Star Wars: Episode IX can fill Leia’s absence by embracing its forgotten queen

Natalie Portman as Padmé Amidala (Screenshot: Star Wars), Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa (Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd). Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.
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In a 2017 Vanity Fair profile on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, producer Kathleen Kennedy shared a story about Carrie Fisher’s final day on set: “The minute she finished,” Kennedy explains, “she grabbed me and said, ‘I’d better be at the forefront of IX!’ Because Harrison [Ford] was front and center on VII, and Mark [Hamill] is front and center on VIII. She thought IX would be her movie. And it would have been.” Carrie Fisher’s untimely death in 2016 is a tragedy for an innumerable number of reasons, but one of those is that Leia won’t be able to finish out that arc she was meant to have. (Perhaps Episode IX even would’ve been the film to finally acknowledge that, oh yeah, Kylo Ren inherited his Force abilities from his mother—not his father or uncle.) Though I’m sure screenwriters J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio will craft a fitting tribute to the princess-turned-general and find a way to continue the story in her absence, Episode IX will still have a palpable void—in particular, where Leia’s maternal influence over Kylo Ren presumably would’ve been. And one option for filling it could be to call back a character who’s thus far been notably absent from the continued Star Wars mythos: Queen, Senator, Skywalker-twin mother, Kylo Ren grandmother, and all-around underappreciated Star Wars heroine, Padmé Amidala.

I’ll readily admit that, her horrendous Revenge Of The Sith arc aside, I perhaps have a greater fondness for Amidala than most fans. Part of that could be my age. For better or for worse, the prequels were the Star Wars films of my youth. I was 9 when The Phantom Menace premiered and 14 when the trilogy ended. As a sci-fi fan pretty much from birth, I’d already learned that beggars couldn’t be choosers when it came to female representation in genre properties. So even though The Phantom Menace was the only one of the prequels I ever truly cared for, Padmé is a character who meant a lot to me, and one I think is often judged too harshly by Star Wars fans.

As Amidala, Natalie Portman is often lumped in with Hayden Christensen’s Anakin as two of the worst performances in the prequel trilogy. But I’ve always found that a bit unfair. Granted, Portman doesn’t come close to matching Ewan McGregor’s remarkable ability to make George Lucas’ stiff dialogue actually work. But I see much of Padmé’s stiltedness as a conscious acting choice on Portman’s part. After all, she’s a young woman who’s spent her entire life within the stuffy, mannered world of galactic politics; Attack Of The Clones delightfully reveals that Padmé had her first kiss with a boy in her “Legislative Youth Program” when she was 12. At its best, Portman’s performance juxtaposes Padmé’s public-facing formality with her more casual private persona. And in her defense, as Harrison Ford once famously said, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it!”

Padmé’s less-than-stellar reputation isn’t helped by the fact that she’s not defined by her fighting skills and that she’s far from quippy, the two qualities that so often dictate fan affection toward a female genre character. Sure, Padmé gets some impressive action moments; she more than holds her own in Attack Of The Clones’ coliseum fight, and she storms her own palace in The Phantom Menace. But she’s first and foremost a political leader, one who’s primarily concerned with the importance of preserving democracy. This has led many Star Wars fans to write her off as “wooden” or “boring,” but her political skills are exactly what make Padmé such a compelling character to me.

Even as a kid, I adored watching Padmé grapple with big political concerns, all while struggling with the fact that, as a young woman, people were less inclined to take her seriously. Early in The Phantom Menace, the Emperor tells his Neimoidian allies, “Queen Amidala is young and naive. You will find controlling her will not be difficult.” But that turns out not to be true. As a teenage queen, Padmé is curious, observant, empathetic, selfless, and brave. She’s willing to both put herself in harm’s way and humble herself before a political rival in order to save her homeworld. It’s no wonder the people of Naboo tried to amend their constitution to get her to stick around as queen once her two terms were up.

Though Attack Of The Clones is the weakest of the prequels, it’s probably the best showcase for Padmé as a character. As a Galactic Senator, she’s clear-eyed as she balances her idealism about how democracy should work with her pragmatism about how it actually does. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but she’s also thoughtful about where and how she does so. And while very little about her relationship and repartee with Anakin actually works, the film features several delightful moments in which Padmé puts Anakin in his place whenever he jumps in with an opinion she didn’t ask for. That Attack Of The Clones also solidifies Padmé as the best-dressed person in the entire Star Wars universe is just icing on the cake.

Even amid her disappointing Revenge Of The Sith denouement—inexplicably losing the will to live after giving birth is perhaps the most insulting death she could’ve been given—Padmé at least gets to deliver some particularly savvy political observations as Chancellor Palpatine transforms the Republic into his Galactic Empire. “So this is how liberty dies,” she notes dryly, “with thunderous applause.” As a nerdy, opinionated young girl, Padmé was the perfect heroine on which to project my dreams, much as so many people did with Luke in the original trilogy.

It’s a little disappointing, then, to see Padmé completely forgotten in these new Star Wars films. Obviously I don’t expect her to suddenly turn up as a central character, given that she died long before the start of this new trilogy. But Episode IX has the perfect opportunity to bring her spirit back into the fold. As the one most personally betrayed by Anakin’s turn to the dark side, Padmé could easily fill the role Leia presumably would’ve played in challenging Kylo Ren’s obsession with Vader. Perhaps in encountering her old journals (holographic if Portman wants to return; written if she doesn’t), Kylo could develop an emotional connection to his grandmother, the same way he already has one with his long-dead grandfather.

Given how much the new films have tried to distance themselves from the prequels, there’s probably no realistic chance of Padmé finally getting her due in Episode IX—even if the inclusion of Jimmy Smits’ Bail Organa turned out to be one of the most unexpectedly moving parts of Rogue One. But hell, I’d even accept a Jimmy Smits hologram, talking about how much he respected Amidala as a political ally and how much his adoptive daughter reminds him of her. Because in a universe strangely devoid of mother figures, it would be nice to see the franchise remember it still has some inspiring ones in its past, just waiting to pass down their wisdom.