Written by robotical712, speaking for myself only.
Kylo Ren is perhaps the franchise’s most divisive character. Some see him as a victim of his identity and the circumstances of his childhood. For those who see him that way, he’s a misguided and a lonely individual who is only missing love and understanding. To others he’s megalomaniacal monster who has refused every chance at redemption and must be put down. Unsurprisingly, speculation and opinions over what his fate will be in IX also vary the most of all of the characters. From an unrepentant death to atonement and forgiveness, little can stoke emotions like the debate over where his character is headed.
I would suggest however, that an examination of his character and story suggests the least discussed outcome for his character is actually the most likely. As the sequel trilogy chronicles Rey’s rise as a hero and leader of the light, so too is the trilogy a story of the rise of Kylo Ren as a villain.
From his introduction in The Force Awakens, Kylo is depicted as a villain. He remorselessly cuts down a defenseless Lor San Tekka and then orders the slaughter of a village. Our first hero, Poe, suffers a brutal interrogation at his hands. From his first scenes, the movie makes it clear Kylo is very much a servant of evil. The movie further takes advantage of this and casts his first encounter with Rey in the vein of the classic monster – implacable and relentless.
Yet it is also here that we start seeing a different side of our villain. After relentlessly looking for the droid carrying the map to Luke Skywalker’s location for half the movie, he inexplicably abandons his pursuit of the droid upon capturing Rey. As Hux reminds him in the early part of the film, keeping the map out of the hands of the Resistance is more important than recovering it for the First Order. Upon finding Rey has seen the map, Kylo forgets all about this goal and lets the Resistance have the map.
Our view of the character as a classic villain is further upended as he removes his helmet to reveal a young man to Rey and approaches her with a gentleness absent in his interrogation of Poe. At the same time, his differential treatment only goes so far and he still tries to forcibly take what he wants from Rey. The movie reminds us he is indeed a villain, but perhaps with more layers than we originally thought. In the next very next scene, Kylo is shocked at Snoke’s order to the use Starkiller against the Resistance and declares he will get the map. Unimpressed, Snoke tells Kylo to bring Rey to him.
It is in the film’s climax that his depiction is at its most complex. Believing that he must kill his father, Kylo nevertheless hesitates and nearly takes Han’s offer of returning with him then and there. Kylo admits he knows what he has to do, but admits he’s being torn apart by it. After killing Han, Kylo feels emotionally devastated and greatly weakened rather than strengthened as he expected. It so unbalances him that he loses to Rey, even though she’s never wielded a lightsaber before.
The Last Jedi further plays with our view of Kylo Ren. Despite Kylo’s assertion he didn’t hesitate to kill his father, Snoke knows otherwise berating him for letting the act ‘split him to the bone’. Once out of Snoke’s sight, Kylo takes his frustrations out on his helmet, destroying it. He attacks the Resistance fleet, but isn’t able to fire upon his own mother. Through Kylo and Rey’s Force connections, we see his more vulnerable side; yet he’s also manipulative and attempts to use Rey’s own longing for connection against her. He destroys Snoke saving Rey, only to claim Snoke’s throne and extending an offer to rule with him at the price of her friends. After Rey refuses Kylo’s offer, the latter seems to lose any connection to the light. Yet our final view of Kylo is of a man who seems to have come to understand what he has lost on his path. Through two movies we are shown a man who seems well aware of what he’s doing, but is willing to do it anyway.
What Drives Kylo Ren?
Through two movies we’ve seen Kylo Ren commit horrible acts, but have also seen they bring him no pleasure. In fact, each act only seems to inflict more suffering and result in him becoming even more erratic. We’ve come to understand Kylo Ren as he is in intimate detail. Yet we’re still missing any understanding of why he is. Is he driven by revenge as his ill-advised confrontation with Luke would suggest? Is it a drive for power? Just what does Kylo want?
On the surface it would seem Kylo is driven by alienation from his family. He hints at feelings of abandonment when he talks to Rey about her own missing parents. In the climatic scene of TFA, Kylo told Han that he had destroyed Ben because he was weak like his father. We were certainly given a strong motivation for anger and resentment in TLJ when Kylo perceived Luke was attempting to kill him and his angry reaction to seeing the Falcon suggests some not so pleasant memories. Yet at the same time, he has a very difficult time killing Han and the decision is framed as something he feels he has to do, rather than something he wants to do. When Rey asks why Kylo hated his father, he claims he didn’t:
Rey: Why did you hate your father? Give me an honest answer. You had a father who loved you. He gave a damn about you.
Kylo: I didn’t hate him.
Rey follows up with the obvious question:
Rey: Then why?
Kylo: Why what? Why what? Say it.
Rey: Why did you… Why did you kill him? I don’t understand.
Kylo: No? Your parents threw you away like garbage.
Rey: They didn’t!
Kylo: They did. But you can’t stop needing them. It’s your greatest weakness. Looking for them everywhere, in Han Solo, now in Skywalker.
This exchange is intended to break down Rey further of course, but the truth of it is Kylo is actually stating what he perceives as his greatest weakness. Let’s reword that a bit:
Rey: Why did you kill him? I don’t understand.
Kylo: My parents threw me away like garbage. But I can’t stop needing them. It’s my greatest weakness. Looking for them everywhere, in Han Solo then in Skywalker.
This describes exactly what happened from Kylo’s perspective. He felt alienated from his real father and, after his parents sent him to Luke (‘threw him away like garbage’), he looked to Luke as a parental figure. Alas Luke didn’t understand and came to fear Kylo too, culminating in the former trying to kill the latter (at least that’s how Kylo sees it). Yet despite feeling betrayed by his family, Kylo can’t help but be tempted by Han’s offer to leave everything behind and go back to his family. Later, he’s unable to bring himself to fire on his own mother despite having ample opportunity to do so. If it’s not anger over abandonment and betrayal that’s driving his familicidal actions, then what is? He tells us in the same scene:
Kylo: Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.
Kylo believes the pull of his family is preventing him from becoming as strong as he has to be. Since he’s been unable to fully bury that pull, he’s killing them instead. In his own words, Kylo thinks the only thing stopping him from fully embracing the dark side is his family.
While this answers why Kylo would kill his own father, it’s only a proximate answer. We still don’t know what Kylo believes he’s meant to do. Our only indication in the films is his vow to “finish what [Vader] started”. However, Vader was driven to the dark side by a fear of loss. Once that fear resulted in him actually losing what he wanted to protect, his only goal became externalizing his pain and self-loathing on the galaxy. As we’ve just determined Kylo’s goal isn’t purely to destroy, the only conclusion is Kylo has been led to believe Vader had a more constructive goal. As his means of achieving that goal are causing him considerable pain, it must somehow be worth the cost in his mind and unachievable any other way.
Kylo Ren’s fate in Episode IX is perhaps the most speculated and argued over Star Wars related topic after The Last Jedi (with the exception of TLJ itself). The most popular prediction is Kylo will turn from the dark side similar to Vader. Opinions then diverge on whether this will be a noble sacrifice (ala Vader) or if he will live and face any number of consequences while atoning for his actions (exile, imprisonment, blocked from the Force, etc.). However, whether he lives or dies is of less interest here than the idea he is likely to turn in the first place.
The films themselves do much to encourage the audience to expect his change of heart. Indeed, his entire conflict revolves around his continued attempts to resist the pull to the light. We’re encouraged to see him in a sympathetic light (whether he deserves to be is a different question). He’s Han and Leia’s only son which automatically pushes the audience to root for his redemption for their sake. Leia’s pleas to Han to bring back their son are heart wrenching in their sincerity. Even when Kylo fatally stabs his father, Han still tenderly caresses his son’s cheek. The very fact The Last Jedi presents him as the only third generation Skywalker encourages us to root for his return to the light (of course, there is another).
His behavior with Rey contrasts with that of his treatment of Poe at the start of The Force Awakens. Instead of immediately brutally forcing his way into her mind, he converses with her and tries to convince her to help him willingly. Indeed, when he removes his helmet, we’re meant to be shocked by the appearance of a normal looking man as much as it surprises Rey. In The Last Jedi, the pain he expresses to Rey appears genuine even as he attempts to use her own insecurities against her. He saves Rey’s life by killing his master and extends an offer for her to join him. Even after attempting to wipe out the Resistance on Crait, even when he knows that means the death of his mother and Rey, our final shot is of a man who feels deep pain over what he’s done and lost because of it. To top it off, Luke himself appears to strongly foreshadow his nephew’s return when he state’s “No one is ever really gone” to Leia after she seems to give up on her son.
Taken together, the case that we’re headed for a redeemed, if not atoned, Kylo appears extremely strong. Indeed, the movies themselves seem to badly want us to at least consider the story is going that direction, if not believe it. Yet if that is indeed where his story is going, TLJ has left us in a very strange place.
Two people have attempted to turn Kylo and failed, including the main character. The Last Jedi deliberately suggested he might turn down to practically recreating the bridge and throne room scenes from Return of the Jedi. They culminated in much the same way, Vader choosing between his son and the Emperor and Kylo Ren choosing between Rey and Snoke. Yet, that’s also precisely where TLJ diverged, instead of Kylo forswearing the dark side and First Order, he took Snoke’s throne and offered to rule with Rey at the cost of her friends. In one fell swoop TLJ both covered the antagonist turning due to the protagonist and took away the devil on Kylo’s shoulder. Whatever Kylo does now, he does of his own volition.
This creates a major problem going into IX as there is no longer a big bad to struggle against to turn Kylo because TLJ placed him in that position. Everything the First Order does at the end of TLJ comes at Kylo’s direction. He orders the annihilation of the Resistance on Crait, orders the First Order to concentrate everything on Luke over the objections of his generals and then declares his intention to kill Rey when he personally confronts Luke. None of these actions can be laid at anyone’s feet but Kylo’s.
Now, could there be another Big Bad to replace Snoke in IX? Possible, but who? The First Order generals, including Hux, are terrified of Kylo even if they don’t want him as their leader. Neither do they pose a direct physical or spiritual threat to Kylo or Rey. There’s no setup in the first two movies for a greater scope villain to appear and be defeated in the course of Episode IX. All we know about the Knights of Ren is Kylo is their master, which makes them rather unlikely. Going into IX, there are simply no good candidates to fill the role Kylo currently occupies.
Even worse for a redemption narrative is the main protagonist, Rey, has already tried and failed to turn Kylo Ren. In fact, their last scene together showed Rey resolutely and pointedly closing a door as Kylo watched. The message is clear: Rey gave him a chance and he threw it away. No matter how sad Kylo looks, it would take something truly narrative shifting to get her to open that door again. Yet we only have one movie yet to accomplish that in and plenty of other ground to cover. Worse still is there is one vital character left that still has a chance at bringing Ben back: his mother.
The Leia Problem
Episode IX was intended to be Leia’s movie and The Last Jedi was written in this context. While Carrie’s death threw Episode IX into uncertainty, any analysis of TLJ must take into account it was created with the original plan in mind. Thus we could expect Leia was anticipated to have the same prominence that Han and Luke had in their movies. Both characters had full movie-long arcs that culminated in a confrontation with Kylo. There is no reason to think this wouldn’t have been true of Leia as well.
Therein lies the problem, Leia is not the protagonist of the Sequel Trilogy, Rey is. Therefore, the main instigator of Kylo’s redemption must be Rey. If we can expect Leia’s arc would have culminated in her finally confronting her son, we also have to expect she would be unable to turn him on her own. However, his mother is the one character Kylo has been shown to have a strong connection with. If there’s a character that stands a chance of bringing back Ben, Leia is it. Yet how can she even be part of the solution without completely overshadowing Rey? Leia’s history and relationship with Kylo goes back to his birth and the films have gone out of their way to show Kylo still has strong sentiment for her.
If Leia was to fail to turn Kylo, then what could Rey offer that Leia could not and, critically, what time was this supposed to be achieved in? Following the pattern of TFA and TLJ, Leia’s confrontation with her son would have been part of the climax in the third act. If the intent was to redeem Kylo, then Rey’s contribution would have either taken a backseat to Leia or been given very little time to develop in.
In the face of these structural and narrative issues, I must conclude redemption is unlikely. Where does this leave Kylo then? Many would argue he will die unrepentant, yet this also seems unlikely. First, unlike Vader, it’s clear he has his own arc. He’s been struggling with the pull to the light for two movies and rejected salvation twice. As driving out the light is a means to an end, dying before he gets a chance to try to accomplish that end makes his ultimate motivations meaningless (particularly since we won’t even know them until Episode IX).
Killing him also wipes out his credibility as a villain. Whereas Vader was presented as an unredeemable monster until the second half of the third movie with decades of atrocities behind him, Kylo has been presented as fairly new to the business of evil and still unsure if this is really what he wants to be doing. Further, he hasn’t been presented as much of a threat to anything other than unarmed old men and computer equipment. Rey, the protagonist, has so far bested him in a lightsaber duel and then drew him in a Force pull contest over the Skywalker lightsaber. If Rey bests and kills Kylo in IX, that will be three straight movies where the antagonist failed to pose a credible threat to the hero.
Rise of a Hero, Fall of a Villain
All of this leads me to the conclusion Kylo isn’t headed for redemption or death, rather he will complete his descent into the dark side and cement his status as its leader and champion. While it may seem he has done that as of the end of The Last Jedi, several obstacles remain. The first is his status as Supreme Leader of the First Order is shaky. Hux certainly despises him and no doubt the old guard will not happily accede to his command of the First Order. While they’re likely too terrified of him to openly oppose him, they’ll certainly be happy to take advantage of any moments of weakness.
Second, one last draw to the light remains: his mother. As the films and Aftermath Trilogy showed, Ben/Kylo has a strong connection to his mother through the Force. If he is to fully embrace the dark side, this connection must be dealt with. Only after these two remaining obstacles are dealt with can Kylo truly become what he believes he was meant to be. Only then will he truly measure up to and surpass Darth Vader.
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