Desperately seeking The Rise of Skywalker answers in the Afterlife.
The Star Wars fandom is still synthesizing the events of The Rise of Skywalker, the polarizing conclusion to the decades-long Skywalker Saga. It’s safe to assume that this process will be a long, gradual digestion — not quite the thousand years of the Sarlacc, but it will certainly take at least a few months for that new-shoe feeling to rub off The Rise of Skywalker.
But one element of the film has proven to be so divisive that even the Sarlacc might have a challenging time breaking it down.
The Kylo question
Predictably and understandably, the “redemption” (such as it is) of Kylo Ren has become a subject of heated debate in the aftermath of The Rise of Skywalker. Rare was the Star Wars fan who didn’t have an extremely strong opinion on the fate of Ben Solo before the film was released, and rare now is the fan without a correspondingly strong reaction to the decisions made by writers JJ Abrams and Chris Terrio.
Before the film was released, many fans connected with Ben Solo as a damaged young man led down a twisted path to the Dark Side. Like Rey, they believed that he could find his way back to the light, as his grandfather Darth Vader had before him. (Possibly, and no shame in this game, while kissing Rey at the same time.) (…Ben Solo, that is. Not Anakin Skywalker.)
But other fans saw Kylo Ren as emblematic of fascist ideology and the dangers of privileged men with too much power. Ben Solo’s murderous history — which continues well into The Rise of Skywalker — should not be waved away by a redemption, they argued, but punished with appropriate disavowal by the story. Evil this emphatic and repetitive should not be tolerated, no matter whose son the perpetrator happens to be.
In the end, the story of Kylo Ren concludes in The Rise of Skywalker with something of compromise, an attempted moral shot down the middle. Ben Solo does choose to reject the Dark Side, abandoning the evil persona of Kylo Ren and fighting the Emperor alongside Rey.
But that’s also where his story ends, as he sacrifices his own life to revive Rey, who has died in her defeat of the Sith — an act that stands in as a dramatic shorthand for redemption.
From a 10,000 foot view, this conclusion isn’t surprising. Star Wars has long aligned itself with the school of thought that one transcendental act of selfless goodness can redeem years of torture, murder, and authoritarianism. If Kylo Ren’s hands are dripping in blood, if he personally killed Han Solo and tormented Rey, well… as far as Star Wars is concerned, that’s not any more of a point-of-no-return than any of the evil performed for decades by his grandfather.
And Star Wars loves nothing more than the illusion of rhyme in its storytelling. The end of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is as compact a parallel to Vader’s redemption as you could ask for. Like grandfather, like grandson, in both evil and their eventual return to good.
A different approach
The problem is, what is par for the course in the galaxy far, far away does not necessarily constitute a compelling argument in the real world. The moral equations that Star Wars takes for granted can feel misguided, or even disturbing when related to the here and now.
I don’t mean to overstate the influence of any particular story on our culture; not even Star Wars is powerful enough to transform true, real-world evil into good. But media can play a role in the way we perceive good and bad in our own lives, and contributes to social narratives that define who is capable of moral behavior — and who ought to be the recipient of it.
So I thought it was fitting to turn to a parallel piece of media to try and understand the final moral movements of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: The Good Place, NBC’s recently-concluded comedy about moral philosophy.
The Good Place ,more or less, exists to tackle the most challenging questions of our existence and offer perspective (if not outright answers) to knotty moral problems. And from the series’ inception, the question closest to its heart has been one that Star Wars has contemplated since 1977.
Can bad people become good people? And if so, how?
Through the show’s four seasons, the once-damned protagonists Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason answer these questions in Mike Schur’s patented frozen yogurt swirl of comedy and contemplation. The four humans “redeem” themselves (repeatedly), committing to change and eventually transforming into moral actors.
Then, they rehabilitate Michael, helping a legit-actual-demon become a benevolent and morally responsible being. They dedicate themselves to the moral improvement of their decidedly middling loved ones on Earth, and eventually are charged with proving that the entire human race is fundamentally capable of positive moral change.
This last challenge is tackled in a formal experiment, in which the main characters of The Good Place must guide four humans toward an empirical moral improvement. Four ordinary-to-crappy people must collectively change for the better, receiving higher moral scores than they did when they arrived in the test. This allows the series to zoom directly in on its fundamental question — as well as determine the secret sauce that, according to The Good Place, is the key to moral behavior.
The Good Place ’s answer is best summarized by Michael’s words to the Bad Janet (agent of evil and farts) with whom he engages in a Platonic-style argument.
“For months, you and I have been debating: Are people good or bad?” Michael reflects. “But… I realized we’d been asking the wrong question. What matters isn’t if people are good or bad. What matters is, if they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday.”
This essentially identifies The Good Place’s formula for goodness: Instead of a strict binary, good is a two-part recipe of positive intention and positive action, broken down into small daily choices.
This also incorporates a crucial idea that the Judge (more or less The Good Place’s version of a wildly horny and easily distracted deity) verbalizes later in the final season.
“Humans are not fixed at one level of morality,” she realizes, analyzing the sudden, shocking spike in moral awareness in the deeply shitty test subject Brent Norwalk. “They can always get better.”
In other words, change is always possible. A person’s prior actions, however vile they may be, do not empirically preclude them from becoming good.
Back to Star Wars
This idea would seem to dovetail nicely with the redemption paradigm so beloved by the Star Wars franchise. The Good Place agrees that characters like Kylo Ren and Darth Vader are capable of becoming moral actors, good people, regardless of their very recent and very violent histories.
In that sense, the philosophy of The Good Place harmonizes with Ben Solo’s pivotal scene of transformation — realizing his continued capacity for good is in fact, the exact concept that Ben accepts, and that allows him to leave his dark path.
The problem though, is that the journey toward moral good on The Good Place does not end with the capacity for good, or commitment to it. It’s not completed with a shift in values, or even one transcendentally good action. Good is achieved and maintained through the road taken by Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason throughout the show’s run — the long, active process of consistent choice, restraint, and improvement.
“Being good” in one moment is not enough. Redemption is not enough. Becoming good and remaining so in the face of the real, ongoing challenges of life is what ultimately forges a reliably moral being.
So, if Ben Solo’s return to the light is consistent with the ideals of The Good Place, his ending, his moment of redemption, is not. This is not because he is incapable of improvement. However you feel about Kylo Ren and Ben Solo, The Good Place ’s argument that improvement, however unlikely, is always possible is a compelling one, and carries over reliably into the galaxy far, far, away.
But, it is this very act of redemption that prevents him from becoming, in the pragmatic terms of the quirky comedy, truly good. Ben Solo dies in a classic act of transcendent Star Wars martyrdom. It is a wildly grand decision, intensely cinematic, and predictably on-brand for the franchise… but it offers absolutely no traction toward the actualization of good.
Vaderific redemptions like this are meant to stand-in for the human and dramatically compelling process of change, but ultimately, they leave us with nothing more than an empty set of clothes and a missed opportunity.
I think this is why the conclusion of Ben Solo’s arc has proven unsatisfying for many fans, regardless of which side of the Kylo Question they stand. His story turns out to be neither that of a villain who receives justice, or a true penitent hero; instead, he is a grayish smudge in the middle. In that way, like so many cute, bad white guys before him, he gets off perversely easy.
Ben Solo, essentially, is redeemed, but ultimately unrealized.
The end as beginning
So, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker fails The Good Place ’s rubric for moral improvement. Certainly, this is not the most damning critique lobbed at the film, but I do think it reveals something about the way fans today understand Star Wars’ interpretation of good and bad.
Anti-heroes are not the direct key to compelling storytelling that they used to be, and a Vader-like blaze of glory, a presto-chango from bad to good is always going to struggle with modern audiences. In a wildly gray world, we’re still interested in characters moving themselves from one moral category to another, but the verb is vital here; we want to watch the process, or at the very least, be assured by the art that it is being undertaken.
The Good Place understands that the revelation of good cannot substitute for the resolution of bad. That’s a concept from which Star Wars storytelling would greatly benefit as it enters the post-Skywalker Saga era. Dramatic gestures aren’t inappropriate for a dramatic medium, but I think that Star Wars fans want more.
Imagine Ben Solo, forced to reckon with the reality that tossing away your red lightsaber does not make every moral choice an easy one. Imagine the challenging, laborious, unimaginable path laid out before him at the end of an alternate Rise of Skywalker, the audience’s understanding that the real work has yet to start.
Even if this were just suggested, presumed in later offscreen action, Kylo Ren’s narrative arc would, by nature of its incompletion, feel so much more morally complete.
Star Wars has always been about good and evil, both the battle and the journey between them. It still can and it still should probe these powerful questions with its patented operatic approach. But it can also do with a dose of wisdom from a story with more mundane concerns.
The lesson of The Good Place is ultimately simple: The choice to change from good to bad isn’t the end of the journey; it’s the beginning. That’s a story that we need in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, just as badly as we do in the Afterlife.