Redemption, Kylo Ren, and ‘The Rise of Skywalker’

“Does Kylo Ren deserve to be redeemed, or should he die as a villain?”

If you were involved in the online Star Wars fandom between the release of “The Last Jedi” and “The Rise of Skywalker,” chances are good that you saw at least one debate involving that question.

Kylo Ren had done plenty of bad things in the narrative by that point, but then again, so had Darth Vader, who got his own redemption arc in “Return of the Jedi.”

Some fans felt Kylo had delved too deeply into the dark side, while others argued that Luke’s now-iconic quote from “The Last Jedi” still applied to his nephew: “No one’s ever really gone…”

I’ve been on board the “Bendemption” train since watching “The Last Jedi,” and a redemption arc for Kylo Ren/Ben Solo was my one “must” for Episode IX. When I first heard the film’s title, I didn’t know exactly what “The Rise of Skywalker” meant, but I hoped it would include Ben finding his way back to the light.

***Warning: Spoilers for Star Wars: Episode IX ahead!***

I never really doubted that Ben Solo would be redeemed in Episode IX, especially once I heard that Emperor Palpatine was returning and would fill the role of the film’s “big bad.” But I was super curious to see how J.J. Abrams would pull off Ben’s redemption arc, and what the overall response in the fandom would be.

While emotionally, I was always on board with Ben’s redemption since he’s one of my favorite Star Wars characters, whether he deserves to be redeemed from a philosophical standpoint is trickier to address.

To what extent is Kylo a victim, and how should he atone for his crimes? Every Star Wars fan probably has a slightly different opinion, depending on how you personally interpret Kylo’s messy, tragic backstory.

Whether you love him or hate him, I think we can all agree that Kylo Ren is a fascinating character, thanks to Adam Driver’s nuanced and complex portrayal. Kylo is a victim of Snoke’s manipulation (which is really, as we later learn, Palpatine’s fault), but he is still responsible for his own choices.

As a person of faith, I don’t view redemption as something a person either does or does not “deserve”; instead, I see it as a gift, an offer of grace that we extend to each other.

Maybe Kylo Ren doesn’t strictly “deserve” to be redeemed. However, he is not beyond the hope of redemption. Even after all the mistakes he has made, there is still light inside him, and he has the power to change his fate by rejecting the dark side.

It’s important for us to see stories of redemption in fiction, because it reminds us that even if we have made mistakes in our own lives, we are not doomed forever. We can change our path, and we can choose to become better.

Letting the past die

I believe redemption was always a valid story path for Ben Solo — however, was it executed successfully in the film?

I had a lot of theories about what might (or might not) happen in “The Rise of Skywalker,” and I thought it would have been interesting if Ben had defected from the First Order early in the movie and helped the Resistance hunt down Palpatine. But, I’m also happy with what we got.

It makes sense that Kylo would reforge his mask, even though he smashed it and appeared to be done with it in “The Last Jedi.” He uses the mask to hide his true self, and his true feelings, from both Palpatine and Rey. Although he pretends to remain committed to the dark side, Rey tells him she can still see through the cracks in his mask; she knows he is tortured and haunted, and light and dark are still at war for the fate of his soul.

Rey and Kylo’s fight on the wreckage of the Death Star is one of my favorite Star Wars scenes now; by this point in the movie, Kylo Ren is just a shadow of the angry, vindictive man he was at the end of “The Last Jedi.” When Rey stabs him, the look he gives her isn’t one of rage — it’s of weariness and grief. He’s tired of fighting her, and he’s tired of being Kylo Ren.

Leia sacrificing the last of her life force to reach her son one final time is such a beautiful moment, as is Rey’s decision to heal Ben of the wound she just dealt him. There’s some powerful symbolism in this scene; when Rey stabs him, she effectively kills Kylo Ren, and the man she resurrects is Ben Solo.

The following scene in the film, where Ben imagines his father appearing to him, is also important, because it helps Ben (and the audience) receive closure for Han’s death. We get to see Han express his love and forgiveness for his son; if Han believes that Kylo can come back from the darkness, then the viewers will too.

I loved seeing Ben toss his lightsaber into the ocean, another symbol of how he is rejecting the dark side and the man he used to be. He even gets rid of his costume, separating himself as much as possible from “Kylo Ren.”

Saving what we love

If you’ve seen TROS, then you know how Ben’s arc ultimately ends. He goes to Exogol, fights the Knights of Ren, and then helps Rey face Palpatine. He survives the confrontation — though he is thrown, broken and bloody, down a shaft. Much like his mother did, he chooses to sacrifice his life force to revive Rey, eventually dying and becoming one with the Force.

Even though I was hoping for Ben to live beyond the events of TROS, I have made peace with the ending. Ben “dies” (more on that in a minute), but I still see the ending as a hopeful one.

Ben has lived a tortured life, misunderstood by his family and then used as a pawn by Snoke and Palpatine. Yet when he gives his life for Rey, it isn’t something he is forced or pressured to do. He makes this choice out of love, and when we see him smile, we know he has found peace and freedom from his past.

Ben didn’t need to die in order to find redemption/atonement, but there is a beautiful, romantic tragedy to the way the final scenes of TROS play out. Love has always been the conquering force in Star Wars; it pulls Ben back to the light, and then gives him the strength he needs to save Rey.

And who knows? Death isn’t the end for a Jedi, and Ben Solo may very well show up in Star Wars stories in the future, either appearing as a Force ghost or within the World Between Worlds. I definitely have a feeling we’ll be seeing him again.

The Story Geeks blogger Ashley Pauls responds with an additional perspective to the Story Geeks Star Wars podcast series. [Listen Here: AppleStitcherPodbean]

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