There is this popular belief that somehow Captain Phasma was “wasted” as a character in the Last Jedi. The truth is that she was never a unique character to begin with, even in the Force Awakens. In fact, I would further that argument and even go as far as to say that the Last Jedi redeemed her role in the new trilogy. Now before the internet gets their pitchforks and torches ready, hopefully people will hear me out and end up with a greater appreciation for the more human elements that the new trilogy barely managed to portray.
Let’s start by observing carefully how Phasma is actually portrayed in the Force Awakens. Phasma first appears in the movie around eight minutes in and her first lines are, “Sir, the villagers.” To which Kylo replies, “Kill them all” in a rather dramatic fashion. “On my command. Fire.” Phasma replies. This is same introductory scene for the character of Finn (FN2187) as well, where he chooses not to fire upon the civilians.
This is the entirety of Phasma’s introduction as a character. All we can glean from what the movie actually shows us is that she has shiny armor, and therefore must be a Storm Trooper of some standing. Movies typically give masked characters of some importance in the script a distinguishing mark so they are easily identifiable, such as the blood on Finn’s helmet, or in Phasma’s case, an entire suit of shiny armor.
Next, we gather that Phasma is the person in charge of Kylo Ren’s Storm Trooper battalion. We can see her directly addressing Kylo Ren, receiving a command, and then summarily issuing out orders to her troops. All we can gather from this interaction is that she seems to be in charge, and is very efficient at carrying out orders effectively, regardless of the moral or ethical implications of said orders, such as killing innocent civilians. She doesn’t seem to be pleased to take innocent lives, just emotionless, so she doesn’t seem to be the sadistic type.
Her next screen appearance, a few minutes after her introduction, is Phasma addressing Finn to submit his weapon for inspection, reprimanding him for removing his helmet, and to report back to her division at once. This seems like a very good boss, all things considered. She pays attention to detail and is on top of keeping her troops in line. So far so good. Nothing really unique here, just a very obedient, and efficient commanding officer.
Her next brief appearance, of around five seconds, is about twenty four minutes into the film, where Finn has escaped Kylo Ren’s command vessel with Poe. She quips that Finn was evaluated and sent to reconditioning because of signs of non conformity for refusing to shoot the civilians in the intro sequence of the movie. This was his first offense so her actions of handling Finn were understandable. Again, all signs point to Phasma being an obedient and efficient commanding officer.
Her next and last appearance in Force Awakens is about one hour and thirty seven minutes into the film, where she gets blindsided by Chewbacca on the Starkiller Base. Finn questions Phasma, “Do you remember me?” To which she replies, “FN2187.” Now personally speaking, if I were in charge of hundreds of helmet wearing Storm Troopers, I would have a really hard time keeping track of everyone by their designation. Phasma must be really dedicated to her job and also have a great memory. I can see her in her tiny military quarters writing down each Storm Trooper’s designation and trying really hard to remember them all. Again, all signs point to Phasma being very obedient and efficient as a commanding officer.
A few minutes later, they are at a command console. Finn has a gun pointed at her head and commands her to lower the shields to the Starkiller base. She complies. And then she gets shoved down a garbage chute. Exist Phasma. To add insult to injury, we don’t even get to see her get shoved down the garbage chute, it’s merely implied.
Nowhere does this movie ever portray Phasma as an unique character at all. She was given, practically speaking, a full minute of screen time. There is nothing outstanding about this character at all other than the fact that she seems to be one of the few competent leaders in the First Order.
Now that we have established the character of Phasma, let’s move on to her purpose in The Force Awakens. With what little screen time she was given, she was established as a rather competent and efficient commanding officer. Her last scene undid all of that by now revealing her true nature, that of a coward. If she had refused to lower the shields to the Starkiller base, the First Order would have demolished the Rebellion. She may have died, but she would be the true victor in that scenario.
Once we take a step back and observe how the Last Jedi portrays Phasma, that movie manages to reclaim the character of Phasma by portraying her as a direct foil to Finn. Let’s hold up on the pitchforks and torches again and by revisiting the scenes in the Force Awakens you will see what I mean.
The introduction of Phasma in the beginning of Force Awakens establishes her as a person in control, and more importantly, in control of Finn. Finn is terrified and intimidated by Phasma.
The next scene shows she is maintaining control by ordering Finn to put his helmet back on, removing any signs of individuality and disobedience.
The next brief scene shows where Phasma is starting to lose control. Finn has managed to escape against all odds. He is still a coward and keen on avoiding confrontation throughout the entire movie.
Now we jump to the scene where Phasma is blindsided by Chewbacca. In a rather humorous exchange, he takes this opportunity to gloat over having defeated Phasma. Honestly all credit goes to Chewie but we’ll let Finn have his moment here. More importantly, this scene shows Finn taking back control, and not only control, but his own identity. He refuses to be called FN2187 and now refers to himself as Finn, a name given to him by his new found comrades. The tables have turned, and now Finn is giving orders to Phasma. She complies. Finn has defeated Phasma, and more importantly, Phasma was defeated by her own cowardice.
Her next lines of dialogue, the most she’s ever spoken at one time is, “You can’t be so stupid as to think this would be easy. My troops will storm this block and kill you all.” Note here, that after her physical and moral defeat, she turns from being self reliant, to relying on others to save her. This is where the character of Phasma takes a downward turn. What was once a very confident, efficient officer in charge of her own self and others is now lacking that very control and is now relying on others.
The culmination of this downwards trend of Phasma and the upward trend of Finn’s character to overcoming his cowardice and realizing his identity reaches it’s climax in The Last Jedi. Around one hour and thirty five minutes into the film, we see Phasma return. She refuses to address Finn by his new identify and refers to him as FN2187. She quips that it is “So good to have you back.” Back to the way things should be, and back to Phasma regaining control over Finn.
You can also tell that she is holding a very strong grudge. “Execution by blaster is too good for them. Let’s make this hurt” she commands. You can see here that her lack of emotion and track record of efficiency is abandoned. She wants revenge and she is taking pleasure from it. Not only that, instead of doing it herself, she has two Storm Troopers do it for her, once again relying on others. Her character of an emotionless, obedient, and efficient commanding officer has evolved to one that has flaws, has faced failure, and is having trouble facing that fact. She has emotions now, some real character.
A few minutes later, once the commanding ship is in disarray, she walks over to Finn, addresses him as traitor, and proceeds to aim her gun at him. Introduce some sudden chaos and now Finn and Phasma are facing each other, one against one. There are no friends to help here now, each person must rely on themselves. Notice here, that Finn charges her bravely. He is no longer controlled by his fear.
As they fight, she can’t get over the fact that Finn exists, that he still survives to this day. She calls him a “bug in the system.” The object that has ruined her image of complete control is standing in front of her very eyes. She advances aggressively towards Finn and attacks him with her melee weapon instead of using her blaster, choosing to make this fight personal. She does way more, and reveals more of her character in this one scene, than the entirety of Force Awakens. As she knocks Finn off the edge in what seems to be her victory, Finn returns on the moral and literal high ground to deliver the finishing blow, in a move to make Obiwan proud.
Finn’s blow doesn’t necessarily kill Phasma, but Finn never needed to in the first place. His moral victory over Phasma is complete. He is no longer controlled by her nor his fear of her, whereas Phasma is completely defeated. All pretense of control is gone, just like how her shiny and perfect armor is now marred by a mere “bug in the system”. Defeated, she resorts to insulting Finn by attacking his character, that he will always be scum. Even that doesn’t get to Finn now that his character as an individual with new found purpose is solidified in that moment. The real shame is in the character of Finn being wasted as a transition to Rey (“where’s Rey”), an imperfect hero fighting against his own weaknesses and struggling to find a place in a chaotic world but that will be something to go over another time.