Ugh, Tumblr. My dash is wall to wall beautiful art, shipping/stanning wank, and thousands of notes a day, which is nice (well, except the wank) but also makes it easy for the blue hellbox to swallow me up again.
Anyway, a friend over there asked me for my thoughts on his redemption arc, and... I have some.
The thing is, the possibility of redemption is raised early–very early. There wasn’t a hint of it with Vader until the film in which he actually was redeemed. While that did end up being accelerated from a more gradual arc that was planned, even so, we didn’t get a whiff of redemption until late in the game. And that’s normal.
Of all character arc tropes, redemption is probably the most eucatastrophic: the sudden joyous turn. We often emphasize the unfamiliar eu/ἐΰς (good), but catastrophe is just as essential to it–the turn. It has to be a swerve of some kind, sudden and drastic. Redemption is not about everyone-has-flaws, a bit of self improvement, even considerable self improvement. It’s about an essential shift in being.
That is, for a redemption arc to hold any weight, the character has to be pretty damn shitty, and in almost all cases, the redemption has to beunexpected.
So, with Ben Organa, the possibility of redemption is raised very, very early. In a way, it’s raised by Ben himself, monologuing at his (redeemed) grandfather’s mask about the lure of the Light on him and begging for forgiveness for it. (Um?) It comes up again when he’s holding Rey prisoner and out of nowhere tries to comfort her (um???) with “Don’t be afraid. I feel it, too.” Then there’s his mother Leia insisting on the possibility. It’s implied that his uncle Luke also thought him redeemable. Han seems to have written him off–with pain, but nevertheless–until Leia asks him to intercede, but he comes around by the time he confronts him. Ben very evidently wavers throughout his confrontation with Han, sounding outright childlike at points, but in a swerve, rejects redemption and instead kills his father to rid himself of his inner torment over him (um???????????).
This is just straight-up catastrophe–the sudden downturn. So we’ve got the first and most obvious possibility:
1. It’s not a redemption arc; it’s an anti-redemption arc, and all the build-up of the possibility of redemption was done to subvert it. We’re not just getting a journey from well-intentioned but hesitant scavenger to full hero for Rey, we’re getting a journey from confused, temperamental turncoat to full villain for Kylo Ren. He sealed his path with patricide in a neat inversion of Luke’s refusal to do the same.
This is very possible. It’s a strong mirror of the usual redemptive arc–rather than darkness suddenly and shockingly turning to light, the possibility is so loudly telegraphed that it’s impossible not to suspect it’s going to turn out badly. And it provides a very nice dark parallel to Rey’s.
But tbh, I find it unsatisfying. For one, the idea of sealing a path at all is antithetical to the entire ethos of SW. For another, we haven’t actually been given a reason that the “seduction of the Light” will vanish with Han’s death. In fact, we’ve kind of been given the opposite.
Kylo doesn’t disappear with his murder of Han, after all. It’s pretty clear that he himself is troubled by what he’s done. The inner torment didn’t go away at all! Losing his father at his own hand is upsetting!! Who would have guessed?
(Anyone, Ben. Literally anyone.)
At least, that’s how I read it, and at the very least what seems to have been intended:
Kylo Ren is somehow WEAKENED by this wicked act. Himself horrified. His SHOCK is broken only when–
This sounds like the exact opposite of the culmination of a villain’s arc from ambivalent and tormented to 100% hardcore evil badass. That’s what he intended to happen, but as seems usual with him, his actions only entrap him more deeply in what he feared. He feels weakened, not strengthened; horrified, not freed from his turmoil; shocked, not satisfied.
He takes Chewie’s bolt and goes after Rey, pausing only to completely lose his shit at Finn as TRAITOR!!!!!! (It sounds personal, but it isn’t; he noticed Finn’s failure, but doesn’t seem to actually know him, and a random stormtrooper responds the same way.) He’s only more erratic and unstable after Han’s death, and with the advantage in battle offers to teach Rey. The fact that he just waits for her to decide is what gives her the time and concentration to link to the Force.
It doesn’t make him ~not evil~. It just makes him pretty much what he was before, only more so. So if he keeps stumbling along, perpetually sabotaged by an underlying good nature, that brings us to two more possibilities, which many of us are labelling “Vader” and “Zuko.”
2. It’s complicating the now much-trodden standard redemption arc. The classic version has already been done in SW, and done well, and is probably one of the most famous examples. The possibilities of Ben’s own redemption constantly call back to Vader’s–even Han’s quasi-write-off comment, “he had too much Vader in him,” reminds us that Vader himself was redeemed. That history is unmistakably present in every word out of Leia’s mouth about Ben. So that’d be too easy and too predictable. Instead of established villain -> redemption, we’re getting a more anti-villain figure make that wrong choice so that the inevitable-seeming redemption has an actual payoff.
2a. In the “Vader” iteration, Kylo will eventually redeem himself, but at a point where he’s gone so far (hell, he might very well have already) that his only option is to give his life. Or it might not be conscious on his part, but the narrative will be constructed so he has to give his own life. In any case, Ben does end up just like his idol, if in the very last way he intended.
2b. In the “Zuko” iteration, we’re going beyond complication. The loudly broadcasted vulnerability, emotional explosions, possibility of redemption, and desperately trying to please someone who is only using him echo Zuko far more than Vader, though Kylo Ren has gone much, much, much farther than Zuko. However, ATLA was generally more restrained than SW, and the parallels seem especially strong in the inevitable-seeming redemption that is subverted in a betrayal of the anti-villain’s actually caring father-figure. It’s even got the “I thought this would solve my problems but I just feel worse” element. In that case, it’s heading toward a comparatively early redemption–as in, not the final climax of the trilogy–that Ben might even survive.
The big question mark here is Han’s murder. It’s put him beyond the pale to a lot of people. The entire point of it being Han seems to have been exactly that. (Harrison Ford is coming back for Episode VIII, so no, they didn’t have to kill Han to get him to lower himself to one last movie.) JJ Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy have said that they felt the movie would lack guts if they weren’t willing to sacrifice anyone significant to audiences. They wanted it to be someone people care about.
I could be completely wrong, but I think it’s also a way to counterbalance the blinking REDEMPTION ARC RIGHT HERE sign. It needs to be telegraphed for the tragic swerve, but if it’s where they’re going after all, they need something militating against the possibility in the meanwhile to keep it from being inevitable. If it is the Zuko version, the arc would ultimately be less about a villain getting redeemed, the end, and more what happens afterwards.
Nobody has to deal with Anakin Skywalker the man, who fucked up about as monumentally as a human being could for twenty years, and who was a difficult person at the best of times, and whose motivations were purely personal rather than ideological anyway. This wasn’t “I enforced an oppressive totalitarian regime and at least I can cut off the head, although it will kill me.” It was “NO, I LOVE MY SON, I LOVE HIM AND I WILL DIE SO HE DOESN’T, AND HEY PALPATINE I AM NOT YOURS FUCK YOU.”
If he’d lived–what now? He’s still got ginormous crimes to answer for, yet he’d be incredibly useful against the Empire (but would he even fight them? is he going to be Anakin Skywalker or Vader with a morality chain?). And of course there’s the quandary of to what degree his agency was impacted by the Dark Side, and blahblah it’s a mess. Redemption with death is easier.
The thing with Zuko’s redemption was that, on the one hand, no, he didn’t have to answer for every individual crime he committed, partly because of circumstances but ultimately because Zuko as Fire Lord can do vastly more good than Zuko in jail for lighting villages on fire. Even before then, he was more valuable as an ally in the war, particularly as he was genuinely repentant and supportive. However, he still couldn’t just waltz in with an apology. They found it difficult to believe him in the first place, Katara was perfectly ready to kill him at the slightest misstep, he remained both dorky and abrasive, and he had to learn that his wrongdoing and his trauma are not connected in some cosmic balance. Zuko’s trauma is intense and extremely legitimate, but it doesn’t make shitty behaviour not shitty; dealing with what happened to him and how it shaped him, and what he in turn did to others, are both things he has to do.
So if Episode VIII or IX goes in that direction, a huge thing would be–he’s still killed Han, and a bunch of villagers, and fellow students. He’s been a major aid to the horrors of the First Order, whether personally involved or not. Instead of going out in flames of glory and everyone else washing their hands of him, he’d still be around. He’d be invaluable, in fact, in the war–but also a war criminal. What do you do with him?
Obviously, I like this possibility. I was actually slightly disappointed by Vader’s death, even though it hit me emotionally like a Mack truck, because of the implicit handwave. Part of why I like TFA so much is that there isn’t a handwave. I mean, the Empire would or wouldn’t be destroyed by Palpatine’s death, blahblah I don’t care. But Vader’s legacy does not end with his death. His crimes and his redemption continue to affect the current day. Ben even thinks that Anakin has shown him the Dark Side, which all things considered seems vastly improbable–but most things Ben thinks are vastly improbable, so.
Well, that takes us into the final possibility, which like #1, is basically taking the classic of the redeemed villain and taking it somewhere completely different.
3. Ben is brainwashed, and not in the colloquial sense. Snoke has genuinely fucked with his head to the point that he has only the smallest nodding acquaintance with reality. The scene between Han and Ben is a ~suppressive person~ trying to extract a loved one from a cult, down to “your leader is exploiting you”/ “the supreme leader is wise and good.” The entire First Order is a large, militaristic cult, and Ben is essentially their… Tom Cruise, or something.
In this scenario, that’s why both Kylo and other stormtroopers completely lose their shit over Finn’s “betrayal,” despite not knowing him personally, and also why defection appears to be completely unprecedented. It’s why Han has never seen Ben as an adult; he was recruited at his most vulnerable, either an adolescent or a child, and kept out of contact with… let’s say, suppressive persons. This is why Ben is so childlike. His rages, set up to look like Vader’s murderous disappointment and then just temper tantrums, are not only permissible, but likely encouraged to keep him emotionally immature. It’s why he’s so bewildered at Rey’s antipathy as she sits in his torture chair and his understanding of his own grandfather so warped. It’s why his understanding of people in general, including himself, bears only the faintest resemblance to reality.
It’d also be what’s behind the bizarre framework of the Light Side seducing him. Nobody has ever framed it that way. It’s the Dark Side that’s easier, more seductive; the Light Side is what takes effort and concentration and discipline. Even Rey is tempted by the Dark Side, while the Light takes deliberate, conscious effort. The fact that someone as profoundly undisciplined as Kylo Ren continues to be drawn against his will to something that is actively difficult for most people to reach would suggest that his fundamental nature is in fact very much aligned with the Light. That’s why he’s so much more fractured and irrational than other Darksiders; they at least had some inclination, but Ben has to convince himself that this is what he wants, because… he doesn’t.
In this version, the Light isn’t tempting him at all–that’s not what it does. It’d be his underlying personality constantly trying to assert itself because his conditioning is so contrary to who he is as a person. It’s not that he would have no choice at all, as clearly he does. But he would be functioning at a severely limited capacity.
There is a hint that his story might be headed that way in the novelization:
“So Snoke was watching our son.”
“Always,” she told him. “From the shadows, in the beginning, even before I realized what was happening, he was manipulating everything, pulling our son toward the dark side.”
The novelization also mentions that he has a tracking device on him. It might just be fanwank for how Hux finds him in time, but if it makes its way into the films it’ll both be damn creepy and fit in very easily with the rest.
And in that case, his arc will likely involve repentance/redemption at some level, but I imagine it’d be as much about detoxing as anything else.