Besides simply being a lot of fun to watch, Kylo Ren, or Ben Solo if you choose, is one of the most complex villains ever written. As of the ending of The Last Jedi, he is most certainly a villain, albeit not one who is as fully entrenched in the dark side as he may like.
Ben Solo persists. The light pulls, and Kylo fights it. However, he very clearly fits into a fictional archetype that is often looked past but is seemingly intentionally written into this character.
In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie fails twice in finding a golden tickets. He has two strikes. On the third swing, he knocks it out of the park, gets the golden ticket, and his life is changed forever. Within this structure we can see the archetype Kylo fits into, even though he is most certainly more treacherous than the beloved Charlie Bucket.
Not convinced? Let’s make a Star Wars connection. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke fails in such a grandiose way that it is a miracle he was ever able to turn it around. After failing in the tree cave, he makes the mistake all the worse by rushing to save his friends, getting beat up by Daddy Dearest, and having to be rescued himself. Strike One. Strike two comes in Return of the Jedi, where Luke, now a seemingly self-appointed Jedi Knight, wins very much in the way of the prequel Jedi. Brute force and a lightsaber. Ahem, aggressive negotiations. Strike two. It is not until the the Emperor’s throne room where Luke gets the win.
Kylo Ren, intriguingly and uniquely, has multiple three strike systems going on at the same time, a literal manifestation of his inner torture. First off, there is the battle between freedom through love or freedom through power. Then there is the battle between dependence and independence. Both work separately, but converge and diverge in such a way that we can really feel his agony. If we take a moment, we can even understand the simplest, and most important, battle he faces: light vs. dark.
LIGHT VS DARK
We must start our examination of the character with the most fundamental elements of the Star Wars narrative, which are light and dark. With Luke, these lines were pretty clearly drawn. His failing in Empire and subsequent “aggressive negotiations” in Return of the Jedi serve as his strikes pretty cleanly. With Anakin, things are a little muddier. We all like to think we would save the galaxy, but what if that cost your family? Anakin, unlike Luke, actually runs through all of his strikes in the form of Shmi, Ahsoka, and Padme. Each leaving his life, and his failure to control the situations that lead to that exit, take him out with three fastballs over the plate. Enter Darth Vader, center screen.
With Kylo, things are even muddier because light and dark potential resonates equally within him, which is why Snoke was so attracted by his potential to be “a new Vader.” But the light and the dark are not in unison, but in opposition.
Then his father calls his name. “Ben!” Kylo Ren turns around. Ben Solo, removing his mask, faces his father, and admits to being torn apart. He doesn’t know whether to follow the light or the dark; just when it seems like maybe, just maybe, he will join his family and go home, he ignites his blade of fury and forgoes the freedom to join the light, absolve his wrongs, and chooses darkness. Strike one.
Strike two comes a few days, maybe even a few hours (The Last Jedi timeline is… eh). With Rey in the throne room, he has the chance to strike down his “one true enemy,” and he does. The blade ignites through the golden robed god (self-proclaimed) and it looks likeKylo has finally found his way back to the light. Along with Rey, the tear through Praetorian guards like Chewbacca through a porg (too soon?) and all’s right in the galaxy.
When it looks like maybe, just maybe, he will call off the fleet and save the Resistance, his mother, and all that is good, he turns back to the dark. Strike two, this time so much closer to a hit than before. Thus, the battle continues…
FREEDOM THROUGH LOVE VS. FREEDOM THROUGH POWER
While this scenario runs very closely with the battle between light and dark, a distinction must be made. While light/dark is a choice between sides, in a war both internal and external, the battle of love versus power is one of identity.
Ben Solo is, quite literally, a walking identity crisis. Notice that in The Force Awakens he takes off his mask but twice. First for Rey, and then for his father. He is letting them in as he tries to find where Ben Solo begins and Kylo Ren ends, or vice versa.
As we move to The Last Jedi, we see Snoke force Kylo to take his mask off and expose his wound, the scar that proves the battle between Kylo and Ben wages on. This is how we see him for the remainder of the movie.
But to understand this battle, we must go back to Episode VII, and back to that catwalk with pops. Han Solo, legendary vagabond and nomad, offers his son freedom through love. He tells Ben (sans mask) that his mother wants him to come home. That he wants him to come home. That Snoke is only using him for his power, and will throw him away when he strikes out. Come be loved. Be free of the torment that rages within you.
Lightsaber ignites. Strike one.
Now let’s return to the throne room, in all its red illustriousness. Despite the hopes of many Reylo shippers, Ben’s strike here is not by forgoing his (potential love for Rey). Don’t worry, though, we will come back to Reylo in a bit.
Strike two once again comes at the moment alightsaber ignites, this time through Snoke. Kylo Ren has chosen freedom through power. To be Supreme Leader and make the galaxy what he wants it to be. To let the past die, and kill it if he has to. Apparently, he had to. If the galaxy won’t show him who he is supposed to be, then he will show the galaxy what it should be. By strength. By power.
DEPENDENCE VS INDEPENDENCE
We’ve seen that, when it comes to Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, everything is more complicated than we could imagine on the surface. His life is one of torture and angst from the core of his very existence. It is also one that has forever been defined by someone else.
It is not an accident that we have not seen much of baby Ben. As a child, we see him through the lens of his mother (Aftermath trilogy), his father (Last Shot), and from Luke, who tells us of his massive potential. We are meant to only understand him through his relationship with others because that is how he defines himself. Until that moment in the hut, where everything breaks apart, and the child is prematurely thrust into being a man by an act of betrayal.
No longer can he see himself through others, but he is going to try.
Which is wherein Reylo, in some way, shape, or form, holds some merit. Whether it is a romantic relationship or not is debatable (equally from both sides), but the reality is that there is a relationship and, just like his relationship with Han and Snoke, his relationship with Rey is tearing him apart, causing him to struggle between dependence and independence.
First, on Starkiller, he tells Rey that she “need[s] a teacher” and offers to show her the ways of the Force. She declines, and leaves him with the aforementioned scar. Strike one. Then, in the throne room, he offers himself to Rey, offers the galaxy to her, once more. She declines. Strike two.
Both of his offers are based on Rey depending on him, because dependent relationships is all he has ever known. In his struggle to find his true self, he is having to learn that one cannot define oneself based on another. One must stand on his own, and therefore fully realize oneself.
This section will speculate about Episode IX, but I does not contain spoilers in any form (unless, of course, I am right).
All of this brings to mind the ying-yang, a representation of balance, with a slight amount of light in the dark and dark in the light. Much of the speculation surrounding the sequel trilogy has circled around this theme of balance, and the three strike theme holds that such might indeed be the point of the whole thing.
When it comes to Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, this idea means that redemption is, in fact, the most likely path. Charlie got the golden ticket. Luke redeemed Vader and the Jedi by choosing peace over violence. Kylo must face a similar choices, which will likely come in the form of denying a call to one side in the act of murder (maybe of his mother, Leia) and having the chance to offer Rey to be a team. If Ben wins out, those actions will end with Ben dropping his weapon and taking Rey’s offer instead of offering her. If Kylo triumphs….