An Unlikely Anti-Hero and Unfamiliar Anti-Villain
What is a Narrative Foil? Well, I can tell you it doesn’t mean to wrap your character in aluminum foil and then microwave them. You could try, but they’d probably end up looking worse than Anakin post Mustafar duel. Narrative foils are characters that are completely different from each other in every way, yet their differences somehow also make them similar as well. Sometimes this trope is used to show how two different heroes could be, like naive, wide eyed Luke with cynical, rogue Han Solo. Other times it can be used to show a contrasting mirror for a hero and a villain, like how Luke and Vader were so different yet the same. Many have spoken about how Rey and Kylo are foils, and objectively speaking, they are. But what if I told you there was another foil dynamic in the sequel trilogy?
Written by themandalorianwolf
Finn and Kylo Ren, formerly known as FN-2187 and Ben Solo, are not what most would call a traditional hero or villain, and have been narrative foils since before their film journeys even started in The Force Awakens. FN-2187 never knew his family and was stolen from them at a young age, all sense of self identity taken from him, denied the basic care and love that any child would need, bred to be a faceless killer. Even with all that, Finn once wanted to truly be a good soldier for the First Order, but he would always show signs of compassion that made him an outcast to the other troopers and his superiors. Meanwhile across the galaxy, Ben Solo was born into a loving, caring family. He was given everything he needed in life, yet like his grandfather before him, there was a darkness looming over him that would swallow him up one day, and that darkness would show inside of him during his training with Luke. We don’t know for sure yet why or how FN-2187 had been able to grow up with such a strong moral compass, and neither do we know when or how Snoke had managed to turn Ben Solo’s heart, yet by the time of The Force Awakens, Ben had turned to the dark side and became Kylo Ren and FN-2187 had given into his moral compass, his light, and deflected from the First Order.
Finn and Kylo come from complete different backgrounds and have entirely contrasting upbringings, yet both of them defied the expectations placed on them and became the opposite of what society expected of them. For Finn, this gave him a sense of self worth, a home, friends, and love. For Kylo, it cost him everything that his life could have been, if only he made a better choice…and speaking of choices.
You’re gonna carry that Weight
What makes the foil dynamic of Finn and Kylo so compelling is that these are two characters that embody the concept of cause and effect with their choices. Most main characters in Star Wars, the hero and villain alike, are pushed by the story, a call to adventure, an attack, a rescue mission. They are reactive players in the story, and that’s where things differ with Finn and Kylo. Finn and Kylo aren’t pushed in a direction by the story, they push the story into a direction and for better or worse, their character arcs are shaped by their choices and actions.
Regardless of his harsh upbringing and his own cynical outlook on life, Finn still chooses to not kill defenseless innocents, he chooses to still help others at the cost of his own self preservation.The choices Finn makes are not easy ones, they go against everything he was raised to believe in and because of this he suffers externally and internally with shame, self doubt, and at times, actual physical punishment. His moral compass drove him to defect from the First Order and yet the films still show that he doesn’t view himself as hero, in fact, he’s still not sure if he wants to fight by the events of TLJ. Even after cutting ties with the First Order, the shadow of their organization still looms over Finn’s. It didn’t matter if Finn refused to fire on those villagers back on Jakku, he was still ashamed about being a stormtrooper, even if it was out of his control. It didn’t matter that Finn had infiltrated the First Order, saved Rey, helped destroy Starkiller base, and fought Kylo Ren, one of the strongest dark side users alive at the time.
Even with all that, Finn never viewed himself as a hero. Given what we’ve seen from him so far in the films and the novel Before the Awakening describing Finn as an exemplary Stormtrooper that had the potential to rise through the ranks, it’s clear that the fear that drove Finn to abandon the First Order wasn’t the fear of his own life, but the fear of what he would become if he continued down the path his masters laid out for him. A life where he would either end up a cold monster like Captain Phasma or a nameless soldier who’s sole value would be in the armor he was expected to die in on some soon to be forgotten battlefield, like his squadmate Slip, that died in his arms.
Finn has never known true happiness, he has no memories of anyone even loving him before Rey, yet even when he had nothing left to fight for, Finn still fought because he felt it was the right thing to do. It’s never easy to do the right thing, I don’t think there is a clear answer as to what the right thing even is, but regardless, Finn always does his best, even if it hurts. There’s an underdog feelings when watching him struggle to survive and no matter how many times Finn falls, he always gets back up to face the next challenge. It’s an endearing quality that makes it easier to empathize with the character and his strifes. Finn’s perseverance through constant adversity and pain is what truly makes him a compelling character and co-protagonist to follow. We know that Finn will be the one to have to climb a mountain while others get to fly over it, yet its that struggle that makes it that much more satisfying when he finally reaches the top.
Fundamentally, Kylo’s life was much different than Finn’s. Where Finn had no family, Kylo had a loving family and close extended family. While Finn had nothing, not even a name, Kylo seemingly had everything a youth could need. Kylo, or rather Ben solo, was never a nobody. From birth he carried the legacy of the Skywalkers, Solos, and Organas. Arguably, Ben could have had any life he wanted to have if he pursued it. Finn, or rather when he was FN-2187, had nothing. No home, no family, and at best his highest honor would be to fight for a cause he didn’t believe in and would throw him away if needed. Finn was able to resist the the teachings that the First Order had spent a lifetime trying to drill into him, Kylo had been seduced by dark side and fell from the light. Kylo made his own choice to walk away from everything and everyone one he knew and cared for, and that choice haunts throughout the trilogy. There is a war going on internally within Kylo between the person he was raised to be, the heroic Jedi that is the son of two war heroes, and dark warrior he wants to be, the heir apparent to Darth Vader. These conflicting ideals drive Kylo to the edge of madness where he teeters back and forth between homicidal maniac and a broken man just looking for an end to all of this darkness. Kylo does not like who he is, in a way, you could even could even say he’s ashamed of himself, yet as we see how much evil that character has done, it’s not hard to understand why many feel that it’s just too late for Kylo to come back… something the character himself even believes.
The real tragedy of Kylo isn’t even that he is an overly sympathetic character. If anything, the horrors he’s committed greatly outweigh the almost non-existent redeeming qualities of the character. Almost all redeeming qualities anyone could list are less about who Kylo is as a person and more about who his family is, and maybe that’s the saddest part. Kylo himself knows that what he’s doing is wrong, and regardless of Snoke’s influence on him, Kylo has full control over his actions and is aware of what is right and wrong, and that’s what kills him. He is fully aware that the path he’s going down will cause nothing but pain for him, yet he stays the course anyway. Why? Because like how Finn strives to do what he must no matter the cost, so does Kylo. Just as there is a heroic resolve to never give in no matter how much pain and suffering you have to endure, there is a villainous resolve to do the same. It’s one of the hardest questions a person can ask themselves, if you give up after losing and sacrificing so much, would everything have been for nothing? The tragedy of Kylo Ren is his convictions to his wrong choices.
What is a Legacy?
Kylo is the son of the last Princess of Alderaan Leia Organa and the infamous smuggler and war hero Han Solo, the nephew of Grand Master Luke Skywalker, and grandson of the chosen one Anakin Skywalker, who would go on to become the war mongering Darth Vader. Kylo’s family had humble roots of being slaves, farmers, and criminals, but Kylo has never had to live with that perception of his family. For him, he was always a descendant of legends. Finn grew up not even knowing who his family was or where he came from and by the time of TFA he had even admitted that he would likely never know. Kylo believes that his destiny is to finish what Vader started and even demands that the dark lord’s old lightsaber belongs to him. Finn doesn’t even believe he has any destiny and when given Anakin’s lightsaber by Maz, he questions if he is even worthy of using it. Kylo is living in the shadows of Vader, trying to live up to a legacy he doesn’t truly understand, while Finn is carving out his place in history with no clear answer as to where he even belongs. These conflicting themes are amplified because of how closely the narrative relies on them for the growth and development of Finn and Kylo’s characters, which brings them to the point of no return. What adds extra weight to the choices that Finn and Kylo make, is that they never escape these choices without lasting effects, whether it be physical or emotional.
Becoming the Mask
Even after becoming traitors to the orders that they were raised in, even after fighting and losing for their respective new factions, Finn and Kylo had never fully committed to their new cause. Internally, Kylo still saw himself as a fallen Jedi, Finn still thought of himself as the wayward stormtrooper, yet during the events of The Last Jedi, both men are forced to finally stop running and confront their doubts and conflicts.
These inner self doubts that Finn and Kylo have been suffering from are metaphorically and physically embodied by DJ and Rey respectively, who both offer an alternative to the inner philosophies and perspectives that both men have been working under since the trilogy started. For Finn, DJ challenges his views on morality, claiming that in war there are no objectively wrong or right sides, but just an endless loop of factions blowing the other up till one is left standing. For Kylo, Rey challenges his conviction, she offers him a 2nd last chance to redeem himself and turn away from this poisonous mission he’s committed himself to. DJ and Rey represent something that both Finn and Kylo could have been in another life. Finn could have been like DJ, and have his experiences shape him into an immoral person who doesn’t care about loyalty or morality, who lives for himself and no one else. Kylo on the other hand could have been like Rey and resisted the temptation of the dark side and stood with his family, instead of tearing them apart, he could have been a hero. In the end, both Finn and Kylo refuse to conform to DJ and Rey’s respective ways of thinking and if anything, this final challenge to their ideals and convictions is what truly makes them finally embrace their roles in their respective factions and fully commit to their causes. Where once they merely wore the mask of what they wanted to be or pretended to be, Kylo and Finn by the end of TLJ let go of their doubts, reaffirm their life choices, and pledge themselves fully to their respective mission of fighting the other faction, and fighting each other.
So where does this foil narrative go moving forward into the final movie of the sequel trilogy and the last act of the Skywalker saga? In TFA the dynamic was more tied to the surface level, that anyone would be able to see, while TLJ left that same dynamic in the message and themes that both characters represented throughout TFA, but didn’t have the two characters interact physically on screen. As Finn and Kylo make their ways into IX, I feel like it would be interesting for these two characters to have one final confrontation, whether it be with lightsabers or words, to bring the foil dynamic full circle from where it all began. They were raised in completely different worlds, yet somehow, by fate or the force, they ended up on the same side and then on opposite sides of the battlefield. If there is one thing I look forward to going into IX, it’s how Director JJ Abrams and script co-writer Chris Terrio will handle this ongoing dynamic while juggling Rey’s own foil dynamic with Kylo and her relationship with Finn. A protagonist is only as strong as their antagonist, and vice versa. Lucky for Kylo, he doesn’t have just one protagonist to go against though in IX, he’s got two, and Rey and Finn have their work cut out for them.
A Thank you to John Boyega and Adam Driver
It goes without saying that part of the reason people enjoy the characters of Finn and Kylo Ren is because of the amazing performances given by John Boyega and Adam Driver. I have nothing but respect for the talents of these two men, as well as the entire cast of the Sequel Trilogy, and I wish them nothing but the best in their future careers and other projects they work on. Thank you John Boyega and Adam Driver for giving these films everything you’ve got and more.