Han Solo's confrontation of Kylo Ren is the pivotal moment of THE FORCE AWAKENS. For longtime fans, this is because we are about to see the death of a beloved part of the STAR WARS saga. Internal to the story itself, this is the critical intersection of Han and Kylo’s mythic paths.
Inside Starkiller Base, Han and Finn find Rey, who has already freed herself. Having found her and brought down the shields, they can get back to the Falcon and escape. Unfortunately for Han, the greater need presents itself in such a way that this is not an acceptable option. Seeing that the Resistance forces are getting hammered by the opposition and fearing they won’t be able to destroy the base even with the shields down, Solo and company decide to sabotage the installation from within.
"Trust me, Big Deal. If you want a $50 million payday, you don't want to be the guy who kinda gets it done."
This is a solidification of Han’s role as a universal hero and his final step toward completing the hero’s journey. Even though Han’s journey throughout the saga has paralleled Luke’s in the challenges he has faced, Han’s motivations have always been more inwardly directed. In EPISODE IV, both Han and Luke rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star, but Han rationalizes this away as an act of greed. They both contribute to the destruction of the Death Star at the Battle of Yavin, but Han is there to save Luke because they’re friends, not because he believes in the cause of the Rebellion.
In EPISODE V, Han is sacrificed to Darth Vader on Bespin just like Luke is, but Han is only there because he wants to protect Leia. He has no intention of fighting Vader.
In EPISODE VI, Han triumphantly returns just like Luke does, but Han’s resurrection is from a literal point of stasis while Luke is re-emerging as a much stronger character than the boy who was defeated on Bespin. Han has no such opportunity for growth, since he’s been frozen since the last time we saw him.
Han is acting as an agent of the cause at the end of the movie, but we don’t really see where that motivation is coming from. He just shows up at a briefing as a General of the Rebel Alliance, already aware of what he’s supposed to do and where he’s supposed to go. The core of his struggle and the motivation for his choices is less defined. On Endor, he is still more interested in his friends than the mission, considering that he is supposedly in charge of a commando squad but immediately abandons them to go tromping through the woods the second his girlfriend goes missing. We never see the point where Han ascends from being a guy who will die for his friends to being a hero who will lay down his life trying to make the world better.
While Han has personal reasons for becoming involved in the conflict at the end of EPISODE VII, we can still see his sensibilities have involuntarily shifted towards wanting to save not just the people close to him, but the entire galaxy as he understands it.
In this respect it is actually helpful that they had Han take a step back so that we see he’s attempted to revert to the state he was in when he was introduced in EPISODE IV. He acts brash and cavalier, not concerning himself with the larger conflict that has consumed both his wife, his friend, and his son. Han is trying to convince himself that being a scoundrel is the only thing he’s ever been good at, but as we see in this film, he’s actually always been pretty terrible at it. What Han has always been good at is being a hero, but his sense of failure on a personal level has prejudiced him into feeling like a failure on a global level as well.
"Wait... You want ME to save the universe? To be honest, I thought they should have
killed me off in RETURN OF THE JEDI."
Han’s decision to take down the shield generator is a personal choice to become the man Leia has always known him to be. When he learns that Finn’s only interest is in saving Rey, he’s actually offended even though that’s exactly the type of motivation Han has always been more likely to exhibit. But he’s trying to be more than that now, so saving Rey is not enough. They have a duty to the galaxy to help the Resistance defeat the First Order.
"No, this is not the same thing thing that happened in
VECTOR PRIME. Just go with it, Chewie..."
When Han sees that the Resistance is failing, he decides they have to go back into the base in order to help them. This ends up having severe personal consequences for him, but he doesn’t do it for personal reasons. It’s an act of selflessness.
Kylo Ren sensed that Han had come to the planet, so when he discovers Rey has escaped he assumes he will find them together. While his Stormtroopers search the base for them, Han and the others begin setting charges to weaken the base and give Poe and his fellow pilots an opening they can exploit to complete their assault run.
This moment is significant in part because it completes Han’s parallel of Obi-Wan’s arc in EPISODE IV. He is the wise herald who gives Rey and Finn necessary knowledge of the larger story only to sacrifice himself in the belly of the beast. It also parallels Luke’s arc in EPISODE VI, where he has to face an internal spiritual struggle while his comrades are trying to blow up the installation he’s standing in. This parallel is more accurate in terms of Han’s mythic journey. Luke’s final battle in EPISODE VI was both his point of personal catharsis and his moment of apotheosis. Deciding not to fight Vader and allowing the Emperor to kill him leads to the redemption of his father and Luke’s ascension as a universal savior. He is symbolically killed in that scene and resurrected into a larger role. Han’s confrontation of Kylo here is the exact same struggle, with practically the exact same result.
The scene itself is beautifully staged. Han sees Kylo but Kylo, who is more focused on finding Rey, neither sees nor senses Han. As Kylo is walking away, Han has the opportunity to get away clean, putting Kylo Ren and Starkiller Base behind him forever.
But Han can’t bring himself to do that. Now that his duty as a hero has been satisfied, his final test in seeking redemption is the fulfillment of his duties as a father.
Han confronts Kylo on a long narrow bridge that could only exist in a STAR WARS movie. We learn for the first time that Kylo’s given name (or at least the one Han calls him) is Ben. This is a nice homage to Obi-Wan Kenobi, but it seems strange that Han and Leia would choose Kenobi as their child’s namesake, since neither of them had a personal bond with him. In the Expanded Universe, it was actually Luke who had a son named Ben, which makes more sense. Han and Leia’s children were the twins Jacen and Jaina and their youngest son, Anakin.
"Or maybe Satan Hitler Solo. That's a traditional Jedi name, right?"
I don’t blame the filmmakers for not going with the name Jacen for Kylo. Jacen and Jaina sound too much like Jan and Jace from Space Ghost, so I was never crazy about those names either. I also have a really hard time believing that either Han or Leia would be inclined to name one of their children after the man who savagely tortured each of them.
"Solo, I think this is a good time for us to discuss your intentions toward my daughter."
But Kylo is apparently named Ben, even though he insists that is no longer his name. He is Kylo Ren now. At Han’s insistence, he removes his helmet and Han makes an impassioned plea for him to abandon this course and return home.
It is at this point that Han says Snoke only wants Kylo for his power, suggesting Han knows Snoke enough to think he understands his plan and indirectly suggesting that Snoke may not have any actual power of his own. Kylo’s defense of Snoke doesn’t refute this. He insists that Snoke is wise, but doesn’t make any statement regarding his power or ability.
Han approaches Kylo, rejecting his assertion that Ben Solo no longer exists. Kylo would like to believe this, to relieve himself of the inner conflict that constantly pressures him to return to the light. He laments that it’s too late for him to turn back, feeling that he has already committed too many atrocities to ever be redeemable. He admits to Han that he’s being torn apart by what his feelings are compelling him to do and what he feels he must do. He knows what he must do to end his pain, but fears he isn’t strong enough. He asks Han to help him.
"This is not how I thought this day was gonna go..."
Dropping his helmet to his feet, Kylo holds out his lightsaber as if to surrender. But as Han puts his hand on it the sun, depleted of energy, goes dark. The First Order’s weapon is now charged. The light fades and a shadow falls over Kylo Ren. He tenses his grip on the lightsaber and ignites it, killing Han and throwing him into the chasm below.
As I mentioned in a previous post, this confrontation follows the model laid out in the "Atonement with the Father" chapter of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Luke accomplished this atonement in EPISODE VI by choosing to redeem Vader rather than destroying him. In doing this he becomes the hero his father could have been rather than the monster he became.
Vader had accidentally engineered this awakening of purpose in Luke through his murder of Obi-Wan Kenobi. By removing the surrogate father he forced Luke to seek atonement with his real father and in doing that, he insured that Luke would face his greater destiny.
In a sense, Kylo’s murder of Han may signify the same type of awakening for Rey. He is robbing her of her surrogate father and mentor, which will ultimately force her to accept the truth about her real family, and perhaps her real destiny. Without knowing where the story is headed, there’s no telling what the far-reaching effects of this action will be for her, but by killing Han, Kylo has definitely shifted the conflict into being solely about himself and Rey, adding a personal element that did not previously seem to be a part of their struggle.
But it’s how this atonement impacts Kylo and Han that I find the most interesting here. As I said before, this scene for Han mirrors Luke’s final confrontation with Vader in EPISODE VI, where he’s forced to address a personal emotional dilemma while external forces are actively working to blow them all up before he can reach its resolution. Whereas Luke was making his final appeal for the redemption of his father, Han is making his final appeal for the redemption of his son. And where Luke was ultimately successful in saving his father’s soul (albeit at the cost of his life), Han ultimately fails to safe Kylo’s soul, losing his own life in the process.
But is that what’s really going on here?
What I find absolutely fascinating is that the atonement we’re witnessing is that of Kylo Ren confronting his own father just as Luke did in EPISODE VI. Kylo’s arc parallels Luke’s exactly here. He is confronting his father to prove that he can overcome his influence and thus complete his own personal transformation into something greater. Just as Luke had to do when he confronted Vader and the Emperor, Kylo is forced to complete his journey alone. The base is stupid with Stormtroopers, but the only other characters present to witness this moment are Han’s friends. Kylo has to face this trial alone and stand by his philosophical convictions without the benefit of any other influences to help him. That’s what makes this such a heartbreaking scene. He truly believes that his path is to transcend what his parents want of him to realize a higher calling, which is everything the atonement is meant to achieve. The at-one-ment doesn’t occur when you concede to be as your father dictates. It occurs when you assert yourself to hold to your own path, thus becoming your own self-actualized being, and in so doing, becoming your father.
What makes this such a powerful scene is that Kylo is not toying with Han’s emotions and is not in any way being insincere. He feels torn apart and desperately wants to remain strong enough to do what he believes must be done. He asks Han to help him and, believing Kylo needs the strength to leave the Dark Side behind and come home, Han agrees to help him do anything he needs to that purpose. And it is actually this at-one-ment between Kylo and his father that gives him the strength to take what he believes is the final step toward making his transformation complete. If he can murder his own father, then there can be no going back.
"Thanks for you help, Dad. I feel like you're really starting to get me, you know?"
It’s important to note that Han’s shock and despair is genuine, but so was his offer. He put himself at Kylo’s mercy, allowing him to make the choice he needed to make. Obviously, this is not the choice Han would have preferred, but he dies believing in his son and even at the last, he dies loving him. When Kylo thanks him, Kylo is being completely sincere. And this scene is perfectly, wonderfully heartbreaking for that.
But does this represent an actual failure on Han’s part to redeem his son?
Ostensibly, the answer would be yes. Han is killed, murdered by his own son, and Kylo Ren is resolved to continue down the path to the Dark Side of the Force. But let’s look a little more closely at the outcome of the confrontation. Han falls down a chasm, literally crossing Campbell’s “Sun Door”, the path to ascension that allows the mortal hero to transcend the mortal world and become something more.
Compare Han's fall to Luke's sacrifice on Bespin...
Han sacrificed himself for his son. This sacrifice seems to have been in vain, but may have far-reaching consequences of its own at a later point in the story.
What we see in Kylo’s attempt at atonement is the consequence of the uninitiated son attempting to usurp the father before he is ready to do so. Just as we see Luke fail in EPISODE V because Obi-Wan and Yoda have ill-prepared him for his confrontation with Vader, so we see the same failure of Kylo to confront his own father in EPISODE VII. While Luke was not properly initiated due to having been tragically ill-informed as to the exact nature of his relationship with Vader, Kylo’s improper initiation appears to have a more complex set of factors behind it. His history is hinted at being more akin to that of young Anakin, where we was stripped away from all parental influence and torn between the forces of light and darkness, both trying to pressure him into becoming something without any proper consideration for his personal needs or desires.
Just as we did with Anakin, we see the ensuing chaos that comes from Kylo’s improper initiation. He rebelled against Luke and his teachings, allowing himself to be used and manipulated by Snoke. Like Anakin before him, Kylo rebels against the chaos of his personal life by focusing on any path that promises the establishment of order.
In the “Atonement with the Father” chapter of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell recounts the parable of Phaethon, who was sired by the sun charioteer Helios. Learning his father’s identity, the young man seeks him out. The Sun God is so pleased that he offers to grant anything his son desires. Being an impetuous youth and wishing both to impress his father and to prove his lineage to his peers, the boy insists on flying the sun chariot just once in his father’s stead. Failing to dissuade him from this ill-advised request, Helios concedes to keep his promise.
This is also a kind of parable warning against the making of open-ended oaths,
but that's a discussion for another time.
So Phaethon takes the sun chariot for a catastrophic spin around the world, scorching the Earth and the sky and just generally making a mess of the place until the other gods have to intercede. This is an unsuccessful atonement with the father because he has not been properly initiated into his role and is not yet ready to become his father.
I don’t know if this is a general rule in terms of the at-one-ment act, but in STAR WARS the proper distinction is easy to draw based on intent. If the young man seeks to become or destroy his father, then he is not yet ready to succeed him. By confronting Obi-Wan, Anakin was not trying to become him, but he was trying to prove to Obi-Wan and himself that he was better. In a more metaphysical sense, he was trying to become the dark shadow that had created him. While his second duel with Kenobi took place after he had assumed a more powerful and profoundly realized role, he was equally unsuccessful in his effort to replace his former master because he was not a self-actualized being. He was operating as a functionary of the social machine, a puppet of the Emperor and the Dark Side of the Force. Only in his final act in EPISODE VI, when Anakin embraced his role as a father and his moral accountability for his actions, did he succeed in achieving the type of transformation that is typical of the son’s atonement with the father. Anakin’s ultimate failure is that he only becomes a man in the final action of his life.
I've been neglecting Rey in these analyses thus far for a couple of reasons: First, there is a reflex prejudice in the STAR WARS saga that gives you an unfair predilection towards exclusively mythologizing its male protagonists. While the previous movies showcased strong female characters like Leia, Mon Mothma, and Amidala, these characters never factored into the mythic journey generally undertaken by the male Jedi. So it's easy to analyze this tradition through Kylo Ren, especially because we know he is descended from the same Jedi line as Luke and Anakin. We also actually get to see his atonement with the father play out in EPISODE VII, so his Father Quest is more relevant to the discussion at this point.
So far in the new trilogy we do not know Rey's lineage, but we can compare her to Luke and Anakin just as we did Kylo. Rey was not (to her knowledge) orphaned, but left behind. Like Anakin, she is doomed to a slave-like indenture working for Unkar Plutt. This allows her to survive the treacherous conditions in which she is forced to spend her childhood. Like Luke, she is fiercely loyal to her family, so she refuses to leave until circumstances compel her to serve a larger cause.
Rey is actually experiencing a reversal of the Father Quest, refusing to undertake her journey because she is holding out for her parents' return. Like Luke, she may find herself undertaking the journey unwittingly. Obi-Wan teased Luke's past with stories of his father, but Luke still believed his father to be dead when he agreed to go to Alderaan. His actions in the Death Star were focused on saving Leia, then after their escape his goal was to fight for the Rebellion. He didn't even know he was on a Father Quest until Vader finally told him in EPISODE V. Similarly, Anakin left his mother to seek the path of the Jedi, not his father, so any need for paternal reconciliation was never satisfactorily fulfilled.
Rey believes her father will return for her, so she is not moved to seek him out. Her adventure with BB-8 leads her to Han Solo, who is a surrogate father. In the course of that adventure, Rey is forced to face the possibility (at Maz Kanata's urging) that her father will never come back and she should instead focus on those who could. Rey assumes Maz is talking about Luke Skywalker, but Maz does not confirm this.
"Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough... Wait, that's not right...
I mean, this belonged to Luke Skywalker and his father, so naturally it should be
passed on to YOU, for some reason...."
Without knowing exactly what happened before or after Kylo Ren's act of patricide, it’s difficult to say what the causes or the ramifications of it are. But let’s compare him to the ill-fated Phaethon. Rejected by his parents and pulled into an ideological conflict between Luke and Snoke, Kylo is a literal rage of emotions and, like Phaethon, literally sets fire to Earth and Heaven as a result. He is not ready to wield the power he has inherited and has not been taught how to be a man or a hero. Just like Anakin, Kylo is just caught in the middle of larger events that no one bothers to properly explain and no one ever stops to think about how he is personally affected by it all. So Kylo is not ready when he faces Han Solo. He is simply trying to prove he is a man, which is something only a boy would need to do.
Han is ready to face Kylo now, after a lifetime of running away. Having been drawn back into the larger scope of events and having finally faced Leia, he saw that she believed in him and in their son and in the possibility that they could both be saved. So, like Luke did with Vader in EPISODE VI, Han puts himself completely at his son’s mercy. Han has already risked everything to save the galaxy as a whole. This final act of pure selfless love is performed in an effort to save his son.
Kylo is not ready for this. He believes that killing Han will establish his independence and cement his resolve for Snoke’s teachings, but this does not happen. Kylo seems just as confused and conflicted as he was before he confronted Han. This action has not made him any more focused or committed to his course. This is demonstrated in the fact that Chewbacca is able to get a hit on him before Kylo even realizes he’s being fired on, when we have see he can stop a laser bolt in its tracks when he’s paying attention.
So killing his father did not have the effect Kylo Ren had hoped for, but might it have had the effect Han Solo had hoped for? That’s a question for another time.