Bad Boy…or Baddest Boy?
Some people call him the space cowboy. Some call him the gangster of love. But most of us just call him Han: the galaxy's most notorious pirate, hero of the Galactic Republic, and—for the first time—a father with a whole lot of issues to resolve.
This is Han's fourth appearance in the Star Wars saga and the first where he really has some heavy dramatic lifting to do. When we first met him, he was a pure mercenary—reminding anyone who would listen that he was in it for the money and nothing more. He combined that with a cocksure manner and a grin that screamed, "I'm hustling you," from every corner.
For the first three films, he basically had to figure out where he stood: was he going to back the rebels or continue looking out for number one? That was resolved by the middle of Return of the Jedi, and star Harrison Ford infamously stated that he'd prefer to see the character killed off rather than be asked to play him again. (Source)
We're not sure we disagree. At the end of that third film, it seems he'd done everything he needed to do, and while we're glad he got to settle down with Leia for a happily ever after, there doesn't seem to be a lot more to say about him.
Back to His Old Ways. Sort Of.
Until, of course, we meet him in The Force Awakens. On the surface, he seems to have reverted to his smuggler's ways: hauling giant monsters to interplanetary rulers and talking his way out of trouble when it comes knocking.
As it turns out, however, he has some pretty good reasons for doing so. Turns out, he and Leia had a kid—Ben—who went over to the dark side and became Kylo Ren. After Ren wiped out Luke's school and Luke went into exile, Han decided he wasn't good for anyone and went off to the stars:
HAN: We both had to deal with it in our own way. I went back to the only thing I was ever good at.
But that adds a new wrinkle to his character since space studs like Han don't have to think much about the people they leave behind or the damage they might do. He's someone used to just...running away. And when your son goes all Hannibal Lecter on you, that's a whole lot to swallow.
This Time, It's Personal
So, Han ran. But this time, he couldn't just stay away. This time, he was going to have to face the heinous mess he left behind and do something about it. With his son running rampant, no sign of Luke, and another planet killer firing up, it's time for this old space pirate to step up and face the music:
LEIA: If you see our son again, bring him home.
This time, of course, he doesn't hesitate. He gets Rey and Finn onto Starkiller Base and makes sure they have what they need to blow it to kingdom come. But more than that, he finally faces his demons. He looks his son in the face, holds out a hand, and says:
HAN: I'm sorry I hurt you. Come home.
That's part of what makes his death so awful: the fact that he genuinely tries to atone for the Bad Father thing and gets skewered in the gut anyway. But he knows that it was a possibility and he doesn't let the fear of it stop him. He risks his life just to reach out to his kid one last time. Said kid is beyond help, but it grants Han a nobility in death that he never quite reaches in life.
Filling Obi-Wan's Shoes
And that death probably makes him worthy of his other role here: mentor. Finn and Rey are desperately in need of responsible grown-ups to guide them. In lieu of said grown-ups, Han will have to do. He offers Rey a place to belong for the first time in her life:
HAN: I've been thinkin' about bringing on some more crew, Rey. A second mate. Someone to help out. Someone who can keep up with Chewie and me, appreciates the Falcon.
And while Finn gets a little more of Grumpy Han than Happy Han, Han is still plenty happy to point the kid in the right direction, like all good mentors do.
HAN: You okay, Big Deal?
It goes even further than that. Luke Skywalker has become an urban legend, and no one is really sure if the Force actually exists or not. Han, the skeptic, sets them both right:
HAN: I used to wonder that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo—magical power holding together good, evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is, it's true. The Force, the Jedi, all of it. It's all true.
That's quite a dramatic arc: from criminal to hero to bad dad to reluctant teacher. In some ways, he even resembles John the Baptist at the end by opening the way for Luke's return and presumably some serious butt-kicking for Team Good Guy.
His end seems tragic—senseless even—but considering who witnesses it and considering what he was trying to do when he got it, the symbolism of his sacrifice is going to carry some serious weight.