Star Wars: The Last Jedi fails to understand that a complex villain is not a justifiable villain. There’s no excuse for Kylo Ren’s actions.
The Last Jedi bashes you over the head with the struggle of ‘inner conflict.’ We’re constantly told Kylo Ren is conflicted in his choice between the light and dark side, but the fact is, we rarely see this conflict.
‘The Last Jedi’ spoilers below
Other characters tell us Kylo’s loyalty is wavering. Snoke criticizes Kylo for not being fully committed to the cause. Rey pleads with Kylo to join her in the Resistance, seeing his struggle through their mind telepathy. But when it comes down to it, Kylo frequently makes choices that benefit the dark side. No matter what may be happening inside his mind and heart, actions speak louder than words.
True, Kylo couldn’t push the button that would obliterate his mother. He did, however, kill his father and his uncle. Yes, he did kill Luke, even if he didn’t actually kill Luke. Just because Luke was a projection doesn’t change the fact that Kylo didn’t know this when he attempted to slice through him.
Perhaps Kylo’s relationship with Rey is meant to show that he’s capable of redemption, through the affection he shows her. But is it affection, or reverence? The distinction, in this case, is the difference between having a good heart, and having ambitions for power.
Kylo does not kill Snoke ‘for Rey.’ Just because he doesn’t want Rey to die doesn’t mean he has good intentions. Kylo kills Snoke solely to take power, and he wrongly assumes Rey will want to join him. He recognizes her strength and how powerful the two of them could be ruling side by side. It isn’t Rey as a person that draws him to her, it’s what she could do for him.
After Kylo and Rey kill Snoke and the Elite Praetorian Guard, Kylo gives her a final speech to try and lure her to his side. He ends by saying that Rey is nobody, but not to him. Is this meant to be affectionate, romantic? Is Rey supposed to be touched by this sentiment? No, it isn’t affectionate, nor should she be touched by it. Telling Rey she is ‘nobody’ is not only manipulative, but untrue. Kylo is at once putting her down to make her vulnerable, then swiftly building her up to feel like she needs him.
Rey is not ‘nobody.’ Leia would not have trusted her to recruit Luke back into the Resistance if she was nobody. Poe would not gape at her in awe when first meeting her if she was nobody. Han would not let her pilot the Millennium Falcon if she was nobody. Finn would not scream her name in panic upon waking up from a coma if she was nobody. Perhaps Rey came from nothing, but she means everything to so many people, and that in itself makes her more than just ‘nobody.’
The relationship between Rey and Kylo is not built on respect for each other as people. No matter what Rey says about Kylo’s heart, there are no acts to prove it, not even in his treatment of her. Kylo respects her power, and how that power can fuel his ambitions. He is not redeemed by his treatment of Rey. If anything, it proves just how power-hungry and drawn to the dark side he’s become. He chose to lead the First Order and not go with Rey. Time and again Kylo is given the choice of picking the light side, and he consistently chooses the dark.
When it comes down to it, it’s all about choice. Kylo Ren has no excuse for his actions, no raison d’être for committing his villainous acts, particularly when the character of Finn exists in this story. Despite The Last Jedi painting Rey and Kylo as two sides of the same coin, the same can be said for Kylo and Finn.
Finn was born and bred into the Imperialist mentality, raised to be a stormtrooper from birth. If one is to justify Kylo’s turn to the dark side by arguing he was brainwashed by Snoke, then why was Finn able to see the light and desert the First Order? Why was Finn, the man who was fed anti-Republic propaganda since he was young and impressionable, able to understand what’s right and wrong?
Ben Solo was raised by a loving family. He had a strong support system, and was taught the ways of the light side. As a Jedi, he was tempted by the dark side in ways Finn (probably) never will be, it’s true. But Ben also had people around him who would do anything to help and protect him, and in his struggle, he simply cast them aside.
None of this isn’t to say that Ben didn’t have reason to get angry, or even desert. From his perspective, it did look like his uncle was about to kill him. In that case, attacking Luke is an instinctual, justified reaction. Was he justified though, in killing the other Jedi-in-training? Had those kids done anything to him?
In the case of Ben Solo’s decision to attack Luke, kill everyone, and join Snoke, it’s a case of ‘cool motive, still murder.’ Kylo Ren is not a bad character, he’s a bad person. He’s an intriguing villain, layered, as all good villains are, but he’s still a villain.