Few words can spark as much vitriol among Star Wars fans quite like “Jar Jar Binks.” In of Disney’s new era of sequel trilogy episodes and original trilogy-set spinoffs, the prequels have completed their transformation into the bastard child of the franchise, and nothing embodies their failure more than Jar Jar, the exile-turned-general-turned-representative-turned-Empire-enabler.
Haters had better run for cover, because the gungan’s back in the news with the release of Empire’s End. The final part of Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy, the book is full of major exposition for the galaxy post-Return of the Jedi – it showcases (as the title suggests) the Empire’s final stand on Jakku and teases the future First Order threat – but in amongst that is the canon fate of everybody’s least favorite character. In a brief interlude following war refugee Mapo on Naboo, we meet Jar Jar on the streets of Theed now working as a melancholy street performer; he laments his position, clowning about for children’s enjoyment but hated by their parents for his unelaborated-but-contextually-clear part in the rise of the Empire.
Jar Jar’s fate after Revenge of the Sith was never quite clear in the Expanded Universe, with few storytellers at all keen to go back to that particular swamp (although some fans were keen to theorize he died in Alderaan’s destruction, with one person even editing it into the movie), and even less surprisingly he’s been completely absent from the new canon; J.J. Abrams joked about putting a gungan skeleton in amongst the battle wreckage on Jakku, but that idea was too much fan-bait for even him. Now, though, we finally have a resolute to the character’s arc almost twenty years after he was first introduced.
Fitting as it may be, however, was it the best thing Disney could have done with the character? Let’s find out.
What Was George Lucas’ Original Plan For Jar Jar?
Before looking at present Star Wars, it’s worth going back to a time long derided and look at what Jar Jar Binks was originally conceived as.
He was, in Lucas’ own words, both “a funnier character than we’ve ever had in any of the movies” and “the key to all of this.” It shouldn’t need to be stated that this thinking was fundamentally flawed: Jar Jar’s design is striking insofar as it’s hard to look at; his speech patterns were irritating with an underlying sense of racial insensitivity (something the movie already had its fair share of); and on a more basic level he just isn’t funny. Jar Jar Binks is juvenile, and it’s not good juvenility; there’s nothing remotely tickling about his slapstick or misunderstandings. Some kids may find it arresting, but that there’s not been a major defense mounted by those who saw Episode I in the cinema as children says everything about his lasting impact.
Now so removed from that initial reaction, the important thing isn’t what Jar Jar was, but what he could have been. The subsequent films vastly reduced his role – he was Padmé’s assistant manipulated into starting The Clone Wars in Attack of the Clones and appeared briefly at the start and end of Revenge of the Sith – but it seems likely Lucas originally had something bigger planned. The director has lamented about how he altered parts of his long-standing gameplan after The Phantom Menace backlash, and given how prominent Jar Jar was in both the marketing and the backlash he was probably one of the major alterations. What exactly was planned is a big secret, but one scene we do know that almost made it to the big screen came from Revenge of the Sith where Palpatine would thank the oblivious Representative for making him ruler; Jar Jar discovers only too late he’s the fool. It’s nothing seismic, but it hints at a more complex direction for the comic relief.
Of course, some think it almost went the other way entirely. A popular re-reading of Episode I is that Jar Jar’s stupidity was, to some degree, a front. The Darth Jar Jar theory states that, in a Dark Side reversal of Yoda, Binks was going to have been secretly pulling the strings or otherwise aiding Palpatine in some form. The evidence is as questionable as it is plentiful – is Jar Jar really mouthing other characters’ lines as part of a mind trick or is the animation a bit wonky and did George have Jar Jar purposely know complex martial arts or just think it would be a funny action beat? – and the whole thing needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it’s definitely got some potential. Of course, even if it was the plan at some point in development, it was dropped by the time of Attack of the Clones (although that didn’t stop Snoke theories in the build up to The Force Awakens).
What Does Aftermath Do?
With that weight behind it, there’s something pretty strong in Aftermath finally addressing Jar Jar in the way it did. It is, of course, a not so subtle commentary on the character – kids find his antics amenable, but adults hate him both for what he’s actively doing and what he did in the past – and yet Wendig comes at it from a rather unexpected angle. The primary emotion is one of sadness; we see Jar Jar through the eyes of an orphan as an archetypal sad clown, interchangeably misunderstood and mocked. As the book tells it, any hatred – be that for tainting Star Wars or in-universe enabling the Empire – is offset by seeing a well-meaning person so downtrodden and destroyed without fully knowing why.
This is an incredibly mature approach to take and some of the most overt prequel acceptance of Disney’s entire output. The notion of “balance in the Force” appeared in The Force Awakens and Rogue One featured some prequel-era planets, but otherwise outward acknowledgement of the maligned movies has been slight; Rebels features more, but mostly elements from The Clone Wars and thus a degree removed from the films themselves. Directly addressing Jar Jar Binks’ fate in a post-Jedi book and making it something quietly tragic shows an appreciation – if not full acceptance – of the gungan and the movies that birthed him as a part of the world.
No matter you’re standing in Star Wars fandom, it’s an interesting choice. However, it is ultimately more of an acknowledgment of the character’s flaws, rather than an attempt to bring public opinion around. Feeling as it does like a firm line being drawn under Binks, it’s worth questioning if that was the best choice.
What Else Could Disney Have Done?
Disney couldn’t just do anything they wanted with the character. To try and make Jar Jar into something he never was (be that a gallant hero or a secret Sith) is a guaranteed shortcut to backlash – for every prequel hater intrigued by a reimagining, there’d be three more already forming a lynch mob – and the end result would probably be something akin to making Scrappy-Doo the villain of the live-action Scooby-Doo – as bold a choice as it is, there’s a sense of desperation. And expecting Jar Jar (or even a gungan) in a movie would be outrageous. There’s simply too much at stake to start throwing derided prequel elements to Star Wars right now, and any appearance would be by its nature forced, so could only anger fans no matter how it was handled.
However, the fact remains that Aftermath is only a small part of the massive Star Wars canon. It’s a high-profile novel release that fills in key sequel trilogy setup, yes, but against the backdrop of a tentpole release every December it’s a tertiary storytelling concern. As such, simply going for the basic meta-commentary option is playing it a little safe – the people reading are going to be more into Star Wars than even the standard die-hard, and are thus likely more open to doing something new with Jar Jar. It’s a form where the audience allows more freedom, yet Wendig doesn’t really advance the character in any significant way. Him being regretful and there being hints of greater awareness isn’t weak by any stretch, but an attempt at redemption, adding a further layer to the manipulated Binks and honoring Lucas’ original vision, could have been massive.
The main issue with the canon fate is that it presumes absolutely nothing happened to the character post-prequels, with Jar Jar instead spending the better part of three decades in a spiral of depression. The time between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope is getting a lot of coverage care of Rebels and Rogue One, but there are still a lot of connections to be made, and it’s perhaps here Jar Jar could have best fit; following on from his sporadic part in The Clone Wars (one of the few post-Sith appearances that wasn’t outwardly ashamed of itself), he could have played a part in Rebels, either selflessly helping the cause in a minor way or even sacrificing himself in atonement. Even more daring, with Star Wars now set to run indefinitely this could have been perfect fodder for its own story; a Jar Jar novel would be controversial, but it wouldn’t tarnish the wider brand and could really set the record straight.
Jar Jar Binks will always be the unshakeable emblem of the prequel trilogy, and as such any handling of him will be directly related to how those three movies are regarded. That’s why it took so long for Disney to even address him – they needed new movies to get the fanbase cooled on their prequel hate (something that invariably saw Jar Jar be a joke in all previous media). Had they waited a few more years, it’s possible that there’d have been enough distance from Episodes I-III for them to be confident in using Jar Jar more creatively. From a 2017 perspective, though, what they did is the best way to finish Binks’ story and keep the many fans Star Wars has won back from falling into prequel-induced rage.
Still, as with Darth Jar Jar before it, it’s still hard to not theorize what might have been.