The ending of The Last Jedi brings the sequel trilogy’s three main characters to the end of the quests for identity and belonging they began in The Force Awakens. Finn has learned to fight for a cause (Phasma’s death bookending his refusal to execute the Jakku villagers), while Rey has found her place as heir to the Jedi and beacon of hope for her new family in the Resistance.
Kylo Ren, meanwhile, ascends from the conflicted former Ben Solo, eager to conclude his grandfather’s work and destroy the Jedi, to a status Vader never achieved – dictator of the galaxy. Twisted with hatred, as TLJ closes he seems more consumed by the dark side than ever, having now refused two golden opportunities to save himself. The response of many viewers is that he is now irredeemable.
Rian Johnson believes Kylo can still be redeemed, that he “isn’t as bad as Vader”, while acknowledging that this decision is for JJ Abrams to make. The comparison to Vader, though, is more complicated than Johnson suggests, and if TLJ tells us anything, it is that different rules apply to Kylo Ren, and we should not expect him to follow the same path.
Anakin and Ben, Vader and Kylo
The story of Anakin Skywalker is firmly rooted in mythology and religion. He is of “miraculous birth,” an idea predating the immaculate conception of Christianity, and his birth is the subject of an ancient prophecy. In The Clone Wars, there is something of the heroic Sir Lancelot about him: swashbuckling, impulsive and confident, he wants to save everyone, and often succeeds with style.
George Lucas describes Anakin’s fall to the dark side as “a deal with the devil,” selling his soul to seek ultimate power, an idea that was part of Christian folklore long before its most famous representation in Faust. Viewing Anakin’s fall as a Faustian pact helps us understand his redemption: Vader does not atone for all his evil deeds, but Luke does save his soul, preserving something pure and precious. It is an act of salvation brought about by sacrifice, itself a Christian notion. Our cultural reference points for Anakin are centuries, even millennia, old.
Kylo is very different. Though details of his “fall” are unknown, TFA and TLJ present us with something altogether more modern. He burns with resentment at what he perceives as a lack of love from his parents; he feels his status and abilities entitle him to whatever he wants; and he is radicalized by fascist imagery, drawn to a political horror that he never had to suffer through. He represents a contemporary fear: the angry young neo-Nazi, sitting in his bedroom stewing in his hatred of the new world and wanting to set it right through violence.
Adam Driver’s complex performance would not be out of place in a gritty drama about domestic terrorism, his eyes simultaneously expressive and inscrutable – letting you in without ever telling you what he is really thinking. His delivery of “you know I can take whatever I want” in TFA may be the most sinister in all of Star Wars: dripping with immature entitlement, it is frighteningly real. In TLJ, Kylo’s motivation is expanded into something nihilistic: while Anakin fell due to a desire to save and to protect, Kylo just wants to destroy, to burn the galactic order and his family along with it. He’d be quite at home in Fight Club.
Even if we forget the prequels and compare Kylo solely to Vader in the original trilogy, there are fundamental differences. Vader’s redemption was not even a possibility until halfway through Return of the Jedi, when Luke suddenly announced “there is still good in him.” Luke’s belief and selflessness were enough to bring Vader back, but Kylo’s redemption is raised early in TFA, and Han puts himself at great risk, and shows absolute faith, to try to save him. Kylo’s conflict makes it clear that he knows what he is doing is wrong, yet he continues to choose evil and murders his father. He isn’t a shell of a man who believes redemption is no longer possible; he just doesn’t want it.
If the mythic and spiritual rules of Vader also applied to Kylo, we could expect a similar redemption: the compassion of our protagonist, Rey, saving him from himself. Yet TLJ goes out of its way to take this option off the table.
“This is not going to go the way you think”
Early in TLJ, Rey responds to Luke’s disillusionment by praising his unfailing belief in his father. The redemption of Vader is another legend that Rey has taken to heart, and when she senses conflict in Kylo and sees a vision that she interprets as him turning to the light, she rushes off in the firm belief that she can save him.
The story repeats familiar beats from RotJ: Rey puts herself in the most vulnerable position, surrenders, and is handcuffed; she tells Kylo that she senses conflict in him; and she faces Snoke with total faith that Ben will turn, because that’s what Skywalker villains do. The film delights in leading us down a familiar path, only to swerve dramatically away from it. The first point of divergence, and hint that Luke’s warning to Rey was correct: while Vader saved Luke from Palpatine’s force-lightning without a thought for his own safety, Kylo watches Rey’s torture without action, waiting until he is forced to make the choice.
The Praetorian Guards defeated, Kylo seizes the throne. He yells at Rey to let her friends die, and uses her insecurities surrounding her parents to attempt to turn her – as Johnson says, “trying to undercut her confidence so she feels she has to lean on him for her identity.” When he announces that they should “let old things die,” he refers to Skywalker, Snoke, Jedi, Sith, Rebels … but not the Empire. Ruling via military dictatorship is his vision. Rey rejects him, and Kylo descends into uncompromising villainy: telling Hux “we know where she’s going – let’s finish this,” then ordering that there be “no prisoners” among the Resistance; and his final line, “I will destroy her and you and all of it.” It is not enough to defeat his enemies – they must be obliterated. Kylo sneers at the very idea of Vader-like salvation: “have you come to save my soul?” he screams at Luke. Rey followed Luke’s example perfectly, and failed.
Rey assumed, as many fans did, that the story’s hero must be a Skywalker: first she thinks it must be Luke, then Ben. When she catches the lightsaber that has bisected Snoke, she gazes up at Ben as if she has found her hero. Johnson then inverts the visual language of the entire relationship: when Kylo makes his plea, he holds out his hand wearing the glove of Kylo Ren, the glove he removed when he responded to her “it’s not too late” in the Ahch-To hut; as they fight over the lightsaber, the Force that brought them together literally pushes them apart; and as Rey boards the Falcon, it is Kylo who stares forlornly up at her, and she down at him as she closes the door in his face.
Because TLJ doesn’t just tell us that Vader-style redemption isn’t an option; it also tells us that it’s not Rey’s duty to redeem Kylo anyway. As Johnson puts it, she has “made the choice to find her own identity in this story.” It is Rey the Resistance look to as their hero, awe on their faces as she lifts the rocks to save them. The “belonging” she sought is with this group of people, figurehead of the Rebellion against Kylo’s empire and torch-bearer for the Jedi Order. “We have everything we need,” Leia says as she clasps Rey’s hand.
It would now be a betrayal of Rey’s story to reverse this and make it her mission to save Ben after all, in the process making her story subservient to his. Kylo feels so contemporary that TLJ can easily be read as the story of a young woman realizing that she cannot reform an angry and violent man, and making the healthy and empowering choice to close the door on him. It would be irresponsible storytelling to have her keep trying. The psychological realism of Kylo forces us to treat his relationships with other characters equally seriously, and the optics of these two would send the message to every eight-year-old girl who cosplays as Rey that “if you keep being nice to him, you can change him.” Compassion and forgiveness are central Star Wars themes, but so is letting go, and accepting that you can’t save everyone. Sometimes there are things no one can fix.
With the door literally closed on the expected redemptive path, are there other options? Tragically, real-life events may have taken what would certainly have been the most moving version of the story.
No one’s ever really gone?
While TLJ sees Leia and Luke meet again, it avoids the most important reunion. There is no question that the confrontation of mother and son was saved for Episode IX, given the larger role Carrie Fisher was due to play in the final episode.
Could Leia have saved Ben? TLJ doesn’t give us anything definitive. Early in the film, Kylo, torn apart by the murder of his father, is unable to fire on his mother’s ship, but this is countered by his later order that there be no Resistance prisoners on Crait, handing Leia a death sentence. When Leia tells Luke that she has given up hope for her son, Luke replies “no one’s ever really gone”…but this line comes just as Luke hands her Han’s dice from the Falcon, leaving its meaning ambiguous.
What is certain is that Leia was our reason for wanting Ben back. Following TLJ there are huge messaging problems with having Rey redeem him, but for Leia to get her son back after all her losses would have been profoundly moving. We want Vader’s redemption because his son wants it; Leia was our reason to care about Kylo’s fate. Star Wars has long been preoccupied with “daddy issues”, and mother-child relationships have been ill-served, the mother usually killed early to give the protagonist extra motivation. To end the Skywalker story with the reunion of mother and son would have been a redemptive act for the saga itself, but with Lucasfilm’s confirmation that Leia will not be recast or recreated, it appears not to be.
Had Kylo begun a path back to the light at the end of TLJ, Episode IX could have told a fascinating story about penitence and atonement, as he committed to undoing the damage he had caused. This has been a preoccupation of Lucasfilm recently, with Agent Kallus in Rebels and Iden Versio in Battlefront defecting and working hard, over many years, to bring down the evil they had supported. By ending the film with Kylo as Supreme Leader, Johnson has also closed off this avenue for Abrams. Kylo is now “the one [the heroes] have to deal with.”
TLJ’s ending does give us a few hints about where Kylo might go next. Though Supreme Leader, he lacks the respect of his second-in-command, General Hux. His volatility cost the First Order the chance to destroy the Resistance. He is unprepared and unfit for the burden of leadership. He will be paranoid that Hux is plotting against him, but unable to act out of fear of losing his army’s loyalty. The Rebellion will be reborn, and if there is a time-jump, Rey might already have started recruiting a new generation of Jedi. The legend of Finn – the “bug in the system” who killed Phasma – could spread through the ranks and lead to insurrections.
Most importantly, Luke warns Kylo that he will “always be with” him, as will Han. Luke could play a more central role than any Force ghost before, haunting Kylo with visions of the past and all he has lost. Through this, the filmmakers could make Leia central to his story without directly replacing Carrie Fisher: abstract Force-vision flashbacks of a younger Leia and Ben, imposed upon Kylo by Luke. If you try to kill the past, you only make it stronger.
The Last Skywalker
If Ben Solo is to return, he must want it. Currently, he does not, despite all the people who have forgiven him and tried to help him. A neat and tidy spiritual salvation is not an option, and neither is the long path of atonement with the Resistance. Further complicating matters, Kylo is now the dictator of a tyrannical regime, and every act perpetrated by the First Order is now his responsibility. Even if he turns to the light and survives, a war crimes trial is inevitable.
When Kylo was created in 2013, and the story of TLJ planned in 2014, the filmmakers could not have known that the ideas he represents would be so acutely familiar to audiences in 2017. Yet this is where we find ourselves, and his fate will unavoidably make a statement about the way society handles the problem of angry young fascist men. A “redemption” story would need to be handled with intelligence and cultural awareness, lest it send the message that such people deserve a “happy ending.”
Perhaps, after all, the Skywalker line should just end with the death of an unredeemed villain. Kylo has been given two extraordinary chances, and answered them with murder and tyranny. TCW and Rebels turned Darth Maul into a fascinating, complex and even sympathetic character, his fate intertwined with Obi-Wan’s – the two apprentices whose paths were tragically changed forever by events on Naboo. With Maul’s death in “Twin Suns”, Rebels provided an ending that was rich with pathos, compassion and regret, and showed that redemption is not a prerequisite of a satisfying Star Wars ending, even for a complex villain. The inevitable final duel between Rey and Kylo could easily fit the Obi-Wan/Maul template.
It was not, as it turned out, time for the Jedi to end. But it might be time for the Skywalkers to end.