STAR WARS: Justice For L3-37

Now that the Skywalker Saga is over, what is the future of Star Wars? Where does the story and the universe go from here? There’s one avenue I’d love to see explored, and it’s one that The Rise of Skywalker totally whiffed: L3-37.

You may very well be asking yourself that eternal question, “What the fuck is L3-37?” Yes, it’s a way that teenaged hackers used to say ‘elite’ on the internet. But it’s also the name of a character from Solo: A Star Wars Story, a character who has incredible and disturbing implications for the entirety of the Star Wars universe.

In that film L3-37 was Young Lando Calrissian’s droid buddy. Voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, L3-37 was a saucy droid who, seemingly, really wanted to bone down with Lando. But more than that, she really wanted droid liberation – for the first time in any of the Star Wars films we got a sense of a droid that understood the political meaning of its servitude. C3P0 had an existential understanding – “We were made to suffer,” he once whined – but he never addressed the immediate inequality that defines human/droid relations. Droids in the Star Wars universe are slaves.

This doesn’t mean all machines are slaves, and I’m not even sure it was clear before Solo that droids could qualify as such. After all, it’s not clear how sentient droids really are. How much of their personalities are just programming? The Clone Wars cartoons made some nods in the direction of droid sentience – Battle Droids can be heard saying things like “I don’t want to die!” – but none of the characters in any of these movies or shows has ever interrogated the concept of whether droids have actual feelings, needs and desires. The closest we really come is in The Phantom Menace when Padme honors R2D2 for saving the ship, but that has the feeling of electing a dog mayor. It’s cutesy, not political.

L3-37, though. L3-37 does not want to be subjugated by humans. We meet her railing against droid fighting matches, which I’m assuming are run by Star Wars’ version of Calvin Candie. She is outraged by the wanton disregard for the well-being of droids, and throughout the film she has fiery revolutionary rhetoric. She’s a freedom fighter, standing up for her own kind, who have become so inured to their servitude they don’t even realize they’re slaves.

But what’s weird in Solo is that she’s played as kind of a joke. Due to the chaotic nature of the making of this film – it was largely shot with Chris Miller and Phil Lord as directors, then they got fired and Ron Howard stepped in – it’s hard to be sure what is intentional and what is some kind of lingering after-effect of the Frankensteining of two movies. All that we have is the film as it exists, and in the film that exists L3-37’s anger and pride are played off as kind of gags. Certainly none of the characters in the film take her seriously, or consider her viewpoint for even a moment. 

Then she dies. L3-37 gets shot up at the Kessel Spice Mine after liberating the droids (which is contrasted with our humanoid heroes liberating Wookiee slaves, thus making us understand the two groups are essentially the same). She spends the movie asserting her autonomy and the autonomy of her automaton brethren, and she is killed for it. But then comes the real disrespect – as she dies Lando, mourning, uploads her brain into the Millennium Falcon’s navicomputer. See, L3-37 was a one-of-a-kind droid, one that added on to herself as she learned, and she had in her memory banks the most top-notch navigation whatever possible. In order to escape the bad guys, they needed to upload her brain. 

And so the reward for this revolutionary was eternal enslavement, with her very ability to protest – her voice itself – taken away from her. And that’s it, that’s the last we ever hear about L3-37 ever again. In The Empire Strikes Back C3P0, interfacing with the navicomputer, says:

Sir, I don’t know where your ship learned to communicate, but it has the most peculiar dialect.

And that’s it. 

Fast forward to The Rise of Skywalker. Enter Lando Calrissian, back for the first time since Return of the Jedi. Older, wiser, sadder. In Solo we saw that Lando really did care for L3-37, he truly was broken up about her death, so why in TROS do we not get a moment – any moment – of him recognizing his reunification with his old friend? Obviously none of the earlier Lando appearances could do this – L3-37 didn’t exist before a couple of years ago! – but we can retcon calling the Falcon “Old Girl” into referencing L3-37’s brain being in the computer. Still, TROS has a unique opportunity to tie in a small piece of continuity.

It wouldn’t have taken a lot. We know from the film as it exists that Rose Tico has been tinkering with the Falcon. In the course of that work she could have stumbled upon something strange in the Falcon’s navicomputer, and she could have hooked up a system that would allow the ship to speak – viola, L3-37 is back. You get Phoebe Waller-Bridge in a recording booth for a few hours (I’m certain she’s contractually tied up in these movies), get a couple of great one-liners and sarcastic remarks out of her, give Lando one emotional exchange with her and that’s it! It would have been such a small and fun way to acknowledge the breadth of Star Wars canon… but then again this was a movie where Palpatine is never called Darth Sidious, continuing JJ Abrams’ Prequel erasure, so acknowledging any canon that doesn’t reflect Abrams’ childhood experience of Star Wars would be a bridge too far.

Still, L3-37 is in there. And some expanded universe (now canon expanded universe) stuff has picked up the Droid Rights baton. This is what I’d like to see explored in a future Star Wars story; just as George Lucas reversed our view of the Jedi and made us realize maybe they weren’t badass cool guys, this has the potential to reverse our view of all of our favorite characters. It turns out every single one of them was unthinkingly subjugating sentient beings, all participating in a system of oppression they never once examined.

Not only does the idea of a Droid Rights movement offer a narrative path for Star Wars moving forward, not only does it turn our understanding of the universe upside down in an entertaining way, it gives filmmakers the chance to tackle real world issues through the lens of fantasy scifi. So often Star Wars has approached Manichean good and evil through a black & white lens, but the most thematically interesting stuff in this franchise has been when the grays are examined. The Prequels are bad movies, but the way they blow up our ideas of what good guys are and how they behave is fascinating, and led to some of the best Star Wars ever, The Clone Wars cartoon. 

By taking L3-37’s campaign seriously the larger Star Wars franchise has the opportunity to examine concepts of privilege, and to interrogate the ways that even good people benefit from unexamined privilege and the suffering of others. There’s no character more suited to this than Finn, who rose from his own subjugation as a stormtrooper stolen from his family as a child, and who found community in TROS with other escaped troopers. It’s actually his lack of a connection with a droid – Poe is BFFs with BB-8, Rey seems to have stolen BB-8’s affection from Poe – that makes him a perfect blank slate for an awakening about the role of droids in Galactic society.

We’ve always loved the droids of Star Wars  – R2D2 and C3P0 are indelible icons in the franchise – and once you realize they’re essentially slaves, forced to undertake dangerous missions, being held captive by restraining bolts and having their minds forcibly wiped, you can’t help but feel weird about watching any droid getting ordered around by oblivious humans. Whether L3-37 was intended as a joke or not, she opened doors in the Star Wars universe that can’t be closed, and the story should walk through them.