Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite pop culture characters. This week: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the power of healing.
The whole Star Wars universe has always been motivated by love and lust. Imagine Luke sitting under the twin stars of Tatooine, playing and replaying the message from Leia begging for help, watching her pixels shimmer, before deciding to seek out this Obi-Wan dude and seeing if he can help the kid get his nut. Anakin, too, has a character arc motivated by his desires to get close to the galaxy’s best haircut. And sure, young love is a powerful thing for those who get to feel it, but a galaxy’s a big place and not everyone gets to live the same story.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) doesn’t have that luxury. As a child, her family lives on the run and in constant fear of discovery, until the fateful day when they are found by the Empire. Her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) has prepared an escape for her and her mother, but en route to their hiding place her mom, Lyra (Valene Kane), turns back to help her husband. The end result of this love-induced heroism, at least in the cause-and-effect meaning making of childhood, is Lyra’s violent death and Galen’s capture. Jyn escapes, but she’ll never be the same again.
As the movie progresses from here, we see Jyn and her companion, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), move through the slow process of developing trust. By the end of the movie, they’ve gone from near enemies to collaborators to comrades in arms, and then they die together. That’s their whole story: they never fall in love, they barely flirt, and, outside of battle, they touch each other one time, briefly. Yet their union, loveless and lustless as it may be, moves their angry band to cohesion and their Rebellion to war. Their camaraderie, though it may lack the outward signs of devotion and energy we see in the other films, has all the volatile chemistry their galaxy could ever need.
To understand what’s happening between Jyn and Cassian, we have to understand their lives. We don’t know much about Cassian before this film, besides that he’s been a part of the war since he was six years old, but we know a lot about Jyn. Her childhood, like all childhoods, has been mythologized in her mind. And in plain terms, childhood terms, she saw love bring danger, instability, and pain into her life and the lives of everyone she ever cared about.
And it is that pain that is so strongly at play here. Jyn is a veteran of what we see in Rogue One to be an utterly brutal war against a vicious enemy. By the time we meet her as an adult, she has learned hot to fight, how to hate, and, most chillingly, how to protect herself. The Rebellion rescues her – albeit to strong-arm her into helping them – and all she can muster is a fine fuck you, where’s the door? While she may agree to join eventually, it’s only to further her own aims of reuniting with her fathers.
Put simply, Jyn has learned the danger of throwing in her lot with others. Staying alone may put her life and future at risk, but it keeps the emotional pain at bay. The worst that can happen to her on her own is pain, and pain, like emotions, lives in the body. And for so many people who have gone through incredible pain over long periods of time, or at a young age or just a particularly vulnerable time, the first trick of self preservation lthat gets learned is how to turn off the body. Because the body is what betrays us first; the body feels the pain, the loss, and the dangerous naïveté of hope.
Jyn and Cassian are linked in this way – they’ve both been in this war so long they’ve forgotten that life exists outside it. We get the explicit tale with Jyn, and we see it implicitly all over Cassian’s fun-house mirror reflection of Han Solo. Compare choice of best friends: Chewbacca’s half-verbal, kind hearted, all instinct and shaggy fur companionship is replaced by K2-SO’s (Alan Tudyk) relentlessly self-announcing, cold, precise, and paranoid presence. Cassian sums up his motivations with a litany of the atrocities he’s long-suffered, and to Jyn this is a shibboleth into her secret tea room. His energies are as wrapped up in protecting himself as hers; his camaraderie will never force her out of numbness.
That they are able to find meaningful companionship, then, is paradoxical but in no way surprising. They announce themselves to each other as people who will never push for intimacy, who will never demand emotional honesty, and in this way are able to reach it anyway. This is one of the principles of group therapy: skip all that fancy psychoanalysis bull and just get enough people together and talking to each other; most of them will find someone with whom they feel comfortable and that will be enough to shake them to the core. Because neither one has any awareness of the possibility of comfort, they are able to provide it for each other.
So when Cassian first tells Jyn that Rebellions are fueled by hope, it’s bothing more than a calculated slogan put together by an intelligence officer for the sake of flipping radicals to his side. But by the time Jyn repeats it back to the Rebellion at large, it has taken on a fervent new meaning. It has become hypercharged by the powerful healing camaraderie that the two have found in each other. Jyn isn’t just telling the Rebellion why they ought to fight, she’s showing them what they could be fighting for: the healing we can find in each other, in the very diversity and chance encounters that the Empire seeks to stamp out.
James Cole Abrams, MA, is a psychotherapist living and working in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. His work can also be found at www.jamescoleabrams.com where he blogs every Sunday.