We need to talk about Kylo Ren’s character arc in The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars is one of those things I grew up loving. I love the original trilogy, I sort of enjoy the prequels (despite them being objectively bad), I have sort of enjoyed the spin-offs, I’ve watched some of the series, and I liked the more recent films in the saga. Yes, I had a lot of fun with The Force Awakens and I thought The Last Jedi was good, even though I did not like everything about it.


Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker ahead.


Irrefutable proof that I like Star Wars, lol

But The Discourse™ surrounding Star Wars, the extreme reactions from some of the fans, including the harassment and blatant racism/misogyny that the cast has endured, have soured the Star Wars experience for many people, including me. So, I have kept my distance in recent years. I still watch the movies and the videos surrounding them, but I never go into open discussions or “debates” because I just don’t think they’re worth the energy.

So, when I went into the cinema to watch The Rise of Skywalker, I went expecting an entertaining movie. Nothing more, nothing less. I was not going to get angry, I was not going to get hyped about it, I was not going to discuss it with anyone, and I surely was not going to write about it. I guessed there would be enough online outrage.

And then I saw this long YouTube video where three men discussed and talked about what they did and didn’t like about the movie. I didn’t watch the entire video because I was not emotionally invested, but one thing that caught my attention was that they listed Kylo Ren’s redemption as one of the things they liked. And after hearing those words, I could not stop thinking about them because… well… it’s not good.

When I say that Kylo Ren’s arc is not good, I’m talking specifically about his redemption arc as depicted in The Rise of Skywalker. So, today I would like to break down and explore not only why it’s a bad redemption arc, but also why it might be that some people perceived it as good, or at least, good enough.

1. There is no realization that any of Kylo Ren’s previous actions (except killing his father) were wrong

Killing Han Solo, his own father, was something bad that Kylo Ren did. It was wrong of him. We know that, Kylo knows that, everybody knows that. In fact, Kylo is so aware of its wrongness, that it weighs on him for the entirety of the trilogy. It is a point that has been clearly established and constantly repeated both by characters in the movie and by the people working on the movie. What he did was wrong and he felt bad about it since the moment that it happened, when he was in evil-mode.

But what about the other things he did? He killed countless resistance fighters, he burned down villages, he murdered Max von Sydow, he was the Supreme Leader of an institution that kidnapped children to make them into Stormtroopers, the list goes on. So, when during The Rise of Skywalker does he realize that all of these actions were wrong? How does he realize this? What leads him to this conclusion? What indication is there that he regrets having done any of that?

There isn’t. Which brings us to the next point.

2. Kylo Ren doesn’t make reparation to those he hurt

Part of what makes a good redemption arc work is that, once the character in question realizes that what they’ve done is bad, they feel terrible about it and they try to make up for it. Keyword: Reparation, “the act of giving something to somebody or doing something for them in order to show that you are sorry for suffering that you have caused.” (Oxford Dictionary)

One of the best examples of all time is the character of Prince Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, who after renouncing the Fire Nation, goes to the Avatar team, says he’s sorry, gives every team member something in return (he teaches Aang to firebend, he helps Katara find closure, etc.), and he personally helps in the defeat of the Fire Nation.

In the Marvel Universe, the character of Black Widow states in the first Avengers film that she has “red on her ledges and would like to wipe it off”, making it crystal clear that her avenging and crime-fighting are her way to atone for what she did in the past.

But since Kylo Ren has shown no remorse for what he did to countless people, there’s never a way for him to address his past actions. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness, he doesn’t join the resistance, nothing he does after his “turning point” makes it better for anyone. Not that the film would have let him. It promptly rewards him with a kiss and kills him off, so he can die a martyr. But his actions as Ben Solo are not deserving of reward, and letting him off the hook with a supposedly heroic death is not the same as fixing what he broke. And yes, this includes his helping Rey defeat Palpatine.

3. It doesn’t matter whether it was Ben or Kylo who helped Rey defeat Palpatine

The motivations and goals of Kylo Ren are never made completely clear in the trilogy. We don’t really know what he wants or why he wants it. He wants to destroy the resistance, he then wants to kill the past and rule with Rey, he then wants to be Supreme Leader, but we never know why.

At the beginning of The Rise of Skywalker, it is made clear that Kylo Ren wants to kill Palpatine so there’s nobody more powerful than him. He goes to Rey to tell her that Palpatine wants to kill her and tries to convince her that they should go kill him together instead. Once he turns good and becomes Ben Solo again, he goes to help Rey do that.

The thing is, whether Kylo Ren is good or bad makes no difference in the outcome of this final battle and thus, his sacrifice has no real impact on his redemption as a whole. Kylo/Ben helping Rey is not an indicator of his goodness. We saw him do exactly that in The Last Jedi and that did not redeem him. She was being tortured by Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo helped her, they fought Snoke’s goons together, and then they bumped heads because she wanted him to be good and he wanted to be bad.

In The Rise of Skywalker, Palpatine is emotionally torturing Rey, so Ben helps her, they fight together and she kills Palpatine and dies. We could argue that only a light force user could have brought her back to life, so it was necessary for him to be good, but we just saw Palpatine get a whole beauty makeover using the dark side, plus there was a lot of life-giving and Snoke-creating equipment lying around. Maybe Kylo could have used that instead. Maybe seeing her sacrifice could have made him see the error of his ways and that could have been his turning point towards the light (although this idea would also have been very problematic).

My point is, the Emperor died regardless of whether Kylo was good or bad. The plot probably needed Ben to bring back Rey and make this big sacrifice, but when the sacrifice comes, we are left with this strange feeling that something is missing. Something is not right. And that something boils down to one thing and one thing only…

4. Kylo Ren’s turning point is not convincing

Kylo Ren was absolutely miserable since he killed his father in The Force Awakens, but this didn’t stop him from doing anything else he did afterward, except killing his mom in The Last Jedi. He still killed Snoke and took over his job, destroyed the resistance, bullied his coworkers, yelled at Luke Skywalker, negged Rey (negging: low-grade insults meant to undermine the self-confidence of a woman so she might be more vulnerable to your advances), and tried to be the biggest baddy in the galaxy.

So, when he’s fighting Rey on the wreckage of the Death Star and she stabs him, when he feels Leia’s death, he has a change of heart and dramatically throws away his lightsaber into the ocean. But again, the movie never tells us why. Why would he suddenly quit the dark side? What prompted him to do it? Was it getting stabbed? Was it his mother dying?

It has been argued that “Leia snapped Kylo Ren back to Ben Solo as her final act before death“, but that doesn’t work on different levels. Not only is it bad for the character of Kylo because it takes away all his agency (since all of his life-changing decisions have been influenced by someone else, be it for good or for evil), it also doesn’t explain why or how this would suddenly work. In previous movies, Leia clearly said that she hadn’t been able to reach him, that she had lost him. Han tried to and died, Luke tried to and failed, as did Rey. So… what changed? Why now?

There was no build-up to his redemption, there was never a point where he looked back on what he did and the damage he caused and said “oh… this was bad”, there was no indication of him changing his mind about the First Order. He simply decided to not be evil anymore. My point is: his redemption arc is bad because he didn’t really have one. The movie just jumped from one thing to another without putting in the effort.

This brings us back to the original issue. Why would we think that his redemption arc is good? Why would we think his ending is deserved? The three men that I watched on YouTube aren’t the only ones who have said so. There are several posts on Social Media where people agree that it was good and deserved and “much needed!”

There’s this thing that people do, especially people in positions of privilege or power, where they do something that hurts a person or a group, and then, upon being pressured, issue an apology. Sometimes the apology is a non-apology, the classic “I’m sorry if I offended you”, “I’m sorry you felt like that”, or in true Joe Biden fashion “the standards are different now”/”social norms are different”, but mostly people just say sorry and move on with their lives.


Here’s a story: After the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, many people, most of them men (like Matt Damon, George Clooney and Ben Affleck), but also some women (like Lindsay Lohan) started distancing themselves from him, claiming that “they didn’t know him that way”. They had a vague idea that he was “a bully”, but they didn’t know. Obviously they thought what he did was wrong, but they never saw him do any of it!

And then there was director Kevin Smith. Like the others, he said he didn’t know. Harvey Weinstein had helped him boost his career and had been almost his mentor, but he didn’t know that part of him. But here’s where he went a different route than the others: he said that, despite not knowing about it, he had been part of the problem because he had sent many women in filmmaking towards Harvey Weinstein, thinking that he would help them the way he’d helped him. That’s realization. He was ashamed of it and he then vowed to give all future residuals from the films he made with Weinstein to the non-profit organization Women in Film. Expecting The Weinstein Company to suffer some economic losses due to the scandal, he pledged to also give $2000 every month for the rest of his life. He didn’t actively and purposefully hurt women, but his actions probably led to some women getting very hurt, so he was going to make up for it. That’s reparation.


But more often than not, the very people who committed the offense go on as if nothing had happened. They don’t necessarily try to understand how it was wrong and where it came from, they don’t examine their lives and put in the work to become better people, they don’t try to actively make up for what they did, they just are more careful about what they say (if at all). The reason why I’m talking mostly about powerful or privileged people because their unique positions allow them to do that without big repercussions.

And I think that, at least to a certain extent, Kylo Ren’s redemption is a bit like that.

Like many people pressured into saying sorry by something they’re not sorry about, Kylo’s change was completely superficial. Literally. He threw away his lightsaber, he changed his clothes, and he went to kill some more people, only this time bad people with no names and no faces. We’ve seen that nothing he did after becoming Ben was totally different from what he could have done as Kylo, and we probably agree that he didn’t really have time to prove me wrong because he died. We could sit here and argue that, if the trilogy had been planned out from the start, that would have allowed the writers and the director to clearly define what they wanted to do with him and his redemption could have been more developed, but that’s not what happened. The fact remains that the movie completely left out key aspects that make a redemption convincing, which makes me think that maybe the writers didn’t think of them at all.

I’m not saying that this was done on purpose, nor am I saying that the writers, the director or the people who think that Kylo’s redemption was good are mean people who don’t know how to apologize or how redemption works. What I’m trying to say is that, maybe this is an example of how, due to our position, we might still have some blind-spots, when it comes to being sorry. It’s not enough to say sorry, it’s not enough to broodily throw our swords into the ocean, it’s not enough to run to the girl we like to help her against a bigger bully and ignore everyone else. We need to clearly see what we did, why we did it, renounce it, and do something about it. True redemption involves introspection, realization, and reparation.

Of Men and Nice Guys in “Juliet, Naked”

Juliet, Naked is a 2018 film directed by Jesse Peretz, written by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, Tamara Jenkins and Phil Alden Robinson, and it is based on the novel of the same name by Nick Hornby. It stars Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke and Chris O’Dowd.

It tells the story of Annie (Byrne), a woman bored and unhappy with her life, who is -and has been for the past 15 years- in an unfulfilling, dull, long-term relationship with Duncan (O’Dowd). Duncan is obsessed with obscure singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe (Hawke), who 25 years ago wrote and recorded an album called Juliet, and disappeared from public life. A newly discovered demo record from Crowe’s album arrives at Annie’s and Duncan’s door. Duncan, who runs a blog dedicated to Crowe’s music and theories about his life, promptly posts about it online. Annie, who is tired of having to listen to Tucker Crowe, writes a negative review and is contacted by the artist himself. Tucker agrees with her, and so starts an online friendship that could turn into something more.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: we all know where the movie is going as soon as Ethan Hawke (whom I love almost as much as I love Rose Byrne) shows his bearded face. We know how this movie will end, but that is not the point. The point is the story, and -to me, at least- it is a good story. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about the men.

Spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want absolutely anything spoiled, go and watch it and then come back

Duncan, the nice guy

Annie is in a relationship with, what we nowadays call, a Nice Guy. In case you don’t know, a Nice Guy (sometimes also stylized as Nice Guy™) is a man who does not behave in an overtly aggressive or “bad” way, but who expects something in return for his being nice. He thinks the world, or society, or women “owe him” for being such a nice guy. We’ve all seen men like that: they complain about being in the “friendzone”, they are always right, they just know better, and they are so nice that people -especially women- should reward them for their actions. A Nice Guy would never hit you or explicitly insult you, he is nice. See? Now you have to love him, because he’s nice!

And that is exactly what Duncan is. He is not conventionally attractive, but he’s not unattractive either. He is reasonably smart, he teaches at a university and gets along well with his students and colleagues, he has hobbies and pays attention to details, and he usually lets Annie be. Whenever he gets angry and yells at Annie, he apologizes. It also seems like it doesn’t happen very often, unless it is related to his devotion to Tucker Crowe.

At the beginning of the film, he gets very angry when Annie listens to Tucker Crowe’s demo before him. Boy, he does not like it, at all! He feels betrayed and angry that she would dare to listen to it before him, when she knows, she knows how much Tucker Crowe means to him. But what I find more interesting is what happens right before the argument: Duncan comes home and notices that Annie is listening to something new. She repeatedly tries to explain to him the situation, possibly knowing what his reaction will be. Duncan is in a good mood, so he simply ignores her and tries to guess what she’s listening to. She asks him over and over again to let her explain, but he keeps walking and talking over her, at some point he shushes her and tells her to “shut up quick, [he] wants to guess”. When he can’t, he asks her what it is, and she finally tells him. He gets angry and yells and ends up leaving the house to listen to the demo alone, in peace. It is only hours later that he comes back and apologizes to her for acting stupid.

This situation of Duncan talking over Annie and blatantly ignoring her happens several times throughout the movie, although it doesn’t always end in an argument because usually Annie stops trying and simply lets him have it his way. This includes one key difference in their lives: she wants to have children, and he doesn’t. She didn’t want to when they started dating, but now she does, and he dismisses her wishes completely.

I enjoyed Duncan’s character a lot, and Chris O’Dowd plays him wonderfully. It is not often that I see such a self-centred, entitled, obnoxious man who is not rewarded by the movie for being like that. He sounds awful -and he is- but he is not too different from other beloved and admired fictional characters. Lots of stories have this kind of character. The difference is that the narrative frames them as heroes. Here are some examples:

  1. Twilight’s Edward Cullen. He is selfish, possessive, controlling, pretentious and constantly manipulates Bella into doing what he wants, but, in the story, he is an object of desire. Bella forgives him because everything he does, he does it out of love!
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter Quill is another good example. This one is a little different because, although he is the hero of the story and his childishness and selfishness are portrayed as lovable flaws, he learns -albeit very slowly- to be a better person, and he doesn’t get the girl explicitly because of his immaturity. (Note: this post was written before Avengers: Infinity War)
  3. La La Land’s Sebastian. This is a truly awful character, but we still are expected to love him because he is played by Ryan Gosling and because he is a free spirit, a true artist. The truth is, he is a horrible human being. He mistreats anyone who doesn’t share his interests or his views, and he looks down on anyone who doesn’t conform to his idea of what “true” jazz is, which is pretty much everyone. He is an entitled, self-absorbed, obnoxious character, but he is rewarded by the plot anyway.
    No, he doesn’t get the girl either, but he didn’t really, really want her in the first place (nor she him). His dream was to have a jazz bar of his own, and he gets just that (just like her dream was to be a big actress, which she becomes). He didn’t really put in the work, he complained every step of the way, he alienated everyone willing to put up with him, and he still achieved his dream.

Duncan is exactly like that, but he is not framed as a hero, nor portrayed as an object of desire. He is shown exactly the way he is, and he is terrible.

There’s one thing that happens in the movie that I understand, but kinda wish hadn’t happened. Since Duncan’s awfulness might go over some heads and because we need a reason for the usually conforming Annie to leave him, he cheats on her. I understand why the movie needs him to cheat, but I kinda wish that he hadn’t. I kinda wish the movie had let him just be awful in his own way and that Annie had made the decision to leave him on her own, because she finally accepted that they weren’t happy. Nevertheless, the cheating is the big push that Annie needs and if there’s one amazing thing to come out of it is how he confesses and his reason for confessing. The confession is peak Nice Guy: He comes clean, not because he wants her to know the truth, not because she deserves basic respect, but just so he can feel better about himself.

Tucker, the Broken Man

On the other side, we have Tucker Crowe, the artist who got his heart broken 25 years ago and wrote an entire album about it, inspiring hundreds of brokenhearted men who saw themselves in his music.

We find Tucker living in the garage of his ex-wife’s house, taking care of his youngest child and waiting for the arrival of one daughter, who is coming from London. He has a bunch of children that he never sees, and they all have a different mother. Tucker is a recovering alcoholic, and he is utterly disappointed with his life. However, he takes care of his young son with love and devotion, they spend a lot of time together, and he tries to answer to every single question that the boy asks. Tucker is open about his dislike for his music, although he refuses to say why, he doesn’t shy away from telling people that he is screwed up, and he is, by all means, a loser.
But here’s the important thing about Tucker: he is a loser trying to be better.

Tucker is the opposite of Duncan. He is not successful or popular, he is just broken. He is conscious of his mistakes and his sins, and he carries them with him wherever he goes. But he tries. He tries to be a good father to his little boy, he is no longer drinking, when he starts exchanging emails with Annie, he listens to her and is honest about not being able to give her any advice because he has a history of making the worst decisions, and once he meets Annie in person when he goes to England, he is inspired to be better. She’s not the one to change him though, he does it all on his own.

Spoiler warning: From here on, we will talk about the very end of the movie.

Tucker and Annie have feelings for each other and even share a kiss, but they don’t get together and Tucker goes back to the United States. A year goes by before they see each other again. When they finally meet, we see Tucker waiting for Annie at a café. This time, he looks a lot better. His hair is combed, his beard is tidy, and he looks happier. We as an audience know that he went and took care of himself first and only then came back to Annie. In the year of our Lord 2019, when we still get movies about how “the right girl will fix him”, it’s refreshing to see a movie where the guy fixes himself before going to see about a girl.

After the movie ends, we get a credits-scene where Duncan is seen complaining on his blog about Tucker’s new album. He is visibly disappointed and lists some of the reasons why this is: “We have a song about reading in the afternoon, we have a song about home-grown green beans, there’s a little [commentary] expanding on the joys of being a step-father! I mean, in short, we have a tragedy!”

He goes on to complain about other things and you get the impression that he also resents Tucker for getting together with Annie, but I think this first list says a lot about both characters. Duncan’s obsession with Tucker comes from listening to music that was written by a young man who got dumped and who wrote “insipid, self-pitying songs about Julie [the actual name of the woman] breaking [his] heart” (as Tucker himself puts it). The songs are about him and his suffering, regardless of what Julie thought or did or why she broke up with him.

Tucker Crowe grew out of his self-centred self, he stopped making himself out to be the victim, he evolved. And it’s interesting to see how the music that he produces once he’s made peace with his past, once he’s actively trying to be a good father to all of his children and a good man for Annie, the music that he creates out of an emotionally stable life is rejected by Duncan.

The contrast between Duncan and Tucker is clear, but it is never mentioned explicitly. This film chose to show the supposedly Nice Guy honestly without making him into a complete caricature. Duncan is a guy that we might know. If we’re honest, he is a guy we probably know. On the other side of the coin, it gives us Tucker, who is flawed but an actual good guy. He is relatable because he is not portrayed as this misunderstood, brooding guy. He is thoughtful and somewhat goofy and full of regret. He knows who he is and who he wants to be, and he is actively working to be that person, even if it doesn’t always work out the way he wants it to.