The Most Important Line in Star Wars Is an Ode to the Peril of Living in the Past

By James Whitbrook on at

“May the Force be with you.” “No, I am your father.” “It’s a trap!” Star Wars is full of iconic notable quotables. But what has become my favourite line in the entire saga is a line from The Last Jedi that speaks to a wider existential debate about where the franchise is at right now: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”

Here’s a sentence bound to get me some angry emails: I, as I have stated many times before, loved The Last Jedi. Its desire to present a clear path forward for Star Wars, and its questioning of the very tenets of what we believe makes Star Wars what it is, spoke keenly to my own desire to see a franchise I’ve grown up with continue to evolve and change, rather than rely on the glory of its own nostalgic yesteryear. So much so that, it’s pretty much become a joke in the Gizmodo US work slack that whenever the concept of a franchise doing something new instead of catering to nostalgia comes up, that I will inevitably quoth Kylo Ren:

This is but a sample. And yes, my slack avatar is a Pikachu recreating Edvard Munch’s The Scream, thank you for asking.

“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to” – spoken by Kylo Ren to Rey in one of their several Force-powered FaceTime calls throughout The Last Jedi – is the iconoclastic beacon that distills everything Rian Johnson’s movie did for me as a viewer into a single turn of phrase. It’s poetic, dramatic – a little recklessly destructive, even, but we’ll get to that. But it’s also cleansing: In order to keep moving forward, you have to let go of your past, cut it away from yourself if need be, rather than be defined by it. Rather than be trapped by it.

The concept of the past defining the present, through the ideas of things like fate and legacy, has long been a part of Star Wars’ generational approach to storytelling. We call the main Star Wars films the “Skywalker Saga” because they tell the story of a legacy passed down one specific bloodline. Anakin Skywalker, the chosen one, must bring balance to the force, and when that prophecy breaks, the Skywalker children must rise up and defeat him. Even the sequel trilogy deals with the ramifications of legacies – Rey seeks a legacy of her own in a connection to her parents, Luke withdraws from the galaxy out of a perceived failure to live up to his own legacy, and then there’s Kylo Ren himself, seeking to emulate the trappings of his grandfather’s legacy without truly understanding it in the first place. The bitter irony that he of all people is lecturing Rey on forcefully letting go of the past – something Kylo is so incapable of doing himself that he basically runs about in Darth Vader cosplay – should not be lost.

After being taunted by Snoke about his mask – the visage of his grandfather reborn – Kylo Ren prepares to smash it to pieces in a rage. How symbolic!

This idea isn’t just bound to bloodlines and individual characters, but Star Wars institutions as well – especially in the current trilogy, from the First Order’s hollow replication of the Empire that came before it, to The Last Jedi’s questioning of the rebirth of the Jedi Order (at least in the form we knew it in in the prequels). Even from a meta-narrative, real-world standpoint, Star Wars at large is fascinated by the exploration and exploitation of its own legacy – if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be getting spinoff films that dive into the origins of beloved characters or answer questions about the build up to past iconic moments in the saga. Hell, we wouldn’t have a sequel trilogy that essentially regurgitates the conflict of the original films under new names, either. Attempting to break free of the past’s stranglehold only to be re-consumed by it in a never ending cycle is basically what Star Wars is at this point. Which is why it should, as Kylo intones (and then promptly ignores), let its past die.

Although they might be pondering a slowdown for now, Lucasfilm and Disney have made it clear that they have big plans for Star Wars as a franchise well beyond the end of the Skywalker saga – there’s that legacy showing up again! – with countless movies and TV shows, officially announced or otherwise, in the works. If Star Wars is to continue at that pace and not collapse upon itself, it almost has to let the past die. It has to present new ideas and new scenarios that evoke Star Wars’ tone without just emulating what came before, so that the idea of what Star Wars can be is open to as many new additions as possible. So that when those additions come – and boy howdy, are they coming – they add to the rich tapestry of the galaxy far far away rather than just iterate on a well-worn theme.

Yoda teaches Luke the most important lesson he can.

But what Kylo’s turn of phrase doesn’t necessarily get quite right is the need to actively destroy your own past to move forward. The second part of that quote is the part that keeps him bound to his past rather than truly free of it, as he merrily goes about trying to murder off as many connections to his life as Ben Solo as he can, from his father to his mentor. Instead of just simply letting the past die, he becomes singularly defined by his quest to be rid of it. If Star Wars were to do the same, it would never really be able to escape its own legacy; it’d be caught in an endless chase to destroy it rather than building something upon it.

So maybe “Let the past die” needs to be paired with another great quote about legacies from The Last Jedi – something Yoda says to Luke, as they watch the glowing embers of the burning tree on Ahch-To: “We are what they grow beyond.” Just as Rey learns and grows beyond what Luke and his failures can teach her – just as she steals away those ancient Jedi texts before they can be destroyed forever, to potentially build upon their ideas herself – so must Star Wars as a franchise if it’s going to keep adding more and more stories to its ever-growing saga. Respect its past, learn from it, and let it go and move on.