Snoke ranks #4 on our list of the 100 most popular villains of 2018 (check it out here).
The Force Awakens presented an interesting challenge for Disney. When Star Wars first came out, no one knew a thing about it, so information was taken at face value, without question. Luke is a farm boy with space wizard blood in his veins. Darth Vader is an evil emissary of an evil Emperor, who is so evil he recently dissolved the Galactic Senate. They have a Death Star, which is very scary, and very evil.
At no point did we ever hit pause and say, “Wait, but WHO is the Emperor? What’s his deal? What other characters is he connected to and why?” We just nodded, accepted that there was an Emperor, and that he was evil, and moved along with the story unfolding in front of us.
What If The Force Awakens Was the First Film?
Imagine if The Force Awakens had been the very first Star Wars movie. We’d nod along as a hotshot pilot searches for a map to an old war hero (General Kenobi, you’re my only hope) only to be pursued by the evil Kylo Ren, an evil emissary of the evil Supreme Leader Snoke, commander of the First Order (and #4 on our list of the 100 most popular villains of 2018). They have a Starkiller, which is very scary, and very evil.
Who is that old war hero? He’s just a war hero. Who is Kylo Ren? He’s the evil son of two other war heroes and works for Snoke. Who is Snoke? He’s in charge of the bad guys. We nod, accept, and move along.
Eventually, books and toys would come out to fill in the blanks as we waited for the second film to hit theatres. We would consume it with a frenzied passion, but we wouldn’t pick it apart or look at it with skepticism. We’d accept this wonderful new information at face value. “That guy’s name is Bossk? Cool!” We’d ask “what else?” instead of saying “yeah, but uh.”
Skipping to the Third Act
However, The Force Awakens was not the first Star Wars film. Worse: It was the first after years and years of lore building and world construction. The who, what, where, why, and how of Star Wars wasn’t just in place — it was an indestructible death machine capable of destroying planets. Awakens was the first Star Wars thing to give us new information without the safety net of established lore. There was no trilogy of books to read to make sure something checked out. Even Wookieepedia was helpless in the face of the Dark Side of New Information.
To make things more challenging, it was, in a lot of ways, the third act of a story we didn’t get a second act of. We saw the first act: the rise of Luke, Han, and Leia and the fall of the Empire in the original trilogy. But we didn’t get a second act trilogy about their adventures protecting their New Republic, or any seeds of the First Order rising to oppose it. We were dropped directly into their final days as heroes, a new generation, and the fully realized threat of Snoke. Obsessed and driven as we are by needing to know the information about Star Wars, that was a tough pill to swallow. So needing to know, we took to the lore and made our own guesses. Forget the story unfolding — we need to know.
And it is through that lens that I like to examine Supreme Leader Snoke, an Emperor that exists on two timelines at once: his timeline as a character being introduced to Star Wars fans and the timeline of his character’s actual arc.
It’s All for You, Kylo Ren
The arc of Snoke’s character is simple enough: From the Unknown Regions, this cruel Force user assembled the elements of what would become the First Order, a war machine that would dwarf even the military resources of the Clone War era. He took Luke Skywalker’s prize student and twisted him in the dark side. Always a master, always an apprentice. In the moment of Snoke’s greatest triumph, his apprentice betrayed him, murdered him, and took his place.
We’ve seen this story play out countless times in literature and pop culture, but what gives it a new spin in Force Awakens and Last Jedi is the moment we’re brought into it. We’re only given the end. Could we have had a “second act” trilogy covering the origin of Snoke? Probably. Would it have been about as rewarding as the origin of Palpatine in the prequel trilogy? Probably. Instead, the fat is removed and we’re given the story beat about Snoke that truly matters: the rise of Kylo Ren.
After all, even Palpatine is simply a means to an end. He’s a lightning-shooting Faceless Evil. It’s why he’s usually just called “The Emperor.” That’s all he needs to be: a lightning rod of fear for the galaxy, and ultimately a guy to be tossed into a pit when Darth Vader needs to be redeemed. Sometimes we just need to get to the fireworks factory, and Palpatine manipulating Naboo into a land war isn’t the factory — getting tossed in a hole by Vader is the fireworks factory.
Let’s Play a Game — With the Audience
In The Last Jedi, it’s revealed to the audience that they’re watching the end of Snoke’s story. The fireworks factory. His end is a means to Kylo Ren’s beginning. A lot of words have been written for and against director Rian Johnson’s “subversion of expectations.” But in this case, the reveal that we’re at the end of Snoke’s story — not the beginning — is less of a subversion and more of a meta kind of twist — a game with the audience.
How do you make an audience raised on knowing all of the lore actively watch a new story play out and engage with it instead of just playing “Star Wars Expectations” bingo? A simple shake-up of Joseph Campbell storytelling theory and trilogy structure — killing the Emperor ahead of our expected schedule — takes us out of our dependency on the past and forces us to actively watch the future play out.
“Kill it, if you have to,” Kylo says. And so he does. Killing Snoke cements that Kylo Ren has his own destiny to follow. It forces us to realize that for better or worse, we are watching something wholly new that isn’t concerned with the things we knew. It challenges our ability to absorb something new that doesn’t match our expectations and asks us to make ourselves comfortable with the idea that everything we tried to guess about Snoke was meaningless.
All of that in one stroke of a lightsaber.
The Supreme Leader is dead. Long live the Supreme Leader.