No Life for the Wicked: Looking at Redemption in The Rise of Skywalker

As many of you know, I’m an avid Star Wars fan. As such, you can imagine my excitement going to see The Rise of Skywalker last month wearing my ’50s style Anakin-inspired dress. I’ve seen the film twice now, and both times left the theater in tears. I hated the ending, for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment, and found it a heartbreaking, hopeless conclusion to the Skywalker story that I’ve been following my whole life.

Many people love this film and I don’t want to take away from their enjoyment of it or criticize them for disagreeing with me. I’m glad for those who could enjoy it, and saddened that I cannot since it’s the first Star Wars film that I haven’t loved despite whatever flaws it might have. I do, however, want to talk about a choice made regarding one character’s fate. And since I’m a Christian blogger, I want to talk about how much it relates to some Bible scriptures I happened to read the night I saw The Rise of Skywalker for the first time.

Warning: major spoilers follow for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

The Need For Redemption

I’ve been slightly obsessed by Kylo Ren for the past four years, since we first met his character in The Force Awakens. Exhibits A through D, my blog posts on this character:

If you were to take the time to read through all these posts (which I don’t expect you to do), you’d see that my thoughts on Kylo/Ben evolved over the years. At first, I just found his character fascinating since he’s so different than the sort of villains we usually see on-screen. My first viewing of The Last Jedi left me hopeful for a redemption arc but not expecting it, a perspective that turned around the more I rewatched this film and thought about Kylo/Ben’s character arc. Finally, a little over a year ago, I wrote a post about Bendemption that concluded with these words:

Anakin’s turn at the end of his life wasn’t enough to end the cycle of loss, darkness, and falls that require redemption. The cycle continued and (I think) part of the reason was because Anakin didn’t survive. He wasn’t there to teach his grandson how to navigate the Dark Side’s temptations or how to come back if you fall. And because Luke and Leia covered up the truth about their father, Ben didn’t even have the guidance of Anakin’s legacy. …

In order for redemption, love, and compassion to win in the end of this new trilogy, I think Ben Solo has to be redeemed. More than that, he has to live and deal with the consequences of his past actions. He needs the chance to follow the advice that Yoda gives Luke in The Last Jedi: “Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery, hmm… but weakness, folly, failure also. Yes: failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”

As you might imagine if you’ve seen The Rise of Skywalker, going into it with this hope left me disappointed in the film. Yes, Ben Solo redeemed himself as his grandfather did. But it was a bit too much like his grandfather’s end to leave me hopeful for the next generation in this galaxy far, far away.

No Life for the Wicked: Looking at Redemption in The Rise of Skywalker | LikeAnAnchor.com

Living After Your Failures

I read a chapter from the Bible every night before going to bed. Right now I’m in Ezekiel, and when I came home from seeing The Rise of Skywalker opening night I read the 18th chapter. This is a chapter where the Lord answers an accusation from His people that He is unfair in how He meets out justice. The Lord, Yahweh, clarifies that He holds individuals responsible for their own actions and that He allows people to change and redeem themselves.

“But if the wicked turns from all his sins that he has committed, and keeps all my statutes, and does that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live. He shall not die. None of his transgressions that he has committed will be remembered against him. In his righteousness that he has done, he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” says the Lord Yahweh; “and not rather that he should return from his way, and live?” (Ezekiel 18:21-23, WEB)

This is what I wanted for Ben Solo. I’ve heard people say that he “had” to die because he killed his father, Han, or that he “deserved” to die and no redemption could change that. But God’s way is that even those who deserve death get a chance at life if they choose the right path in the end (see also Ezekiel 33:14-16). I wish that was the way it was in Star Wars as well, but it seems redemption there (at last if you’re a fallen Force-user) has to involve your death.

Star Wars is not an explicitly religious story, but George Lucas borrowed from a variety of spiritual traditions, including Christianity, when writing this saga. We already had a story in Star Wars about sacrificial love and redemption when Vader turned back to the Light and died for his son. Now I hoped for a story of redemption and living for the future, one where Ben did the much harder work of living as a new person and passing on what he’d learned. I wanted to see the writers break the cycle, not repeat it and go back to the beginning instead of taking the opportunity to “let the past die” and move on to something greater.No Life for the Wicked: Looking at Redemption in The Rise of Skywalker | LikeAnAnchor.com

Anakin vs. Ben

When Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker dies at the end of The Return of the Jedi, there is catharsis in his end. He makes a conscious choice to both blot out evil (a choice undercut by the decision to bring Palpatine back in TROS) and to save his son from death. Even once Vader is clearly dying, Luke fights to save him. Anakin only passes on once he assures his son, “You already have [saved me]. … You were right about me.” Luke and the audience both get closure for Anakin’s sacrifice, and Luke honors his father by burning his armor/body in the way Jedi Masters were traditionally cremated. The bittersweet, but happy, ending is reinforced once we see Anakin’s Force ghost at the end with Obi-Wan and Yoda and we know that he made it into the afterlife. He is not wholly gone.

Compare this to the end of The Rise of Skywalker. Thanks to Adam Driver’s amazing performance, Ben Solo’s redemption resonates emotionally with us even though he is not given any dialog to work with (after his conversation with the memory of his father, Ben’s only line is “ow”). Redeemed Ben never speaks to Rey and she never speaks to him (at least not that we can hear — her lips are moving but it appears they cut her lines in post-production). There is no indication she mourns him after he vanishes and we never see the Force ghost that is hinted at by the fact that his body disappears. He’s just gone.

And so we’re right back where we were at the end of The Return of the Jedi, except without the things that gave us peace with Anakin’s death. Instead, we have Rey walk away from Ben without any reaction to his sacrifice or redemption then visit a planet which means nothing to her. There, she burries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers at the site of major Skywalker family tragedies like Shmi’s death and the massacre that killed Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru (the audience likes binary sunsets, though, so who cares what Tatooine means to the characters?). Finally, Luke and Leia show up to smile in approval as Rey claims the Skywalker name, as if they’ve forgotten about Ben and accepted Rey as the last Skywalker instead of Leia’s redeemed son.

Finding Closure

No Life for the Wicked: Looking at Redemption in The Rise of Skywalker | LikeAnAnchor.comI love Star Wars, and I’ve been trying to find peace with Ben’s sacrifice by telling myself he did finish what his grandfather started. Anakin fell to the Dark trying to save Padmé, and Ben’s last act is to come back to the Light and succeed in saving the woman he loved. That’s my best hope for finding poetry and closure in this ending for the Skywalker saga (though it doesn’t help much with my feelings about making Rey a Palpatine, but that’s another topic entirely).

I suppose my biggest disappointment was that I didn’t like the film. I’d told myself I could live with a different ending for Kylo/Ben than I wanted if it was done well, but it wasn’t well done (at least from my perspective). It just breaks my heart that we came so close to a happy ending and then had it snatched away from us with no chance to process Ben’s death. We were promised a satisfying conclusion to the Skywalker saga and what we got was the last Skywalker’s death and his Force-dyad soulmate Rey ending up alone (again) on a desert planet. What a way to end the story.

Have you seen The Rise of Skywalker? What were your thoughts on the story choices and Ben Solo’s redemption arc?

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