HEAT VISION

Woody Harrelson Is Not the Typical 'Star Wars' Mentor

Solo A Star Wars Story Still 12 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
The actor's Tobias Beckett teaches Han Solo lessons that — for better or worse — defined the character's life.

[This story contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story]

Solo: A Star Wars Story holds an interesting position on the border between familiar, well-known territory and a brave new world, as the first film in the franchise not to feature any members of the Skywalker family. While Solo is easily the installment least interested in exploring the nature of the Force, there are other ways in which the film sticks closely to tried and true Star Wars narrative formulas. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the character of Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Ever since the very beginning, with Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) quest to find Obi-Wan “Only Hope” Kenobi (Alec Guinness), Star Wars has had a serious love of mentor figures. But the pattern is far more specific than that.

The Star Wars universe doesn’t just like introducing mentors — it also likes killing them in the third act of the film in which they are first introduced in a mentorship role. In fitting this pattern, Beckett joins a long and prestigious line that includes the likes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), and ultimately even Beckett’s protege, Han Solo. Yoda (Frank Oz) is an outlier, surviving The Empire Strikes Back — only to take his last breath in the first act of Return of the Jedi.

Beckett is not even the first mentor to be killed by a protege in the Star Wars universe (see: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker). Though “Death of the Mentor” is not listed among the stages of the “monomyth,” or Hero’s journey, in the seminal book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, it is nonetheless worth considering this narrative pattern in the context of Joseph Campbell. After all, the influence of Campbell’s works on George Lucas and specifically the development of Star Wars is well documented.        

The basic gist of the monomyth is that a hero leaves the world of the everyday and embarks upon a perilous supernatural quest, overcomes a serious of obstacles and eventually emerges victorious, learning important things about him or herself along the way. Unfortunately for the mentors of a galaxy far, far away, should a hero have a mentor figure at the start of this journey, it makes a great deal of sense for said mentor to die sooner rather than later. A hero with a living mentor is like a bike with training wheels, and a good adventure is supposed to be a wild ride.

While Beckett easily fits among Star Wars’ ever-growing repertoire of dead mentors, he’s no carbon copy. Notably, Beckett survives a little longer than the typical Star Wars mentor, who usually dies relatively early in the third act, prior to the hero’s showdown against the main villain. The mentor’s death has even directly provided the setup for the final showdown on multiple occasions: in The Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) takes on Darth Maul (Ray Park) after the Sith kills his mentor Qui-Gon Jinn, while the heightened emotions on both sides from Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) murder of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) fuels his and Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) lightsaber battle in the snow in The Force Awakens.

But more important, Beckett marks a significant departure from the usual Star Wars mentor in that the ultimate value of the advice he gives Han is debatable. Mentors of Star Wars films past have been generally unquestionable in their wisdom. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) would have been far better off if he'd listened to Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) more. If Luke Skywalker had heeded Yoda’s advice he would still have both hands. The whole Canto Bight debacle in The Last Jedi could have been avoided if Poe (Oscar Isaac) and company had taken Holdo’s advice seriously sooner rather than later.

While taking Beckett’s trust-no-one, shoot-first, don’t-get-too-attached attitude to heart undoubtedly helped Han Solo in his smuggling career, in the long run, it also seems quite likely that Han’s adoption of such tactics contributed to his ultimate undoing. From his tumultuous marriage to his relationship with his son, which by all indications was strained long before Ben Solo went to the dark side, one wonders if Han might not have gone on to a happier end if he had taken the lessons learned from Tobias Beckett with a few more grains of salt.

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