A Bad Romance, We Are
Temptation & ‘Shipping in “The Last Jedi”
Warning: ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS VIII
I’ve been asking myself why I don’t ‘ship’ Rey and Kylo in The Last Jedi, despite the fact that I’ve never seen a Star Wars film hew so closely to the zone of emotional hunger that shipping fandom inhabits. I mean, this show hit all the tropes: shared vision, parallel destinies, battle partners, choosing your soulmate over your allies. Boom boom boom boom. I could write the AO3 summary from the default tags. These are story devices I go nuts for.
In battle they whirl in a kaleidoscope of red and blue, two heirs of the Force—beautiful, powerful, epic. What’s not to swoon for?
I ask: does something prevent me from connecting to Rey? No, that’s nonsense, Rey was ball of charisma. I was with her in every step. Perhaps it’s because Kylo isn’t charming? I’ve always been drawn to the charming school of bad boy, not the dour school. Give me Spike over Angel, any day. Give me Damon Salvatore, Logan Echolls, Loki of Asgard, or even 1978 Han Solo himself. But that’s not this story, because Kylo Ren isn’t charming. In fact he’s barely even handsome in this picture, despite Adam Driver’s pleasing face and delightful qualities as a performer. Instead he radiates a yearning intensity that is both sexual and magnetic in how overwhelming it is. Maybe his character simply isn’t to my taste, though he seems to be Rey’s.
And yet, the longer I sat with this question, the more I realized that Sad & Broody Face couldn’t be the only reason I wasn’t combusting with squee for this pairing. Because I did find The Last Jedi’s rendition of Kylo vastly more interesting than the other villains, and I was fully engaged with his branch of the story.
The truth is, I don’t feel any ship impulses because as a viewer, The Last Jedi never allowed me to forget that this romance is doomed before it even begins.
I enjoyed the ride, of course. I appreciate that the film took the angle it took — that they went for something a little sexy, and did so in a way that was considerably more organic and believable than the stilted scenes between Anakin and Padme 15 years ago. Rey and Kylo’s screen chemistry is electric, the twists are familiar yet delightfully and earnestly executed. In a move of deftness that I think will age very well, the film telegraphed where the relationship was headed quite early on. We knew they would bond. We knew he would fight beside her. We knew they would win together. And ultimately, we knew that he would disappoint her.
We knew that for all her bravery and generosity, Rey would fail.
Yoda tells us so, right at the end of Act 2. “The greatest teacher, failure is.” In keeping with that theme, something incredibly significant happens in those final scenes in Snoke’s throne room, and I can’t overstate it:
Rey did not fail to save Kylo Ren, she failed to see him for what he is.
This was her failure: Compassion and empathy that blinds her to the truth in front of her nose. Hope and arrogance that makes her deaf to the warnings Kylo repeatedly says about himself.
“A monster,” he tells her.
To say that if the Jedi die that the light dies is vanity, Luke says. What vanity also, to think that a person will change because you wish it to be so.
The film has demonstrated so many times that Kylo chose this fate, and will keep choosing it. When Luke “tried to kill him” in the past, Kylo could have just left. Instead, he recruited a handful of his classmates and murdered the rest —innocent children who had never stood over his bed with a lightsaber. Even then Kylo could have gone wherever he wanted in the universe; he went to Snoke, he went to imperialism and fascism and genocide. Fifteen years later, in the throne room over Snoke’s pathetic corpse, Kylo has the latest opportunity to choose a better way of life. Instead, the man-formerly-called-Ben does what he’s done every time since his story was introduced: he chooses power. He chooses greed. He chooses murder and deceit.
The film does a fine visual thing by placing Rey’s captive body between Kylo and Snoke. For every time that Kylo stares at her in her suffering, he is also staring at the throne.
In that instant the two are inseparable, and he thinks he can have both. Mighty Kylo Ren can have this intimate connection to a powerful peer and he can have the freedom to rule the galaxy on his own terms, murdering his when he feels like it instead of when Snoke does. How beautiful that must seem to Kylo: a partner who understands his pain and is called to the same darkness… plus “the keys to a shiny new Australia” as the titular Doctor Horrible once sang.
But The Last Jedi’s story isn’t a sad little play about one man’s violence and self-absorption killing his girl-crush with stray shrapnel. Oh no. The woman is the hero in this film. She gets up first (she’s always been a little bit stronger than him) and she walks away. Away from Kylo’s murder, his genocide, his darkness. She climbs into the ship she earned from her mentor and she flies to rescue her friends. Kylo Ren doesn’t get to crush and crumble her story into a tiny thing only he can love. Oh no, Rey will not be turned. Rey will not be corrupted or diminished by this person. Rey will not be consumed.
Kylo Ren failed himself. Rey will not, and the idea that he ever thought she could illuminates how different their fundamental natures are.
The drama of this aborted relationship is so successful on screen because Rey believes that Ben Solo would want to change, that deep down he must desire family above all because that’s what she desires. Surely if she can break through his sadness, she’ll find that all he wants is to be loved, to be welcomed, to go home? But that’s a self-deception, one that Rey has fallen into because of Snoke’s manipulation, Kylo’s allure, and the arrogance of her own compassion. That she must go and try to redeem him is admirable, beautiful, heroic. That she’s wrong in the end is heartbreaking.
He’s not like her. They are connected but they are not the same. It’s human to see ourselves in other people, but that doesn’t make it true. Instead of listening to what each other is trying to say, these two protagonists careen through the story certain that they only have to make the other person understand, and it will all work out.
Kylo too, is blinded by vanity. He believes that his reaction to fear, loneliness, and anger is the truest reaction. Power is the way to connect to the world: why can’t Rey see that? He was so sure she was like him. He was so sure they were the same. In the end, she disappoints him as deeply as the rest. When their nascent alliance fractures, the audience can see their respective illusions fall broken to the floor. He was never intending to choose the light for her. She was never intending to choose the darkness for him.
So here’s what we have: a love story that isn’t a love story at all. In truth, it’s a story of temptation, of lying to yourself, of wanting something to be real so badly you convince yourself it is.
It’s hope. It’s arrogance. It’s failure.
We’ve all had this story. We’ve all had to let go of something compelling because it hurt us, put on a Beyonce or a Fleetwood Mac song and go have a good cry. Disappointment is part of adulthood. The greatest teacher, failure is.
Take heart Rey, as a great heroine of the light said before you: No guy is worth your life, not ever.