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Baby Yoda, Star Wars, and finding my way home from grief
Like many a Star Wars fan last November, I found myself glued to a sofa on Disney+ launch day, desperate to avoid any first-day glitches or buffering issues and hoping to watch the premiere of The Mandalorian. It wasn't how I'd imagined I'd be watching the show in the build-up to its release. The couch I was curled up on was one in my parents' house in Ohio. Failing to find a TV in the house that could access the new channel, I was watching it on my phone, with my earbuds in. And like many moments of the previous week, I was fighting to not completely break down in tears.
Just a few days earlier, I'd been in my apartment in Los Angeles, when I received a phone call from my mom that I'd been dreading for months: my dad's heart condition had become critical and I needed to come home now. I had barely booked the flights and began canceling or rearranging stuff from my schedule when another call came in. He was gone. I was now going home to say goodbye. And that's where I found myself the following Tuesday, the day of my dad's funeral. Trying desperately to claw out just a small pocket of escape between the back to back calling hours the night before, and the horrific afternoon that I knew was swiftly approaching. For just forty minutes I was able to find refuge in a galaxy far, far away.
Once the episode started, my experience watching it was probably not far off from most. I liked it, despite admittedly never having felt super invested in Mandalorian content stuff in Star Wars media prior to the show. It was fun. It was great to see new stories set within that universe. I enjoyed our first introduction to Kuiil the Ugnaught and the very self-destruct happy IG-11.
Then something miraculous happened. I met 'Baby Yoda,' aka The Child. When that green-faced quinquagenarian toddler peered up at me from his round space egg for the first time, my jaw dropped. When the episode ended, I found myself pacing my parents' living room, trying to process it. I was texting my friends to see who had watched it yet so we could share a mutual "oh my God!" moment, and opening Twitter to search for reactions and finding memes and gifs already hitting the landscape.
While I understand the frustration many felt on having to wait so long after the episode's release to find toys for our Mandalorian's important asset, I was so immensely grateful to Jon Favreau and company for keeping this reveal a closely guarded secret. I'm glad I didn't know about The Child before that moment on the couch, glad that he hadn't been distilled by countless theories and analysis before I ever got to meet him. Despite the weight of my world collapsing, for a moment I was so surprised, so excited at that moment that I managed to feel something more than just escapism. I felt joy.
It was incredible, that feeling of being completely surprised by this world I've had a foot in since I was a little kid. It was that same shock I can remember having the very first time I watched The Empire Strikes Back, and how amazed I was to learn that the green Muppety guy annoying Luke was the Jedi Master Yoda that he'd come to Dagobah to meet.
It's so rare with such a massive property stuffed with history to actually recapture that sense of wonder of discovering it for the first time, and yet here I was. When I stared into The Child's adorable black eyes for the first time, I was instantly back sitting behind my dad in my family's van on a road trip — my brother sitting next to me, our eyes glued to the entire trilogy playing via a VHS box set on the combo TV/VCR built into a wooden cabinet of the van that had seemed like the height of technological luxury to us at the time.
Of course, the realities of one of the worst weeks of life couldn't be held off forever, and eventually, I had to get back to everything else. And eventually, I had to fly back to L.A. to figure out how to move on with my life now without my dad on the other end of a phone when I needed to hear his voice. This wasn't my first experience with losing a close family member, having lost my brother in 2012, so I recognized the way grief would catch me at odd times, dragging me down, even if knowing its grip didn't leave me any better equipped to fight against it.
But Star Wars continued to be there for me too. My new digital subscription also brought with it the entirety of Star Wars Rebels, which gave me a set of stories I'd never gotten to explore before. It was exciting to follow along with the crew of the Ghost, even if the show's frequent exploration of the themes of lost family, including father figures and literal parents, made it an occasional struggle.
With the upcoming release of The Rise of Skywalker, I decided to make another pilgrimage through the entire film saga. My girlfriend, who had never watched any of the films before, decided she wanted to watch them too. For the rest of November and into December, conversations about Star Wars, and seeing them again through her first-timer eyes, became a quick go-to for moments when I needed to be talking about literally anything else than what was on my heart.
I sat in the Delta SkyLounge in LAX the night before Thanksgiving, waiting for my red-eye and diving deep into the Star Wars galaxy rather than lingering in the thought of sitting at a table with an unfairly empty chair the following day. On a cold, rainy night in December, when my grief had seized an especially strong grip, I took myself to Disneyland and wandered alone in Galaxy's Edge, finding peaceful serenity in the glow of lightsabers around me, breaking the darkness of a night sky blackened by rain clouds. I returned a few weeks later with a friend to spend a Sunday celebrating my upcoming birthday, complete with my first trip to Oga's Cantina.
There was even one other way that Star Wars found me during all of this, one that I had semi-forgotten about until I sat down to write this piece. The day my father died was November 7. That same day, Billie Lourd, Carrie Fisher's daughter, published a piece for Time Magazine about the way the legacy of these films and her relationship to her mother's iconic role in them shaped the course of her own grief. I read it on the flight home to bury my father. I felt a kinship with this woman who I had never met, whose life has been touched by the same type of grief that I had been feeling. At the time, that piece had felt like a message from the universe itself — that I was not alone in this, that there was a life beyond this, and that I would find a way to reach it.
The Rise of Skywalker had become a beacon for me during the hardest weeks of the buildup to the holiday season. Whenever I doubted my ability to get through the first Christmas, and my first birthday, without my dad, I'd remind myself that at least I was seeing that movie opening weekend in Ohio with my best friend from high school, Matt, the guy I'd skipped class with together back in 1999 in order to go wait in line for The Phantom Menace tickets, and his wife Katie. When the lights dimmed and the music started, and the opening crawl came across the screen, I was able to let go of everything and feel that pure Star Wars joy yet again.
And then there was Han.
I can close my eyes and immediately be back in that seat, feel the way my breath stopped the moment I heard Harrison Ford mutter "Hey, kid," from off-camera to Ben Solo. I knew immediately what was about to happen next and yet I was not prepared. I've seen the movie three times now and I am never prepared for it.
Despite it being a franchise built on broken and mended families, the cathartic and visceral feel of seeing a lost father reach out with an all-meaning "I know" remains one of the most simultaneously devastating and healing experiences I've ever had in a movie theater. To have this moment happen, at this point in time, and have it come from the very place that I've been running to in order to feel a semblance of joy for months was an experience the likes of which I have never felt before.
When we talk about the movies that make us, the stories that helped build us into the people that we are, it isn't a one-way transaction. We leave a bit of ourselves with them as well, the emotions, the moments of our experiences with them. We take what we can and leave bits of our heart and soul behind as payment, forever tying us to them in some ways. They grow with us, often changing as we discover new parts of ourselves or as our lives evolve in ways that make us see elements of them anew. But sometimes, and often when we need it the most, they're where we find our heart again.