'Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker' Is About How Anyone Can Be A Jedi – And That Anyone Can Be A Sith

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: let's explore what the arcs of Kylo Ren, Finn and Rey actually mean.)With over four decades of history, Star Wars has explored many themes. Overarching motifs include questioning the past, fighting for those you love, overcoming fear, and examining how extreme beliefs stifle growth and flexibility. The original trilogy also focused on overcoming adversity, no matter the odds. The prequel trilogy narrowed in on hubris, complacency, and the slippery slope of the ends justifying the means. As for the sequel trilogy? It highlighted in neon lights the need to look beyond bloodlines when determining a person's inherent morality. It just didn't do it by making Rey a "nobody."This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Kylo Ren, Villainous Skywalker

Kylo Ren is a fantastic character. A complex, layered villain like his grandfather before him whom Adam Driver plays with an intense, wounded charm. The son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, Kylo Ren believed he was in the right, that by virtue of his Skywalker blood he was destined for greatness, to bring order and stability to the galaxy. But make no mistake, Kylo Ren is a villain. Had he lived through the end of The Rise of Skywalker, Ben Solo wouldn't have gotten a happy ending. Nor did he deserve one. At best, he could have hoped for a speedy trial at the hands of whatever remnant of the New Republic government remained, followed by execution for crimes against humanity. He was responsible — either by his own hand or on his orders — for the deaths of countless innocents. And that's not even including the Starkiller Base Incident.As such, Kylo Ren is the first part of the theme that blood doesn't matter. The fact that his uncle, Luke Skywalker, is a legendary hero does not automatically christen Ben Solo as the savior of the next generation or even guarantee his moral righteousness. Yet from some corners, there has been a knee-jerk reaction to go from understanding the motivations of a complex villain into justifying them. An attempt to protect Kylo Ren from the consequences of his actions. A strong undercurrent in the discourse has infantilized this man who was entering his third decade of life, laying the blame for his decisions on everything from his parents to his mentors. This is not a phenomenon unique to Ben Solo. In recent fiction, it happened with Snape from Harry Potter, Loki in the MCU, and Joe Goldberg in You.  Whole dissertations could be written about this phenomenon, but on a surface level, all of these characters have something in common: they are white men. In Western society, that is a social currency that protects you from consequences. It's how men like Brock Turner get slapped on the wrist for sexual assault despite eyewitnesses, or how Ethan Couch got away with murder because of "affluenza." Arguments that they "come from a good family" or "think of his future" or "he's really sorry" or, mind-bogglingly "he's just a kid" get bandied about regardless of the perpetrator's age, but only for certain villains. Especially ones that are attractive; it even has a name. It's called the "halo effect."Yet throughout the sequel trilogy, Kylo Ren's arc remains consistent as that of a charismatic authoritarian in search of absolute control. Audiences are introduced to him in the first moments of The Force Awakens, where he proceeds to murder an old family friend and order the slaughter of an entire Jakku village. He kidnaps and tortures both Poe Dameron and, later, Rey. He murders his father in cold blood (and I'm sorry, but for the crime of killing Han Solo, Kylo Ren was never going to make it out of this trilogy alive). He flings Rey into a tree hard enough to knock her unconscious and becomes so enraged by Finn daring to hold a lightsaber that he flays the former stormtrooper's spinal cord. Had he not been gravely wounded by Chewbacca's bowcaster, he'd have destroyed Rey on Starkiller Base when she rebuked his effort to assert control over her and refused to become his apprentice.While his tactics become more subtle in The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren's motivations do not fundamentally change. Unable to coerce Rey through physical intimidation, he turns to strategies used since time immemorial by domestic abusers: isolation, belittlement, and manipulation. All made easier by the Force dyad*. First he gains Rey's trust in a vulnerable moment. After a literal Dark Side vergence — similar to the one on Dagobah — plays on Rey's deepest fears by refusing to reveal her parents, Kylo acts to comfort her. Yet he doesn't inform her that Dark Side caves twist the truth, feeding on the fear of their victims in order to push them further towards the darkness. Instead, he uses the moment to bind himself to her, exploiting her loneliness for his own gain in his bid to amass enough power to unseat Snoke and become Supreme Leader. A Sith tradition as old as time.*("Dyad" is not a synonym for a soulmate. It is simply a word to describe an ongoing two-person relationship. Siblings, parent-child, doctor-patient, lawyer-client, colleagues, friends, enemies; all can be dyadic.)Once the door is cracked open to her empathy, he tells Rey that Luke is untrustworthy, that Rey herself is nothing, that she has no business being in the thick of history; basically that no one will ever love her and she better be grateful for he wants her despite her flaws. He either outright lies about her parents, or more likely, uses his knowledge of Rey's insecurities to hurt her. The film ends with Kylo Ren choosing, actively, to continue walking down a dark path. He rejects Rey's offer to return to the Light, much as he rejected Han's olive branch. He takes up position as Supreme Leader, the head of a fascist organization built on the back of genocide and child enslavement. He attempts to murder Luke Skywalker and the Resistance on Crait and even demands the Millennium Falcon, which Rey is aboard, to be shot out of the sky. Most shocking, he appears to finally turn on his mother, ordering there be no survivors left alive.In the end, Kylo Ren killing Snoke in The Last Jedi had less to do with saving Rey and more to do with Kylo's deep need to be the manipulator and not the manipulated, to be beholden to no legacy but one of his own making. This theme is followed through in The Rise of Skywalker, which opens with Kylo Ren determined to kill Palpatine, a threat to his newfound power. But instead, Kylo discovers that he is once again a pawn in a grander scheme, that no matter how much blood he spills, he cannot kill the past or escape his family's legacy. Again Kylo attempts to mold Rey into his apprentice, as if by successfully manipulating another he can convince himself that his own past horrifying choices were not his fault; that anyone would fall prey to the same mind games. This is evident when he confronts Rey on the Death Star after her show of power with Force Lightning on Pasaana. Kylo Ren again tries to isolate Rey, telling her that now she can never return to the Resistance, that Leia will never accept Rey back as a Palpatine. That now he is the only person who Rey can turn to. Kylo's reasoning echoes with sentiments Snoke surely used on him. But when Rey once more shows more fortitude than him and rejects his offer to join the Dark Side, he attempts to kill her. If not for Leia Organa's timely interference and ultimate sacrifice, Kylo Ren would have murdered Rey on the Death Star.Here's where things get difficult. Even villains run the full gamut of emotions. Even monsters have people they care about. Throughout his life, Kylo Ren could not completely purge the love he had for his mother, General Leia Organa. He could not kill her apparition during his Sith trials inside the Dagobah tree. He couldn't kill her during the space chase in The Last Jedi. Had he been successful in his destruction of the Resistance on Crait, I believe he would have mourned her and been horrified his actions led to her death. Leia may be the only person he truly loved. It's probably why she was the only one who could reach him, even though it took everything she had.What happens next has been colloquially called "Bendemption" or the redemption of Kylo Ren. Using the last of her strength to project an image of Han Solo, Leia Organa finally turns her son from the dark path he traveled on for six years. Had Carrie Fisher lived, surely she herself would have been the one in that scene. Finally realizing his mother never gave up on him and that Palpatine had been manipulating him for years, Ben Solo allowed himself to shed the fear and anger that had been driving him. But, in the immortal words of JoJo...it's just too little, too late.One good deed in the 11th hour cannot wash out years of blood, no matter how noble. As Kylo Ren, Ben Solo was responsible for unfathomable suffering across the galaxy. It was poetic and fitting that he would sacrifice his life to stop more harm from coming to countless more while ensuring the survival of the Jedi Order. It was the very least he could do. I would argue the conclusion of Ben Solo's arc is not redemption, but penance. "Benance," if you like. A voluntary act of self-punishment as atonement for his actions. Yes, Kylo Ren was seduced by the Dark Side. Yes, the whispers of Snoke in his head ultimately led Ben Solo to fall at the age of 24. But at the end of the day, Ben was an adult man who made his choices. And choices have consequences. However, there is a character who fits the narrative that Ben Solo does not occupy: Finn.

From "Nobody" to Future Jedi

Despite a boggling miscarriage in the details of Finn's narrative arc, which is hopefully rectified with books and comics, the structure of his journey remains clear. Finn is the hero from nowhere; the Jedi that comes from "nobody." He is the character everyone was clamoring to make Rey into; a Force-user not tied to the Skywalker legacy. The "villain" who became a hero.We know very little about Finn's life prior to meeting him on Jakku in The Force Awakens, but what scraps we can garner are horrifying. Stolen from his parents as an infant or toddler, stripped of his name, forcibly enslaved and manipulated, Finn grew up in a sterile and loveless environment designed to break him. Raised to be completely loyal to the First Order, Finn's earliest years were steeped in propaganda and indoctrination. We know Finn was taught he and his fellow child soldiers were expendable, that anyone injured beyond minor battle wounds deserved to be left for dead as they weren't good enough. They were denied affection or camaraderie, raised in a paranoid environment that encouraged and rewarded snitching. They were put through rigorous training meant to strip any sympathy or individuality from them, leaving behind perfect pawns.First Order cadets couldn't even escape in their sleep, as the were subjected to subliminal messages each night. Any deviation was met with strict discipline, up to and including a procedure known as a brainscape; a full mental wipe and reprogramming of subversive minds. By any objective measure, Finn was subjected to far more devastating direct abuse and manipulation than Kylo Ren ever was. While Ben Solo was raised first by his parents and then, at the age of ten, by his uncle and teacher Luke Skywalker, Finn was sculpted from infancy to be a cold-hearted villain. But somehow he never broke. Despite everything he went through, the First Order could not snuff out the Light from Finn. Without any outside education or influence, Finn still knew it was wrong to slaughter villagers. He knew that Starkiller Base was not a tool to bring peace to the galaxy. At the first opportunity, he fled his abusive childhood home and never looked back. Given all of that, it makes sense that Finn's story was one of overcoming fear. First the fear of being caught, then the fear of losing his new family. But he never, not even once, let fear turn to anger. If anything, Finn's fear instead crystallized into determination to stop the First Order from doing to anyone else what they subjected him to. They say you can't be brave if you aren't afraid, and Finn's bravery in facing down first Kylo Ren and then Phasma — both before he even had an inkling of his own power — proves he's willing to fight to save those he loves (and subsequently disproves the Jedi teaching that fear always leads to anger). Running headlong into danger, whether to help Rey or destroy First Order ships takes a level of self-confidence that borders on the supernatural. If that's not a Jedi, I don't know what is. I only wish the sequel trilogy had leaned in harder to Finn's story to hammer this home.

Rey Palpatine, Jedi Master

The idea that Rey is a descendant of Emperor Palpatine has been kicking around the Star Wars fandom since as far back as 2015. Since it came to pass in The Rise of Skywalker, there has been blowback from corners of the fandom who believe it undoes the theme that anyone can be a Jedi. But I see it as the opposite side of Kylo Ren's arc: being descended from pure evil doesn't dictate your own destiny. Like Finn, Rey grew up in an abusive situation. While she wasn't being actively indoctrinated, she was at the very least neglected and treated as a useful scavenging tool instead of a child. Also like Finn, she never let this harden her heart or turn her into a bitter, spiteful person. Contrast that to how Kylo Ren reacted in far less harsh circumstances and the theme emerges stark and clear: anyone can be a Jedi, even the granddaughter of Darth Sidious. Within The Clones Wars and Star Wars Rebels, fans have seen Jedi arise from the most humble of circumstances. The Force doesn't care if you were born to farmers on a poor agrarian world or came from Core nobility. We've also witnessed plenty of Jedi fall to the Dark Side over the years. Yet Rey alone represents a descendant of a Sith who becomes a beacon of Light Side. In fact, I would argue she joins Ahsoka Tano in getting as thematically close to "Balance" as Star Wars has ever gotten. By the end of The Rise of Skywalker, Rey is a close representation of the Prime Jedi mosaic from the Jedi Temple on Ahch-To: at peace with both the Light and the Dark within herself. While oceans of blood have been shed over millennia by Jedi and Sith alike in their attempts to reach "Balance," it appears they were going about it all wrong. You don't create balance in the Force externally by obliterating the other side, but internally by having the wisdom to know when to rely on emotion and when to utilize dispassionate logic. Rey allows herself to be angry, but not consumed by it. She can temper her empathy with pragmatism. She can forgive but not at the cost of losing herself. She can reach out to someone like Ben Solo and offer him a different way but know she is not responsible for rehabilitating or saving him. She is a whole person on her own, no longer in search of someone to validate her. She is at peace with her found family, neither cut-off from personal attachments nor clutching them possessively. Balance. That she reaches this, despite her bloodline, is purposeful and significant.At the end of the day, the theme that anyone can be Force-sensitive, that one isn't beholden to their family name, still resonates. Being the child of a Skywalker doesn't mean you get to be the hero. Being a Palpatine doesn't mean you are destined for evil. And beginning life as a nameless stormtrooper doesn't mean you can't be a Jedi.