One of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema takes place in The Return of the Jedi, when Darth Vader, going against everything that the audience of Star Wars had seen on screen up to that point, breaks free of the Dark Side and the Empire and chooses to save his son, Luke, by killing Emperor Palpatine. Darth Vader’s death scene, caused by the wild lightning erupting from the fingertips of the dying Emperor, was framed as the sign that Luke’s father had somehow survived decades of the Emperor’s indoctrination, countless acts of violence and parsecs of Sith self-hatred, managing to re-emerge for a last, selfless act that killed him but saved the Galaxy.
The prequel trilogy gave Star Wars fans more context about Anakin’s rise in the Jedi order and his catastrophic downfall into the dark side of the Force, exploring the emotional landscape of a tremendously talented but deeply flawed Jedi. Although they were harshly criticized when they came out, the prequels, and specifically The Phantom Menace, established Anakin’s baseline. He was at his best when he felt loved and supported, and as the emotional pillars were removed, one by one, either by the Jedi or by Palpatine’s machinations, he became increasingly unhinged. By The Revenge of the Sith, he chose to commit the one crime that marked his point of no return in the eyes of the audience: the slaughter of the Jedi younglings, small children who were unarmed, untrained, and completely trusting. Anakin followed up this infanticide by Force-choking his extremely pregnant wife until she collapsed. Perhaps George Lucas had read Othello before he started writing Episode VI’s script and thought, “I can raise that bar and keep it flying.”
For the sequel trilogy, J.J. Abrams chose to represent Anakin/Vader’s legacy through his two most iconic possessions: Darth Vader’s charred mask, which Kylo Ren, his grandson, treats like the holiest of dark relics, and Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, which calls to Rey, a desert dweller like him with enormous untapped potential. It’s not a coincidence that both of these objects had to fall from the sky to reach them. The last time that we saw Anakin’s blue lightsaber on-screen, it was on Cloud City, when Darth Vader severed his own son’s weapon hand. While the last time that we saw Darth Vader’s mask was aboard the Death Star II when Luke Skywalker removed it to let his father breathe. The celestial drops are a clear message from the Beyond of opposite sides of the Force: the mask and the lightsaber "talk" to Kylo Ren and to Rey, and both of these powerful Force users desperately try to live up to the standards exemplified by them.
In Star Wars, the dark side of the Force is consistently associated with machines. The first time that Obi-Wan describes Darth Vader, he says that “he’s more machine now than man,” and the arm-race scalation of the Empire and the First Order suggest more than a regular military concern with technocracy. On the other hand, the Jedi were always supposed to be non-aggressive and to draw their lightsabers only in self-defense. This rarely worked out -- Luke failed miserably in the Dagobah cave because he ignored Yoda’s advice to leave his lightsaber behind, bringing violence into his vision.
The Last Jedi ignored the mask and bisected the lightsaber, subverting not only the audience's expectations but also those of its protagonists: the past that Kylo and Rey had been interrogating to find a solution for their very pressing, very dangerous present held no answers for them. And this was because Anakin and Vader had no answers either. Anakin's decisions had deeply wounded the Galaxy, and though his last act was clearly in the light side of the Force, the ripples of his past sins continued to expand long after he died.
The teaser trailer for The Rise of Skywalker and the D23 sizzle reel showcased the four elements that should have died with Vader: Anakin’s lightsaber, which appears repaired and is wielded by Rey; Kylo’s mask, a stand-in for Vader’s, reforged; the ruins of the Death Star II rising above a raging ocean, and the voice of the supposedly deceased Emperor. In other words, the past is coming back to life again and threatening to cannibalize the new generations, unless a miracle happens.
What could be that miracle? The title of Episode IX might give us an idea. Although technically there are still two characters from the Skywalker bloodline on-screen -- Leia and Ben Solo / Kylo Ren -- they’ve never really used that surname. Luke went calmly into the Force, with no terrible sins in his past that would warrant a dramatic comeback, so that only leaves Anakin Skywalker, who has always been at the center of the entire saga, and who managed to become a Force Ghost after passing away.
Given that his two worst on-screen crimes consisted of killing the children that represented the future of the Jedi, and choking his pregnant wife, it is very probable that whatever miracle he performs will be related to either saving the future of the Jedi with Rey or helping the youngest of his and Padmé’s descendants -- Kylo -- in his hour of greatest need.
Although Darth Vader atoned for his crimes by killing the Emperor, Anakin Skywalker would have to redeem himself by reversing his crimes. Where he killed, he should try to resurrect, and where he tried to harness the Force to serve his goals, he would have to let it go. If we follow this line of logic until its final station, this means that Hayden Christensen will come back as a Force Ghost to save or resurrect either Rey or Ben Solo, and in the process, he will truly have to let go of the Force, marking the billed “end of the Skywalker saga" as we know it.
Directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalkerstars Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Billie Lourd, Keri Russell, Matt Smith, Anthony Daniels, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams and Carrie Fisher, with Naomi Ackie and Richard E. Grant. The film arrives on Dec. 20.