Here’s the big question: How can Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker satisfy fans?
The secret lies in the shapes of stories.
Here’s literary mastermind, Kurt Vonnegut:
In short, you can graph stories along an X/Y axis. The vertical axis rises from ill fortune to good fortune. The horizontal axis simply travels from beginning to end. You didn’t expect to think this much in a Star Wars article, but here we are.
So let’s place Star Wars on Vonnegut’s graph.
The Original Saga: Man in Hole
Here’s the basic shape of the Original Trilogy:
We start low (it’s a period of civil war, after all). But Luke learns the Force, the gang rescues Leia, and the Death Star explodes. Empire Strikes Back brings us back down—Han’s a popsicle, Vader’s a daddy—until the Empire falls. We end better than ever, partying with Ewoks and chowing on mystery meat (has anyone seen the Stormtroopers lately?).
We rise, we fall, we rise again. It’s a nice shape.
Got it? Let’s add another trilogy. That’ll complicate things.
Here’s the whole pre-Disney saga. It’s still a nice shape. We start fine, take a wrong turn at Order 66, and struggle back up to Yub Nub. It’s essentially Vonnegut’s “man in hole” shape.
Love or hate the prequels, they lend the Saga a satisfying, symmetrical shape. We hit bottom at exact middle and climb back out.
But we’ve got another whole trilogy to go.
Option 1: The Speed Bump
Let’s test-drive some possible endings for Rise of Skywalker. For starters, let’s go no further than Luke’s last words: “The Rebellion is reborn today. The war is just beginning. And I will not be the last Jedi.”
This isn’t a great shape.
I’ve labeled two points as “minimum good” — after Revenge of the Sith — and “maximum good” — after Return of the Jedi. In this scenario, Rise of Skywalker never dips further than Empire and never climbs higher than Jedi.
The First Order reigns, quoth The Last Jedi’s crawl. But this threat never carries the weight of the Empire or the Dark Times.
And the rebellion wins—again! The Jedi return—again! But we’ve only delayed the ending of Return of the Jedi without raising the stakes.
It’s the speed bump trilogy.
And, not to be a pessimist, but I think it’s quite likely.
Force Awakens and Last Jedi established no greater threat than the First Order. This maybe explains some of the Last Jedi backlash. Viewers expected the middle film to justify this trilogy, to tie the story to something consequential. Instead, they could sense—consciously or not—the Saga turning asymmetrical.
So it’s a likely option. But it’s not the only option.
Option 2: Boy Gets Girl
No, this isn’t a Reylo thing. I’m talking about the story-shape Vonnegut calls “boy gets girl.”
That’s a bit nicer. After Last Jedi, we keep spiraling down. It’s “boy gets girl”: We find something wonderful, we lose it, we get it back. We still end at the previous maximum good—the Empire has fallen, the Jedi reborn—but he goes through hell the get there.
It’s not too crazy. After all, the Emperor returns. Perhaps Palpatine’s machinations never truly ceased. Perhaps we haven’t seen their worst.
But could they really establish such stakes in one film? And even so, wouldn’t this undo the victory of the Original Trilogy—an outcome many fans have feared?
Perhaps there’s still a better option.
Option 3: The Cinderella Story
One last shape:
There. That’s a satisfying shape.
Things needn’t get darker than the Dark Times, but we end with even greater victory.
This is, roughly, what Vonnegut calls “the most popular story in our civilization.” It’s the Cinderella shape.
Cinderella begins in despair (see Order 66 and the resulting Dark Times). But then up we go, we’re at the ball with Prince Charming (see Vader’s redemption and the Empire defeated). But—boing, boing, boing—Cinderella returns to despair, but a slightly lesser despair than before (see the First Order rising, the New Republic falling).
And then, quoth Vonnegut: “off-scale happiness.”
So how would this play out?
Perhaps true balance comes to the Force. Perhaps, somehow, the Dark Side itself is destroyed. Perhaps Rey ascends to something beyond Jedi, something totally unified with the Force—perhaps, as some theories suggest, replacing “Jedi” with “Skywalkers.”
At worst, the sequels turn out to be the vestigial tail on an otherwise functional Saga. But at best, they could give the Saga a fresh shape. True to its mythic roots, Star Wars could close on a classic fairytale formula.
We’ll find out how the story ends in theaters on December 20.