Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi below.
(And also, like, spoilers for the prequel trilogy, but we both know you don’t care.)
Quick—in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, who’s the Luke, who’s the Han, and who’s the Leia?
The answer, or at least one of them, is that Rey is the new Luke (sand planet, gauzy clothes, the best at the Force), Finn is the new Han (doesn’t want to pick a side, heart of gold, great smile, great quips), and Poe is the new Leia (determined, extremely capable, the best hair). Of course, the comparisons aren’t—and shouldn’t be!—one to one. The joy of the sequel trilogy is seeing a lot of the things that make Star Wars so archetypical and great remixed into new and exciting forms, and being able to track things backwards and forwards appeals to those of us who swoon over dense and intricate mythology.
But people rarely track backwards chronologically all the way to the prequel trilogy. I understand why, of course, but I think it’s a shame. Especially because it's so obvious Rey is the new Anakin.
I mean, think about it. Both Anakin and Rey start life off as children in bad situations on a desert planet. He’s a slave, she’s exploited labor. Anakin comes from nowhere, in the sense that he’s immaculately conceived (oh yeah, that’s still canon), and Rey comes from nowhere, as Luke reminds us in The Last Jedi. They’re both sold at young ages to new masters. Rey’s parents sell her, presumably to Unklar Platt, while Anakin is handed off from Gardulla to Watto to, one would argue, Qui-Gon Jinn. They’re both friends to droids—the Star Wars equivalent of being a friend to all animals—identifying with them more than other lifeforms in the galaxy do. Rey refuses to sell BB-8 and feels empathy for him; in one of the most compelling (and now tragically noncanonical) Star Wars comics, "Thank the Maker," the young Anakin salvages and rebuilds C-3PO because, as he tells his mother, “What if he was just like us?” They’re both obviously powerful, instinctive Force users, and deeply loyal to their friends—and, in Anakin’s case, his lover and then wife.
And they both deal with monumental trauma regarding their families...
… one of them in better ways than the other.
Among the most fascinating and yet seldom addressed elements in Star Wars is Anakin’s trauma around having not only been a slave, but also being forcibly separated from his mother by the Jedi—and the Jedi dismissing the idea that he might have some complex separation issues. In The Phantom Menace, when Anakin admits he misses his mother, Yoda asks if he’s afraid of losing her. Like most children, the idea is unsettling enough to Anakin that he gets defensive. Yoda launches into the classic “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” monologue, and then tells Anakin he senses fear in him.
You can kind of see why Anakin might not be willing to share his fears and get help if this is how the Jedi Order treats a perfectly reasonable fear for an actual child. In fact, I’m pretty sure the Jedi attitude towards mental health is is the Star Wars equivalent of “you should drink more tea and do more yoga, that always makes me feel better.” For instance, in The Clone Wars comic book arc Slaves of the Republic (later adapted into two episodes of the animated series), Anakin and Ahsoka are forced to go undercover as slaver and slave. When Ahsoka makes light of playing slave, Anakin rounds on her and drops his usual Fun Jedi Dad vibe to lecture her on how slavery isn’t a joke. She shrugs him off by pointing out the importance of their mission… and then compares being a Jedi Master to a slavedriver, which Anakin does not appreciate, young lady.
What I’m trying to say is that if somebody had intervened in his youth, Anakin might have gone a differently, significantly less child murder-y path in life. Without any support, Anakin never really heals from this wound and develops maladaptive coping mechanisms—ranging from a dashing disregard for danger to putting his wife on a dangerous pedestal. What he wants is reassurance and stability in the face of the very human fears he’s been taught to push aside or ignore, instead of deal with head-on. This is exactly why Palpatine can slip into his emotional DMs and twist his head around so easily—and the rest is cinematic history.
Similarly, Rey’s great unresolved childhood trauma is not only being forcibly separated from her parents, but actively being abandoned by them. She might be nominally free as a scavenger, but she’s trapped by both the brutality of life on Jakku (there’s a reason we’re shown Rey’s reaction to an elderly woman doing the same work at the beginning of The Force Awakens—that’s her potential future) and by her burning hope that she needs to stay put so that her parents can find her when they come back to get her. Rey is a capable and multitalented young woman, but that desire is just as childish as Anakin’s desire to make sure nothing bad will ever happen to his wife like it did to his mother. Like Anakin, she grows frustrated enough with what remains of the Jedi Order to seek answers in the Dark Side.
But Rey succeeds where Anakin failed.
Unlike Anakin, Rey actually has a support system who understands her greatest fears and can allay them instead of aggravate them. One of the most touching moments in The Force Awakens is when Finn finds Rey on Starkiller Base, trying to rescue her while she’s in the middle of rescuing herself. “We came back for you,” he tells her, and the script tells us, “She is speechless — this is all she’s ever wanted anyone to do.” At the end of The Last Jedi, when Rey despairs of the tatters of the Resistance and a broken lightsaber, she has Leia to inspire and reassure her.
And just as importantly, she can see and think outside of the binary system of the Jedi and the Sith, the powerful and the powerless, in a way that Anakin could never do. When Kylo Ren attempts to pull a Palpatine on Rey, he fails, because he fundamentally misunderstands what Rey wants. (Also, I’m not sure how negging works, but I know he’s doing it too hard.) He asks her to leave the past behind and join him on the throne, but he’s talking in the eternal manner of young men who want to overthrow the system just to recreate it and put themselves on top. You can change the names of the players all you like, but it’s still the same power hierarchy. Kylo Ren, like Anakin before him, has decided that the answer to his problems is unlimited power. If you were strong enough, their fears and manipulative masters tell them, you could stop anything bad from happening to you.
But Rey isn’t interested in acquiring power in order to make others kneel and herself mighty. What Rey want is to find where she belongs. She’s hoped her whole life that knowing the truth about her parents (or, given her denial, knowing a better truth about her parents) would fill in all of the gaps, even after she’s counseled to stay in the present by Maz Kanata. But no matter how desperate she is, she understands intuitively what Rose says at the end of The Last Jedi: “We're going to win this war, not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.” Anakin and Kylo Ren have been taught to hate their fears and struggle against them constantly, to everybody’s detriment; Rey ultimately accepts her fears and embraces what she loves.
The similarities and key differences between Rey and Anakin are full of potential. If the prequel trilogy is about the tragic fall of Anakin into darkness and the original trilogy is about his son redeeming him through compassion, then looking at the sequel trilogy through this lens promises that Rey will redeem Anakin in another way. Not personally, of course, but as a fellow sold child, the most powerless of all, tearing down the system that kept its boot on their throats—hopefully with some sweet, sweet lightsaber moves.