This is something that has been said to me, and about me, in the past. And there are a lot of stories on the subject out there. We want to believe that the people we love, and by extension ourselves, are people that are capable of being redeemed, of coming back from dark places in life into better, healthier ways of existing. Darth Vader pitching the Emperor into a pit to save his son. Boromir running to the rescue of Merry and Pippin after almost succumbing to the temptations of the One Ring. Tony Stark using a box of scraps — and later his vast wealth, creativity, and intellect — to solve problems he created and protect the world.
It’s a difficult thing to stare our demons in the face. Some of the mistakes that happen in our lives have catastrophic consequences. Knowingly or not, we can and often do hurt others in pursuit of our goals. Not everyone has the self-awareness or courage to face those mistakes, admit their fault, and accept the consequences. What makes Zuko’s story special is that he does all of those things, and begins making different choices. Nobody saves him; he saves himself. The only reason he takes the steps down a road to redemption is because he chooses to do so.
A lot of turning points in redemption stories come out of life-or-death situations. Anakin Skywalker’s rebirth, Boromir’s sacrifice, the creation of Iron Man — these all come to pass because the situation is dire and there’s no other moral choice. Zuko, while he endured many similar situations, did not have a dramatic “face turn” in the midst of one of them. Instead, each of his many defeats was a brick in a foundation for a new version of himself, one that he built with his own two hands, rather than the one that had been informed by the influences of others. While his uncle did attempt to guide him, in the end, the decisions he made were his own, both when he doggedly pursued the Avatar and when he decided, instead, to help his former quarry.
He began asking hard questions: what does “honor” actually mean to me? How do I want to make a difference in the world? How did my old choices lead me to failure? How can I make new ones that do make a difference? The answers to those questions, the choices he made as a result, are what lead him in a redemptive direction.
Here’s something you might miss: Zuko didn’t do this to prove anything to anyone except himself. He decided that it was worth the risk, for his own sake, to become a better version of himself.
That is how Zuko redeemed himself. That’s what makes his story powerful.
Because if Zuko, who we meet as an arrogant fuck-up, can redeem himself, for his own sake and on his own terms… then so can we.
A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, I played Star Wars: The Old Republic as a Chiss Sith Marauder. Considering how much of the new Star Wars media I’ve consumed of late, it feels right to revisit the characters of that time. And, hey, it just might make for a good story.
There was a time when I was certain of everything.
My mother, an agent of the Aristocra, became instrumental to the rise of the Sith Empire in its renewed war with the Republic and its Jedi. I was certain that she would carve a path forward for all of us. I was certain that, as a wielder of the Force myself, I would do her proud. I was certain that she would set an example that I would not only meet, but exceed.
There was a time when my passion was my guide.
I gave little thought to the future, to plans, to politics. I lived in the moment. I whirled through the enemies of the Empire like a Jakku dervish. I challenged and supported my beloved Xul’darin in her rise as a Sith Inquisitor. I loved, and hated, and rose in anger, and fed upon fear.
There was a time when everything went wrong.
The wreckage of the Frozen Lance has become my home. I cleaned out the bodies of my loyal crew, pushed snow atop the broken hull, sealed myself away. My homeworld is a cold, remote place; Hoth is as good a substitute as any. I roam the corridors alone, meditating, scavenging for food and supplies when I venture out. I’m slowly coming to terms with being the sole instrument of my own downfall.
The Sith teach that passion is a more powerful guide than peace. That the Force is born of emotion, and so one must embrace that emotion, rather than suppress it, as the Jedi do. And embrace it I did. I unleashed it. My anger made me strong; the fear of my enemies thrilled me, to the point of ecstasy in battle, the heat of lightsabers second only to the heat of tangled limbs in several beds.
To be Sith is to lose control. And I was a very, very good Sith. Too good.
I destroyed all I had built in moments of hot, blinding rage. The intimation of betrayal, even one that had been born of my own actions, was enough to set me off. My crew turned on me. Loyal servants sought to assassinate me. I fought back, and in doing so, all I had sought to create to propel me forward to a goal I’d never solidified crashed down into the snow and howling winds. Thoughts of using one of the escape pods never occurred to me; if I was going down, then by the stars, I was going down fighting.
I survived. I’ve been left to think and reflect. And in the cold, I’ve come to my conclusions.
I cannot go on as I was. My precious passions, the core of my old life, had turned me to a gibbering fool. My heart remained that of a small, frightened boy wishing desperately to be worthy of his mother’s love. Pushed by emotion and heedless of reason or forethought, I’d brought about this ruin of a life by my own unguided and impetuous hands. When moments of desire and anger seized me, I’d seized them back, and in doing so sealed my own doom.
If I am to live on, I must live on without such foolishness.
Whenever I manage to leave this frozen cocoon, it will be another act of destruction. But it will also be one of growth. Within these cold durasteel bulkheads, I have incubated. Something completely new, that I never thought I would or could be, is growing. I cannot say if it is better or worse than what I was before; such things are subjective. But here, I have found a measure of peace. I’ve come to understand myself more; to see who I was, and what was broken about it. I turn my thoughts, perhaps for the first time, towards the future, and find myself wishing to move forward, away from the past, the memories, the pain, the longing.
I contemplate these things as I refine the lightsaber on the bench.
I hold the kyber in my blue hands. It strikes me as somewhat odd. This is a remnant of my past, something I’d used before was a weapon to slay anyone in my path, with indiscriminate glee. I’ve shorn it down, chipped at it, changed its shape and its harmonic vibrations. It remains dangerous, perhaps even unstable. Yet it feels more true, more honest. I know what it is, now. I see it as a tool, a way to carve a true path forward; not through blood, but through doubt and darkness. When one is lost to the Dark Side, one cannot see the way forward.
I feel the Dark Side close in, outside, beyond the ruin of this place.
It is time.
“Zel’thane’nuruodo,” comes an augmented, amplified voice. “Come out. Face your end.”
I reassemble the lightsaber. I pull on my cloak, its former jet black stained into a steely gray by the dust of the wreckage and wear all around me. I make my way to the hatch, don my gloves, and touch the activator. What formerly snapped out of the way with an eagerness to unleash my wrath now groans, as if reluctant to let me face what awaits me. It seems to warn me: This is a trap. This will only bring you more pain. This is a bad idea.
Be that as it may, I will not turn away from destiny.
I step out into the cold. The sun is setting. Hoth will soon become even more bitter, and unforgiving. As are the dark shapes arrayed before me.
There are a half-dozen, at least. All in black cloaks. All seething with the Dark Side. The one in the front, particularly so. Rage and heartbreak and the sting of betrayal, all honed into a laser intent on burning the heart out of me, perhaps with her gaze alone.
I know her. I know the crimson of her tattooed lekku. I know the eyes that once captured my soul and ruled my every breath, as much as I ruled hers.
“Xul’darin.” I say the name. I say it quietly. I let the sound ground me in this moment.
“Hello, Thane.” Her voice drips with false sincerity, a phantasm of affection. “It’s been a while.”
I don’t respond. Her stance shifts. She’s confident. Assured of her righteousness.
“No witty retort? No flirtatious remark? I’m disappointed.”
“Leave this place,” I tell her. “Take your Inquisitors and go. I wish no harm to any of you.”
Xul laughs. “You’ve gone soft, Thane. Pity. I always liked you more when you were hard.”
My memories caress my senses. Her smile. Her gasps. The feel of her skin. The taste of her blood. My name whispered on her sweet lips. The caress of those lips on and around me. The glimmer in her eyes when…
I push the memories away. I do not shove them. They are of happier times. But they have no place in the moment. The dead are dead. They’re not coming back.
“That was over a long time ago.” I keep my voice from being too harsh. But I make it firm, adamant, unmoved. “I’ve made my mistakes, Xul. I hurt you. And I’ve kept to myself. I’m learning myself, and how to forgive myself.”
Another laugh. A bitter one. One tinged with madness. “You’re a fool. Forgiveness? Please. Even if such a thing were possible, you went beyond such sentiments a long time ago.” She shifts her stance to one of combat. Her lightsaber, ignited now, does not so much illuminate the area around her as frighten the shadows to a reverent distance. In her other hand, lightning crackles. Angry, seething, hungry for pain.
“There is no forgiveness for people like you.”
The other Inquisitors light their sabers as well. I take a deep breath, center myself, close my eyes. I let the Force flow into me. I do not demand it, or even command it. I simply open myself to it. There is darkness there, to be sure. My broken heart, my regret, my anger at myself, my fear of death. But so, too, is light: my hope for a better tomorrow, my pride in making myself better than I was, my gentle grief for what I’d lost, and cost myself, and can never regain.
When I open my eyes, I see a shape beyond the Inquisitors on a snow bank in the distance. I think I recognize the shape. One of my crew. One of the most trusted. One reluctant to join the fray, who watched the battle explode with calculating and fearful eyes. She’d disappeared during the melee. Perhaps to an escape pod, unbeknownst to me. Perhaps it is an illusion projected into my mind. Perhaps a ghost, born of my grief and unresolved shame. Or perhaps, still alive, she’s come to witness what happens next. To choose her allegiance based on who survives. To watch, as she always did, with that cool calculation that I’d always admired.
Who am I to deny an old friend a good show?
I turn my body to the side. I raise my lightsaber’s hilt. It’s curved shape fits in my hand like I was born holding it. Before, I’d have held one in each hand, red blades whirling, causing damage and bringing death with glee in my heart and a laughing warcry on my lips.
Now, I am silent. I press my thumb against the switch.
Indigo at the edges, white within, the blade pierces the gathering dark. Xul blinks. She was not expecting this. She’d been ready for an assault. She was anticipating the rush of anger, the thrill of combat, the thirst for death. Not for me to keep my distance. Not for me to be prepared for her to be the aggressor. I narrow my red eyes, and take up the defensive posture of a fencer, one with practiced skill and a honed, clear mind.
Perhaps there is something to the Jedi tenants of peace and lack of emotion. At least for moments like this.
“You’re going to die on this frozen rock,” Xul’darin spits, trying to goad me. “And I’m going to kill you for what you did. What you did to me. To us. You murdered us. I’ll make you suffer for days before you die. This is justice.”
“This is revenge,” I tell her, gently. “You are merely a pawn of your emotions. It makes me sad. I had to learn to let go of my hatred. To leave the past behind. To create something new, now, in this moment, and moving forward. It’s the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced. By that cold light, the one I now hold within the heart I broke with my own hands, you and your Inquisitors are nothing.”
I salute with my glowing blade.
“So come on, then. If I die here, I die as I am, not clinging to what was. I cannot say the same for you and those you’ll send to die on your behalf.”
Xul screams. They come for me.
No matter what happens next, I’m ready to meet them.
In case this week’s vlog didn’t tip you off, I am a huge fan of Mad Max: Fury Road. Long after having seen it several times in cinemas and at home, I still want to talk about its greater meanings, implied or intended, regarding personal autonomy and agency, the depth of truly human characters, and all of the great moments of storytelling in what is, on the surface, a bone-crunching action romp about weird cars and weirder wasteland denizens.
I’ve already talked at length about the film’s merits in both this review and this post about characters. But what about its influence upon folks like me when it comes to inspiration and motivation?
There are messages woven throughout the film, but one of the most simultaneously potent and subtle one is that of personal agency. When the film opens, Max is seemingly a pawn of his own unbridled emotions – his anxiety, his rage, his fears, and the memories that haunt him. He gets muzzled, restrained, and used for his blood, completely at the mercy of the people around him. It takes external influences – Furiosa’s escape in the War Rig, the subsequent pursuit, and the incredible windstorm – to give Max the opportunity to seize control of the situation as much as he can.
Once Max is able to focus on reclaiming agency of his life, an interesting thing happens. He initially goes after selfish goals – hijacking the War Rig for his own escape, ignoring the plight of the women, and getting the damned muzzle off of his face – but the more time he spends in that Rig, the more he finds himself supporting those around him. He seems to realize how important it is for Furiosa and the wives to seize their agency, make their escape, and in Furiosa’s case, seek redemption for everything she had to do in order to survive. Because the War Boys immediately reduced Max to a thing, and Immortan Joe has been using people as things for presumably a long time, their drives and motivations become aligned:
I mentioned in the vlog that idealizing, romanticizing, or demonizing the people in our past is an awful thing to do. It robs them of their agency. It makes them things. See above. There are very few things in this world that can be more harmful to those we care about than to view them in such damaging, dehumanizing ways.
To my great shame, I have found myself doing it, up until recently. (Like, a week ago or so…)
Seeing the people we care about with clarity, without any shade of glasses (rose-colored, ash-colored, etc), is the best way to respect them. If they have passed, it honors their memory. If they yet live, it frees them to be who they are and, ideally, grow into better versions of themselves tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, as they push themselves down their hard road of self-realization and self-actualization.
As I said, that’s the ideal situation. Others may arise. But that is how others live.
Your focus, my focus, must be on how we, as individuals, live.
The roads ahead of us stretch out to the horizon, into the unknown quantities of our futures. One is the desolate, plain, unthreatening road of doing what we’ve always done, avoiding facing or challenging ourselves, and letting go of opportunities to grow and change as individuals. The other, harder road, fraught with the perils of facing truths about our words and deeds we do not wish to admit, can be intimidating and unnerving, leading as it does through the Shadow and the hard lessons of the past. But I maintain that it is the right road to take.
It is the road to agency. To growth. And, ultimately, to redemption.
Don’t you owe it to yourself to be the best human you can be?