Much ink has been spilled on the matter of The Force Awakens, and while I have strong feelings about most of the film, I don’t want to re-hash ideas covered elsewhere. So this piece about violence in Star Wars is especially about Rey, and in particular Rey towards the end of the film. As such…
SPOILER WARNING: No judgement if you haven’t seen the movie, but if you keep reading below this cut, you will be spoiled on some stuff. So, you know, click away if you desire…
Throughout the film, we come to know Rey as a young woman with a very developed, uncompromising morality. When she’s offered what we can assume to be four months’ pay for BB-8, we can see the moment where she is tempted, but having established that she considers BB-8 a person (in how she rescues the droid), we see her ultimately sacrifice tremendous personal comfort in order to continue valuing BB-8’s sanctity as a person – even knowing that no one around her would judge her harshly for selling the droid out.
The final scene she shares with Kylo Ren – their lightsaber duel – is one of the movie’s best designed scenes. The pacing slips up only once. The choreography gives us exactly what the scene calls for: a wounded, pissed-off Kylo Ren letting his pain and rage go wild versus an accomplished staff fighter trying to come to grips with an unfamiliar weapon until she finds the Force and can legitimately turn the tide. The scene even fleshes out Finn a little bit by using Rey’s jeopardy to give us the moment where he stands up to protect his stricken friend. Keep in mind, every hand-to-hand fight he’s been in thus far has not gone his way. He’s absolutely loyal, though, and will wield the lightsaber even knowing the odds. But it’s the conclusion of the scene that really steals the show here, for me.
After Kylo Ren makes his critical error and gives Rey the inspiration to let the Force guide her in this fight, she accesses – I presume – the same precognitive abilities that she’s displayed throughout the film to this point. This is, canonically, a huge part of Jedi lightsaber techniques: seeing a split-second into the future to read an opponent’s moves. Up to this point, the accomplished staff-fighter was only barely able to muster a fighting retreat against a badly wounded Kylo Ren. After she levels the playing field and has access to the Force, now the fight turns (slowly) to her terms. She’s still using a weapon she hasn’t had much practice with. She’s still relying on staff techniques to get the job done, but we know she’s a very skilled fighter, so it’s not terribly a surprise that she’s able to sloooowly push Kylo Ren back.
The end of the duel, however, is not a dramatic clash of swords and brilliant killing stroke from Rey. They come to grappling, locked with each duelist’s empty hand upon the other’s sword-hand. As they push against each other, Rey gradually overpowers the wounded Kylo Ren. Not only is her gradual victory visible in the posture of the two fighters, but symbolically as well: she grounds his lightsaber to the sizzling of the snow off screen. Driving a sword into the earth is an ultimate symbol of having disarmed someone. This is properly read as symbolic, because of course lightsabers slice through damned near anything like butter, so unlike a real sword Kylo could readily swing that thing right back in a heartbeat – but the symbol is still potent.
This duel is effectively ended at this point and we await Kylo Ren’s fate. Will this be the end of Kylo Ren? Maybe Rey won’t kill him, but merely wound him greatly, that would certainly be okay here.
The real magic, however, is in this penultimate moment of the duel: when Rey, having established a position of leverage, wrenches her sword arm free of Kylo Ren’s grip and swings cross body to strike his lightsaber. That swing is very awkward; she takes it around Kylo Ren’s face. That swing could very easily have simply gone through his neck – one stroke and the duel ends.
Instead she goes out of her way to be merciful and strike at his weapon – presuming that he is no longer a threat without it.
Kylo Ren has been killing everyone and everything that gets in his way. He’s not just evil – he’s portrayed as angry to senselessness. He has just (we’re meant to think, and Rey believes) killed Finn. He’s killed Han Solo. He tried to kill Rey, and then tried to corrupt her, after countless other horrible things he’s tried to do to her at various encounters. By every single clause in the Action Movie Logic Moral Code, Rey would be absolutely, unquestionably justified in killing Kylo Ren. She demonstrates abundant control at this moment in the fight, more than enough to have done just that.
She chooses not to. In my post about The Continuum of Force, I quote Kung Fu’s Master Kan: “Check, rather than hurt. Hurt, rather than maim. Maim, rather than kill.” She doesn’t even Maim, and let’s be clear, Maim – especially chopping hands off – is a Star Wars tradition.
There’s been a couple of moments in this duel where she’s chosen to hurt, scoring minor stab wounds on his shoulder and arm. But this? This is a full de-escalation from what should otherwise be Kill, all the way down to Check. From a Hollywood that has demonstrated that movement on the Continuum of Force is a one-way-trip time and time again, this is a most welcome and refreshing surprise.
It is, perhaps, all too easy to dismiss this as ‘for Story Reasons(tm) she can’t kill him, they need Kylo for the future films.’ I quarrel with this position. There’s a million ways to have a conflict continue at a deadly pace and be interrupted suddenly. Perhaps a chasm could open up between them, and their duel would have to wait until they met again – Kylo fully rested and healed, Rey with more training and experience. Perhaps you see what I did just there.
Rey is heroic because of her principles, not her power. In this final moment of triumph over Kylo Ren, we see her tested one more time, as she stands over her fallen foe. In the heat of the moment, she would be forgiven for killing him – but now that he’s helpless on the snow before her, the camera lingers. In this moment, she can still choose to kill him. That is when the chasm opens and the conflict is put on hold. Rey will be tested by the Dark Side. It’s a rite of passage for all future Jedi, and she is assuredly bound for Jedi greatness. But what makes her worthy of that isn’t the seduction she will ultimately resist. It’s the way she resists it here, when failure to do so would be easily overlooked and forgiven.
The beauty of the Continuum of Force is the way it can pile truckloads of meaning into very small moments in a film. Kylo Ren’s philosophy and values are expressed in the way he flies off the handle and destroys everything around him in his rages. Here, a single act of mercy in the middle of an otherwise brutal, grit-in-the-eye fight is a more powerful statement than any dialogue. This display of self control, presence of mind, and mercy is Rey’s, “I volunteer as Tribute,” moment: a perfect counterpoint to Kylo’s total lack of control and mercy. I take a lot of issues with The Force Awakens, but for this and a handful of other superbly executed scenes, I forgive the film all of its minor transgressions.