A great part of the human experience in both fictional and nonfictional media is the battle of good versus evil. But what about the battle against ourselves?
In Star Wars, it is both.
There is a myriad of content created based off of George Lucas’ original vision, whether it be movies, television shows, video games, comics, and novels. All of these have garnered both praise and derision but each contains many memorable characters and storylines.
It also contains numerous depictions of issues relating to mental health and mental illness; some are nuanced and effective, others quite reductive and even flat out problematic.
Childhood trauma as a recurring trait
In a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there are quite a few battles, wars, and everything in between (it is in the name, after all). Lives are lost for a variety of causes, spanning across the franchises’ vast array of media . It is hard to ignore the good and bad in terms of depicting trauma from said violence.
A recent example is in a certain tiny green friend named Grogu, though many call him Baby Yoda.
In The Mandalorian, Grogu is a Jedi youngling who was raised to one day take up the teachings and ways of the Jedi, the lightsaber wielding group adept at utilizing the Force, a power often wielded to control minds and objects. He is adopted by Din Djarin, the Mandalorian protagonist who refuses to hand over the young alien to fulfill a contract he overtook.
At the end of Season 2 of The Mandalorian, Grogu goes with Luke Skywalker to continue his training as a Jedi, leaving behind his companion.
His training is shown on The Book of Boba Fett, where Luke patiently tries to train Grogu properly. During a meditation session, Grogu has a flashback to Order 66, a decree given by Emperor Palpatine to eliminate all Jedi after framing them as enemies of the newly formed Galactic Empire. Grogu himself witnessed the death of several of his peers as he was whisked away by a still unknown person into hiding.
The apprehension to become a Jedi is completely understandable for Grogu. Not only because it requires abandoning his adopted caretaker Din Djarin but also because he is clearly afraid of being hurt, since many Jedi before him were killed for being Jedi. Luke Skywalker questions Grogu’s commitment initially but we as the audience see first hand why.
Many who undergo trauma repress the torment they experienced, as working through it to them can be incredibly painful and time consuming.
Din Djarin himself shares similar pain as the child he becomes responsible for. For one, he belongs to an incredibly secretive armor-clad religion known as Mandalorians. Djarin was a foundling, children adopted by and brought to the planet of Mandalore to become one of them himself.
His start began when he witnessed his entire village killed by Seperatist droids and himself being saved when Mandalorians arrived on jetpacks to fight them off. His response is different to Grogu’s; he nurses a seething hatred of all droids. This is understandable, yet creates a problem in itself. Instead of viewing each as their own who serve a variety of functions depending on their programmer, he views an entire group in an unfavorable light. Droids, to him, are nothing but killers.
His childhood trauma manifests into an intolerance that essentially traps him into reliving his pain over and over again. This proves nil; the only solution to healing is to open himself to acceptance, both of the group he despises as a whole and what happened to him.
Din Djarin is a stoic, composed force of nature for a reason. It doubles as both a survival tactic in a dangerous galaxy as well as a separation from what continues to haunt him.
Later on, Din Djarin is able to overcome this resentment but others are not so sympathetic.
Resentment and misplaced anger almost always leads to bad outcomes
Intentional or not, anger is a massive recurring theme in the Star Wars universe. It is presented in similar ways, relatable yet destructive if utilized in the wrong ways.
The first chronologically and most pivotal is Anakin Skywalker.
We first meet the future Sith lord as a child, born into an incredibly unfair and exploitative situation on the desert planet of Tatooine. He is enslaved, along with his mother, and the only way he is able to get out is from intervention on behalf of the Jedi Order who see his potential immediately.
While this is the best possible outcome he could have hoped for, he struggles significantly. For one, he is unable to take his mother with him as he did not have enough credits to free her as well. Anakin is also dubbed “the chosen one”, someone one day who is destined to be the most powerful wielder of the Force.
The pressure of these two responsibilities weigh heavy on the mind of someone with seemingly no outlet to vent his glaring mental struggle. Anakin eventually is able to handle both but unfortunately goes about them in the worst ways possible.
Anakin eventually returns to Tatooine as an adult to find that his mother has been kidnapped and severely beaten by a group of Tusken Raiders, a tribal race native to the planet. She eventually succumbs to her injuries in Anakin’s arms.
To exact revenge, Anakin then murders every last Tusken Raider in the encampment: man, woman, and child alike.
He responds to valid trauma and anger with unbridled violence, an outcome many in a similar spot resort to. In fact, it is what many young males resort to. All too often do we see young men in our own lives who share the same burden of anger and are told to “man up” instead of properly allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Rather than seek the help they need or allow themselves to undo the harmful patterns they have learned, they instead ignore it entirely until it bubbles into rage.
This is the nail in the coffin leading to Anakin’s downfall, ultimately allowing him to be taken advantage of by someone with sinister intentions.
Anakin Skywalker eventually becomes Darth Vader, with many offering interpretations to what specifically caused it. Two that are undeniable is his developed resentment for the Jedi Order reaching a fever pitch as well as the fear of losing another person he cared for.
The Jedi Order, while being the archetypal good guys for the casual Star Wars viewers, are actually a lot more complicated. They are not perfect and are often a victim of their own choices rooted in outdated logic. The best example is in the Clone Wars animated series, when Anakin’s apprentice, Ahsoka Tano, is framed for the bombing of the Jedi Temple and expelled. While she is offered her place back, she reneges on it as the damage has already been done.
Anakin is a witness to all of it and begins to naturally mistrust the very people that adopted him. Mistrust, in this case, leads to anger.
All of us have and will feel fear. Social mistakes, failing at something, or even something as menial as spiders are all things many feel fearful of. In Anakin Skywalker’s case, it is losing his wife, Padme.
In a moment of anger, he is confronted both by Padme and his master Obi Wan Kenobi and accidentally kills his wife while seething with rage. By the end of his battle with his master, Anakin is burnt, scarred, allowing himself to now be taken in by Palpatine to be healed.
Despite going down the dark path to save his wife, it has only taken her from him and he is now a powerful but subservient pawn for Palpatine as Darth Vader.
Similarly, his great nephew Kylo Ren ended up in the exact same place. A disciple of the Jedi Order reduced to a petulant powder keg prone to outbursts.
Ren’s story is much the same and ends similarly, helping end the same evil that made him the way he is in an act of redemption .
Forgiveness and rising above
Many heroes grace the silver and gold screens of the Star Wars universe such as Luke Skywalker, the most long running and well known.
We first meet Luke as a plucky young kid on Tatooine. He has great ambition to become something greater but did not see a way to become so. This is until two incredible important things happen,
For one, he meets Obi Wan Kenobi who tells the kid about his father and offers to train the kid as a Jedi. While he originally refuses, this is changed once his uncle and aunt are both killed by Imperial soldiers. Luke realizes that he is much more important than he originally imagined.
Skywalker goes from young farmer to full fledged Jedi within three movies where he finally goes toe to toe with his father, Darth Vader. The two engage in a heated battle where Luke emerges victorious. He attacks his father in full rage, goaded on by Palpatine until he realizes what is happening.
Luke drops his lightsaber, refusing to let his anger consume him like his father. He defiantly states “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” to Palpatine.
He is a beacon of mental strength and fortitude. Many people would seek anger and this is a valid, human approach. Luke initially tiptoes down this path before realizing that he has the power to be different and end the spread of anger that plagued his father.
Another example comes in the form of Rey, the main focus of the sequel trilogy.
Rey aligns quite a bit with Luke Skywalker, born on a desolate, remote planet with little prospects but a true heart of gold. This path leads her toward helping a new Resistance successfully vanquish the tyrannical First Order. In the process, she discovers that she is the daughter of Palpatine, a choice many fans were puzzled by. Rey also aids in the redemption of the son of Han Solo and Leia Skywalker, Kylo Ren. Her story ends in the final defeat of her father, similar to what Luke accomplished many years previously.
In a striking ownership of her own fate, Rey adopts the last name Skywalker. It is an appropriate one due to her demonstration that she can also let go of her anger and instead channel it into making the world a better place.
Both one and three dimensional portrayals of PTSD
Boba Fett is a much beloved character, so praised that he has gone from a side henchman to a fully fleshed out character with much to do alongside friends and foes to be made along the way.
While many fans were strangely upset that The Book of Boba Fett turned the character into a three dimensional person with emotions, goals, and a personality, it is a great flip on many similar characters who unfortunately fall under the silent killer trope.
It is not perfect, though, and much has been reductive toward what we were presented with.
For one, it is apparent that Fett has been absent from having a true family. His only relative is the man he was cloned from, Jango Fett, who he considered to be his father. Many times we witness flashbacks of the young boy watching his father leave him alone on the dark, rainy planet he lived on his whole life to complete a bounty.
Boba Fett had to raise himself, especially after his father was killed in front of him during a battle. The apple did not fall far from the tree in more ways than one because Fett became a bounty hunter himself as an adult.
His adventures lead him to working with the Galactic Empire, the fascist faction that has seemingly held an iron fist over the galaxy. Boba Fett, of course, meets the business end of Han Solo’s blaster in the sixth installment. He falls into the jaws of the Sarlacc Pit and only barely climbs his way out.
From that point on, he is captured by a Tusken Raider tribe. While he is treated merely as a captive early on, Fett eventually gains their respect and is accepted as a member of the tribe despite being an outsider.
He finally finds the family he longed for since he was a child.
All does not end well for the tribe, as they are eventually wiped out by what is later revealed to be the villainous Pyke Syndicate. What would have severe emotional and mental damage to anyone else did not seem to affect Boba Fett at all. There is mention of this event but Fett himself is completely impassive about it.
This comes as a profoundly strange development. It is true that everyone grieves differently and there is no “right” way to do so. Yet, here I think it is a bit of a misstep to humanize a character, pulling away the layers of what makes Boba Fett who he is, only to completely disregard all of it.
Some can also say it is a bit destructive, advocating for people to “toughen up” instead allowing themselves to properly take it in and express emotion.
A more expatiate portrayal is in the character who suffers more loss than anyone, Obi Wan Kenobi. A profound loss he experiences early is of his own master, Qui Gon Jinn, which reminds him that evil is often stronger than we think.
Kenobi’s most heartbreaking loss comes from his apprentice Anakin Skywalker joining the dark side and becoming Darth Vader. During a conversation with Luke, an older Kenobi reminisces on who Anakin was before joining the dark side. The viewer can see it in his eyes. He looks visibly sorrowful yet stoic, with almost a small hint of guilt.
This brilliant portrayal by Alec Guiness in the original trilogy is incredibly reflective of a veteran during peacetime suffering from PTSD. Kenobi has lost two separate people who were very close to him and part of him blames himself, an aspect of PTSD called survivor’s guilt.
By the end of the third movie he is able to whisk away Anakin’s two children after Padme passes, leaving each on a different planet for their safety. Leia is left with the Organa family on Alderaan while Luke ends up where his father began his story, on the planet of Tatooine but this time under the care of Owen and Beru Lars.
Kenobi proactively made a difficult yet reasonable decision but part of him fears the two Skywalker children could walk down the same path their father did.
There is much to be felt and expressed in distant galaxies
No franchise has quite the range of Star Wars and like any other, there are layers of themes and ideas. One such theme is mental health and how it affects many characters over the span of each film and show alike.
Many of these depictions are quite a bit more complicated than we realize. Others are unfortunately not and reductive.
Either way, the vast world of Star Wars contains abundant stories to take a closer look at to learn more about ourselves and our own world we live in.