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Early in The Force Awakens, the tortured villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is shown brooding in his quarters, contemplating the crushed remnants of Darth Vader’s infamous mask. “I will finish what you started,” he swears, fervor evident even through the vocoder modulation of his own helmet. It feels like a pivotal reveal — a statement of intent. But intent to do what, exactly?
The more one considers the comment, the opaquer it becomes. “Started” implies a personal design — something Vader not only did, but was self-motivated to do, and that presents some major questions, because for all his power in the Force, Vader was never really a free agent. Born enslaved and then “freed” directly into the service of the restrictive Jedi Order, Anakin Skywalker threw off one yoke only to put on another, destroying the Jedi order as a pledge of allegiance to the Sith lord Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who kept Vader under his thumb until his dying day, when he turned against his master, besting the older man at the cost of his own life. Whether as Skywalker or Vader, Anakin’s own personal goals are often difficult to parse out because he was always in the service of some other individual or entity with aims of their own.
The most obvious exception to this rule comes in the form of his relationship with queen-turned-senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), his childhood crush and eventual wife, whom he pursues and marries in spite of such a relationship being banned in the Jedi code. While there are other goals Anakin mentions in conversation here or there — a dream of freeing the enslaved, for instance — it is his goals involving Padmé that he is shown most actively pursuing, to the eventual ruin of both of them. In the end, though he’s driven by thoughts of Padmé, Anakin’s arrogant mishandling of his last goal involving their relationship catalyzes his fall to the dark side; in seeking to save his wife from death he makes a deal with the devil and ends up contributing to her demise instead.
Star Wars’ galaxy far, far away is one full of archetypes. The influence of Joseph Campbell’s work on archetypal heroes and comparative mythologies on George Lucas and the development of Star Wars has been subject to significant commentary over the years. While Luke Skywalker is perhaps the most famous example of a protagonist designed with Campbell’s heroic monomyth in mind, Anakin Skywalker’s trajectory is a Faustian downfall that echoes different iterations of the legendary figure. His hubris is more akin to Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; dramatic beats of his relationship with Padmé share definite resemblances to that between Faust and Gretchen in Goethe’s version of Faust.
Then came the sequel trilogy, and the introduction of the one and only new branch on the Skywalker family tree: Kylo Ren. With regard to the sequel trilogy, one of the most divisive points within the fandom since The Force Awakens first entered theaters has been “Reylo” — the relationship between Kylo and protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley). While a certain (predominantly female) sector of the fan base came out of the first film seeing the makings of an admittedly twisted but compelling romance, their interest was met online by backlash. A considerable portion of online fandom saw the Reylos as either problematic or downright deluded — particularly those convinced that Rey would prove to be a Skywalker. Of course, the Reylos have since had the last laugh in that regard — and several other regards, even if they too are generally not thrilled with how The Rise of Skywalker ends.
Where Luke is Campbell’s hero and Anakin is Faustian, Kylo Ren is Byronic. Although a tragic and even demonic archetype, the key feature of a Byronic figure is his potential for redemption. Byronic heroes are staples of the romance genre; good-looking, deeply emotional, dangerously seductive, a well-wrought Byronic character feels equally likely to walk the path of redemption or damnation, and to drag those caught in their own orbit along with them. A Faustian figure falls, a Byronic figure is fallen. The question becomes whether they can rise up again — because at least some part of them usually wants to, and Kylo Ren is no exception. A lonely wretch who yearns for belonging and yet scorns his origins, he’s a textbook Byronic figure. Many who entered The Force Awakens well-versed in Byronic fare unsurprisingly identified him as such early on — even if other parts of the fan base thought they were ridiculous for it.
In The Rise of Skywalker, Kylo Ren does what Darth Vader could not — or more precisely, Ben Solo finishes what Anakin Skywalker started — and uses the Force to save the woman he loves from death. Considering Ben pays the ultimate price and Rey ends up alone in a desert painfully akin to where she started as a scavenger on Jakku, it’s a staunchly bittersweet accomplishment. But while the end feels pretty bleak for a film that touts hope and balance, in the context of the Star Wars saga as a whole, Ben’s sacrifice is the ultimate counterweight to Anakin’s crime against Padmé.
While Darth Vader “redeemed” himself at the end of Return of the Jedi by sacrificing himself to save Luke, his altruistic act is one that can ultimately be waved away as kin selection at work. It’s not much in the way of atonement in the sense that it does not correspond directly to any of the heinous crimes that defined his downfall. Kylo Ren’s actions might not atone for all of his grandfather’s sins, but in terms of his crimes against his wife, Ben’s sacrifice for Rey makes the end of his story a fitting inverse of the beginning of Darth Vader’s.
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