THIS ESSAY CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER.
READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.
This is the Star Wars essay I didn’t want to write.
Originally, I thought I’d write about the women of Star Wars and the fuckbois who love them. I thought it would be silly and fun, a deep dive into the joy young women find through shipping in a fandom.
But the more I thought about it, the more morose it became.
I started thinking about the connection between romance and loneliness. Then it was just loneliness. Then it was my loneliness — a whole lifetime of it, reflected in Padmé and Leia and Rey.
But I didn’t want to write that.
I procrastinated this essay for weeks because just thinking about it got dangerously close to cracking a wall I built for myself over the past 20 years.
And then “Empress Palpatine” Rey happened, and the wall came tumbling down.
I don’t really have a choice now. This is the Star Wars essay I have to write.
I was born with a name that was not given to me but forced upon me. It belonged to my biological father, and because I had his name, he believed I belonged to him. I never did. It took a long time for both of us to learn that.
One of my earliest memories is using my mother’s name as my last name in elementary school. It wasn’t my legal name, but I used it anyway because her name was my name. My parents had been divorced for a few years by then, and when my biological father found out, he threw a legal shit-fit. The court compromised, forcing my younger brother and me to hyphenate our names. But that was never the name my biological father wrote on my birthday cards. He always and only attached his name to mine.
There is a lot about my biological father I’ve made myself forget. There are a few things I can’t. I remember toting my Star Wars VHS tapes to his apartment almost every weekend. I remember that watching them was a way to escape into a galaxy far, far away rather than face the reality that, even at a young age, I was miserable around him. I remember that he used to tease me and my little brother with the most famous line in Star Wars in his best Darth Vader voice: I am your father.
I’m sure I thought it was funny back then before I knew that he didn’t love me the way a real father should. I think it’s even funnier today. Of all the bad dads in film he could’ve chosen to imitate, he picked the worst one. It fit. He really was my Darth Vader.
He’s the one who took us to see Revenge of the Sith. By that time, I made myself feel indifferent to him. That was a little easier than hate; feeling nothing was preferable to feeling so much. I don’t remember much about that day except that we had to sit in the front row because we were 30 minutes late. He was always late.
Much of my childhood love of Star Wars had dulled by 2005. I was so indifferent to the whole experience that it wasn’t until this past year that I found out there was a whole portion of a Star Wars movie I’d never seen before. Just chalk that up to one more little thing he stole from me. Such a small thing to add to the laundry list. But like so many of the bigger things, it’ll always be there — hanging like an annoying little cloud.
My brother and I got older, and we got smarter. We started to see what he was when around the time of Revenge of the Sith. He was a vampire who sucked money, time and emotional distress from our mom and our real dad, and who constantly tried to use us to hurt them. My brother and I were tools of destruction to him, tools that belonged to him by default. Nothing more.
I don’t have any other explanation beyond sticking it to my mom as the reason why he also constantly tried to tempt us to his side. The Dark Side. But we were smart, and he was see-through. There was nothing on his side but smoke and lies.
My family doesn’t map perfectly onto the Skywalkers. As much as I love her, Padmé was never enough of a character to be a parallel for my own mother beyond the broadest of strokes.
Leia, though. My mom has always been my Leia.
There has never been a time in my life when my mom hasn’t fought tooth and nail against injustice, whether it was deeply personal or outspokenly political. When the world told her she could not, she planted her feet and said, “I can.” She persisted. She never gave up, even when a flawed court system allowed a bullshit MRA lawyer to spin a mother’s protective instincts as “brainwashing.”
As if brainwashing was even the slightest bit necessary when my biological father’s definition of parenting consisted of negging and gaslighting his own children while attempting to indoctrinate them using techniques from a certain cult to which a certain star of Mission: Impossible belongs. Which, if you’re not paying attention, is literal brainwashing. Oh, the irony.
Forces greater than my mom always conspired to make her feel small. She always stood up to them, like tiny little Leia standing up to Vader and Tarkin on the Death Star. If she could’ve choked them out like Leia does Jabba the Hutt, she would’ve. And my real dad, her Han Solo, always supported her. And they always, always, always stood up for their children.
After The Last Jedi, I got about as close as I’ve ever gotten to reckoning with my personal history in tandem with Star Wars. At that point in the story, I thought I was the Kylo Ren of my family — or at least I could’ve been, had I not been able to escape my crushing legacy before it totally consumed me.
It’s funny to read that review now, knowing I was Rey all along.
Let me get this out of the way: I don’t believe the revelation of Rey’s lineage as a Palpatine refutes her journey in The Last Jedi. I know that’s going to be a controversial stance. I know how important it was for a lot of people that Rey came from nowhere and was no one. But it’s just as important to me that The Last Jedi was only half of Rey’s story (or, if you want to get technical, two-thirds).
The Rise of Skywalker was always going to be a J.J. Abrams rehash of Return of the Jedi. Abrams isn’t a particularly original filmmaker, and what he does best is remix familiar stories in thought-provoking ways. On paper, all the Palpatine shit is profoundly stupid. But at the same time, it’s necessary. Without Emperor Palpatine as the ultimate foe, Kylo Ren could never again be Ben Solo (an essay for another time, perhaps), just as Rey could never become anything less than completely and utterly herself.
Skywalker doesn’t make Rey from Nowhere any less important. If anything, it makes it all the more crucial.
Rey grew up alone but unburdened. No familial legacy crushed her the way it did Ben Solo. No doubts about her blood clouded her fundamentally good spirit. Rey was always just Rey.
When Rey sees not her parents but only her own reflection in the mirror cave of Ahch-To during The Last Jedi, she thinks it’s a confirmation of her worst fears. Perhaps it was in that moment, when she so desperately wanted to know her place in the generation-spanning Skywalker saga. The mirror seemingly tells her she’s no one, and Kylo corroborates her history when she’s at her most vulnerable. He thinks this will sway her to his side, but Kylo underestimates her.
When Rey is the most vulnerable, that is when she is also strongest. Because she knows herself. As much as she wants to take Ben’s hand, she can’t — because he is not Ben yet, and there is nothing for her on the Dark Side. Nothing she wants. Nothing but smoke and lies.
And in hindsight, isn’t that vision in the mirror a reassurance more than anything? No one defines Rey but herself.
Rey’s self-acceptance before knowing the full truth about her bloodline is a convenient retcon, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. Without it, Rey’s immediate rejection of the Palpatine name would feel perfunctory at best and repetitive at worst. She literally leaps into space to get away from the truth like Luke did after the Vader revelation (J.J. gonna J.J.), but once on board the Millennium Falcon, she doesn’t deny it.
On some level, Rey always knew the darkness Luke Skywalker saw in her came from somewhere. “Big secret,” remember? But acceptance comes in stages, and it’s natural for Rey to fear what she could become once she knows the truth. She’s already seen how familial darkness can so thoroughly corrupt a person that they lose themselves to it. But, as Luke reminds her at her lowest moment, “Some things are stronger than blood.”
Some things are stronger than blood.
That’s the armor Rey wears when she faces Palpatine. That’s the armor she wears when he greets her as his grandchild and she doesn’t even blink. That’s the armor she uses to hoist him on his own fucking petard.
That’s the armor I needed a long time ago, in a galaxy right down the street.
I haven’t counted the days between the last time I saw my biological father and the first time I saw The Rise of Skywalker. It’s been at least 12 years. I barely even looked at him that day in court when he traded his parental rights in exchange for legal forgiveness of years and years of unpaid child support. He formally stopped being my father that day. “Good riddance to bad rubbish” is the understatement of my entire life.
The last day I saw my biological father was also the day I changed my name.
Although, like J.J. Abrams, I suppose I didn’t choose it as much as I remixed it. My well-intentioned mother gave me an overly complicated first name to honor her grandmothers. There was nothing wrong with it, except that it was never really mine. “Aly” was meant to be a nickname. But to me, it was … well, me. When I changed my name, I kept the spirit of my great-grandmothers’ names, rearranging them a little so they felt less like a burden and more like the right kind of legacy.
I chose me.
And I finally dumped the ugly surname that had been forced on me like it was so much trash. I chose the surname that was always mine, even when I was told it was not.
Aly Luba Caviness is my name. I chose it for myself. I didn’t change it when I got married because I earned it. My childhood was hell because an evil man thought it was his right to make it hell. I survived him. He’s going to die with the knowledge I never belonged to him — not ever, not since the day I was born.
I earned my name. There is darkness in my blood, but my parents were strong. The Dark Side didn’t defeat them, and it will never defeat me, either.
You might have noticed I never put the Palpatine name behind Rey’s. The Rise of Skywalker also refrains from doing this. I know why. It’s not her name at all.
Rey Skywalker is the name she chose for herself. The one she earned.
I can relate to that.