Ever since Luke disappeared, people have been looking for him...he was training a new generation of Jedi. One boy, an apprentice, turned against him. Destroyed it all. Luke felt responsible. He just walked away from everything...people that knew him best think he went looking for the first Jedi temple.
--Han Solo, The Force Awakens
The Force Awakens ended with Rey flying the Falcon, with Chewbacca and R2-D2, to a distant and lost planet where apparently the Jedi Order first began, on a rocky island in a wide ocean. Here she finds Luke Skywalker, who has disappeared. Rey approaches him and offers him a lightsaber--his lightsaber. His original lightsaber, the one that his father carried when he turned to the Dark Side, the one that Obi Wan Kenobi recovered after defeating Vader on Mustafar, the one with which Luke first fought Darth Vader before losing his hand and seeing that lightsaber plummeting down the central shaft of Cloud City.
In The Last Jedi, we continue this exact moment. Luke takes the lightsaber, looks at it, looks at Rey, looks at the lightsaber again. It's his new "Hero's Journey," his new call-to-adventure--and he immediately rejects it. He tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder and walks away. Luke has no intention of returning to the fight. He tells Rey that he has come here to die. He really did give up on everything. He has come to Ahch-To, the first Jedi planet, to bring it all full circle. When he dies, the Jedi will have begun and ended in the same place. Luke didn't come to the "first Jedi temple" to find some special wisdom or motivation. He really is giving up.
I am not really a big fan of this notion in itself. The Luke Skywalker who refused to give up on the idea of some small bit of goodness still flickering in the heart Darth Vader, his father and the most terrifying Sith Lord of all? That Luke Skywalker? And having the failed Jedi student be none other than Han and Leia's son? No, I am not a big fan of that development. It doesn't resonate with me. But Rian Johnson's script for TLJ treats the idea with respect and logic, which I appreciate. It's an old archetype in itself, the tired and weary onetime hero who has to drag himself out of his final, bitter retirement for one more attempt at glory. Decades after Ben Kenobi looked Luke in the eye and said "You must come with me to Alderaan," along comes Rey to call Luke Skywalker to adventure again.
The problem I have--which Rian Johnson attempts to address, with varying results--is that we've seen Luke's heroism before. We've seen him at his heights, and we've seen him when he's already hit rock bottom and been in the pit of despair. We've seen him triumph, and yet here he is, utterly defeated. But we have seen nothing of his defeat. We haven't seen him lose, we haven't seen his failure. As deftly as Johnson handles Luke's version of the Reluctant Hero and Mentor, he can't do it total justice because the preceding film hasn't done the heavy lifting that it needed to do to justify this story. Johnson tries his best with some flashbacks and a nod to Rashomon, but I am still left wondering the thing I wonder so many times in this sequel trilogy: "How can this be the way it all turned out?"
It's hard to really get invested in a story when I don't buy its premise in the first place.
So Luke has come to Ahch To to die. Fine...but is he sick? Has he become "old and weak," like Yoda was? Or is he planning to live however many years it takes in seclusion on this island? And if he has come to die, then what of the "sacred Jedi texts"? Does he plan to burn them at some point and he just hasn't got around to it? Or does he plan to die and just leave them there on the shelf? Eventually they'd get found again. Maybe he has those weird caretaker beings sworn to the task of destroying the texts if and when he dies.
As near as I can figure, Luke is trying to break the cycle. His father fell to the Dark Side, and his nephew has as well. He is weary of the whole Light Side/Dark Side dichotomy and the endless yin-and-yang of Jedi-and-Sith. He has come to resent the idea that the Jedi and the Sith hold the only claims to be able to speak for the Force, which penetrates all living beings in the universe. In an interesting moment, Luke openly acknowledges the events of the Prequel Trilogy (how that must have rankled some fans), noting that the Jedi at the height of their power still failed to notice the rise of Darth Sidious in time to keep him from utterly destroying them. He gets this wrong, of course (the Jedi of the Prequel era were not at the height of their powers; far from it, actually). But that doesn't matter. What matters is that Luke is sick of the cycle of Light-to-Dark-to-Light again. He wants a new paradigm for relating to the Force, and in the absence of that, he's content to let the old paradigm die.
The only way to win the game, for Luke, is not to play.
Luke's story in TLJ isn't just a second Hero's Journey; it's a redemption story. Luke blames himself for Ben Solo's fall to the Dark Side (more on that whole story, which is one of my least favorite aspects of these new films, in a later post). It takes an appearance by Yoda to make Luke realize that he has a chance for his own redemption, and it is not by somehow redeeming Kylo Ren. Instead his task is to truly serve as a Master for Rey. She is already tremendously powerful, beyond even Luke's abilities. Yoda takes Luke to task for not actually passing on what he has learned, and for being stuck himself in the very paradigm that he is trying to move beyond. Yoda acknowledges that the old ways of Jedi-dom should probably end, but he also points out that this doesn't mean ending the entire thing, forever. He also makes one of the film's wisest points in one of its finest moments when he says to Luke: "We are what they move beyond. That is the burden of all true masters."
So, in light of all this, what should we make of Luke's final actions? Are they pointless? All he really does is buy time for the handful of surviving Rebels to escape. But he has a much-needed confrontation with Kylo Ren, and thus he confronts his own past. There is a peaceful kind of determination about him in these moments, and even a bit of cockyness in the wonderful moment when he flicks an imaginary bit of dust from his shoulder. He is by design driving Kylo Ren to a distracted rage, and he leaves his former student with the bitter taste of a victory that was not a victory at all. The Jedi will endure after all, as will the Rebellion. And all this from Luke walking out with a laser sword to face down the entire First Order.
Luke Skywalker's journey in TLJ is a very layered one. He has been a Campbellian hero before, and now he is the Campbellian mentor figure. But he is also still a hero, and he must walk his own path even as he helps Rey embark upon hers. He has to pass away in this film, because Rey's final steps must be taken alone. Luke completes his job on Ahch To, sending a copy of himself to face Kylo Ren; then, the job done, he sees the binary sunset of his youth one last time as he goes into the Force and as the Force welcomes him home. He goes, as Rey tells us, with "peace and purpose."
Luke's path has always been unique. He was the Jedi who shouldn't have been, the Jedi who arose outside all the old traditions and structures of the Jedi Order, the one who mostly had to figure it all out on his own. Even at the end, when he is planning to the the Jedi die with him, he does not bow to Jedi orthodoxy; it turns out that he has never read those "sacred Jedi texts," and indeed he has cut himself off from the Force. But when he returns, when he lets the Force back in, he does so spectacularly, projecting a physical copy of himself across the stars. (And he is physically there, at least partly. He embraces Leia and puts the dice in her hand. Kylo Ren picks them up...before they, like Luke, disappear.) The film does suggest that maybe it's the sheer effort of this that has led Luke to die, and maybe that's a part of it. But it's probably also partly that he knows that his work is done and that he can let go.
Perhaps it's both.
So, with TLJ, the "Adventures of Luke Skywalker" come to their end. Only two Skywalkers remain, and one will sadly have to die off screen before the next episode begins. But meantime...what of Leia Organa, the last of the original trilogy heroes still alive when TLJ ends?
More on her in Part 3, "We fought to the end."