The world reeled when Ben Solo murdered his father, Han Solo, in the first installment of the new Star Wars trilogy. Some of my friends said, “That’s it, that boy needs to die.” I said, “This is going to be one hell of a redemptive arc.” And it was.
I consider Ben Solo as “Kylo Ren” one of the more effectively emotional villains in the canon. A man fraught with misgivings, second-guessing, and rigid attempts to force himself into an identity he has chosen for himself (a villain who will “finish what [my grandfather] started”), Kylo Ren is responsible for mass genocide, the destruction of entire planets through his alignment with the Dark Side, the assassination of his leader and subsequent attempt to become a galactic dictator, and the murder of his father in cold blood. Though “torn” by these decisions, he commits them—and his redemption arc, his forgiveness by both his parents, his decision to abandon his former ambitions and come back to the Light in going up against the Emperor alongside Rey, cannot erase the sins of his past. Much as we would like them to fade away, in the real world you have to pay for what you have done.
Yes, Kylo Ren throws tantrums, breaks control panels, throws people around using the Force, and is emotionally unstable, but he also defeats Stormtrooper Finn in less than twenty seconds in a light saber duel, has such a powerful connection to the Force he’s astonished that Rey can “push back” against him, and intends to kill both his parents to fulfill his transformation to the Dark Side. He succeeds with Han, but hesitates with his mother—showing a flash of prospective redemption that gives her the confidence to believe he is worth dying for.
No person’s past excuses their present actions, and it should not erase Kylo Ren’s heinous deeds for the Dark Side, but we also cannot ignore his tragic past built up of broken expectations, deep resentment for his absentee father, and the ruthless assault of Snoke on his mind from a young age. Kylo chose who he became, for good or evil, but had a mother who spent more time tending the needs of the galaxy than parenting; Leia admits she should have been more present in his training. He had a neglectful father who left whenever life got hard, and did not come home for months. And he had a moralistic uncle who saw the Dark Side in him and instead of nurturing him, rejected him just long enough for Ben to feel the full weight of condemnation and abandon his family. Above all, in the novelization, we learn Snoke, as a puppet for the emperor, has been whispering to him from childhood—attempting to plant fear and doubt in his mind, to draw him into evil.
The sheer force of his insecurities makes him memorable. Kylo Ren has a realistic shift “to evil” because he is not sure of himself; he is acting to “become,” rather than “already being,” he is still in a “journey” of self-discovery, and in this way, he differs from most villains—they have completed their transformation and become irredeemable. Kylo wants to become a villain, but his conscience and deep inner morality attempt, repeatedly, to stop him. It does not prevent his actions, but it hinders them, and causes him enormous guilt and suffering—something that pleases the emperor, as a representative of the Dark Side.
Though at first we think of Kylo Ren as the ultimate evil in his patricide, from the start, the trilogy establishes that this is a “redemption” story, with Rey portraying the Light and Kylo being the Dark Side of the Force. She is his Dyad in the Force, since the Force always rises equal opposites to balance out each other. Rey reaches into his darkness and plucks him forth into the sunlight; she is the goodness he covets, but he must shed his old skin to touch it; the puzzle that so fascinates him, he abandons his former self and embraces his guilt and shame, to become “whole” once again. It is not a simple journey, and he is not an easy character to forgive, but his death is the final accumulation of his redemption. He dies so Rey might live—he dies so he can reunite with his parents, and not spend decades atoning for what he has done.
Much as I like to imagine a future where he and Rey find each other in love and equality in their mutual goodness, that could never be their story—because redemption does not erase the past in anyone but God’s eyes. After a life of violence, pain, and torment, in sacrificing his life for another, Ben Solo found his true self at last and embraced peace. Where fear drove his grandfather to the Dark Side, love drew Ben back into the light. It is an old but excellent message of redemption. One that, for me, makes the new trilogy an emotionally enthralling experience, and its anti-hero unforgettable.
Title Image in Full: Ben by Qurikilicious