Six Damn Fine Degrees #58: Redemption song

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I used to be a massive sucker for redemption stories, in films, books, games, anything that tells a story. Darth Vader? Severus Snape? Buffy‘s Spike? Or, to choose a somewhat more seasonal example, Ebenezer Scrooge? Oh, yes, please, give me more of that! Conflicted villains that, at the last moment, find the goodness in their hearts were very much my thing.

I think my enjoyment of more morally ambiguous characters and stories originated with this. Even when I was young, I hated it when Disney villains or Bond bad guys basically just had that one characteristic, being evil, and that this justified the ending where they would die in spectacular and/or gruesome ways. Hey, they’re evil, so we can cackle evilly at their demise, right? With morally ambiguous characters, this was less easy, because they could go either way. Sometimes I’d even clutch to a horrible character’s self-awareness as a sign that a redemption story could be possible for them – doubly so if they were the protagonists, because why would we want to follow a character for two hours when they start out bad and end up bad and there’s never the possibility of anything else?

Obviously, like so many people of my age, I grew up with Star Wars, and there probably isn’t a single other fictional universe that loves its redemption arcs as much as this one does. Is this where I was conditioned to like stories that redeemed their villains? Or is it one of those ways in which Christianity has suffused western cultures? Even before Darth Vader, I’m pretty sure that I was aware of the story of the prodigal son, or the lost sheep, with its “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?”

It’s a pretty story, to be sure – but it’s one that in recent years I’ve come to see as quite insidious. And again, it may be Star Wars that highlighted this for me. In the Original Trilogy we had Darth Vader, a ruthless killer, but also a conflicted father. Obviously we wanted him to be redeemable! When Luke beseeches him to search his feelings and let go of his hate, and Vader replies that it is too late for him (calling Luke his son! See? There is good in him!), we, like Luke, want this to be proven wrong by the end of the film, and we get what we want. When the Emperor frazzles young Skywalker with a few thousand volts, his dad does the right thing and turns against evil Palpy! Hooray! One redemption achieved, even if the price for it these days is that Vader turns into a glowy Hayden Christensen.

And that’s what the story becomes about. Can this villain become good again? Sure, there’s usually a price to pay, often the supreme price: the former villain sacrifices his (or her? this seems to be a story that’s more often reserved for male characters) life. But we’re talking about characters who, more often than not, are responsible for many, many deaths. Planets exploded, species eradicated, innocents slaughtered. And one life in return is the supreme price? Again, this strikes me as a very Christian idea – and one that takes all the attention away from the ones who suffered under the villain.

In the Sequel Trilogy, the Darth Vader-alike is Kylo Ren AKA Ben Solo, the son of Princess Leia Organa and Han Solo. Like his grandfather, he’s a Jedi gone bad, and in the first scene in which we see him, he leads Stormtroopers in the slaughter of defenseless villagers. He, like the First Order, bears more than a little similarity to the alt-right and the recent kind of neo-Nazis. Yet, differently from General Hux, another kiddy fascist, he’s also conflicted, tormented, and to some audience members quite dreamy with his dark good looks. Like Vader, he is given the chance to return to the Light Side, and like Vader, he kills his master – but only to declare himself leader afterwards. You’d think that this would put an end to this whole redemption thing – but no, The Rise of Skywalker has to bring him back from the edge, it has to go reverse at full throttle, because we need to redeem our bad boy, don’t we?

In 2021, after everything that’s happened over the last few years, I have to say: I’m tired of redemption stories, especially ones where redeeming the one sheep that’s gone evil takes precedence over the 99 sheep he’s hurt. I’ve had it with stories that decide to put their focus there, and that make redemption look like an easy, one-time thing. Especially if the bad boys that get their own redemption arcs, more often than not, are white, male, entitled. Yes, there are exceptions, but by and large it’s the Kylo Rens that get the spotlight and the redemption. In 2021, I think our focus should be on those slaughtered villagers, on the people who were blown up on that planet. Because the Kylo Rens already get way more than a fair deal. They don’t even need to be redeemed, it seems. They get acquitted, they get lionised by reactionaries and talk on Fox News.

So, next time, I don’t want these stories to focus on the poor, poor bad boy who needs to recognise the error of his ways. Sure, if you like, show him what he has done, make him understand. And then take that camera and point it in a different direction. Perhaps at the people who were at the receiving end of the villain’s actions. But give certain fairy tales a rest. If the prodigal son has made his choice, perhaps don’t decide that the other child doesn’t need the attention of a parent. Perhaps bad boys in need of redemption shouldn’t always get all the attention.

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