From the moment he walked on screen in The Force Awakens, some Star Wars fans felt like they already had a handle on Kylo Ren: he was obviously a good guy.
Or at least, he was going to wind up that way by the end of the trilogy. The original trilogy ended with Darth Vader’s redemption, so logically, Kylo Ren’s story would end that way, too.
That assumption rang false to me, and not just because I was skeptical that anybody could come back from murdering his own father, Han Solo, one of the most beloved characters in Star Wars history. It’s because Star Wars isn’t about redemption — not in the original trilogy or even in Return of the Jedi.
It only seems that way.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.]
Return of the Jedi’s immortal third act set the tripartite structure for all future climatic Star Wars battles: A fight on the ground, a fight in the air, and a fight of Jedi emotions. As his friends desperately try to destroy the second Death Star, Luke Skywalker stands in the Emperor’s throne room and duels with Darth Vader. The stakes are his life and the very future of the Force.
Just when it seems that the Emperor’s power is inescapable, his loyal lapdog, Darth Vader, betrays him. Moved by his son’s example and Luke’s genuine belief that he is not beyond saving, Vader hurls the Emperor down a shaft, taking a mortal blow as he does so. He dies in Luke’s arms. After he escapes the Death Star, Luke gives him a warrior’s pyre.
But here’s the thing...
Darth Vader was never redeemed
In the moment Vader turned on the Emperor, he repented. He saw the error of his ways. Perhaps more importantly, he saw that it was still possible for him to perform some lasting good by saving his son, the only creature in the galaxy that held some honest love for him.
The original Star Wars trilogy wasn’t about Darth Vader redeeming himself in the eyes of others — about the impossible task of making up for the thousands dead, the lives irrevocably altered, the families, including his own, shattered — nor should it have been. It was about Luke growing into his own.
The Empire Strikes Back sees our hero hubristically chafe at the guidance of his Jedi mentors, and suffer immense consequences for it. Luke not only fails to save Han from carbonite, he barely escapes an encounter with Vader with his life, and has to be rescued by the very people he went to Cloud City to rescue. In Return of the Jedi, when Luke insists to Yoda and Obi Wan that there is still good in Darth Vader, it’s his first rebellion that actually pays out.
Luke grew up idolizing an idea of his father as a heroic veteran of the Clone Wars, and has the training to intimately, psychically sense Vader’s emotions. Vader’s turn is vindication of Luke’s instinct to forgive, and of his destiny as one who can recreate the Jedi order.
But asking for forgiveness and actually making amends for your actions are separate things. Vader’s nearly immediate death created a useful emotional illusion that completed Luke’s character arc in a satisfying way. The audience easily mistakes that with the real thing.
Vader’s act of repentance meant that he could no longer stand among the series’ other bad guys, but Return of the Jedi never attempted to figure out whether that alone was enough to allow him to stand alongside the heroes.
Yub nub nope
Imagine, for a moment, what the end of Return of the Jedi would have been like if Luke had walked into that big party on Endor’s moon arm in arm with a contrite Darth Vader. Vader personally tortured Leia in A New Hope, and Han in The Empire Strikes Back. He forced Leia to watch as Grand Moff Tarkin destroyed her home planet.
But we were never forced to watch as Leia looked Darth Vader in the face, knowing that his blood ran in her veins, while she decided what the fledgling Republic should do with its second greatest boogeyman.
This is a good thing. For the purposes of the kind of story that Return of the Jedi is trying to tell, this is a great ending. Vader’s death is narratively necessary.
So, naturally, The Rise of Skywalker attempts to mirror Vader’s turn with Kylo Ren’s — with the added problem that, thanks to J.J. Abrams’ tactic of echoing the original trilogy, but going bigger, Kylo’s crimes are an order of magnitude larger than his grandfather’s.
Discarding anything from expanded Star Wars media, Kylo’s version of “the Empire” carried on a systematic campaign of kidnapping millions of children to brainwash them into loyal cannon fodder, and used a superweapon to destroy the fully populated star system that served as the galaxy’s political center. He personally tortured both Rey and Poe and murdered his own father, Han Solo, in The Force Awakens. He attempted to murder and indirectly caused the death of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. In Rise of Skywalker, a previously hale Leia Organa sacrifices her life force to do ... something related to making Kylo turn, making him the indirect cause of her death as well.
The scene in which Kylo truly turns is an emotional one. In isolation, his talk with a (memory?) of Han Solo is a nice acknowledgement of how difficult it can be to recognize when one has done something truly wrong, and how hard can be take on the work of making up for the hurt you’ve done to others when it would be so much easier to just accept the advantages those acts awarded you.
But, like his grandfather before him, Kylo never gets the chance to do any of that work. He turns to the Light Side of the Force, but ultimately sacrifices his life to save (or possibly resurrect) Rey. He dies without ever facing the consequences of his actions, and without ever reckoning with what it would take to make amends for them.
He repents, vindicating Rey’s belief that he always carried the seed of that within him. But, just like Darth Vader, Star Wars doesn’t redeem him. It’s all a necessary Jedi mind trick.