We need to talk about Kylo Ren’s character arc in The Rise of Skywalker
Star Wars is one of those things I grew up loving. I love the original trilogy, I sort of enjoy the prequels (despite them being objectively bad), I have sort of enjoyed the spin-offs, I’ve watched some of the series, and I liked the more recent films in the saga. Yes, I had a lot of fun with The Force Awakens and I thought The Last Jedi was good, even though I did not like everything about it.
Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker ahead.
But The Discourse™ surrounding Star Wars, the extreme reactions from some of the fans, including the harassment and blatant racism/misogyny that the cast has endured, have soured the Star Wars experience for many people, including me. So, I have kept my distance in recent years. I still watch the movies and the videos surrounding them, but I never go into open discussions or “debates” because I just don’t think they’re worth the energy.
So, when I went into the cinema to watch The Rise of Skywalker, I went expecting an entertaining movie. Nothing more, nothing less. I was not going to get angry, I was not going to get hyped about it, I was not going to discuss it with anyone, and I surely was not going to write about it. I guessed there would be enough online outrage.
And then I saw this long YouTube video where three men discussed and talked about what they did and didn’t like about the movie. I didn’t watch the entire video because I was not emotionally invested, but one thing that caught my attention was that they listed Kylo Ren’s redemption as one of the things they liked. And after hearing those words, I could not stop thinking about them because… well… it’s not good.
When I say that Kylo Ren’s arc is not good, I’m talking specifically about his redemption arc as depicted in The Rise of Skywalker. So, today I would like to break down and explore not only why it’s a bad redemption arc, but also why it might be that some people perceived it as good, or at least, good enough.
1. There is no realization that any of Kylo Ren’s previous actions (except killing his father) were wrong
Killing Han Solo, his own father, was something bad that Kylo Ren did. It was wrong of him. We know that, Kylo knows that, everybody knows that. In fact, Kylo is so aware of its wrongness, that it weighs on him for the entirety of the trilogy. It is a point that has been clearly established and constantly repeated both by characters in the movie and by the people working on the movie. What he did was wrong and he felt bad about it since the moment that it happened, when he was in evil-mode.
But what about the other things he did? He killed countless resistance fighters, he burned down villages, he murdered Max von Sydow, he was the Supreme Leader of an institution that kidnapped children to make them into Stormtroopers, the list goes on. So, when during The Rise of Skywalker does he realize that all of these actions were wrong? How does he realize this? What leads him to this conclusion? What indication is there that he regrets having done any of that?
There isn’t. Which brings us to the next point.
2. Kylo Ren doesn’t make reparation to those he hurt
Part of what makes a good redemption arc work is that, once the character in question realizes that what they’ve done is bad, they feel terrible about it and they try to make up for it. Keyword: Reparation, “the act of giving something to somebody or doing something for them in order to show that you are sorry for suffering that you have caused.” (Oxford Dictionary)
One of the best examples of all time is the character of Prince Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, who after renouncing the Fire Nation, goes to the Avatar team, says he’s sorry, gives every team member something in return (he teaches Aang to firebend, he helps Katara find closure, etc.), and he personally helps in the defeat of the Fire Nation.
In the Marvel Universe, the character of Black Widow states in the first Avengers film that she has “red on her ledges and would like to wipe it off”, making it crystal clear that her avenging and crime-fighting are her way to atone for what she did in the past.
But since Kylo Ren has shown no remorse for what he did to countless people, there’s never a way for him to address his past actions. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness, he doesn’t join the resistance, nothing he does after his “turning point” makes it better for anyone. Not that the film would have let him. It promptly rewards him with a kiss and kills him off, so he can die a martyr. But his actions as Ben Solo are not deserving of reward, and letting him off the hook with a supposedly heroic death is not the same as fixing what he broke. And yes, this includes his helping Rey defeat Palpatine.
3. It doesn’t matter whether it was Ben or Kylo who helped Rey defeat Palpatine
The motivations and goals of Kylo Ren are never made completely clear in the trilogy. We don’t really know what he wants or why he wants it. He wants to destroy the resistance, he then wants to kill the past and rule with Rey, he then wants to be Supreme Leader, but we never know why.
At the beginning of The Rise of Skywalker, it is made clear that Kylo Ren wants to kill Palpatine so there’s nobody more powerful than him. He goes to Rey to tell her that Palpatine wants to kill her and tries to convince her that they should go kill him together instead. Once he turns good and becomes Ben Solo again, he goes to help Rey do that.
The thing is, whether Kylo Ren is good or bad makes no difference in the outcome of this final battle and thus, his sacrifice has no real impact on his redemption as a whole. Kylo/Ben helping Rey is not an indicator of his goodness. We saw him do exactly that in The Last Jedi and that did not redeem him. She was being tortured by Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo helped her, they fought Snoke’s goons together, and then they bumped heads because she wanted him to be good and he wanted to be bad.
In The Rise of Skywalker, Palpatine is emotionally torturing Rey, so Ben helps her, they fight together and she kills Palpatine and dies. We could argue that only a light force user could have brought her back to life, so it was necessary for him to be good, but we just saw Palpatine get a whole beauty makeover using the dark side, plus there was a lot of life-giving and Snoke-creating equipment lying around. Maybe Kylo could have used that instead. Maybe seeing her sacrifice could have made him see the error of his ways and that could have been his turning point towards the light (although this idea would also have been very problematic).
My point is, the Emperor died regardless of whether Kylo was good or bad. The plot probably needed Ben to bring back Rey and make this big sacrifice, but when the sacrifice comes, we are left with this strange feeling that something is missing. Something is not right. And that something boils down to one thing and one thing only…
4. Kylo Ren’s turning point is not convincing
Kylo Ren was absolutely miserable since he killed his father in The Force Awakens, but this didn’t stop him from doing anything else he did afterward, except killing his mom in The Last Jedi. He still killed Snoke and took over his job, destroyed the resistance, bullied his coworkers, yelled at Luke Skywalker, negged Rey (negging: low-grade insults meant to undermine the self-confidence of a woman so she might be more vulnerable to your advances), and tried to be the biggest baddy in the galaxy.
So, when he’s fighting Rey on the wreckage of the Death Star and she stabs him, when he feels Leia’s death, he has a change of heart and dramatically throws away his lightsaber into the ocean. But again, the movie never tells us why. Why would he suddenly quit the dark side? What prompted him to do it? Was it getting stabbed? Was it his mother dying?
It has been argued that “ Leia snapped Kylo Ren back to Ben Solo as her final act before death “, but that doesn’t work on different levels. Not only is it bad for the character of Kylo because it takes away all his agency (since all of his life-changing decisions have been influenced by someone else, be it for good or for evil), it also doesn’t explain why or how this would suddenly work. In previous movies, Leia clearly said that she hadn’t been able to reach him, that she had lost him. Han tried to and died, Luke tried to and failed, as did Rey. So… what changed? Why now?
There was no build-up to his redemption, there was never a point where he looked back on what he did and the damage he caused and said “oh… this was bad”, there was no indication of him changing his mind about the First Order. He simply decided to not be evil anymore. My point is: his redemption arc is bad because he didn’t really have one. The movie just jumped from one thing to another without putting in the effort.
This brings us back to the original issue. Why would we think that his redemption arc is good? Why would we think his ending is deserved? The three men that I watched on YouTube aren’t the only ones who have said so. There are several posts on Social Media where people agree that it was good and deserved and “much needed!”
There’s this thing that people do, especially people in positions of privilege or power, where they do something that hurts a person or a group, and then, upon being pressured, issue an apology. Sometimes the apology is a non-apology, the classic “I’m sorry if I offended you”, “I’m sorry you felt like that”, or in true Joe Biden fashion “the standards are different now”/”social norms are different”, but mostly people just say sorry and move on with their lives.
Here’s a story: After the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, many people, most of them men ( like Matt Damon, George Clooney and Ben Affleck), but also some women ( like Lindsay Lohan) started distancing themselves from him, claiming that “they didn’t know him that way”. They had a vague idea that he was “a bully”, but they didn’t know. Obviously they thought what he did was wrong, but they never saw him do any of it!
And then there was director Kevin Smith. Like the others, he said he didn’t know. Harvey Weinstein had helped him boost his career and had been almost his mentor, but he didn’t know that part of him. But here’s where he went a different route than the others: he said that, despite not knowing about it, he had been part of the problem because he had sent many women in filmmaking towards Harvey Weinstein, thinking that he would help them the way he’d helped him. That’s realization. He was ashamed of it and he then vowed to give all future residuals from the films he made with Weinstein to the non-profit organization Women in Film. Expecting The Weinstein Company to suffer some economic losses due to the scandal, he pledged to also give $2000 every month for the rest of his life. He didn’t actively and purposefully hurt women, but his actions probably led to some women getting very hurt, so he was going to make up for it. That’s reparation.
But more often than not, the very people who committed the offense go on as if nothing had happened. They don’t necessarily try to understand how it was wrong and where it came from, they don’t examine their lives and put in the work to become better people, they don’t try to actively make up for what they did, they just are more careful about what they say (if at all). The reason why I’m talking mostly about powerful or privileged people because their unique positions allow them to do that without big repercussions.
And I think that, at least to a certain extent, Kylo Ren’s redemption is a bit like that.
Like many people pressured into saying sorry by something they’re not sorry about, Kylo’s change was completely superficial. Literally. He threw away his lightsaber, he changed his clothes, and he went to kill some more people, only this time bad people with no names and no faces. We’ve seen that nothing he did after becoming Ben was totally different from what he could have done as Kylo, and we probably agree that he didn’t really have time to prove me wrong because he died. We could sit here and argue that, if the trilogy had been planned out from the start, that would have allowed the writers and the director to clearly define what they wanted to do with him and his redemption could have been more developed, but that’s not what happened. The fact remains that the movie completely left out key aspects that make a redemption convincing, which makes me think that maybe the writers didn’t think of them at all.
I’m not saying that this was done on purpose, nor am I saying that the writers, the director or the people who think that Kylo’s redemption was good are mean people who don’t know how to apologize or how redemption works. What I’m trying to say is that, maybe this is an example of how, due to our position, we might still have some blind-spots when it comes to being sorry. It’s not enough to say sorry, it’s not enough to broodily throw our swords into the ocean, it’s not enough to run to the girl we like to help her against a bigger bully and ignore everyone else. We need to clearly see what we did, why we did it, renounce it, and do something about it. True redemption involves introspection, realization, and reparation.
Originally published at http://paonavvil.com.