Kylo Ren’s character gets labeled as power-hungry a lot, but that’s not what his character’s about. Power is only a means to an end.
Warning: THERE WILL BE MASSIVE SPOILERS!
Second warning! Did I mention the spoilers, cause there’s going to be a lot. Proceed at your own risk.
Anyway! Kylo Ren! You know, that slightly annoying man-child who threw temper tantrums in The Force Awakens (TFA), he just got amazing! They even made me accept said temper tantrums retroactively—that’s how much depth they gave him, not to mention Adam Driver sold his performance marvelously. Seriously, this whole post is about him, cause he was the best part of TLJ, and honestly his story held the movie together amidst a lot of superfluous plotlines.
One of the reasons I want to talk about it (besides being a geek and geekily wanting to discuss this with people) is I haven’t seen a lot of people discussing what I think is the most important piece of information TLJ reveals about Kylo Ren.
Kylo Ren is not about gaining power at all. He’s entirely drive is survival. It’s the root of his conflict between light and dark. It’s why he killed Snoke when he did. It’s why he connected and so desperately wanted Rey to join him. From the moment he woke up to see Luke standing over him ready to kill, Kylo has acted for his own survival in a world that wants to kill him.
He’s not about power. He’s not about the dark side. He is a teenage kid who always sees death when he wakes up, so he’s trying not to fall asleep.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Might seem cliché to say, but this is Star Wars we’re talking about.
The Birth of Kylo Ren
We don’t really know much about Ben Solo, but TLJ has given us a wealth of information about who Kylo Ren is and why he became that way, and that starts with Ben training under Luke at the Jedi temple. We get two different versions of the events that led to Kylo Ren’s turning to the dark side, but while each is colored by their own point of view, the truth between them introduces the crux of his entire character.
Ben Solo absolutely has what I’ll call Dark-side tendencies. Every Jedi has temptations, he’s just a bit more tempted than most from what we know. But he’s not yet chosen to turn completely to the dark side, and as far as we can see in TLJ, is still training to be a Jedi as everyone wants. Snoke may be in there whispering, but he’s not taken the bait yet, just circling around with a hungry eye. Luke, in his self-proclaimed moment of weakness, sees that potential for darkness and reacts . . . poorly.
The one line Luke has during his recitation of events that I really loved was (I’m paraphrasing here), “The last thing I saw in his eyes was a frightened boy.”
THAT is Kylo Ren. A frightened boy betrayed by one of the people he was supposed to trust most—his uncle, his mentor, the hero of the Resistance—basically the ultimate good guy.
In that moment Ben Solo has no choice but to turn to the dark side, because he’s learned in the most visceral way that the light side can’t be trusted. It is this forced choice that becomes the core of his conflict between the light and the dark sides throughout TFA and TLJ.
Unlike Anakin who eventually comes to the decision to turn on his own, Ben was only at the beginning of his temptations. He didn’t want to go to Snoke because he believed in the dark side, he needed to go to Snoke to protect himself from Luke and the “good guys.” All of his actions from this point on can be seen as an act of survival, not direct cruelty or desire for power.
- The destruction of Luke’s Jedi temple and slaughter of his students: From Kylo’s POV if Luke wanted him dead, then all of the Jedi he trains would want him dead as well, especially if he believed Luke died in his initial attack. All of the light side of the force is now his enemy, and to ensure his survival, he must eliminate them before they became powerful enough to attack him.
- Joining Snoke: Becoming Kylo Ren under Snoke is absolutely a survival move. Luke tried to kill him and he’d fought back. He’d killed Luke’s students. He was already deemed too close to the dark side before he ever made a conscious choice himself. By joining Snoke he gains a protector against everyone who would side with Luke against him, and also a mentor to make him more powerful—better able to protect himself.
- Temper Tantrums and Instability: Since turning to the dark side wasn’t his choice, but it was what he had to do to survive, Kylo must attempt to reconcile the situation he’s stuck in. He hates it, and he fears Snoke. He knows if he doesn’t successfully do what Snoke demands, Snoke will eventually kill him. So he forces himself to become something he doesn’t want to be in order to survive the only person who can protect him from everyone else. The frustration of this conflict comes out in his temper tantrums and consistent instability in the face of failure. Failure equals death.
- Killing Han: Throughout TFA Kylo is struggling with the dark side. Now comes the moment he must commit by killing his father. This is still a survival move.If Kylo were to let Han live and go back to the rebels, he still wouldn’t be able to trust anyone. He’d been betrayed by the best of them, and Kylo had been fighting their forces so long that none of them would be safe to be around. Snoke isn’t safe, but Kylo knows what to expect from him. Successfully obeying Snoke’s orders means survival. Kylo must kill Han, not for the dark side but to keep himself safe from Snoke.
- Not Killing Leia: At first sight this one doesn’t look like an act of survival. He’s not in any real danger here, but Kylo is genuinely broken. Snoke isn’t wrong when he says killing Han shattered Kylo’s soul. He knows he can’t live with himself if he kills both his parents, Leia even more than Han perhaps because he’s connected to her though the force. He doesn’t kill her to protect what is left of himself.
Rey and Killing Snoke
Now this is where he really gets interesting. Snoke wants to lure Rey in, so he stokes Kylo’s fear of failing him (remember failure = death) and starts force-connecting Kylo and Rey. But while Kylo doesn’t want to belong to the light side—he was betrayed by the light side—he doesn’t want to belong to the dark side either. Killing Han was too much. And then Rey appears.
Rey is neutral in the force still. She hasn’t been trained for either side, and despite having a general sense of the dark side being bad, she doesn’t show any actual fear of it during her time on Luke’s island. In this sense she’s similar to how Kylo was when he was still Ben Solo.
That’s why I believe they are able to make a raw, intimate connection. When he reveals what happened that night at the temple, he’s doing it for both of them. He intends to make a point about Luke, but he’s also explaining, to himself and Rey, how he turned into this person he didn’t intend to be. Rey, for all she hates what he’s done, believes him enough to confront Luke.
This is important. She believed not only in him but also in the conflict inside him. She’s able to understand him even if she doesn’t want to. And when she goes to the dark side mirror beneath the island, it ends with her reaching out to Kylo, because by this point, Luke’s begun to disappoint her as well.
Rey reaching out to him, both by telling him what happened and by literally holding out her hand, is an offering of trust to him, the person who killed Han, her short-lived mentor and surrogate father figure. Trust is not something Kylo has had in anyone since the incident with Luke. He certainly doesn’t trust Snoke or anyone in the First Order. And yet, he takes her hand. He is willing to trust her back.
That is where Snoke miscalculated. He made his plans thinking of Kylo has a Sith apprentice. But Kylo never chose to become that. Kylo chose to survive by any means necessary, and the dark side was his means. When he did actively choose to trust Rey, he made her important to him. And they were connected through the force. He saw her fighting at his side. That vision showed him that his trust would be rewarded. At that point, killing Rey would destroy him as surely as killing Leia would. At Snoke’s order, Kylo is left with only one path to survive with what was left of himself intact: kill Snoke.
Kylo Ren, Supreme Leader: The Grab for Power
Now most of what I’ve seen so far written on Kylo’s motivations in taking over Snoke’s mantle has been about a desire for power, as would be the motivations of a Sith. But Kylo isn’t a Sith, not at his core. He even says as much when he asks Rey to join him. (Paraphrasing) “Sith, Jedi, let them all end.”
Power isn’t his goal. It never was. Survival is always the motivation behind his actions, and this is no different. He’s just killed Snoke. If he ran away, he’d be target number one on the First Order’s kill list. And as with his choices in killing Han, going to the rebels for help isn’t an option. They can’t be trusted not to try to kill him either.
So his options are to run with literally both sides of this war wanting him dead, or assume control of the First Order. He won’t trust them, but they already fear him enough to obey. The choice is clear. And if he’s to maintain rule over the First Order though, he must act the part. He must continue to fight the rebels.
But then there’s Rey. In that moment, he fully trusts Rey. He needs to feel safe and she proved in the spectacular fight against the Imperial Guard that she would defend him. He wants her to stay, because she’s the only person he believes won’t try and kill him in his sleep. The fact is, he’s right.
Kylo wakes up after Rey has already left to rejoin the rebels, which means she didn’t kill him, even though he intends to lead the very organization she wants to destroy. He’s an immensely powerful force user. Eliminating him along with Snoke would deal a major blow to the First Order. But she doesn’t.
Unlike Luke whose instinct it was to condemn him for crimes he hadn’t yet committed, Rey looks past the terrible acts he’s done, and will continue to do, in order to find the conflict within him. She doesn’t kill him, because she knows he’s not a slave to the dark side. He’s not gone forever. He’s left light and dark behind in order to survive, and even if she doesn’t understand that reason, Rey feels his conflict.
I believe that’s why she’s angry at him in their last force vision but he’s not at her. He failed to rise above the conflict inside him to become a better version of himself, while she lived up to the trust he’d given her by not killing him. I’m very curious how their interactions play out in the next movie.
Speaking of . . .
Episode IX: Hopes, Not Predictions
Sadly, TLJ leaves few paths for Kylo to escape villain status alive. I’m not going to make any predictions, because those have clearly not been accurate for this new trilogy, but I will tell you what I hope happens.
I hope that they bring his theme of survival to the forefront of his conflict with the dark side. I personally think he’d to unstable to hold the role of strategically powerful big bag guy, and TLJ made me love him too much to see him as a lost-to-evil Vader-like villain.
So, in order to bring Kylo’s survival theme out more, we need Hux to conspire against Kylo. This is not an unrealistic scenario. Hux hates Kylo and would love nothing more than to kill him. If he is able to convince others in the First Order of Kylo’s instability (easily exasperated by Leia’s death, which I assume is how they’ll write her out), then the Kylo can come to see that his desire to be powerful enough to stop anyone who wants to kill him, is what has made so many try. He needs to realize that he can’t stop the threat of death, but he can find those (or, at least, the one) who he can trust, and he needs to see that survival at the cost of everything else isn’t worth it.
I think that would a good conclusion to his character. But with J.J. taking back the reins, we may never get a solid conclusion. One can only hope.
Comment below and tell me what you think Kylo Ren is about.