Early on in Solo: A Star Wars Story, Tobias Beckett tells an eager young Han Solo that “if you come with us, you’re in this life for good”—a final warning before he seals his fate as a smuggler. The film’s female characters are not afforded the same courtesy; the systems in which they are trapped—a droid’s existence, a life owned by Crimson Dawn—lack the same opportunities for either turning back or abandoning entirely. But that doesn’t stop Elthree or Qi’ra from looking for a way out.
Spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story
Although this is an origin story about a Corellian scumrat chasing down the life that will put him as high up into the stratosphere as he can go, I was much more intrigued by members of the supporting cast: the droid, and the other scumrat whose chains are a lot shorter. Whose ambitions aren’t as arrogant as “I’ll be the best pilot” but more realistic, focused on attaining what small freedoms they can. Who know that they will never fully escape their circumstances but will take any opportunity they can to move the needle, however slightly.
Despite being a self-made robot, having constructed and improved herself from the scraps of other droids, L3-37 still exists within a hierarchy that generally regards droids as lesser beings. She has the rare privilege of not having her memory wiped, which is part of what makes her such a vocal advocate for droids’ rights. Yet her rallying cry rarely translates into action; she can shake the cages in the droid fighting pits all she wants, make impassioned speeches to droids whose memory banks won’t recall any trace of her rhetoric after their next tune-up, but it’s all talk and no results.
Until she and Lando take the job with Crimson Dawn, that’s the status quo—Elthree is autonomous enough, able to snark at her human co-pilot about following his orders, while unable to share that freedom with other droids.
Then there’s the human who limits her freedoms because it’s her only choice: Somewhere in the three years after Han escapes Corellia with a promise to return, Qi’ra finds her own way off the planet via Crimson Dawn’s brand and Dryden Vos’ attentions, as he establishes her ostensibly as a lieutenant but in reality as something closer to a sex slave. All of her fancy clothes and ornate jewelry, her ability to scan a room and hold a wine goblet like someone who belongs there, lose their value the moment that Vos steers her to sit beside him with a hand clamped on the back of her neck. She might as well be a droid, held in place by a restraining bolt.
But it got her away from the slums and the control of Lady Proxima. While Qi’ra won’t divulge to Han exactly what she went through in the time they were apart, it was enough to inch her up the ladder, to infinitesimally improve her life—or at least, trade one form of imprisonment for another.
Both characters are clever and driven; they wouldn’t have survived this long if they weren’t. They’re also sympathetic, each taking opportunities to free or save others at their own expense. On Kessel, while the humans are making a distraction in the spice mines, Elthree has the bright idea to begin pulling restraining bolts off the droids manning the security cameras. What follows is a beautiful chain reaction of droids freeing other droids and then causing general chaos in their delight and confusion at no longer answering to organic masters. The ensuing melee achieves the general objective of the mission, but it also means a much more obvious escape—during which Elthree gets caught in the crossfire, so excited at finally achieving her dream that she isn’t looking for the blaster that tears her apart. Even as Lando risks his own life to carry her out of the carnage, most of her one-of-a-kind body is lost, and her systems fail.
But then, a seeming new chance for redemption: The Millennium Falcon needs to escape Imperial TIE Fighters, and Elthree is the only one who can get them out. So they upload her “brain” into the Falcon’s navigational system, and she (plus a teeny kick of coaxium) is what drags them away from the gravity well and through the Kessel Run, to their final showdown.
Except, if Elthree was never thereafter detached from the Falcon, it makes for a really messed-up retcon of everyone’s favorite trash-heap ship. Sure, Elthree gets a snazzy new form in the Falcon and gets to be close to Lando, at least as long as he can keep his hands on his ship. But she also becomes a piece of property, passed from owner to owner in games of sabacc, boarded by strange scavengers, and run through the wringer. She gains new value and is responsible for helping win against the Empire, but surrenders all autonomy.
Qi’ra’s fate hinges on more of a deliberate choice, yet I would argue that that choice got made for her a long time ago. She kills Vos after a dizzying double-cross in which she has both him and Han at the mercy of the crime lord’s sword, ultimately saving Han’s life and severing her ties to the man who owned her. But even as she tells Han that she’s right behind him, that she always imagined him smiling on their adventures together, it’s clear that she has no intention of following him into the smugglers’ life. If she ran, there’s no telling what resources the crime syndicate would use to drag her back.
And yet, that may not be all of it. Elthree’s goal in Solo is clear: free droids from servitude. At first, I was sure that Qi’ra’s was similarly expansive, to escape Crimson Dawn for good and reunite with Han. But the look on her face when she realizes that a power vacuum has opened up—that she can move one more step up from who she was before—makes me wonder if her goals began and ended with killing Dryden Vos. Because she’s not branded with Vos’ symbol, she’s branded with Crimson Dawn. Whether that means that she likes the system in which she exists, or that she feels too embedded within it to fully escape, is the kind of ambiguity I can appreciate in an otherwise pretty on-the-nose movie.
It feels wrong to write this piece without even touching upon Val’s plotline, even though she dies in the first act, long before she can have any real bearing on the plot. She’s not owned in the way that the other female characters are; while it’s unclear whether she followed Beckett into the smuggler’s life, or found her own way in and then met him, it’s not as if she’s trapped in this world. She wants to be here because she’s good at it. And while her partnership with Beckett adds a personal dimension to their work together, it does not supersede the work. Case in point: Trapped on the train tracks on Vandor-1, knowing that the math of surviving the job and keeping the coaxium out of Enfys Nest’s hands does not bear out, Val makes the best choice for the crew and pulls the trigger.
Who’s to say that she couldn’t have survived that blast? These are scrappy smugglers we’re talking about, jumping out of ships expecting to land somewhere, sorting through disguises and alliances as the situation calls for. I was convinced that Val somehow made it out, that when Enfys Nest removes her helmet on Savareen, it’s her face smirking back at her love Tobias and that dumb kid Han who almost got them killed. Instead, Val fridged herself.
By the end of Solo, all of its female characters remain trapped in the systems that define them, shackled by the constraints of technology or some shadowy control or plot dictates about their deaths adding to male characters’ pain. And yet I wanted so much more for them. What I wanted for them was to find a loophole, like Mara Jade did. One of the Legends canon’s most memorable characters, she too was trapped within a system that owned her entirely: As the Emperor’s Hand, she was a gifted assassin and one of Palpatine’s best-honed weapons, ordered to kill Luke Skywalker. But following the Emperor’s death, Mara is haunted by his last command, unable to shake its hold even as she becomes closer to the Rebellion and Luke himself.
A most unexpected solution presents itself: Fighting dark Jedi clone Joruus C’baoth, Mara kills his dark clone Luuke—and just like that, Palpatine’s command is fulfilled. It was one of my favorite loopholes of the (then) Star Wars Expanded Universe, the kind of clever technicality I wish for Elthree or Qi’ra.
And who knows? Maybe we will get to see it. If Solo does well enough to commission sequels, there is no doubt that we would get more of Qi’ra’s arc as she moves up within Crimson Dawn with new boss Darth Maul, and maybe even an answer to whether Lando liberates Elthree from the Falcon and puts her into a new body. But for the moment, the stubbornly goofy Solo ends on this rather disquieting knowledge that the female characters don’t get happy endings. Instead, they get the best they can hope for, always on the lookout for the next opportunity to inch one step closer to freedom.