Okay, so in the chaos of finishing final papers and working at my jobs, I ended up not writing 1,700 words a day for my imminent novel. I will admit, being busy (which I was) became mixed with both some discomfort at how personal and emotional my writing was getting, how uncomfortable I was with other elements of the text that were unfolding, and how unsure I was (am) that I could ever add any sort of structure or plot twist that would make the strange storyline that’s unfolding, in my eyes, a viable novel, or novel-like production. I am not dropping my “Post Nano-wrimo” project, but I took a very Un-Nano-wrimo-like break and will probably return to the original project in a couple of days. The reason I write today is because I finally saw The Last Jedi and, as someone who contemplates the villainy of villains, the inherent evil-ness of characters and how we regard the bad guy, how we treat the monster, so-called, I found myself (as I was to a lesser degree in The Force Awakens) incredibly drawn to Kylo Ren. And that’s all I’ll say in the first paragraph, before I add more details about the film. I think it goes without saying that if you still haven’t seen The Last Jedi and you’re averse to spoilers, DON’T READ THIS. It will probably be necessary to reveal spoilers while delving into an analysis of Kylo. But I want to talk, I think, about reading Kylo as a monster –or not—and what that does to our conception of the monster.
So if you’re still reading right now, I’m going to assume you already saw The Last Jedi, (or, don’t plan on seeing it, or, even more inconceivably, are comfortable with knowing what happens in the story). Kylo Ren, formerly Ben Solo, is the son of Leia Organa and Han Solo, a son with a strong proclivity for the Force who studied under Luke Skywalker until a series of events took the darkness that was already within Kylo (according to Luke) and turned him into an almost full-fledged “Bad Guy,” an apprentice of the undoubtedly monstrous Supreme Leader Snoke, who plots evil machinations to eradicate the Resistance and run his own (presumably fascist) First Order. And we’ll stop there; I think that’s enough background.
Now, I hesitate to dive into the frenzy of categorization when it’s not necessarily needed, but I think we can use a sort of “continuum of monstrosity” to, perhaps, begin to categorize these Star Wars “bad guys.” I’m sure the continuum will also be arguable and problematic, but I’d like to start by situating Kylo Ren on that continuum, because that might shine a light, to me, on what fascinates me about him. If I could draw effectively here, I would. Anyway, let’s start by imagining this continuum as a line (that’s how it began to appear in my head), which is an admittedly (literally) one dimensional way to compare Star Wars monsters, but which is how I’m conceiving the comparison, nonetheless. Let’s say that the left-hand side of the line is “non-monstrous” and the right-hand side of the line is “monstrous.” Or should we use the left as “good” and the right as “evil?” Do we always associate monstrosity with evil? I’m not sure about that. For our purposes here, we’ll assume that the monster has some severely misanthropic, evil tendencies to prey on other vulnerable lives, or, in the spirit of Star Wars, gives himself completely over to the Dark Side/First Order, and uses violence and other questionable methods for the purpose of obtaining raw power and eradicating the Rebellion/Resistance. That’s kind of what the right-hand side of the continuum represents. The left -hand side is the opposite of that; in Star Wars theology, that’s “good,” “non-monstrous” (no scars on the face or horrible disfigurement, incidentally), and the Resistance, headed by the very regal-looking Leia Organa.
Snoke is clearly on the far right of this continuum. There is really no “human” in him, and his monstrous exteriority underscores this point. He is conceived to look as monstrous as possible (even more monstrous than the heavily scarred Palpatine, for example), and there’s nothing sympathetic about him. He violates every natural law in his effort to expand the First Order and eradicate the Resistance, at all costs, and he’s not connected to anyone or anything remotely non-monstrous; we don’t know what his family lineage is, and he’s never had a relationship that doesn’t involve domination and control. So, in Star Wars, we could situate Supreme Leader Snoke as the ultimate monster, the villain that, insofar as we currently know, doesn’t demand, require, or subtly request any of our sympathy. Nobody is fighting for Supreme Leader Snoke’s soul, trying to turn him toward the “good” or the so-called “Light Side.” He is not lost, because he was never “found,” never “was” as a non-monstrous entity. He reifies the classically conceived boundaries between good and evil that Star Wars so beautifully constructs and then manipulates and problematizes with its plot lines.
I am going to skip Palpatine on this continuum (I don’t feel I “know” him as well) and go to Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker), and then to Kylo Ren (Ben Solo). I think my parenthetical additions here are important; these two “bad guys” with quintessentially bad-guy names, signifiers that harken thoughts of evil and possible monstrosity, once had other names, an apt indicator of their aforementioned humanity. Even before we knew Darth Vader’s back story in the original three films, we knew he’d formerly been Anakin Skywalker when he uttered the classic admonition to Luke: “I am your father”; his previous “humanity” was, I think, built into the story arc before it was revealed to the viewer. In the prequels, we see him as the incredibly human, loveable little Anakin before he grows up into a rash, cocky teen, and then, through a series of events, turns into Western culture’s ultimate symbol of villainy, if not inherent evil. Which is to say, that before he’s redeemed, which of course he is eventually, I picture him, in a sense, in the middle of this continuum. Prior to his redemption, he might be construed as completely monstrous, but we have some understanding, after watching the first six films, of his previous humanity; his monstrosity happened because of a fall, the rather quick descent from a state of morality to a state of (complete) immorality, and so we all kind of sense that there might be a degree of the “non-monstrous” in him, even if the temporality of the Star Wars movies complicates our understanding of the character (we see him as monster, then redeemed monster, then “human”). The fact remains, though, that despite Vader’s transition from “human” – so-called –to complete monstrosity, to non-monster again (through redemption) –again a sequence that is kind of temporally jumbled but exists throughout the first six films in some order—when he falls, he completely falls. Or, we might say, when he turns, he turns wholly. My argument is, then, I suppose, that there is no non-monster in Vader for large parts of the film; he is consumed by power and the destruction of lives that are vulnerable to his machinations. I do not perceive any conflict in his mind; he acts quickly when he makes decisions to kill, and he has absolutely no concern for the welfare of anyone else.
This, I think, is where Kylo Ren differs from Vader. We do not know, yet, what Kylo Ren was like prior to his turn toward darkness –toward the First Order—but we know he studied under Luke Skywalker and awoke one day to see Luke standing over him with a lightsaber – Luke says because he sensed a darkness in Kylo (Ben) and was tempted to kill him. Based on Luke’s telling of the story, then, we assume, at that point, a Ben Solo who already had a strong proclivity toward darkness and aggression (the latter is a very anti-Jedi, pro-Dark-Side trait) sees the master he trusted posed to murder him, and makes a decision to completely turn to the Dark Side – a decision that is manifest through his actions: his allegiance to Snoke, the killing of his father, Han, and his manipulation of Rey, to name a few. Through all of The Force Awakens and basically all of The Last Jedi, he demonstrates his chosen allegiance to the First Order – the bad guys – through deeds, and through words, if not through psychic interiority. Which is to say, that in these films, we are lead to believe that even after his decision to turn to the First Order (the modern equivalent of the Dark Side) Kylo’s interiority does not match his exteriority; the movie wants us to understand that he’s incredibly conflicted over all of the actions he’s taking and that, by the film’s conclusion, he still has inner conflict about completely working for the First Order, killing mercilessly, and fighting the Resistance. Through Kylo’s interiority, he appears to be located closer to the left-hand side of this imaginary continuum, because his conscience seems to suggest the presence of some non-monstrosity; if he has a conscience and regrets his acts, but convinces himself that he has to take certain actions, then surely he is not entirely evil, or entirely monstrous. Adam Driver’s facial expressions evoke this truth perfectly at points in The Last Jedi. He has this look of—how do I put it—noble guilt on him, a sort of doubt that makes his so-called humanity, or his conscience, shine through his actions, even as he’s deciding what kind of person he wants to be. Of course, this look is deceptive because at the conclusion of the film, his turn is complete. But we are tempted to see him as more of a non-monster, to situate him on the left-hand side of the scale, because of his affect and his general inner conflict, his conflicted interiority.
It is the conflicted interiority of the monster – of Kylo Ren – that most interests me. For how do we say, after he has killed his father (The Force Awakens), killed Snoke (a bad guy, but his leader and thus sort of evil mentor), manipulated and emotionally abused Rey – how do we say that Kylo Ren is not a monster? How do we say that the uncertain, conflicted kid that he appears to be throughout much of The Last Jedi isn’t evil (if we can equate monstrosity with evil) because he experienced inner conflict, when his ultimate goal at the conclusion of The Last Jedi is a presumably violent imperialist dominion with Rey, a dominion that will turn her, too, toward evil instead of good and continue to target the Resistance for destruction? The argument has been made to me, before –and it’s one worth considering—that those who most understand and feel the wrong they’re doing but do it anyway are entirely worthy of the monstrous title. And this makes, I think, a bit of sense; if one can peer into one’s soul, one’s psyche, whatever it is, feel a deep, gnawing discomfort at doing something, see the inherent wrong in the action, and still do it, one is monstrous.
If the action is bad enough, of course, because I’d argue we all do this some of the time. I think there’s something to be said for that argument, though I’m still not certain I buy it without considering other factors. If we look at monsters with conflicted interiorities – monsters who know what they’re doing is wrong, who feel discomfort and guilt, and who ultimately take evil actions despite their conflict – it makes sense, to me, to look at what motivates their behavior. Without knowing Kylo’s entire history, I see him as a very bruised, very hurt sort of kid, despite the fact that Luke said that Kylo already had darkness “within him,” before he witnessed his master standing over him, poised to kill him. I see a very large difference between the monster who hurts, who feels pain constantly, and the monster who does not. But then, perhaps, when we look at cinematic and literary depictions of monstrosity, all monsters hurt, and hurt often fuels the monster. Perhaps the monsters that are the most “far gone” are the least conscientious – have the least access to, or understanding of, that hurt. I am not a psychologist; I cannot begin to speculate these things, really. And yet, what happens in the interiority of the bad-guy, potential monster, and how that influences our tendency to categorize him, is very interesting to me.
What I would ultimately conclude is that I want to like Kylo Ren. Perhaps, then, this desire to like him causes me to make excuses for him. Perhaps, moreover, the film wants me to like Kylo Ren, because his interior, sort of psychic monologues with Rey make him seem awfully similar to her, our heroine, and his sympathetic back story just strengthens these feelings. Why, then, are we meant to like Kylo Ren? Why are we meant to see his humanity? Perhaps future installments of Star Wars will answer the question. I’m not sure.
My biggest problem, when I write these pieces, is ultimately why does it matter? Why do we need to label someone as “monstrous” or “non-monstrous” at all? Is there not some heavy-handed judgment involved in doing so, perhaps even while lacking an understanding of the person and his or her background, and, more importantly, is it just a semantics game, or a desire to categorize that which does not need categorization? And then, is the monster “evil” and what do I mean when I think things like, “he appears very human in this scene?” What does it mean to be “human,” and need that be part of an oppositional binary that stands counter to the monster? I do not know, but I wonder all of these things.
I feel some of these points need to be developed for a later post, since this one has already gotten quite long. The bottom line is, I like Kylo Ren, and I think we’re supposed to. Whether or not that’s problematic is another question completely. Suffice it to say, I look forward to more character development in future Star Wars films.