We should probably talk about the Solo family.
Fair warning: this might get a little heavy.
One of my biggest gripes with the STAR WARS Expanded Universe of novels and comic books was how the brain trust neutered Han Solo. The smarmy, cocksure smuggler, willing to shoot his opponent from under a table, was replaced by a middle-aged Dad who shuffled around, sighing about how much he still needed to “learn about diplomacy,” trying to talk gamblers and criminals into joining the New Republic with all the subtlety of a Jehovah’s Witness offering you a copy of THE WATCHTOWER. Leia was similarly hobbled by her domestic ties to Solo: gone were the days where she’d grab a blaster out of a boy’s hand because “someone’s gotta save our skin.” Never a damsel in distress, or even what we’d traditionally consider a “girl,” Princess Leia became unconvincingly schizophrenic in the hands of later writers, vacillating between empowerment and sighing Oh, Han whenever he did something Han-like. In short, they became a boring, married couple in the EU, losing the spark that made their unexpected pairing in EMPIRE so dangerous and satisfying.
But why did the EU writers keep them together in the first place? It never felt genuine, or even earned. Sure, we see them with their arms around one another at the Ewok hoedown; but was there a single rational person who honestly believed the relationship would last longer than six months? What they had was mutual attraction completely in line with what the sexes look for in a hook-up: she was aloof and unobtainable; he was a Bad Boy who walked the line. Thrown into a series of desperate situations involving heightened emotional states and near-death experiences, it’s absolutely believable that they’d end up fucking in the Millennium Falcon game room. It’s also one hundred percent certain that once the running stopped, and the two had the chance to just get to know one another as normal, everyday people, they’d find they had nothing in common, nothing to talk about, and all the things that irked them when they first met would multiply tenfold.
Pretty soon they’d be fighting all the time, causing lots of New Republic drama (HER: “I’m not attending the Senate meeting if he’s there!” HIM: “Oh yeah? Well, a herd of wild Banthas couldn’t drag me within a thousand parsecs of anywhere you’re gonna be, sweetheart!”). The next thing you know, they’d stop having make-up sex, followed by her catching him drunk at some cantina with his blaster in an alien chick’s holster, followed by Han leaving the Capital in disgrace. Luke would probably still send the occasional correspondence (in secret), because he’s cool like that, but Chewie would stick by his buddy and go; and without Han there, Lando would probably start to think that living straight was for squares, and he’d take off, too. When all was said and done, Han and Leia would both go back to doing what they did best. I mean, let’s face it: Han was never about bringing down a tyrannical oppressor -- he was a guy smuggling drugs in a bread truck with a suped-up hot rod engine. And Leia? She was raised as royalty, and indoctrinated at an early age into the world of politics. She probably wasn’t into buffalo wings and Budwesier.
I guess what I’m saying is that the final shot of RETURN OF THE JEDI -- with our heroes all gathered close, beaming with happiness (and in the case of Lando, clapping off-beat) -- was the perfect farewell. The struggle that had brought them together was now over. Eventually, they’d all go their separate ways. It’s part of life. Chapters of our lives end, and we grow up. We get married, and have kids; or we don’t get married, and we don’t have kids. Our relatability changes along with our priorities, and people drift apart, or sever ties outright. Anyone giving serious thought to these people and their relationships knew that the context and status quo was now about to change irrevocably, and there was no way they were all going to buy a big house and settle down together to grow old and die. There wasn’t going to be an AFTERMASH.
The first thing an EU fan is going to point out is the obvious: if I’m saying that people and their relationships change over time, then why is it so implausible that Han Solo and Princess Leia would mellow out and settle into a reasonably happy marriage? And it’s a good question. I just turned forty-three this year, and I’m not the same person I was ten years ago. I’m not even the same person I was two years ago. I have a steady job; I make movies; I have a house and a little boy. I find myself evolving with each passing year. The more time I spend with my son, the less of an argumentative shithead I am. I’m learning a lot about putting the needs of others before my own. I’m constantly becoming a different Erik.
But make no mistake: I’m still Erik. People change, but they aren’t reprogrammed. I’m a warmer, softer, fuzzier person than I used to be, and I’ve let go of grudges and other pettiness, but it isn’t like my goals in life have changed. I still have a temper. I still nurse old and festering wounds. I still don’t feel I’ve lived up to my potential in life, and fear I never will. My likes and needs and comforts and routine have been augmented by marriage and fatherhood and professional responsibility, but they haven’t overwritten who I am at the core. The good shit gets Gooder and the Bad shit’s a work in progress.
So with that said, I’d be willing to bet that Han and Leia were doomed from the beginning, and any arguments that their union would have lasted are wrong. Feel free to disagree, and I’ll be a petty, selfish, argumentative prick, and ultimately hold a grudge against you for refuting my claims. See? Tendencies fade, but they never fully go away.
Now, let’s take it to the next step and introduce the single greatest way to utterly destroy an already tenuous relationship: a kid.
We all know at least one couple who’ve divorced or separated, stranding their child (or children) in that lonely gulf now residing between them. It can happen to the most compatible people. Far worse is that couple who get together and you’re saying to yourself, “Please don’t let them have kids; please don’t let them have kids,” because Straws and Camels and all that. Han and Leia fall into that latter category. All the above reasons I listed were bound to result in thrown dishes, screaming matches, and domestic disturbance calls at 3am; adding a child was just a bridge too far. Even two people who love one another deeply can feel their marriage strained when experiencing negative forces beyond their control -- illness, unemployment, mounting debt, etc. Introduce a child to the mix and the staggering divorce rate suddenly makes terrifying sense.
So here we are with Ben Solo. Who named him that? “Ben” is a name with obvious associations for Uncle Luke; but Leia never met Obi-Wan, and Han spent the brief time they were together rolling his eyes at “that old fossil.” In many ways, giving their son this particular name seems to suggest a certain superstitious urge to ward off unwanted fate: for if Anakin was the man who went bad, then Obi-Wan is his equal and opposite, and a revered father figure to Luke (whose real Dad was an abusive shithead). Both Obi-Wan and Vader were involved with the lives of the Skywalker twins for wildly opposing and yet complimentary reasons, each representing the Yin and Yang of the Force. Naming their son “Ben” was like Han and Leia tossing salt over their shoulders to blind a Dark Side Ghost.
For Ben, learning his family history, and experiencing his developing Force-related abilities, must have made the true meaning of his name take focus over time. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Ben must have felt apart from his parents, even during the good times. Leia didn’t understand the Force, and clearly never tried to wield it the way her brother did; Han was the type of guy who preferred Keepin’ It Real, and wasn’t exactly emotionally available. How likely is it that a confused adolescent, clearly different from his peers, would feel as though he were being viewed as a potential “problem” when given a name with transparent symbolism, and then sent off to be kept in line by his uncle? Ben, at an awkward and sensitive period in his life, must have felt unwanted, and perhaps feared. Mom and Dad were always fighting; was he to blame somehow? Did they regret being together and having him? If their relationship was a mistake, didn’t that mean he was, too?
And in this confused, teenage state of mind, who would Ben identify with: his war hero and now-legendary Uncle Luke…or the only person who could have understood his feelings of loneliness and isolation…?
His grandfather. Space Hitler in a Dr. Doom mask. If everyone you know is giving you sidelong looks because they’re afraid that’s who you’re gonna turn into, it makes you wonder what sidelong looks and distant, unavailable parents he might have had. After all, Vader was disenfranchised, too. He was different. He was misunderstood. And yet he rose to greatness, not in spite of his perceived weakness, but because he used the tumultuous emotions he was taught to suppress. He didn’t fear his power or try to control it, or the feelings – that powerful and profound anger and sadness -- warring inside him. How can you simply reject them? Aren’t they what makes us human? And if Ben was feeling these things that were “wrong,”, then who was to blame for him crying when his parents fought at night, or when Dad took off to go con someone else out of money and then show up unannounced on the doorstep a month or two later? Who was to blame for his loneliness when Mom put up the wall and pretended it didn’t bother her that Dad was gone again, and bottled her anger by throwing herself, as she always did, into her work -- building alliances and policies and drafting treaties when she couldn’t even keep her fucking home in order? Why didn’t they love him? What was wrong with him? Why was it his fault that he felt this way?
Who was to blame…?
And so Ben Solo, a disturbed young man with an unhealthy, fanboy fixation on a dead serial killer (who never let anyone hurt him the way Ben himself hurt), became a school shooter. He became Adam Lanza; Luke’s fledgling Jedi academy became Sandy Hook Elementary. He rejected everything the Jedi stood for because their central philosophies in essence rejected him. They rejected the legacy that dead-ended right here with his very existence, culminating in a betrayal from his own Uncle who briefly considered murdering the boy in his sleep. Ben didn’t have to steal a gun to do what he did; the gun had been put into his hands as a child. This was what ultimately drew him to the First Order: the ability to control others, to work out his emotions however he saw fit, and to utterly destroy everything his mother and father cared about, because they cared about it more than they cared about him. He took the two names that represented his heritage --S-KY-walker and So-LO -- and became Kylo Ren, a school shooter with a badge.
For some inexplicable reason, certain viewers found it funny when Kylo Ren removed his mask and revealed the awkward, troubled man-child beneath. They expected a “badass,” and what they got was a fourteen year-old in a man’s body, obsessively imitating someone whose disappointment in him would have far exceeded that of his parents; trying to emulate his grandfather’s calm and terrifying presence and failing, and throwing temper tantrums when he didn’t get his way. That was the point, People of Wal Mart. That was the point.
And that’s why, as the father of a son with autism -- a boy who needs his father’s patience, love, and guidance -- and also as the son of a man who wasn’t there when I needed his patience, love, and guidance, I cried when Han and Ben met on the bridge of Starkiller Base. I cried even before the inevitable happened, because there was no other outcome. I cried because we all thought that Han Solo would someday go out heroically in a blaze of final glory, and because no one dreamed he’d wind up a sad, old, pathetic failure, losing his life in one final, overdue attempt to be the parent he never was. I cried because it made more sense this way than the way I wanted it. Because it was honest. And because I understood why Ben Solo became the man he was. I didn’t condone it; at some point we all have to take accountability for our choices and actions. We have to accept responsibility for ourselves. That was the one lesson Han taught his son right there in their last moments, and Ben didn’t even realize it. In that, they failed one another, and themselves. So, yeah: I cried at the end of THE FORCE AWAKENS.
And because it seems like every week, there’s another Kylo Ren in the news.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)