This post will contain extensive spoilers for The Last Jedi – consider yourself warned!
Before the release of The Last Jedi, very interesting language was being used to describe the connection between Rey and Kylo Ren. Rian Johnson called them “two halves of our protagonist”, and the Star Wars Databank described their “intertwined destinies” and mutual fascination. While the period prior to the film’s release saw fandom wars waged over the implications of these descriptions and what they meant for the characters going forward, The Last Jedi has finally given us some answers.
I endeavoured to be reserved when it came to my predictions for Rey and Kylo in The Last Jedi, and the film ended up not going the way I thought it would (seriously, how gloriously meta is that line?) by far surpassing my expectations for both the characters themselves and – especially – their shared story. Rey and Kylo are linked on a far deeper level than I expected to see: they have a Force bond that links them and allows them to communicate across the galaxy. This is the device through which they develop profound empathy for and understanding of one another, and it facilitates the establishment of a beautiful and profound relationship.
I won’t break down each of their encounters and will focus on the first two acts of the film (n.b. this is in the interests of time – I will write more on the third act separately), but the bond between Rey and Kylo can broadly be described as progressing from confusion and antagonism, to acceptance and curiosity, and finally to mutual sympathy, understanding and tenderness. The Force bond scenes between Rey and Kylo in the first half of the film start with Rey attempting to fire her blaster at Kylo and end with Rey and Kylo gazing deeply into each other’s eyes as they reach for one another across a fire, moved by each other’s loneliness and comforted by the other person’s presence. The progression is quick but believable, with each encounter building on the previous one and making you buy into the affinity between the characters.
The moment when Rey and Kylo touch hands is a transformative one for both of them, since the act of physical connection sees them both receive a vision of the future. The nature of the visions, and whether they are the same (just being interpreted differently based on the receiver’s perspective) or different (varying according to the nature and desires of the receiver), is left ambiguous, but the effect of the moment is profound. In particular, it fills Rey with a desire to save Ben Solo. She tells Luke:
There’s still conflict in him. If he were turned from the dark side, that could shift the tide. This could be how we win. […] Just now when we touched hands, I saw his future. As solid as I’m seeing you. If I go to him, Ben Solo will turn.
Her belief in this vision, as well as her characteristic hope and optimism, spur Rey to leave the island and go to Ben’s side. She appears to do so with no definite plan, drawn to him by fate and driven by a sense of purpose and possibility. Thanks to the bond they share she feels that she knows Ben as intimately as she knows herself, and her faith in his potential for good and the inevitability of his turn instils her with courage and resolve.
What might have been a beautiful redemption story becomes more of a romantic tragedy because – for all of their shared understanding and tenderness – the visions that Rey and Kylo have had (or, at least, their interpretations of them) are not yet in sync. When Kylo – looking for all the world like the dashing Prince Charming to Rey’s newly awakened Snow White – meets the eyes of Rey as she lies in the coffin-shaped escape pod that carried her from the Falcon to The Supremacy, he sees her arrival as a trigger point: that Rey has come to his side means that his own vision for the future has been put into motion. After listening to Rey explain her vision of him, Ben looks at her tenderly as he says:
I saw something, too. Because of what I saw, I know when the moment comes, you’ll be the one to turn. You’ll stand with me.
The importance of appreciating the background to Kylo’s betrayal of Snoke cannot be understated. When explaining how he came close to murdering the young Ben Solo as he slept, Luke says:
I saw darkness. I’d sensed it building in him. I’d seen it in moments during his training. But then I looked inside, and it was beyond what I ever imagined. Snoke had already turned his heart. He would bring destruction, and pain, and death, and the end of everything I love because of what he will become.
Snoke clearly had a grasp on Ben Solo’s mind since Ben was a boy, infecting his thoughts and sowing the seeds of darkness in his mind. Kylo’s first scene in The Last Jedi shows him being ruthlessly humiliated by Snoke, having his failure and weakness rubbed in with terrible cruelty. The punishment even becomes physical, with Snoke torturing his apprentice with a blast of Force lightning when Kylo dares to stand up in a brief display of rebellion. Later, when he has Rey and Kylo with him in his throne room, Snoke boasts of knowing Kylo’s every thought, having long used this perception to ensure his obedience and loyalty.
In short, Kylo’s master has kept him obedient and dependent by ruthlessly exercising his dominance – in particular, he achieves this by monitoring Kylo’s every thought. In an earlier encounter with Rey, Kylo owns up to being “a monster” with an air of resigned bitterness – he is Snoke’s creature and, at that point in the film, he feels he has no reprieve from that fate. Rey’s arrival on The Supremacy is crucial because it is the show of faith that Ben feels no one else ever afforded him – his mother had so little faith in his ability to resist the darkness that she sent him to his uncle; his uncle had so little faith in his ability to resist Snoke that he contemplated murdering him in his sleep; and his new master had so little faith in his ability to resist the light that he humiliated and tortured him. Rey, however, is different – she is the only person in the galaxy who sees a person worth caring about beneath his mask. And her show of faith is what gives Kylo the resolve he needs to take action based upon his father’s warning from the bridge – Kylo knows that Snoke is “using him for his power”, and Rey’s faith in him gives him the strength necessary to finally liberate himself from Snoke’s mastery.
Kylo’s rebellion against Snoke requires him to draw upon all the qualities that he has acquired – his cunning, his resolve and his remarkably potent mental abilities – and apply them. While Kylo speaks softly and gently to Rey in the elevator, attempting to reassure her with his confidence in his vision for their future, he cannot betray his true plans to her. Doing so would risk allowing Snoke to discover the nature of his intent. So, instead, Kylo allows the old man to set the table beautifully for his own murder by indulging in the sin that Luke identifies as hubris – when he looks into Kylo’s mind, Snoke sees a finely tempered blade that is sharpened by a new sheen of purpose and conviction. And instead of fearing it, Snoke feels pride. Kylo’s cleverness lies in allowing Snoke to assume that his will still mirrors his own, when his allegiances are truly with Rey – Driver’s facial expressions brilliantly convey those brief moments when Kylo is forced to watch Rey’s agony, conveying how he suffers with her but forces himself to remain restrained until the crucial moment comes.
When Kylo successfully turns and ignites the lightsaber, slicing Snoke clean in half, he and Rey fight the Praetorian Guard together in a sequence that represents the beauty and glory of what they can become by working together with purpose and resolve. Their movements are perfectly in sync – they are graceful, coordinated and always aware of each other in a way that Kylo and Snoke never were. When Rey is endangered Kylo’s eyes dart to her and he fights with fresh vigour and purpose; when Kylo is in a chokehold, Rey tosses him her saber without a moment’s hesitation. Their mutual awareness and affinity, instead of being parasitic and poisonous, is founded on equality and compassion, allowing them both to ascend in the Force and fully realise their potential.
The high point of the fight is, of course, followed by the crushing disillusionment of what follows it. Kylo, with the light of hope shining in his eyes as he sweats from the exertion of the battle, tells Rey:
It’s time to let old things die. Snoke, Skywalker, The Sith, Rebels – Let it all die, Rey. I want you to join me. We can rule together and bring a new order to the galaxy.
Rey looks at him with heartbreak, recalling Padme’s dismay as the extent of Anakin’s fall dawns on her at the climax of Revenge of the Sith. Tragically, her faith in Ben Solo has been betrayed. Rey asks him to stop what he’s doing, but Kylo is clearly intent on his vision. Panicked and desperate, he switches to a new tactic:
Kylo: Do you want to know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known? And you’ve just hidden it away. You know the truth. Say it. Say it.
Rey: They were nobody.
Kylo: They were filthy junk traders who sold you off for drinking money. They’re dead, in a pauper’s grave in the Jakku desert. You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing. But not to me.
Kylo says this with sincerity, passion and hope. He means it as reassurance – he is painfully aware of Rey’s loneliness and insecurity, so means to alleviate her terrible loneliness by offering up himself to her. She means everything to him, and so Kylo offers up himself in turn. In doing so, he betrays his vulnerability and newly realised dependence upon her – without her, he could have not achieved his victory against Snoke. But Kylo’s words here are also about reinforcing Rey’s own vulnerability, and while I don’t think he uses them with evil intent they have bitter consequences. I feel that Kylo appeals to Rey’s insecurities because this is a tactic that he himself has been subjected to again and again by Snoke. At the start of the film, a despairing Kylo tells Snoke that he has given him “everything” only for his master to beat his weaknesses and failings further into his psyche. Kylo offers an excruciatingly frank outline of Rey’s origin, but attempts to offer her the comfort he was denied in the form of his own love for and acceptance of her. Rey may have meant nothing more than drinking money to her parents, but she is worth everything to him. In Kylo’s mind, the answer to the question of what Rey’s place is in the story is simple – she belongs besides him as his queen.
While Kylo is capable of nobility, bravery, cleverness and love, he remains fundamentally selfish – he cannot see beyond his own hurt and he cannot appreciate that there is any cause greater than him and Rey. What he perceives as his betrayal by his family and all of the prevailing systems – religious and political – in the galaxy has caused him to retreat firmly into the personal realm, which, for him, contains precisely two people worth caring about: Kylo Ren and Rey. He urges Rey to “let the past die”, but, with terrible irony, cannot resolve his own trauma to a degree that would allow him to truly move beyond it. He is ruled by his bitterness and resentment, deeply wounded by the wrongs he has suffered. In contrast to Kylo, Rey’s compassion is indiscriminate and undimmed by the cruelty she has experienced. She would sooner serve others than herself, and that is what makes her Kylo’s moral superior. This moral gulf is what keeps Rey and Kylo apart for now.
While none of us can say what story will be told in Episode IX, I strongly believe that the visions Rey and Kylo had of one another cannot and should not be forgotten. The funny thing about visions and prophecies in Star Wars is that -while they can mislead and be misread – they are rarely flat-out wrong. Rey saw Ben Solo turning if she went to him, and for a brief, shining moment she had a glimpse of the sort of man Ben Solo could be at his best. If the sequel trilogy is to end happily (and since I consider Star Wars to be fundamentally optimistic, I find this likely), I believe that the visions of Rey and Kylo Ren will come true, even though the path travelled to achieve them will be more complicated and tangled than either of them could have anticipated. By the war’s end, I am optimistic that Ben Solo will have returned and Rey and Ben will stand side by side in triumph – to recall Corinthians, love in its truest form always protects, always hopes, and always perseveres.