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For devoted fans of Princess Leia Organa, nothing could be more bittersweet than the knowledge that Star Wars: Episode IX was supposed to be her movie. After Carrie Fisher finished shooting The Last Jedi in July 2016, she told producer Kathleen Kennedy that she wanted Leia to be “at the forefront” of the next film, just like her fellow Galactic Civil War veterans Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi and Han Solo in The Force Awakens. Kennedy told Vanity Fair that she agreed: Leia deserved her own chapter of the trilogy. Five months later, Fisher died, and The Last Jedi suddenly became General Leia’s swan song. (Or porg song, as it were.) Fortunately, Fisher makes a hell of an exit, claiming some of the film’s most emotional and dramatic moments as her own. Still, her story is open-ended. At the end of The Last Jedi, Leia is not only alive; she’s the biggest celebrity the Resistance has to offer. It’s going to be difficult for Episode IX writer-director J.J. Abrams to explain Leia’s absence, let alone give her the sendoff she deserves. But maybe it’s not impossible.
The first thing to consider, when contemplating an ending for Leia, is that Rian Johnson gifted her with a near-complete story arc in The Last Jedi. As the leader of the Resistance, Leia begins the movie attempting to hold on to hope even as her numbers dwindle and her estranged son personally tries to blow up her ship. By the film’s conclusion, she has shown the next generation of leaders how to move the rebellion forward with the same ingenuity and compassion that led to their triumph in Return of the Jedi. Along the way, Leia gets a few scenes that are particularly gratifying for original trilogy fans. The princess who watched helplessly while Lando betrayed her friends in The Empire Strikes Back takes down the mutinous Poe with a blaster set on stun. The princess who spent years ignorant of her own Force powers uses them to dramatic effect, manipulating not just a lightsaber or pile of rocks but her own body through space. And finally, the twin sister of Luke Skywalker is reunited with her brother in a funny and touching scene that proves they’ve somehow managed to become a real family.
That’s a lot of mileage for General Leia in The Last Jedi; now all Episode IX needs to do is stick the landing. Since Kennedy has said that Fisher won’t appear in the film — through digital animation, reused footage, or any other technical wizardry — Abrams will have to do it without her. The most logical way to approach this would be to pick up the story several months or years after The Last Jedi, allowing Leia to pass away in the interim. (Johnson’s decision to begin his movie immediately after the last one is actually an anomaly; all previous Star Wars films, with the exception of Rogue One, leave a gap for the passage of time.) Granted, she wouldn’t necessarily have to die; she could go off on a diplomatic mission, or a long, well-deserved vacation. Yet Fisher’s loss is so palpably felt among Star Wars fans that it’s hard to imagine the film failing to honor her.
Regardless of how her absence is explained, there’s one crucial, previously inevitable Leia moment that audiences will now be deprived of: her reunion with her son, Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren. Were Ben to turn from the Dark Side, he and Leia might have had a tearful reconciliation in which he apologizes for doing the unthinkable. Alternately, mother and son may have been destined for a final showdown — a Force battle that pitted Leia’s hard-won strength and wisdom against Ben’s raw power and rage. Now, Abrams will have to find a way to wrap up the Solo family drama with its matriarch missing in action. Hopefully, Ben will get a chance to acknowledge his late parents; if any Star Wars actor can muster enough pathos to perform a moving scene at a galactic grave, it’s Adam Driver.
There’s just one more thing that Episode IX needs to do to bring Leia’s story to a proper conclusion — and that is make her a legend. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi established that Luke Skywalker’s heroics are known throughout the galaxy. His very name is enough to inspire hope in everyone from Resistance armies to stable boys. This is what Leia deserves, too. She’s the princess who gave up the throne to lead a rebellion. She watched everyone she loved die, over and over, and never stopped believing that good could triumph — even when Han and Luke did.
By the end of Last Jedi, Leia has reinvigorated the fight against the First Order, telling the handful of remaining Rebels, “We have everything we need.” In Episode IX, those words need to be whispered from Bespin to Jakku, bringing courage to the downtrodden and disheartened. As the Force moves through the star systems, let Leia’s bold spirit travel with it. And when the rebels rise up from every planet to take down the fascist First Order once and for all, Leia must be there — either as a literal Force ghost (the only honorable way to digitally resurrect her), or as a symbol of that struggle. (Think of all those Princess Leia signs at the Women’s March. Now think of that a thousand times over.)
Carrie Fisher will never have as much Star Wars screen time as her male co-stars; it’s too late now to change that. It’s not too late to cement her legacy as a franchise hero. George Lucas originally conceived Leia as a damsel in distress — the princess locked in a tower awaiting rescue. Now it’s Leia’s turn to rescue the rebellion. Episode IX owes her that much.
Watch ‘The Last Jedi’ cast talk about Carrie Fisher’s final performance:
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