*Warning: Contains major spoilers for Star Wars: Victory’s Price*
I am a fan of the redemption arc.
Done well, there are few things as satisfying as seeing a character who has done wrong and done harm realize just how much pain they’ve caused, and turn to fight alongside the heroes. It’s satisfying too because we know, especially as we get older, how unlikely it is for such a thing to occur in real life.
Does it happen sometimes? Sure. But by and large, the idea of a villain seeing the error of their ways and turning heroic is a feature of fiction, and we are happy to suspend our disbelief and let that narrative wash over us. We accept it much in the same way we accept spaceships flying faster than the speed of light, or glowing laser swords capable of inflicting lethal damage.
Redemption in Victory's Price and Beyond
The type of redemption arc that I personally prefer, and that I believe we don’t see enough is that of living redemption – the villain turning to fight alongside the heroes, and then when all is said and done, when the last battle is fought and the evil is defeated, they must then spend the rest of their days living with the consequences of what they’ve done.
This is not me suggesting that all fantasy environments must adopt some kind of war crimes tribunal along the lines of The Hague (and please, let me never hear the term “war crimes” when discussing big-budget fantasy IP ever again). Rather, it is for each universe to determine what sort of amends and atonement make sense within their own universe.
I’ve talked around it long enough, so let’s just dive right into, what else, Star Wars.
There is a lot of fandom discourse around Star Wars and the subject of redemption. It makes sense why this is such a big conversation. In the Original Trilogy, the final meeting of our hero Luke Skywalker and larger-than-life villain Darth Vader is not some flashy fight with the aforementioned laser swords. Rather, it is Luke showing Vader, who he has recently learned is his father, some compassion in the last moments of his life.
In his final moments, Darth Vader broke the hold that the Dark side had on him and became Anakin Skywalker once more, just long enough to save the life of his son. Whether we want to classify this as Vader’s redemption or just one good action performed in a moment of desperation is a longer conversation for another day, but it does raise an interesting question:
Is redemption even possible for someone who has committed atrocity after atrocity? And if so, what does that even look like?
Though the trilogy is an ensemble piece focusing on the five pilots who make up Alphabet Squadron, each with their own distinct backstories, the one I am most interested in looking at here is squadron leader Yrica Quell.
Quell is a former Imperial TIE pilot who flew with an elite division known as Shadow Wing. Shortly after Operation Cinder – a horrifying in-universe event occurring after the events of Return of the Jedi where Imperial forces turned on various worlds and completely leveled them, wiping out entire civilizations in a last-ditch effort to maintain control – Quell defects from the Empire on the orders of her commander and surrenders to the New Republic.
Though on arrival, she is viewed with suspicion, Quell is eventually embraced by the rest of the team. That is until the end of the second book, Shadow Fall, where the extent of what she did in service to the Empire becomes known by all. Her actions, including her involvement with Operation Cinder had been hidden from the rest of the team, and their discovery leaves them reeling.
It also leaves Yrica in an awkward position. All her hard-won goodwill vanished in an instant, forcing her to make a gut-wrenching decision. She runs from the Rebellion, and right back to Shadow Wing. Unknown to anyone until partway through Victory’s Price, she only did what she did to help stop the Empire from the inside, since she knew her team would never trust her if she stayed.
Victory’s Price is, at its heart, largely about redemption, consequences, and forgiveness. This is present throughout Quell’s story, but it also makes an interesting appearance in one small scene that speaks to the idea of redemption on a macro-level within Star Wars as a whole.
Wyl Lark and Chass Na Chadic, two Alphabet pilots who are survivors of separate Rebellion squadrons have a conversation in a hydroponic lab, where Wyl shares an interesting anecdote. He tells Chass that in the aftermath of the Battle of Endor, when the Rebellion had touched down on the forest moon to celebrate the destruction of the second Death Star, he came across a funny sight. Hidden away in a cluster of trees, he saw Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker burning the body of Darth Vader. What Wyl can’t figure out, however, is why.
Is this some kind of strange ritual? A way for Luke to definitively get the last “word” in the fight with Vader? Wyl has no idea. Why should he? He hasn’t seen Return of the Jedi. So though Vader’s final action was a heroic one, this is something the galaxy at large doesn’t know yet. It’s also unfortunately something the galaxy at large will never come to know.
Luke doesn’t spend any time telling anyone beyond his family what it is Vader did to save him. Even those who know Luke and know the full story have a hard time accepting it. Leia, for instance, never quite comes to terms with Vader’s redemption. She doesn’t have the same closure and acceptance Luke does, given that the first time she sees Vader he tortures her and makes her watch the destruction of her homeworld, and then the next time she sees him, he carbon-freezes Han Solo and condemns her to a lifetime spent on Bespin.
The story of Vader’s redemption also never really goes beyond presumably Luke, Han, and Leia. Ben Solo – who I talk about below – never learns the truth of his grandfather beyond his connection to the Dark side. The galaxy as a whole is still so afraid of Vader that a genetic connection to him is enough to derail Leia’s entire political career (for more on this, read Claudia Gray’s fantastic novel Bloodline).
Perhaps part of the reason for this is Luke realizes, as the audience does, that one good action does not outweigh 20 years of terrible ones. This is not unrecognized by characters in Victory’s Price either, but fortunately, it is accompanied by the realization that the one good action could be the first of many more.
Once the war is over, New Republic Chancellor Mon Mothma and Rebellion leader Hera Syndulla meet to discuss how to proceed with the now-former Imperials, specifically Yrica Quell. They come to the consensus that throwing anyone who has ever had anything to do with the Empire into prison and throwing away the key would not only mean locking up half the galaxy’s population, but is also not the environment they should be fostering in a brand-new government. They come up with a series of measures and, yes, consequences for those who once served the Empire. And it is worth noting that not a single one of these consequences is execution for “war crimes”.
So what becomes of Quell? She is offered a pardon and the chance to start over. There are conditions she must meet, and though she will never be free of what she did, she is otherwise free to live her own life. She even finds a kind of happy-ever-after with Chass Na Chadic at the end of it all. She did the right thing, walked away with her life, and she got the girl. Absolutely love to see it.
Which seems like as good a time as any to talk about Ben Solo.
No, wait, come back.
The most popular talking point, at least from what I've seen, is that had Ben Solo survived, he would have been immediately locked up, tried for his “war crimes” (you can’t see it but I roll my eyes every time I type that), and then likely executed. Which…
His mother is Leia Organa and nepotism is a thing in the Galaxy Far, Far Away so, probably not?
But more to the point, way to completely lack any and all kind of imagination. A far more compelling narrative is to have the man once known as Kylo Ren have to live a long life faced with the consequences of his actions, and actively working every day to rectify the mistakes made.
And please don’t suggest exile. That’s just prison with a nicer view and fresher air.
But rather than offering this character, the son of two of our heroes, the chance to break the cycle of horrors perpetuated by Palpatine through his family, he simply…dies. After doing one good thing. It’s not so much rhyming poetry as it is Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V.
Why is this chance to live, to not only survive but to thrive in some small way (and yes, even the chance to find happiness through love and family, to “get the girl”) afforded to Yrica Quell but not to Ben Solo? Because it is unrealistic? One of Quell’s teammates is some kind of human-sized insect creature. Realism is hardly a factor in Star Wars of all things.
I would even make the case, if I absolutely had to, that Ben Solo is a better candidate for redemption than Yrica Quell. We know from the films, and from some of the books and comics surrounding them, that Ben Solo had the voice of Emperor Palpatine in his head from the beginning. From infancy. No wonder, really, that he snapped the way he did. His actions were driven, in part, by a Sith Lord so powerful he managed to cheat death and survive being blown up.
Quell, on the other hand, joined the Empire as so many did around then, because of the opportunities afforded to her. She could get away from home, live a better, more stable life for a while, learn to fly properly, and then defect to the Rebellion. Except…she doesn’t.
Not only does she stay with the Empire time and time again, she becomes so good, she is assigned to an elite TIE fighting division. She thrives in that environment. She only leaves the first time because her commander orders her to, immediately after she helps the Empire completely wipe out an entire civilization.
Just to be clear, I adore Quell’s story. I would not change a single thing about it. All I am trying to say is redemption is not a one-size-fits-all story. Death is not the only solution for a character who decides they want redemption. It’s the lazy solution.
At the end of the day, that’s all it was with Ben Solo. It’s an easier story to tell if you just kill him off. I have said before, and I will say it until the character makes a comeback in non-ghost form, that there is nothing poetic, beautiful or meaningful in a young man dying in order to “come home” to his family. It’s sick and it’s cynical.
There is, however, beauty to be found in an Imperial pilot being forgiven by the New Republic and allowed to carve out a life for herself. There is beauty in a story like that of Agent Kallus, from the series Star Wars Rebels, who is a high-ranking Imperial officer who has a change of heart and turns spy for the Rebellion (do not get me started on the wasted potential of Armitage Hux in The Rise of Skywalker while I’m here, we simply do not have the time).
Going forward, I hope that Star Wars draws more from the conclusion of the Alphabet Squadron trilogy than it does the conclusion of The Skywalker Saga. Yrica Quell’s story has been given a satisfying conclusion. To revisit her would only be to disturb her hard-earned peace. The opportunity to tell a story like that with Ben Solo has passed.
Even if (ideally, when) the character does return to the realm of the living, they cannot simply pick it up where they left off. But I would encourage whoever tells that particular story to keep Victory’s Price in mind. Keep the reactions of Finn and Poe upon learning Hux was a spy in mind. The characters of this world we love so much have a great capacity for forgiveness.
We should aspire to do the same.