The first six Star Wars episodes tell, in part, the story of the fall and redemption of Darth Vader. This is a common interpretation, supported by George Lucas’s own statements. But is Darth Vader truly redeemed, and what do we mean by that? What actually happens to him at the end of Return of the Jedi? This question is crucial to understanding the thematic core of Star Wars, and we must attempt to answer it if we are to speculate on the future of our newest villain: Kylo Ren, formerly Ben Solo.
Before we explore this, we have to ask what is meant by “redemption.” Like many questions dealing with the English language, the answer is more complicated than it first appears. The first definition given by dictionary.com is:
an act of redeeming or atoning for a fault or mistake, or the state of being redeemed.
This definition relies on the idea that a person atones for, or “redeems”, a mistake they have made. Is this what Vader does? This is a value judgement, so we may all come to a different conclusion, but on the whole, I would have to argue that he does not.
Vader sacrifices himself to save his son, and as a consequence brings down the Empire, but it is an Empire that would not exist without him. He cannot undo the death and destruction he has inflicted upon the galaxy by saving one person. Even within the context of the original trilogy alone, we know that he is responsible for wiping out the Jedi, torturing his (unknown) daughter and later Han Solo, standing by while Alderaan is destroyed, and striking down Obi-Wan Kenobi. And that is before we even begin to look at the prequels, which reveal that Obi-Wan was both a father and a brother to him and, furthermore, that he is responsible for the murder of innocent children, and for choking his wife. On a wider scale, the suffering caused by the Empire is a direct consequence of Vader’s choices.
Yet almost as soon as he has saved Luke from the Emperor, Anakin Skywalker ascends into the Force and is rewarded by retaining his identity. The film does not show him facing up to his previous actions, and he does not have to atone for them in the physical world. Nor does he face justice through any legal system. Star Wars avoids these questions entirely, and is not interested in showing him redeeming his bad deeds by working to rebuild the galaxy. Sacrificing his life for his son is enough. Something else is happening here.
We must instead turn to other definitions of redemption. Also from dictionary.com:
Theology. deliverance from sin; salvation.
Is this closer? The answer can be found in an unexpected place – the 2004 DVD edition of RotJ, in which George Lucas replaced the image of Sebastian Shaw as Anakin’s Force ghost with that of Hayden Christensen. It was a controversial change, but if we are to understand Lucas’s intent, we must accept this as the final version.
Anakin’s spirit appears as the man he was before he turned to the dark side. This implies is that there is a truth to Obi-Wan’s “certain point of view” – Anakin Skywalker was destroyed by Darth Vader. Luke’s achievement, then, is in saving Anakin – the good man who has been buried deep down within Vader for decades. Anakin even talks in these terms himself – as he lies dying, Luke says “I’ve got to save you,” and Anakin replies, “You already have, Luke.” This is the kind of redemption Star Wars is interested in: not repaying a debt to society, but something more mythic – the saving of a soul.
Luke achieves this through an unconditional compassion for his father. He is prepared to forgive all of Anakin’s evil deeds, and to die in the attempt to save him. It is through this that Anakin’s own compassion – a selfless love – awakens, and he sacrifices himself. We sometimes underestimate what a challenging idea this is for an audience: our usual response to villains, even if we find them entertaining or sympathetic, is to want them defeated, brought to justice or even killed. Star Wars tells us that this is not the Jedi way. The way to achieve victory, and to become a true Jedi, is not to fight, to defeat, or to destroy – indeed, the Jedi usually fail when they fight. Instead, the forces of good win when our hero refuses to act – when he is passive and compassionate, and prepared to forgive, and through that, becomes a vessel for the triumph of the light side. Far from being the swashbuckling action hero he is often taken to be, Luke Skywalker and the values he represents are unique in popular culture, and he challenges us to question our own response to a villain.
Which brings us to Kylo Ren.
When he is introduced in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren is a far more conflicted character than Vader was in A New Hope. I doubt there were many viewers who, after watching ANH for the first time, thought the series would end with Vader’s redemption. Kylo openly struggles with the “pull to the light,” his own compassion – he admits this to the helmet of his idol after he realises he will have to confront his father, Han Solo. Furthermore, in the Alan Dean Foster novelization, Supreme Leader Snoke accuses him of having compassion for Rey, and Kylo’s denial is not entirely convincing.
In an attempt to snuff out the feelings of compassion that are “tearing him apart,” Kylo kills his own father. Has he succeeded? In killing a blood family member, he has carried out an act that even Vader could not, but even that is not an uncomplicated interpretation: Vader, after all, choked his pregnant wife and killed the person he described as “the closest thing I have to a father.” Further complicating matters, how are we to decide which act is the more evil: Kylo killing his father, or Vader slaughtering innocent children?
The novelization, and the final screenplay for TFA, both tell us that Kylo feels “weakened” by the act of killing Han, and that is certainly clear in Adam Driver’s performance. He looks lost, shocked by his actions, and when he arrives to confront Rey and Finn – though driven by his hatred for the traitorous stormtrooper – he is a broken man, sweating and dishevelled, and not merely because of his blaster injury. My own interpretation is that the killing of his father has not snuffed out the light of Ben Solo, however much Kylo Ren might wish that it had.
So we must ask ourselves if he can still be saved. In an interview before the release of TFA, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said:
“I think we can’t explore in quite as much detail issues of compassion, the way [Lucas] did in terms of the values of the Jedi. But we’re going to get there, let’s put it that way. In the arc of all three movies, that will increase.”
Given our understanding of redemption in Star Wars, based on the saving of Anakin’s soul by Luke, any redemption for Kylo Ren will come about, at least in part, through an unconditional compassion and forgiveness on the part of at least one of our heroes. Will Leia still have faith that her son can return from the dark side, even after the death of Han Solo? That may go some way towards helping the audience forgive him for this act, too. While Kylo talks about his father often in TFA, he does not mention his mother, so we know nothing about his feelings for her. We also do not yet know how Luke feels about his nephew – will Luke, who showed unconditional love for his father, show the same to Kylo? Or will he fall into the Obi-Wan Kenobi trap, of believing that it is “too late?”
Then there is Rey. If, as Kennedy suggests, the trilogy is to explore the compassion of the Jedi, this will be a central part of Rey’s character arc. The last line she says to Kylo in TFA is “you’re a monster,” and she attempts to kill him with her blaster. If Kylo is to be redeemed, Rey, as our protagonist, will be central to this, and if she is to be a true Jedi, she will have to find the unconditional compassion that all Jedi must have. Perhaps this will come about through her learning the reasons for his descent into the dark side – at the very least, we know that they both struggle with feelings of loneliness and parental abandonment, even though Rey’s are far more justified than Kylo’s.
Ultimately, I very much doubt that a Star Wars trilogy will build to a conclusion in which a complex villain is totally irredeemable, and that our new hero must destroy him. That is not the Jedi way, and it is not the Star Wars way – it is, instead, the antithesis of everything Lucas’s Star Wars stood for. I expect Kylo Ren to be angrier, and more consumed by the dark side, at the start of Episode VIII than we have ever see him, as he attempts to prove to himself that the death of Han Solo really has brought him the power he seeks. However, I also expect him to be proven wrong.
Despite TFA following many of the story beats of ANH, any redemption for Kylo will likely be different from that of Vader, in order to avoid repetition – we cannot expect him to die saving Rey’s life by throwing Snoke down a reactor shaft. Perhaps we will see a “greyer”, more ambiguous future where Kylo does not fully return from the dark side, but where moments of compassion and selflessness – awakened by our heroes – lead to the fall of Snoke and the First Order. We have already seen a similar story in this universe: Asajj Ventress became a more morally ambiguous character in The Clone Wars and lived by her own code after being spurned by her master, Count Dooku. If Snoke does, indeed, attempt to “crush” Kylo Ren once he has achieved his goals, as Han Solo suggests, Kylo may follow a similar path.
The audience, I believe, will be challenged by the story of Kylo Ren, perhaps even more than we were with Vader. It will be a difficult task for the writers of the trilogy to achieve: particularly in the case of long-term fans who were deeply invested in the character of Han Solo. Many fans want Kylo to be punished for his crimes, but as we have seen, Star Wars is not about bringing a complicated villain to justice, but the saving of souls. If Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow succeed, by the end of Episode IX they will have us rooting for Kylo Ren’s salvation, letting go of our hatred and finding the forgiveness in our hearts that all true Jedi should have.