This contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Fans complain that The Last Jedi did Luke Skywalker dirty, but I think that the end of Luke’s story tracks really nicely. Luke was never one for the hard work – he was always imagining some other life for himself. When he was on Tatooine he wanted to join the academy, when he was on Dagobah he wanted to go be in the fight. These were the times in his life when he needed to hunker down and do the hard work, the unglamorous work, and his instinct was to take off and find something more romantic and exciting. What’s more romantic and exciting for a holy man than fucking off and becoming a mystical hermit? When his new academy failed, Luke didn’t decide to put in the hard work of trying again (or tracking down Kylo Ren), but rather disappeared to a small island to live out his monastic fantasies. And for Luke to feel like a failure is perfectly in character – look at how quickly he quits on Dagobah. Luke’s first instinct is to give up.
Now Han Solo on the other hand… that’s a character who got done dirty, and I think Solo: A Star Wars Story makes his end even sadder and his final days even more pathetic. I never liked what JJ Abrams did to Han in The Force Awakens, but now it feels downright disrespectful.
Solo recontextualizes the Han we meet in Star Wars. For 41 years we thought he was an aloof loner who finally found a cause he could believe in, friends he could stand with, and that was why he came in for the save at the end of the Battle of Yavin. But Solo shows us otherwise – Han swooping back at the last moment wasn’t a change of heart, it was Han being Han. He was a working class kid who fell into a life of crime and always identified with the downtrodden and the underdogs; at the end of Solo he has no choice but to help Enfys Nest and the Cloud-Riders. That’s just who he is.
The movie also recontextualizes Han as a wounded romantic. If you just went by the Original Trilogy you could say that Han was a cad, a guy who never learned to respect women or value relationships. But Solo shows us otherwise; he’s a guy with a big love in his life, and who has deeply romantic ideas about that love. He spends years trying to get to a place where he can save Qi’ra… only to find out that not only does she not need to be saved, she doesn’t want to be saved. In fact, she’s playing her own game, and in the end she betrays Han.
The cavalier Han of the OT? That’s a guy who loved too much and had his heart broken. He’s protecting himself with his attitude and his constant emotional distancing. He’s also dealing with the platonic heartbreak of being betrayed by his mentor, Beckett, who he has to kill. In Solo he’s trying to put on the persona of a bad guy, but Qi’ra knows it’s just a disguise. By Star Wars he’s figured out how to put that persona on – to an extent – but it’s a loose garment. He’s not locked away inside his emotional armor, and over the course of the first film he leaves it behind.
At the beginning of Empire he’s ready to take off and abandon the Rebellion… except he actually isn’t. He’s spending a lot of time trying to get Leia to tell him to stay (this is his hopeless romantic side surfacing), because he wants to stay. But he also wants to leave, because he’s afraid that Leia doesn’t want him to stay – he’s open to splitting out on her before she can turn him down, another betrayal that would be as devastating to him as Qi’ra’s on Savareen*. The truth is that he really, really wants to stay, he just needs to be asked.
*Really worth noting that Solo is almost certainly not the end of the Qi’ra/Han saga. There’s more between them which will inform the man he becomes. I’m curious if we’ll ever see it, considering the box office this weekend.
Return of the Jedi is the turning point for Han. His fears of betrayal and abandonment are removed when his friends rescue him from Jabba’s Palace – for the first time in his life he knows he is truly loved (by someone other than Chewie, that is. Han seems to take that relationship a touch for granted). The OT ends with Han Solo finally finding safety and love, and being able to let go of all the walls he had erected around his heart. In fact, out of all the OT characters I think Han is the one who changes the most, and in the most organic way. Leia is pretty much the same throughout, and Luke changes in weird fits and starts that aren’t always reflected onscreen (the difference between the guy he is at the end of Empire and the guy he is at the beginning of Jedi is vast). In fact I think that Luke’s big lesson in the entire trilogy happens at the end of Jedi, in the throne room – everything else was prelude to that understanding.
Anyway, at the end of Jedi we are left with a Han Solo finally made whole, a man who can love and be loved. Solo hammers this home, showing us the upbringing he had and the world into which he was enslaved, and the traumas and betrayals he suffered as a young man.
And then The Force Awakens.
With a longer time jump than in any other part of the Saga, The Force Awakens opens with some radically changed status quo (even as the larger galactic status quo has bafflingly returned to the status quo of Star Wars), especially when it comes to Han. The happiness he found at the end of Jedi? It’s gone. The love that healed the wounds Qi’ra gave him? It’s over. He’s space-divorced. And the son through whom he might have relived his own troubled past? Actually a bigger sociopath than Darth Vader… and who kills him at the end of the movie.
After watching Solo and seeing how badly Han wanted ‘a crew’ (aka a family) and how he came to be so protective of his heart, it’s deeply upsetting to realize that The Force Awakens erases all of that with little thought. It’s just an attempt to get Han back to his most popular phase, when he was a 30something rogue. All his progress, wiped away.
Mind you, it’s okay that his progress is wiped away. That happens with people. They work hard, they improve… and then they have a setback and return to who they were, or worse. The work is daily, it must be done constantly, and thinking that you’ve solved your interior problems just means that your interior problems are actually winning. That Han would fall back into his old ways is something I could accept… under the right circumstances. TFA does not present the right circumstances.
I just don’t believe – especially after Solo – that Han would cut and run. I think that the writing of the character in The Force Awakens is predicated on a weird reading of The Empire Strikes Back (which The Force Awakens screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan worked on! AND he wrote Solo, which I think undermines The Force Awakens‘ version of Han!), namely that Han really wants to leave the Rebellion. If you think that Han is dying to get away from the Rebels then him leaving Leia after Ben goes bad makes sense. But I think even before Solo came out it’s quite clear that Han isn’t REALLY looking to split – he’s totally looking to get validation from Leia, and to get to the next level of their will they/won’t they relationship.
Would Han leave? Yes, I think he would if he felt emotionally unsafe. If Leia turned on him, perhaps. Canonical books make the argument that Han got bored, and that’s why he really left, but after Solo I find that hard to believe. I think Han ended up getting what he wanted at the end of Jedi, and it was something he didn’t realize he needed – stability and a real family, not just a pack of buddies and fellow thieves. Might Han get bored? Sure, and that’s good drama. But it’s not enough for this character to make that decision.
And neither is guilt over Ben turning. That’s good enough to ruin his friendship with Luke (what a mistake it was to not give Han and Luke one last scene together), but not his marriage*. Again, after Solo I see Han leaving as a major, enormous change for the character. We could argue that the dissolution of the family that made him feel safe would be enough, but even then… it feels more likely to me that Han requests some sort of distant duty for the New Republic, not a return to smuggling. I could see Han shipping out on some mission for ten months at a time to get away from the home that had become so cold and hurtful, but splitting up from Leia is a big jump.
*Now is that enough for Leia to leave Han? MAYBE. I think Leia is given to a solitary nature to which Han thinks he aspires. But the movie makes it seem as if Han left Leia.
Going back to smuggling is an even bigger jump. Again, I think that the end of Solo reveals a key to Han’s character. He wants to help people. He really does. He also wants everybody to think he’s a bad guy and a tough guy, but under that is the desire to do good. Smuggling and crime were what he fell into, but more and more I suspect they weren’t what he really loved. He loved winning and he loved scheming and he loved pulling a fast one, sure, but he really loved doing those things in the service of good, even though he couldn’t admit it to himself (I think this is a big part of why we have the scene in Solo of Han questioning the Imperial officer about just what they’re doing on Mimban. If Han was truly self-driven he wouldn’t give a shit about the ethics of the battle, he’d simply be upset at how dangerous/gross it was).
Compare that to Lando, who legitimately doesn’t give a shit about anybody else but himself. Lando just takes off from Savareen, totally looking out for Lando first and foremost. I think there’s a lot happening with him in Solo as well – Donald Glover’s performance makes it clear that Lando Calrissian himself is a performance, that the suave guy we know is a character that Lando puts on (check out how Glover uses the accent, and how he plays L3’s death scene), but the guy under the suave character is no hero. Solo argues that Han was actually a hero the whole time, just one who lost his way.
Giving Han everything he needed and taking it away is good drama, but it’s underserved in The Force Awakens. The time jump removes the need to make emotional sense of Han and Chewie smuggling again (by the way, Solo retroactively makes it seem like Chewie is smuggling with Han in The Force Awakens just to humor his friend. That I like), and it allows Abrams to glide past the tricky aspects of the Han/Leia breakup. But worst of all, it leaves Han at the end of his life a sad loser. He’s an old man who is revisiting his glory days to avoid feeling responsibility, and he never truly gets a chance to make up for that.
I think that’s unfair to Han. Much more unfair than Luke using the Force in a novel, non-violent way to save his friends, and sacrificing his life in the process.
Of course Han’s death is great for Kylo Ren’s character arc – it’s a defining moment. I don’t begrudge the death. But I do begrudge the previous ten years that Han spent trying to recapture his youth in the galaxy’s lamest late life crisis. I begrudge the laziness of the writing that, rather than move Han forward, chose to limply move him back. And after Solo I begrudge it more than ever! Solo makes Han’s character arc in the OT really beautiful and meaningful and deep, but reveals the shallowness of his TFA plot.