Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
There will be a variety of Star Wars spoilers, so beware.
If You Only Knew the Power of the Dark Side
A motivating principle of Kylo Ren is to be freed from his own conflicted feelings and from his ties to the past. He is the one who on several occasions talks about letting the past die, killing it if necessary. His words are supported by his deeds as he murders his father, Han Solo, betrays and murders Snoke, attempts to kill Luke Skywalker in single combat to prove his superiority, seizes control of the First Order, and tries to extinguish the Resistance in order to remake the galaxy to his own designs. He is relentless and intimidating as he attempts the impossible: to run away from his identity. He wants to be Kylo Ren not Ben Solo, and his means to achieve this end is the Dark Side of the Force.
The paradox of his choice, however, is that the more he tries to destroy the past, the more he becomes a slave to it. As Luke, in a paraphrase of his mentor Obi-Wan, says, “Strike me down in anger, and I’ll always be with you, just like your father.” Kylo Ren thinks he’s freeing himself of his feelings toward his father and mentors by destroying them, but all he’s really doing is chaining himself to them through his fixation on them.
Rose also comments on this theme when she explains to Finn that they’ll win by saving what they love rather than attempting to destroy what they hate. By focusing on his negative feelings, Kylo Ren is doomed to obsess over the things that disturb his life, and he only makes the situation worse by using those negative feelings to tap into the Dark Side of the Force to cause harm to others and ultimately himself.
Time is a Flat Circle
Unless the audience believes this theme is only in The Last Jedi, the same self-destructive paradox happens with Darth Vader. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin wants recognition as a Jedi master and to save his wife from the fatal end that haunts his visions. Motivated by these desires he ultimately betrays the Jedi, helps to annihilate them, enables Palpatine to become the emperor, and is instrumental in the death of his wife. On top of the tragic irony of bringing about Padme’s death while going to such lengths to prevent it, once he accepts his title of Darth Vader, he’ll always be an apprentice, negating his attempts to be seen as master of the Force. By turning to the Dark Side, Anakin ruins everything he wanted to preserve.
Quicker, Easier, More Seductive. . .
The temptation of the Dark Side of the Force is that it offers people what they want. Anakin wants to forestall death, prove his worth, and have recognition. The Dark Side gives him the power to achieve this while undercutting his efforts. Through the Dark Side, Anakin in his suspicion, envy, and paranoia, injures his wife, proves himself to be deceitful and murderous, and as Darth Vader gains a reputation for cruelty and villainy across the galaxy. His shortcut to security and greatness leads him to a solitary, hateful infamy. Similarly, Kylo Ren wants to be free from the past and its loyalties, so he uses the Dark Side to affect such an end, which leaves him alone and significantly damaged both inside and out. His use of the Dark Side of the Force to be free only makes him a slave to his own anger and feelings of insecurity.
Rey is also tempted. In the scenes with the dark mirror cave, she pleads to be shown her parents, to know where she comes from, but is only shown her own reflection. Later in the movie, it comes to light that Rey does know her parentage, suggesting the Dark Side couldn’t truly tempt her with something she already knew but didn’t wish to acknowledge. The greater temptation from the Dark Side comes from Kylo Ren, who in the tradition of Star Wars villains, uses the truth as a weapon. He confronts her with the knowledge that she is nobody special from nowhere special, and then he offers her what they both want: companionship with an equal. They never have to be alone again or feel inadequate because they’ll have each other. This is the lie of all tyrants. It takes away the uniqueness of each individual and preserves it for only a few. The price, though, of turning to the Dark Side and consigning others to torment and death is too high for Rey. She rejects him once in Snoke’s chamber and again when she closes the entrance to the Millennium Falcon, presumably severing their intimate, Force connection. Again, his choice to use the Dark Side in his quest for ultimate freedom causes Kylo Ren more harm as it leaves him utterly and painfully lonely despite his position and power.
For My Ally is the Force
The path to freedom, in another irony, rests in caring for others. Rose points this out as does Rey though her actions. In rejecting Kylo Ren, she puts herself at risk to help save the Resistance. These acts of love are what lead to lives worth living rather than the destructive pursuits of freedom or security. This is how Luke can claim he will not be the last Jedi despite the fact Rey has almost no knowledge or training that would have been standard among the Jedi Order. As Yoda suggests, reading books and knowing the history of the Jedi doesn’t actually make someone a Jedi. Instead a Jedi is something someone has to be as evidenced by their deeds and their willingness to use the Force for knowledge and the protection of others. Rey isn’t a Jedi because of her training with Luke; she’s a Jedi because of the choices she makes.
© 2018 Seth Tomko