“I will finish what you started.” This line in The Force Awakens was instantly compelling and sent fans into a flurry of theorizing and contemplation. What was it that Darth Vader started, exactly? What was Kylo Ren trying to finish?
Everything you need to know about Kylo Ren’s mental state is in that moment. It is for moments like these that you bring in an actor the caliber of Adam Driver. Here is a man, a “child in a mask”, who is so broken, so in need of identity and understanding he is begging an inanimate object for guidance.
Obviously, that is a drastic simplification of what is really happening here, but it is important to emphasize how bad of a spot Kylo Ren is in at this moment. Here is a child who grew up in the shadow of Han Solo and Princess/Senator/Hero of the Rebellion Leia Organa. Here is the nephew of the greatest Jedi of all time. Here is the boy so strong in the Force that Luke Skywalker is finally compelled to start a training academy. He never had a chance to live up to the expectations that would be put on him, if not by his family than most certainly by the galaxy.
So he does what most rebellious teenagers do: he swings drastically in the other direction. In doing so, he also creates something tangible for him to project his feelings onto. This is not unheard of even in our galaxy. People do this with cars, homes, social status, and the like, on a daily basis. Historically this is something that humans have done for ages. In the Book of Exodus, from the Jewish Torah and Christian Old Testament, the people create a golden calf idol to worship while Moses goes to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Moses, who is their Luke Skywalker, returns to find the people completely dedicated to this cult idol that they have created from their desire, or really their need, to figure out their role in the larger narrative that their God had for them. Joseph Campbell speaks of this idea multiple times throughout his lectures because it is something that has crossed cultures, religion, nationality, and every other societal group humans have created to define themselves.
Ben is limited by his perspective. In Bloodline we learn that Han, Luke, and Leia were the only ones who truly knew that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were one in the same. They hid this from Ben in order to protect him. Nonetheless, the news is revealed to the galaxy at large, and it is not known if Leia’s message to Ben reaches him before the Holonet does. However, that wasn’t the straw, as Ben is still at the training academy. But then Luke pulls out his lightsaber and Ben Solo sees, whether it is true or not, that his uncle and master was going to strike him down.
In The Rise of Kylo Ren, by Charles Soule, Ben goes to Snoke, and later the Knights of Ren, seeking meaning, understanding, and perspective on who he is supposed to be. The Knights worship The Ren, which for all intents and purposes is a lightsaber, an inanimate object that can hold all their pain, aggression, and evil deeds. The leader of the Knights at the time explains to Ben that The Ren does not judge, does not differentiate, does not limit itself to human morals. The Ren acts, does what it must to achieve what it needs to achieve.
Somewhere in between taking over The Knights himself and The Force Awakens, Kylo finds Vader’s helmet. Darth Vader is the antithesis of everything Han, Luke, and Leia stand for, which is perfect for a broken man who feels that they betrayed him. So he asks it for guidance, and unlike the Ren…. it speaks back. The Wizard has spoken, and Kylo Ren now has a yellow brick road that he can paint with blood. He now knows the direction of his life, that he is to finish Vader’s mission to destroy the Jedi and subjugate the galaxy under his iron fist. Or so he thinks.
Anakin’s entire motivation after the loss of his mother is to learn to stop people from dying, which he sees happening by amassing more power. When he has visions of Padme dying, his mission (desperation) is sent into overdrive. So fraught was he that he not only failed to learn how to stop people from dying, he killed them. He killed Padme.
Like his grandson, the man behind the mask is broken. “More machine now than man,” some would say. As Anakin fell, that which he worshipped became more egocentric. First, it was the Jedi and their deeds. Then it was his own ability as one of those Jedi. Then it was the power he could amass until his temple came crashing down, and all that was left was a child in a mask.
The prequels are the Greek tragedy of Anakin’s failure. It is no coincidence that John Williams put a chorus, a Greek chorus if you will, in the moment Luke and Vader are finally clashing sabers on the second Death Star. This is a moment of decisiveness, where Anakin must decide who he really wants to be. Does he want to be Death, destroyer of worlds, or can he see the love Luke has, much in the vein of Padme, that will allow him to make the right choice?
In the end, he makes the right choice, the choice of redemption. But, he has not achieved what he set out to do in the prequels. While his redemption is important, possibly the most important moment of the saga and cinema as a whole, he has not learned how to stop people from dying. This gets a bit semantics, but it is an important differentiation. In Revenge of the Sith he causes death, and in Return of the Jedi he prevents death in saving Luke.
But he has not learned how to stop people from dying.
This idea is very clearly brought back in The Rise of Skywalker. In the year between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, Rey learned how to heal the kyber crystal in the Skywalker lightsaber, doing so through the transfer of life Force. She will later heal the snake on Pasaana, be the model for BB8 bringing D-O back to life, and save Kylo Ren’s life by healing the lightsaber wound she created in killing him.
This final example is extremely important because it is the bridge between the end of Episode VI and the end of Episode IX. Anakin prevented Luke from dying, and did so by being selfless rather than selfish, which is the differentiation George Lucas used to define the difference between the light and dark. For all intents and purposes, Rey has killed Kylo Ren (“Kylo Ren is dead. My son is alive,” as Han tells him.), but by giving Ben her life Force she shows him a level of compassion that he had never seen nor felt before.
“Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi’s life.” Rey has shown him that compassion, but she makes it very clear that she is saving Ben, not Kylo. “I did want to take your hand. Ben’s hand,” she tells him. He has now been given the second chance at life that Anakin never had after redeeming himself.
The dark side worships idols, be they The Ren, a helmet, or one’s own self (looking at you Sheev). When Ben sees Han he says, “You’re just a memory.” “Your memory,” Han tells him. This moment allows Ben to admit his love to his father, accept the forgiveness he gives, and abandon the idols he has worshipped. (Author’s Note: I believe that the Force manifests the corporeal image of Han not as a Force ghost but as a vision/figure/consciousness of a sort, and thus Ben is really talking to the spirit of Han.) He then throws his red lightsaber, a reminder of The Ren, into the ocean Kef Bir.
The next time Ben Solo has a lightsaber in his hand is when the Skywalker lightsaber is passed to him through the Force by Rey. In The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren screamed at Finn, “That lightsaber…. it belongs to me.” To which Finn retorts, “Come and get it.” Two movies later he does “come and get it,” but the how and why are critically important. On Starkiller, the lightsaber was but another golden calf. On Exegol, however, it is a metaphor. He does not accept the saber from Rey out of selfishness, but as a means to find his way to her so they can stand together. He’s being selfless (and also extremely badass).
With said lightsaber in his hand, he has accepted the true legacy of his grandfather, Anakin, which means he must now truly “finish what [he] started.” His bond with Rey in the Dyad is, in a way, the reincarnation of Padme and Anakin’s “across the stars” connection (I’ll leave it to you to define “connection”).
“I know what I have to do, but I don’t know if I have the strength to do it,” is something Kylo/Ben keeps coming back to. With Rey’s lifeless form in his arms, he does know what he has to do, and he does have the strength to do it. Completely at peace, he passes his life Force to Rey, returning the gift she gave to him, to bring her back to life. To stop her from dying.
The Skywalker saga began with Shmi sacrificing her life with her son so that he may live a better life. Tragedy happens when the son shatters that life but is healed when his children unite. In the end, it is his grandson who gives all of himself, as Shmi did, to give life to someone they cared for. Like great-grandmother, like great-grandson.