Honestly, it vexes me when I consistently see people saying that they don’t want to see redemption arcs.
And to clarify because I don’t want to beat around the bush, I do mean Kylo Ren in particular—though this could be generalized for other characters, too, I guess?
Kylo falls under the role of an antagonist. He has done horrible things: he is the Jedi Killer, he ordered the slaughter of those people at the start of the film, tortured Poe for information, fetched information from Rey’s mind and killed his own father. These are actions that firmly establish him as Not Good. He wouldn’t be an antagonist if he didn’t do bad things, would he?
But context is very important, and the finer emotional nuances in scenes such as Han’s death need to be evaluated less simplistically. In multiple source materials, it is canonically established that Kylo Ren is not pure evil. He struggles with the actions he believes he must take. Adam Driver has described Kylo Ren as someone who (while not verbatim, the intent of words is the same) “feels what he’s doing is right, and feels justified in his actions because of that.” If you want the full bit of what he said, just for clarity, here:
Well, I don’t know. I certainly didn’t think of him that way in playing him, that he is doing anything villainous. It’s more if he thinks what he is doing is right, and being justified by it. And then trying to tell the story of why – making it a person as much as possible.
“Wait!” You might say. “He thinks the fucked up shit he’s doing is right? How is that at all supposed to make me want this guy to have a redemption arc?”
This is where we get into the finer details and lore, my friend. While the matter of Ben Solo’s grooming by Snoke is an entire other issue the fandom is up in arms about, the fact that he was targeted in the womb is undeniable. There are multiple written scenes in the Aftermath novel that lead to this conclusion:
The dark, now lit with stars. One by one, like eyes opening. Comforting at first, then sinister as she worries. Who is out there, who is watching us? Hands reach for her, hands of shadow, lifting her up, reaching for her throat, her wrists, her stomach -
Inside, the child kicks. She feels her baby turning inside, right-side, up and down, struggling to find his bearings, trying so hard to find his way free of her. It’s not time, she thinks. Just a little longer.
He is less a human shaped thing and more a pulsing, living band of light. Light that sometimes dims, that sometimes is thrust with a vein of darkness. She tells herself that it’s normal - Luke said to her, Leia, we all have that. He explained that the brighter the light, the darker the shadow.
The baby turns inside her again, troubled by something she cannot feel and cannot yet understand.
As well as this moment from the novelization of TFA:
Leia bit her lower lip, refusing to concede. “No. It was Snoke.”
Han drew back slightly. “Snoke?”
She nodded. “He knew our child would be strong with the Force. That he was born with equal potential for good or evil.” “You knew this from the beginning? Why didn’t you tell me?”
She sighed. “Many reasons. I was hoping that I was wrong, that it wasn’t true. I hoped I could sway him, turn him away from the dark side, without having to involve you.” A small smile appeared.
“You had—you have—wonderful qualities, Han, but patience and understanding were never among them. I was afraid that your reactions would only drive him farther to the dark side. I thought I could shield him from Snoke’s influence and you from what was happening.” Her voice dropped. “It’s clear now that I was wrong. Whether your involvement would have made a difference, we’ll never know.”
He had trouble believing what he was hearing. “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.”
And then, of course, are these additions from JJ:
It’s more than just having a ‘bad seed’ as a kid. Snoke had targeted this kid and knew that this kid was going to be incredibly powerful in The Force and wanted him as an ally.
So this mother and father had a target as a son, someone who’s watching their boy, and these parents aren’t there enough to guide him.
Kylo Ren is a villain, but he’s also a victim and this plays—no matter what people might want to think—a very integral role in his character progression. Snoke has been an influence on Ben Solo’s life for almost as long as he’s existed. There has likely never been a Ben Solo that existed without that outside influence. According to the timeline we’ve been able to establish about Kylo, he defected when he was in his 20s—meaning there is a part of him that always resisted the seduction of the dark side, but eventually gave in.
But why did he give in? What was the extent of this manipulation on Snoke’s behalf that could cause a golden child from some of our favorite heroes to go so wrong?
The thing is, we can’t be sure. We only know that Ben was kept from the truth about his lineage and when that knowledge came forward, he felt betrayed. Worse, it is likely that the combination of Snoke’s influence and the respective actions/inactions of his parents (no matter how well meaning) all served to push him off that edge.
My two cents? Kylo Ren has the illusion that what he’s doing is right because what he used to believe in—his parents, the Jedi, the light—were proven to be ‘wrong’ when he found out the truth. This all-knowing force that had guided him all his life had been right instead.
“The supreme leader is wise.”
I believe that in the end, the rhetoric of the dark side and Snoke became the only thing left to Ben Solo that made sense anymore. So he did what Snoke told him was right, because he’d been right about everything else. He follows his dark path almost religiously because it’s all that’s left to him now.
When Han talks to Kylo Ren on that bridge, he isn’t talking to the Jedi Killer—he is talking to his son. He is talking to his boy who has not heard his own name in god knows how long (because Ben Solo is dead) and he is getting through to him. When Han Solo asks Kylo Ren to come back home, Kylo Ren does not laugh in his face. He doesn’t proclaim his father a fool. He doesn’t praise the dark side.
He says, with tears in his eyes, “It’s too late.”
In my opinion, it’s practically an admittance that this is not what he wanted. He does not want to be on that bridge, preparing to do what he’s going to do. I think he wants to go back home, but—going back to what I said earlier about the dark being all he has left—he believes that there’s nothing left, though Han is offering him family again. Because if his father is right, then what has he done? What has he done all this time? If Han is right, he has made so many unforgivable mistakes, and who could live with that? If what he’s done is not right, then what does that make him?
Anyone would have a hard time swallowing that. It has to be right, because if it’s wrong, the alternative is unthinkable.
JJ has another memorable quotation that I can (and will) reference back to in order to support this:
People have asked me if I think that Kylo Ren was just playing with him the whole time, if he meant to kill him from the beginning. And the truth is, I think Kylo Ren, in this moment, is actually being convinced to walk away from this. Snoke is, as Han says, using him, and I think that somewhere Ben knows this. But I think that he can’t accept it. Deep down, he has gone too far.
Despite anything Kylo Ren has said, Ben Solo is still very much alive. The action of killing Han Solo was an act from Snoke meant to quiet that voice completely. It’s not weakness in his apprentice that Snoke fears: it’s his apprentice thinking for himself and having Ben Solo’s power used against him. He played the long game. Every investment he made into the birth of Kylo Ren was to ensure he had this quivering mass of rage and anguish fighting on his behalf. He does not want Kylo Ren to be at peace with the pull inside of him the way Kylo Ren thinks killing his father will achieve.
He wants Kylo Ren to suffer. He wants to Kylo Ren to sabotage himself until there truly is no way back.
At the end of the day, it’s important for people to realize this: redemption arcs are not about what a character deserves. It never will be about deserving. Han Solo deserves justice? Yes. Poe and Rey deserve justice? Yes. Finn deserves justice? Yes. Does Kylo Ren deserve to be punished for what he’s done? Of course. Redemption arcs aren’t about justice either, however. It isn’t about cleansing an antagonist of their sins or punishing them.
It’s the antagonist realizing the horror of what they’ve done and deciding they need to do something to make things right. Whether that be a sacrifice or a lifetime’s worth of service in the name of a greater good, it doesn’t matter. It’s about repenting.
This is about Kylo Ren realizing the light wasn’t a lie, that he doesn’t have to tear himself apart anymore. That he’s drawn to it for a reason. This is about reparations to a galaxy, an abuse victim realizing he is being abused. Gaining his independence for the first time in his life. Giving his father’s soul peace, and his mother one more piece of her shattered family back after everything she has lost.
That is a redemption arc.