Warning: This story, from the very first line, in fact, contains spoilers for Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.
There's a moment early on in The Last Jedi in which we almost lose Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). The First Order has tracked what is left of the Resistance fleet through light speed, and Kylo Ren and his squadron of TIE fighters are attacking the main ship. Ren (née Solo), unable to murder his mother in cold blood in light of the guilt he feels about killing Han Solo in The Force Awakens, hesitates to take the final shot. The others, however, have no such scruples, and aim a proton torpedo at the command bridge, blowing Leia, Admiral Ackbar, and the rest of the rebel leaders into the dark of space.
"Okay," I said to myself (and possibly my boyfriend, sitting next to me — sorry, I'm that person) in the theatre. "I guess this is how she goes. What a waste."
But here's the thing: Leia doesn't die. Gathering whatever connection to the Force she has left, she manages to push herself back inside the airlock to safety.
It's a surprising moment, especially given all the speculation in the year since Carrie Fisher's death, about how the film would handle the character's inevitable demise. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for Rian Johnson, Episode VIII's director, to bid her adieu: since Fisher's death was unexpected, it stands to reason that they wouldn't have shot a death scene, so blowing her up could have been an easy fix. And yet, he chose not to.
It's a choice I've thought a lot about since I saw the film. Today, on the anniversary of Carrie Fisher's death, seems like a good time to reflect upon it further.
Leia's resuscitation is a moment of catharsis for an audience still mourning the passing of an icon. Fisher may be gone, but Leia lives in a galaxy far, far away; she can do what mere humans cannot. By keeping her alive in this scene, and throughout the movie, Johnson is ensuring that the last memories we have of the Princess-turned-General will be of her leading the good fight.
In an interview with Digital Spy earlier this month, Johnson said that he did not alter Fisher's scenes after her death. What you see in the movie is what was shot before the cast and crew heard the news.
"I felt like the best tribute to her would be to have just the best performance in this that worked the best it could in the movie," he said.
Aside from an end card that reads "In Loving Memory of Our Princess Leia," the film refrains from any of the usual tropes used to signal to the audience that the actor playing a beloved character has died. As Nate Jones wrote over at Vulture, "there are no moments of Leia pausing in a doorway, turning around and smiling, and the film doesn’t end with her pulling up next to Mark Hamill on a highway."
And yet, The Last Jedi still feels like a tribute to a remarkable female character who often felt short-changed in previous instalments of the franchise. When we first met Leia in A New Hope, she was a princess taken captive on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan. Clad in the white robes of purity, she was an ingenue, albeit a spunky one, designed as an incentive for Luke Skywalker and Han Solo to join the fight against the evil Empire. The Empire Strikes Back tried to box her in as Han Solo's tolerant love interest. Though Return of the Jedi suggested that she too had the power to control and wield the Force, her abilities always took a backseat to Luke's, who — no matter what Yoda whispers to Obi Wan in the night —has always been framed as the last hope of the Jedi order.
In a move which suggested a new role for women in the Star Wars universe, The Force Awakens promoted Leia to the rank of General in the Resistance. In The Last Jedi, however, she finally comes into her own. With Han gone, Luke busy milking large monsters on Ach-To, and Kylo Ren seemingly beyond redemption, Leia is free to be the leader of men (in a purely platonic sense) she always could have been. Nothing makes the shift more clear than when she demotes Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), her favourite, Han-like rogue pilot, for pulling a brash move that got other good fighters killed. What would have appeared heroic in a previous film is finally called out for what it is: a bonehead manoeuvre by an impulsive man eager to show off.
But The Last Jedi also goes one step further in cementing Fisher's legacy: it lets her speak. Johnson has credited Fisher with some of the best lines in the film, (who else could come up with "you go, I’ve said it enough," as a substitute for "May the Force be with you"?) and reportedly gave her unprecedented leeway to shape her character.
“She was so conscious of her place in culture and what she meant to the female fans,” Johnson told Us Weekly. “She always wanted to stay true to that. She made sure young girls grew up seeing Princess Leia as a female hero.” Judging by the thousands of tweets still commemorating her impact even a year after her death, she succeeded.
All of this makes for a great send-off for a character who will no doubt die offscreen between Episode VIII and the upcoming Episode IX, which will be directed by J.J. Abrams. But it's also a cruel teaser of what could have been. Longtime Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy explicitly said that the final instalment of the latest trilogy would have been Leia's time to shine.
Describing a moment after right after wrapping Fisher's scenes on The Last Jedi, Kennedy told Vanity Fair: “The minute she finished, she grabbed me and said, ‘I’d better be at the forefront of IX!’ Because Harrison was front and centre on VII, and Mark is front and centre on VIII. She thought IX would be her movie. And it would have been.”
By choosing not to kill off Leia in The Last Jedi, Johnson leaves us with that bittersweet possibility. And while Fisher will not appear in Episode IX, her rebellious spirit will live on in the new, strong female characters she paved the way for. Without Leia, there would never have been a Rey, a Jyn Erso, a Captain Phasma, a Rose Tico, or any of the other characters that seem to be causing certain white male fanboys so much distress.
Fisher's legacy carries on in other ways, too. In the last year, women have faced countless trials and obstacles. We've banded together and marched, voiced our pain on Twitter, and brought down dozens of powerful men. We are the rebellion. General Organa would be proud.