I mean, I’m not. But other people are.
At first glance, there’s an interesting theme at work in The Last Jedi. That theme seems to turn on practically every female character in the film looking to their male cohort and saying “Don’t do that!” and the men turning around and saying “I’m definitely going to do that!” And then things go generally wrong and we all plant our faces in our hands and sigh.
Here’s a brief (not comprehensive) list to that end:
- Leia tells Poe not to continue his attack on the Dreadnought, but he does;
- Rose tells Finn how disappointed she is to see Resistance fighters trying to cut and run, then realizes he’s doing that exactly that;
- Amilyn Holdo repeatedly tells Poe to stop bothering her about her plans for the fleet, he commits mutiny after barging in on said plans;
- Rey tells Kylo Ren to join her instead of continuing on his path to dark side domination, he refuses;
- Rose tells Finn that stopping the battering ram cannon isn’t worth his life, he proceeds to ignore her and nearly dies;
There has been a lot of discussion around this trend in the movie, but particularly around the actions of Poe Dameron and his flagrant disobedience within the chain of command. He refuses to listen to Leia, and the dreadnought attack depletes the Resistance of its bombers and many fighters, too. He demands that Holdo answer his questions even when she is under no obligation to do so, given his demotion and her position as fleet commander. He sends Finn and Rose off on a mission to save the fleet, in direct violation of Holdo’s orders, and that mission winds up putting the Resistance in even more danger. He commits mutiny and is only stopped by Leia Organa marching onto the command ship bridge—having just awoken from a coma—and stunning him.
Yet in the scene immediately following, Leia and Amilyn stare at Poe’s unconscious form fondly, and the Vice Admiral tells her old friend: “I like him.” Leia wryly agrees. The entire tenor of the conversation is more akin to the antics of a hyper child being discussed by his mother and aunt. It almost seems strange coming from two high-ranking women who have been putting up with Captain Dameron’s constant insubordination throughout the entire film. On the surface, and especially when compared with everything else happening on screen, this is just another example of some young guy thinking that he knows better the women around him.
And sure, that is absolutely a valid interpretation of the film. But there’s a lot going on in The Last Jedi that requires a larger galactic context to appreciate. Poe’s behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and everything that happens in Episode VIII is addressing a much larger issue that the Resistance has to contend with:
The legacy of the Rebel Alliance.
The Last Jedi is all about legacy and heroism, specifically the way it distorts our understanding of events and becomes over-relied upon in present day as a form of misguided motivation. Luke Skywalker’s journey is about the heroism problem specifically, which I’ve unpacked previously. But legacy as it pertains to heroism is the problem that the Resistance has, especially where its younger members are concerned. The story of Poe’s mutiny, and Rose and Finn’s largely ineffectual Canto Bight sojourn, is not about men ignoring the sage advice of women—it’s about a young generation who grew up on stories of the glorious Rebellion, and don’t yet understand that the road they want to travel is not all about firefights and glory.
Poe Dameron’s parents were both members of the Rebellion. They fought alongside Han Solo and Princess Leia, and Poe’s mother was a fighter pilot who died suddenly when he was only eight years old. He is primed for this narrative. It is in his bones, in the stories that his father told him and the ones his mother never wanted to share. Many members of the Resistance are likely in the same boat, kids who learned about the Rebellion after the Empire was long gone. It’s a story to them. A beautiful story with unlikely odds that freed the galaxy from tyranny.
And in that story, the “good guys” didn’t always listen to their commanding officers. And they didn’t care if they made it out alive.
One of the greatest heroes of the Rebellion—Han Solo—was practically always there on his own terms. In the end he stayed because he fell in love, but he helped to destroy the Death Star by showing up last second, completely outside the Alliance’s command structure, to blow away some TIE fighters and give Luke Skywalker the shot he needed. Luke himself just nabbed his X-Wing and wandered off to a swamp planet so he could train as a Jedi without telling anyone in the Rebellion that he was taking a sabbatical. When he made the choice to confront Vader and the Emperor, he was absolutely not under orders to do so. If Leia hadn’t showed up on an Ewok walkway to say goodbye, no one would have likely known where he went… but there was every chance that he was walking straight to his death.
Of course, let’s not forget the big one. You know, the fact that the Rebellion only got their hands on the Death Star plans at all because a woman named Jyn Erso led a small band of Rebel officers and allies to a planet called Scarif, and forcibly liberated those plans from a computer core. After they’d been expressly told not to do that by all of the Rebellion’s leadership.
And every single one of them died.
This is the story of how the Rebel Alliance defeated the Empire, how they brought down an unstoppable regime with a ragtag group of ruffians and discontent politicians and old military dogs. They worked together when it mattered most, but the large strokes of the Alliance narrative is written in blood and sacrifice and often thinking beyond your brief. The Alliance is technically a military organization, but it’s not built up like one. They don’t have recruitment centers and bootcamps and training runs. It’s not a job or career, it’s a cause. You’re there because you’re passionate about the work.
It’s important to remember that this is the same framework that applies to the Resistance. When Leia poaches Poe, he’s a disgruntled pilot in the New Republic Starfleet, angry that the current government refuses to meet the rising First Order threat head-on. He joins Leia to do something. To make his skills count where they’re needed. And when Leia takes him on, she sees something familiar in him, qualities that she knows all too well. She makes the choice to start molding him into another Resistance leader, and spends time teaching him valuable lessons. In fact, the entire Poe Dameron comic run has been focused on this journey, on the ways that Poe is being groomed for more responsibility, step by step…
…particularly because Leia knows she won’t always be around to do this work.
There’s a reason Poe straightens up expectantly before Commander D’Acy announces that it’s Holdo who will be taking over the fleet while Leia is unconscious, and it’s not just ego. He’s supposed to be in charge of this group one day. He knows that is the endgame Leia had in mind—he just doesn’t see how much more he has to learn. He cannot see the wisdom in Leia’s rebuke after he tells her that the people who destroyed the First Order dreadnought were heroes, and she replies: “Dead heroes. No leaders.”
But pointedly, it’s not just Poe learning all of this. He is central to the arc because he’s expected to lead the charge next, but Finn is learning right alongside him. So is Rose. And so are the others who mutiny with Poe, many of them pointedly younger remembers of the Resistance, including Lieutenant Connix and C’ai Threnalli. All these kids think they’re doing the right thing—more specifically, they think they’re doing what Leia would have wanted. They don’t know Holdo, and they are deeply loyal to their general. They think they are going Rogue One all over Holdo, being the savvy, insubordinate heroes. Their mistake is in assuming that Leia would have anyone on this team she didn’t trust.
The Last Jedi is Poe Dameron’s final lesson. And that lesson is simple: The truest heroes don’t fuss over glory and optics. They don’t care if they’re even called heroes. They stay and they keep their heads down, and they do the work. They stick with it after losing everything, over and over again, because the welfare of others matters more than their individual loss and pain. They don’t make sacrifice plays unless they’re going to count. They don’t commit to grand gestures that look good symbolically, but leave them scrambling in reality. Hotshot pilots are all over this damn galaxy, but real leaders… they are a handful in billions.
It’s a high price to pay for that lesson, and it should be. Because they are in the middle of a war, and those lessons are never going to be free.
After watching Holdo’s sacrifice—the one that counts—Poe finally gets it. And when he leads an attack on the First Order’s battering ram cannon and realizes that it’s a suicide mission, he thinks of the cost, for the very first time. He thinks of all the friends he’s about to lose, he thinks of what meager victory they will attain, he thinks about whether his death is actually worth it this time around, and he realizes that the answer is no. He orders everyone to break off. Finn takes more convincing than he should, but Rose is thankfully there to crash some sense into him.
Poe Dameron finally puts it all together. He forgoes heroics and becomes a leader. He gives his life to the Resistance—not in a glittering explosion, but in time. This is it for him. His real calling, the one he’ll never be rid of. This is the part of the fight that really hurts because it’s never over, the commitment that does nothing but take and take and take until you think there’s nothing left. Then you stand up and commit to it all over again because you’re not dead yet. You’re here.
And Leia knows, because she always does. When Poe figures out how they might get out of the Crait base alive, everyone looks to her for the okay, as they’ve done for decades. She comically glances backward to see if there’s anyone behind her, then says, “What are you all looking at me for? Follow him.”
It’s a wonderfully anticlimactic torch-passing, which seems only right for someone as no-nonsense as General Leia Organa. And just like that, the Resistance is reborn. Not to kids who are going to give up their lives at the first chance to do something valiant, but to tomorrow’s leaders who will stop at nothing to restore the galaxy’s freedom.
While it may hurt to watch our heroes make such dire mistakes in order to find that path, it’s refreshing to see Star Wars acknowledge that your average person doesn’t just know these things innately. We can’t all be Leia Organa, so sure of ourselves from the very beginning and regal beyond measure. So cognizant of what it takes to make a difference in our day to day lives. This new generation of fighters has learned that hardest lesson of all—that sacrifice is overrated, and trust born out of love for friends and comrades will always win the day (even if that win seems far too small). Now the real struggle comes: the day-to-day minutiae of building and running a Resistance that can truly burn the First Order to the ground.
And Poe Dameron is ready this time.