This story contains spoilers for all of The Last Jedi.
In the days before The Last Jedi opened in theaters, three Star Wars fans who go by Rosie, Ricca, and Trebia started receiving messages online from people who’d seen the film early. The gist, as Rosie described it: “How does it feel to have your fan fiction turned into a movie?”
Rosie, 28, and Ricca, 29, are the authors of Interstellar Transmissions, which on the leading fan-fiction site Archive of Our Own is the most widely read story inspired by Star Wars’s Episode VII, The Force Awakens. Trebia, 26, is the author of Forms, another popular piece of fan fiction crafted immediately after Disney’s 2015 franchise reboot. Both stories focus on the scrappy scavenger Rey and the villainous Skywalker heir Kylo Ren discovering they share a telepathic bond across the galaxy, and then teaming up to defeat Supreme Leader Snoke.
Sound familiar? The Last Jedi has the saga’s rising “good guy”—or girl, in this case—supernaturally backchanneling with its rising bad guy. Rey and Kylo build some sort of trust, and then Kylo betrays his boss, Snoke, as she hoped he would. The fact that well-read fan writers and Disney’s professional writers came up with such similar stories is, among other things, a testament to the ways Rey and Kylo Ren represent something fundamental—as well as vitally new—about Star Wars.
In the world of fan fiction, in which fans create new or alternate stories for characters and settings owned by someone else, it’s understood that if any given narrative can be imagined it will be imagined. And generally, fan fiction often centers on romance more than the original works do. But inevitably certain kinds of stories are more written-about, and read, than others. For fan fiction based off Disney’s first Star Wars movie, the works with the most “hits” on Archive of Our Own depicted dalliances between Kylo Ren and Rey, a “ship”—relationship—that fans refer to as “Reylo.” (Though by volume, the most popular pairings are same-sex love stories about Finn and Poe Dameron, and Kylo and Hux.)
The Reylo phenomenon has, in the fan world, been controversial. The mystery of Rey’s parentage—and the suspicion that she’s a Skywalker—raised the possibility that a Rey/Kylo pairing would be incest. In Episode VII, Finn seemed to be the main character pining for Rey. And there’s something obviously unsettling about setting up the saga’s new heroine with a murderous man-child who restrains and mentally violates her the first time they meet.
Now, many of the pro-Reylo fans feel vindicated, shouting “Reylo is canon” across Tumblr and other social-media platforms after The Last Jedi’s premiere. Rosie said a friend texted her to speculate that the director Rian Johnson had read her work while writing The Last Jedi. The authors, though, aren’t so sure. “I did not have the reaction, ‘Oh my god, this is Interstellar Transmissions made real,’” Rosie said. “We and the writers of the Star Wars movie came to similar conclusions based on the same evidence. We picked up some of the stuff they were laying down.” (Interstellar Transmissions and Forms are, it’s worth noting, surely not the only fan-fiction stories that anticipated parts of The Last Jedi.)
The Last Jedi of course takes many unpredicted turns, and unlike in the fan fiction there’s no explicit romance (and certainly no graphic interplanetary lovemaking) between the two characters. Still, many have read sexual tension into the film, with Exhibit A being the scene in which Rey is startled by a shirtless Kylo. “She stutters in her speech when she’s Force Skyping with him and he’s essentially sending her Force nudes,” Rosie said. “[The filmmakers] worked so hard to set up this tender, intimate physical connection between them. I would be very surprised if [the Episode IX director] J.J. Abrams did a complete 180 on that.”
Which means that online, you can find ever more viewers speculating about—or groaning at—the notion of Kylo as a sympathetic “bad boy” in a Fifty Shades of Grey–like narrative between him and Rey. In the moment after the two young Force wielders defeated Snoke’s guards, Kylo makes an overture to Rey that is, as Rosie points out, the kind of thing that a “bad teenage boyfriend” would say: “You’re nothing, but not to me.” But she rejects him, they spar, and Rey eventually closes the door of the Millennium Falcon in Kylo’s line of sight. Perhaps that’s the end of their connection, or perhaps it’s only the beginning.
Reylo’s biggest supporters don’t necessarily disagree with those who raise red flags about a relationship—romantic or merely friendly—between these two characters. When readers call Interstellar Transmissions “a beautiful love story,” Rosie said, “I keep wanting be like, ‘Honey, this is not a good, healthy romance. What we wrote is not what you should want.’”
“But then again,” her co-author Ricca added, “Star Wars is totally not about healthy relationships. There are none.”
Rosie recalled leaving The Force Awakens two years ago utterly squicked out by Kylo Ren—“he’s a fuckboy”—and utterly fascinated by Rey. Yet something about the rivalry between them stuck in her mind like “a popcorn kernel in my teeth.” Rey’s an anonymous scavenger, tortured by her inability to know her parents. Kylo is a famous scion, weighed down by the expectations of his bloodline. She has raw power and he has expertise; he told her “you need a teacher” before she beat him in combat. “They are two sides of a coin,” Rosie said.
Flipping between sides of a coin is, of course, what Star Wars is all about, from the seduction of Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith to his redemption in The Return of the Jedi. In The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren flirts with the light by betraying Snoke, and Rey flirts with the dark in connecting with Kylo and exploring the creepy cavern beneath Luke’s island. But in the end, they both seem to be on the side they started on: Rey with the Rebels, Kylo mercilessly attacking them.
Will full defection by one of them be in the trilogy’s finale? Rosie suggested that the necessary demise of Kylo’s mother Leia—played by Carrie Fisher, who died in 2016—could “kickstart” a journey to light for the darksider, given that he was unable to pull the trigger on her in this movie. Ricca pointed out that he could go the way of Vader: “Redeemed doesn’t necessarily mean survived.” Trebia added, “In the last episode of the trilogy, you always get a bittersweet ending.”
But for however elemental the interplay between Kylo and Rey seems, there is a lot that’s novel about it. Most obviously, The Last Jedi asserts that Rey’s parents are “nobody,” rather than famous somebodies from the old movies. This isn’t just a plot twist, it’s also a deeper shift. “This idea that Star Wars is only about this particular family is a huge limitation to the franchise,” Ricca said. “I like the idea that [the Force] is not the property of the Jedi and the Sith. You could be anyone and have this.” Rosie added that this democratizing development helps to encourage the same impulse that drives fandom: “One of the beautiful things about the Star Wars universe is that you can imagine yourself in that universe.”
The other remarkable factor here is Rey’s gender—rare for a hero in a saga previously dominated by male characters. This, too, informs the Reylo following. Fan fiction is, for various reasons, a largely female-driven phenomenon, which has meant for franchises that have been mostly marketed to boys—Star Wars heretofore included—it has sometimes been seen as a marginal activity. But now, women are at the center. Rosie recently came to a realization about how even the ad campaign for The Last Jedi felt new to her. “There’s all of these commercials [featuring] little girls with Darth Vader helmets running around,” she said. “That is not something I had as a Star Wars nut growing up.”
The three writers have no immediate plans to craft fan-fiction follow-ups based on the new sequel. But if any of them go for it, Ricca said, they’d be working off “some of the pull-tabs that Rian Johnson left, ostensibly for J.J. Abrams. If I decide I want one, I’ll pull on it and see where it goes.”