Poe Dameron and the Lovable Rogue Archetype

The Poe/Holdo subplot of The Last Jedi is one of the most controversial parts of The Last Jedi. Most people I’ve talked to, listened to, or read about disliked the way Luke’s death was handled, liked Rose’s emotional counterweight to Finn, and didn’t know what to think about that scene where Rey was watching a bunch of reflections of herself. (Maybe I need to watch more reviews to get it.) But the Poe/Holdo subplot? A lot of people loved it, a lot of people hated it. It’s not hard to see why; it’s a vicious deconstruction of one of the tropes which our culture holds dearest.

I’m not going to start this post off with a summary of the relevant subplot; if you need one, I summarized it (and how it fit in the whole movie) in my previous post. If you don’t want to read that, T.B. Skyen has an excellent video about Poe’s plot.[1] The short version is that Poe, who feels like his actions against the First Order deserve recognition and respect, ends up taking more action against the orders of General Organa (when she’s awake) and Vice Admiral Holdo, which ends up having negative consequences. And with that refresher out of the way, I can start this post in earnest.

 

Why does any of this matter? Well, as Skyen explains in another video,[2] everything about the conflict between Poe and Holdo in the first half or so of the plot is deliberately designed and framed to resemble a tale as old as time which the viewer is doubtless familiar with. The Hero wins a spectacular victory against The Villain, but The Hero’s commanding officer isn’t happy with the result. He might get the job done, but he’s a loose cannon, so he’s losing that badge. The Hero, being The Hero, doesn’t take this excuse to rest his laurels, and instead starts an even more audacious plan under the nose of his CO to win an even more spectacular victory—one which even his commander will need to admit is worth praising. (Unless the CO is revealed as a double agent, or the organization is revealed to actually be run by a Nazi splinter faction, a la SHIELD in the MCU.) Poe and pals seem like the standard rugged heroes who don’t play by the rules, while Vice Admiral Holdo is framed to look unreasonable, cowardly, and overall unfit for command.

But in the second half, Poe’s plans fall apart, Holdo is revealed to have a plan that could have saved everyone, and the viewer is forced to re-evaluate the first half of the movie. And it’s not a re-evaluation which reflects well on Poe. Under the new lens, Poe is an over-aggressive, First-Order-hating[3] commander who bit off more than he could chew and tries to justify it with a list of Imperial casualties. When he gets demoted for disobeying direct orders, he lashes out with a plan which ends up killing even more people. Sure, his tactical decisions are excellent (he figured out the best way to blow up the Imperial Dreadnought), but he lacks the long-term thinking and recognition of potential consequences required for excellent strategic decisions (if he should commit that many resources to destroying the Dreadnought). Poe fails to recognize his flaws, and ends up getting hundreds (maybe thousands?) of people killed because of it.

But why does this matter? Our culture is awash in examples of heroes who reject authority, one way or another (generally due to being ineffective, corrupt, or otherwise insufficiently heroic).[4] At this point, I’d say it’s more common for heroes to be at least somewhat in conflict with the authorities than it is for them to cooperate! Now, this heroic archetype isn’t inherently bad; power systems do need to be questioned, and sometimes directly opposed. However, unwavering praise of the rebellious and anti-authoritarian can be every bit as dangerous as doing the same to the institutions they despise—and for essentially the same reason. Putting unwavering trust in rebels and governments alike are perfectly acceptable as long as those people deserve the trust…but it’s almost impossible to keep that up for any length of time.

Star Wars started life as a new incarnation of the Hero’s Journey, perhaps the oldest cliché plot in written history. It should therefore be no surprise that it borrows heavily from this and many other popular tropes. It has no shortage of out-and-out lovable rogues (the best-known being, of course, Han Solo), and even its more unambiguously heroic characters carry that same sentiment due to almost constantly being pitted against the current governing institutions. Even the Sequel Trilogy goes out of its way to empower the First Order and weaken the New Republic, just so it can go for the same themes.[5] The actions of these rogues and rebels rarely get criticized by the narrative, or by any characters we’re supposed to like. Of course, none of this is unique to Star Wars, but it’s one of the few big franchises to say “Maybe there’s a problem with this”.

 

That’s a bold move to take, and potentially dangerous. It’s rocking the boat, after all, and that boat has been treating them quite well. Plenty of fans like their lovable rogues (Han Solo included), and might perceive such themes as being an attack on those characters. So fans reacted. Some tried to move the blame from Poe and his rebels to the authority figures he defied, taking his side to the end. Some blame Leia for the slaughter of rebels at the beginning of the film, assuming both that Leia gave the order to attack the First Order ahead of time and that she simply changed her mind for no reason.[6] Some blame Holdo for Poe’s actions, saying that she should have shared the plan with everyone, even though sharing even part of the plan with Poe is part of what lead to Poe’s mutiny causing so much damage.

This seems like a good time to bring up DJ, since he’s thematically relevant. Poe is a relatively straight take on the loose-cannon hero who doesn’t listen to the people in power, and who ends up screwing the porg because of it. DJ is something a bit different, but who contributes to deconstructing those same archetypes. He’s a chipper, cocky, snarky criminal who’s willing to help the heroes for the price—not unlike Han Solo. He serves as a reminder that not all rogues are lovable rogues. Some don’t care about your rebellion, only about themselves. And yet, there are still plenty of people who like him and wish he had been around longer. Contrast this with Admiral Holdo, whom many people strongly dislike or even blame for the consequences of Poe’s actions.

 

I’m running out of things to say about The Last Jedi in a vaccuum, so I’m going to start bringing in real-world context. At least since the rise of Hitler and up through the fall of the USSR, the greatest enemies of the West have been authoritarian government. Ever since then, the greatest fear of many people in the West has been that their own government would become as bad as their old enemies.[7] This is an understandable and (in moderation) healthy fear, and one which should be explored in media. It’s why we have everything from 1984 and Brave New World to…well…Star Wars, or at least the form of it we’re familiar with.

All of these fears and favorite media create strong opinions about what should or shouldn’t be in media. And, to be clear, this isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Every aspect of culture melds with previous media to influence how people think about everything; I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that these form the basis of nearly all of our opinions (and all of our values). But narrowing down, I think it’s possible that this is why so many audiences reacted so poorly to seeing a lovable rogue rebelling against an authority who didn’t give him the respect he thought he deserved, who faced criticism and negative consequences for doing so.

Perhaps this idea of the lovable rogue, the military maverick, the rebel with a heroic cause, is so ingrained in our consciousness, so close to our fear of authority, that seeing an apparently standard lovable rogue criticized for those same anti-authority behaviors we’ve praised so often feels wrong in a way which people can’t understand without spending more time on introspection than they feel a movie is worth. So, instead of wasting their time trying to understand it, looking at Poe and DJ and the omnipresence of similar but less-fallible heroes in media, they simply assumed that the wrong-feeling-ness meant something was bad with the subplot.

Or maybe I’m overanalyzing it. Maybe it’s nothing that profound and people just don’t want deconstructions of such formative tropes in their Star Wars. Maybe they would have liked it, but the dissonance between text and subtext was too harsh for them to enjoy. Heck, maybe this is another of those times where I like what a film is trying to do so much that it takes me months to notice the issues with how they did it. It’s not like there aren’t issues I notice. DJ doesn’t hang around long enough after his betrayal for the implications of his actions, for instance, and the deconstruction in Poe’s arc is weakened due to him not facing any long-term consequences for his mutiny[8].

But even with all that said, I’m glad they included this arc in The Last Jedi. For its flaws, it still manages to beautifully manipulate the audience’s expectations in a way which should help people look at old tropes in new ways. It shows a commitment to going against formula, to not just copying the plots of past movies, to taking the Star Wars universe to new heights. Most of all, it shows that Disney is willing to push the envelope—not a lot, in the grand scheme of things, but more than a AAA Hollywood blockbuster usually does. Considering that a lack of envelope-pushing and sticking to formula have been holding back Hollywood for years, I hope we can take this as a sign of what is to come.

 

Footnotes:

1. https://youtu.be/mesTyDD3S54

2. https://youtu.be/JFrtGWQ_jXc In this video, TB Skyen also takes the shortcut of referencing material by more experienced and well-known content creators (Lindsay Ellis and Folding Ideas) to explain basic concepts so he can build on such concepts without leaving his viewers behind. I hope that makes it OK for me to do the same.

3. If I do an essay on Finn’s development—about protecting what you love vs. destroying what you hate—a link to it should go here.

4. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CowboyCop http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MilitaryMaverick http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LovableRogue and so on

5. Which might be worth a post of its own, some time when I feel like ranting about my least favorite element of the Sequel Trilogy.

6. Even if Leia had given an order to destroy First Order dreadnoughts, the intelligence available on the surface would undoubtably be more limited than the intelligence available once battle began. Not to mention the numerous ways the situation could have changed mid-battle. War is tricky, you know? There’s a reason you don’t get to command armies until you’ve spent decades working in the military. 

7. It’s also clear that many people are strongly dissatisfied with the Powers That Be as they currently stand. Heck, the last two American Presidents won their elections by promising change. (Very different kinds of change, but change nonetheless.)

8. Aside from lost pride, maybe? Or perhaps he feels guilt or something? I guess we’ll need to see where see where his arc goes in Episode IX. 

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