Why is Everyone Blaming Vice Admiral Holdo?

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I adored Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I have my gripes, but the thematic arcs, the meta commentary on Star Wars itself as a franchise and its fanbase, and most of the character beats are so damn good that even those flaws don’t undermine my love for it. I’ve pretty much been thinking and talking about it to whoever would listen for the past three weeks since it came out. The only thing I’m really salty about is a subset of the fanbase (you know the one) that lobs any and every critique imaginable at the film because they’re really upset that the film no longer centers cishet white male protagonists. One of the critiques currently at the top of my list of “Why Is This What People Are Mad About?” is the criticism of Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo not telling Poe the plan.

People seem to be forgetting that she’s his commanding officer. She is under absolutely no obligation to tell a subordinate all of her plans, especially if he is not involved in the carrying out of those plans. Note that none of the other subordinates on the ship—who also may not have agreed with her decisions and would have liked to know the plans just as much as Poe did—felt the need to mutiny except for those he was able to convince to join his side. Kaydel Ko Connix (played by Billie Lourd if you don’t know the character name), Finn, and Rose likely wouldn’t have mutinied without Poe either.

Also note that, as Holdo’s subordinate, he was required by military regulation to tell his commanding officer (Holdo) the information that he gleaned from Rose and Finn about the tracker. That information and the subsequent plan is only “need to know” because he arbitrarily decided it was, but she’s his superior officer and the one in charge of the Resistance fleet. She most definitely needs to know every piece of intel in order to make an informed decision as to what’s best for the fleet. What Poe says about her ‘not needing to know’ is absolute bullshit and comes from a place of wounded pride (don’t worry, I’ll come back to this).

To me, one of the only reasons I can see that people don’t recognize that Holdo was not obligated to tell Poe but he was obligated to inform her is the gendered nature of their dynamic. Switch the genders around and I have a hard time believing that the same people who are mad that Holdo didn’t tell Poe would be upset that a male Vice Admiral Holdo didn’t tell female subordinate pilot Poe about all of his plans. It would be clear that a male Vice Admiral Holdo was the one in charge and was not required to tell his subordinates his plans. Rather, it was their job, as his subordinates, to do as he instructed regardless of whether or not they had all of the information or even agreed with all of the choices he was making. That’s the nature of command.

When I hear the complaint that Holdo should have told Poe what she was doing, it sounds suspiciously like “FEMALE commander ought to have told her MALE subordinate her plans so that he could approve of them.” Honestly, that’s what people are asking for, that Poe get a chance to comment on or change his commanding officer’s plans based on information that he intentionally withheld from her because he was mad he didn’t get a voice in a decision he had no right to be involved in, but for some reason felt entitled to. In business management terms, Poe believed it was a Type 3 decision (one that required group input to reach a conclusion), when really, it was a Type 1 decision (it was Holdo’s decision and required to input).

That she wasn’t obligated to tell him anything seems to be the stance the film has taken as well. We never get an explanation for why she didn’t tell him, because none is necessary. I like the headcanon that she was concerned about a spy given that she had no clue about the Imperial tracker (thanks to Poe) and thus may have suspected someone on board was feeding Hux intel to track them through hyperspace. However, that’s not even necessary. Poe felt entitled to an explanation of the plan and maybe audiences did, too. But she wasn’t obligated to give one. All Poe needed to do was trust her because she was second to Leia and his commanding officer. He didn’t.

Why? Based on what we see on screen, Poe not being named the replacement leader in Leia’s place when she was in a coma visibly upsets him. He seems to have been under the impression that he would be named commander in her place. Why? I have no idea.He had just been not only verbally taken to task, but demoted. Yet still he felt he would be put in charge. He’s already predisposed to resent Holdo’s leadership based on his expectations. Then, she shuts him out of the decision making process. As I said, she wasn’t under any obligation to include him. Moreover, Poe just defied orders, cost the Resistance dozens of lives and ships they couldn’t afford to lose. He’s reckless, hotheaded, and prone to feats of self-defined ‘heroism’ with costly consequences and very little tangible results. Finn has the same impulse actually. As Melissa Hillman put it,

Both Poe and Finn ignore orders from women to stand down and escape in favor of chasing glorious, but pyrrhic, victories.

The Last Jedi spends an enormous amount of time and care on the theme “sometimes escape is the more sensible option, and glorious victories too often come at such a high cost they become failures.” Women in the Resistance are constantly fighting against cocky young men chasing glory, constantly trying to save lives that these cocky young men would sacrifice for that glory. This is a film that sees glorious sacrifice as a last resort and escape as a pragmatic and sensible choice. This is a film about discretion being the better part of valor.

He’s honestly the last person Holdo would want involved in a plan focused on attrition, running from the enemy, and ultimately planning a secret escape. Her plan required secrecy, discretion, levelheadedness, and seeming stagnation. So…the opposite of Poe’s personality and fighting style. Why would she even want to include him at all? He’s a risk.

Poe actually proves her right by allowing his wounded pride to dictate his actions instead of taking a more levelheaded approach. Rather than inform her of the significant intel he gleans from Rose and Finn, he nurses his disgruntlement. He plays ‘tit for tat’ in a game he doesn’t know all the moves of and ends up getting people killed. He’s mad she won’t include him in a decision he has no right to be involved in, so he excludes her from information and a decision she has every right to be involved in and he was actually going against military protocol to exclude her from.

Maybe if he had gone to Holdo with Finn and Rose’s conclusions about the tracker, she might have approved of his plan. Maybe, by proving that he was someone who could think clearly and follow orders by giving her information she needed, she might have trusted him and included him in her plan. Maybe not. And it would have been within her rights as the commander of the fleet to do any of those things. According to military code, she doesn’t have to act on his intel, but he has to give it to her.

Yet, somehow, Holdo is the one taking all the flak for what happened. But the fault doesn’t lie in Holdo for not giving sensitive information to a recently demoted subordinate who got in trouble for being unwilling to listen to orders and subsequently getting good people killed. The fault lies in Poe for believing his sense of (unearned) entitlement to information meant he could do whatever he wanted even when it went against military code. Even if it went against the established chain of command. Even if not giving Holdo his information meant endangered everyone in the fleet and actually got people killed with DJ betrayed Finn and Rose.

He felt entitled to information his commanding officer held while simultaneously believing he had a right to withhold critical information as punishment even if it was a risk and against the rules. He thought himself above the rules. Not just once, but multiple times. He learns, which is great, but to blame Holdo ignores the fact that his belligerence and pride where she is concerned are not condoned by the film. “You have to tell me yours, but I don’t have to tell you mine”—that’s entitlement and wounded pride, plain and simple.

He’s the one at fault here. From where I sit, blaming Holdo for Poe’s entitlement and wounded pride looks remarkably like sexism.

Image Courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm
  • Excellently stated. It’s very apparent, especially on rewatch, that there’s a plan.

  • Becca

    Hear, hear. Poe/Holdo was one of my biggest annoyances about the movie the first time because I felt it was too subtle in smacking Poe down. I was mollified when most think-pieces seemed to get the point. But now that the dust has settled and the naysayers seem to have mostly separated themselves out for Holdo as one of their hills to die on I feel a small amount of vindication for my original annoyance at the optics of the dude-heroes bucking female authorities repeatedly. This post does a good job explaining why.

    I even wonder whether Poe did learn his lesson. Or rather, it took him until the Luke-distraction to do so, because calling for retreat when there is no retreat is the wrong call, like he did on Crait. Unless he didn’t know help was coming…hmm. Now I can’t remember if that was common knowledge by then.

    Nevertheless, well-done on articulating the issue. On second viewing I was surprised how much Holdo went out of her way to try calming Poe down.

  • Maxine

    While I enjoyed the film and found this article enlightening, I must disagree. For many fans of color, the discomfort with the Holdo/Poe conflict is coming from more than just Poe’s insubordination and Holdo being narratively “right” or having a plan. Johnson presents us with an unfounded and hotheaded, unreasonable, trigger-happy characterization of Poe. Holdo appears as a random admiral whom the audience has no reason to trust. The ship’s authority becomes heavily composed of white women. Poe tries to improve a dire scenario he helped create, using all the resources at his disposal. Holdo denies him that opportunity at every turn and gives zero indication that there’s any better alternative to his plan. (Was mutiny the next logical step? Probably not, but that’s where issues of stereotypical characterization come up.) The audience is forced to make a choice between Poe and Holdo, either conceding that white women are right or being suspicious of women in power. With this argument, it is difficult to defend or identify with Poe without being labeled sexist.

    That said, it’s hard to watch a movie where Poe and Finn, leading men of color, are slapped, tased, and stunned left and right. Finn’s wounds from VII are barely addressed (if at all) while Kylo Ren’s face is intricately healed. Both Leia and Holdo condescend to Poe in nearly all their interactions. The narrative seems to conclude that Finn and Poe came out of violent experiences and learned these “lessons” from white Holdo and Leia in order to become better people. That conclusion feeds into an awfully repetitive and didactic narrative, no? Holdo’s character is successful among white women while Poe is adored by queer and black/brown communities. Most of the dispute between Holdo and Poe fans boils down to the fact that the scenario was unnecessarily gendered and racial, and it frankly sucks that Kennedy and co weren’t conscious of this throughout the film’s production.

    • Thank you so much for commenting. I interacted with someone on Tumblr on precisely this issue, and it has been eye opening to look at it from that perspective. When I wrote this piece, I was responding to a critique from angry white male fans who had presenting their dislike of Holdo in what I considered a very gendered way. I had been coming at it from my experience as a woman who has had this dynamic with male colleagues and employees, so I saw it with that lens.

      But as someone pointed out to me on Tumblr and you are echoing here, that isn’t the whole story. I was deeply uncomfortable with aspects of Finn’s treatment—the continued emphasis on his role as no more than a sanitation worker when one of the canon novels goes to great lengths to point out his skills and leadership potential prior to his defection as well as the slapping, tasing, etc you pointed out. That aspect stood out to me immediately. However, I did fail to grasp how the framing of Holdo and Poe creates a problematic racial dynamic as well: brown man learns how to be a good person/leader from white women. It is a very uncomfortable and unfortunate dynamic. I don’t think it was intentional, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful or a problem, especially when you have TWO white women acting the same way toward Poe.

      So you’re absolutely right. I had been responding to one dynamic I saw among one group of fans (straight white male fans) while failing to see another.

      As a queer woman, I latched onto Holdo because of her canonical queerness from the novels. As that isn’t something widely known, I can definitely see where attachment to her vs to Poe falls typically along the lines you mentioned. Poe has a much stronger queer fanbase and has for years. Most people don’t know Holdo is pansexual because the film didn’t bother to explicate that, and I would have liked her less if she had been just a random straight woman in charge. I went into the movie knowing she was queer, so I was rooting for her, which also influenced how I read that dynamic.

      But I’m super grateful to you and the other person I interacted with for pointing out what I’ve missed. I have a series of articles planned about what the novels/comics are doing better at than the films, so I’m going to do a follow up to this piece that discusses how this could have been done in such a way that the racial and gendered dynamics weren’t so foregrounded.

      • Maxine

        Thanks a lot for the response! I’m reading a ton of meta right now trying to figure out all the different fan perspectives and understand why it’s such a polarizing episode, so looking forward to your future articles. I’ve stayed away from the MRA side of things because it’s upsetting and a mess, so I hadn’t seen the complaints you wrote about.

        I wasn’t aware of Holdo’s sexuality because I’m pretty new to the SW fandom (since TFA release) and I haven’t read or watched anything besides the live action movies. What a shame/failure that Holdo’s sexuality wasn’t addressed at all. I absolutely didn’t mean to invalidate your identification with her as a queer character. I wanted to root for her as soon as she was on screen (women in power? Yes!) but she wasn’t given enough development for me personally. I surprised myself siding with Poe because in scenarios like these I’m usually on the woman’s side no matter what. I truly wish her command had been written as more successful and/or she and Poe found a way to work together. If the situation could’ve panned out without pitting non-white male main characters against each other, this conflict would have worked much better for me. That would have felt like a more progressive narrative, imo. Separating the implications from the characters and plot, I was otherwise entertained.

        • I (unfortunately) saw a bunch of annoying MRA bs on Twitter and Tumblr before I blocked some people and got rid of it.

          You totally didn’t invalidate my identification with her as a queer character. Since they didn’t bother saying that on screen (one of my gripes), I don’t expect people to know that. I just like to let people know that because it should be known! I think Laura Dern has talked about it in interviews (she did a joint interview with Oscar Isaacs where they both discussed sexuality and how it relates to their characters, it was a great).

          Anyway, I totally agree about her lack of development. If I’d come in without having read Leia: Princess of Alderaan (the book she appears in as Leia’s friend when they were teens), I wouldn’t have found her as compelling. I also agree they could have written her command and dynamic with Poe differently to better bring out what I think they were trying to say.

          If she’d been more honest about the plan, a disagreement about the value of running vs fighting could have been stellar. Make it a clash of opinions about what the plan SHOULD be not about whether or not they have one. Or she could disagree with his plan with the tracker, but let him try it out anyway because she’s willing to take a risk on someone whose proven his intelligence and skill. Make the Canto Bight plan about him earning back his position and trust after having disobeyed orders. We still get the message about how to respond to failure but they’re working together and having mature disagreements about methods. Plus, the final scene where Leia says to ‘follow him’ has more resonance because he’s proven himself to be a leader even when he thought he failed. That’s one way they could have done it anyway.

          Like you, other than some implications I’m not fond of, I was overall quite entertained by the movie and the direction it’s taking the franchise.

    • The more I think about it, the more I’m surprised that this slipped through into the film. Lucasfilm Story Group (the team that determines Star Wars canon) is chaired by a black woman and the team is quite diverse in terms of race and gender and, I think, queerness. They’re not perfect by any means, but this seems a glaring enough problem that it would have been noticed and steps taken to tone it down/change it altogether. Then again, I still don’t quite understand how much oversight the Story Group has over creative decisions that aren’t about continuity errors. And it could still be the case that even this diverse group of people didn’t notice the implications.

      Nevertheless, your point stands. It really sucks that the team wasn’t conscious of the implications for Poe and Holdo’s dynamic during the film’s production. Definitely should have been framed differently to avoid the trap of racism on the one hand and sexism on the other.