Order and Redemption in The Last Jedi: A Failure of Climax
I really liked The Last Jedi. Past tense. I liked it before it got to the climax. Now, the more I think about it, the less I’m able to accept the thematic development of the story.
The film is quite large in scope, and so I’m not going to try to discuss all the themes encompassed. Instead, I’ll focus on two: letting go of “old orders” (structures of power and culture that are no longer relevant), and redemption as a part of the hero’s journey. These are critical to the Rey/Kylo story arc, which is my main bone with the story.
Rey’s pervasive character flaw is that she seeks an emotional anchor in the old orders, these being her parents, the Jedi, and… a natural extension that we’ll make later on. She begins the movie desperately chasing after the knowledge of the Jedi, as well as, once tempted by the darkness within the island, knowledge of her parents. Rey is eventually forced to acknowledge that she’s “nothing”– that her parents are a meaningless construct that she cannot hold to– and that the Jedi are not going to be her saviors. (In a way, Luke also must come to terms with the end of the “old order” of the Jedi. It is not until the very symbols of that order– the holy texts– are destroyed that he resolves to step into the future and serve his duty.) Here, we are presented with order as something that must eventually be abandoned or remade for the sake of advancement. Rey is nothing, but she can become something; the Jedi will not help her, but Rey can go on without them.
Ludwig, the Accursed and Holy Blade
The other major theme that runs through the movie, and more specifically the Rey/Kylo arc, is the belief that man is capable of forging his own destiny. This idea is not new– it was pervasive in Greco-Roman thought, then brought back during the Renaissance, and is at the moment fairly foundational to anything resembling a hero story in Western literature. The hero must be capable of both failing and succeeding, and it is his decisions and his will that determine where he goes. It is up to man to determine where he shall stand on the divine ladder, between the beasts and the angels.
The movie mainly frames this idea through the possibility of Kylo Ren’s redemption. Sure, he was betrayed by Luke; sure, he did a lot of bad things, but he is not forsaken yet. There is still conflict within him– there is still good within him. Rey spends much of her time with Luke trying to convince him that Kylo does not need to be signed off to the dark side, and the writers worked desperately to humanize Kylo by depicting a fairly tragic backstory and putting him in very personal human contact with Rey. While I found the specifics of this mental contact somewhat awkward, it nonetheless serves to very distinctly point out that Kylo is still on his hero’s journey, just like Rey. This stands even after Snoke gloats about how this conflict was his work, since at the end of the day, part of the hero’s journey is defying and destroying arrogant power structures.
If you need any more convincing that Kylo could be redemeed, go back and watch Return of the Jedi.
As the climax of the film approached on the side of Rey and Kylo, I was mainly concerned with how it would address these two themes:
- We are capable of defining our own destinies. Specifically, Kylo Ren can be redeemed.
- We cannot hold too tightly to the old order. Specifically, Rey must be willing to let go of her attachments to the old orders (parentage, Jedi, and…).
Thus, when Kylo killed Snoke, I was entirely sure that it would serve as his redemption. This was not Caesar crossing the Rubicon, pitting his massive army against that of his rival for political advantage. This was not a quiet coup of an unpopular Dong Zhuo. This was a lone man committing high treason in a room full of elite soldiers, Oedipus stabbing out his eyes and throwing away his stature as penance for his misdeeds. This was principle. This was humanity. This was the bond between Kylo and Rey, as two fellow heroes capable of becoming divine or becoming beastly.
After the fight scene, Kylo, having done everything possible to qualify as redeemed, makes Rey an offer. Let us toss away the antagonisms of the past. Let us abandon the First Order, the Jedi, the rebels. Let us use this massive machinery to create a new world, one in which we will be respected instead of treated like garbage.
Rey’s response is… “Don’t do this.”
Oedipus Sieges Colonus
The only way to understand Rey’s rejection of Kylo’s offer is as a mistake, because everything points to Kylo having redeemed himself (including the extremely powerful parallel to the ending of Return of the Jedi), and there’s no real reason to doubt his intentions in making the offer (he even says that the First Order is worthless!). Recall the last time someone unfairly doubted Kylo’s motives? Luke’s fear that Kylo was “unsaveable” was what ultimately led to Kylo turning to the dark in the first place.
I mentioned earlier that there is one more “old order” to which Rey is too attached. That would be the rebel army. The rebel army is tiny (smaller than the size of one CS course at my university), and has no friends anywhere in the universe outside of Luke and some eight-year-olds, made clear when approximately nobody answers their distress call. If there is anything that should be sacrificed in order to create a new world, this is it. Holding too tightly to your friends over the greater cause is cowardice– as exemplified by Finn’s story in the previous movie as well as in the beginning of TLJ– so the natural resolution to this scene is that Rey lets go of her attachments and becomes a tried hero. Kylo explicitly tells her to abandon her obsession with her parents, the Jedi, and the rebels– acquiescing would be the natural completion of her journey, which up to this point has entirely focused on her inability to do so.
But the movie doesn’t treat it this way. The resolution of the climax is ultimately that Kylo is and always will be a petulant kid, that his redemption was a sham, and that the rebels, now with even fewer numbers, will be a shining beacon of hope for time everlasting. Here is Kylo, facing the trials and coming out a changed man, and here is Rey, facing her flaws but failing to acknowledge them. We are very clearly told by the movie that after this moment, Kylo is evil and Rey is a great hero, now decked out with befitting Jedi powers. How did this happen?
It seems to me that the Star Wars universe, perhaps, is too obsessed with the designation of “First Order = EVIL”. Thus, since Kylo’s offer necessitates utilizing the machinery of the First Order, it must necessarily, by the movie’s logic, be evil, even if it abandons the ideals of the First Order. In other words, the only good society is one made of 400 people on some ships with three days’ worth of fuel. Thus, we can cheaply toss away Kylo’s redemption by stamping it as evil, and we can ignore everything about Rey’s stagnated character development by obscuring them with Jedi powers and scenes of Kylo being a petulant kid, which come in unproportional droves after the climax.
The climax fails to carry out the two main themes of the Rey/Kylo story arc, those being Kylo’s redeemability and Rey’s dependence on old order. It claims that neither of these are as important as the few hundred or so rebels fleeing to the salt planet, and that we must (given Rey’s flaw, ironically) reject any resolution to this conflict not dependent on the rebel order. This incongruence with all the events leading up to the climax and the hero’s journey structures throws the thematic structure of the Rey/Kylo arc into disarray, and hurts the film as a result.