The Three Pillars of Star Wars

Knights of the Old Republic does a good job of moving through the three pillars of Star Wars, where most Star Wars games and other spin-offs tend to get stuck on just one or two. I don’t think it was intentionally designed this way, but the three pillars are showcased by the three main leads of the original trilogy: Han Solo is a smuggler, Princess Leia is a rebel, and Luke Skywalker is a Jedi.

While I call them “smuggler,” “rebel,” and “Jedi” for short, don’t get too hung up on the labels. What these three pillars really represent are three different facets of the setting and the kinds of conflicts they emphasize. Han Solo is a smuggler, but the pillar he represents also includes bounty hunters, crime lords, and scavengers. Some rogues have a heart of gold, but everyone is at least a little bit scummy. This pillar is where morally grey conflicts and anti-heroes are most at home.

The best example of a property with a one-pillar focus on this is the Mandalorian’s first season. The Jedi and rebel pillars certainly aren’t absent, but the Jedi, Imperial remnants, New Republic X-wing pilots, and so on are viewed from the perspective of a Mandalorian bounty hunter. This also demonstrates that a one-pillar focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you know what you’re doing. In fact, when the second season expanded to the other two pillars, it damaged a lot of the Mandalorian’s identity and focus. If season two was the last season, then this was a good decision. These tie-ins worked really well in the moment, and there’s no point conserving a resource (in this case, the Mandalorian’s focus) that you have no intention of spending later. If the Mandalorian is going for a third season, though, I fear that season two might’ve set it up for mediocrity.

Princess Leia is a rebel, but this pillar can be upheld just as well by soldiers of the New or Old Republics, clone troopers, or even stormtroopers and TIE pilots (although the latter really only work in a video game where a strong character arc is not needed so long as the gameplay is solid). The rebels pillar is focused on the wars in the stars. Sometimes it’s a rebellion employing asymmetric warfare against a powerful Empire with star destroyers and stormtrooper legions. Sometimes it’s a cold war where some sort of Republic supplies weapons and commandos to local proxies resisting invasion or plotting a coup against some kind of evil space Empire, and vice-versa. Sometimes it’s a conventional war where battalions of clone troopers and super battle droids face off against one another in the field complete with tanks, artillery, gunships, fighters, bombers, battlecruisers, and every other kind of 20th-century (particularly WW2-era, but this is flexible) military gizmo with a coat of space paint slapped on. There’s plenty of other options that get explored minimally or even just hinted at in more obscure spin-off material: Space Trafalgar fought with slow-leading beam muskets and cannons, or a New Republic fending off pro-Imperial terrorist attacks as pseudo-Sith cast-offs from the fallen Galactic Empire stir up trouble (in addition to the one permitted Sith apprentice, Emperor Palpatine seemed to have like eight hundred dark Force users who were basically Sith but never got the title – this is the case in both the Clone Wars and during the Imperial regime). That second one would’ve been a particularly relevant direction to take the Disney movies in, one which every director except JJ Abrams seems sympathetic to, but they went for a stale rehash of the Galactic Civil War instead. Oh, well.

Despite its Jedi-heavy cast (and the Clone War not having any faction referred to as “rebels,” although the separatists do technically meet the definition), many Clone Wars episodes focus on the rebels pillar, as do the X-Wing vs TIE Fighter games (including Squadrons, which may as well be in that series), the Empire at War game, the original Dark Forces game (though the sequels wandered off to the Jedi pillar pretty hard), and also technically the Battlefront video games, although the first two did not have a plot independent from the movies and I’m only vaguely aware of the story of the third and fourth games, since word is that they’re not great. This is a good one for video games because the plot gets itself out of the way so quickly and easily: Stormtroopers causin’ a ruckus, go shoot ’em. The story can follow a military campaign and character arcs can be appended to the side if not abandoned completely.

Luke Skywalker is a Jedi, and while you don’t strictly need literal Jedi for this pillar just like you don’t need literal smugglers or rebels for the smuggler and rebel pillars, in practice you basically always get a Jedi. The Jedi pillar is about abstract philosophical conflicts literalized into physical conflicts by the medium of lightsaber duels. It’s about concepts like redemption, balance, and passion. The philosophy isn’t always super deep (the resolution of the original trilogy’s Jedi pillar is a very non-controversial pro-redemption take), but the presence of some kind of philosophy is vital. While the rebels pillar only needs to show the Empire doing bad things and doesn’t need to particularly care why they’re the bad guys, just that they are, the Jedi pillar has a heavy focus on the Sith (or some equivalent) as not just a military threat but an antagonistic interlocutor trying to prove a point, even if that point is as blatantly evil as “only your hatred can set you free from the weakness of compassion!”

The Fallen Order and Force Unleashed games focus on this pillar, and the Clone Wars episodes that aren’t rebel-focused are often Jedi-focused (although smuggler-focused episodes aren’t unheard of, and really I’m just going on gut instincts and vague memories here, it’s not like I stopped to count).

The original trilogy has all three pillars, and Luke Skywalker passes through all three of them. His Jedi destiny is apparent from the beginning, but A New Hope is about Luke going from the smugglers pillar to the rebels pillar, Empire Strikes Back is about going from the rebels pillar to the Jedi pillar, and then Return of the Jedi shows Luke interacting with all three pillars (in the same smuggler->rebel->Jedi order, even), but with the perspective of being a fully trained Jedi knight.

Knights of the Old Republic does something similar: The opening on Taris focuses on the smuggler pillar, Dantooine is surprisingly smuggler-focused as well despite the presence of the Jedi temple (most of the quests are about Mandalorians and petty feuds between frontier aristocrats, although the Juhani quest is certainly Jedi-pillar, so it’s not as single-pillar as most of the other planets), Kashyyyk and Manaan are rebel-pillar planets focused on direct opposition to clearly evil enemies (whether that be the Sith or the Czerka Corporation), Tattooine is smuggler-focused with monster hunts and swoop races and vicious local slavers (the sand people) duking it out with vicious intergalactic slavers (the Czerka Corporation), and Korriban, the Leviathan, and the finale at Rakata Prime and the Star Forge are Jedi-focused with an emphasis on philosophy and personal confrontations with major named enemies.

There’s a lot of success to be had by strongly emphasizing just one pillar. If you want a general Star Wars-y feeling, you definitely want all three. I don’t think two out of three works particularly well. If you have a character moving between the pillars, having one pillar be conspicuously absent makes the set feel incomplete. I think the mistake made by a lot of spin-offs is to ignore the smuggler pillar. The smuggler pillar is certainly the least emphasized in the original and prequel trilogies, and the emphasis it gets in the prequel trilogy is mainly limited to the podracing scene, which is cool by itself but requires a momentum-killing plot cul-de-sac to justify itself, and thus isn’t super well-regarded. Plus, Attack of the Clones sort of has some smuggler content when Anakin returns to Tattooine, although the strong emphasis on Anakin crossing moral lines gives it more of a Jedi-focus (and yet, the lack of an enemy interlocutor means it doesn’t carry the Jedi pillar very well, either) and with Obi-Wan investigating the clone army on Kamino (and yet, for all that chasing a bounty hunter is involved, it almost immediately becomes apparent that this scheme is about rebels, not smugglers, which is hardly a surprise considering it started with an assassination attempt).

There is no smuggler-pillar villain the way Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett were in the original trilogy (though Boba Fett hopped over to the rebel pillar as well when it suited him), with the closest being Jango Fett, who’s operating purely as a rebel-pillar villain. Star Wars: Bounty Hunter makes it pretty clear that Jango, like Boba, spends most of his time in the smuggler pillar and the rebel-pillar stuff was an unusual circumstance, but that doesn’t change how Jango gets used in the films. While we’re on Bounty Hunter, I think it’s notable that it’s a pure smuggler-pillar game despite having a dark Force User as its final antagonist. Komari Vosa kind of wants to have a philosophical confrontation with Jango at the end, and he just refuses to give it to her. I like to imagine his internal monologue during their confrontation is just “do I look like a fucking Jedi to you?”

And the New Trilogy largely repeats this mistake. Canto Bight has smuggler-pillar vibes, you could easily imagine a smuggler story that featured Canto Bight heavily or even exclusively, but the antagonists there are a combination of 1) too vague to really be antagonists anyway and 2) are nonsensical arms dealers who are attached at the hip to the rebels pillar plot, and whose connection to that plot is never explored anyway. The Force Awakens has some smuggler emphasis to the extent that Han Solo is involved, but he’s not in the main cast and has nobody in the main cast to hand his torch off to the way Leia hands off to Po and Luke hands off to Rey.

Rey’s scavenging has strong smuggler-pillar vibes and does it in a way that we haven’t seen before, but Rey herself is, like Luke, firmly aimed at the Jedi pillar despite starting on the smuggler pillar. There is no Han Solo to carry the smuggler pillar after Rey leaves it (which she does very quickly, screaming through the smuggler and rebel pillars to reach the Jedi pillar by fiat on Starkiller Base, arriving at the end of her first movie where Luke was at the end of his second – I don’t think this makes Rey overpowered or a Mary Sue or whatever, but I do think JJ Abrams’ impatience to get to the “good parts” left her character arc floundering with nowhere to go). Finn would’ve been the obvious choice, a stormtrooper-turned-bounty hunter or smuggler or something who hops from the rebel pillar to the smuggler pillar at basically the same time as Rey is hopping from the smuggler pillar to the rebel pillar. Finn’s breakout scene with Po and subsequent crash-landing could easily aim him at the smuggler pillar in the same way Luke and Rey get aimed at the Jedi pillar early on despite being smuggler-pillar to start.

Having Finn actually carry that emphasis would’ve required fairly significant overhauls to how he’s used in all three of the movies, but he’s easily the most worst-done character by the new trilogy anyway, so some overhauling was needed. Give him more of a relationship with Han in the first movie, and let Han’s death be thrusting Finn into the role of captain of the Millennium Falcon before he feels like he’s ready for it, let him keep the Falcon while Rey takes some other ship to find Luke (Chewbacca does basically nothing while he’s there, so Rey could take an X-wing and R2-D2, or we could get her some kind of Resistance shuttle if we really need Chewie in the backseat). Then Finn can be growing into the smuggler role on Canto Bight, whose basic premise can be retained, but whose shot-by-shot execution needs to be pretty much totally overhauled (the arms dealer line can be cut, Rose’s juvenile insistence that inconveniencing oligarchs is a worthy end goal even if it doesn’t lead to any systemic change needs to either be cut completely or else be treated like the short-sighted and selfish statement that it is, etc.). I didn’t see Rise of Skywalker, but my impression is that it can’t be salvaged just by fixing the execution. Its basic plot structure is in-premise bad at practically every stage. Completely rewriting the movie from the ground up, you can give Finn a final confrontation with some kind of bounty hunter enemy he’s inherited from Han Solo (although this need not put the emphasis too strongly on Finn over the rest of the main cast – Han Solo’s escape from Jabba the Hutt was masterminded by Luke and Leia, and Leia got the kill).

I think keeping a more careful eye on the three pillars of Star Wars, and either deliberately focusing on just one or making sure to incorporate elements of all of them, would help greatly in delivering better Star Wars stories.

2 thoughts on “The Three Pillars of Star Wars”

    1. I’m afraid to say something like “well, it’ll probably be at least kinda good” for fear that I’m jinxing it.


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