Star Wars, redemption and the curious case of love

forceawakens-hv-tallWith books and movies, I don’t usually try to predict where a story might go, and to be honest I never expected to get analytical about a series I’ve only been a casual fan of before. However, many people who love fiction have their personal storytelling catnip, and mine is the theme of redemption. I can’t explain exactly what it is about redemption that moves me so, but it surely can’t be a coincidence that the last time I got an urge to write long in-depth speculations was after the sixth Harry Potter book and that ending, which made me certain that, despite all appearances to the contrary, there was some powerful story going on.

Contains spoilers about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, if you’re one of the ten people on the planet who haven’t seen it yet.

With The Force Awakens, I sensed a redemption story coming this way from the moment they showed Kylo Ren making a confession to Darth Vader’s helmet about the pull to the light he still feels. Rather than shaking this impression, Kylo’s murder of Han Solo, his father and one of the most-loved onscreen characters ever, only reinforced it, as weird as it might sound. Basically, I think that if you’re introducing a character with some sort of inner conflict in the first film of the trilogy, this conflict is not getting resolved in the very first film – it will only be resolved in the last one. So if a character commits some terrible act that’s meant to put an end to his conflict and make him look totally irredeemable, I think it’s safe to say that the opposite is going to happen – the conflict will only grow and eventually the character will turn towards redemption. By the way, I also love tragic stories about total moral disintegration and descent into evil, but Kylo Ren’s character just doesn’t fit the shape of it. For instance, this kind of story tends to start with the character still on the good side, but Kylo is introduced with a scene where he orders a massacre of the village and acts like a stereotypical Just Plain Evil villain. It’s a bizarre loop if he simply becomes the villain he already seemed to be in the beginning of the film.

Just to clarify, when I say that Kylo Ren will be redeemed, I don’t mean that he’ll be able to come back to the good guys, be pardoned for his crimes and live on as an upstanding citizen – that ship has sailed for good. Even if he survives this trilogy, I believe his best-case scenario is exile somewhere on the fringes of the galaxy, at least for the time being before they decide to make more movies with the same cast. In some ways this would be a harsher fate than Vader’s who died, yes, but then was seen hanging around with the bunch of good-guy Force ghosts who obviously forgave him, so in a way he did get a happy ending.

I don’t think that Rey is Luke’s daughter (and the movie itself effectively ruled out the possibility of her being Han and Leia’s daughter). For a number of reasons; but the main reason is that the “lost daughter” doesn’t fit anywhere into the story of Luke’s family tragedy we’ve already been told about. It’s telling that many of the initial theories after TFA was released immediately assumed that the massacre at Luke’s Jedi school and Rey getting dropped on Jakku were part of the same event, because it feels instinctively right that the two should be connected. I personally thought that the theory where Kylo can’t kill little Rey and hides her on Jakku instead was pretty damn neat and was quite reluctant to let it go. However, Bloodline, a novel that ties in with the new trilogy and is set six years before the events of The Force Awakens, demolishes any possibility of Rey being at Luke’s school when everything goes to hell. “Lost daughter” then becomes a completely separate tangent that has nothing to do with Luke’s current depressed self-imposed exile and the Skywalker family drama in general, which is a weird way to tell this kind of story.

Another reason is, Rey Skywalker is always discussed in terms of being Luke’s daughter, but almost no one wonders what it would mean for her relationship with Kylo if they turned out to be cousins. Thing is, cousins is almost a non-existent dynamic in movies (try googling “best movie cousins”) and it has no real emotional pull, especially when the cousins didn’t grow up together. There are blood ties and there are blood ties; does “Luke I’m your uncle” have as much impact as “Luke I’m your father?”

This, in turn, makes Kylo Ren’s position in the story rather intriguing. He occupies a curious double role – he’s both the antagonist and the new Skywalker of this trilogy, which makes him a character of considerable importance even though he’s not the protagonist. He may not bear the family name, but he’s clearly his Skywalker grandfather’s grandson and the movie did everything to accentuate the parallels and similarities, down to the shitty temper that younger Anakin had in the prequels. We’ve had a Skywalker villain before in Darth Vader, however he was the older generation to the young Skywalker hero, and the future of the family did not depend on him. But it does depend on Kylo: if he doesn’t change his path and comes back to the light, the Skywalker family’s screwed. Are the Powers-That-Be at Disney going to end the family saga with an unredeemed villain, in a film series characterised by the optimistic, good-conquers-evil spirit? I don’t think so.

So how could Kylo’s redemption story play out and what will make him abandon the dark side? I’ve found it intriguing that, in most of the discussions I’ve seen, many people seem to find the redemption plausible but there’s virtually no theorising on what would motivate him. At most, some wonder if his family, Leia especially, could be an influence on him, but in my mind there’s no doubt that his redemption arc has to revolve around Rey, because she’s the main character and focus of the series, not Leia. What’s the most obvious motivation a young guy can have in a story involving a young girl? Did someone say, the redemptive power of love?

Well actually no – despite having read through pages and pages of speculation and predictions, the only places where love is discussed as a viable route for redemption are the small pockets of the internet rarely taken seriously anywhere else. This could be a separate essay topic, but I do find it fascinating and rather disheartening to see how much automatic dismissal it receives – even when it’s about a romantic scenario that is purely one-sided and doesn’t involve Rey reciprocating feelings back. There seems to be an incredibly strong cringe factor attached to love and romance that prevents it from being discussed as just another tool in the writers’ toolbox that shapes the story – unless it’s a “harmless” side romance that has no real bearing on the plot. It’s partly understandable in this case, considering many people’s uncertainty over Rey’s parentage and reservations about a love story involving a legitimately dark character who’s done some terrible things. But I think it also comes down to the lack of interest in romance, tinged with contempt and/or mixed feelings about the romance, that makes it a no-go zone in the more traditional areas of internet discussions. It probably doesn’t help that the romance in most blockbuster movies is terrible and/or perfunctory, and that the last two romance-centric cultural phenomenons in recent memory are Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, which received some all-around scorn to put it mildly.

I’m not saying by the way that Kylo’s redemption story that centres around Rey has to involve romantic feelings on his part – there could easily be scenarios where it doesn’t. But I’m just willing to put my money on good old-fashioned love, considering that Star Wars is quite operatic in nature and thrives on big, simple, sweeping emotions. There’s a reason why Beast doesn’t feel platonic friendship towards Belle and why Phantom doesn’t have a strictly professional interest in Christine.

I might as well go into the possibility of a full-blown, mutual love story. Kylo’s redemption story can work without it just fine, a one-sided unrequited love would be much easier to write, and it would be much less controversial, as well. Any good onscreen romance needs obstacles, but in this case they’re really piled on sky-high: even if you take away Kylo’s dark side stint, the patricide, his abduction of Rey, him hurting her best and only friend, there doesn’t seem to be much to love – he’s a self-absorbed man-child with serious temper issues. On the other hand, unlike in the unscripted real life, fictional stories tend to hinge on drama, characters changing and their dynamics evolving. I’ve no doubt that Rey is not going to hate Kylo for three movies straight – at the very least, she’s going to feel some degree of pity for him by the end of it all. Can it go full 180 degrees to love? Very, very hard to see right now, but not impossible. If it does go that way, I sure feel comforted by the thought that George Lucas is not writing this.

I’ve no clear idea at this point what could start changing Rey’s feelings about Kylo, but there’s the fact that we still know very little about his backstory and motivations for going dark. Which is not a common thing with villains including the more complicated villains like say Magneto or Loki – you tend to know why they act the way they do from early on in the story. One of the reasons to withhold this information (apart from just plain dodgy writing, which wouldn’t really surprise me with The Force Awakens) is so that you can show the character in an unexpected, more sympathetic light later on. So while right now Rey thinks that Kylo is a Total Monster, she might learn something in the next episode that will make her feelings a bit more mixed.

There’s another year to go before I get to see if my speculations are correct, so this will be a fun time capsule to come back to.

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