The droids in the Star Wars universe have always been a topic of debate. Everyone loves the astromech droids R2-D2 and BB-8. We get annoyed with C-3PO and his worrying, but we still care for him. K-2SO was one of the best parts of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and L3-37 carves out a unique niche among the rest in Solo. These characters are huge parts of the Star Wars universe, and are instrumental in saving the day over and over again. I often moderate a panel at conventions called 'The Science of Star Wars,' and one of the first questions I put out there is, “Are droids slaves in the Star Wars universe?” It always gets a huge reaction, and the overwhelming answer is yes.
So, why do we feel like this? Dr. Travis Langley, clinical psychologist and editor of the book Star Wars Psychology: Dark Side of the Mind, makes a concise point: “They are clearly sentient, self-aware beings. So, yes, they are slaves.”
Sentience and self-awareness in droids are clear throughout the Star Wars films and TV series. There are a number of examples, though in Solo: A Star Wars Story, the franchise addresses it for the first time with L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Warning: Spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Droids often choose to disregard their own safety in order to do the right thing. Think about R2-D2. He’s just been through torture at the hands of the Jawas, who are essentially selling sentient beings to other sentient beings. R2’s buddy C-3PO convinces Luke Skywalker and his uncle Owen to take them both home to their moisture farm, where Owen suggests wiping their minds. These droids have been through battles and wars, they're part of the Rebellion, and none of that matters at all to Owen. They’re just his property. It’s actually pretty horrifying.
To fulfill his mission, R2 tricks Luke into pulling off his restraining bolt (which is awful to even consider), and leaves the relative safety of the moisture farm (since Luke isn’t going to wipe his mind). He ventures out into the desert to complete his mission and find Obi-Wan Kenobi. We can hear from his beeps and boops that he’s scared, but he does it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do. Even C-3PO tries to tell Luke and the gang to leave him behind after a Tusken Raider attack because he’d only slow them down. Sure, it’s a bit passive aggressive, but he’s attempting to give himself up to save his friends.
K-2SO is sarcastic and frequently goes against orders, but he’s willing to sacrifice himself to help his friends complete their mission in Rogue One. He’s an Imperial enforcer droid that has been reprogrammed (which, in and of itself, raises questions: was he freed from negative programming, or is messing with his consciousness the act of a barbarian?). When the gang infiltrates an Imperial base, he has the opportunity to save himself. Instead, he makes the decision to murder another Imperial droid to do the right thing for the galaxy.
Droids worry about those they love. They’ve clearly formed attachments that go far beyond programming. L3 is clearly in love with Lando and implies that they have a sexual relationship. They’ll do anything for each other. R2 worries about the Princess and his mission, and C-3PO worries about all of his friends. He speaks about it constantly. He gets angry at R2, but clearly loves him dearly. After all, they’ve been through a lot of films together. In a similar vein, Chopper from the animated TV series Star Wars Rebels takes care of his friends, but has no problem giving them sass and going against orders when he feels like it. BB-8 is clearly thrilled to see Poe Dameron again after being separated from him in The Force Awakens.
Droids feel fear. We see this with R2-D2 and C-3PO all over the original trilogy and the prequels, from 3PO’s constant worrying to R2’s fright and pain when he’s being tortured while held by the Jawas, to the little MSE-6-series repair droid aboard the Death Star who squeaks in fright and scurries away when presented with danger.
Droids also make decisions outside of their programming. BB-8 can clearly see that Finn is lying about something when he’s speaking to Rey, but he not only goes along with it, he gives the “thumbs up” sign because he wants to help Finn out. He's made a decision to go along with an untruth because he doesn't think it will harm Rey.
In a more extreme instance, 4-LOM was a protocol droid that defied his programing to become a galactic thief and bounty hunter, choosing to do bad things despite his original design. Meanwhile, in the video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the Hunter-Killer assassin droid HK-47 was kind of a jerk, but if you played through things a certain way he took care of his friends—unlike IG-88, the assassin droid who was feared throughout the galaxy.
All this brings us to L3-37. She’s a piloting droid, and she is one of a kind. She put herself together and gave herself upgrades out of astromech, espionage and protocol droid parts. L3 is essentially self-made, and could have spent her life traveling the galaxy with Lando. However, L3 also cares about droids' rights, and the movie spends time addressing her passion for those issues.
When we first meet her, L3 is trying to put a stop to droid cage fights in the name of entertainment. She even strikes out at a human. You could argue that she programmed herself that way, but she stops fighting when Lando asks her to. She’s made an independent decision to do what is best for her friend rather than for herself.
Later, on Kessel, L3 frees slave droids who are stuck working in terrible conditions in the mine. She convinces the droids to start a rebellion, which also gives her friends time to escape with the coaxium they're looking for. She dies for her cause in the battle. Well, sort of. Eventually, her consciousness gets uploaded into the Millennium Falcon, helping her friends escape.
Fans might remember a line in The Empire Strikes Back where C-3PO says to Han Solo, “Sir, I don’t know where your ship learned to communicate, but it has the most peculiar dialect.” The events of Solo cast this dialogue in a whole new light. It's not a dialect now, but rather a consciousness belonging to a very unique being who fought for the rights of droids, loved a human and sacrificed herself for a cause she believed in.
Are droids slaves? Of course they are—and for the first time, a character in a Star Wars film brought our attention to it, and fought against it.