“I know what I have to do. But I need your help,” says Kylo Ren at the climax of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s a terribly tense moment, followed by the most shocking act of the entire film. What, exactly, is it that Kylo Ren needs to do? And what help does he need?
You probably have an answer to this — there is an obvious one, where Ren is tempted by the Light, but returns to the Dark Side in a fit of violence. But that’s not a necessary interpretation. The Force Awakens deploys ambiguity constantly and expertly throughout its run-time, providing enough information to construct answers with, but never so much as to fully commit. The lack of clarity about “I know what I have to do” opens up several possibilities, particularly this one: Kylo Ren striking Han down was an act of redemption, not damnation.
So how does that work? It goes like this: once Han makes his choice — for redemption as a father and husband — and he calls out Ben’s name and steps onto that bridge, there aren’t many ways it can go. Han is surrounded by stormtroopers, and he knows it, on a bridge with no cover. He’s forcing a final confrontation with his son. To put it in video game terms, Kylo Ren is forced into a moral choice, of Light Side or Dark Side. But which is which?
At a glance, the violent choice — killing Han — seems to be clearly the Dark Side choice. And going simply by this movie, it is. But this isn’t just The Force Awakens, it’s a film deliberately built on referencing the past. In this case, Han’s death in the new Death Star, with the heroes watching, is deliberately staged to mirror Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death in the original Star Wars.
Luke’s reaction here is almost identical to Rey’s: stepping forward, screaming “No!” But it’s also worth bearing in mind Obi-Wan’s famous line to Darth Vader, knowing he would lose the duel: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
That “power” of Obi-Wan’s is, essentially, determination to be both strong and good for the next generation of Jedi in Luke Skywalker. Thus, it’s easy to read this The Force Awakens scene in the same way: Han Solo earns his redemption by stepping onto the bridge, knowing that being “struck down” will motivate the next generation of Jedi watching the scene unfold from above. Kylo Ren earns his redemption, at least partially, by allowing himself to be seen as the demon, motivating Rey to become a Light Side Jedi.
The key point, to me, is Kylo Ren handing Han his lightsaber. The lightsaber is traditionally shown as the anti-blaster weapon, with a Force user able to deflect any number of laser shots. Thus, Ren handing his primary form of defense over to Han doesn’t feel like a valid choice, but having Han hold his hand and lightsaber, as Han sacrifices himself for the greater good, does. “I know what I have to do” in this case means “I need to empower Rey” and “But I need your help” means “you have to hold my hand as I kill you.”
For this to work, though, both Han Solo and Kylo Ren need to know that Rey is watching and know that this act will affect her positively. This is less implausible than it seems — in the latter case, Kylo Ren had clearly demonstrated sensitivity to Rey’s Force awakening, while Han was present for Obi-Wan’s death and Luke’s own awakening.
But for both Han and Ren to know that Rey is watching requires that both men have a connection to the girl. Here’s where that ambiguity that The Force Awakens deploys so often comes in handy: there’s lots that indicates that both men do have a strong connection to Rey. The entire middle section of the movie is dedicated to Han acknowledging Rey as family (either as surrogate or as a long-lost daughter/niece), while Ren’s seemingly knowing “a girl?” quote earlier in the film indicates an earlier connection — and even if that was a throwaway, he can sense her with the Force.
And J.J. Abrams uses “the Force” as a kind of plot smoother. Every unanswered question or supposed plot hole or suddenly hyper-competent character can be understood better by the Force working through them. Abrams specifically commented on this before the film came out: “For me, when I heard Obi-Wan say that the Force surrounds us and binds us all together, there was no judgement about who you were. This was something that we could all access. Being strong with the force didn’t mean something scientific, it meant something spiritual. It meant someone who could believe, someone who could reach down to the depths of your feelings and follow this primal energy that was flowing through all of us.” Hence Han — who’s been shown to be a Force believer — can intuit the right thing to do, as Obi-Wan did.
Finally, Kylo Ren is irredeemable. He cannot live, he cannot walk away, he can’t go home to his mother. Ben Solo-Organa is irredeemable as a living person. He’s irredeemable according to the standards of The Force Awakens, as he opens the film by ordering a massacre of innocent villagers. He’s irredeemable according to the standards of Star Wars, as his crime of murdering the Jedi apprentices under Luke Skywalker perfectly mirrors the greatest crime of Anakin Skywalker, murdering the younglings of the Jedi Temple. But like the person Anakin became — Darth Vader — he may be useful as a symbol of evil to motivate the next Skywalker, and be able to earn redemption by sacrificing himself, just as Vader did.
So returning to the original question: What does Kylo Ren “need to do”? What does he need help with? What is the best possible outcome once Han steps out onto that bridge?
In one option, Han gets through to Ben, who hands his father his cruel dark side lightsaber to be thrown away. They walk away from the stormtrooper ambush, and Ben… well, what can Ben possibly do to redeem his crimes as Kylo Ren?
Alternately: Han recognizes that his redemption as a father involves him sacrificing his life, and Kylo Ren recognizes that he has no redemption. He can, however, sacrifice his future, and play at being a Vader-like figure in order to create the next Luke Skywalker-like hero in Rey. “What he needs to do” is strike his father as Obi-Wan was struck down, and the help he needs is his father allowing it to happen, holding his hand on the lightsaber. The end result: Rey picks up her own lightsaber, which she’d rejected earlier.
What makes The Force Awakens so successful is that its ambiguity means that neither of these interpretations are necessary. Whichever one makes the most thematic sense works. And most of its big questions work like this. What is Rey’s origin? There isn’t a necessary answer, so viewers can project what makes the most sense to them. Who is Snoke? How did things go so wrong in 30 years? Are Finn and Poe in love or instant best buds? In doing this, The Force Awakens manages to stick in your head for days after viewing.