Forgetting Chewbacca: The Star Wars Mistake That No One Talks About
Rise of Skywalker has gotten a bad rap. For good reason. It sped through a derivative McGuffin quest, uprooting established lore at every step of the way. However, I think the most overlooked narrative mistake of the new Star Wars trilogy actually occurred in 2015’s The Force Awakens, years before anyone had the idea to make Sheev a grandpa. Grandpa Sheev. That’s an interesting family Thanksgiving. You know he’s got some conversational nuggets to share as he passes the bantha milk.
But I digress. Let’s start at the beginning. Chewbacca owes Han a life debt. This is established in a portion of the canon that didn’t get erased. He is also Han’s devoted friend and smuggling partner. Let’s table any questions about Han’s knowledge of Shyriiwook, the Wookies’ most-spoken dialect. The two were thick as thieves. Then, in The Force Awakens, Han dies for no reason except to return as a ghost in Rise of Skywalker with a robust— if not brusque — pep talk that oddly seems to do the trick. Han’s death would have been a great shock-to-the-system plot twist if the writers had actually thought about what this would mean for Chewbacca, who firmly believed that it was his life’s work to protect his scoundrel savior and friend — at all costs. There is no mention of this. Not once. Han dies, Chewie groans and seems sad, but then before you know it he is off fighting battles again and it’s definitely not on his mind in the second and third movies.
In my opinion, this is a massive disservice to the story. It’s a missed opportunity and a contradiction of the complicated roots of Chewbacca’s friendship with Han Solo, which centers on a cultural, almost religious obligation to preserve his friend’s life.
In the books, specifically in R.A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime, Chewie fulfills his life debt by saving Han from a doomed planet. He stays behind so that Han — now a father, husband, and freedom fighter — can go about his life. It’s honestly a beautifully sad scene. It was a rough read don’t get me wrong, but so was that scene where Ned Stark dies because he’s too foolish about his honor and loyalty to anyone but his family to realize he’s walking into the lion’s den with a rack of juicy ribs. His death — like Chewie’s — made sense because it was the inevitable conclusion to a central character arc, even if it hurt like hell. Why’d ya do it, Ned? Why?
However, the movies threw that idea aside and decided that Han should die instead. It’s strange watching this scene for two reasons. First, it’s palpable how aware of itself it seems to be, like the characters themselves are aware that Han needs to die here for some unknown plot reason. The emotions here don’t make sense. Why would his death change anything here?
Secondly, watch the scene. What is Chewie doing? He doesn’t seem like himself here. Throughout the entirety of the original trilogy, Chewie is constantly, devotedly by Han’s side protecting him. It’s not in his character to be so detached when Han knows he’s going to die here. There’s no way he would allow Han to walk to his death like that, and on such an ominous looking catwalk, to boot. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around Han dying for any other reason than Harrison Ford needing to leave the franchise. Which, to be fair, he deserves. He’s paid his dues and did a phenomenal job as the classic space scoundrel with a heart of gold and the best smirk in the galaxy.
However, Han’s death is — or should be — a devastating thing for Chewie in a way that is never explained, nor is the full emotional effect expressed in the movies. Han dies. Chewie fails not only his friend, but also his deep-rooted belief in the life debt he was meant to fulfill. The new franchise even spent time and effort a few years later showing how Chewie got the life-debt in Solo: A Star Wars Story. A young Solo saved the Wookie from a monster pit which had been inexplicably built in the middle of a muddy, blazing trench war. That’s an article for another day, but the point is, they’re investing in the arc without ever mentioning a foundational piece of it. Then, they ended the arc with nothing more than an obligatory moment of sadness from Chewie, which doesn’t even begin to express what he would be feeling in that moment and in the years to come.
In Wookie culture, Han’s death would have been equivalent to Chewbacca failing a fundamental, foundational spiritual life goal. It would have absolutely ruined him. According to Wookiepedia, a life-debt is “a social institution found in many honor-bound cultures throughout the galaxy, including the Wookiees, Trandoshans, Gungans, Noghri, Talz, and Srrors’tok. To summarize, if a person’s life was saved by another, the saved person was obligated to pledge their life to protecting and looking after their savior, even to the point of sacrificing their own life, if necessary.”
Han’s death — or at least the lack of attention paid to the ramifications — makes no sense for the characters involved. In fact, it almost feels like the people writing the new movies just forgot about the life-debt element entirely. It’s a shame. It would have been a cool aspect of their relationship to dive into. If Han dies, what does that mean for Chewie that he lost his friend to whom he owed this debt? Would it pass on to Han’s family? There was so much there to explore. So many good angles to examine. Instead, nothing. It almost feels like the franchise had a moment of amnesia, like they forgot a core aspect of what the characters meant to each other. Han’s death felt purposeless and utterly devoid of emotion, which makes sense because when you forget who you are on a foundational level, your actions — in life and in art — tend to come across that way.