In Star Wars, the lady Sith Lord is a rare creature.
Before the Expanded Universe was cast into canonical shadow, there were only a handful, like Lumiya and Darth Traya. After that purge, however, there’s only been one: Lady Shaa, introduced in the Darth Vader comics as part of the backstory of Lord Momin. (Naturally, she’s killed off.) Even Asajj Ventress, perhaps the most visible high-profile Dark Side woman in the entire franchise, never made it to the rank of Sith, being cut loose by her master while still a Sith apprentice.
(And by cut loose, I mean Dooku tried to have her killed to prove his loyalty to Palpatine.)
So while we’ve seen men struggle with the temptation of the Dark Side and reap its insidious rewards in Star Wars, we’ve never seen a woman struggle with it, especially on-screen.
Perhaps that’s why we’re so intrigued by the mere frames-long glimpse we received of Dark Rey in The Rise of Skywalker: Her potential is both endless and fresh.
Dark Rey made her debut in fanfiction almost immediately after The Force Awakens hit theaters. The earliest works tagged “Dark!Rey” on the Archive of Our Own date back to the halcyon days of January 2016. While not every Dark Rey fic is a Reylo fic, it’s an understandably rich narrative vein for the pairing: Rey being tempted to the Dark Side by its power, its knowledge, and its Ben Swolo.
So rich, in fact, that The Last Jedi tapped into that vein for its own story. If you squint, the film plays out like an enemies-to-lovers fic. Rey and Ren are yoked together by a mysterious Force bond and are forced to interact! She catches him in a state of undress! When Rey learns how Luke almost killed Ren, she finds something to empathize with, being abandoned by her family herself! There’s something there that wasn’t there before, indeed.
But there are two things that differentiate this coming together from a fall to the Dark Side.
First, it’s interrupted. When Ren reaches out his hand and, essentially, offers to make him her queen, it’s with earnest condescension. He, the son of Sith Lords and senators, tosses her “lowly” parentage in her face and tells her that she’s nothing. “But not,” he says, face quivering against emotion, “to me.” It’s a neg too far for Rey, who realizes that Ren is too far gone and battles him for Anakin’s lightsaber.
Second, it’s not a true flirtation with the Dark Side. Besides Rey’s stated purpose of recovering “Ben Solo” from the Dark Side, her motivation isn’t anger, hatred, or even lust. (Frankly, we have no idea where Rey stands on the “Adam Driver hot” discourse.) Rather, Rey is motivated by hope, as Supreme Leader Snoke remarks upon while torturing her. Late in the film, Rose tells Finn that they’ll win the day by “protecting what we love.” This finds its parallel in Rey’s failed attempts to convince Luke that Ren is worth saving. “This could be how we win!” she pleads. She’s wrong, of course, but it doesn’t mean her attempt is any less worthwhile.
When we’ve seen Luke and Anakin struggle with the Dark Side in their respective trilogies, it’s because the Dark Side and its power buff appeal to their darker selves. Vader can force Luke closer to the Dark Side by manipulating Luke’s protective love for his friends and his father. Anakin … oh boy, do you have a moment to hear about Anakin’s slow slide into fascism and the Dark Side, fueled by the emotional trauma the Jedi Order gave him and then told him to suppress like a good little boy? Because there’s a whole trilogy about that.
Luke and Anakin’s struggle with the Dark Side is also fueled by their fear of the Dark Side. Anakin, obviously, is told to not have any feelings, lest he start down the path to the Dark Side, which is a Catch-22 since Anakin is composed of a LOT of feelings. (Again: Mental health services in the Galactic Republic apparently don’t exist.) And Luke’s introduction to the Dark Side is that Darth Vader turned to it and killed his dad.
But Rey isn’t scared of the Dark Side. She’s apprehensive about her newfound powers, yes, saying as much to Luke (“I need someone to show me my place in all of this”), but she’s confident enough to interact with it without fear. When Luke is horrified that Rey is willing to let herself open to the Dark Side, represented on Ahch-To by a cave, she tells him, “That place was trying to show me something.”
Later, Rey physically travels to that cave to find her answers. As Rian Johnson told SYFY, the scene is meant to parallel Luke’s vision in the tree in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke sees himself as Vader because his greatest fear is falling to the Dark Side. But Rey’s greatest fear is that she’s all alone, without anyone to rely on but herself.
That’s why Dark Rey fascinates us. We don’t know exactly what would tempt Rey to the Dark Side. Why someone is tempted to the Dark Side is a funhouse mirror version of their values. Luke can’t bear to lose the people he cares for, because he's a caring, empathetic soul like his mother; Anakin can’t bear to re-experience the loss of his mother through the death of his wife. (Again: Therapy would have helped.)
Now, Rey isn’t without a lowercase dark side. When she taps into the Force during her duel with Kylo Ren on the collapsing Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens, she’s fueled by her anger and her hatred for Ren and what he’s done to the people she loves—a little like Luke in Return of the Jedi, no? Against this, Ren has no chance. The camera framing shifts as Rey advances and stalks toward Ren, making her small frame seem huge and looming over a man who dwarfs her.
The brief glimpse we get of Dark Rey in The Rise of Skywalker's promotional material actually seems to recall that scene. Dark Rey is standing against a dark shape on a light background (perhaps a tree in snow?), her face angled right and illuminated by the red glow of her twin lightsaber blades. It’s an image that’s seemingly in dialogue with the now-iconic image of Rey tapping into the Face, face angled left and illuminated by the red and blue glow of her lightsaber and Ren’s.
Could this be a natural extension of Rey tapping into her anger and rage, potentially encouraged by Palpatine? Could Palpatine be messing with both Rey and Ren’s heads, as the surreal shot of the two in an The Empire Strikes Back-era Cloud City in the trailer implies? Could this be Ren’s own fear reflected back to him, that Rey, already a superior Jedi to him, could be the perfect Sith to walk in Lord Vader’s footsteps? She is wearing a very snazzy ring …
Personally, I’m leaning toward the Ren’s own fear thing, but I would be excited to be proven wrong. Being able to see a woman on the big screen in a major franchise actively tap into, manage, and engage with her rage, with her dark side, is an exhilarating prospect. One, I hope, we all get to experience on December 20.