Proud & Prejudiced Book Thieves

The Brilliant Execution of Reylo in The Last Jedi Part 1: Characterization & Ying-Yang Motivations

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***Major Spoiler Warning for The Last Jedi*** Turn back now if you have not seen the movie, and you want to keep your heart pure upon entrance to the theater. Of course, if you don’t care, just keep reading. We have lots of lovely Kylo Ren gifs <3.

THE LAST JEDI WAS POSITIVELY FANTASTIC. Even more importantly, REYLO IS CANON. Do you hear that, universe? Our ship is ALIVE AND CANON AND SAILING OFF HAPPILY INTO THE SUNSET ON THE MILLENIUM FALCON…more or less. It’ll happen. Someday. Ben Solo is going to get redeemed, and what better place to hang out with his beautiful nobody of a girlfriend than his daddy’s old ship? Also, Reylo on the Millenium Falcon would literally be our SHIP ON A SHIP. But I digress.

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We have several TLJ posts planned for the upcoming weeks, but we’re going to start off with a two part discussion on Reylo (this is basically one giant Reylo meta, let’s be honest). So without further ado, let’s get down into all the analyzation and discussion behind Reylo because a.) being nerdy is fun, b.) Reylo is probably the most beautiful thing in the galaxy (second only to Ben Solo’s hair) and c.) The Last Jedi was a fantastically nuanced film, making it the perfect subject for intense discussion. Thank you, Rian Johnson, for making all of this possible. *sniffles*

THE CHARACTERIZATION BEHIND REYLO

The Last Jedi executed Reylo in the best way possible, in that both Rey and Ben/Kylo stayed true to the core of their characters, and their romantic tension evolved naturally. Rey’s character arc (self-acceptance) was used as the guiding point to bond her and Ben. This is perfectly natural, as any hope of a relationship between Ben and Rey had to start out with them on equal levels of vulnerability.

The audience knows that Kylo Ren has the greatest potential for a character arc, because he is a character driven by extremes—extreme emotion, extreme violence, extreme pain. Kylo Ren’s character development is potent enough that it will move the film even if the story only follows it sub-textually. Rey, however, is masked by her independence and self-reliance. She seems so terribly strong; Finn and Han were fooled by this in TFA (both of them saw Rey as someone who could “take care of herself,” a girl who didn’t rescuing), the audience was fooled by this (hence the many allegations that Rey was a Mary Sue), and Rey herself is fooled by this. She is of course strong, but her character becomes incredibly nuanced when that “strength” is shown to be both her greatest asset—

—and her greatest lie.

Ben Solo is the only other character capable of intimately understanding this dichotomy—his strength (more directly, his power in the Force) is also his greatest asset and his greatest lie (the Kylo Ren persona, his refusal to acknowledge his crumbling loyalties to the dark side).

Reylo works as an effective romantic pairing only if Rey and Ben are both used as catalysts, each character sparking growth and change in the other. This keeps the romance from coming off as one-sided, and it keeps Rey from becoming a female character purposed only to drive Ben’s character arc without having any growth of her own (which was basically what happened to Padme in Revenge of the Sith). But as Ben forces Rey to acknowledge her dark side and her vulnerabilities, she is subconsciously acting on him as well, providing him with pure motivation to reclaim himself and turn away from the Dark Side.

This is honestly a redemption arc at its finest—and I do firmly believe that Episode IX will end with Ben Solo redeemed. He’s become far too nuanced and vulnerable to continue on as a stereotypical villain, and now that he has been made to suffer and has been given the motivation and means of redeeming himself, his character arc is perfectly positioned for a return to the Light (or to the Grey, as Reylo is underwritten by the promise of balancing the Force—we discussed this in greater detail here.)

YING AND YANG MOTIVES

Rey and Ben Solo’s relationship is made even more complex when one considers their ulterior motives behind joining forces. From the moment Rey discovers that Luke Skywalker tried to kill Ben, she is adamant in her support of Ben, putting all her passion and her strength toward bringing him back to the light. On one hand, this is exactly what Ben needs: someone who believes in him with such conviction that he begins to see the worth in saving himself (all redemption arcs are essentially driven by the promise of unconditional love).

On the other hand, Rey is not motivated solely by philanthropy or romance (even if she is, at this point, romantically interested in Ben Solo, she’d never admit it to herself). Rey wants Ben Solo to turn back to the Light because the resulting shift in the power balance would give the Resistance a chance at victory over the First Order. In essence Rey wants to use Ben, and his power, just as Snoke did. Obviously Rey’s exploitation of Ben Solo’s Force ability wouldn’t be anything like the abusive leverage Snoke had over Ben, but the underlying concept is still the same. This, however, is the last thing Ben Solo needs—he needs someone who cares for him, not for his power.

 

He is clearly quite interested in emotionally connecting to Rey, though this comes through as more of a thematic undercurrent, and his faith in her is considerably more sub-textual than her passionate declarations (“You underestimate Luke Skywalker. And Ben Solo. And me. It will be your downfall!”). When Ben does rise to action, and explicitly chooses Rey over alternate (and darker) options, the result is jarring. Here is the logic behind his removal of his glove to touch Rey’s hands (skin on skin); here is the motif behind his killing Snoke, joining Rey to fight the Praetorian guards, and offering the galaxy to her.

Yet it is also clear that no matter how pure his motives (because on the basest level, Ben Solo wants Rey because she is Rey), Ben’s attempts at connecting with Rey are continually perverted by his own insecurity and need for control. He resorts to tactics similar to the ones he used in TFA: he isolates Rey, stripping her down emotionally until she has no one turn to but him; he uses her insecurities and deepest fears to foster to their connection. All of this is good for Rey’s character arc (as discussed above), as it forces her to meet Ben Solo on an equal plane of vulnerability, and it strips her down to her ultimate moment of self-discovery (her time in the Dark Side cave). But emotional manipulation is still emotional manipulation; Ben is basically negging, and if taken too far, this sort of behavior can easily turn into psychotic, obsessive ex-boyfriend stuff.

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The thing is, Ben is obsessed with Rey, and for good reason. She is the first person to understand him, to connect with him on an intimate level, and because of this, he has put her on a pedestal.

You’re not alone. Neither are you.

She is a person, but she is also a symbol—she represents the Light, Ben’s chance of redemption, pure feminine love—the list could go on. Additionally, one might explain Ben’s default use of emotional manipulation by considering that this is the very method that Snoke has used to unbraid him for years, and in Ben’s mind, this is how you connect with someone—you leave them empty and wanting so that they have no choice but to come to you to for fulfillment.

There is also the matter of the Kylo Ren persona, and how it drives Ben to force the upper hand in his relationship with Rey. Ben’s main goal is to feel in control of the situation, and he does this by constantly disarming Rey with references to her parents and her place in the universe. This is all rather ironic, because even though Ben is obviously someone who does not have a lot of control over his life, and over his own emotions, he craves the illusion of being in charge, of being powerful—hence the Kylo Ren mask and persona. There is even a sense of forced control on his sides during the Force-skypes: while Rey is vulnerable and weeping, he is closed-off and self-contained. Maybe he’s keeping himself locked away because he suspects that Snoke is listening in on the skypes, or maybe it’s because Rey’s presence is legitimately that calming. Either way, the one moment they meet as equals is in the Throne Room, directly after Ben has killed Snoke. The way they look at each other (so beautiful) the chorography of their fight scene, the way he says “Please?”—this is the only sequence in the film where Ben is being directly honest with Rey, and where he is not reaching out to her with anything but the most desperate and purest of motives. His “You’re nothing—but not to me,” is the very pinnacle of his emotional journey, because he is completely unmasked.

[Please excuse the cuss word in the watermark–this was the only version of these gifs we could find!]

This sequence does not see Ben pushing for control, as he was in the elevator when he brought up Rey’s parents so that he was in control of their dynamic again (because only moments before Rey had literally disarmed him by standing so close to him/staring at his lips/telling him she’d help him come back to the light.)

Rey’s methods/motives dichotomy was balanced in the elevator (unlike Ben’s—he was still pushing for emotional manipulation, not matter how futile such techniques were at that moment). During the elevator scene, Rey is driven solely by a concern for Ben Solo, and his redemption. Just look at her body language—she is emotionally calculated, but not for the service of some greater good. Here her methods of reaching Ben align perfectly with his emotional state; she is employing Ben’s own tactics, but not because she’s vying for control and trying to manipulate him, but because tapping into Ben’s emotional core, without anger, and without pretext is the most viable way of reaching him.

After defeating Snoke’s guards, however, Rey’s methods/motives are once again unbalanced, as her immediate reaction to her perceived victory is to again think of the greater good and the Resistance. She is no longer so directly tuned into Ben’s psyche (if she had been, she probably would have checked into his emotional stability, since Ben just killed his childhood abuser, and that experience is obviously going to be pretty traumatic. Of course, if she had done that, she wouldn’t be Rey, and turning first to Ben Solo instead of the Resistance wasn’t in the cards for her character arc at the moment).

Even though Ben’s motives/methods were perfectly balanced throughout the whole Throne Room scene, Rey was still right to refuse him. She cannot exist as Ben’s comfort object; she deserves a fully redeemed Ben Solo, and until Ben gets his act together, Rey is a higher sort of catalyst for him as his Motivation rather than his Prize. Ben certainly wasn’t ever thinking of Rey as a “prize”; he was looking for stability and control from the one person that whose very existence motivated him to destroy his entire world. By killing Snoke Ben had killed all the security and constants that had existed for him up to that moment, and he wanted Rey to be the one to ground him. He wanted her, and everything she represented, but he didn’t want to have to work to get it. Rey’s refusal of Ben forces him to redeem himself, and it brings both characters to the raw edge of forever (i.e., that beautiful place where we get brilliant character development and Reylo as a fully cannon ROMANCE).

To make a long story short, I found the dichotomy of Rey’s pure methods/ambiguous motives and Ben’s pure motives/ambiguous methods an interesting sort of contrast, one that directly echoes their Ying-Yang relationship. Much smarter people have analyzed the whole ying-yang thing in depth, but I think it’s fascinating that the balance aspect of Reylo is so deeply embedded in their relationship. The Last Jedi was so so so brilliant.

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What are your thoughts on Reylo, and how Ben and Rey’s relationship played out in TLJ? Were you a Reylo shipper before TLJ, or did you come out of the theater with a brand new OTP? What was your favorite Reylo moment in TLJ?

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