinosaur loving pilot.

Wash failed.  And that's why Wash matters.

Tolkien is, by his detractors, ridiculed for this "good/evil" seeming simplicity in his Lord of the Rings novels.  But his trilogy is never so shallow.  Frodo isn't chosen to take the One Ring.  He isn't even qualified.  But he sees a need and, to the best of his ability, fulfills it.  Nor is he successful in his mission, ultimately.  It is the failure of Frodo and the success of Gollum that ultimately leads to the destruction of the One Ring.  Just as it was the "failure" of Frodo's uncle Bilbo to kill Gollum all those years ago, that ultimately led to the salvation of the world.

May the Failure Be With You

When I first watched Rogue One - and full disclosure, I went in fairly blind - I presumed that this would be the start to a new franchise.  I enjoyed the characters, especially the blind non-Jedi and the new robot (that's how I thought of them, the new Star Wars names being somewhat less memorable than the original trilogy's).  As the movie progressed, I began envisioning the pleasure of seeing this rag-tag crew in their further adventures.  Since naturally, Corporate Hollywood being what it is, they would never pass up the opportunity to take more of our hard-earned cash.  I had absolute belief in everyone's success.  Because that's how Star Wars works.

Then - just in the middle of when the Rebels must succeed, they must, because I knew Luke Skywalker and company saw the plans the Rogue One team was getting...

K-2S0 died.

O Droid, my Droid.

My jaw dropped.  He wasn't...dead, surely.  He was a droid, right?  He could be put back together.

And then another one of the crew fell.  And another.  And another.  And another.  And the whole damn world exploded.  And all our heroes came to the end of their journey.

And the plans - the Good that they were pursuing as a team - got passed into the hands of other, nameless Rebels.  Unknown redshirts (or white helmets) who, despite this, must survive.  Because Luke Skywalker had seen the Death Star plans and...


Darth Vader came on: the most horrifying he had ever been.  Swiping Rebel after Rebel away.  Succeeding on an epic and disgustingly casual scale.  Succeeding as the greatest Force user would succeed if small little Rebels were in his way.

The plans got to Leia, of course, but barely.  Hope was achieved, but now we knew the cost.
     Success had come precisely because so many heroes had failed.
I'm Just a Poe Boy, I Get No Sympathy

In the light of this, let's take a look at the failures of The Last Jedi.

Others have spoken about the political and cultural overtones of having women in charge of the Rebellion, of Kylo Ren's exemplar of toxic masculinity and white male privilege, so I'll leave those for now.  Instead, let's consider the details of the plot.

From the first battle, we expect success.  Moderate success, perhaps, a rousing space battle led by Han Solo-step-in, Poe Dameron, dashing around a dreadnaught and taking canons out Skywalker style.  And so he does.  But immediately after we're treated to the reality of what a small force against a well-armed fleet might look like in reality as Rebel ship after ship, bearing cargo holds full of explosives, implode on themselves.  It was Rogue One all over again, as a nameless woman gave her life to take out a single dreadnaught.  From the beginning, this was a movie about the cost of a life lived at war.

Everything's fine here.  We're all fine.  How are you?

Little wonder, then, that Poe was demoted by General Leia Organa, or that Vice Admiral Holdo saw no reason to trust the man who defied direct orders and couldn't even achieve a Pyrrhic victory for the Rebellion.  Poe - epically - failed.

His further attempts to gain control of the situation, from helping Rose and Finn to escape on an insane quest to infiltrate the First Order via hacker at casino, to daring to mutiny against his superior officer, are examples of faux-success.  Poe successfully helps Rose and Finn.  Poe successfully takes over command of the ship.  Poe even successfully took out one dreadnaught.  But through these very seeming successes, Poe was failing the Rebellion.  Because he couldn't let Holdo succeed, he was risking everybody's death.

Meanwhile, in the too-reviled casino scene, Rose and Finn are on track to Beat the Odds™ through spunk, gumption, will-power, and can-do attitudes.  Who they meet is a hacker, played by Benicio Del Toro who, among everyone we have ever met in the Star Wars universe, is undeniably successful.  His allegiance is to no one but himself - and he succeeds; switching sides as will benefit him.  The people at the casino, arms dealers all, are likewise winners winning.  They benefit from every failure: Rebel or First Order.  Even the loss of their space-horses won't really affect them.  The "failure" of losing a few coins to the dice won't phase them.  The destruction in the wake of the Rebels leaving can't touch them.

In fact...

     The beauty of the casino scene is that it shows the inertia of success.

Everyone who should be here is here.  All the time.  Winning.

A Rey of Hope

Looking at success/failure in the other storylines, some complain that because Luke Skywalker has aged and become the whiny mentor instead of the kick-ass hero, he has failed.  (They apparently don't remember the whiny kid from Tattooine in A New Hope.)  And, indeed, Luke has failed: failed who he could have been, failed Kylo Ren by doubting there was goodness in him, failed Rey by refusing to be her Yoda...just as he failed Yoda by running away from his training in The Empire Strikes Back all those years ago.

Yet, like the heroes of old, Luke can always learn, always change, always grow.  He can be humble enough to listen to Yoda, even when he fails at destroying the Jedi tree.  He can fail to survive, in order to allow his sister to live.  He can "fail" being the ur-hero, and allow a new generation to take their places in life.

One thing they don't teach you in Jedi camp is how to hold a damn hand.

The majority of the tension between Rey and Kylo Ren - arguably the most compelling plot of the movie - hinges on the far more subtle question of: which way lies success?  Rey faces the dark side, plunging in head first.  Is this a moral success or failure?  Kylo kills Snoke to save Rey, but then fails to let her save his soul.  Does Kylo's Skywalker-Solo bloodline make him a Chosen One, or is his failure to live up to Darth Vader his success?  Does Rey's lack of Chosen One parentage mean that she's a failure, or is her success in her pursuit of her vocation?  Further, what happens if they fail to let the past die?  Do they succeed if they just perpetuate the evils of their predecessors (especially the return of Jar Jar Binks)?  Which way lies success? Who's right?

Those questions likely won't be answered - if they're answered at all - until the next movie.  But in the meantime, we see the similar redemption arc of Poe, Finn and Rose as all three learn that success can sometimes come in the form of following orders, listening and trusting your superiors, failing to die and allowing yourself to be rescued.  In short those unsexy virtues of humility.  Survival.  Putting the other first. 

Had they, like Kylo, clung fast to vainglorious rage - to their idea of success - then we might call them failures.  But since they learn from when they fall, they transform that very failure into, well...

NOTE: Vice Admiral Holdo was incorrectly called Vice General Holdo in a previous draft.  Thanks to Star Wars aficionado Jay Kersting for the correction. 

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  1. Y'know, still haven't seen any of the new Star Wars movies. But I may now. Deeply missing Firefly and not sure I want to watch Serenity. Totally agree about the brothers Winchester and loved your caption for their picture. One of my favorite pieces of fanfic gives them a believable and any-season-appropriate end that I really wish would happen just so that story can END. And whole-heartedly agree about Frodo.

    But of all the things I absolutely could take away from your post, what sticks in the wrinkles of my brain? Perriwigged poppinjays!

  2. I sill maintain the Casino sequence was poorly done in some crucial ways.

    However, I agree with your central thesis, with every drop of blood in my often-broken heart. Cyrano dying with nothing but his panache. A hundred men saying "I am Spartacus." The heroes of Dunkirk who did nothing but survive to fight another day. Abraham Lincoln allowing himself to be humiliated over and over again, just to help improve the chances of victory. Even the Son of God who could sweep aside the sins of man with a thought, but chose instead to suffer and die thus uniting the Mortal and the Divine. The Boddisatva turning to the rest of creation before entering Nirvana and saying "You first." Not the way of the action hero, but the real Hero. Brava.

    1. Zahir - so well put. And, I'll cede that DRAMATURGICALLY the Casino sequence didn't *quite* fit in as well as it THEMATICALLY did. (Haven't entirely puzzled out why yet. But I think it's really all technical elements that didn't quite support it.)

    2. Hi Emily,

      The casino scene didn't fit "dramaturgically", I think, for two reasons:

      1) It was tonally different from the rest of the movie, and not always in subtle ways. The creature design, the riffs on familiar things like slot machines or rich guys calling their girl "lovey" or an alien with a Texas accent, and even the bright colors and clean atmosphere were very "prequel-ey", for lack of a better term. But I know you know what I mean.

      2) The pacing was off and the plotting was sloppy, especially in the jail sequence. They just randomly found a guy who could do what they needed, but he also wasn't the guy they were looking for? Just, right there, in the prison cell next to theirs? He wasn't planted there by anyone, he wasn't looking for them, there was no indication that the red flower they were looking for was actually his. A total, random, and silly coincidence that somehow works out for them. We can't even blame it on the Force this time, because it led to nothing significant.

  3. Wait. Let's define "failure" a bit more carefully. In my book, the heroes in ROGUE ONE (including the White Helmets) do not fail. They get the plans. They transmit the plans. They are totally, Death-Star-smashingly successful. They just all die. If ROGUE ONE were written to the same paradigm as THE LAST JEDI, then Mon Mothma would have known all along of another way to get the plans, and Jyn's attempt to get the plans would not only have been wrong, it would have really failed (i.e. she would never have acquired and/or transmitted the plans at all). There may be room for a movie like that -- I didn't like LAST JEDI, but I concede the theory -- but let's not confuse: 1) failing at something that is worth attempting, 2) failing at something that is wrong to attempt, and 3) succeeding, but at tremendous cost.

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