This article contains spoilers for Star Wars Episodes 1-7 but honestly you’ve seen Star Wars at this point or you’re not going to.
Chewbacca is maybe the most tragic character in all of Star Wars.
Yes, it’s sad that his best buddy Han got murdered by his own son, Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo. That’s a pretty horrific thing to see (and Chewbacca reacts in the best way possible, shooting the man he was probably like an uncle without a thought). But Wookiees live a long time, and Chewbacca’s tragedy spans many more years than just those he knew Han. Chewbacca is the only character (thus far) to appear in all three trilogies*. He’s the only one to watch the whole fate of the galaxy play out, and to be perfectly clear: the fate of the Star Wars galaxy is a depressing one.
It’s sort of bizarre how depressing the galaxy’s history is, considering the uplifting ending of the original trilogy. Though they suffer some loses the Rebels defeat the Empire, a force much bigger, stronger, and fascistier than them, and they get to party with some Ewoks! If Episodes 4-6 had existed on their own, never to be revisited, the story of Star Wars would have remained purely optimistic.
Episode 1-3 make things a little more complicated. We see how quickly the Galactic Empire took control, and the assumed cost the war took. Characters such as Yoda, Chewbacca, and Obi-Wan who remember the Republic must be horrified at how quickly a shroud of tyranny has blotted out the memory of a once benevolent and prosperous Republic. Think of Luke in Episode 4. His dream is to go to the Academy and learn how to be a pilot in service of the Empire. He doesn’t even think about maybe not serving the crazy authoritarian government. What’s more, nearly no one seems to remember the Jedi. The memory of the Galactic Peace, which Obi-Wan claims spanned hundreds of years, has been utterly forgotten in a mere thirty years ago of Empire rule. Add onto that fact that the Empire arose during a massive and costly war, and the original trilogy has a lot more baggage, even if it still ends on an uplifting note. Essentially the best these two trilogies offers us is a very costly return to status quo, a hiccup in what would widely be remembered as a long span of peace.
Which brings us to The Force Awakens, which finds us… still in the same war thirty years later. I guess by virtue of the title of the movies the conflict still sort of has to be alive, but still, that means the entire galaxy has been in a state of civil war for at least sixty years. The celebratory Ewok ending of Episode 6 was a false celebration. The battle wasn’t over. It’s still not over. We’re not told explicitly what happened in the intervening 30 years but apparently the New Republic wasn’t strong enough to get a real foothold and poor god damn Leia who has been at war literally since her birth is still fighting. That’s a long time for anyone to serve as a general. And the threat they thought they defeated had only grown worse, decimating a whole star system. The hope of returning to an age of peace, which again previously lasted hundreds of years, is even further away.
Honestly, a really dark history, but if you look at it from Chewbacca’s eyes it only gets worse. Because I eat and breath Star Wars I can tell you Wookiees live a long time. So he’s been around for a while. He rears his head first (chronologically) in Episode 3 where he’s already a full-grown Wookiee. So we can assume he lived a good portion of his life under the Old Republic, and knew what was what, knows freedom, etc. He’s pals with Yoda. So he knows the Jedi Order. And he is, apparently, the son or close friend of the Wookiee chief. So, suffice to say, he is an ally of and supporter of the Republic. Remember, again, the galaxy has been at peace for years upon years. War is probably a distant unknown memory, something nearly unfathomable to the Wookiees.
But now war has struck again. Kashyyyk has been invaded by the Trade Federation, and Yoda has been sent there to help with the defense of the planet. Chewbacca watches from on high as Wookiees die to defend their homeland. This is probably a horrific battle for him to watch, but it is also one he supports and understands. As a friend of the Republic he knows he is fighting for galactic freedom, and though the cost is high he is confident the Republic will eventually squash the Trade Federation…
Only, wait! The Republic turns on the religious peace keepers and try to murder the shit out of them. The Republic Chewbacca just watched his people die for turns into an oppressive Empire just like that. And no one can do anything about it.
I know there are countless books that chronicle Chewie’s life between Episode 3 and 4, and as a reader of Star Wars books in my youth I’m not going to pretend they don’t have merit, but for the casual observer the next time we see Chewbacca is in A New Hope. Once a chief, we now find him in a bar on some backwater planet. How bad did things get on Kashyyyk for him to totally jump ship and become a smuggler?
Who knows how he feels getting dragged back into the war once more. Who knows how he feels battling for freedom for others as well as his own planet (the Star Wars Christmas Special makes it clear that Kashyyyk is indeed occupied by Imperial forces). Did he give up hope, only to have it sparked again? Or is he simply unable to abandon his new friends, even if he sees their struggle as futile.
Like the others, he is given a glimmer of hope at the end of Episode 6. He parties with the Ewoks. After that? What does he think of the New Republic, it’s fumbling grasp on the galaxy a far cry from the Republic he once knew? Surely he must be filled with more hope, even if he recognizes more than anyone else the New Republic doesn’t hold exactly the same power and peace as the old.
He watches life begin anew: A new Jedi Order, led by his ally and friend Luke Skywalker. A new godchild (one assumes) in the young Ben Solo, a rising Jedi himself to boot! The battle is not over, and he is surely tired of the war, even more so than General Organa. But perhaps, though he knows the path is long, they are on the route to redemption.
Again, the rug is ripped out from under him. The New Jedi Order murdered by his best friend’s son. The last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, disappears. The First Order arises and decimates the New Republic. History is repeating itself. He has seen friends such as Obi-Wan and Yoda give their lives in the hope that order might be restored, seen his friends dedicate decades to this hope, and seen it squandered brutally once more.
And then Han, the reluctant hero, who has finally given himself over to hope and love and family, gets killed for his troubles.
Does Chewbacca still have hope? It seems so. Maybe life is different for Wookiees, or maybe he knows he needs hope in order to survive. He is still ready to fight the good fight, to protect those he is loyal to. Chewbacca’s history is tragic, and though we can’t understand him he is, in many ways, the greatest hero in the Star Wars canon. No one has greater reason to give up than him, but he remains steadfast, ready to nurture Rey and Finn, ready for another battle, still willing to hope and persevere for peace.
*Editor’s Note: At the top of the article I incorrectly state that Chewie is the only character to see all three trilogies. Sam corrected me: C-3PO and R2 both see all the movies, though C-3PO has his memory wiped between Episode 3 and 4, and R2 falls asleep between Episode 6 and 7, so I stand by my point.