Darth Vader in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

What Character Has Your Favorite Redemption Arc?

Kylo Ren doesn't count.

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We all have one—that problematic favorite who started their career as a villain and who ended up doing the right thing. Let they who never stanned an antagonist cast the first stone here, because at some point in your fandom career, there will be a villain or anti-hero who catches your fancy.

A well-executed redemption arc is a delightful thing. The progression from villain to sort-of-hero is always fun to watch when handled well. Who doesn’t love the dynamics of the heroes reluctantly working alongside their former opponents? When given the necessary time to breathe and develop, these arcs can lead to rich characters and better narratives, especially when it comes to narratives built on hope, family, and friendship.

This isn’t to say that all redemption arcs are built the same, though. There are multiple elements of an arc that come into play, such as whether the character is only redeemed to the audience or to the world of their story, or if the character’s arc leads to an undeserved happy ending, or if they actually deal with the consequences of their actions. No two redemption arcs are the same, and for every well-handled redemption arc, there’s one that leaves us scratching our head and going “huh?”

Let’s start with a talk about the most famous movie redemption arc in history: the redemption of one Anakin Skywalker, otherwise known as Darth Vader. Darth Vader is the baddest of baddies, but even he got some form of redemption when he killed his master and longtime tormentor, Emperor Palpatine, to save Luke. His heel-face-turn was short lived, though; he died shortly afterwards, in the arms of his son, and only received peace on the spectral plane.

What works about his redemption is that the story isn’t about him; it’s about Luke’s compassion. Luke saw good in his father and made a choice to embody the good of Anakin. In turn, he inspired change in his father. Because of Vader’s actions, he could never receive a happy ending while alive, and it’s worth noting that Vader is only redeemed in the eyes of the audience and Luke. Leia never forgives him, and neither does the galaxy at large, but his story is about him being redeemed in the heart of his son, not about him getting a happy ending.

The Harry Potter books present two examples of redemption arcs. One is a mishandled mess that requires too much stretching of the imagination for it to work, and the other is one that the author herself does not support, but that makes much more logical sense and is given a great deal of nuance. I’m talking, of course, about Slytherin kings Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy.

Let the record show that I will never support the concept of a Severus Snape redemption. Snape shows no signs of wanting to be redeemed. He is only redeemed because author J.K. Rowling thought that him wanting to sleep with Harry’s mom equalled some sort of emotional depth. Snape might work for the good guys and risk his life, but his actions are not those of a hero but those of a deeply cruel human being who took his rage out on children under his charge.

And yet, he is apparently redeemed enough for Harry to name one of his children after him. It makes no sense, because Snape’s actions barely hinted at a desire for redemption. He only switched sides to save Lily’s life, husband and child be damned, and he never wanted to do anything for the good of the world, but rather for his own purposes.

Draco, on the other hand, showed actual growth throughout the books. As my fellow Mary Sue assistant editor Princess Weekes said to me as we discussed the character, he’s a child of a white supremacist movement until he realizes he and the movement have gone too far and becomes scared of them. He cannot kill Dumbledore, and in The Deathly Hallows, he’s able to help Harry and his friends a little. In The Cursed Child, he grows into an ally for the Golden Trio and their families. However, J.K. Rowling is adamant that he is not hiding a secret heart of gold, though she admits he does have some good in him.

There are so many well-done redemption arcs in canon, though admittedly, Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender might have the best of them all. (I have sadly not seen the series, so I cannot comment; most of my knowledge is secondhand information about how amazing his arc is.) So let us know in the comment section what your favorite redemption arc is, and which characters you don’t think deserve redemption. Who do you think needs to come to the light, and who would you prefer to see remain a villain for the rest of their arcs?

(image: Lucasfilm)

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Author
Kate Gardner
Kate (they/them) says sorry a lot for someone who is not sorry about the amount of strongly held opinions they have. Raised on a steady diet of The West Wing and classic film, they are now a cosplayer who will fight you over issues of inclusion in media while also writing coffee shop AU fanfic for their favorite rare pairs.