Spoilerific Analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Part 2: Finn's Character Arc and Cat Saving for Fun and Profit

I'm cold. Oh so cold. Colder than Starkiller Base. Colder than Whitmore's dark heart. So cold that I just typed Whitmore when I meant Wymore.  

I might be malnourished. Winter doesn't justify this level of cold. Still, that's not really relevant to today's post. Today is about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Again. Because why wouldn't it be?

There are four primary character arcs in The Force Awakens (although one is more the completion of an arc than something self-contained in this movie). My favorite character, Poe Dameron, doesn't really have one. I assume that's because when you begin as the pinnacle of all that is awesome, there is nowhere to go from there.

So let's start with Finn.

Finn is the personification of fear. One of my favorite human beings, Sam Witwer, likened him to the cowardly lion. His might be the most straightforward arc. He begins with an act of selfishness with an overtone of morality. He hates the horrors of war. At first, it seems like he might just be worried about his own skin, as the bloodied handprint stains his helmet, we think that he is too afraid to fight. But we learn quickly that his isn't the whole story.

Let's talk about  "Saving the Cat," This is a screenwriting term made popular by the book by Blake Snyder. Follow that link if you want to read what many consider to be the definitive book on screenwriting, but for the moment we just need one concept, the cat. Saving the cat is the shorthand a screenwriter uses for showing a character is a good person, also called "Pet the Dog/Kick the Dog". Saving the cat is that perfect moment, early in the story, when the character shows his true colors and we start to root for them. It's when the grizzled cop lets a criminal go so that the man's boy doesn't see him arrested. It's when we find out the ruthless coach is secretly buying groceries for his poorest player. It's when we find out the gangbanger is doing everything to pay the medical bills of his sick grandmother.

Finn's whole story is about him escalating through these save the cat moments, and that's important because a frightened character can be harder to respect. So we hit the cat saving hard in this story.

After we see Finn digesting the horrors of war he immediately gets his first cat to save. He's ordered to execute prisoners, and he balks. There is no downside in him pulling the trigger, and if historical totalitarian governments have taught us anything, it's that refusing to conform is not a path to a long and healthy life. Still he doesn't pull the trigger.

But in this instance, his Saving of the Cat doesn't quite carry us through, and part of that is because of Boyega's spectacular mask acting. (Another part is that the cat in this instance quite definitely dies). Despite not seeing his face, we can tell Finn's terrified of everything going on in that scene and we're left with the question: is he really a good man, or is he just a frightened one? Part of the genius of this story is that we don't know. Like Han Solo in Episode IV, Finn has shades of gray. We think he's acting with a moral compass, but we can't be sure.

We have another cat, of course. Poe Dameron is an awesome cat. He looks into the face of evil and asks who talks first. He mocks Kylo Ren like he's Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. We are instantly on board. He is a cat that needs saving.

And Finn comes through. We know, in our hearts, he is a good man. Here is our hero. He comes to rescue Poe and admits he isn't in the Resistance. When asked why he's doing this, he says it's the right thing to do. Which is of course immediately undermined by learning he needs a pilot. Yes, he saves the cat, but the cat also saves him. So he might be doing the right thing.

But we don't know.

Do you see the genius here? The question posed? By the time the two are in the TIE Fighter, we still don't have our answer. Finn's entire character arc becomes around answering that question.

And then they crash.

Now, entering into the second act of this movie, Finn has had two cats to save, and he's failed both times. He didn't save the villagers, he only failed to kill them. He didn't save Poe because Poe did most of the thrilling heroics himself. Also, Poe seems to have died. And Finn steals his jacket. Two cats, and Finn hasn't saved a damn one.

Finn takes his long trek across Jakku, and after finally getting water, Finn gets his third opportunity to save a cat, this time in the form of a fair maiden. An actual damsel in distress. Finn starts to help.

But nope. The Damsel saves her own damn self. And then kicks Finn's ass lightly around the edges. Finn is 3 for 3 on trying to save cats, but 0 for 3 on actually succeeding. When they finally escape, this new cat, Rey, arguably saves him, again.

By now, our expectations as a viewer have changed. We no longer are looking at the save the cat moment as a character indicator. It's become the actual quest. We want Finn to save a cat. We need Finn to save a cat. We're starting to realize that the biggest character hurdle in front of Finn is that he hasn't saved a cat.

And is it too much? Because when we arrive at the cantina, he's offered the biggest damn cat in the galaxy... the galaxy itself. Go to the resistance, and fight the cat-stomping First Order. Really just save the hell out of that cat.

And Finn says no. The First Order is too much. He can't take it. It's too much. That's a big, gnarly cat. Finn would be more comfortable starting with a kitten. Maybe a stuffed cat.

I've said we need him to save the cat, and there's a good reason why. We want to be Rey, but at this point, we fear we aren't. In Rey, we see the person we want to become. In Finn we see the person we secretly are, all full of fears and insecurities. If Finn manages to save this cat, maybe we can save the cats in our own life. Maybe, at that point, we get to become Rey, and not just wish we were.

Shortly after he refuses to save the gnarly cat, everything falls apart. You see, Rey is on her own cycle of "Refusing the Call" over and over again. During that process, she's captured by Kylo Ren on his own cycle of "Reconciliation with Father." Those two will be discussed in future installments.

Here is our moment of truth. Finn, and therefore we, stare down at a cat we can't stand not to save. So he, and therefore we, will lie and cheat and do whatever we can for that cat.

And we succeed. We save her and she hugs us and we wonder if this is the first time in our military life we've ever been hugged. The cat is saved, and we are Finn, and Finn is good.

We aren't done yet, though, because Kylo is out there. We've saved the galaxy but we haven't gotten Rey to safety. Kylo takes Rey out and we must put our money where our mouth is. We risk life and spine to save Rey, and in the end, we fall.

We pull back and distance ourselves for Finn for Rey's climax, but that isn't the last we see of Finn. When we last see him, he's presumably just out of surgery, lying it an ill-advised fashion on what is probably a shiny new cyberspine. Rey says goodbye to Finn and that is that.

But we don't worry about Finn. Finn has achieved his goal. We stare at the unconscious character on the screen and we know the quality of the man. What's more, we know that he has found this certain knowledge himself.

And finally, at the end of the film, we are content.

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