In an episode of the spectacular Stranger Things one of the trio of precocious preteen boys that make up the center of the show’s cast suggests that an adult who is ostensibly allied with them may simply be pretending to be their friend and will betray them in short order. The boy makes this suggesting by simply uttering “Lando Calrissian.” This, coupled with the news that Chris Miller and Phil Lord would like Donald Glover to play Lando in their upcoming Han Solo movie, has had me thinking quite a lot about Lando Calrissian lately, which is to say only marginally more than I would normally think about Lando Calrissian. I love Lando. He is, and has been, my favorite Star Wars character, off and on, for as long as I have been a Star Wars fan.
A familiarity with Lando Calrissian means that person is, at least, a casual Star Wars fan. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, R2D2, C-3PO, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and, although to a lesser extent, The Emperor, Boba Fett, and Jabba The Hutt, are ubiquitous, a person could have never seen a minute of any Star Wars movie and still have some idea what is being talked about whenever one of those names is mentioned. If a person knows who Lando is, it means he or she has watched at least one Star Wars movie (The Empire Strikes Back or Return of The Jedi) with enough interest to learn and remember the names of the characters. Knowing Lando does not mean one is a “real” fan, that is the domain of a character like Admiral Ackbar or Greedo, nor are they a “big” fan, meaning they know Wedge Antilles and Mon Mothma, they are simply a casual fan, they like Star Wars. In the past, when I have mentioned to one of these casual fans that Lando is my favorite character, they have, without fail responded “What? The traitor?” This is patently unfair. Not only is Lando Calrissian objectively not a “traitor,” he is the most morally complex character in the Star Wars trilogy and, I would argue, the coolest.
“The coolest?” you might ask “what about Han?” Yes, Lando is cooler than Han. Han Solo is undeniably cool, but his coolness is derived from a bad boy image, he doesn’t care what you think of him, Han’s gonna do Han. Lando is not a bad boy, certainly not to the extent that Han is, rather he is a suave, sophisticated gentleman, a “smoothy” as Solo calls him, he is undeniably charismatic. The difference between the coolness of Han and the coolness of Lando is this: If a person met Han Solo, they would likely come away from that meeting thinking “that guy doesn’t care that he’s an asshole.” If they met Lando, they would think “I hope he likes me.” Han doesn’t care what you think of him, you care what Lando thinks of you. A few misguided souls may argue that the coolest Star Wars character is neither Han nor Lando but Boba Fett. These people are lying to you and themselves. Boba Fett is hardly even a character; he has a cool helmet and a cool ship, he has cool things. Boba Fett’s costume makes him cool; Lando makes his costume cool, he can pull off a cape with gusto.
More important than coolness is Lando’s moral fortitude. The idea that Lando is a “traitor” is preposterous. Yes, he betrays Han, selling him out to Darth Vader and Boba Fett, but the idea that Lando is a traitor in this scenario assumes that Han Solo’s well-being (as well as that of Leia, Chewie, and Luke), should be Lando’s moral priority, which it is not. Lando is the Baron Administrator of Cloud City, an elected official (we can assume) with a responsibility to his constituents, he owes his loyalty to the people of Cloud City. When Darth Vader gives him a choice: betray his friend or his city. The choice is so simple as to not be a choice at all. If Lando chose to warn his friend of the Imperial trap he would be allowing the people for whom he is responsible to come under the heel of fascism. Lando is not a traitor but if he chooses not to take Vader’s deal he would be. Imagine if the President of The United States were to make a decision that would benefit one or a small number of his personal friends at the expense of the American people (this has almost certainly actually happened at some point in history); the United States’ citizenry would find this decision unacceptable, perhaps impeachable, even if The President used the excuse of having known the aforementioned friends prior to holding office. It is not until Vader alters the deal and informs Lando that the Empire will maintain a presence on Cloud City that Calrissian reneges and aids Leia and Chewie in escaping, even then he is certain to issue a warning to the people of Cloud City, urging them to flee. At no point in this sequence of events are his actions objectionable. To call Lando a “traitor” requires a kind of narcissism on the part of the fan; Leia, Luke, Han, and Chewie are the characters that they know and with whom they sympathize, and so they assume the best interests of that central quartet should be the foremost of the other character’s concerns and if that is not the case then those other characters are “bad,” never mind what their personal interests and responsibilities might be. While the population of Cloud City is an abstraction to the audience, in the reality of The Empire Strikes Back, they are real to Lando.
What makes Lando one of the most compelling characters in the Star Wars trilogy is that the moral dilemma he faces is more complex than any faced by the trilogy’s other characters. The Star Wars universe is not a morally complicated one, good and evil exist in stark contrast to one another with little gray area. This is largely what has made Star Wars so eternal, the fundamental struggle between light and dark. Even the villains seem to have no illusions about what they do being “good;” they utilize the Dark Side of The Force, their vehicles are called Star Destroyers, their space stations The Death Star, the bad guys acknowledge and accept their badness. In a way that no other Star Wars character has to do, Lando must choose to do something underhanded and “bad” in order to serve the greater good. Other characters must make moral choices but those choices have more distinct options and outcomes. After choosing evil for most of his life, Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker ultimately chooses good, opting to save his son from death at the hands of The Emperor; Han Solo twice has to choose between staying and helping his friends and, by proxy, The Rebel Alliance, and in both cases chooses altruism over self-interest. Both of these characters’ respective decisions are ostensibly difficult but basically a choice between right and wrong. The only character presented with a quandary as murky as the one faced by Lando is Luke, who must decide whether to take off for Cloud City to rescue Han and Leia from Vader, or stay on Dagobah to finish his Jedi training with Yoda. It is not a coincidence that both Lando and Luke’s difficult decisions occur in The Empire Strikes Back, which the best Star Wars movie. Luke ultimately chooses his friends, a decision that is supposed to be the wrong one but never does not have negative consequences besides the loss of Luke’s hand, which is replaced in short order. Lando, in choosing right, loses his friend. He must risk life and limb, infiltrating Jabba The Hutt’s palace, to save that friend and earn back that trust. His decisions, right or wrong, will have negative consequences.
When casting news for The Force Awakens began rolling in, the big news was that Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fischer, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels were returning to the series. This was big news, but the tenor of the reaction to that news was that everybody was back. This was an essential untruth, Lando Calrissian was not present. Lando Calrissian is a major character in The Star Wars trilogy, it is time he be treated as such. Show Lando a little love.