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The Last Skywalker: On Kylo Ren’s ‘Star Wars’ Arc

‘The Rise of Skywalker’ brings an end to many things, some more satisfying than others, such as the culmination of the saga’s most compelling villain

Disney/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

In Star Wars, names are everything. Sweet, immaculately conceived Anakin Skywalker reinvents himself as Darth Vader. In the saga’s final scene, Rey, once “just Rey,” adopts the Skywalker moniker. (Yes, this is the sort of piece that discusses a movie’s final scene, as well as all the scenes before it. Consider yourself forewarned.) And before he tosses Kylo Ren down a reactor shaft, the resurrected Emperor Palpatine calls him the “last Skywalker”—but of course that isn’t true. Even before Rey assumes the title herself, Kylo reverts to a different, equally resonant identity: Ben Solo, the name he was born with and initially swore off.

The Rise of Skywalker has been roundly criticized, by both this site and others, for a lack of originality. The movie, the rapidly solidifying consensus holds, is far too indebted to fans’ expectations of the franchise, which they in turn picked up from the original trilogy. Seen through this lens, Kylo Ren is both supporting evidence and a crucial caveat. His ancestry—son of Leia Organa and Han Solo, grandson of Vader—makes him a literal callback; his trajectory, as a dark side disciple compelled to the light by family bonds, makes him a metaphorical one. And yet Kylo’s characterization, not so much a villain but a villain in the making, has made him the new trilogy’s single most exciting, and innovative, addition. The feeling is only compounded by his relationship with Rey, with whom he has a kindred-spirits, equal-yet-opposite bond that has enough charge to power a thousand Star Destroyers.

Kylo’s story line in The Rise of Skywalker threads this delicate line until the very end. His Force-assisted connection with Rey, a holdover from Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, continues to supply some of the series’ most electrifying scenes, now escalating from a fateful hand touch into an intragalactic necklace grab, and even the passing of Luke’s lightsaber. But apart from a few minor tweaks, Kylo’s ultimate arc hews closely to Vader’s: rediscovering his moral compass with the help of an immediate family member, turning on his Sith master, and sacrificing himself for the greater good of the Resistance. In lieu of filial devotion, or rather in addition to it, Kylo’s reverse heel turn has a different motivation: attraction to Rey, which The Rise of Skywalker makes explicit with a full-on deathbed kiss. Parts of of Kylo’s story embody widespread frustrations with The Rise of Skywalker, while others serve as their most obvious counterpoint.

Whether one side of this balance ultimately overpowers the other is almost a personal question, depending as it does on how one answers a litany of subjective questions. Is Kylo’s redemption earned? Can sacrificing his life for Rey’s make up for the thousands, if not millions, he’s taken over the years? Does their romance work as well on the screen as it does in fanfiction? In other words: Has Kylo Ren earned the right to call himself Ben Solo?

One of the many intriguing ideas The Last Jedi injected into Star Wars core narrative was that Kylo, unlike Vader, isn’t the deputy to the Big Bad—he is the Big Bad, made all the more heartbreaking by how close he came to being good. Murdering Han Solo was one thing, given that the father all but gave his son permission to lightsaber him through the stomach; assuming command of the First Order, and the title of Supreme Leader, as Rey literally begs him not to was quite another. (There’s also any number of casual deaths inflicted either directly by Kylo or on his orders, but the nature of storytelling is that we attach ourselves more firmly to protagonists than nameless background players.) When Rey telepathically walks away from Kylo and into the Millennium Falcon with her comrades, it feels like a definitive break: Kylo has chosen his path, and Rey has taken what was assumed to be his rightful place as a Jedi leader.

To both legions of Last Jedi dissenters and Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams, who may or may not be one of said dissenters, Johnson’s choices look less like an innovation and more like a frustrating dead end. (Abrams’s editor, Maryann Brandon, complained of The Last Jedi, “You can’t just abandon a story.” She was talking about the death of Luke Skywalker, though the sentiment applies to other strands as well.) Much has been made of Palpatine’s sudden, underexplained return as a hasty retcon of this third trilogy into the first and a dubiously necessary explanation of Rey’s heritage. Less commented on, though equally crucial, is how Palpatine gives Kylo a foil and Star Wars a scapegoat: With someone more straightforwardly bad on the scene, Kylo is now free to unite with the good against a common enemy.

For the first half of the movie, at least, Kylo’s particular brand of noxiousness gets some additional shading. Kylo has always functioned as an indirect commentary on aggrieved, entitled, distinctly modern masculinity—never obvious or preachy, but clear enough to tap into the zeitgeist. In The Last Jedi, his entreaties to Rey resemble nothing so much as negging. (“You’re nothing … but not to me.”) In The Rise of Skywalker, he’s transformed into the guy who can’t take no for an answer after being rejected; if they had Reddit in space, Kylo would be on it, complaining about the friend zone. Running with the ForceTime device, even after its seeming disconnection, is a minor override of Johnson’s story. Still, it’s in service of an interesting progression in Kylo’s character: refusing to respect Rey’s line in the sand, insisting he’ll hunt her down and change her mind.

Once the inevitable kicks in, The Rise of Skywalker trades some of Kylo’s specificity for the familiar beats of a redemption arc. Leia, in the culmination and sole effective use of the Carrie Fisher footage Abrams stitched into a makeshift role, sacrifices herself to connect with her son via the Force. Han, a non-Jedi, stretches the Force Ghost concept to urge his son it’s not too late. Rey leads by example and heals the potentially fatal lightsaber wound she’d just inflicted. All these personal appeals make Kylo’s eventual defection legible: He renounced his loved ones only after they renounced him first, when Luke gave into his suspicions and nearly tried to kill his student; naturally, their acceptance of his flaws and refusal to confirm his self-image compels him back. It’s not quite cathartic, but we do get one last comically puerile tantrum when Kylo hurls his lightsaber into the ocean.

Then again, it’s the nature of heroes to be less compelling than villains. Compared with Kylo’s quavering menace, Ben Solo and his tasteful-neutral tunic are … kind of a letdown. (Between the Uniqlo outfit, long stretches hiding Adam Driver’s face under a helmet, and a tragic lack of shirtless shots, Abrams’s sartorial track record is less than great.) What sits awkwardly is the how of Kylo’s turnaround: After he brings Rey back from the dead, before his life is taken in exchange for hers, they kiss. I am as fervent a Rey-Kylo shipper as there is, but something about what should’ve been a triumph rang false to me. Part of what gives the pair’s connection its charge is the forbidden-fruit aspect; by all objective measures, these two shouldn’t be together, and yet we can’t help ourselves from wanting them to be. And even though Rey and Ben won’t have an actual relationship, the moment comes uncomfortably close to making her affection a reward for Ben’s doing the right thing, precisely the logic Kylo’s always subtly parodied. I found myself wishing for an alternate ending, one that lets Rey either remain the celibate-monk figure of past Jedi masters—keeping her and Ben’s farewell to one last, charged stare—or one more thoroughly explores the implications of her breaking that cycle.

But where The Rise of Skywalker’s most abrasive elements actively detract from their predecessors, Rise’s Kylo material is merely least-best. Unlike the Rey reveal or the write-off of Rose, Kylo’s fate isn’t something it’s easy to picture the movie being better without. Rather, it’s a testament to how, even when Rise of Skywalker works as it’s supposed to, the task it’s saddled with is monumentally hard. Endings are all but impossible; besides, they’re hardly ever what we remember. Ten years from now, what will we still be talking about: the saber toss, or the throne room scene? Ben Solo is dead. Long live Kylo Ren.