Until December 15, 2017, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Kylo Ren. Following the release of Episode VII, I was impressed by Adam Driver’s performance and compelled a little by the idea of a pretender antagonist. The concept of a villain tempted away from the dark side by the light was…enough to hold my attention, but not much more. My heart belonged to Rey and Finn and Poe as the stunningly charming heroes of this new trilogy. The new trio was a breath of fresh air, and a welcome one after the rude awakening that young adulthood had brought to my opinion of the prequel trilogy.
Then, at the turning point of The Last Jedi, when Rey and Kylo Ren unite against the evil Leader Snoke and stand back-to-back, defiant against the wrath of his sinister royal guard, it all clicked.
— Quick digression —
I understand that Episode VIII has its critics. I also understand that this is a massive understatement. The “controversy” surrounding TLJ is…unreal. To this day, nearly three full years later, mere mention of the film’s title ignites rage and vitriol. It’s likely that someone reading this article is already angry that I had the audacity to…describe a scene of the film and my reaction to it. And that’s okay (though harassment, organized hate, and death threats are NEVER okay and never have been).
It’s important to state here that I personally adore The Last Jedi. I think it’s incredible. I could never spend enough time watching, talking about, or contemplating it. And that may be excessive praise for a big corporate action movie, but it’s also the truth. TLJ speaks to me. If it doesn’t sit well with you, I’m sorry. I wish it were better for you. Maybe you feel it wasn’t made with you in mind. But it’s important that art not be made to appeal to *everyone*. Otherwise, all art (corporate or otherwise) would lose meaning. That’s my feeling, anyway.
Okay, that’s out of the way. Back to Ben.
So sitting there in the theater on opening day, Ben (not Kylo Ren) had just killed Snoke using the legacy Skywalker lightsaber and was now teaming up with Rey, blue and red united against evil for the first time in the series, and I was captivated. I was overjoyed at the sight of good guy Ben Solo. The son of Han and Leia finally claimed his birthright as a true Jedi and a hero! I gasped audibly. For me, it was this moment that I realized what Rian Johnson’s script had been quietly doing for nearly the entire runtime of the film thus far. It was slowly teaching us to see Ben through Rey’s eyes in that moment.
His hesitation when time comes to kill his mother, his quiet defiance of Snoke, his fascination with the force bond he shares with Rey; all of these let us in on a massive secret. Ben is still good. Kylo Ren may be in control, Snoke’s will may be coming to pass, but deep down, Ben is struggling to return to the light. And in this moment of unity with Rey, the thing that blew me away wasn’t a cool action set-piece or a great performance (both of which are stunning), it was simply a character this far gone, this deeply submerged in bad decisions and abusive relationships and self-hatred, suddenly making the right choice.
Faced with Ben finally wrestling control away from Kylo Ren and shining through, saving Rey’s life, allowing her to save his, I didn’t feel triumph or sympathy or even just plain adrenaline; I felt relief. I had spent the movie silently begging Ben to just make the right choice. See the right path. Choose the light and return to where he belongs. And right here, it truly felt like he was on his way.
Which is what makes the post-fight conversation he has with Rey so utterly heartbreaking. Rey was also convinced that he had turned. She fought for her life and his, convinced they’d leave together and save the Resistance. And Ben lets her down. Devastating. Incredible. This is not only effective writing, but affective writing. Johnson had completely pulled me into Rey’s world, and when she felt the loss of the Ben Solo she had so briefly fought alongside, so did I.
It’s not just these two scenes that sold me on the character, though. Truly, it’s the whole of Driver’s screen time. Walking out of the theater in the early December afternoon, still reeling from the last stand of Luke Skywalker, the sorrowful beauty of Carrie Fisher’s last performance, and the fresh life breathed into the entire franchise, I grappled with my feelings about Kylo Ren and Ben Solo. This film recontextualized everything we’d seen of him so far. Suddenly, knowing more of his internal life, his actions in The Force Awakens made sense. Obviously, twisted and misguided sense, but sense nonetheless. And now, far from just a mildly engaging villain, Ben Solo was a wrenching tragedy of a character. The potential of this heir to the Skywalker story, squandered by the simple things, twisted by rejection and fear into exactly the thing all of his guardians swore they’d never let him come to be. Woof.
After defeating the Praetorian Guards, the thing that ultimately tips Ben back to the dark is simply misunderstanding the lessons that these events have taught him. This is how TLJ operates; it gives the characters extremely hard lessons and then either rewards them for learning the right thing or punishes them for learning the wrong thing.
Rey learns to trust in herself and not rely upon heroes and legends. Finn learns to leave behind his past as a stormtrooper by completely embracing the resistance and committing to rebellion rather than survival. Poe learns that leadership is about saving people, not defeating enemies. Luke learns that he needs to atone for his mistakes by embracing the power of his legend and becoming a beacon of Hope. All of these lessons intertwine with one another into a central concept: it is better to construct our future by synthesizing the successes and failures of our past than it is to either dwell on or fully reject them altogether. In other words, learn from your failures, do not let them define you. And where Luke absorbs this lesson and acts on it, Ben fails to understand it. Rather, he insists on burying the past, killing it. He learns the wrong lesson. To Ben, the past is pain, trauma, abuse, and mistakes. And trying to destroy this, rather than learn from and atone for it, keeps him trapped in the pattern of misguided behaviors and self-hatred that drove him to the dark side. Rey offers him redemption, and he chooses self-destruction.
If you believe, as I do, that Star Wars is ultimately about redemption and choosing to be generous and selfless rather than greedy and selfish, then you know that when Ben makes this choice, it does not bar him from redemption, it just makes it more interesting to see whether the heroes will extend a redemptive hand moving forward. Rey remaining devoted to offering forgiveness and redemption to Ben isn’t pointless, it’s the entire point of the series. And if you believe that he is “too far gone” you weren’t listening to Luke. No one’s ever really gone.
That declaration isn’t referencing death, it’s a refutation of the idea that someone can be too far gone in the dark to be brought back into the light. It’s the central idea of Star Wars. And it’s Ben Solo’s entire character summed up in one sentence. Something I am clearly incapable of replicating even within a generous margin of error.
I love Ben Solo because his is the most interesting and thematically rich path a character can take in Star Wars. He embodies ideas of conflict, empathy, and tension between light and dark. A fully redeemed Ben would have to atone for his errors, seek forgiveness from his mother and father and uncle(s). He would dedicate his life to serving the light and saving others from the pain of the dark that he knows all too well. His death is tragic. The image of post-Exegol Ben Solo standing with Chewie and Lando in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon that exists in my mind will always be one of my favorites. I wish we could’ve seen that forgiveness. Maybe someday we will. After all, no one’s ever really gone.