Not Vader: Understanding Kylo Ren?

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Previously, I have written about Rey and one way to look at her story that can be the key to the new trilogy’s plot. Understanding the characters can even give us a better sense of where the plot may be going, or at least prevent us from making completely off-the-mark predictions.

There is a second part to what I said about Rey that should be mentioned: the story, and character, of Rey’s opposite, Kylo Ren.

Failing To Be Dark Lord

If Rey has been considered a new Luke, then Kylo Ren is the new Anakin Skywalker. Not only because he himself wanted to be like Vader, but also because of the tragic aspect of his story. However, just like Rey isn’t Luke, Kylo Ren isn’t really Anakin. This is true both on the story-level as well as on the meta-level: wasn’t it one of the criticisms against Kylo Ren’s character that he wasn’t cool enough; that Vader was cooler and Kylo Ren fails to be cool? Well, I say that wasn’t a failure. That is exactly what Kylo Ren was meant to be: he is not Vader.

If I started psychologizing, I could say that Kylo Ren’s story mirrors closely what is perceived as the “generation Y” stereotype: the uprooted youth who can in no way reach the same result as his parents (if only because the socio-economic setting has changed profoundly). In this case, Kylo Ren sets out to mimic Darth Vader (not a parent, but certainly an imaginary parental figure – an ideal to measure oneself against) and fails spectacularly. He is not the menacing Dark Lord he would pretend to be.

The realisation that he is, in fact, not Vader comes gradually through his contact with Rey. Rey, for Kylo, is a peer of the same age, the same “generation Y” if you will, who is the only one he can relate to amidst all the Lukes and Snokes. Han is an absent parent, we don’t know about Ben’s relationship with Leia (I would have hoped for clarification on that front in the last film – but with Leia’s role pretty much in the air, it is hard to predict anything), but so far it seems like the only thing Skywalker side of family managed to provide Kylo Ren with is the burden of legacy. Whatever it was that Ben Skywalker needed, neither his parents nor his uncle were able to give that to him. Therefore, regardless of what you think about the Rey – Kylo Ren relationship, the fact remains that Rey is the only one who can understand Kylo Ren, and she is the only one he understands (if anyone).

Who Are You, What Do You Want

Initially, Ben rejected his Jedi Skywalker legacy that had been pushed at him. He replaced it with the dark legacy of his grandfather, which, however, was also not his own – it was pushed on him by Snoke. It is only in the famous elevator scene where Kylo smashes his wannabe-Dark Lord mask and realises who he really is. Or, at least, realises what he is not, which is an equally important step on his journey (of which, this far, we still don’t know where it will end).

We can already see a pattern here. Rey, Kylo Ren, but also Finn are each pushed into the existential conflict. They need to answer for themselves who they are, without the help of the easy answer projected on them from the outside. It is very much the “know thyself” motto that has become all too common in contemporary stories, up to the point that it becomes an empty phrase. But perhaps in the context of Star Wars, with all its stress on legacy and inherited destiny, the message can regain its meaning.

The fact that the protagonists cast away or are stripped of their inherited/received identity does not mean they cannot accept it again. But it needs to be on their own terms. Kylo Ren may yet become a Skywalker, or a Jedi, or even a new Vader, but if yes, it needs to be on his own terms: that much his (and Rey’s) story signifies.

How ‘Meta’ Is This Trilogy?

The protagonists of the new films are going through different ordeals than the old trilogy heroes did. It seems to us, the audience, that what happens to them are the same things that happened to their parents’ generation before. But they are not. The point is that Kylo Ren has to go through everything by himself again – especially facing the Dark Side and rejecting it, if it comes to that. How much confused he is in the process and how much of that can be attributed to not enough understanding from all the “old-timers” around him is up for debate.

Just as much as we can wonder how much “meta” the new Star Wars really are. Some critics see the new films as the confused angsty child – just like Kylo Ren seems to be. But if they are right, who are they? Seen from the perspective of Rey, Kylo and the others, are they in the role of Luke and the other “adults” who would wish to push the kids into their vision of the world, even though the world has changed meanwhile? Such a metanarrative would be unintended, no doubt, but nevertheless… it is something to think about.

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Rostislav Kurka
Rostislav is a Protestant theologian and a self-trained Sith, counting Jan Hus, Dorothee Sölle, Darth Revan and Darth Traya among his main influences. He hails from the hundred-towered city of Prague, where he had spent a large part of his life creating worlds and inspiring young generations to roleplay. His involvement in organising children's camps led him to accidentally writing a Lord of the Rings musical, which made him temporarily famous, and a Three Musketeer-Jedi fanfilm, which didn't. He has recently moved to the frozen waste of Finland, because that's it, the Rebels are there.