“It’s time for the Jedi to end.”
When the teaser for Star Wars: The Last Jedi dropped over Easter weekend, Luke Skywalker spoke for the first time in thirty-four years. What wisdom had the monkish sage of Ahch-To been hiding? What secrets had we lifelong Star Wars fans been awaiting for almost our entire lives?
The new Jedi should arise from a community: Luke, Rey, the ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan, and even Anakin.His own existential anguish and loss of faith, apparently.
Luke Skywalker wants the Jedi to end. I was so surprised—and so certain the voice was not Mark Hamill’s—that I spent days tweeting out that it must be Benicio del Toro (cast to play an unspecified villain in the film). Alas, Hamill himself confirmed it was indeed Luke’s voice speaking the final line.
Luke’s apparent loss of faith has fueled speculation that the film will follow hints scattered across other Star Wars media and introduce Gray Jedi to the film franchise. Gray Jedi are Force-users with allegiance to neither the light side nor the dark, neither the Jedi Order nor the Sith. Scores of articles appeared in the wake of the teaser introducing the obscure concept to the mainstream, including in Time, IGN, the LA Times, and more.
If there can be a consensus about a film that is still eight months away from release, it is that Last Jedi will evolve the Star Wars mythology and add nuance to its archetypal light-dark duality. Which is a shame: the concept of Gray Jedi is morally juvenile at best. It captures the zeitgeist perfectly: it appeals to a generation that wants spirituality without religion and good feelings without judgment, commitment, or boundaries. For precisely that reason, it represents a deterioration of the Star Wars mythology.
Gray Jedi and Force-users of ambiguous loyalty have been popping up in Star Wars cartoons, video games, and books for years, including the Jenssarai (in the 1998 book I, Jedi); the Gray Paladins (in the Coruscant Nights book series starting in 2008); and the Voss Mystics (in the 2011 game The Old Republic). These groups are neither Jedi nor Sith, but something in between: they lie along a spectrum between general benevolence (the Paladins) and malignancy (the Voss).
This ambiguous middle ground has opened up because the concepts of “Jedi” and “Sith” have become hardened and institutionalized in Star Wars storytelling. In the original film trilogy (1977–1983), the Jedi seemed to be nothing more than those in tune with the light side of the Force. But in the prequel trilogy (1999–2005), they are an Order, complete with rules, bureaucracy, and hierarchy. The Sith, similarly, were shown to have their own rules and lines of authority, as developed in the Darth Bane trilogy of novels (2006–2009).
As the Jedi and Sith hardened into warring denominations of fanatics, it became more attractive for Lucasfilm to develop the idea of something in between. The Jedi, in particular, have become something not terribly attractive: arrogant, rigid, ossified, and blindly loyal to an institution rather than to the concepts they claim to uphold. The Jedi deteriorated from space Buddhists into an intergalactic Catholic Church—a definite step down in spiritual chic.
If the Jedi Order is the Star Wars equivalent to the fifteenth-century Catholic Church, Lucasfilm is bringing the Reformation. Only this time they have skipped past the zealous theological debates and centuries of sectarian fragmentation and, with the Gray Jedi, skipped straight to Deism.
Two characters probably best exemplify the Gray Jedi and the emerging trend in Star Wars media: Jolee Bindo and Ahsoka Tano. Jolee Bindo, a character in the 2003 video game Knights of the Old Republic, was a Jedi during the Old Republic, a thousand years before the events of the original film trilogy. After fighting in a war against the Sith, he abandoned the Jedi Order, having lost faith in his fellow adepts’ wisdom and guidance. “Everyone thinks the Jedi are perfect, that they can do no wrong. They think the Jedi Council is completely incapable of injustice,” he complained. “The Jedi are just as capable of injustice as everyone else.”
Bindo’s complaint runs deeper than frustration with the Jedi’s bureaucracy and hypocrisy. “Light side, dark side—they don’t mean the same to me as they do to you. I don’t see in absolutes,” he says, suggesting a profound difference of philosophy. Nonetheless, he did not completely lose his moral compass. He allied with the Order to fight the Sith but did not join it nor submit to its authority. “Belonging to the Jedi Order, or the Sith, or any other group, won’t change what you are at your core,” he explained. He had never been a conventional Jedi—more emotional, irreverent, independent, and irritable than the space monks are supposed to be—so his departure was not out of character.
Ahsoka Tano follows a similar arc. Ahsoka is one of the best-developed non-film characters in the Star Wars universe, having been a main character across most of the six seasons of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008–2015) and now Star Wars: Rebels (2014–2016), and the lead in her eponymously named novel, Ahsoka (2016). Her story is too detailed and involved to do justice with a short summary. For our purposes, we’ll note that she follows a similar path from adept of the Jedi Order to rogue Gray Jedi.
We are introduced to Ahsoka as a young padawan apprentice to Anakin Skywalker, training to be a good and loyal Jedi during the Clone Wars. After fighting alongside Anakin, Yoda, and Obi-Wan for years, she loses faith in the Jedi Order and leaves their ranks after being unjustly accused of treason. She retains a moral compass, later joining the rebel alliance against the Empire, but adopts a white-bladed lightsaber, in contrast to the blue or green typically wielded by the Jedi, to signal her disaffiliation with them. (See Allison Barron’s spoilerific discussion of Ahsoka’s recent Rebels storyarc).
That Lucasfilm would allow a marquee protagonist developed across literally hundreds of storylines—particularly those aimed at the newest generation of Star Wars fans—to grow jaded towards the Jedi is telling. The new generation of young, spunky Star Wars protagonists are fiercely independent, self-guided spiritualists. And they don’t like the Jedi Order.
Bindo and Ahsoka are a new type of hero in the Star Wars universe: they are the prototypes of the Gray Jedi we are likely to see more of in coming years, including in The Last Jedi. It is a savvy marketing move. Lucasfilm understands their audience: we are drawn to spirituality and benevolence, but we resist the binding commitments and limitations of a particular community. The Gray Jedi are more than a return to the Buddhist archetypes of the original film trilogy. They are a step towards the moralistic therapeutic Deism that marks American religion in the 21st century, a sort of postmodern Deism in which all that is demanded of us are good intentions, plenty of mercy, and tolerance all around.
Taken to their logical extreme, of course, Gray Jedi are nihilists who assert a shocking moral equivalence between light and dark. Lucasfilm is unlikely to go that far in their storytelling. I would actually respect a story-arc that followed a Gray Jedi down that path and showed exactly what kind of moral relativism must follow the Gray Jedi’s ethos. Such Gray Jedi would be worse than the Sith: the Sith at least recognize the difference between light and dark and consciously choose the dark, whereas these Gray—truly devoted to the gray with all its philosophical implications—deny distinctions altogether and mask their choice with a mendacious relativism. These Gray would be neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm and worthy of contempt, neutrals in wartime for which hell’s hottest wrath is reserved. Such stories would take storytelling maturity that might appear in some of the marginal comics and novels, but is too risky to appear in the mainstream blockbuster films.
Instead, Lucasfilm is likely to develop more characters like Ahsoka and Bindo: attractively spiritual, vaguely benevolent, fiercely independent, morally inconsistent, and critical of organized institutions. For my money, I’m almost certain this is the direction Lucasfilm will take Rey, and possibly Luke, in the The Last Jedi. They will always be good guys, but their goodness will reside precisely in their spiritual independence, in charting their own path, rather than in following in the footsteps of their forefathers.
Perhaps I am overreacting. What’s wrong with recognizing the faults of the Jedi Order—even the Jedi Code itself? Arguably, the Jedi are to blame for Anakin’s fall to the dark side because of their absurd prohibition on love and marriage. Isn’t it a mark of good story development to recognize these flaws and have characters react accordingly? Aren’t the Jedi in need of a Reformation, after all?
Yes—but there is a mid-point between the rigid medieval Catholic hierarchy of the old Jedi Order and the new hyper-individualistic Deism of the Gray Jedi: we need space Baptists, Reformed Jedi, Neo-Benedictines, Congregationalists, and Calvinists with lightsabers. These would not be Gray Jedi; they would be Gold Jedi: fiercely devoted to the light, aware of the old Jedi Order’s faults, but cognizant that they still need tightly-knit communities to pursue the light together, willing to reform but unwilling to break from the past entirely. They don’t need a single Jedi Council, and they do not need to be a monolithic Order; there can be a plurality of Gold Jedi orders that cooperate and ally as situations demand. This storyline would be infinitely better than Gray Jedi: random individuals roaming the galaxy on disconnected quests for enlightenment, occasionally bumping into galactic politics with a lightsaber.
I’ve always wondered how Luke could possibly hope to rebuild the Jedi by himself upon finding himself alone after the events of Return of the Jedi. It’s interesting that, in both the films and novels, he failed. That strikes a true note. I imagine Luke’s failure is the fruit of his trying to do it alone. The new Jedi should arise from a community: Luke, Rey, the ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan, and even Anakin. Alas, such storylines seem unlikely.
 I am using both “Legends” and “Canon” material because Disney appears to be using Legends material (the pre-2015 Star Wars Expanded Universe) as a regular source of inspiration and is treating its concepts, if not every character and plotline, with fidelity.