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Can We Ever Redeem The Redemption Arc?

By Nicole Edry | Miscellaneous | March 30, 2021 |

By Nicole Edry | Miscellaneous | March 30, 2021 |


There are many, many things that infuriate me about JJ Abrams’ badly botched final entry of one of my favorite canons, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

The resurrection of Palpatine as a surprisingly toothless Big Bad without any of the visceral menace that made him such a great villain in the original trilogy. The “twist” that Rey’s parents weren’t nobodies but, in fact, the most Somebody of Somebodies. The forced, inorganic fanboy service that felt genuinely lazy and cynical in its canned delivery. The malicious retconning of another person’s (far superior) work, made even worse because JJ clearly didn’t stick the landing.

The absence of any true emotional depth or resonance. The recycling of old plot points. The reliance on sheen instead of substance. The lack of a single fraught, cohesive story arc that makes us want to buy into this Shakespearean space saga we all fell in love with. The sidelining of Finn, and his new mega bro vibe with Po. A dynamic that is clearly, shamelessly engineered to gloss over the deliberate queerbaiting of these two popular and seriously under-used characters.

And above all, of course, #JusticeForRoseTico.

I could continue to kvetch about JJ Abrams inexplicably choosing to dump all over the amazing setup that Rian Johnson gifted him with Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But instead, I’m going to turn my focus to the thing that pissed me off the most in this joyless swan song of a film.

(Spoilers below).

The undeserved redemption of Kylo Ren.

I’ll never forget what it was like when I first saw this movie. It was way back in the before times when we could actually go out to movie theaters without catching the plague. A friend and I excitedly swapped conspiracy theories while the lights dimmed, the popcorn dropped and I braced myself in my seat to enjoy the larger-than-life conclusion to one of the greatest stories of our time. But it never came.

Instead, it led me way off course, all the way over to a dramatic conclusion.

I know this may sound controversial, but hear me out: I think we need to retire the redemption arc. At least for a little while.

Take it off the table for all creators until we as a society can distinguish between real, deserved redemption and the gold-plated farce we so often accept instead. Until we’re ready and willing to acknowledge the role accountability needs to play in all our stories, even (and especially) when we don’t like it. Both on the silver screen, and in our daily lives.

Because nowadays, it’s so rare that redemption arcs are truly redemption arcs. It isn’t too often that we get something like Zuko from Avatar, The Last Airbender or Michael from The Good Place, or Steve Harrington in Stranger Things. Or one of my personal favorites, Cordelia Chase (pre- horrific ending due to Joss Whedon being an entire asshole who punished her for daring to be pregnant).

A narrative where redemption isn’t assumed, it’s earned. Where your choices don’t come with get-out-of-jail free cards tucked in the lining. Instead, we get something like the ridiculously unearned arc of Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Where a genocidal dillhole with daddy issues and a god complex tries to simultaneously destroy and rule the universe while having Skype sex with his Internet girlfriend. Kylo Ren is completely unrepentant for most of his story, and in the end, apart from one single act, doesn’t really do all that much to repair the suffering and pain he knowingly caused.

But that’s all just dandy I guess because he’s a powerful, attractively broody White man who looks like Adam Driver and has a shiny moment of good things. Which *checks notes* is apparently enough to magically redeem him. He dies a hero’s death and is mourned by our protagonist.

Why is this so important? Because now, there are no real stakes. Now, your story has a safety net. And now, you have conditioned us, your audience, to implicitly assume that redemption arcs can be handed out like Halloween candy. Even if the villainous figure in question doesn’t actually make any genuine good faith efforts to repair the damage they have caused, we’re taught to wave them through the gates of acceptance with nary a questioning glance.

Honestly, the folks over at the Den of Geek explain this travesty far better than I possibly could. They highlight all the reasons why it was a wee bit problematic to have Kylo Ren die for Rey, and make a mass murderer seem like a sacrificial hero. They especially hit the nail on the head when they noted that, “(f)or better and worse, the quality of redemption arcs in our biggest stories play a role in the quality of our redemption arcs in our real world.”

We, and Hollywood, are far too inclined to dole out redemption arcs to the unworthy. We can’t keep celebrating those who have a noted lack of true repentance or reflection. Are there some (limited) consequences for those who behave badly? Sure. But when A-list stars are still ready and willing to support a man who married his adoptive child and allegedly sexually abused another, something is rotten in Hollywood.

And in our world at large.

How long did people turn their faces away from the behavior of Harvey Weinstein or Ellen Degeneres, even though their toxic actions were an “open secret” known to all in the industry? How many stars have done truly terrible things and maybe suffered momentary setbacks but were generally able to continue on in their chosen field? Picked up awards after carefully navigated circuits, even in the heart of the #Metoo era (cough Casey Affleck cough)?

There are too many instances where we’ve given redemption arcs to those who don’t remotely deserve them and enabled their actions with our own complicity. I’m looking at you Johnny Depp. And Mel Gibson. And Piers Morgan, who has already found a new job and will yet again have an outlet for his vile, bigoted, harmful behavior that helped to drive multiple women, including Meghan Markle, to dangerous, desperate places.

It’s even more chilling when you consider that this automatic assumption of redemption extends far beyond Hollywood.

It roams through Wall Street and Silicon Valley, handing out free passes to corporations who wouldn’t know justice if it pooped on the floor because it wasn’t allowed to take bathroom breaks. It rumbles through the halls of our nation’s capital and echoes across the rotunda where the legislative body that’s supposed to represent us instead restricts our voting rights.

When people like Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz are allowed to commit treason and incite deadly riots then continue to govern us without even a hint of remorse or accountability, then it’s time to seriously reconsider how we approach the world. It’s time to hit pause on unearned redemption arcs in all forms.

Who knows what could happen as a result? Maybe we wouldn’t be so inclined to hand out hall passes to politicians and actors and other famous figures who abuse their powers and platforms. Maybe we would stop judging people by their social feeds, their ability to churn out buzzworthy headlines or plan an Insta-friendly apology circuit. And instead judge them by their willingness to own up to their actions, learn from them and grow from them.

And then maybe, just maybe, the force will be with us again.