How Star Wars Echoed My Experience Of Loss

Photo: Courtesy of Lucasfilm.
By Esther D. Kustanowitz

Parents (or aunts and uncles) who grew up in the '70s and '80s have a myriad of concerns. But beyond sleep training, preschool applications, and internet safety lies another important parenting decision: When to introduce the kids to the Star Wars films, and in what order.

The “when” may be clear. The “how” is entirely another matter.

Most Generation X fans are narrative purists — wanting the drama and story to unfold and delight the next generation in the manner we experienced it, a.k.a. release order. But the newer existence of prequels creates the possibility for a more linear story, or episode order (starting with The Phantom Menace and moving through the story chronologically until Return of the Jedi).

The episode order makes traditionalists uncomfortable. The prequels are less interesting and more complicated than the original trilogy, and the political plot lines sound like CSPAN in space. We meet a Yoda we never knew — still short and green, but a spry action hero rocking a lightsaber against the Sith.

However, then we must watch him lose his potency over the course of episode order; he gets older, sporting increasing amounts of Muppet wrinkles while he cantankerously advises Luke Skywalker as a last-ditch effort to restore balance to the universe. And compared with the effusive display of CGI images shoved at viewers in Episodes 1-3, Mos Eisley looks relatively tame in Episode 4. Obi-Wan’s warning of its “scum and villainy” is dismissed as an old man’s kvetch when his hipster companion says, “whatever, dude…it’s a bar.”

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But episode order’s worst offense? It ruins the big reveal (30-year-old-spoiler-alert): Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Could we, morally, just obliterate the dramatic tension of that narrative moment? Even from a classical “hero’s journey” perspective, without knowing Luke Skywalker as our central everyman character, do we care about Anakin Skywalker’s arc from insufferable pod-prodigy child into easily-angered, easily-manipulated villain?


In an attempt to solve this generation’s defining dilemma, Rod Hilton created the “Machete Order.” Preserving the storyline of the original three films, he suggests using the prequels as supplementary flashbacks at strategic places within the chronology to expand the original story.

“Just when Luke is left with the burning question ‘How did my father become Darth Vader?’ we take an extended flashback to explain exactly how,” says Hilton. He also suggests entirely omitting The Phantom Menace (Episode I), claiming one can start the prequels with Episode II and miss nothing.

Machete order. I like this concept. Because things don’t always happen in the order that you’d expect them to to. And not everyone processes information in a linear way. For some, pieces come and go in isolated episodes apart from an overall chronology, with your mind assembling them as fast as it can into a coherent understanding of what is happening, or something that already happened, and you’re trying to remember.

At times, my own linear narrative is interrupted sharply — fragmented by flashbacks that feel not just like memories, but like actual temporal displacement. Four years later, it should no longer take me by surprise when I find myself wondering why I haven’t spoken to my mother in a while, and then my rational brain interrupts with a reminder: She died in May 2011.

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For the most part, after I absorb the pain that comes from being wrenched out of my narrative, it’s over, and I’m back in the present, able to focus on other things. But sometimes it feels like a quantum leap, like making an emotional Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, into a future where grief has even further receded, but not vanished, and is still powerful enough to cause an occasional skipped heartbeat or gasped breath. Then awareness catapults me back, not just into my current timeline, but into the past — where the prequels explain my emotional responses and create my present narrative. Searching my feelings, I convince myself that by confronting the past, I can move forward.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
I remember certain parts of my grief narrative start to finish. I remember logically understanding that my mother’s pain and discomfort had increased. But my emotional side was in denial, ("No! It's not true! That's impossible!") and I railed against the reality. I wanted a different outcome.

My narrative has more than six chapters (exceeding Lucas’s eventual nine), and envisioning how all these known and yet-to-be written episodes connect often seems impossible.

But even though I’m am not a beloved, meticulously-analyzed sci-fi franchise, I take lessons from the machete method: From within the story, it’s hard to know what’s necessary, important, or contemporary. But when you have a bit of distance, you’re removed from the story, and can see all the pieces, you have options. You may consider which section to begin with — perhaps as you structure it for a new generation.

The force of your own narrative is strong within you. Having lived through many episodes, I know you can see the grand trajectory of the emerging story, and the themes and ideas running through it, which penetrate and bind its galaxy together.

Somewhere inside you, you’ve always known. As you can assemble the episodes of your journey, you’ll decide when and how to share them with others. Then, your training will be complete — you can strike back against grief and chart a new hope for tomorrow.

Next: My Treadmill Was My Loyal Companion Throughout My Daughter's Illness

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