If you’re standing at the doors of your parents’ church or engaging in a conversation on politics at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner, and if you’re wondering what your place is in all of this; if you’re wondering why the adults keep telling you what you need to do to be like them and then castigating you for your failure to live up to their ideals; if you’re feeling a bit blamed for receiving too many trophies by the very people who gave you those trophies—you should watch The Last Jedi.
The crucial moment comes shortly after Snoke tells Kylo Ren, “You’re no Vader. You’re just a child in a mask.” The erstwhile Ben Solo throws one of his legendary fits, this time destroying his mask and leaving it on the floor. That broken mask turned out to be a crucial moment. At this point, Kylo's conflict shifts from an archaic good-versus-evil, to something far more relevant and real.
Kylo's journey is no longer about rebelling against his parents or his first mentor. The mask represented that rebellion. That choice to leave the light side for the dark side. The mask was Kylo's attempt to please his new master by becoming the next Darth Vader. But even in this, he must fail. His master’s disappointment in him is not because of Kylo’s lack of evilness. It’s because he will always fail to be Darth Vader. And how could he not? Ben Solo was a boy raised in privilege, told he was special, and then thrown down by the generation before him for being what he was made to be.
Though they were both trained by older Jedi who feared their darkness, Vader and Kylo Ren are very different people from very different worlds. Anakin Skywalker was brought up in an age of religion. He was raised by Jedi. He knew his place in the system of things. He knew he had two sides to choose from, and he accepted that.
By the time Ben Solo was being raised, the feats of the Rebellion and the Jedi had become the stuff of legends. The failure of the Jedi, the corruption of the politicians—the repeated cycle of factions fighting has resulted in a world that can no longer be defined by right and wrong. The split between two sides looks less like a dividing line and more like a frayed edge. Ben Solo lives in the moral relativity of that frayed edge.
Both Luke Skywalker and Snoke make the mistake of assuming Ben Solo shares their values in terms of the sacredness and hierarchy of Force-based religions. They fail to take into consideration the world in which he was raised. When Kylo Ren smashes his mask, he is changing his course. This is no longer solely about his hatred for his parents and Luke. It’s about his hatred for the past system of things, and how the expectations of that system are the root cause of his failure. What else can he do but kill it and begin anew?
The struggle of the Millennial generation is the same. We have the past held up before us to emulate. We should go to work, take pride in our jobs, collect our paychecks. We should buy a house we can’t really afford, marry a mate by a certain age, and produce two children. We should be proud to be an American. We should put our faith in God, but not too much, because we should also work hard and seek status among our peers and coworkers. And when we fail to do that, it’s simply because we were given too many trophies as a child. We're lazy. We don’t have any work ethic. We shirk responsibility. We're just a children in masks. What can we do when we are being asked to succeed in a system we were never equipped to function in?
Luke Skywalker is wise, and in his solitude, he has come to understand a truth that is relevant to Millennials right now. It’s in one of his lessons to Rey. He tells her it is vanity to think that with the death of the Jedi goes the life of The Force. The Force was there before the Jedi. It will be there after. It exists and balances itself without the help of ancient religions. But this doesn’t go far enough. By this philosophy, the Jedi were superfluous. Luke goes on to say that the Jedi have been actively destructive. Their failed attempts to undo the dark side have resulted in war and destruction. Holy wars. Acts of terrorism.
For the Millennial generation, this translates to the dichotomous belief systems of prior generations. Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Are you a Catholic or a Protestant? Are you male or female? Do you prefer Coke or Pepsi?
Kylo Ren has been rejecting the Jedi since Luke almost betrayed him, but now he recognizes that a mere shift in religious denomination isn’t enough. Switching sides won’t cut it. The problem isn’t one or the other. The problem is, he can’t succeed in the system as it exists. His relationship with the Force must become something different. He doesn’t need Luke. He doesn’t need Snoke. Not only that, they are standing in the way of the success he wants.
If you were raised in the nineties, chances are, you were told you were special. Chances are, your self-esteem was top priority to your parents and teachers. As a result, you probably grew up believing that you were enough. That your hopes and dreams were achievable and that you had the specialness to achieve them. You were even marketed to. Corporations splattered the media with ads telling you that you can have things your way, and that you deserve it.
So you grew up. You put on the mask of adulthood, you stepped into the church or the workplace or the political arena built by the generations before you. And you refused to accept one or the other. You asked, “Why can’t I have both or neither?” Pew Research suggests that you might prefer spirituality sans the religion. Perhaps you choose to take pieces of several different religions and pursue your own spiritual path because you recognize that The Force that holds us all together does exist beyond the walls of churches. Maybe you want to vote third party or not at all. You decided to question your gender identity. You prefer neither Coke nor Pepsi, but the homemade soda from the restaurant downtown that crafts its food from locally sourced ingredients.
And now, those very people who gave you the sense of power you needed to forge your own, individual path have started shaking their heads at you. Blaming you for failing to achieve their version of adulthood. Not understanding why you don’t want to earn a two-story ranch house, start a family, go to church, and retire with a company you worked at for 30 years. Why wouldn’t you want that? What’s wrong with you? You’re just a child in a mask.
Not only are many of the past religious, political, and economic systems irrelevant to us, but they’re standing in the way of our success. If we forget about the part where he murders a bunch of innocent people, Kylo Ren could be us. His advice to Rey might be the wisest words in the movie: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.” Yoda himself agrees when he burns down the tree and tells Luke, “We are what they grow beyond.”
The challenge of Kylo Ren’s character, now, is to forge a unique path that transcends the system his forefathers built. It would be hubris, and perhaps a fatal flaw of Kylo Ren’s, to not recognize that he does stand on the shoulders of the Skywalkers and their peers. But he must also be careful not to simply rebuild a different version of the same system. The question becomes, what does Kylo Ren want? What is the fundamental need underlying his ambition? Is it parental approval? A sense of belonging? Are Millennials simply a generation of people with mommy and daddy issues?
A Gallup poll indicates that Millennials want things that can’t be monetized. We aren’t loyal to our jobs or brands. We can’t be bought with a paycheck. And we can’t be expected to accept "status quo" as a legitimate reason for perpetuating failing systems. What we want is a sense of purpose. We want to be valued, to feel we are contributing to something greater than ourselves. We want to be a part of something important, and we want to be important in and of ourselves. These are fundamental needs, but the problem is, they can’t be fulfilled in the systems laid out before us. There is no poll that will indicate, en masse, what brand or what industry or what political party or religion Millennials want to seek purpose within. Because it’s not about systems, now. It’s about something higher up on the pyramid than that. Maybe it’s about finding truth in the lie we were told all our lives: you’re special.
Regardless of why Millennials want what we want, the fact is, when we try to get it by playing by the rules, we continue to fail. We have a choice. We can decide that we aren’t special, fall in line like good little Jedi apprentices, or we can turn our backs on the system. It’s clear at the end of the movie that Kylo Ren has decided on the latter.
But what will Kylo Ren do with the remains of the First Order army and its bases, machines, and bureaucracy? What will Rey do with the fragments of a Resistance that is fighting for an irrelevant system? What will they build instead?
There are so many questions that we need to be asking of ourselves, about the future we want to build, and how we are going to come together as a generation and build it. About what contexts we want to operate in in order to capitalize on our unique qualities and provide us with the best chance for success. But a good place to start would be to recognize that some old things need to die, and that’s okay. We won’t get any thanks from our masters, but to paraphrase Yoda, they are what we grow beyond, not what we were meant to become.
As for the future, I’ll wait for episode IX. Star Wars, don’t fail us now. Help us, J.J. Abram’s…you’re our only hope.