In the first Case for Rey Skywalker, we presented the idea Luke knew who Rey was at the end of The Force Awakens and kept it from her to protect her. Now we present an alternative possibility.
Rian Johnson referred to Luke and Rey as the “beating heart” of The Last Jedi. Yet the film he made portrayed their relationship as contentious and emotionally distant. Either Rian Johnson has a very unusual idea for what constitutes the beating heart of a film, or there is more going on between these two characters than meets the eye at first glance. In our first series of articles, we proposed that Luke knew from the moment he saw Rey that she was his daughter, whom he had long thought dead, and that he made the painful choice to reject her in order to spare her from the sort of tragic fate that Skywalkers are prone to.
Now, we present a second possible frame through which to view the film — that Luke does not know Rey is his daughter when she first arrives on Ahch-To, or at least does not believe it to be possible. In this interpretation, Luke’s motivation for rejecting Rey is not part of a concerted effort to drive her away, but is rather a response to how Rey reminds him of the loss of his own daughter (who, incidentally, would be right around Rey’s age and have a similar appearance and temperament). While this interpretation retains the overall shape of our initial Rey Skywalker interpretation of TLJ, it provides an intriguing new context for Luke’s behavior towards Rey, and towards the overall development of their relationship.
Luke, from the end of The Force Awakens and throughout his interactions with Rey in The Last Jedi, is going through an existential crisis. His treatment of Rey is his response to the extremely conflicting thoughts and emotions that she causes in him. Even though he is cut off from the Force, he is drawn to her and yet at the same time he is constantly putting up emotional barriers to keep her at arm’s length.
When Rey first comes to Luke at the end of The Force Awakens he has an emotional reaction to seeing her. There are tears in his eyes and his eyes and lips quiver like he’s about to start crying. Indeed, The Last Jedi is very careful not to overwrite Luke’s reaction. Yet when Rey hands him the lightsaber he promptly flings it over his shoulder and rushes off. In this interpretation, we propose that this is the beginning of an internal struggle between Luke’s heart and his mind.
His heart is 100% sure that this is his child standing in front of him, hence his emotional reaction to seeing her. His mind however, is certain that his daughter is dead. Perhaps he thought that he had felt his daughter die or felt that there was no way she could have been alive all this time without him sensing where she was. Him tossing the lightsaber then would be akin to someone throwing their hands up in exasperation. He can’t reconcile what he thinks with what he feels, so he runs off. The anger he displays in doing so would also be explained by this interpretation of events–of all the people Leia could send to retrieve him from Ahch-To, she sent a girl who looks exactly like a teenage version of his deceased daughter, in what would appear to be a transparent attempt to pluck at his heartstrings and guilt him into coming back. The “cheap trick” he’d undoubtedly believe was being played on him would make Luke’s frustration and rejection perfectly justified, and the bewilderment he would feel at seeing the ghosts of his past in the flesh would drive him to run and hide instead of confronting the reality of what was happening.
Mark Hamill has also suggested that Luke’s bitter attitude towards Rey is at least in part an act. To defend himself from the emotional turmoil that Rey is causing in him, Luke adopts a bitter shell to mask his feelings and to keep Rey from getting too close to him emotionally. He tells her to get lost and spends a good part of the day blowing her off despite the fact that she keeps following him around like an angry duckling. However, Luke also likely actively dislikes Rey because she reminds him so much of the child he lost. If Luke had been the father to a Force sensitive child, he would have certainly dreamt of one day teaching her the ways of the Force, a dream that would have seemed to die some 14 years prior to the events of The Last Jedi. Now, he’s tasked with becoming a mentor to someone who he believes is a complete stranger but whose appearance, manner, and temperament all remind him of what might have been.
Yet Luke, still a hopeful man at heart, is also drawn to Rey in a way. He repeatedly gives her glances over his shoulder and when she stops following him to go to the tree on Ahch-To, he follows her there. Luke asking Rey, “Who are you?” in the tree might not seem odd at first, but Luke already knows her name at this point (we know because he refers to her by it later in the scene) and he knows she’s a member of the Resistance come to bring him back. He also asks her who she is prior to her telling him that she had seen the tree and the island in dreams. If Rey were truly a nobody with no connection to Luke, he would have no reason at that point to think there was anything more to her than she had already told him. Him asking her who she is implies that he has reason to think there is more to her than that. If Luke does on some level feel that Rey is his daughter, his questioning of her becomes incredibly poignant.
He desperately wants to know why his sister would send a girl to him that reminds him so much of the child he lost. He asks “who are you?” because he can’t bring himself to have enough hope to ask “Are you my daughter?” In his mind he is certain the answer is no, but he has to know one way or the other. At least if Rey can tell him definitively that she is someone other than the child he lost, he can resolve his internal conflict and see her as an individual rather than a ghost come to haunt him. Rey can’t do that, however, because she doesn’t know who she is herself. She shows Luke that she is Force sensitive, but to Luke that just adds another similarity between Rey and his “dead” daughter. This new bit of information only heightens Luke’s inner emotional conflict. Again, he reacts to that conflict by throwing his emotional walls back up, adopting the bitter act again, and running off.
During the scene with Artoo, Luke drops the act. He seems much more like the Luke we all remember from the original trilogy. There’s no bitterness in his voice or his actions, just hopelessness and deep sorrow. This is one of our earliest inklings that the seeming erraticness of Luke’s emotions actually follow a clear pattern–he alternately puts up walls and breaks down into fits of grief in response to his interactions with Rey. When we see him next, he’s gruffly telling Rey he’s agreed to teach her, his vulnerability nowhere to be found.
During the first lesson, Luke once again starts to open up to Rey just a bit. His voice is kind and sincere, and he seems to watch her intently as she meditates, clearly interested in learning more about her and her abilities. However, when Rey is drawn to the cave and her raw strength is revealed Luke freaks out again. She reminds him too much of Ben and (as The Last Jedi comic adaptation repeatedly states) too much of himself as well. Yet again, Luke’s reaction to Rey triggering his conflicting thoughts and feelings is to throw up emotional walls and run off. Later, we see that he is unable to reject her entirely–when Rey goes to practice with her staff and the the lightsaber, Luke watches with a look of wonder on his face before once more turning and running off.
Rey, too, undergoes something of a journey in her relationship with Luke. When she first encounters him, at the end of The Force Awakens, she has tears in her eyes (as does he), which seems a bit strong of a reaction for someone who’s simply glad she found someone to teach her the ways of the Force. Though she is not outwardly as conflicted as Luke in The Last Jedi, Rey seems puzzled that he does not welcome her in the way she expected. She pushes continually for his approval and acceptance, such as when she pledges to Luke, “[Kylo Ren] failed you; I won’t.” bringing Luke to tears. The extremely emotionally heightened nature of their relationship, as well as Rey’s sudden seeming personality change upon being rejected by Luke (such as beginning to trust Kylo, who she had previously detested), further implies that both characters know or suspect more than they have the courage to admit to one another.
The real key to understanding everything that happens between Rey, Luke, and Kylo, however, is the deleted scene at the Caretakers’ village. In this scene, Luke pranks Rey into thinking the locals on Ahch-To are in danger, when in fact they’re simply having a bonfire festival. When Luke catches up to Rey, who sprints off to rescue them, she turns on him, castigating him for making a joke out of the person she had once “believed in.” Rey storms off, and Luke is left looking guilt-ridden as she walks away.
Without this scene, the following events seem to transpire: Rey pledges not to disappoint Luke, and, although she is a total stranger and Luke has no reason to take her promise seriously, this is finally the thing that motivates him to reconnect with the Force so he can train her to be a Jedi. Then, seemingly at random, we cut to Rey, who is extremely upset, demanding of Kylo why he murdered his father. With the Caretaker village scene, however, the following story falls into place:
Rey’s disappointment in Luke spurs him to try and reconnect with the Force, likely out of a feeling he has let her down and a desire to make amends. Meanwhile, we catch Rey on her way back to her hut from the Caretaker village (as opposed to wandering randomly in the darkness), still extremely–even suspiciously–upset after her altercation with Luke. When she encounters Kylo Ren, she tearfully demands why he murdered his father, shouting “You had a father who loved you, he gave a damn about you.”
Prior to this, Rey is quite hostile to Kylo. During their first encounter, she tells him he’s going to pay for what he did. During the second, she calls him a snake and a monster and tells him he has lost. The third encounter is the first time where she starts to actually try to talk to him. The fact that this issue is so pressing that she’s willing to ask her mortal enemy about it seems to imply that whatever just happened to her brought the topic directly to the forefront of her mind. In other words, Luke’s spiteful and dismissive prank drove Rey to question how someone could ever fail to appreciate having a father who loves and cares about them, something she now particularly feels she does not have.
This heavily implies that by this point, she has begun to suspect that Luke is her father. Kylo picks up on this and starts needling her, telling her that her parents threw her away like garbage (much like the lightsaber at the beginning of the film). This is before the scene in the hut where the two see into each other’s minds, so it shows that Kylo already knows that Rey’s parents are her greatest weakness–he’s perceived it from her words and actions alone. It also shows that he’s already begun to push the idea that her parents abandoned her before having any clear knowledge to suggest they did so, casting doubt on his later interpretation of what he sees in her mind.
After talking with Kylo, Rey decides to go to the tidal cave that’s been calling to her throughout the film. When she arrives in the hall of mirrors within the cave, the very first thing she does is ask to see her parents. This is important for two reasons. The first is that it shows that Rey doesn’t remember what her parents looked like. If she can’t even remember that, she is unlikely to remember anything else about them. The second is, up until this point Rey has shown no signs of deeply desiring to know who her parents are. She has only shown a desire for them to come back to her. Notice she doesn’t ask for the mirror to show her where her parents are. If at this point all she wanted was to get back to them, asking how to find them would be the most logical thing for her to do. Like Luke asking “who are you?” to Rey, Rey asking the mirror to show her her parents only makes sense if there was a specific answer she was hoping to either have confirmed or disproven. She’s hoping that the mirror will show her Luke, so she can finally confront him and find out why he’s seemingly rejected her. But just like when Luke questions Rey, Rey is given no firm answer and left only with inner turmoil.
Rey feels abandoned by Luke and because of the lack of answers from the cave she begins to believe that her real worst fear might be true–that whether her parents are Luke or somebody else, they abandoned her deliberately and do not want her back. She’s hurting and very emotionally vulnerable, but she also feels a deep connection to Kylo Ren, likely because he is her family as well and seems to understand what she’s going through. So in this moment of weakness, she confides in him and starts to sympathize with him.
At this point, Luke rushes back to Rey calling her name. Though the timeline is unclear, it’s implied that this happens on the heels of Luke reconnecting to the Force for the first time. When he first opens the door to Rey’s hut he’s smiling, showing he was running to her with good news. The movie’s novelization suggests Luke is running to Rey because he’s decided to come with her and join the Resistance, but this sudden change of heart makes slightly more sense if he had also dared to allow himself to hope that Rey was his daughter (keep in mind that when the two parted, they were angry with each other, so it would be odd for Luke to burst into her house unannounced and smiling unless something significant had changed since they last spoke).
When Luke sees Rey with Kylo, he blasts the hut apart in shock and anger, only to realize that Kylo wasn’t actually there. Rey accuses Luke of trying to murder Kylo, obviously a very emotionally sensitive topic for Luke. Luke’s response is, again, to retreat back into his bitter shell and tell Rey to leave the island, though his pleading with her shortly thereafter not to leave at all suggests that this, too, is an act of emotional self defense, not where his heart truly lies.
Rey demands to know the truth from Luke, who tells her that he had sensed darkness building in Ben during his training. Luke’s motivation in going wasn’t to kill Ben, but to look in his mind and see how deep that darkness went. Luke then tells Rey that by this point, Snoke had “already turned [Ben’s] heart.” Instead of the future, we believe a terrible calamity has already happened that demonstrates Ben’s inner darkness. If what Luke saw was that Ben was somehow at least partially responsible for the death of his wife and the “death” of his daughter, and thus that Han, Leia, and everyone else Luke loved were at risk because of Ben, then suddenly him having the split second instinct to draw his lightsaber isn’t so out of character for him. More importantly, the choice to put the saber away and not strike down the man who he believes caused the deaths of his wife and daughter, becomes yet another testament to Luke’s unrelenting goodness and compassion, rather than a sign that he has failed.
After getting the truth from Luke about what happened the night of the Temple massacre Rey decides to go to Kylo Ren to try to turn him from the Dark Side. Luke begs her not to go, but when she holds out the saber to him he refuses it again, looking dejected. He’d just been forced to relive what he considers to be one of his greatest failures. If he had been feeling like he could go back to being a hero earlier, that has all been reversed now and he’s back to feeling like a failure again.
Luke’s feelings of utter failure continue into the next scene where he goes to burn the tree, but despite his feeling he still can’t bring himself to go through with it. After blasting the tree with lightning, Yoda begins to lecture Luke on needing to look past the Jedi texts. Luke’s demeanor changes when Yoda first mentions Rey. Yoda picks up on that and the tone of his lecture completely changes. He criticizes Luke for missing the “need in front of [his] nose.” This is true on two counts. Luke needs his daughter but refused to believe it when she was standing right in front of him. Rey needs her father, but that was something Luke refused to be to her. Luke says that he was weak and unwise. He’s realized that pushing Rey away was a massive mistake. This prompts his next line, “I can’t be what she needs me to be.”
In this interpretation, the line serves as an explanation for why Luke has refused to accept that his daughter is alive–not only is he afraid of being disappointed if he is proven wrong, but he also feels like he can’t be the father that she needs because of his previous failures. Just as he did on the day of his death, Yoda reminds Luke to “pass on what [he has] learned,” not only his success but also his failures. For only in learning Luke’s failures could Rey grow beyond them.
By tracing Rey’s journey, we can easily see how she reaches this point. She arrives on Ahch-To believing Luke might be her father. When he rejects her, she is shocked and confused, and tries to make sense of why he has received her so coldly, though she, like Luke, is too afraid to admit her suspicions outright. She finds a partial explanation when she learns he’s cut himself off from the Force (“of course you have”), and still pushes for him to accept her, even if he might not be able to sense who she is. Her patience runs out when he plays a cruel prank on her in the deleted scene, after which point she begins to have doubts of whether he is her father after all. This leads her to the mirror cave, which she hopes will confirm or deny that Luke is her father, but instead it gives her no answer. She offers Luke one last chance to prove his care for her, but when he refuses the call she gives up on him and flies off to confront Kylo.
When she arrives, Luke’s rejection is still fresh in her mind, and when Kylo, who she thinks may be another member of her family, also refuses to join her, her greatest fear takes hold. This fear is not that her family is “nobody” in a general sense, but rather that they are “nobody” in that they are not the Skywalkers, whose trust and acceptance she had struggled so hard to win. The Skywalkers, she imagines, must have had a good reason to leave her behind, and so when Luke (and now Kylo) disappoint her, she believes they must not be her family at all, leaving only one explanation: that her parents had no good reason to leave her; they abandoned her simply because they did not love her.
As we said before, Kylo doesn’t come straight out and say that Rey’s parents are junk dealers, he gets her to say they were “nobody” first. This could be because at this point he doesn’t know how much she knows, he only knows that she carries with her a deep-rooted fear of who they are, one that is now weighing heavy in her mind for all the reasons listed above. If Rey had instead said “Luke abandoned me on Jakku,” it’s entirely possible that he would have used that to try to persuade her to join him just as well. In any case, the evidence presented strongly suggests that Rey’s “confession” is a fear that Kylo is persuading her to “admit” as truth, and that while not deliberately lying, he does not possess certain knowledge aside from what he saw in Rey’s mind that she fears.
Rey’s arc of discovering her identity ends, in this film at least, on a bitter note. The end of Luke’s side, however, unfolds a bit differently. In his duel with Kylo on Crait, he notably tells Kylo “I will not be the last Jedi,” at which point the scene cuts to Rey. Her eyes shoot open and she glances behind her, clearly sensing something (which the novel says is Luke reaching out to her through the Force to tell her he will “always be there” with her). When she runs to embrace Finn immediately afterwards, the shot zooms in on her face, then cuts back to Luke who is smiling slightly and has a distant look in his eyes.
If this interpretation is correct, this is certainly the moment Luke finally fully believes beyond doubt that his daughter is alive. Moreover, he also knows she’s now safe and back with the people she cares about most. For the first time in the whole film Luke looks truly happy and at peace, and this is when he puts up his saber, ready for Kylo to strike him down. He does not wait even until the Resistance is flying away–his thoughts are entirely on ensuring Rey is safe, an odd focus to have in his final moments if she is just a student he knew for a few weeks. Kylo picks up on what Luke is doing, and his happiness and contentment, and vows, “I’ll destroy you, and her, and all of it.” This line clearly indicates that Kylo knows Rey is on Luke’s mind at this moment, further confirming that Rey and her wellbeing are among his final living thoughts.
Both Leia and Rey are shown reacting to Luke dying, while the film gives no indication at all that Kylo has sensed anything. It would be strange for a girl who knew Luke for a few days to feel his death while Luke’s own nephew, who had lived with Luke for years, did not, if there were no other connection between Rey and Luke. Rey tells Leia “Luke is gone”, but of course no one is ever really gone. When Rey left Luke, their relationship was in a very contentious place, and they received no closure before Luke died. Most stories make a point of resolving the conflict between protagonists prior to or during the climax of the third act. Often the resolution occurs in a touching way or otherwise serves as an emotional climax for the story, so the fact that this moment does not occur in TLJ has some interesting implications for what will happen in IX.
Overall, the effects of this interpretation are similar to those in our first Rey Skywalker theory. We still assume the same backstory for Luke, Rey, and their separation; and the emotional effect of their reunion is very similar. What differs is primarily Luke’s purpose in the narrative arc. Rather than serving to protect Rey from the knowledge of her heritage (thereby placing the story’s focus on the significance of the Skywalker identity), he plays a more personal role, placing the focus more on the emotional journeys of both father and daughter. This may not seem like a significant distinction, but it fundamentally shifts what we can expect in Episode IX.
A story where Luke knows who Rey is, and must protect her from the danger of her bloodline, requires a resolution focusing on identity. However, a story where both characters’ arcs are focused so strongly on their specific relationship, as opposed to them belonging to the same family, requires a conclusion focusing on the repairing and healing of their broken bond, more than on broader implications. There are arguments to be made for both these potential conclusions.
A conclusion rooted in the meaning of the family identity makes sense, given that the conflict between Rey and Kylo is a proxy for the dueling legacies of Anakin and Vader. At the same time, we’ve spent an entire film simply setting up the relationship between Luke and Rey. It stands to reason that the conclusion of their arcs will focus on resolving the antagonism that built up between them for the duration of The Last Jedi, a resolution that would be diluted by a focus on broader themes.
Regardless of which way the story goes, we expect that JJ will give a satisfying explanation for why Rey and Luke didn’t realize (or admit) they were father and daughter in IX, and we can’t wait to see what it is.