The Last Jedi and the Hero’s Journey – Part Four: Kylo Ren
In this series, we analyze the use of the Hero’s Journey framework in The Last Jedi to advance the story arcs of the main characters. Part One discusses how the Hero’s Journey models fit within the structure of a Star Wars movie trilogy, and examines Rey’s path in the film as an extended metamorphosis phase of her overall heroic journey. Part Two considers Finn’s development in the next stage of his story and the character archetypes in the film. Part Three assesses a character who is much farther along in his life’s journey, Luke Skywalker, and describes his later-stage Wizard’s Journey heroic cycle. That post also compares Luke’s final arc to two other Jedi Masters in today’s Star Wars storytelling, while another post offers a look at a possible Wizard’s Journey for Leia Organa, as well. In this post, we turn to the antagonist of the Sequel Trilogy.
Kylo Ren and the Villain’s Journey
One common aphorism in storytelling is that “the villain is the hero of his own story.” This makes sense, of course, because only the most cartoonish caricature of a moustache-twirling villain would, knowing full well it is wrong and unjustified, pursue evil simply out of some twisted sadistic pleasure in doing wrong and hurting others. Instead, antagonists have motivations just like protagonists do. They have goals, beliefs, and aspirations – and they pursue them because they are convinced in the rightness of their cause. The most compelling villains as characters are the ones whose motivations, despite their wrong-headedness, are internally coherent in leading to a meaningful objective. From the outside looking in, we may rightfully condemn the results they seek and the choices they make to get there, but we can understand the reasons behind what they do and why they do it.
From The Force Awakens alone, we heard only hints about the path that led the young Jedi apprentice Ben Solo to become the villainous Kylo Ren. With the novel Bloodline and the release of The Last Jedi, the shape of that trajectory has become considerably clearer, though many of its details remain untold, presumably saved for future storytelling. Just as Rey has undertaken a Hero’s Journey as the Force has awakened within her, so too Kylo Ren exists as the product of a Villain’s Journey that mirrors the same progression – except to produce the origin story of a villain rather than a hero.
Kylo Ren’s journey to villainy begins in an Ordinary World, though his is already a bit less ordinary than most. He is Ben Solo, the son of two Rebellion heroes; his mother is a prominent Senator in the New Republic. He is strong in the Force, befitting his family heritage, and begins to train as a Jedi with his uncle Luke Skywalker, another legendary hero of the Rebellion. From this background, we might think there is little reason to suspect this boy will become a villain – just as, from the perspective of the ordinary world, there would be no reason to think that a junk dealer’s slave, moisture farmer’s nephew, or shipwreck scavenger would become a hero.
As yet we do not know exactly when, but sometime early in his life Ben Solo becomes the target of grooming by Snoke. The analogy to Darth Sidious’ long-term manipulation of Anakin Skywalker seems clear; both young men likely did not realize that they were being exploited by an evil mastermind until the effects on their psyche had become far-reaching. This priming by Snoke as the villainous Mentor, surely innocuous for much of its span, leaves Ben vulnerable to a strong push toward darkness when the steps of his Villain’s Journey arrive.
The Call to Adventure occurs in Bloodline. Though we do not see any scenes from Ben’s point of view in the novel, Leia’s perspective as his mother makes the implications apparent. Ben will find out that Darth Vader is his grandfather not from his parents, but from news reports. He will feel a profound sense of betrayal at the revelation – and wonder what other secrets his family has been hiding from him. And at the moment of this discovery he is isolated from his family, traveling the galaxy with Luke, which leaves him especially vulnerable to further twisting by Snoke. Realizing that his parents and his uncle have been deceiving him for his entire life provides the spark that kindles the desire to turn against them, and everything they purport to stand for.
But the Call is never accepted right away, and this is true for Ben Solo, too. At least for a while, he carries on with a Refusal of the Call, continuing as a student at Luke’s training temple. The darkness is growing within him, but he has not yet committed to that path.
The fateful night at the training temple marks the Crossing of the Threshold. Luke tells Rey that he sensed that Snoke had already turned Ben’s heart, and reacted instinctively in drawing his saber to put a stop to the horror Ben could cause; Rey admonishes him that his failure was not an inability to prevent the darkness from infecting Ben, but in not recognizing that, despite the danger he posed, Ben had not yet made his choice. When he awakens to see his uncle standing over him, blade ignited, Ben Solo does make that choice. Ben defends himself against Luke – who speculates that Ben may have initially believed he had killed Luke that night – then massacres most of the Jedi students. Like Anakin Skywalker attacking Mace Windu and then executing Order 66 on Coruscant to become Darth Vader, the mass murder of innocent Jedi children marks Ben Solo crossing into his extraordinary world as a villain.
Again, the exact course of events in which Ben Solo swears allegiance to Snoke and the First Order, rises in its ranks to become a top lieutenant to the Supreme Leader, and takes the name Kylo Ren remains untold at this point. With a number of years between the temple massacre and Episode VII, no doubt his commitment to his Villain’s Journey is tested in that interval.
The Force Awakens showcases a Tests, Enemies, and Allies stage for Kylo Ren. An inverse of Leia sending Poe, Kylo is dispatched to Jakku by Snoke to retrieve the map for the First Order before Lor San Tekka can give it to the Resistance. When he realizes the map is already gone, Kylo orders the massacre of the villagers. He discovers that BB-8 has the map by reading Poe’s mind, but the First Order’s troopers are unable to capture the droid. Kylo’s tantrum upon learning the droid has escaped in a freighter with the traitorous FN-2187 and a girl – “What girl?” – reflects his knowledge that he has failed a test, and Snoke will not be pleased.
The spy report of BB-8’s presence on Takodana brings Kylo in pursuit, fresh off promising Snoke that he will not be seduced by the light if he encounters his father. Kylo chases the girl and the droid into the forest, seizing the girl first. Reading her mind, he realizes she has seen the map. Overconfident in his own abilities and under attack from the Resistance forces, he gives the order to forget the droid and departs with only the girl as his captive. Kylo believes he has successfully completed his mission, but soon finds out he is wrong.
At Starkiller Base, Kylo learns just how much he has underestimated Rey. The awakening that he and Snoke had sensed earlier was hers – and his attempt to extract the map from her mind instead results in her turning the tables on him, not only expelling him from her mind but also uncovering his deepest fear about his own power. While Kylo rushes off to tell Snoke about how strong she is, Rey uses the Force to mind-trick a stormtrooper and escape her cell.
On the other hand, Kylo passes the next test when his father confronts him inside the oscillator facility. Faced with the offer to come home, Kylo says, “I know what I have to do” – the same words he uses in The Last Jedi moments before killing Snoke, misinterpreted by the targeted listener in that situation, too – before murdering Han Solo. He earns a bowcaster bolt to the abdomen from Chewbacca for the dark deed, though his strength is shown by his ability to withstand the shot and remain standing, then stride onward, compared to the stormtroopers who are repeatedly flung into the air when hit by a shot from the Wookiee weapon. A short time later Snoke tells Hux that Kylo is ready to complete his training, affirming that Kylo has passed a crucial test in his Villain’s Journey.
Kylo’s track record takes another loss, though, in the snowy forest of Starkiller Base. He easily bests Finn, then seems headed toward overpowering Rey as well when his overconfidence again gets the best of him. Offering to teach Rey the ways of the Force only jogs her memory of the words from her kind and wise mentor figure, Maz Kanata, leading Rey to close her eyes and draw upon the light side of the Force for strength and guidance. Once again she turns the tables quickly, injuring Kylo twice before the chasm opens to separate them.
With The Last Jedi picking up right where The Force Awakens left off, the Tests phase of Kylo’s Villain’s Journey is still in progress. Snoke chastises him for the emotional turmoil that remains from killing his father and taunts him as a pale shadow of Vader’s greatness, a mere “child in a mask.” Soon Kylo faces the opportunity to kill his other parent when he senses Leia’s presence, but cannot bring himself to open fire on the bridge of the Raddus. Maybe Snoke is not as wrong as Kylo had wanted to let himself believe.
The Inmost Cave pushes the character to confront their most difficult emotional challenges, and often in the heart of the enemy’s fortress at the same time. For Kylo, the Force connection with Rey marks this point in his journey. Though at first he is bold and confident toward her, much of the edge wears off as they interact further. The process of leading her to see that his life is more complex, that his choices are not simply monstrous for their own sake, inevitably forces Kylo to confront the conflict within himself – not just the remainder of the light within him, but the loneliness and loss he suffers as the consequences of his own actions. When Rey senses the potential that remains inside him, to turn away from his Villain’s Journey and return to the light, she likely is not sensing deception but the reality of his turmoil. All of these conversations take place while Rey is on Ahch-To, the location of the first Jedi temple and the hidden exile of Luke Skywalker – which Kylo knows, because that was the purpose of his mission to retrieve the map in the first place. He speaks to her while she is ensconced in the heart of the ancient Jedi Order, the very thing Kylo has turned against.
During his Ordeal, though, Kylo does not make the choice Rey had hoped for. In the throne room aboard the Supremacy, Snoke confirms that Rey’s growing strength is a direct response to Kylo’s own, the light rising to meet the darkness. In that moment, Kylo is handed the opportunity that every dark side apprentice craves – to kill the master and assume power in his place. He knows full well how big the risk is. Earlier in the film, Snoke had flattened him to the floor with barely a flick of the wrist; the ease with which Snoke tosses around Rey suggests that he would have little difficulty doing the same with both Kylo and Rey teaming up against him. Even as Kylo prepares his move, Snoke is bragging about his skill at reading Kylo’s intentions. Rey might not be able to change the odds in combat against Snoke, but she provides just enough of a distraction to allow Kylo to trick him into misinterpreting what he senses as Kylo’s objective. And that small assistance is all Kylo needs to kill Snoke.
Kylo’s success in striking down his dark master is unprecedented in the cinematic Star Wars stories to date. Dooku never has the chance to move against Sidious, nor does Maul in The Phantom Menace. In The Clone Wars, Maul’s Shadow Collective is built as a power base to challenge Sidious, but their confrontation on Mandalore proves how overmatched Maul is. By the time of Star Wars Rebels, Maul is hiding on Malachor, hoping that its ancient Sith superweapon can offer one final chance to strike at his former master; when that fails at Vader’s hand, Maul is left with only one last gasp at vengeance toward his other hated adversary, Obi-Wan Kenobi. On the landing platform at Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith, fully human Vader declares to Obi-Wan that he will overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy himself. The more-machine-than-man Vader in the black suit, however, faces grimmer prospects for success at that endeavor, though comics and other ancillary stories have shown that he pursued angles for that possibility at various times over the following two decades. Vader’s offer to Luke at Bespin likely is genuine: their combined strength might change Vader’s odds considerably. Instead, though, Luke’s example inspires Anakin Skywalker to return, and though he does kill the Emperor, it is as a selfless Jedi sacrifice to save his son and the galaxy from the terror of the Sith.
In the Supremacy’s throne room, Kylo fulfills his promise to “finish what you started” – by anointing himself the new Supreme Leader. This is the Reward of his Villain’s Journey. He is not only committed to the dark path, but free to lead his own way along it.
But Kylo’s Villain’s Journey is not quite complete: the heroes who oppose him have not been defeated yet. The Road Back is the assault on the Resistance base at Crait, which Kylo leads from the command shuttle. After a brief distraction from the ski speeders and the Millennium Falcon, he gives the order for “no quarter, no prisoners” for the troopers about to enter the base.
Which brings Kylo to the Climax of his Villain’s Journey, in the form of a personal showdown with his former master Luke Skywalker. The man who revived the good in Vader, causing the weakness that ended his dark reign. The man who tried to kill Kylo in his sleep. Unlike his confrontations with his father and mother, Kylo has no hesitation when facing his uncle. When the massive cannon onslaught fails to kill him, Kylo attends to the deed personally. He mocks the idea of saving his soul or seeking forgiveness. He offers Luke nothing but violence. His repeated attempts to kill Luke confirm that Kylo is fully committed to the dark side and his selfish quest for power. His triumph on his Villain’s Journey will be complete when he finishes off Luke Skywalker once and for all.
Except that in Star Wars, the path of the dark side can never give you what you desire. The dark side can lead only to tragedy. Even small, temporary victories will only leave the dark sider craving more power and more victories. Nothing will ever be enough. Maul’s arc from The Phantom Menace to The Clone Wars to Star Wars Rebels is the object lesson in the price that the dark side extracts from those who wield it.
That is why the Denouement that Kylo seeks will not come. In his overconfidence and rage, Kylo misses the clues that Luke is not really there. He falls for the trap; the distraction succeeds and the Resistance escapes to fight another day. The base is empty, earning a meaningful side-eye glance from Hux – who, it should be noted, would have been perfectly willing to gun down the unconscious Kylo in the throne room before Kylo woke up, perhaps with an inkling from the Force, in the nick of time. The Falcon dice that represent Han Solo vanish in Kylo’s fingers, symbolizing everything he has lost at his own hand. And then Rey shuts the door of the Falcon, terminating their final Force connection and symbolizing her decision to take the opposing path to his.
At the end of The Last Jedi, Kylo has completed his cycle through the Villain’s Journey. Unlike the machinations of Darth Sidious or the domineering brutality of Darth Vader, Kylo Ren is his own type of villain. His showdown with Luke reinforces that Kylo has not mastered his emotions, particularly his outbursts of uncontrolled fury. His weaknesses are matched by strengths, though, particularly the position he now holds. As Supreme Leader of the First Order and the master of his dark side path, he stands as the antagonist to Rey and her journey to rebuild the Jedi Order and, in her alliance with Leia and Poe leading the Resistance, restore the New Republic.
For more on Kylo Ren and his Villain’s Journey in The Last Jedi, check out Tricia Barr’s feature article in Star Wars Insider #179, coming soon.
- The Last Jedi and the Hero’s Journey – Part One: Rey
- The Last Jedi and the Hero’s Journey – Part Two: Finn
- The Last Jedi and the Hero’s Journey – Part Three: Luke Skywalker and the Wizard’s Journey
- Leia Organa and the Wizard’s Journey in Leia At Risk Revisited: The Stakes After The Last Jedi
- The Bad Batch “Tribe” and Clone Wars Tales Told and Untold - February 2, 2023
- Andor: Fascism and Star Wars - September 30, 2022
- Review: Obi-Wan Kenobi: A Jedi’s Return - September 14, 2022