So…it has been a little bit longer than “a month or so.” Nearly half a year, in fact. I let this sit on the back-burner in my mind for quite a while after getting Part One off my chest, and while I’ve been ruminating on this continuation for a while, it’s about time I finally got this finished and posted. There’s less than a week before The Rise of Skywalker hits theatres and it would really bother me if I didn’t get this up before then. Cutting it close, but here it is.
You can check out part one of this post here, if you haven’t already, and be fairly warned that there are of course spoilers ahead.
The Erosion & Reconstruction of Kylo Ren
As I brought up in Part One, it was Rey and Kylo Ren who most captivated me as part of the new cast of characters. Both of them also had the unenviable position of being the following act to two of the most iconic characters in the franchise, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, yet managed to offer an interesting twist to their respective roles.
While I warmly received Rey when I first saw The Force Awakens, and grew to appreciate more about her character as time went on, Kylo Ren stood out the most. I’m sure many would agree he is the most interesting character in this new trilogy.
As we come to learn, Kylo Ren is in fact the grandson of Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader. He idolizes this dark identity of his grandfather because he himself has become an acolyte of the Dark Side of the Force. His status as successor to Vader is not just narrative, but quite literal as well.
He first arrives onto the scene with a great show of strength, leading lethal First Order stormtroopers and demonstrating great power with the Force. He is most akin to Vader here: in charge, no-nonsense, and deadly. We do get glimpses of his true nature, but at first, this is merely hinted at. It isn’t long before his true nature becomes apparent.
What I found most fascinating about Kylo’s characterization is that despite his reverent desire to fill Vader’s shoes, he ultimately fails to do so. I loved this most from a meta-textual standpoint, because instead of creating a character that might fail to live up to the grandeur Darth Vader had in the eyes of the audience, we are instead presented with one who literally struggles with that endeavour, a struggle which became compelling in its own right.
Darth Vader was always a very monolithic villain. Even though he wasn’t the leader of the Empire, he seemed an insurmountable adversary. He had his failures and detractors, but they were always met with a controlled, calculated fury. Kylo Ren emulates all this at first, but as The Force Awakens progresses, he gradually loses more and more control of the situation and we see this façade erode. At a superficial level we can see the cracks forming from his outbursts in the face of failure or disappointment. They are mindless and petulant, creating a fear of unbridled violence in his underlings, but not commanding respect.
This façade also becomes very apparent in how deliberately Kylo dresses. Everything he wears is black, he is adorned with a hooded robe, and tying it all together is a masked helmet that modulates his voice deeper and more intimidating. While there was always a theatrical flare to Vader’s armour that made him all the more menacing, there was a practical reason for it too. Kylo’s appearance does have a similar effect in the former case, but over time it becomes more and more apparent that he is recreating a look; playing dress-up.
Beyond the superficial, Kylo Ren’s shortcomings stem from the fact that while Darth Vader was a steadfast enforcer of the Empire’s will, Kylo more actively struggles with being the bad guy sometimes. Pushing around random people doesn’t seem to phase him, but when confronted with killing his father, Han Solo, the decision racks him internally. He’s committed to the dark side, but feels the “pull toward the light” when faced with more emotionally complicated actions. When the time finally does come to kill Han he’s legitimately indecisive, his ultimate action against his father being a last-second decision that sunders his spirit.
Ironically, in this way he is actually quite similar to his grandfather. Not to his identity Darth Vader, however, but rather the man he was before his fall, Anakin Skywalker. Anakin and Kylo are situated at inverse sides of the Force, but each struggle with the path they have chosen for themselves because of impulses that compel them to their respective opposite. Anakin was a great Jedi who accomplished many heroic things, but had trouble keeping his darker passions and desire for power at bay. Kylo is a dark side acolyte brimming with raw potential that he is more than willing to use for dark purposes, but when carving that path involves going through people he cares about, he wavers.
Despite being an antagonistic presence to the heroes, the story of these films is just as much about him as it is Rey and the Resistance. This trilogy is continuing the “Skywalker saga” after all, and as far as we know he is the sole descendant of the Skywalker bloodline in his generation. This being the case, I like that he isn’t a concrete villain to be overcome, but a more dynamic, villainous deuteragonist.
While Rey’s story is a rise from obscurity to actively seeking her destiny, Kylo Ren’s arc takes him from powerful enforcer and humbles him at best, humiliates him at worst. If he were a faithful Vader successor his defeat at the hands of Rey in The Force Awakens would be egregiously premature, but it’s exactly the sort of struggle he needs as a character. This fall from grace provides a motivation to rectify his failures in some way, while also allows him and Rey to develop rapport in The Last Jedi on more figuratively equal footing.
His connection with Rey tugs him more toward the light side, allowing for a short-lived partnership to form between them. He saves her from the clutches of his master Snoke, though through guile rather than raw power, and the two share a moment of triumph against the praetorian guards. At this point it’s clear to me that he does legitimately care for her, but an opportunity has presented itself to him like none other before that feeds into his worst qualities most strongly.
Unlike the conflict he had with killing other important people in his life, killing Snoke presented no real quandary for him. He manipulated Kylo’s vulnerabilities to get Rey right where he wanted her, praising Kylo for it as if he was not a pawn in the ruse. Furthermore, in killing his Snoke he achieves what Darth Vader never could: usurp his master.
I like how all of this played out because Kylo’s commitment to the dark side is in many ways grasping and selfish. Though I don’t think it was planned, I like that by giving in to some of the nudges toward the light side that Rey provided, an opportunity to maneuver himself into a greater position of power presented itself that he ultimately decided to exploit. He may have inclinations toward the light at times, but the dark side is what he seems to really strive for.
With Kylo Ren having become the new Supreme Leader of the First Order I’m intrigued to see where his story will take him, most especially because, despite having achieved what Vader could not, he is far less equipped for such a position than Vader would have been. I wonder if this may lead to in-fighting within the First Order as an important story element in The Rise of Skywalker, with perhaps the Knights of Ren (whom seem only affiliated with him) stepping in to help balance the scales.
I have to wonder if the door toward redemption and the light side of the Force is completely shut off to him as well. The title of the new film points most implicitly to him, but we’re yet to see how that will play out. With Darth Sidious returning in some form as well, I do have to wonder where Kylo’s alignment will lie regardless. When speaking of “letting old things die” the Sith were the first group that he mentioned. Perhaps another alliance between him and Rey can be expected.
As with Rey, I’m excited to see where the conclusion of this trilogy leaves Kylo Ren, and whether he will become Ben Solo once again, cling to his villainous moniker, or adopt the Skywalker name in a more dramatic change of heart.
We don’t have much longer to wait and see. It’s hard not to come across other people’s misgivings sometimes, but I’m still excited, if leaning toward cautiously optimistic.
Thank you for reading.
Image sources are from IMDb.