This Star Wars article contains spoilers.
Who will save Kylo Ren’s soul? With two subversive moments, The Last Jedi reframes the redemption question altogether. If it wasn’t already apparent from the controversial reception The Last Jediis getting, this isn’t your parents’ Star Wars. The Last Jedi is nothing if not a loving criticism of what has come before in the series. Nowhere is this more apparent than in how the newest chapter handles its redemption arc.
Let me preface this article by saying that no one is beyond redemption. There is always a path back to becoming a productive and valued member of a community for any one of us who is able to accept accountability for our actions and do the necessary work to change problematic behavior.
However, if this past year has proven anything, it’s that social, political, and cultural power generally means getting far more chances in spite of bad behavior. A common trend in the stories of people in power who are being accused of serial sexual harrassment and abuse is that they have been given a seemingly infinite number of chances to do their work (and to continue to exert their power in harmful ways), despite taking zero to very little accountability for their harmful actions.
It’s no surprise, then, that these patterns are reflected in our most popular, pervasive stories. They are, after all, being largely created by the people (mostly, though not exclusively, straight white men) who are, if not perpertrators themselves, then friends and colleagues to those who abuse their power in ways that should be unacceptable. And, as Sarah Silverman so emotionally, articulately, and critically outlined for us, it sucks when someone you care about does terrible things.
Terrible men can tell feminist stories. Good men can tell stories about terrible people. But who is telling our stories and the culture they represent matter. The biggest of Hollywood movies tell American culture what is normal, and what is normalized in Hollywood movies is informed by what is normalized in our storytellers’ lives. It’s why we are told again and again in our stories that men—their careers, their pride, their desires, their redemptions—should be prioritized above all else.
The redemption arc has long been the Rey’s Portion Bread (and butter) of the Star Wars franchise. The crux of the final film in the Original Trilogy is the possibility of Darth Vader’s redemption. The prequels are all about trying to convince us why we should care about that redemption outside of what it means to Luke and the Rebellion. More recently, much of the new trilogy’s emotional tension comes from Kylo Ren’s many, many chances to choose the light over the dark. Spoiler alert: So far, he hasn’t. But it’s hard to imagine Episode IX won’t squeeze some more emotion out of the possibility.
As a society, we have been conditioned to give those in power an infinite amount of chances in our pop culture stories. We are constantly looking for ways to redeem them. In stories geared towards men, this often takes the form of a redemption arc that asks very little of the man being redeemed, like in Star Wars or X-Men: Apocalypse. This can also take the form of an anti-hero tale, which often doesn’t entertain the possibility of a redemption arc, but does revel in the (usually straight white male) power the anti-hero possesses.
In stories geared towards women, this often takes the form of a redemption arc where the man is motivated by romantic love. It’s the kind of trope that seems to pop up particularly in vampire love stories geared towards teen girls. The Damon and Elena relationship (#Delena) in The Vampire Diariesis a good example. While the show was often great TV drama, it’s main romantic relationship featured an abusive, murderous vampire whose redemption arc’s worth was mainly measured by his love for a teen girl a century-and-a-half his junior and his bouts of self-hate—usually depicted by Ian Somerhalder smoldering into a fire as he drank from a tumbler of bourbon, an emo pop power ballad blaring in the background.
In the Star Wars universe, we see this romantic path to redemption explored with Kylo and Ren (#Reylo). While the two are not necessarily romantic in the film, the ship is a popular one on Tumblr and beyond. While I think anyone should be able to ship whomever they want in peace, the idea that a woman’s love can save an abusive man from his own darkness is a problematic trope we have seen in enough stories to last the next century or so. While the desire to want men to find ways to work through their trauma and seek a path towards becoming better people is never a bad one, and loved ones are often part of the support system necessary to do that work, the work itself must be undertaken by those seeking redemption.
Even our best redemption stories tend to ask very little of their redeemed. In Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader kills Emperor Palpatine, but arguably only to prevent the death of his son (another example, though non-romantic, of the Love Redeems Trope). After destroying entire planets and killing countless people, a single moment of lowest-bar fathering grants Anakin an eternal afterlife hanging with Yoda and Obi-Wan as a Force ghost. For a more recent example of this, look no further than X-Men: Apocalypse, which saw Erik commit mass murder alongside Apocalypse only to have him welcomed back into the good graces of Charles and the X-Men for turning on Apocalypse.
This “low bar” redemption seems to be changing with The Last Jedi. Let’s compare Darth Vader’s “redemption” setup to the one we get in The Last Jedi, where Rey plays a similar role to the one Luke played in Return of the Jedi. Desperate both to understand “her place in all of this” and to reach the humanity still inside of Kylo Ren, Rey bets everything on Kylo’s redemption. She is unsuccessful, but I would not argue that she fails.
“Did you come back to say you forgive me? To save my soul?” Kylo Ren asks Luke when they meet on Crait. “No,” Luke says, simple yet strong. This is not Kylo Ren’s redemption story—or, if it is, he’s going to have to do a hell of a lot more to make it happen. His redemption isn’t someone else’s responsibility.
With Luke’s decision to stop taking responsibility for Kylo’s actions, The Last Jedi has just made a statement that the world of Star Wars, and our world with it, deserves better. Rey shuts the door on Kylo Ren, and Ben Solo with him. These are two of the most subversive moments of The Last Jedi, which I hope stick as the franchise continues—not necessarily as a rejection of redemption arc altogether (though Agents of SHIELD‘s Ward is a good example of how to do this right), but in the form of a higher bar for Kylo Ren.
It’s hard to imagine what alternate paths to redemption might look like because we don’t have many pop culture or real world examples. Perhaps it will look like Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Furiosa, a character who uses the power she no doubt earned in despicable ways to free Immortan Joe’s wives. Or maybe it will look like Game of Thrones‘ Jamie Lannister, circa seasons 1 to 4, who went from a man who pushes Stark children out of windows to protect his sister to a man who sends Brienne to protect them from Cersei. (Let’s not talk about what happens with Jamie’s redemption arc post-season 4.) Or perhaps it will look like Logan’s arc in Logan. While he is never a villain, he is asked to take greater responsibility for the people and world around him.
While we wait for more, better redemption arcs to present themselves, The Last Jedi‘s choice to reject the lowest bar redemption arc trope is a breath of fresh air that is perhaps reflective of an industry that is starting to hold some abusers (though far from all) accountable for their actions. But, in order for it to change in the real world, it has to continue to change in our most important stories, too. They need to tell us that, unless someone who demonstrates abusive behavior can take accountability and make efforts to change, then there is no place for them. Not as our heroes or anti-heroes. Not as our storytellers or mythmakers.
We want to believe that abusers, men and women alike, can become healthier people. But I’m sick of stories that award them that redemption at the cost of so little regret, so little empathy, so little work to change. Perhaps Ben Solo will get a redemption arc in Episode IX, but I would rather no redemption at all than another one that prioritizes the abuser over the abused, one that feels hollow rather than earned.
Give us more redemption stories, but give us redemption stories that ask more of their redeemed.