Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Analysis

A Defense of Finn’s Character Arc

You might be surprised to learn that when I watched The Force Awakens, my favorite character was Finn. His story of breaking ranks and the cycle of violence hit home to me as a survivor of an abusive and chaotic home. That he was a former Stormtrooper searching for found family and a way out and played by a black actor (John Boyega) only increased my attachment to him. The racism in Star Wars fandom online, whether overt or thinly veiled, had me on the defensive from day one. He’s a powerful character with a compelling story, and you can rip him from my cold, dead hands.

Nevertheless, ever since the release of The Last Jedi, criticisms of his character and arc have seemed only to increase. Whether it be calling his romance with Rose forced or their plot ‘worthless’ or ‘pointless,’ the undertone of dislike and dismissiveness I sensed after The Force Awakens hasn’t gone away. In fact, I’ve started to see more and different critiques, some of which I find compelling, others are just as blatantly racist as before, only packaged differently.

But here’s the thing, regardless of missteps and missed opportunities in The Last Jedi for Finn’s character, he’s still worth defending. He’s still a groundbreaking, intriguing character to me. And with all the controversy surrounding the white characters, I think Finn’s storyline has been overlooked. I have my qualms and complaints—which I’ll get to, don’t worry—but I want to start with a defense of his arc as we have it. Because I believe it is a story worth telling.

Breaking Ranks

As I’ve discussed previously, Finn’s arc in The Force Awakens (TFA) is one of breaking ranks with an oppressive regime and breaking the cycle of perpetuating violence. He’s a skilled fighter from a militaristic society who refused to commit needless violence against innocent civilians. Throughout most of TFA, he’s mostly just trying to survive. While he joins up with Rey, she has no fixed allegiance either through most of the film. They’re both searching for a place to call home, though Finn more than Rey is primarily interested in safety. And getting as far away from the First order as possible.

By the end of TFA, he has chosen a person to call home—Rey. When he awakens and finds her gone in search of Luke, his first instinct once he realizes the danger they’re in is, unsurprisingly, to find safety. It’s what he searched for the entirety of TFA, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that once again his primary goal. Only something has changed since we first met him: he now wants safety not just for himself, but for Rey, his found family. His desire to flee with the beacon ought to be seen in this light.

Let me be clear, Finn’s not a coward, as I’ve seen people call him. Nor is he a traitor. He never joined the Resistance. I think in the interim between TFA and The Last Jedi (TLJ), his ideological agreement with the Resistance was overblown. I have little doubt it was done for good reason. Given how much racism I saw in certain corners of the fandom, over-emphasizing Finn’s commitment to the cause of the Resistance most likely stemmed from an effort to cut off arguments that he was a coward or untrustworthy. I even saw people claiming he would betray the Resistance the first chance he got because he was black ‘shifty.’ In that light, ‘rebel Finn’ as a paragon of the Resistance made rhetorical sense to shut up the assholes.

The problem? That wasn’t where Finn ended his arc in TFA. He had never expressed any commitment to the Resistance, ideological or otherwise. When last we saw him, he was gung ho to save Rey, even willing to mislead Resistance leaders to get her back. His primary goal at the end of TFA, and thus the beginning of TLJ, was and is to save Rey.

Just think about what this scene means in that context. He’s entrusting the safety of the person he cares about most to Poe, knowing Rey could get hurt, but worried it might be worse where he is going and he might not return.

This isn’t selfish either. He’s a former brainwashed child soldier who knows from the inside just how dangerous the First Order is. His desire to flee and protect the one person he cares about and who cares about him is eminently reasonable. He didn’t leave the First Order in order to join up with the Resistance. He left because he didn’t want to commit violence against innocents; all he wants is to be safe and at peace.

That’s why his first instinct is to get to safety. He wants to get as far away from the fighting, and the First Order, as possible. And to make sure that when Rey returns, it isn’t to an active war zone. He just wants himself and his loved ones to be safe.

From Safety to Resistance

And that’s where we join up with him in TLJ. Rose, unaware of the entirety of his background and suffering from the loss of her sister, mistakes his actions for those of a deserter. Recall, she only seems to know him as a Resistance hero. She may not know at this point that he’s a former Stormtrooper. In fact, Leia, Poe, and Rey may be the only ones who know of his history. Given the situation they’re all in running from the First Order, he’s not likely to broadcast that he’s a defector. Many could well assume he’s a spy.

So, to Rose, she sees a ‘hero’ running away from a fight—a fight that she just lost her sister in. She’s grieving, angry, and hurt. Her aggressive actions to keep him around make sense. Her sister didn’t run when her life was on the line, how dare this so-called hero try to get out of it.

Upon waking, Finn finds that he can’t get away. But he also learns that his knowledge, his very status as a former insider, gives him a set of skills that can help these people, which may in turn help him help Rey. Neither Poe, Rose, nor the other mutineers seem bothered by his status as a former Stormtrooper. In fact, they value his insight. So, he heads off on a mission to try and help.

At this point, we can reasonably assume he’s still doing it for Rey. If they can get the First Order off their back, he can make sure that Rey returns to someplace safe. He’s still thinking that if they can just outrun the First Order, everything will be fine. It’s the same mentality he had in TFA. Don’t fight them, outrun them. Get as far away as possible and you can be safe. It makes sense from a survivor’s perspective. He’s in flight mode. He will defend himself when attacked by First Order troopers (don’t worry, I’ll get to that cognitive dissonance), but he won’t actively seek out a fight. That’s why he left the First Order in the first place.

In Canto Bight, he learns that running isn’t as feasible as he thought. He learns that the First Order is more than a military organization, it’s an entire system of injustice and oppression propped up by elites that are worlds away and who think only of profit margins and enjoying themselves.

One might be tempted to assume he would be aware of the systemic oppression, but I don’t think that’s a fair assumption. In Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars, we see from the inside that it is possible for troops and officers within the Imperial system to not see its oppression first hand. If they’re stationed primarily in fleets or bases rather than used as task forces, they can go decades without seeing how cruel and unjust the system is. The heavy-handed and limiting propaganda utilized within the Empire and First Order ensured that any accusations of oppression were labeled as Rebel Alliance/Resistance lies.

From what we know of Finn both in the films and new expanded canon (EC), he belonged to a squad that had not seen fighting until TFA. The trip to Tuanul on Jakku was his first mission with boots on the ground. And he refused to fire on innocents. He did not, however, have a chance to see or understand just how pervasive the corruption went galactically. I think we can safely assume he did not realize how far spread and cruel the First Order’s violence and oppression went until he met Rose.

Thus, Canto Bight was a revelation to him. He sees wealth, beauty, and peace—everything he wants from life. He sees safety. Rose, however, sees something different,

“Look closer. My sister and I grew up in a poor mining system. The First Order stripped our ore to finance its military then shelled us to test their weapons. They took everything we had. And who do you think these people are? There is only one business in the galaxy that’ll get you this rich…Selling weapons to the First Order. I wish… I could put my fist through this whole lousy beautiful town.”

She sees evidence of the oppressive system that enabled the destruction of her home and the death of her sister. We see the revelation writ large on Finn’s face. We hear from his lips the shift in his mindset when he and Rose try to escape from the police,

“It was worth it, though. To tear up that town…To make ’em hurt.”

Being shown how far the First Order’s reach goes, and hearing how much pain and suffering it caused, he took a step toward resistance. He’s willing to get caught if he can cause some damage to the system that has hurt so many. He’s imbibed the message Rose herself embraced when their trip to Canto Bight started. She wanted to put her fist through the town, and now, Finn is pleased they were able to accomplish just that.

Intriguingly, Rose herself has shifted her perspective by the time Finn gets there. She does not agree with Finn (or her former self) that punching a hole is worth it. She will only admit their mission to have been successful when she frees the fathier herd. It’s a foreshadowing of her mentality at the end of TLJ, when she voices one of the central theses of the film.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Finn is now in a place where he believes strongly in ‘putting his fist’ through the system and the First Order. This explains his willingness to sacrifice himself for a shot at damaging the superlaser siege cannon on Crait.

He’d found a cause to fight for, rather than an entity to run from.

This is the face of a man ready to fight against the First Order.

While his sacrifice is noble, I believe it wouldn’t have succeeded in destroying the cannon given how much of his ship was already melting and how far he still had to go. Chances are, he would have burned up before being able to cripple it. And regardless of whether or not you agree with me that he would not have succeeded, he was going against direct orders from Leia, channeled through Poe, to break off. The leadership had already decided to find another way or face the consequences. But Finn was living in the “punch a hole through it” mentality he’d developed in Canto Bight.

This is why Rose saving him has meaning. It’s not about his sacrifice not being worthy or important compared to Holdo’s or Luke’s (though I do understand that reaction, and I’ll come back to it). It’s about the fact that he would have been throwing his life away for little gain, and just when he had a lot to live for. In a way, he’d tapped into his Stormtrooper mindset once again, only in a new context; he was just a cog in a machine again. He didn’t matter, only the destruction of the enemy. Only, now his target was the First Order rather than whomever they had ordered him to kill, as in the beginning of TFA.

But Rose quite literally saves him from destroying himself in that fight. As she had learned in Canto Bight,

“That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate but saving what we love.”

In this moment, we see Finn take the final step toward understanding not just what the Resistance is fighting against—galactic oppression—but what it’s primary goal is—saving what is good and beloved. His arc in TLJ, then, is one of moving away from a safety-first perspective toward one of nuanced resistance against oppression.

TLJ is intentional in its depiction of the Resistance and its aims. Whereas one could reasonably conclude from the original Star Wars trilogy that fighting against the Empire was the ultimate goal, TLJ makes no such statement. For TLJ, tearing things down isn’t enough. True resistance includes the preservation of what is good and the desire to build up from what is saved, not just the destruction of what is old. The latter isn’t only what Finn has to move beyond (as Rose does in Canto Bight and Poe on Crait), it’s quite literally the mentality of the primary villain, Kylo Ren.

All this to say, Finn’s arc in TLJ wasn’t ‘retreading’ his arc from TFA. In TFA, he progresses from a self-oriented desire to flee to saving someone he cares about. In TLJ, he builds upon this foundation in order to understand not just that there is a cause worth fighting for, but also things worth saving.

That’s a powerful story. So far, almost all of the heroes in Star Wars movies have been idealists already committed to resisting oppression. Yes, Han undergoes a transition from merc to Rebel general, but pretty much all of that growth happens offscreen in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. We don’t get to see how he changes his mind. We join up with him in the second film of that trilogy once he pretty much already has.

The closest analogue to Finn would be Jyn Erso in Rogue One, but I’m not alone in seeing her arc as truncated and lacking in-depth exploration. She moves from zero to “rebellions are built on hope” in a hot minute and with very little explication. Finn’s two-film arc explores the process of joining the Resistance with more depth than has been given treatment on screen. And I’ll stand by that.

Still…

Finn’s arc in TLJ isn’t perfect. There’s something incongruous about giving this particular story to a black man. Art isn’t created in a vacuum, and in our society, who knows better the systemic injustices of white supremacy than black men and women? Seeing a black character have to learn about galactic injustice feels…out of place. The arc itself has merit on a Watsonian level, but I have to wonder at the seeming lack of societal awareness that giving this particular arc to a black man evinces.

There’s also far too much use of physical comedy and slapstick for my comfort. I understand that this choice was likely made due to how skilled Boyega is at this kind of performance. His reaction faces are comedy gold, and he has tremendous physical talent. However, that doesn’t make the usage free of implications. No other character suffers as much physical assault as Finn does. It may be done for comedy, but he’s the only prominent black male character in the film and one of the only ones on our screen. That much physical violence directed at him doesn’t look great no matter how you slice it. There’s no malicious intent from what I can tell, but that doesn’t make the outcome any less uncomfortable.

Black men shouldn’t be getting slapped around on our screen just for laughs. And when the only other character to suffer similar physical consequences is also a man of color—Poe getting blasted and slapped by Leia—just…yikes guys. They may not have meant anything by it, but good or neutral intent doesn’t mean there aren’t negative consequences for viewers of color seeing the only heroes in the Star Wars universe on screen who look like them getting slapped around.

Also unfortunate was the choice to double down on the janitor references this film. Those of you who have not read the EC junior novelization of TFA, Before the Awakening, will not be aware that Finn wasn’t always a janitor. Before the Awakening makes clear that janitorial shift was but one of many shifts that every Stormtrooper squad undertook as part of a regular rotation. According to that novel, it was merely a matter of chance that Finn happened to have been on janitorial rotation when he served on Starkiller Base. There’s no such thing as a “Stormtrooper janitor.” All Stormtroopers are janitors at one point or other.

Thus, I was extremely surprised that TLJ doubled down on the “Finn was a Stormtrooper janitor” references when they had him refer to mopping the floor of the lead ship in the First Order Fleet. That turns something coincidental in TFA into a pattern.

Plus, neither TLJ nor TFA refer at all to Finn’s skill as a Stormtrooper. Once again, according to Before the Awakening, Finn was a model Stormtropper. He was the top of his class and earned top marks. Top 1% marks. He was being eyed for command, he was that good. His only ‘flaw’ according to Phasma and Hux was his kindness toward and concern for his squadmates. Even before he defected, he had ‘too much’ empathy.

We see precisely none of that in either film. Failing to bring this into film canon, to my mind, leads directly to the fandom perception that Finn was not just a janitor but a bad soldier. The perception of the latter can very readily be chocked up to racism. However, I can’t help but think that had the films bothered to mention some of these details—details that are equally canonical as what we see in film canon according to the creative team behind new canon Star Wars—some of that might have been avoided. Instead, watching the films, the only impression we have of Finn was that he was a Stormtrooper who couldn’t handle fighting and only worked as a janitor.

This not only harms his characterization, it short-changes the dynamic between Finn and Phasma. We learn in the EC that a significant part of why Phasma takes such an active dislike to Finn is precisely because of his skill. He’s the best of the best. And he defected. That’s a huge blow to Phasma’s and Hux’s ego. If one of the top 1% of their troopers can turn traitor, that calls into question the entire new Stormtrooper training program. Finn is nothing less than a walking neon sign that their system may not be viable. Phasma’s top cadet was a ‘failure’ in the First Order’s eyes, and that makes her a failure by extension. And she can’t stand that.

This scene is loaded with unexplicated backstory.

Without this background depicted on screen, Phasma hates him…because? One could even read a level of racism into her treatment of him absent any concept of his skill and how his defection reflects on her leadership abilities. She calls him scum and dirty—racially charged language. Her being a racist isn’t necessarily a bad story to tell, but it could have been so much more than that. As commenter ‘the_unseen’ put it

“[H]e’s a Sam Wilson when this franchise desperately needs a T’Challa.”

Missed Opportunities

Speaking of Stormtroopers, neither of the films have dealt with the implications of Finn killing his former comrades. One of the critiques of Finn’s handling in the films that I’ve been sympathetic to ever since TFA is that after Finn refuses to kill innocent villagers, we see him killing Stormtroopers without any hesitation. One could explain this as self-defense. Killing armed combatants who are attacking you is, after all, different from being ordered to destroy an entire village of civilians just because.

But it’s not just about a difference of civilian vs soldiers. The Stormtroopers aren’t merely armed combatants, they’re Finn’s former comrades in arms. These are the only family he’s ever known. Finn’s defining feature prior to his defection is his compassion and concern for his fellow soldiers. He may be a brainwashed child soldier killing other brainwashed child soldiers, but he’s also one who shows a great deal of empathy for his fellow soldiers prior to defecting. We never get a chance to see what that is like for him internally, but we should. We never get to see his struggle killing the men and women he had previously cared so deeply about that it worried his superiors, who wanted him to act devoid of feeling.

That’s not just a good story, that’s a damn powerful one, and one I’d like to have seen.

Moreover, we’re meant to individualize him as an exception. But, the existence of an exception creates the opening to wonder how many other Stormtroopers could change sides if they were given the chance. Whether the writers intend it or not, Finn humanizes not just himself but the rest of the Stormtroopers. They’re not just faceless masses anymore. They’re all a potential Finn, one Tuanul massacre away from themselves defecting and laying down their arms. Seeing them mowed down unthinkingly by Finn and others creates a cognitive dissonance that could be fascinating to explore. However, neither Abrams nor Johnson seem interested in it, if they’re even aware that the dissonance exists.

Far as I can tell, we’re meant to still see the rest of the troopers as numbered, masked masses of soldiers representing oppression rather than potential defectors like Finn. And that’s lazy.

But think of how powerful a Stormtrooper uprising could have been. To my mind, that’s the biggest missed opportunity of the Sequel trilogy thus far. Let’s imagine that instead of going to Canto Bight in search of a code breaker, Finn and Rose had broken into Snoke’s ship and fomented rebellion among the Stormtroopers on their way to taking out the tracker. Have everyone think that Rose and Finn died in the destruction of Snoke’s ship (or maybe they were just badly injured because two potentially dead characters of color would have been a lot)…only for him to show up in IX with the unlikeliest of allies for a Resistance fearing themselves alone: a whole army of defected Stormtroopers ready to fight the First Order.

TLJ also misses the opportunity to showcase Finn as a parallel foil to Kylo’s choices. He’s the best soldier the First Order can produce, and he walked away. Phasma hates Finn because he represents her failure. Kylo hates Finn because he embodies the road Kylo could have taken but chose not to. He’s the walking contradiction to Kylo’s protestations that he had no other choice but to do as he did and that all his choices are justified. Again, as ‘the_unseen’ put it, Finn’s choices as much as Rey’s are an indictment of everything Kylo has done.

Finn was brainwashed to be a mindless killing machine, yet even he eventually chooses compassion, hope, and fighting against oppression. In my mind’s eye, I see a confrontation between Kylo and Finn going something like this:

Finn: “You took away my freedom, personhood, and agency and tried to make me into a tool of oppression and violence. But guess what? It didn’t work. And now I’m going to make sure you never do that again.”
Kylo: “Oh yeah, you and what army?”
Finn: *swarm of Stormtroopers appear behind Finn* “Me and this army.”

Imagine not just one, but two people who have tragic backstories enough to fulfill the villain origin story requirement and instead, they’re the heroes. This isn’t to say Rey doesn’t do well as a foil as her own. She does. Only, Finn could have been a powerful foil in addition to Rey, and one that showcased another perspective on why Kylo’s choices aren’t viable.

Or, we could have gotten a different path entirely with Force sensitive Finn. Finn’s use of the lightsaber in TFA planted the seed of hope in a lot of fans of color that they would get to see another black man as a Force wielder. So many of the Force sensitives we see on screen are white (or the analogous in this universe), so another black man as a Force wielder would be very welcome, and an intriguing plot line to follow for a former Stormtrooper. Again, think of this as a parallel track to Rey’s. Imagine a former Stormtrooper, the ‘grunts’ of Kylo’s organization that he, Hux, and Phasma all consider beneath them becoming a Force wielder alongside Rey. Then, the two of them with their tragic backstories confront Kylo, the epitome of privilege, and walk away when he refuses to accept their compassion.

I’m not saying it’s a perfect fit. Some work would naturally have to be done to finagle a former Stormtrooper who fled because he didn’t want to harm innocents into becoming a front-line fighter like the Jedi frequently are. Still, I think the outcome could have been worth it. Seeing a black man leaving a toxic, militaristic, oppressive system he was literally brainwashed into to join an order of peaceful monks who protect the marginalized and fight for justice would have been BAD. ASS.

Playing it Safe

As I write this, I realize just how much of Finn’s arc in TLJ seems to be playing it safe. The writers want to avoid the implication that Finn was a true believer, so he’s depicted as low-ranking janitorial staff on screen when we know from the EC that he’s one of the most skilled Stormtroopers under Phasma’s command. And I can’t deny there’s an element of plot convenience to it as well. How fortuitous that the Stormtrooper who defected knows the layouts of the ships and bases the heroes need to get into!

The writers want to avoid the story of an angry or violent black male, so Finn is shunted away from lead action roles in the narrative where that might be a criticism of his characterization. While what we get with his attempted sacrifice and Rose saving him makes sense thematically and is consistent with his characterization in the film, I do understand the criticisms. The perception that Finn isn’t ‘allowed’ to be heroic in TLJ the way other characters like Rose, Rey, and Holdo are makes sense to me even if I don’t believe that’s what Johnson intended.

It was great to see his confidence and commitment, though. He’s FIERCE.

The writers want to make use of Boyega’s incredible comedic timing and gift for slapstick, but end up creating a situation where a black man is slapped around more than any other character on screen. Even though Hux has a similar slapstick comedy role, the implications are different for a character of color than for a white character. That’s just how it is. Plus, Hux is a villain, so laughing at him being punched around has an element of catharsis to it. We want him to look weak and pathetic when he’s dragged on the floor because he’s a villain. Applying similar features to Finn is just uncomfortable.

Does that Mean What We Got Was Worthless?

I like what we got. I really do. There’s a lot that I find personally meaningful and validating about his arc. We’re given the story of a brainwashed child soldier breaking the cycle and having his eyes opened to the true horrors of the system he had been conditioned to agree with. Given my personal history, I find stories about standing up to the oppressive system that brainwashed you and tried to turn you into a perpetrator of violence and abuse deeply meaningful. It’s a story I relate to in a lot of ways and find validating.

At the same time, I wanted more from it. There are so many missed opportunities and other paths that could have either further nuanced this story or changed it completely but been equally significant to audiences of color without losing what was already compelling about his arc. We don’t get to see Finn react to or process killing his fellow Stormtroopers. We didn’t get to clearly see how well he works as a parallel foil to Kylo’s selfish ambition and misguided hatred.

The arc we have now is good, and it’s a great foundation upon which to build an even more nuanced character psychology. They did the safe part in giving us a sketch of a powerful story but without following up on the messier, and even more interesting, details. And there was absolutely no need to double down on the janitor references without also acknowledging what has been established elsewhere in canon regarding Finn’s skill, intelligence, and leadership capabilities.

Look, I love Finn. I love the story Star Wars has given us. And, I am more than willing to critique the unfortunate implications and wish that we’d gotten more or different than we did.

I suppose that’s what fic is for, right? Now if I can just get my science fiction novel done so that I can indulge in some fix-it fic, I’d be golden.

What about you? What aspects do you appreciate about Finn’s story and where do you think it could have been improved? Let me know in the comments!


Images Courtesy of Disney and LucasFilm

Author

  • Gretchen

    Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

Comments

You May Also Like

Reviews

As anyone who’s played Dungeons & Dragons will tell you, nothing is ever set in stone. Well, runes usually are. But other than that,...

Analysis

Welcome back to our weekly coverage of the final season of Supernatural in our series Supernatural: End of the Road. You can read a...

Gaming

It’s time for another Kickstarter preview, and this time it’s a game of magical duels and wondrous items. The debut game from designer Michael...

Television

The return of Avatar: The Last Airbender into the public consciousness has been one of the few high points of 2020. Thanks to the...