In The Last Jedi, Rey asks if Luke created Kylo Ren. But Ben Solo’s fall from grace is not so easily defined and certainly not so simple as having one catalyst alone. Of course, Luke’s brief failure as a mentor contributed significantly to Ben turning to the dark side, but it merely lit the touch paper. The fuel had long been laid, both by his parents, and through the toxic and abusive presence of Snoke.
The Sword of Damocles hovered over the head of a young Ben Solo before he was out of diapers, dooming the boy to a destiny of conflicted emotions, anger, ego and a hunger for power. Had his parents been there for him in the way he needed, it might have helped counteract the effect of everything else, but even that might not have been enough to undo the effect of Snoke’s influence. The demands of the New Republic ensured Leia was only ever half present as a mother, while Han’s wild nature meant he never had it in him to be a stay-at-home dad. It was inevitable that Ben would exbibit a strong and innate command of the Force, and so both Han and Leia were likely grateful to leave their son in Luke’s care. Leia especially, as she was attuned to the Force and able to sense Snoke’s dark designs on her son. Luke was supposed to train Ben as a Jedi, keep him in the light. Well, we all know how that turned out.
In confessing to Rey, Luke says “I saw darkness. I sensed it building in him. I’d seen it in moments during his training. But then I looked inside, and it was beyond what I ever imagined”. One criticism of The Phantom Menace was that showing a nine-year-old Anakin demystified the character, but showing an evil character growing ever darker doesn’t align with the mythic aspect of Star Wars. As darkness is redeemed and sees the light, so too do good characters fall into darkness.
Ben was never any more evil than Anakin and as we’ve seen in the canon novels, he was just a normal kid. Gifted with special abilities, certainly, but a young boy who just wanted to have fun and earn the approval of his parents. Perhaps the best example we’ve seen so far is in Daniel Jose Older’s Last Shot, in which a very young Ben Solo can be seen trying to get his parents’ attention as they both become increasingly absent, throwing tantrums and otherwise acting like a normal toddler. It’s what makes his arc so upsetting, with Snoke targeting Ben from a young age because of the boy’s balance of lightness and dark, probably even before his birth. The allusions here to child abuse and grooming are impossible to ignore.
Though there’s little content exploring this period, we can read heavily into the first two chapters of the sequel trilogy. The Last Jedi, especially, paints a compelling and disturbing history between Snoke and his apprentice. Early on, Ben kneels before Snoke, prostrating himself in front of his master following his failures on Starkiller Base. Snoke says “When I found you, I saw what all masters live to see: raw, untamed power and beyond that, something truly special. The potential of your bloodline. A new Vader.” This idea of being the “new Vader”, the dark side embodied, is one peddled by Snoke, forcing the image onto Ben and, in so doing, creating a rift in his psyche, a dysmorphia that threatens to pull him apart.
In response, Ben replies, “I’ve given everything I have to you… to the dark side”. It’s telling that he first says he’s given everything to Snoke, before mentioning anything else. In a later scene, when Snoke is forcibly pulling information out of Rey, he says “give me everything”. We see Ben look down, turn his gaze away. It might be that he’s looking away from Rey’s agony, but it seems to me that his expression is full of shame and knowing because Snoke will likely have done this same thing to him over and over. Ben said it himself – he understands and knows this pain.
In this same scene, Ben flinches after Rey Force-grabs her lightsaber and Snoke pulls it back towards him. He’s like a dog who’s been beaten and expects another blow at every turn. It’s in these moments we can glean the abusive backstory between Ben and his master. For all his talk of a new Vader, Snoke’s approach couldn’t be more at odds with the creation of Darth Vader. Palpatine built Anakin up, inflated his ego, drove his expectation and arrogance to the extreme. But Snoke tears Ben down, bullies and abuses him, and tries to destroy his identity. It’s no surprise that even after killing Snoke, Ben is far from free from his abuser. While I’m hoping for a redemption arc in Episode IX just how far Snoke’s shadow looms over Ben’s future and what the consequences will be remains uncertain.