About a year ago, I was buzzing with excitement about Rise of Skywalker. I had tickets for opening night, a buttery bag of popcorn, and a deluxe recline-o seat. When the lights came up after the film, I slunk home, dejected. Why, you ask? I couldn’t wait to see how Kylo Ren was going to be redeemed because everything in the trilogy so far pointed to it.
Instead, we got a blundering scavenger hunt of a film and I’m not even totally sure Kylo was redeemed. Like, he helped kill Palpatine, but he also killed Snoke and remained a bad guy. He threw away his lightsaber and his scar was healed, but was that actually turning to the Light or was that just because he personally didn’t want to be killed? Dunno. I doubt the film knows. YouTuber Jenny Nicholson pointed out that the worst thing a film series can do is make you feel stupid for being excited about it. I feel stupid for being excited about it. I completely expected a full and satisfying redemption arc because of clues laid out in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, but I got… like six minutes of Adam Driver’s actual face.
Writing a satisfying redemption arc, a story where a bad guy becomes a good guy, is tough to do. A big part why these are so hard to write, is that, in order to have that big moment where the villain realizes the enormity of what they’ve done and changes for the better, the author needs to leave a system of little clues the audience will absorb as the story unfolds that can then be reinterpreted later. A redemption arc functions in a similar way to a mystery story: the solution is apparent when you view the story backwards. Unfortunately, due to Disney’s extremely cowardly backtracking, Rise of Skywalker didn’t entirely deliver. Look at the story of the trilogy backwards and your reaction is “what the hell was that about?” That said, it’s worth examining the trail of clues that Lawrence Kasdan and Rian Johnson as the screenwriters left because they could have been extremely effective. We could have been looking back at this trilogy as a terrific magic trick of taking a character who appears to be a classic movie villain and turning the tables. So let’s all fantasize for a moment that Disney had actually made this thing work.
So I killed my dad, a beloved legacy character...
The “event horizon” in a redemption arc is creating an action that is teetering on the edge of unforgivable. Obviously, there are some behaviors and actions that are so heinous that the audience can never forgive the character, no matter what they do later on. There are other actions, however, that can be forgiven if the audience later finds out the circumstances and motivations of the character. If a character like Kylo Ren is going to be redeemed, he needs to commit an act evil enough to be compelling, but not so evil that he’s beyond forgiveness. This is tricky, but maneuverable, particularly if the action fits within the bigger fictional universe. Star Wars as a series is pretty violent. There’s a high body count and nearly every character we see has personally murdered at least one other person: Han Solo shoots Greedo in the catina, Leia strangles Jabba the Hutt, Luke blows up the Death Star, etc. The important thing about death in the Star Wars universe is the framing. Good and evil are very clearly defined and the only deaths that matter are those of the good guys. Consider the destruction of Alderaan and the Death Star. Both are planets where presumably thousands or millions of people live. Both are destroyed in fiery explosions. The framing, however, is completely different. We see Alderaan blown up through the eyes of Leia. She’s devastated and cries that the people on the planet were innocent and peaceful. We care about those deaths because the good guys care about those deaths. The Death Star, due to its size and position in space, could be the home of thousands of families, children, conscripted and enslaved people, and prisoners of the Empire. We don’t think about that, however, because we see its destruction through the eyes of Luke who is ecstatic at blowing it up. It would be a much different scene if we saw fire rip through the Death Star daycare center, vaporizing Grand Moff Tarkin’s apple-cheeked grandkids. We don’t need to care about those deaths because our core characters don’t care. Indeed, Han, Leia, and Luke never feel remorse or suffer legal or emotional repercussions from their murders because the people they’ve killed are coded as evil. This is the world in which Kylo Ren exists. All of his relatives have murdered people with impunity, so what can he do that will truly affect our feelings for him. The answer is, of course, kill someone we love: his father, Han Solo. This is Kylo Ren’s event horizon. On the surface this act is unforgivable, but, if the writers are clever, they can sow the seeds that will change the audience’s minds later. It helps a lot that Kylo is clearly emotionally ripped up by this action. He struggled whether or not to do it and, as a result, is haunted by it. Redemption wouldn’t be possible if had, say, killed Han casually or with glee. We have to know he regrets it and it’s causing him deep emotional pain, because it causes us emotional pain.
What on earth does Kylo do all day?
In order to make sure that killing Han is Kylo’s event horizon, we need to make sure he’s excused (or can be revealed to be excused at the end) from the First Order’s most heinous acts. We can look at the institutional structures of the First Order and realize that he seems to be completely on the fringe of power. He has a menacing costume, he carries a lethal lightsaber, and he stalks around like he’s in a melodrama; but he also wears no First Order insignia, holds no military title or rank, and doesn’t appear to have regular duties. Frankly, he appears to be more of an errand boy for Snoke, working on special projects like finding Luke Skywalker. This is in direct contrast to General Hux, who is clearly the military leader of the First Order. Hux doesn’t have the free time to stare moodily out of windows- he’s making the evil happen! Kylo Ren is not included in the meeting about Starkiller’s construction and hovers awkwardly in the background during Hux’s facist speech to the troops, so while he undoubtedly knew about it, he seems unlikely to have had any input. Not only does he not seem to have much say in what’s going on in the galaxy, but he’s heavily monitored by Snoke who calls him in for punishments or little chats whenever he feels like it. That monitoring is important because we don’t actually know what Kylo chooses to do and what he’s ordered to do. For instance, when Kylo Ren orders the deaths of the villagers on Jakku, it’s unclear whether that order comes directly from Snoke or if it originates from himself. He might truly be a prisoner (albeit one who joined willingingly) of Snoke’s. One can imagine him being in a similar position to an assistant to Harvey Weinstein. Yes, they knew that terrible acts were occurring, but they found themselves powerless to do anything about it. This all changes, of course, when Kylo becomes the Supreme Leader. One thing I honestly expected to happen in Rise of Skywalker was a military coup led by Hux because everything we know about Kylo suggests he’d be a terrible leader without the discipline, positioning, and organizational skills necessary to lead the First Order. They could have, for instance, revealed that Kylo was personally against using planet killing technology or child slavery or enriching warlords or even decides to stop chasing the Resistance. He tries to change things once he becomes Supreme Leader, but has his legs cut out from under him because the military is loyal to their regimented and strategic leader, Hux, and not to the guy who childishly destroys control panels and elevators when he’s frustrated. You’d then have a guy who is forced to join the Resistance as his only hope of survival and revenge and their cheery pluck and high morals could rub off on him.
Oh, that? That wasn’t me. That was Snoke.
If Kylo had been forced to join the Resistance and actually engage with the good guys, we might find out that he had a ton of plausible deniability. Pretty much all of the characters believe Kylo Ren is responsible for many terrible acts, but they have no actual evidence and could potentially be wrong, just as we might be wrong about how much agency Kylo had within the First Order. A good example is what happens to Luke’s Jedi academy. Luke assumes that Kylo Ren burned the temple and killed the other students, but he has no evidence that this is what actually happened since he was unconscious at the time. It would be equally plausible, in terms of what we see in flashbacks, that Kylo Ren called Snoke for a ride after pulling the hut down on Luke and Snoke is responsible for killing the students and burning the temple. This seems even more likely because of the way Kylo presents the story to Rey. He lingers on Luke trying to kill him and how he pulled down the hut, but doesn’t mention what happened afterwards. If Kylo is a self-admitted “monster” who idolizes Darth Vader, why not admit to killing all the students? It’s literally the same thing his grandfather did. It’s not even clear whether he knows that Luke and the others believe he was responsible for it. If he’s not responsible, it would make plenty of sense to not mention it. It would even explain why he’s so resentful of Luke forcing him to make a choice. If it were, say, revealed that he was huddled in the back of a cruiser and didn’t even know what was happening until he was on Snoke’s ship, it would reframe that story into one where Kylo does a justified act of pulling the hut down on Luke, calling Snoke for help who he believed was on his side, and then being hopelessly caught.
But how to insert plausible deniability into his murder of Han Solo? He obviously did it as it happens on screen. One point that I’ve never heard discussed anywhere else is that Kylo Ren clearly is not hunting down his parents. He is definitely hunting Luke, but there’s no indication that in the six years or so since joined Snoke, he has even attempted to find them. Consider the scene on Takodana: the Millenium Falcon is clearly parked outside, multiple people have called in intelligence who probably would recognize Han Solo, Chewbacca is ambling around during the battle, and Kylo Ren has the Force. He’d have to be braindead to not know his father was there, but he never engages with him. This is compounded by his inability to blow up the ship Leia is on when he senses her presence. He is clearly angry with his parents, he doesn’t want to interact with them, but he is not actively pursuing them the way he pursues Luke. This could mean that Han Solo’s murder was not premeditated, which potentially changes how we feel about the murder. They stand on that catwalk for quite a long time and Kylo allows Han to do fairly intimate things like see him without his helmet and touch his cheek. Some people have read this as Kylo being calculating, but does anything about Kylo really seem calculating? Most of his actions are impulsive and dramatic, particularly when he’s feeling high emotions. Just like if Luke hadn’t forced him to go to Snoke and join the Dark Side, if Han hadn’t confronted him just at the moment where Starkiller was about to disintegrate the entire Senate and the Dark Side felt poised to win, Kylo might never have harmed him.
I have these voices in my head. Like, actual voices.
These moments might be underwhelming, except Kylo Ren has the mother of all extenuating circumstances: he literally has Snoke in his brain giving him intrusive thoughts and may have been doing so from the moment of his birth. This is the idea I’m the most sad was dropped in Rise of Skywalker, because this would have been a hell of a story. Throughout the first two movies, Kylo Ren looks to Darth Vader’s helmet for “guidance” and Snoke reads his mind. Leia even blames Snoke for her son turning to the Dark Side. It would have been highly dramatic and emotional if it was confirmed that Snoke had literally been speaking to Kylo Ren inside his mind since he was a very young child. Rise of Skywalker kind of confirms this (?) when Palpatine says “I have been every voice you’ve ever heard in your head,” but the implications of this are never dealt with. One could have painted a picture of a young Ben Solo, emotional and sensitive by nature, equipped with a natural ability to read minds; who scares the daylights out of his parents, and then feels abandoned when he’s sent to his uncle and forced to live a monastic life that doesn’t suit his temperament. Add in a mental and spiritual molester who deliberately fostered those feelings of abandonment and never fitting in, and you’ve got a solid tragedy. Unfortunately, the third installment doesn’t take the time to investigate this, which is a real tragedy because it’s the linchpin for a successful redemption of the character. We need a scene where Kylo Ren realizes that the voices in his head are all gone, he’s not clouded by rage or humiliation, and his choices from here on out are all his own. We could have even had a scene where regretful and defeated Supreme Leader Kylo Ren trudges back to his quarters and is finally visited by the force ghost of the real Anakin Skywalker, explaining that he was blocked by Snoke and begging him not to make the same mistakes he did. It could have been a touching scene of high drama and emotion that Star Wars does so well. It could have explained why he wants to be redeemed. We… kind of have something like this in Rise of Skywalker, but instead it’s Han forgiving Kylo Ren for killing him which is awkward because it: A. doesn’t acknowledge that Kylo Ren is a different person now B. is a “memory” and not Han’s actual consciousness and C. a murderer imagining his victim forgiving him is not exactly compelling. If Kylo is finally free to make his own choices and they are now more positive ones, we might be able to forgive him for his past bad choices.
Sure, he’s brutal and not everyone likes him, but have you seen him kick a scrap dealer’s ass?
Not everyone in the audience is going to forgive him and lots of characters like Finn and Poe are likely to forgive him for maiming and torturing them, but we have a character who is custom built to forgive him: Rey. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether Rey is a Mary Sue and what her character flaws actually are and Rise of Skywalker really makes her seem one dimensional. Basically everything she does in the third film is her going in full white-suited Jedi mode, which seems at odds with her backstory. Rey has grown up almost completely isolated from the rest of the galaxy. She’s heard some stories of the Rebellion, but doesn’t even know if they’re true. There’s no reason for her to even be particularly interested in Jedi lore. Even her morality is pretty questionable. She’s grown up without parents and her parental figure of Unkar Plutt is deeply villainous so there’s no one who would have molded her feelings of right and wrong. Since she’s a scavenger, it’s even questionable if she would even recognize ownership beyond physically possessing an object. She’s also deeply longing for a strong connection to someone and the Force Bond with Kylo may be the most intimate experience she’s had. She tells him about her visions, he listens, and he tells her that she’s not alone. They’ve both experienced the Force, they’ve both had severe problems with their parents, they both feel estranged from a busy world of other people around them. There’s a lot they have in common. I would argue that even Kylo’s grosser traits might appeal to her. For instance, he’s large, violent, and aggressive but she might actually prize those traits as someone who has actually had to fight for food, scraps, and the necessities of life. He also doesn’t even attack her with his full force- he stops short of seriously hurting her and kills Snoke rather than killing her, which she may appreciate coming from a cut-throat and violent place. She might appreciate, having seen so many of his experiences first hand, how hard it is for him to change and be more accepting of that change because of the struggle and challenges in his own life. She might even be willing to go with him into exile because she may ultimately be more comfortable living in small scale isolation than the exhaustion of living a life in the center of everything. She values her friends, but she might not need to see them everyday.
Standing in front of Tatooine’s twin suns, feeling… irritated, mostly.
Of course… sigh, for that to happen we would have needed scenes where the characters actually talk, which doesn’t happen much in Rise of Skywalker. You’d need to really take time to show the emotional work of Kylo changing and there’s no time for that if you’re skipping from planet to planet. He’s basically killed so we don’t have to deal with how messy it would be if he survived. I guess the implication is that he’s not really bad because Palpatine is so much worse? It’s unsatisfying. Even Rey is dumped off on Tatooine, a place where she’s never been, in a desert, alone, with no visible support system. It’s hard to imagine how her future could be positive under these circumstances since she doesn’t seem to have gotten what she either wanted or needed. It’s frustrating. So let’s imagine instead a movie where a Kylo is forced to join the Resistance to defeat the First Order and crammed on a ship where he’s nice to Rey, but snarky to his former-victims, now allies, Finn and Poe. Can you feel the drama? The emotional turmoil? The expressions on their faces? The wise-cracks? The archness of Poe’s eyebrows? You can? Great! Now let’s pretend that happened instead.