some thoughts on Rogue One: Galen Erso
Of all the characters in Rogue One, Galen Erso has the most complicated motivations, which I will discuss inside.
Who is Galen Erso? Galen Erso is a scientist (or, more probably, an engineer) who, in a previous life, had had great success developing machines and weapons. For whom? Well that’s an interesting question, because the story of how the Galactic Republic became the Empire is a complicated one. The Republic built a massive war machine, with Star Destroyers and clone armies and the whole deal, in order to fight a civil war, and when the Emperor took over, he also took control of that war machine. The narrative of Rogue One doesn’t make it explicit, but it seems that Galen worked at a weapons company not unlike, say, Lockheed, which makes warplanes for the US regardless of who’s in the White House.
When the Empire took over, Galen seems to have stayed at his job at the weapons company, and was friends with his colleague Director Krennic (about whom more later), and everything was fine, everything was sophisticated city life and chummy cocktail parties, until Krennic was given the contract to develop the weapons system of the Death Star. A planet-destroying gun was a bridge too far for Galen, and he took his family and moved them to what looks like Iceland Planet.
And everything was quiet for a time, and the movie opens with Galen operating a humble moisture farm (Not sure why, Iceland Planet seems to have plenty of moisture). He has forsaken his life of comfortable wealth, for the sake of his conscience. Presumably, his wife supports this decision, and his young daughter seems to be happy wherever her father goes. What she knows is that her parents love her. She has a stormtrooper doll (I recall now that Rey in The Force Awakens also has a doll, but I can’t remember what kind), so for her the Empire isn’t good or evil, it’s just a fact of life. Stormtroopers are cool, like army men; they have no intrinsic moral value to her, a child living on a desolate wet planet a thousand parsecs from the nearest cocktail party.
Galen seems to want to be left alone, but he’s also become friends with the mysterious Saw Gerrara (about whom more later), a rebel so extreme in his methods that the official Rebellion™ has disowned him. Gerrara seems to live nearby, either the next volcano over or the next planet over (it’s hard to tell in the Star Wars Universe, where interplanetary communication has the instancy of a phone call). Why did Galen befriend Gerrara? My guess is that the Rebellion™ wouldn’t have him, that they would consider him too big a risk, that they were worried that he was a imperial spy (there’s that triple-identity thing again).
In any case, Krennic’s Death Star project isn’t going well, and he tracks down Galen to Iceland Planet to get him to come back to work. I don’t know what went down when Galen quit his job at Imperial Weapons, but Galen has been planning for years for what he’s worried might happen if Krennic finds him. He is, to all appearances, ready to die rather than go to work on the Death Star, and his wife, at first, appears to be ready to go along with that plan, and his daughter just wants to know that everything’s okay.
When Krennic kills Galen’s wife, Galen makes a choice to put on a mask. He decides that he will become a perfect employee, a perfect Imperial Cog, in order to hang onto the possibility that his daughter is safe. Then, in an example of super-long-range planning, he plants a flaw in the Death Star, and sets in motion the events that make up the bulk of the plot of Rogue One.
So Galen is a radical pretending to be a cog and yearning to be a father. The Empire has taken everything from a lot of people, and they took it from Galen in excruciating increments, and, in the end, all he wants is to see his daughter again. Which he does, at the moment of his death. Like Darth Vader, Galen is redeemed by his child, and, like Darth Vader, his redemption is swiftly followed by his death.