One of the key things that marks the Disney era of Star Wars out from what came before is its willingness to put everyday heroes front and centre: a shuttle pilot, a stormtrooper, an engineer etc. Compared with the Jedi, senators and royalty that dominate so much of the saga, these are nobodies caught up in the galaxy’s shifting socio-political tides. The Jedi served to protect the Republic as an idea, an institution, rather than the individual people themselves, while the Empire – and, later, the First Order – sought totalitarian control, citing the people’s safety as their directive. Just as the common people are forced to the rise and fall of political regimes, so too do they have the power to impact and shape events?
Yet before the power shift at Lucasfilm, the saga saw a commoner have just such an impact. Although the story of the prequel trilogy and its themes play out through the rise of Darth Vader, Anakin’s journey is only half-finished with the end of the Republic. Instead, it’s the much-maligned Jar Jar Binks that literally embodies the prequels, the rise of the Empire and its effect on the masses.
George Lucas purposefully created Jar Jar to provide comic relief. Given the artistry with which he wove The Phantom Menace (TPM), it made sense to offer levity, holding fast to his ethos that Star Wars is for kids. The character was modelled on Goofy and the physical comedy of Buster Keaton and, as The Making of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace described, he was meant to be “cowardly and insecure”. From his on-screen introduction, Jar Jar is anxious, gawky and accident prone. When the Trade Federation’s mechanical army begins invading Naboo, he’s out foraging for food.
Although little is known about his early life, what is certain is that Jar Jar was banished from his home, the underwater city of Otoh Gunga, for being clumsy (specifically, he crashed Boss Nass’ Heyblibber Submarine, flooding a major residential part of the city). After he’s saved by the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn, he takes Qui-Gon and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, to the city so they can reach Queen Amidala in Theed Palace undetected. However, since returning infringes his banishment, Jar Jar faces punishment. It’s unclear what exactly this punishment entails, but judging by his demeanor and expression, likely it is a death sentence. But, now that he requires the Gungan as a guide, Qui-Gon enacts a life debt, and so Jar Jar is saved and swept up in galactic events.
Jar Jar’s clumsiness might make him a social pariah, yet it serves as providence, allowing him to meet the Jedi, become a personal ally of Queen Amidala and help broker an alliance between the Gungans and the Naboo. No other Gungan would have been able to instigate this coalition owing to prolonged tensions between the two species, yet here was Jar Jar laying the groundwork for the victory over the droid army. For his part, he regains favour with his people, becoming their Junior Representative in the Galactic Senate.
On the surface, Jar Jar has much in common with the tone and style of TPM. They’re both bright, brash and seemingly childish, but, like the shifting tone of this era, they’re both overcome with darkness and shadow. One of the key themes of the prequels is exploitation of natural resources, of economics, of democracy, but also of people. Tatooine is a vision of what life outside the Republic looks like: bleak, barren, largely lawless, and where slavery is fundamental to the flow of wealth. As had already been established in the Original Trilogy, the Empire means control, cruelty and cultural homogeny. Between both ends of this spectrum, the common populous suffers. By using the rules of the Republic as the vehicle for his rise to power, Sheev Palpatine exploits not only the Jedi and the Senate, but the common people who provide that very Republic with its power. Palpatine is a political savant, understanding the innermost workings of the system, knowing how to play on public favour and manipulate public servants like Jar Jar.
In Attack of the Clones, Palpatine orchestrates a situation that necessitates the former-queen-turned-senator Padmé Amidala to go into hiding. Although this brings her together with Anakin Skywalker so they can fall in love – providing the catalyst for his fall to the dark side – it also has another key purpose. Padmé might resort to combat to save her people in TPM, but at heart she’s a pacifist, actively campaigning against the Military Creation Act. The Act aims to grant the Republic the power to establish an army to fight the growing threat of the Separatists (themselves controlled from the shadows by Palpatine). With Padmé out of the way and the threat of the Separatists growing, Palpatine incites Jar Jar into proposing an amendment that provides him with emergency powers to approve the creation of an army without a vote. Jar Jar clearly thinks he’s doing the right thing, what’s best not only for the future safety of his own people, but the galaxy at large. He’s proud to play his part, thrilled when the senate cheers his proposal. Yet this act provides Palpatine with the very army he uses to destroy the Jedi and seize total control.
It is only after the Republic has fallen, after the Jedi have been crushed, that Jar Jar understands the severity of what he has done. Compare the Jar Jar first introduced in TPM to his final on-screen appearance in Revenge of the Sith (ROTS) and the full devastating story of the prequels can be fully appreciated. As part of Padmé’s funeral procession, he is subdued and dejected, staring sadly downward. His gaze never rises to witness the present, or looks ahead into the future, and the next shot is of the Emperor and Vader staring out at the scaffolding of the Death Star.
In the years that follow ROTS, Jar Jar becomes a street performer, entertaining children on Naboo as detailed in an interlude in Chuck Wendig’s novel Star Wars Aftermath: Empire’s End. As the New Republic establishes its reach and legitimacy, it distributes aid to those impacted and displaced by the Empire and in the fight against it. Among these refugees are children, many who would be dealing with trauma and loss. One of these kids who, like Jar Jar, feels as though he doesn’t belong, strikes up a conversation with the Gungan. As Wendig has stated: “…you’re left with the sense these two are going to be friends for a while, that they belong together if with no one else, and they might have adventures.” The interlude might make him out to be a fool, a fallen court jester, but it shows his incredible depth of caring, his empathy and, I think, his atonement for the role he played in the rise of the Empire and the death of his friends.
Throughout the prequel trilogy, Jar Jar serves as proxy for the common people of the galaxy – neglected by the Republic, manipulated by Palpatine and, ultimately, crushed under the Empire’s bootheel. Yet, his empathy and compassion do not dwindle. His ability to make others feel better simply by being true to himself offers a poignant farewell to the character, as well as providing a powerful socio-political statement. People endure.