Warning! This article contains spoilers for Delilah Dawson’s novel Phasma. If you have not read it, go do so. It’s really good!
Delilah S. Dawson’s excellent novel Phasma is an interesting mixture of genres. The majority of the tale has the feeling of a mythical journey similar to Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey or the film Mad Max: Fury Road. Phasma, Brendol Hux, and their crews experience various adventures as they try to make their way to Hux’s ship, so they can escape the toxic planet they’re on. Alongside this story, we witness the questioning of a Resistance spy by Captain Cardinal, a crimson clad trooper with a grudge against Phasma. Captain Cardinal’s investigation in the present is used to frame all of the Resistance spy Vi’s stories of Phasma’s past. It’s in this framing device that we see another genre make its way into Phasma: the noir mystery.
A criminal, a detective, a witness, a victim, and a killer. It sounds like the beginnings of any number of mystery stories. It’s also describes the characters featured in the framing sequence of Phasma. The story revolves around Captain Cardinal (our detective) who has captured someone that he considers a criminal (the Resistance spy, Vi). He interrogates her using some methods that are decidedly not legal in order to assist in his capture and elimination of Captain Phasma. As the investigation proceeds, we discover alongside Cardinal that Phasma is a killer. She has left a trail of victims behind in her rise to power. She betrayed her childhood friend Siv, who serves as the witness whose stories of Phasma are told by Vi, and she schemed to kill her one-time benefactor, Brendol Hux, once she no longer needs him.
Despite the fact that many of us find the First Order repugnant, we root for Cardinal while at the same time despising him. We boo him as he tortures Vi but cheer him as he shows how much he cares about the young troopers in his care. He’s a deeply flawed character, which is true of many of the most famous detectives. Sherlock Holmes is brilliant but socially awkward and a drug addict. Philip Marlowe is stubborn and determined but also cynical and an alcoholic. Captain Cardinal has dedicated his life to an organization that he believes will restore order to the galaxy, and he clings to that truth even as Vi reveals the horrors of what Phasma and the Huxes have done.
The exposition of the novel is very similar to many noir films or police procedurals. It starts with an officer interrogating someone his values label as a criminal. The whole plot is told through this framing device. We are constantly switching back and forth between Vi’s stories of Phasma’s past and the present. This plot structure is used in many noir stories but a notable example is Bryan Singer’s film The Usual Suspects. That film features a cop who is interrogating various suspects about a crime. As each suspect spills their guts, we hear more and more about a crime lord named Keyser Soze who is feared by criminals and cops alike. I wouldn’t dare spoil the ending of the film because to do so would ruin the film, but we see a similar twist in Phasma.
As Cardinal’s investigation nears its conclusion, he learns that his mentor and father figure, Brendol Hux, was murdered by Captain Phasma in order to eliminate links to her past. Armed with this information, Cardinal rushes to Brendol’s son, General Armitage Hux, expecting him to exact swift vengeance upon the Phasma for killing his father. Instead of finding a rage-filled son, Cardinal finds that Armitage was a conspirator with Phasma in his own father’s murder. WIth this revelation, Cardinal’s world comes crashing down. The justice and order he expected from the Hux and the brightest of the First Order is a lie that eats at him day after day. He begins to see his gleaming armor, that once brought him so much pride, as a dirty lie that he is trapped in.
As the novel draws to a close, we hope beyond hope that Cardinal might forsake the First Order and leave with Vi to join the Resistance. Perhaps her stories of the atrocities of Phasma and the First Order will convince him, we say to ourselves, but Cardinal’s end is set and the plot is merely his struggle to escape the inescapable. This is also a characteristic of noir stories. The “heroes” (for not all the main characters in noir stories are heroic) struggle against a fate that the audience knows they cannot avoid. Armed with the knowledge that Phasma is still a high-ranking member of the First Order during The Force Awakens, which happens after this novel, we watch Cardinal’s investigation into Phasma with a fascination similar to watching a car crash. We hope that he’ll get away with it. We root for each piece of evidence and pray it will save him, but we know that eventually his end will be reflected back at him as he sees his own fate reflected back in Phasma’s shining, victorious helmet.
We don’t often get mysteries in Star Wars. There were a few in Legends, but most of the stories revolve around either the mystical journeys of a Jedi or the militaries battles of a soldier. The stories that do delve into the criminal underworld often feature the criminals as the main characters. Even the bounty hunters, who are technically pursuing criminals, are treated as villains because they often align with a corrupt government. Perhaps the success of Phasma could lead us to have more noir tales in Star Wars. From a hard-boiled ISB investigator to a Rebel spy searching for a mole to a husband and wife duo tasked with determining who killed a senator at a political ball, there are a lot of potential stories to be told.
What do you think of this interpretation of Phasma? Do you have another Star Wars story mystery to discuss? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter at @mapplebee7567!