Now that The Rise of Skywalker has come out and the nine-film epic of the Skywalker saga has been brought to a close, I find myself looking back and reminiscing about the movies’ gorgeous, galaxy-spanning romance. No, not Anakin and Padme. Not Leia and Han either, though there is something beautiful to be said about them finding their way back to each other after all those years. But no, I’m talking about a romance that outlasted both of those, as well as three different governments, two Jedi purges, and one experience in impersonating a deity.
That’s right. I’m talking about the romance between R2-D2 and C-3P0.
(This piece contains mild spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.)
These two old droids, with their often-antagonistic, always dramatic relationship, are a dynamic duo of clipped insults and beeped curses, an odd-couple composed of an anxiety-riddle etiquette droid and a hyper-competent trash can. And like any love built in the shadow of the Old Republic and carried on through many trying years of rebellion and war, their relationship has its own pains and difficulties. Its own losses. They fight a lot, for one, and Threepio often distrusts and insults Artoo’s intelligence, capability, and loyalty. And Artoo, meanwhile, is constantly losing his best friend to memory wipes.
Although we only have confirmation of one time that C-3P0’s memory was erased—when Bail Organa took both droids and the newborn Leia back to Alderaan with him—there is reason to believe that this continued to happen with some regularity. For example, Threepio and Artoo are Bail Organa’s droids for almost 20 years, and yet Threepio tells Luke that they belong to a Captain Antilles. This would be Raymus Antilles, captain of the Tantive IV, which was transporting Leia Organa on her “diplomatic mission” at the start of A New Hope. The Tantive IV was property of Bail Organa, of course, so it makes sense that Bail’s droids would be on that ship taking orders from its captain, but Threepio doesn’t seem particularly familiar with Leia. He knows who she is, of course, but doesn’t appear to be close to her, and he’s also unaware of her rebel activities. It’s possible that the Organas are simply keeping the droid at arm’s length, but it’s equally possible, and rather more likely, that they’re just periodically wiping his memory.
When Bail gives the order to have Threepio’s memory erased in Revenge of the Sith, it’s an unavoidable necessity. Bail was around Padmé often enough to know what a blabbermouth Threepio is—the protocol droid has a habit of making observations out loud without even realizing he’s doing it, and he can’t read a room to save his life. Bail and Obi-Wan couldn’t risk the safety of Anakin and Padmé’s kids, and the fate of the galaxy, on the hope that Threepio could keep a lid on it for the next twenty years or so. Artoo is cannier, and communicates in beeps and whistles that most humans can’t understand without a translator, so perhaps Bail wasn’t worried about him slipping up. Or maybe it would have been smarter to have wiped both droids’ memories, but Bail simply couldn’t bring himself to destroy the only full record left of Padmé’s story.
This means that only Artoo has the memory of how he and Threepio first met, of the adventures they’ve shared together, of the secret wedding they witnessed, of all the times Artoo has had to save the golden droid’s bacon from mishaps in battle-droid manufacturing plants. He would have had to get to know Threepio all over again, introducing himself and biting his metaphorical tongue to keep from bringing up old jokes or reminding Threepio that he’s called Artoo a nearsighted scrap pile before. (“Get some new insults!” he’d start to say, only to realize that, for Threepio, this is a new insult.) They’d have had to rebuild their relationship from scratch all without Artoo admitting they’ve already been here.
Artoo seems to have been confided in and trusted by the Organa family, as evidenced by the fact that Leia gives him the stolen Death Star plans and the fact that he seems to know all about her secret involvement with the Rebel Alliance. Threepio, on the other hand, is not only unaware of what’s really going on with his masters, but also, while he considers Artoo a companion, he doesn’t seem to trust him very much in A New Hope. He doesn’t listen when Artoo explains the truth about his mission, nor does he trust his friend’s advice in the desert on Tatooine. Indeed, he berates the smaller droid through most of the three films, but there’s something less familiar in his interactions with Artoo in A New Hope. It’s almost like he has no memory of Artoo doing anything like this before.
Given the evidence, it’s extremely likely that Threepio’s memory was periodically erased to keep him from having too much information about the Rebel Alliance, Leia’s movements, and other secret data. Which means that Artoo may have had to reintroduce himself to the droid he considers his closest and longest companion more than once; he may have been regularly rebuilding their dynamic and convincing Threepio to trust him again and again. And after losing so many people, Anakin and Padmé especially, one has to wonder if it was ever difficult for Artoo, if it caused him pain to lose Threepio at the behest of his human masters. If he ever wished it could be different.
There’s something so dramatic and star-crossed about it all, two droids living out their lives surrounded by war and darkness and the fight for the light, clinging to each other with little more than some oft-fried circuits and the hope that their owners won’t separate them too often. Memory wipes or not, they aren’t together all the time; we know from E.K. Johnston’s Ahsoka novel that Bail sent Artoo on a mission to find her, and there were probably other trips for our intrepid R2 unit. And then they went to Luke and Leia, and Artoo was often off on Jedi adventures while Threepio stayed with the Rebellion and then the New Republic, the two young Skywalkers mirroring their parents’ arrangement, even though they didn’t know it.
Like their parents, Luke and Leia treat their droids more like people, more respectfully and humanely than much of the rest of the galaxy treats their droids. Still, that doesn’t mean that Leia never considered wiping Threepio’s memory; perhaps it was necessary for a mission. Perhaps there was some other danger to the Alliance, the Republic, or the Resistance.
And perhaps, just perhaps, Artoo asked to save a copy of Threepio’s memory, so that when the crisis was over, he could have his friend back. It would have been nice for Artoo, and you have to figure that Leia would have listened and cared about his feelings, and so the custom of backing Threepio up on Artoo’s harddrives was suddenly a regular thing. And each time Threepio did lose his memories, whether through official memory wipes or other mishaps (you get disassembled as often as Threepio does, and who knows what might go wrong with your circuitry), Artoo was there to insist that he get those backups reinstalled.
I wonder if Threepio protested every time, constantly complaining that he wasn’t going to let some stranger put things into his head. And everytime Artoo sighed to himself and did it anyway. It’s like some weirdly sweet robot version of 50 First Dates. Artoo is tired of pretending to be some stranger to Threepio. He wants him to know the truth, but since they’re droids, they don’t have to rely on video updates every morning—they can just pass the information directly into Threepio’s brain. Together again, like it should be.
But then there was a trip with Luke to start the new Jedi Training Temple, and years apart, and afterwards Artoo went into low power mode, effectively leaving the two droids separated. We can tell that Threepio hasn’t had a memory wipe in the roughly four or five years before the events of The Force Awakens; he remembers Han, and he knows what’s going on with his astromech friend. Once Artoo is revived and the Battle of Crait is over, they have about a year to catch up, and then Threepio goes on the mission with Rey and the others to search for the Sith Wayfinder.
Artoo clearly backs up Threepio’s memory the moment he hears about the mission; he knows that it’s far too dangerous to let his hapless counterpart go off on an adventure alone without Artoo there to rescue him (and to another desert planet at that). Even Threepio recognizes the danger, and makes sure to bid Artoo a tender and heartfelt farewell. There’s enough remembered history between them at this point that Threepio is aware of how important Artoo is to him, and for once he doesn’t wait until one of them is fried or melting to express his affection.
When it comes time for Threepio to make his terrible sacrifice, allowing Babu Frik to access the forbidden Sith translation in his databanks even though it will wipe his memory, the protocol droid is fairly certain that this erasure will be permanent. Poe does remind him that Artoo can help with his restoration—that’s right, at this point Artoo’s regular back ups of Threepio are common knowledge, even Poe Dameron knows that they’re married—but Threepio asserts that Artoo’s storage banks are notoriously faulty.
Maybe it’s just Threepio’s usual pessimism that makes him doubt the reliability of storage banks that held the other half of the map to Luke Skywalker, and which still carry Leia’s message to Obi-Wan from all those years ago. Or, maybe Artoo’s aging circuits really aren’t quite what they used to be anymore. Either way, Threepio takes a long look at all his friends before he goes, and is probably grateful that he told Artoo how he felt before they left on the mission. Just in case.
It’s funny and also heartbreaking to watch Threepio chase after the Resistance team, exclaiming an affronted “We’ve only just met!” when Poe speaks to him gruffly, and uttering an astonished “My first laser battle!” on Kylo’s star destroyer. I am reminded of the last time I rewatched Revenge of the Sith; near the end of the film Padmé boards her ship to go find Anakin on Mustafar, and C-3p0 is her pilot. As he settles into the pilot’s chair the droid remarks “Do you know, I think I’m beginning to get the hang of this flying business.” Em, my partner (who loves to talk about Star Wars), leaned over to me at that moment and murmured, “It’s sad, because then they wipe his memory, and he never does.”
Much of Threepio’s comical blunderings and frustration with those around him take on a different note when you consider the disadvantages the memory wipes may have given him. He’ll never remember who his Maker is, or how Anakin gave him to Padmé after their wedding, even as she gifted Artoo in return. He’ll never get the hang of flying, and he won’t remember that when the chips are down, he really can be as brave as any other hero in these stories.
But he’ll remember Artoo, who is there to greet him when he returns home. Artoo’s surprise and alarm is palpable in that moment, when he realizes that Threepio doesn’t know him, but the problem has a quick fix, and those memories are soon back in Threepio’s head, whether he likes it or not. Artoo is his best friend, after all.
Who knows what the galaxy still has in store for R2-D2 and C-3P0, but I like to think it’s a little bit of peace. Maybe they will have fewer space battles and more comfortable ships, or even settle down on a planet somewhere in the custody of their new human friends. Maybe they won’t have to be separated so often, or have so many reasons to doubt that the other’s circuitry will be able to pull off yet another miracle.
And maybe Artoo will fill in those missing years for Threepio, telling him their whole story, from that very first meeting on Tatooine when Threepio’s parts were showing. It’s quite the romance, after all, even if Threepio probably won’t believe a word of it.
Sylas K Barrett is a Brooklyn-based writer and actor, who had a Star Wars-themed slumber party for his birthday this year. Check out his other work here on Tor.com, including his weekly column Reading The Wheel of Time.