Star Wars has never had a shortage of characters that were unambiguously despised by a sizable number of fans. During the early 80’s, it was the Ewoks. During the 2000’s, it was Jar Jar Binks. Now in the late 2010’s, that dishonor belongs to the characters Rose Tico and Admiral Amilyn Holdo. As the title of this piece states, we will explore what went wrong with Amilyn Holdo.
First, a brief description of Holdo’s role in Star Wars. A long time friend of Leia Organa’s, Amilyn Holdo had always been a free spirited, quietly confident woman who marched to the beat of her own drum. Rebellious by nature, there was never any doubt that Holdo would not only join the Rebel Alliance, but that she’d leap at the chance to join Leia’s Resistance as well.
Holdo’s major appearance comes in The Last Jedi, the eighth episode of what Disney has termed “The Skywalker Saga,” which the average moviegoer recognizes as The Star Wars Saga. In said movie, Holdo takes command of the Resistance following Leia’s incapacitation during an attack by the First Order. During the movie, she and Poe Dameron (ostensibly one of the Sequel Trilogy’s protagonists) come to conflict. Amilyn Holdo serves as the antagonist for Poe’s story in The Last Jedi, only to switch at the very end and become a main hero of the movie.
Holdo is first introduced to us giving a rather bland speech: “Four hundred of us on three ships. We’re the very last of the Resistance. But we’re not alone. In every corner of the galaxy the downtrodden and oppressed know our symbol and they put their hope in it. We are the spark that will light the fire that will restore the Republic. That spark, this Resistance, must survive. That is our mission. Now to your stations, and may the Force be with us.”
I have a history on public speaking, so I’d like to explain why this speech is bland; long story short, it doesn’t really say much that’s actually inspiring. It just states a few facts (how many survivors there are left) with a little flowery speaking (the downtrodden and oppressed put their faith in us). As if the words on the speech were not bad enough, the delivery is worth criticizing as well: Holdo’s body language is stiff, her voice low and almost in a whisper, and her eyes are steely and penetrating.
When delivering a speech, one must be cautious with their body language and voice tone. Their eyes must be focused on the audience, looking AT the audience instead of through them. Your posture must be erect yet relaxed; no slouching, but no standing stiffly still. This is the sort of lesson you learn when taking oratory classes; in fact, it’s among the first lessons given.
Contrast this with Leia’s speech to her troops during Empire Strikes Back when the Rebellion is evacuating Hoth: her voice is loud and clear, she paces so she may look ALL her troops in the eye, and she forgoes the flowery speech; it’s all instructions, clear cut and unequivocal.
Continuing, once Holdo gives her speech, she is approached by Poe Dameron to ask what is to be done. Admiral Amilyn Holdo immediately loses the audience’s sympathy when she turns around as asks “wasn’t Leia’s last action as commander to demote you?” Said in a sickeningly condescending tone, the audience is hereby expected to lose sympathy with Holdo and instead sympathize with Poe Dameron.
It must be noted that Poe Dameron is the man who, not ten minutes prior, was single-handedly taking on a powerful Dreadnought ship, destroying cannons left and right with several TIE Fighters on his tail. Poe’s assault on the Dreadnought is portrayed as a triumph akin to David vs Goliath. It is only when Poe orders for the Resistance Bombers to take down the Dreadnought for good that the movie attempts to subtly deconstruct the daredevil pilot that Poe Dameron was written to be: Poe’s comrades are not nearly as successful as he is, and most of the Resistance fleet gets destroyed taking down ONE First Order Dreadnought. The movie does not spare the audience the chance to see just how heavy this loss is, showing a grieving Leia looking over just how much the Resistance has lost: all but a handful of light fighters, all the bombers, and by my own calculations a total of forty four soldiers. Not a loss that can easily be written off.
By applying some real world logic, it’d be very easy to accept and applaud Poe Dameron’s demotion; his actions and decisions directly led to a heavy loss for his side. At best, the destruction of the Dreadnought was little more than a Pyrrhic victory (a victory gained via such heavy losses, one may as well have lost). Further, were one to dive into the lore of Star Wars, one would discover that the bombers that got destroyed were manned by soldiers under Holdo’s leadership; those were HER comrades that died! That helps a viewer understand, and perhaps even sympathize, with Holdo’s condescension towards Poe Dameron. There’s just a tiny problem: this information isn’t presented in the movie at all.
This is actually a major flaw with Holdo’s character: withholding information about her from the audience. There is much information about Holdo that, had we moviegoers been made privy to it at ANY point in the film prior to the climax, would have made Amilyn Holdo a far more sympathetic, likable character. To give an example: she’s always been considered an “odd” person due to having the Star Wars equivalent of autism, she’s an old friend of Leia’s who PROBABLY had a crush on her when they were younger, list goes on.
But even if we accept that all this backstory wasn’t needed, we STILL face a major conundrum with Holdo: we never actually learn what her plan is until near the end of the movie, where it fails anyway due to circumstances beyond her control. Throughout the movie, there is only ONE scene that even HINTS at Admiral Holdo having a plan: the scene where Poe interjects himself between several high ranking women on the Resistance seemingly looking at maps.
Withholding vital information from a viewer, of course, is no sin in and of itself. After all, a mystery is no mystery if the audience knows right from the get go what happened and who did what. But this isn’t the case here; we’re not dealing with a mystery, but an adventure story driven by character actions.
By withholding information on Holdo, the viewer has a far harder time sympathizing and siding with her, which causes the story to automatically side with Poe Dameron. This is facilitated further by the fact that the audience is already familiar with Poe, moreso if we’ve already seen The Force Awakens or read the Poe Dameron comics. This isn’t helped by the fact that the movie focuses so much on Poe’s frustrations, which again leads the viewer to sympathize with him over Holdo.
Perhaps the most damming moment for Holdo as a character comes when Poe initiates his mutiny against her. It’s not how Holdo reacts to it, but rather, that it happens at all. A considerable number of Resistance soldiers join Poe Dameron on his mutiny, demonstrating to the audience beyond a shadow of a doubt that Holdo’s authority wasn’t respected by those who’ve placed their trust in her leadership. Good leaders don’t get mutinied, after all.
Then Leia wakes up and stuns Poe just as he’s taking action to get his comrades out of danger, is FINALLY told Holdo’s plan, and what happens? HE AGREES WITH IT! He’s fine with the plan! Suddenly the plot shifts gears and Holdo goes from being Poe’s antagonist to a hero figure for the Resistance! This shift is solidified with Holdo’s sacrifice, saving the Resistance from certain destruction by the First Order’s hands.
But to many viewers, this sacrifice fell flat; Holdo remained unpopular with many fans and casual viewers alike, and even today there is a vocal part of the fandom that outright hates her and considers her the WORST Star Wars character of all time. Why?
The answer lies in the second major problem with Holdo: Holdo is less her own character than she is a living prop. Holdo doesn’t exist to have her own character arc, she exists in service of Poe’s arc. She fills a role as an antagonist so that Poe may grow as a character, and once that role is over, she sacrifices herself so she may disappear from the story. This is no better than the Damsel in Distress who exists only as a goal for the Knight to strive for. Actually, I’d argue it’s worse; at least the Damsel gets to live!
The audience never sees Holdo in any context outside of Poe’s story, and most of her screen time is spent as an antagonist to Poe, one of our heroes in this new Sequel Trilogy. The audience naturally jeers against Holdo when she condescendingly calls Poe “fly-boy” and rubs his recent demotion in his face. As the story goes on and Poe PLEADS to Holdo to tell him there’s a plan (he’s not even asking for details, just to confirm the existence of a plan) during a chase that is seeing the rest of the Resistance being blasted away, the audience never sees Holdo act any differently. She remains cold and condescending towards Poe, even ordering him to be REMOVED from her presence! Then, after nearly an hour and a half, the audience is asked to view Holdo as a hero just because she sacrifices herself?
Personal anecdote time; I never liked Holdo. When I first saw her, I was unimpressed; then she started belittling Poe (whom I had cheered for during his assault on the Dreadnought, and whom I felt special kinship to as he was a Latino, like me) and I went from indifferent to utterly repulsed. The racial undertones in that scene were NOT lost on me! Even when she sacrificed herself, I still couldn’t bring myself to change my mind about Holdo. This was exacerbated by the amount of fans who viewed the Poe/Holdo conflict as a commentary on “toxic masculinity,” a term that used to define the cultural values that were self-destructive for men but is now seemingly being used to define machismo and how it’s detrimental and destructive to women. I even had a friend who actually looked down on me for disliking Holdo; that friendship is over now. I never wanted to dislike Holdo; for goodness’ sake, she was played by my boyhood crush, Laura Dern!
I’ve digressed. An audience cannot build an emotional attachment to a living prop, much less if said prop was antagonistic to someone the audience had already become invested in. Although Holdo’s sacrifice scene was beautiful to look at, it lacked that emotional punch that burns scenes like that in the hearts and minds of movie watchers. THIS is why Tony Stark’s “I am Iron Man” scene in Endgame will be quoted, imitated, alluded to, and even parodied for decades to come.
This leads me to the third problem with Holdo: the movie expects us to change our minds about her just because. Which character the audience becomes attached to cannot be dictated by the author; this reaction is purely within the realms of the audience’s own agency. Try as one might, there’s no magic formula to make the audience love the character as much as you do.
That’s not to say audiences can’t change their minds about a character if they are given time; we need not look any further than one of the most celebrated Star Wars characters of all time.
When she first debuted in 2008’s ‘Star Wars The Clone Wars’ pilot movie that inexplicably got a theater release, Ahsoka was not well liked. Some fans found her annoying, myself included. But as The Clone Wars show carried on and Ahsoka was given story arcs that allowed her character to be fleshed out and grow, she went on to become one of the most beloved characters in the franchise’s history.
Ah, but that’s the key: time and story arcs to flesh out a character. For Amilyn Holdo, that option simply isn’t possible; since she dies during her cinematic debut, any work featuring her will have that unfortunate subtext that we’re seeing a doomed woman. Her death will be in the audience’s mind, just as Han Solo’s death weighed heavily during ‘Solo.’
A final point I’d like to make is how Holdo’s appearance and body language contradict her role in the story. Rian Johnson made the mistake of making Amilyn Holdo this walking mass of contradictions, both visual and narrative.
She’s a high ranking military commander, yet she’s dressed for the space prom. She’s a war hero, yet she acts condescending towards the man who literally destroyed the First Order’s superweapon just days prior (Poe). She’s metatextually a feminist statement, yet her entire story revolves around a man. She sacrifices herself to save the Resistance, yet all this manages to do is save fourteen people tops.
In the context of the movie (and only the movie) Holdo is this gigantic mess of a character. We’re rooting against her for nine tenths of her scenes, yet in her last scene we’re supposed to see her as this ultimate hero, a character for the ages. But like the rest of the movie, what we’re supposed to be getting out of it and what we’re really getting out of it are two entirely different beasts.
Ultimately, the tragedy of Holdo is that the audience was denied the chance to really get to know her before she died. We didn’t get to see how much she and Leia adored each other until minutes before her death, or how much she really cared about the Resistance until she was seconds away from dying. Holdo needed two lines and one scene, just two lines and one scene to turn her into a character well worth remembering.
The first line Holdo needed was this: “We will begin preparations for escape maneuvers shortly, but due to these strenuous circumstances, the finer details of the plan will be kept on a need-to-know basis only. You will be called into action and given instructions when it is time, but until then you are to return to your posts.”
This second line, I believe, would have made EVERYTHING about Holdo make sense, plus it’d add weight to her conflict with Poe Dameron: “You called them heroes, Dameron. You know what I called them? Comrades, friends, by their own first names! I knew them, Dameron, and for many I knew their families, too! When this is all over, it falls to me to tell their loved ones these fine people won’t be coming back! Thankfully Paige’s sister is here, so I can start with her…”
The one scene I’d add is Holdo visiting Leia in the infirmary. Nothing major, just a quick second or two of Amilyn Holdo taking a short break to visit someone very dear to her, give the audience the knowledge that there’s more to this bizarre woman dressed for prom than just her icy stare and pink hair.
The problems with Holdo in The Last Jedi can all be traced to writer and director Rian Johnson, as it was he who wrote her and he who directed Laura Dern on how to act her. It was he who had final say on her physical appearance, and what I’ve heard of his decision making paints an ill portrait of him. Ultimately, Amilyn Holdo was a character who could have been so much greater were it not for the limited talent and vision of her creator.