Within minutes of news breaking that Keri Russell would appear in Star Wars: Episode IX, online commentary had seemingly split entirely into two camps. Firstly, those expressing exuberant glee that director J.J. Abrams would be re-teaming with his Felicity lead for the next installment in the mammoth pop-culture juggernaut. And secondly, and more interestingly, those concerned with the idea that Russell could play the mother of the current trilogy’s central character, Daisy Ridley's Rey.
Beyond the most base reasoning — Russell is a white brunette, like Ridley, who plays Rey! — every other female lead in the franchise, with the exceptions of Laura Dern’s Holdo and Kelly Marie Tran's Rose, could be argued to be a relative of Rey. But there is, at least, an argument as to why Rey’s mother (and, for that matter, her father) could and, perhaps, should make an appearance in the final movie of the unfolding trilogy, whether or not she’s portrayed by Russell.
“Who are Rey’s parents?” was one of the many questions left unanswered by 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and one given increased weight considering both the familiar focus of Star Wars as a franchise overall, and on the familial connections of Force users in the franchise in particular. In the two earlier trilogies, the central characters have literally all belonged to one family, which was a narrative explanation as to why their connections to the Force were so strong; with that as a ground rule, it shouldn’t be that surprising to find that fans expect some similar revelation coming regarding the current central character and Force user.
Yes, there are other Force users, particularly in the prequel trilogy, who are entirely unrelated — literally — to the Skywalker bloodline, but until The Force Awakens, even the non-blood related Force users in central roles were, in some sense, family members to Anakin and/or Luke. As Obi-Wan says to Anakin in Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, the two were brothers — and Obi-Wan is certainly an uncle (or even father figure) for Luke, just as Palpatine was a father figure for Anakin. Star Wars is either an epic family drama, or curiously incestuous, even before you remember that the prequels suggest that Anakin Skywalker is literally the son of the Force.
Last year’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi tried to deal with this by having Kylo Ren state emphatically that Rey’s parents were nobodies. This didn’t go down well with a vocal minority of the fan base — because, again, previous movies had left certain preconceptions — and left them wondering whether or not Abrams will contradict that suggestion when he returns for the final part of the story. Hence, expectations meeting Keri Russell.
The best case scenario in this situation may be for Abrams to split the difference: Yes, Russell plays Rey’s mother — but only in a flashback to concretely demonstrate that Kylo Ren was right in the previous movie, and that Rey’s parents really, honestly, weren’t anything special at all.
There are problems with this idea, of course; Star Wars as a narrative doesn’t tend to employ flashbacks without the use of a narrator framing it for the audience, to preserve the sense of forward motion even as the past is re-explored, for one thing. Rogue One’s flashback to Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) working for the Empire is the one outlier where the audience isn’t simply seeing a variation on what “contemporary” characters are hearing at the time; is Episode IX a place to try out a new narrative technique for the first time? (A lack of narrator is the problem for doing it the traditional way; Rey doesn’t remember things clearly, judging by her first couple of movies.)
On the other hand, firmly establishing, without a shadow of a doubt, that Rey isn’t the product of some high-profile or important lineage is exactly what Lucasfilm needs to do to establish Star Wars as an open-ended, ongoing franchise for the future. There simply aren't enough Skywalker’s around to populate a theoretically ongoing franchise. And, not only does removing the need for familial connection open up the narrative possibilities for future projects, it restores one of the key qualities of the very first movie that got lost along the way in later years: That anybody, even a random kid from a farm in the middle of nowhere, can be the most important person in the galaxy in the right circumstances.
If doing that isn’t a good use of Keri Russell’s time, then what is? (Everyone saying “Being a badass space hero,” psh; go watch The Americans again and pretend they’re using blasters during the commercial breaks.) Give Russell a valuable but brief role in Episode IX that restores balance to the Force, and potential to the wider galaxy of Star Wars, because she's a recognizable name that would hopefully guarantee the scene wouldn't get cut between production and release. It would be the best way to end the core story and open up the franchise, and mythology, to everyone going forward.
Star Wars: Episode IX opens Dec. 20, 2019.