It’s only right that Rogue One’s tagline is about hope. It’s the foundation of the forces of light and freedom in the Star Wars universe. Hera Syndulla and the Lothal rebels (which makes a great band name) brought hope to the citizens of Tarkin Town and planets held down by the Empire when they broke Imperial blockades in order to deliver food. Leia Organa did the same when she gave a rousing speech to convince the remnants of Alderaan to band together to resist the Empire, and Luke Skywalker inspired those who felt like fighting the Empire was futile when he destroyed the Death Star above Yavin. These acts of kindness and hope are essential because they call to the citizens who are fed up with the state of the galaxy and bonds them together to form the Rebel Alliance. Violence against the Empire will only serve to reinforce the lies that the Imperial propaganda machine would want to spread. The violence of extremists like Saw Gerrera would turn the theater of war into a horror movie unless their lust for success at any cost can be curbed.
We were first introduced to Saw Gerrera in The Clone Wars animated series. He was introduced as an aggressive fighter for a ragtag group of rebels looking to free their home planet of Onderon from the grasp of the Separatists. While his sister, Steela, hatched careful plans to help free the people, Saw often acted on instinct. He mercilessly attacked the droids without seeing the effect that had on the citizens of Onderon. At one point, Steela asked Saw about the whether it was worth it to gain a “victory at the cost of innocent lives.” The citizens were afraid. For all they knew, these attacks were just the work of terrorists. It wasn’t until Steela became the leader of the Onderon insurgents that the citizens were able to realize what this group represented. Steela’s reassurance that they meant the citizens no harm and that they simply sought to restore the proper king of Onderon to the throne inspired hope in them. That is what led the citizens to risk their lives alongside Steela and Saw later on when the pair were nearly executed. Steela tempered Saw’s anger, but when she died, what would he become?
After Steela’s death, Saw blamed himself. He claimed that it was his fault because he shot down the droid gunship whose wreckage led her to fall. Ahsoka and Lux tried to tell him that it wasn’t his fault, but Saw isn’t a logical thinker. He is an emotional one. Even if he could let it go in that moment, the thought likely would have eaten at him over time. He would direct his guilt and anger against the Separatists, and after they fell, he would find a new enemy in the Empire. Saw's activities during the reign of the Empire are only mentioned a couple of times in current canon, but each of those references show a soldier willing to pay any cost in order to win the war. In the Star Wars Rebels episode “The Honorable Ones,” Agent Kallus relates the savageness of the tactics of a Lasat that is a part of Saw’s rebel cell. The extremist tactics of Saw and his group prompt Senator Casterfo to label them terrorists in Claudia Gray’s novel Star Wars: Bloodline. Without Steela to guide him, Saw went back to the only thing he was good at: savage guerrilla tactics.
The little bit of Saw we’ve seen in the trailer for Rogue One suggests a man who sees no end to the fight. We hear him asking someone, presumably Jyn and her rebel cell a series of questions. If we break this down bit by bit, we can glean quite a bit about what Saw may be like in Rogue One.
“What will you do when they catch you?” The first sentence leaves no room for error. He doesn’t ask what the rebels will do if they are caught. He’s already written them off. They will get caught. This seems to imply a lack of faith in the rebels under Mon Mothma's leadership.
“What will you do if they break you?” Here he gives the rebels a little more credit by not automatically assuming they will be broken. When they are captured, they may be able to resist the torture they will face in Imperial prison, but they may not. As their pain receptors are overloaded and those they loved are threatened, they may find themselves willing to forget themselves in order to make it all stop.
“If you continue to fight, what will you become?” The last line is heavy. It drips with sadness, but it also oozes irony. Saw has been fighting for most of his life, and it has worn him down. His methods have become extreme. He has had success against the enemy, but it has come at a cost. He lost much of his faith in others and believed them to be ineffective. They were not willing to take the measures it would take to defeat the Empire. It required a blade in the dark, and Mon Mothma and her rebels were not willing to take that step. He would be, but you have to imagine that he knows he has lost something. All the fighting has made him cold and ruthless. He doesn’t inspire the hope that Steela did. He inspires fear in his enemies, his allies see him as an extremist, and the citizens of the galaxy likely see him as a terrorist.
On Onderon, Steela helped Saw’s actions inspire a rebellion. Can Jyn Erso do the same? In an article in Entertainment Weekly, Kathleen Kennedy describes Jyn as a “kind of Joan of Arc.” While this comment led many to assume that Jyn may die in the film, I think that it speaks directly to what may be an important quality in Jyn’s character: her ability to inspire hope. In the behind the scenes trailer released during Celebration Europe 2016, we see Jyn do this in two ways. Early on in the trailer, she gives a fruit to a villager. As we’ve seen in Rebels, the Empire is not big on making sure that all their citizens get food. Right from the beginning in “Spark of Rebellion,” we see the Imperials steal a shop keeper’s fruit, and in that same episode, the Lothal rebels deliver food to the starving people of Tarkin Town. Jyn’s small act of kindness surely meant more to that villager than a bite to eat. It was a reminder that kindness still existed on a world held tight in the Empire’s grip.
Later in the trailer, we see Jyn silhouetted against the opening of what seems to be a Rebel dropship, and she tells who we can assume is the rest of the crew, “May the Force be with us.” It’s interesting that she would be the one to say that. The same Entertainment Weekly article mentioned earlier describes Jyn as “A streetwise delinquent who has been on her own since 15, she has fighting skills and connections with the underworld that the Rebel Alliance needs.” “Delinquent” and “underworld” are not words with pleasant connotations. They conjure images of young thugs and gangsters. Technically all the Rebels are criminals during this time period though. They are a group of misfits, smugglers, and fugitives who are disobeying unjust laws. Jyn is cut from a similar cloth as Han Solo and Ezra Bridger before her. We might not expect her to be the character giving a motivational speech because of her background, but that might be exactly why it works. When we think of inspirational speakers, sometimes the ones who affect us the most are those who have struggled and experienced loss. We can relate to them, and we find ourselves thinking that if they can overcome maybe we can, too. Jyn is the perfect one to give a pep talk because she knows what it’s like to struggle, and the others know it. If she can come from a life of loss and not be broken by the fight, they may be able to keep going as well. She has given them the hope to do so.
The Empire rules through fear. Tarkin says as much aboard the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope when he says, “Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.” When fear rules the day, it is hope that causes it to disperse. It allows people to believe that their smallest actions can cause big changes. Saw Gerrera has the ability to inspire, but he’s allowed his grief and anger to take that from him. Perhaps Jyn Erso and her crew can reignite that fire, and if they can, their combined flame may be able to light the spark of rebellion in many other hearts throughout the galaxy.