To be honest, I think Ren will be given some sort of redemption in the end, but I do think this is an interesting question to consider all the same.
I don’t see anything in-universe that is a barrier. A redemption for Ren is very clearly in line with other Star Wars stories.
That said, I *do* think there are some very substantial challenges in an out-of-universe sense.
Fundamentally, the significant barrier comes in terms of audience response and reception. I haven’t really thought all this through, but I do have an inkling of where things could get tripped up.
The obvious path to consider on this front is to compare the audience reception of Vader’s redemption to what the response is and might continue be to a similar Ren redemption.
Clearly there is currently a significant segment of the audience that has great antipathy towards Ren’s redemption already. On the face of it, this seems rather odd as Vader’s redemption is widely loved and I’ve rarely seen any significant objection to it as a satisfying story arc for the original trilogy.
Why this disjunct? Arguably, Vader was just, if not substantially more, wicked than Ren, so that can’t be the barrier.
I think probably the most fruitful aspect for investigation is to look at how the stories differ.
One notable difference between the two arcs is the element of surprise. We had no hint of even the possibility Vader’s redemption in the first two movies of the OT.
Even in the final movie, the possibility is broached relatively late, and how the redemption is effected is something of a twist. Luke triumphs not by using his Force powers which we were led to believe to be the essence of his arc and necessary for his ultimate success, but instead wins through the unexpected tactic of laying himself down as a sacrifice for destruction.
As someone who grew up watching the OT in the theater, I will say this was generally a surprise for the audience. The end result is that this all comes crashing down so quickly and unexpectedly that the audience wasn’t really given much time to ponder whether Vader’s redemption was adequately earned.
In general the OT benefitted from operating in a way that felt extraordinarily fresh and unexpected in many ways. That freshness was inherently satisfying and, to some extent, I think the movie coasts on those positive feelings and waves its hands a lot to try to distract the audience from thinking too hard about whether the particular story events really fit together or not.
I think I recognized this even as a child and the fact that the trilogy seems to be hammered together from pieces that don’t quite fit, led me, at least, to not want to examine any of it too closely. I dearly love the OT, and as much as I consider it a success on many fronts, I think it doesn’t bear the weight of close scrutiny very well, so I’m inclined to shy away from this. I suspect this may be a widespread reaction.
Ren’s redemption, should it happen, is a great contrast in that it will come as no surprise. In fact, I’m sure some of the audience will consider this path hackneyed and unwelcome because of this. Add to that the fact that the audience has plenty of time to anticipate all the possible elements involved and build up a sense of resentment beforehand also means that the new trilogy has a much harder job to do if they want to go down this path.
Beyond this element of surprise, the nature of how Luke’s relationship to his father is portrayed in the OT is a factor in the differing audience response as well. Luke spends the first two movies in a relationship with an imagined father, one Obi-wan has drawn for him. That father is a hero, a great pilot, a “cunning warrior”, a “good friend” and someone whose life was cut short because of what happened to him during the Clone Wars. The audience, like Luke, gets invested in the narrative. In a sense, we are offered the opportunity to admire and mourn this great man for sometime before we are given his dark twist.
The fact that our understanding of Vader is so starkly split between this imagined vision and the grim reality makes it easier to swallow an almost magical transformation back from one to the other. There is no more realistic grey middle presented to us in Vader’s story, so we are less inclined to map his story onto real life analogs that might disturb our ability to accept his conversion.
Contrast this to the portrayal of Ren and his relationships in TFA. Ren’s struggle to find the true path, his internal battle against his darker temptations, and his mixed moral history are all portrayed on screen and clearly trouble characters we already know and love. Ren has no unwavering champion as Vader has in Luke. And all the grim emotional and moral struggle he faces are all too familiar to us and are easily transferred to real life villains or morally complex relationships in our own lives. All this compromises our ability to have the same sort of unthinking sympathy for Ren.
Additionally, I think the relationships in the movies provide significant differences that make redemption harder to pull off in the new trilogy.
Much is made by the anti-redemption crowd of the supposed victim/abuser dynamic between Ren and Rey in TFA. While it easy to see what elements in the movie elicit this response (the initial power imbalance in Ren’s favor, the violation of Rey, the forced and unwanted intimacy and the suffering Ren causes), there are to a large extent very similar dynamics in Luke and Vader’s confrontation. Vader similarly overshadows Luke, and is callous in terms of suffering he causes him and his friends whom he orders tortured purely to draw Luke in through their pain. Vader also presses himself upon Luke in an unwelcome and surprising way, shocking him with the twist reveal just as Luke is at his lowest. And Vader brutalizes and batters Luke far more intensely than what we see happen with Rey. Yet I’ve never heard of someone mapping the Luke/Vader relationship to a real life parent/child abusive relationship.
This is somewhat surprising and I’m not entirely clear why. Perhaps some of this lies in the fact that the Vader/Luke relationship in the end just doesn’t feel like any real life relationship we are familiar with. True, we are told Vader is the father, but we never see him act as a father, we just have to take the fact that relationship exists on faith.
In contrast, I think the relationship between Ren and Rey strikes people as more readily familiar. Many of us have some experience that matches a man who has an unwelcome fascination with a woman and who presses himself upon her despite her obvious fear or revulsion, or who uses his power in a way to extract some unwanted intimacy or violate her autonomy. Most people in the world are not creeps, but there are enough creeps in the world that we all have some real world understanding of them and consequent revulsion. The relative ease of mapping this relationship to real relationships we revile gives Ren’s story so far an uphill battle in eliciting sympathy.
I do think there is a genuine gender bias that complicates the stories as well. Flipping through the anti-Reylo hate on tumblr I see that there is what I would consider to be a notable skew to the characterization of Rey and Ren. Anti-Reylo bloggers seem very inclined to severely weaken Rey in describing the relationship in the movie. There’s an inclination to overemphasize her relative youth, even going as far as decrying implicit pedophilia, when no such thing is portrayed in the film. Likewise her relative innocence is over emphasized. She’s portrayed as a non-combatant, even though she clearly aligns herself with the Resistance. And finally, of course, there’s an emphasis on her relative helplessness despite the fact that Ren clearly feels deeply threatened by her and her raw but growing power, and she is able to easily best him in every battle.
I’ve never seen Luke’s relationship with Vader be similar skewed in a fan portrayal or analysis. Luke is not seen as cruelly disadvantaged by his youth, innocence, or relative weakness. There is every expectation that he will rise to meet the challenge ahead, although in the end he does not win via power, but instead wins through an innocent and almost childlike love for a father he’s never known.
I think it’s difficult to prove that the difference in attitude towards these characters has its root in our response in their differences in gender, so in the end I’ll have to leave this part as speculative. There are other considerations very often explicitly rooted in gender that we can examine as well however.
Certainly, there was a lot of excitement surrounding TFA in that it has finally given the Star Wars movies a satisfying heroine. There have always been some interesting female characters in the movies, but the fact is that, as charming as those characters could be in an abstracted way, they never occupied a central role in the films and the stories never primarily revolved around the exercise of their own agency.
I dearly love Leia, but I have to admit in much of the OT she functions as more as an object than an agent. She is portrayed as strong and clever in A New Hope, but in the end we have to admit her role in that movie is primarily as a thing to be rescued and an inspiration to Luke. Likewise in Empire she serves mainly as an object to be won, someone to be wooed.
Rey is different, and to a large extent her story in TFA is her own. Given how rarely we are given heroines in this fashion, and their complete absence from the Star Wars saga until now, it’s understandable that many people have a great deal of trepidation about how her character is handled going forward. Much of the audience wants to continue to see her as the center of the story as agent and not as tool. And, of course, many imagined scenarios that lead to Ren’s redemption rely heavily of Rey to effect it and so flirt with subverting her primacy in the story.
The audience for the OT had no particular fears on this front for Luke, since male heroes are the norm. People at the time saw Luke as the undoubted hero of the movie and didn’t feel what he did for his father undermined his centrality or agency.
This is all I can think of offhand as barriers to redemption. They are not necessarily insurmountable, but they are tricky to negotiate.
I really enjoyed TFA and have enjoyed engaging with the diverse Star Wars audience while grappling with ideas in the present and future films. I worry a lot about the intense set of expectations that people are building up around the future films. I hope those expectations don’t destroy people’s ability to receive what they are finally given and appreciate it for what it is.
I’m saddened to see the Star War community on tumblr riven with such fear, hate, and general darkness. I would encourage people to be flexible and open to inquiry, even when it makes them uncomfortable, as I think it is the path to greater understanding and appreciation. The film we’ve been given so far offers much to consider and has a delightful complexity, both internally and in relation to its audience.