The first time we see Vice-Admiral Holdo in The Last Jedi, we see her through the eyes of Poe Dameron: hotshot flyboy, recently slapped down twice in the Resistance’s scramble to evacuate their compromised base. The first blow to Poe’s ego and stability is his demotion from Commander to Captain by General Leia Organa herself, a suitable reprimand for spearheading the devastatingly costly bombing run which provides the film with its opening set-piece. No sooner has Poe processed this—if indeed he has processed it—than he’s knocked further off balance by the loss of all of the Resistance high command save Leia, who is comatose and out of commission. In this state—stripped of his expected personal authority, with the usual structures of command which he relies on decimated—he looks at the new leader of the remaining Resistance fleet and says incredulously to another pilot: “That’s Admiral Holdo? Battle of Chyron Belt Admiral Holdo? …not what I was expecting.”...
the best visual and sound cue in the entire film: having stayed behind to pilot the heavy cruiser Raddus while the rest of the diminished Resistance escapes to the planet Crait, Holdo eventually chooses to drive her ship while it jumps to lightspeed directly through the First Order’s flagship, destroying a great part of it and preventing the destruction of those last few escapees. She is alone when she does this. She is alone, a captain on a bridge, in her dress and her lovely hair, her mouth set in a firm and determined line, and she doesn’t hesitate.
The film’s director, Rian Johnson, gives her—and us—a silent cut as a reward. My whole theater gasped out loud into the quiet. It is the most striking visual and auditory moment in a film full of striking visual and auditory moments....
What The Last Jedi does—amongst many other things—is present its audience with more than one mode of female power. We have Rey, strong in the Force, dangerous and necessary and emerging from nowhere to be the center of this story; we have Rose, a mechanic and a patriot, willing to make sacrifices and willing to know when sacrifice is not necessary; we have Leia Organa, the pivot on which the Resistance turns. And we have Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo, who looks like none of what we expect. Who is nevertheless what the Resistance needs, and worth Poe’s respect, and worth ours....---Arkady Martine@Tor.com [HT Karl Aho & Bryce Huebner].
Martine, who turns out to be a world class scholar, rightly notes that The Last Jedi is, in part, a movie about leadership, including the way(s) power, including gendered power, is wielded. In fact, the whole film is simultaneously, an education in the limitations of the daring, sharp-shooting ace-boy-hero (in this film exemplified by Poe and Luke Skywalker's past. A few days ago, I noted the significance of the fact that Luke Skywalker learns to fight without violence [Gandhi (recall also here and here)]). Martine rightly notes that we (and the ace-boy-hero) have been conditioned to have gendered expectations about how heroes look and how they act. Holdo makes an unimposing first impression, and, through our reactions to her, we are taught our biased expectations.
For, it turns out, Holdo plays a bad hand well. How bad? Well, it is notable that Poe had never met Holdo (a legendary commander) before. The Resistance is literally shrinking in front of our eyes and all the key, surviving members converge upon each other in a confined space (in a vast galaxy). How does she play it? By conserving her forces, having an escape plan, and using (to adopt Darwinian terminology) a costly signal that hides her true intent. She also keeps her eye out on the long-term: rather than forgiving Poe (her ace) because imminent survival is at stake, she punishes his insubordination--he, thereby, has to watch the action rather being the action.
Martine gives an excellent description of Holdo's last moments of certain death. I want to quote another description (this time by Joe Tonelli) because there is evidence of a kind of collective, convergence of the impact of the scene:
I can still see it in my mind—like a lightning bolt that leaves an imprint on your vision after it crosses the sky. The streak through dark space. The utter silence of selfless self-sacrifice. We were alone with Holdo in the ship, in the void of space, and then—that silence. The theater may have gasped out loud, but I only processed the soundlessness and the light. Raw power and terrible beauty, blindingly combined in a single shot.
It is fair to say that the Holdo's last moments are the most iconic of the movie (which lacks a truly great battle scene). I think this is not just because of the aesthetic flirtation with the sublime. Perhaps, I show my age, but I could not help but think of that silent video image of the second plane hitting the WTC on 9/11. To be sure there are lots of differences, not the least being that Holdo's target is a warship. But crucially, Holdo is not made into a likeable character, as Martine points out, we "are absolutely primed to believe that she’s either a traitor or an incompetent." This is so, even though we can assume that she is pursuing the ends of the resistance. Rather, our view of her changes in virtue of the fact that (a) she did have a workable (not full-proof, but workable) plan and (b) she leads by courageous example, and (c) she stays on the bridge of the ship she is captaining and so does her ordinary duty. She is a hero without dazzlement. And, for these three features of her strength of mind, we (and Poe) come to admire her, post facto.
Now, what I am resisting in the previous paragraph is the further claim that we come to admire her in virtue of the ends that she pursues. While the military run First Order is undeniably neo-fascist, it is by no means obvious the Resistance (which is the off-spring of a slave-holding society) is so virtuous. [That is to say, the moral universe of The Last Jedi is populated with virtuous individuals and groups; but it is an open question if it is capable of supporting a semi-virtuous political order.] For, I am committed to the idea that a hero can serve non-rightful ends. To oversimplify, the criteria for heroicism are spectator-relative. (This is why the exemplary deeds recounted in Greek poetry remain heroic despite changing views on the laws of war and morality more generally unless the narration stops speaking to us.) Of course, I am not denying its easier to recognize, say, the courage of an enemy than her heroicism. And I am also not denying that expressing the sentiment in the previous sentence can be rather dangerous and so may itself take some courage in some contexts.
Let me close. Holdo was able to become a hero in virtue of the fact that despite Poe's insubordination, the lines of commmand and control, and the authority that follows from it, within the Resistance remained firm. It resisted the lure of charismatic leadership (Poe).* One can question if that's really likely in such dire circumstances. even so, here, again, The Last Jedi reveals a larger understanding: for the fact follows naturally and truthfully from the style of Leia's earlier, organizational leadership.