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Redemption is, we’re told, at the heart of Star Wars: the turn to the light, the overt rejection of evil. It’s built into the saga from Return of the Jedi onwards. That last film in the Original Trilogy showed us a father willing to abandon his dark path, not for personal gain or in a bid to win forgiveness for his sins, but for the sake of his child. Darth Vader sheds his helmet to reveal the face of a man whose broken body is kept alive only by machinery, before dying peacefully in the arms of the son who never lost faith in him.
It’s a moment captured beautifully by James Kahn in his tie-in novelization, published two weeks before the film’s release in 1983. Anakin Skywalker’s memories crowd in on him: images of his wife, Padmé (then unnamed), his home, his brother-in-arms Obi-Wan, and his agonizing injuries from that last duel on Mustafar before he was entombed in Vader’s suit and helmet. Finally, they coalesce into one thought. Luke, his child, is good, and Luke “came from him”:
So there must have been good in him too? He smiled up at his son and for the first time loved him.
And for the first time in many long years, loved himself again.James Kahn, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Vader’s wicked master, Emperor Palpatine, gets a long drop at the hands of his former protégé – the least effective way to kill anybody in Star Wars, as it turns out, but we’ll come back to that later – and, in an instant, the spell is broken. Is Vader’s too gentle a fate for the faceless monster who stalks the galaxy in the previous films, choking underlings and looking on as worlds are obliterated? Perhaps. Return of The Jedi’s director, Richard Marquand, apparently thought so. But, in George Lucas’s words, Anakin had “stopped the horror.” He couldn’t change his hideous past, but he could draw a line under it, once and for all.
See also: Star Wars | Monkey See, Monkey Shoot: Celebrating Rogue One’s Bistan by Chris Hallam
Closing the Loop
After a polarising Prequel Trilogy of films that portrayed the nascent Vader as a younger, angrier figure than the man briefly conjured by the RoTJ novelization, the Skywalker family’s past had been established. What mattered next was the future, and defining how that story should develop was always going to be a delicate balancing act. The old Expanded Universe (EU) of Star Wars novels, comics, and games was abruptly decanonized after Lucas sold the franchise to Disney in 2012. Canon, though, is for theologians. Many fans were, understandably, dismayed by the junking of decades of stories, yet hopes were high that the adventures shared by the heroes of the Original Trilogy through decades of tie-in material might be revisited, one way or another.
2015 saw the release of The Force Awakens, the first in a trio of sequels that promised great things for the future of the franchise. Some championed it as a fun, fresh reworking of cherished Star Wars tropes, while others dismissed it as a soft reboot intended to wipe the slate clean for Disney to put its own stamp on the purchase. Many fans were optimistic that its new heroes – Daisy Ridley’s aspirant Jedi, Rey; renegade Stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega); and daring pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) – would enjoy character arcs every bit as compelling as their iconic mentors. Six years later, and that early enthusiasm’s been soured by the vicious racist and misogynistic abuse leveled at actors John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran (who played lovely, much-maligned Rose Tico) from the fandom’s nastier corners, a blow compounded by the decision at a corporate level to shove their characters to the sidelines in TFA’s two follow-ups. Let’s hope that future spin-offs will give them their due.
Rian Johnson’s follow-up, 2017’s The Last Jedi, thrilled and infuriated fans in equal measure with a provocative take on Star Wars lore that sees a disillusioned Luke Skywalker, magnificently depicted by a skeptical Mark Hamill, return from self-imposed exile to confront yet another errant family member. This time, it’s his nephew, Ben Solo, a new face of galactic evil in his guise as the dark warrior, Kylo Ren. With the original director, Colin Trevorrow, having departed after creative differences, Abrams returned to close out the trilogy. Mixed reviews greeted The Rise of Skywalker in 2019, in which Rey’s father is revealed to be the resurrected Palpatine’s own, cloned son. Ben Solo, with whom she’s spiritually linked in a murky, Force-enabled “dyad”, casts off his Dark Side persona in the wake of an emotional vision of Han Solo, the father he’d murdered, to stand with Rey against Palpatine as the young Jedi faces her grandfather in a final choice between good and evil. Cast down a pit by Palpatine (who, of all people, should have known better than to expect that minor setback to prove fatal), Ben crawls back out and sacrifices his life force to save a mortally injured Rey. Then, like his grandfather before him, he passes into the Force. Rey, on pilgrimage to Tatooine, takes up the Skywalker name and crafts her own saber from the shards of those that once belonged to her twin mentors, Luke and Leia. Their past is hers now.
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But there is, of course, another. One character embodies the dark side of the Skywalker legacy: Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Heir to darkness, patricidal murderer, galactic dictator, and, on one memorable occasion, radar technician. Saturday Night Live’s portrayal of Kylo masquerading as the unconvincingly-wigged “Matt” on Undercover Boss in a bid to connect with his underlings remains one of this trilogy’s most enduring contributions to pop culture, along with Washington Post journalist Alexandra Petri’s gentle parody in her Emo Kylo Ren Twitter account. (“People ought to have more sympathy for me. I am fatherless.”) From the first film, onwards, the understandable cry to save Ben Solo went out – he was, after, all the son and nephew of characters we loved – only to be met with bafflement from those who, just as understandably, viewed him as an irredeemable killer. Driver brought a stunning depth and complexity to the character that overwrote the often thin material he was given to work with; unfortunately, this was lost on many who dismissed Kylo as an inadequate Vader cosplay.
Kylo’s motivations might have been handwaved in the end as the result of Palpatine’s influence via Snoke, but this felt like a retcon of a character whose unpredictability and agency were never less than compelling. As Driver put it in one interview, thinking from Kylo’s perspective: “What does he have to be redeemed for? He feels like he’s in the right.” There was always a hint of some deeper ideology behind Ben Solo’s decision to abandon his parents’ cause and throw in his lot with the Rebels’ enemies: his cultist’s zeal as he spoke to Han of Snoke’s wisdom said as much. Disappointingly, this promising angle wasn’t pursued. More surprisingly, neither were the full ramifications of Kylo’s decision to seize power by killing Snoke in The Last Jedi, his time as Supreme Leader being largely skimmed over by The Rise of Skywalker. It’s taken the Star Wars Adventures comics, aimed squarely at kids, to tackle that subject. Sam Maggs’s bleak ‘Tales of Villainy: Follow and Lead’ in #2 shows us a Kylo learning to accept the power move he regretted, while Michael Moreci’s brilliant, often hilarious ‘Loyalty Test’ in #30 delves into the jostling for dominance between Kylo and his rival in the First Order, General Hux.
Charles Soule and Will Sliney focus on the padawan Ben’s identity crisis, torn between Light and Dark, and on his bitter grievance against a family by whom he feels stifled in the Rise of Kylo Ren comic book series. This adds some backstory to Ben’s initiation as a Knight of Ren, then led by a warrior – named only ‘Ren’, after the weapon he, and later Kylo, wields – whom Ben finally kills as the last step on his path to darkness after the destruction of Luke’s Jedi Temple, apparently at his hands. In the comic, the uncomfortably predatory tendencies Snoke displays in The Last Jedi come through strongly, as he grooms Ben into despising those who truly love him. It seems likely that future stories will focus on Ben’s involvement with the Knights – dispatched so quickly in The Rise of Skywalker – who were most recently depicted in Lego’s typically tongue-in-cheek 2021 Hallowe’en special. Its advert depicts Ben, appropriately, as one of the Lost Boys, sunglasses and all.
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Blinded by the Rey
Kylo’s mysterious bond with Rey casts a long shadow over the trilogy, so much so that it tends to obscure every other potential connection. TRoS offers us a new interpretation of a bond Snoke claimed in the previous film to have forged for his own dark purposes. Instead, the two turn out to have been irrevocably linked as a dyad by the will of the Force. This decision seems designed to give fans room to interpret the pairing however it suits them: as spiritual siblings, potential lovers, or two people whose fraught connection could never be expected to fit neatly into a single category. Not a bad idea. Yet The Last Jedi had already done a subtler job of linking the pair, establishing just how little divided them before drawing a sharp line between Luke’s two students, past and present. Many hoped for Rey to be the sole catalyst for Kylo’s redemption, but it was never likely to be as simple as that.
Ancillary material, like Kristin Baver’s in-universe history Skywalker: A Family at War (2021) and Michael Kogge’s masterful trio of junior tie-in novelizations, emphasizes the pair’s status as spiritual siblings with a bond oddly analogous to that of the separated twins, Luke and Leia: a complicated fondness sealed with an awkward kiss. The Tom Veitch/Cam Kennedy comic book series, Dark Empire (1991-2), had, in the early ‘90s, shown us Leia’s desperate bid to wrest her brother’s soul from Palpatine’s clutches, not unlike Rey’s repeated attempts to encourage Kylo/Ben back to the Light (Palpatine’s apparent indestructibility, amusingly enough, is one of the few things retained from the old Expanded Universe). Fans of the EU will also point to the Solo twins, Jacen and Jaina. Just as Rey destroyed the last of Kylo’s evil by striking him down as they battled on the ruins of the second Death Star, so Jaina was compelled to kill her twin after the once heroic Jacen had slipped into the Dark as Darth Caedus. Unfortunately for Jacen, there was no Force Heal on that occasion.
The murderous rage Kylo flies into in The Last Jedi as the realization dawns on him that Rey won’t be swayed, as he was, by attempts to appeal to her worse nature is fascinating. That tremulous plea in the devastated throne room after they’d briefly fought as one – an echo of the martial synchronicity between Anakin and his Jedi partner Obi-Wan, whose descendant Rey was once, it’s been suggested, intended to have been early in The Force Awakens’ development – is Kylo’s last bid to find a kindred spirit, someone whose own loneliness will, he assumes, drive her to share his haunted path. She refuses, proving once and for all that he had a choice in his destiny, and it’s more than he can stand. When he gives the command to his troops to take no prisoners and give no quarter in the subsequent assault on Crait, he means it. Let the past die, taking all its pain and disappointment with it.
Colin Trevorrow’s abandoned script for his Episode IX, titled Duel of the Fates, was to reveal that Kylo had personally slain Rey’s parents, pitting the two Force prodigies against each other in a fight to the death. A final flicker of light – the Light – is seen in the dark warrior’s eyes as his mother’s influence shames him into sparing Rey at the cost of his own life. That shame is a tantalizing glimmer in The Force Awakens which underlines the waste of potential in the relationship between Kylo and Finn, each the other’s mirror. Finn, whose indoctrination as a Stormtrooper was beyond his control, finds the courage to break his conditioning to seek out his own destiny. Kylo clearly senses Finn’s inability to kill the innocent in the massacre that opens the first sequel film. When he screams “Traitor!” at his former subordinate during the confrontation on Starkiller Base near its end, he’s surely admonishing himself as much as he is the fugitive soldier. Only at the very end does Ben Solo, free at last from Palpatine’s influence, find the moral strength to follow Finn’s moral lead: to do what he has always known to be right. The trilogy’s failure to bring the two men back together for a final confrontation is one of its biggest disappointments.
Going for Grey
Other material might yet fill in some of the narrative blanks. The seminal videogame Knights of the Old Republic (2003), along with its flawed gem of a sequel, proved once and for all that the galaxy far, far away was big enough for stories told without a Skywalker on the horizon. A recent announcement of its remake intrigued many fans of the old Expanded Universe, who wondered if the Force Bond between its protagonist – an individual with, to dodge spoilers, the darkest past imaginable – and the Jedi Bastila Shan might be reinterpreted as an earlier dyad, millennia before the events of the sequel trilogy. The Exile, KotOR 2 (2004)’s player character, shares a similar fraught bond with Kreia, a forbidding elderly woman whose opinions on the Force (basically: it ruins everything and needs to be dispensed with) are certainly, er, different. Kreia has been both Jedi and Sith; her perspective is unique. Any links between this fascinating bond and the Kylo/Rey dyad could only lend the latter greater depth and thematic resonance while illuminating the extent of Kylo’s internal conflict.
Kreia would have scoffed at the notion of redemption for one with Kylo’s past, at least in the clichéd, happy-ever-after sense often ascribed to the word. But could he have atoned: followed another path out of the darkness, one far harder than death? It would have been a fascinating direction in which to take a character who was impossible to easily pigeonhole as villain or victim. As Kylo Ren, for all his crimes, was never wholly evil, so Ben Solo would never have been wholly good. They were always the same person, indivisible one from the other, heir to darkness and to the light. Like KotOR’s Revan, Kylo/Ben was all things, and he was nothing. He, not Luke, created the “monster” he hid behind; only he could destroy it. It took a courage he always possessed. On Crait, as a clearly terrified Kylo descends to confront his uncle – or rather, what turns out to be a Force projection of his uncle, in an inauspicious start for our newly minted Supreme Leader – we see the dauntlessness that, in another life, could have made him as fearsome a warrior for good as he was for the Dark Side. A brilliant fan-made video of Kylo’s battle scenes in TRoS uses a Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross track from Watchmen as its soundtrack. Its title? “Never Surrender”. It couldn’t be more fitting for the man who, after being blasted by Chewbacca’s bowcaster in The Force Awakens, beat on the open wound to draw power from his pain in his subsequent duel with Finn.
As Ben Solo fights the Knights of Ren in The Rise of Skywalker’s climactic battle, his insouciant shrug evokes the father whose belief in him he can at last honor. His earlier reconciliation with a vision of Han after Rey heals the mortal wound she’s inflicted on her adversary is an odd moment of magic realism that shouldn’t work yet hits home, thanks to Driver’s and Harrison Ford’s conviction. Ben’s snarl as his old underlings close in on him reminds us, though, of the beast that would have always snapped at the younger Solo’s heels. Kylo Ren’s scars may have disappeared, in a gesture as irritatingly reductive as it is offensive; Driver, though, won’t let us forget who Ben is. The process of atonement would be lifelong – eternal, even, for a Force user such as him – but the man we met for such a short time was ready to face rejection from a galaxy rightfully hostile to him: ready at last to do the right thing, whatever the cost, asking for nothing in return. It would have been fascinating to watch him attempt to make amends for his crimes: to truly finish what Vader started.
Emma Mieko Candon’s recent Ronin: A Visions Novel demonstrates how such a path could have developed in a story rich in influences drawn from her heritage as a Japanese American. Given Lucas’s dependence on Japanese cultural references in creating Star Wars, this couldn’t be more fitting. Candon’s book expands on ‘The Duel’, one of the Visions animated shorts, to tell of a former Sith: a wanderer without allegiances haunted by an unspoken past, neither a hero nor a villain. It’s not an exact parallel to Ben Solo’s story, but its complexity suggests the kind of story that, even without Driver’s input, could have brought some resolution for this intriguing character. With the heroic side of the Skywalker legacy safely in Rey’s hands, a greyer, more ambiguous path might have been open to a living Ben.
But if Leia’s child had to die, it should have been with her by his side. Anakin’s own gradual turn to the Dark had begun as he cradled his dying mother, the enslaved Shmi: the first of all our beloved Skywalkers. His murderous rage against the Tusken Raiders who tortured and killed her led him to indiscriminate slaughter of their women and children, setting him on a path none who loved him could follow. The family saga would have come full circle had his grandson returned to the Light in Leia’s embrace, perhaps after giving his life to save hers: finishing what his grandfather started, if not in the way he’d planned. It’s the “poetry” Lucas once spoke of as he described Star Wars’s structure. Redemption, of a sort.
Carrie Fisher was robbed of the opportunity to conclude Leia’s story in a final film that should, by rights, have been hers. We never got that longed-for reunion between mother and son. Two brief, beautiful scenes, their acknowledgment of each other in the Force during a space battle in The Last Jedi and a fateful moment of recognition on the ruins of the Death Star in The Rise of Skywalker, hint at what we might have had. That flickering ember of love – Ben Solo’s true birthright: more than any lightsaber, more than any ship – could never quite be extinguished.
And so, like Vader, he came home.
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Gem Wheeler’s a freelance writer and researcher with over a decade’s experience of covering sci-fi and pop culture. She’s a regular contributor to Retro Gamer magazine, and you can also find her work on SciFiNow, Little White Lies, Whynow, NME, Digital Spy, and Den of Geek.