This article contains major The Rise of Skywalker spoilers. You can read a spoiler free review here instead.
We’re living in a world that has proven itself ineffectual at holding those who abuse power accountable for the pain they have caused others. While organized movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have done a good job of raising awareness around some of the systemic oppression and violence that routinely occurs in the United States, and centered more stories of survivors, most of the perpetrators of abuse have neither accepted accountability nor been forced to face any real consequences for their actions. This is increasingly on my mind when I consume stories—like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker—that center on some kind of redemption arc.
Redemption arcs are a storytelling structure that take a character from a place of villainy to a place of heroism. A good redemption arc requires work of its redemption-seeker—a process that sees the character in question reflecting on the harm they have caused, taking accountability for it, and demonstrating they have undertaken a more responsible and empathetic method for making decisions and wielding power. Done right, there are few stories more intrinsically hopeful than a redemption arc. It is a storytelling structure founded on the belief that no one is beyond redemption.
However, by and large, our culture needs to get much better at telling redemption stories. Because our most popular franchises don’t just reflect our culture, they also help shape it. For better and worse, the quality of redemption arcs in our biggest stories play a role in the quality of our redemption arcs in our real world.
The redemption arc has been integral to the Star Wars universe for a long time. While redemption may not have played much of a thematic role in A New Hope, the Original Trilogy’s climactic chapter is structured around Darth Vader’s decision to kill Emperor Palpatine in order to save his son, Luke Skywalker. The Rise of Skywalker works to retread the familiar path of Darth Vader’s redemption arc. This time, instead of Darth Vader, it is the grandson who so admires him following that admiration to its eventual, redemptive conclusion.
Let’s take a look at the quality of Kylo Ren’s redemption arc…
The final film in the Skywalker saga begins with mass murderer Kylo Ren on yet another killing spree. He is on the search for the returned Emperor Palpatine who, with his fleet of planet-destroying ships, represents the biggest threat to Kylo Ren’s power. Over the course of the film, Kylo goes from prioritizing securing his power at all costs to making the same choice his grandfather made in Return of the Jedi: saving what he loves.
The transition is not gradual, but rather occurs largely over the course of one scene. In it, we see Leia dying seemingly to save her son’s soul. The sacrifice allows Rey the chance to thrust a lightsaber through Kylo’s gut. She then heals him using the Force. As part of the near-death experience, Kylo sees his father, Han Solo (murdered by Kylo himself in The Force Awakens). Han has a message for Kylo, a symbolic gift from both Han and Leia: it’s not too late to seek redemption.
And just like that Kylo Ren becomes Ben Solo again. He follows Rey to Palpatine’s lair, fights alongside her, and when she dies to defeat Palpatine, he gives his life for hers. In other words, he pulls a Darth Vader. The move has thematic resonance both for the saga as a whole and for Kylo Ren’s stated aspiration to be like his grandfather.
As a list of plot points, Kylo’s character beats in The Rise of Skywalker aren’t uninteresting or unimportant. There’s just usually character development between them: clearly defined events that affect how our redemption-seeker sees the world and themself. These events link together to become a process, which redemption should and must be. But The Rise of Skywalker is uninterested in telling a story of process; it is a film that only seems able to relay narrative information in events. It is a film unable to articulate context past the confines of the frame or the scene.
If we think of cinematic progress not only in terms of technological advancements (like more realistic VFX) but also narrative advancements like the quality of our redemption arcs, then The Rise of Skywalker hasn’t progressed since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Kylo Ren’s decision here looks very similar to Darth Vader’s—at the time, a galaxy-shattering and emotionally-affecting plot twist. Now, in a world that has had almost 40 years to respond to the Original Trilogy, it is stale.
Pehaps this is in part because Kylo Ren is rebelling against the same exact “man”: Emperor Palpatine. J.J. Abrams seems unable to imagine what an inspiring redemption arc might look like in 2019. Instead, he brings back Palpatine in a ham-fisted attempt to get around giving Kylo Ren any sincere character development. It is a narrative shortcut for Kylo Ren’s “redemption,” as the film gives Kylo a greater evil against which to rebel and gives the Skywalker saga a Bigger Bad than Kylo Ren on which to place the blame—as if “blame” is an all-or-nothing game in which only the most egregious of abusers should be held accountable.
Palpatine steps in at the beginning of this film to tell Kylo Ren (and, by extension, the audience) that he has been “every voice you’ve ever heard in your head,” that he has been pulling the strings since the beginning. By bringing in Palpatine, The Rise of Skywalker hopes to handwave away all of the horrors Kylo Ren has done, without holding him properly accountable for any of them, and makes him one of the heroes of this story. (*Abrams waves hand in front of our faces.* “This isn’t the villain you’re looking for.”)
It’s not surprising that the people making Hollywood movies might not find a thorough exploration of power and accountability for the abuses of it important. As it is becoming increasingly clear, it is more common for Hollywood’s chief decision-makers to relate to Kylo Ren’s consequence-free lifestyle than marginalized characters on the other side of these kinds of abuses. Statistically, the latter examples are not representative of the people who make our mainstream movies. Statistically, the people who make our movies are people who have always had access to privilege and power. Statistically, Hollywood decision-makers who abuse the power they have inherited, in big and small ways, are not always held accountable for those abuses.
In this industry context, it’s not hard to understand how we went from a movie about women in power to a movie that bends over backwards to make Kylo Ren into some kind of hero, to give him a seemingly infinite amount of chances at redemption without properly addressing the pain he has caused to so many. Rather, it’s hard to understand how we got a movie like The Last Jedi in the first place. Thankfully, The Last Jedi does exist—as an example of what is possible, even within the constraints of franchise filmmaking, to be held up whenever we make excuses for why a mainstream movie doesn’t take more narrative chances or fails to step over even the lowest bars of representation and inclusivity.
Because by giving Kylo Ren’s redemption arc and Rey’s struggles with inherited power so much of the narrative space in this film, we don’t get to check in with so many other characters who don’t hold immense, inherited power. Characters like Rose Tico, who is relegated to the jungle moon of Ajan Kloss in The Rise of Skywalker, along with everyone else in this world whose story Abrams is not actually interested in telling. The story of General Organa and her Resistance mainly serves an expository function. It’s where Rey, Poe, and Finn go to get information and their next mission; not where story actually takes place.
Frankly, the film kind of gets away with Kylo Ren’s redemption arc—partially because our standards for redemption arcs are so low. We’re unaccustomed to seeing our Hollywood blockbusters hold its (usually) white male heroes and anti-heroes truly accountable for their abuses of power. We all live in a world in which we are socially conditioned to excuse, forgive, or forget the damaging actions of privileged white men. We’re socialized to have empathy for the male characters at the center of our biggest narratives and lives, to give them an infinite amount of chances, no matter what. It’s why, when Rey delivers a fatal blow against Kylo—something the Resistance has kinda, sorta been trying to do for this whole Sequel Trilogy—only to then heal him, viewers probably went along with it.
And if, like me, you’re desperate to see this kind of magical about face from those in power in the real world, it’s tempting to just go along with it. There’s not a lot to cheer for right now, why not let yourself have this one? I don’t begrudge anyone this choice. I’ve made it before, I will probably make it again, and if The Rise of Skywalker were a better movie, I might have gone along with it this time.
Another factor that might have impacted my experience of this film? Spending time in Star Wars-centric transformative fandom in the last few years. If there’s one thing transformative fandom is good at, it’s at filling in the spaces of canon, at filling in the character development between character beats. In general, I think people who have spent time in Star Wars transformative fandom—in particular the Reylo fandom, of which Kylo Ren is one half—in recent years were able to enjoy Kylo Ren’s redemption (though not necessarily the movie) in The Rise of Skywalkera bit more than those who had not.
Transformative fandom is so good at redemption stories. Fanfiction, which makes up a large part of transformative fandom, is largely written by women and non-binary people who prioritize character interiority and development over plot to a high degree. To say that nothing happens in fanfiction is not accurate, but more often than not the things that do “happen” are entirely to do with emotional processes like healing, loving, and, yes, redeeming.
In this way, transformative fandom does the emotional labor that mainstream canonical stories are so often so bad at. In seeing Reylo fans responding to the Kylo Ren redemption arc so differently than I did, it made me wonder: How would I have experienced this story if I had spent the last two or more years in Reylo fandom? If I had spent the time between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker reading stories about the redemptive work of Kylo Ren? If that were the case, I can imagine the coming together of Kylo Ren and Rey might have felt like a catharsis, and the death that followed would have been devastating.
While I don’t have the attachment to Kylo Ren as a character or Reylo as a ship that might have made the Kylo Ren death hit harder, I did see it as the final failure of The Rise of Skywalker‘s attempt at a redemption arc. With not too much work, the film could have represented Kylo Ren’s decision to fight Palpatine alongside Rey as the first step in his redemptive work, rather than the last. To represent redemption not as a long, difficult process, but rather as one choice, as one event, is deeply irresponsible in this day and age when we need stories that more accurately depict successful redemption more than ever.
Transformative fandom as a term is a good one, but it doesn’t get at every function of the thing it is intended to describe. Yes, transformative fandom often changes canon, but more often it fills in the spaces. It builds off of what is already there. If a canonical story is a house, then transformative fandom hangs art on the wall and invites more people in. It knocks down walls and builds additions and uses spaces for other than their original intended purpose.
If a canonical story is a house, then transformative fandom makes that house a home. In Star Wars canonical language, transformative fandom thrives not by fighting what it hates, but saving what it loves.
I like watching people redeem themselves more than the next overly-sentimental, foolishly-optimistic, world-weary person—and I think it is an important possibility to represent. I just think we need to start holding redemption arcs to a higher standard, like the ones I see so thoughtfully explored in transformative fandom. If we can’t do it in our popular culture, then how will we ever be able to do it in the real world?
Because The Rise of Skywalker‘s Kylo Ren redemption arc isn’t even close to how people make positive self-change or learn to take accountability for their actions in the real world. Not really. It takes time and it takes self-reflection and it takes a ridiculous amount of work that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We no longer live in a world in which we can afford to expect so little from those in power—if we ever lived in that world to begin with. Stories like Star Wars are a great place to start practicing.