The Indefensible Act

In my last blog, Understanding Dooku, commenter Hawk brought up a great point about Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side, especially in the context of his eventual redemption.

While I discussed it once before in the context of the blog Troubling Immortality, I think that this is a good chance to probe the matter more deeply. In that blog, I said:

But there’s that little matter of Anakin becoming an abomination. That’s a tough one to forgive, especially when viewed from the perspective that he gets to “retain his identity” after death and in fact transcend where most in the context of the Star Wars universe are left to be nothing more than victims of a tragic zero-sum outcome, a whole lot of them at his hands.

And to be honest, it is a bit of troubling matter philosophically speaking. But I think I’ve figured a bit of Mr. Lucas’ thinking out on this one, as well as keyed in on some of his possible reasoning. A bit of this is conjecture, but I can back up my conclusions with a lifetime of study of “the text.”

First Things First

There’s first the matter of Anakin himself and his turn to the Dark Side. As Hawk remarked in his comment,

But Vader went from concerned husband to mass child killer in the blink of an eye.

I’m not going to dispute that so much as offer a small counterpoint. Anakin had turned to the Dark Side well before that moment. I argue he turned at the beginning of the film.

Anakin and the 501st
Anakin on the way to commit an atrocity. But was it his first?
What I mean is, in the context of the film, Anakin had turned when he killed Dooku. After many viewings I’ve come to the conclusion that Anakin is in fact already of the Dark Side after that point, and what we’re watching up until he swears allegiance to Sidious is that of his trying to turn back and redeem himself.

I personally think the film is more interesting to view through that lens. We’re not waiting for a man to turn to darkness. We’re instead watching a man fighting to redeem himself before it’s too late.

In other words, he’s not killing kids “in the blink of an eye.” That’s merely the moment when the last ember goes out.

Is my read supported by the text? Take another look at the film and you decide.

The Heart of the Matter

Now for the act itself. The Jedi Temple is under seige and “Master Skywalker” enters the chamber where a group of children1 are hidden, and they turn to him asking for help. His reply is to turn on his lightsaber. We are left to accept what inevitably happens next.

Speaking as a father, that’s a stunningly heartless act. To borrow a sentiment from Sonny Corleone, he wasn’t killings some faceless guy across a battlefield, he was face to face and eye to eye. Worse than that, he was killing children. There’s no way to abstract that. He didn’t order their deaths, he didn’t toss a bomb in and walk away. He cut them down like an inhuman animal.

However, I think there’s a deeper point to this. Contrary to what some might believe, every film of merit has a great deal of thought put into it.

In the course of Episode II, Anakin kills children. When he takes his revenge on the Tusken Raiders who murdered his mother, he wipes them all out. Every man, woman, child and probably desert mouse is wiped out of existence in the blink of an eye.

Anakin Skywalker
Anakin at the Final Moment of Truth: When He Stops Trying to Redeem Himself and Admits to His Evil
As an audience, though, we’re more likely to forgive Anakin when he shows remorse for that act. Crying, he looks down at his hands and wonders at the horrible thing he’s done and he’s not only angry but fearful of that which he’s found himself to be capable. I can tell you, though, that when your mother dies you find a great well-spring of hurt inside that can easily turn into pain for all those around you.

When he kills Dooku, we‘re predisposed to forgiving that. Dooku was waging war, and defenseless though he was, we could always say to ourselves, he had it coming to him. After all, if you had you had Osama bin Laden at your mercy, you might just forget your own ideals about truth, justice and the American way.

Yet when Anakin kills these children he knows, in a calculated moment and for his own benefit, it’s very suddenly that we see the act as “of the Dark Side.”

My argument is that what Lucas is doing is showing us that all of these major points are of the “of the Dark Side,” and we get the chance to learn a bit about ourselves as we consider what is justifiable and what is forgivable. Is killing a man whose arms you’ve cut off at the elbow nobler than killing the children of desert tribesmen who’ve hurt the ones you love? Is killing those children more forgivable than killing the ones you’ve known?

I know my answers, but I have to admit that it’s a very uncomfortable question.

Over the Top

Darth Vader
He needed to stop being an anti-hero.
The final question remains: Why did Lucas feel compelled to include such a terrible and horrible scene? Surely he knew what he was filming and what he was showing to the audience.

I believe that, from a certain point of view, he had to go over the top. Not only was his audience older and not only are sensibilities different from the 1970s, with the tremendous popularity of games focused solely on body count and the goal to kill as much as you can see, but Darth Vader had grown from Universal Bad Guy to International Symbol of Cool.

Some of that is inevitable, like the fixation that teenage boys get for horror movie villains. We deal with the frightening harbingers of Death by celebrating them in some small way.

But Vader had spent three decades becoming Everyone’s Favorite Bad-Ass. There was no more Aura of Bad. The impact of his Evil was gone.

So Lucas was in a situation where his villain had to become worse. He had to go to the one thing left that makes a human being universally despicable. Namely killing children, as well as his own wife. Had he not gone that far, had he held back, then Vader never would have been seen as a true villain again. Now, lingering in the back of our minds as we chuckle about his treatment of subordinates, we’re left with the lingering remembrance of the Indefensible Act.

One Last Note

But remember, no one is beyond redemption. No matter who they are or what they’ve done, people can come back to the light. It’s just that they can’t do it alone. Anakin tried to save himself and everyone else, but it was when someone else (Luke) ventured to save him that he was able to find his way back. So it’s not a death-bed conversion as some might suggest, but rather a late assist.

I also think that the moment we stop believing people can be beyond all hope is the moment we lose what remaining value we attach to life in today’s world. And when that happens, I’m not sure I want to be around for the aftermath.

1 Lucas’ clever dodge to keep the audience tuned in is to use the word “younglings” instead of “children” in the movies, to allow a mental “out” to abstract the phrase “killing younglings”, and he wouldn‘t have his movie rated R. But I’m not indulging that BS here.


8 thoughts on “The Indefensible Act

  1. Not a bad explanation, but I have been thinking about this same thing recently, and found that I have a question.

    Sure, it is pretty well accepted that Anakin’s turning to the dark side was a result of his love for his wife. This is a woman he had known for years, loved, and was going to be a parent with. Looking at my wife, I know that I would do almost anything to protect her, short of something irredeemably evil.

    And that is the difference. That particular limit didn’t seem to exist in Anakin. Not only did he have the voice of evil (Palpatine) in the form of an avuncular figure whispering in his ear, but he was taken from his mother at an early age. The only parent he had known for ten years reluctantly let him go, and he is whisked away by strangers (to what was promised to be a grand adventure), only to see one of his new guardians cut down. I don’t care how strong the character of a person is, that’s gonna mess with any 10 year-old’s head.

    But I digress.

    Fast forward many years. Anakin is gone, and Darth Vader is in his place. Gone is the man who fell in love (or arguably COULD fall in love again), and in his place a man who could stand at “ground zero” of the destruction of Alderaan, in the same room as a young woman who was experiencing the anguish of watching her world fall apart (literally), and he didn’t so much as flinch. Meanwhile, half a galaxy away, the closest thing he had to a brother feels the effects of Vader’s actions (and presumably any other surviving Jedi or Force sensitives).

    Taking all this into account, from Vader’s inability to see that his willingness to do evil in the “protection” of his wife, to slaughtering billions indifferently, how am I to believe that the love he would feel for a son he never knew until he was a young adult (and who he tried to kill several times) would be enough to redeem him?

    It was amorous love that caused him to follow the dark path and Paternal love that redeemed him? One has to wonder what the message the author had in mind by making a statement like that through his work.

  2. Interesting points, and I agree it’s no small cause to wonder what exactly Lucas was communicating. I have another blog I’m formulating wherein I speak to some of this as to what Lucas is saying about himself with the films, and how we can see where he is as a person reflected in his works. It’s pretty interesting when you match up his own life experiences to the themes and find out that what he’s saying – particularly in the prequels – is much more personal and specific than the originals.

    But to your comment:

    Taking all this into account, from Vader’s inability to see that his willingness to do evil in the “protection” of his wife, to slaughtering billions indifferently, how am I to believe that the love he would feel for a son he never knew until he was a young adult (and who he tried to kill several times) would be enough to redeem him?

    I’ve tried to reason out that it’s not so much that Vader is indifferent to his actions later in life, it’s that he feels justified. A sub-plot that’s hinted at in Episode III but is primarily on the cutting room floor is the fact that Anakin believes Padmé to be in collusion, and possibly having an affair, with Obi-Wan. There are subtle cues through the whole film that hint at this, but it’s not teased out to be readily apparent. He sees Padmé as his property and like everything else in his life, is possessive to a fault.

    But that in itself is also a digression from my main point.

    Vader’s turn back to the light is, when viewed in the body of all six films, actually occurring before we, the audience may think it does. Return of the Jedi’s pivotal scene, of Luke being zapped and Vader chucking Palpatine down the hole, is usually regarded as the point at which Vader turns. Instead, I contend that the turn back to the light happens when the lie of the Dark Side becomes too much for Vader to deny anymore: it promised him complete dominion and power, and instead he’s been just as much of an underachiever as a Sith Lord as he was as a Jedi.

    Luke refusing to turn at the end of The Empire Strikes Back is Vader’s breaking point with the Dark Side, because he’s given reason to question his turning or what he believes about it in the first place.

    At least, I think that’s a fun way to look at it and considering how much goes into on of Lucas’ films it’s likely layered in there either consciously or subtextually.

  3. Ok, I find your reasoning sound on all points. Anakin begins turning perhaps even before the insident with the sand people and turning back even before fighting Luke. After all he did conspire against Palpatine at the end of Empire.

    My original point though is “Why or how can we the audience sympathize/forgive Vader at the end of Jedi given what he did in Sith?”. He certainly hasn’t done anything to atone for his acts besides killing the emporer to save his son. He doesn’t even really seem penitant, “Tell your sister you were right about me.”. That there was good in him. Someone seeking absolution might say something like “Holy s- what the f- have I done.”. But for the most part, we do forgive him. He’s still the anti-hero.

    1. Sorry for how long it took to reply. It’s been busy, and the blog is often the first casualty of time condensing.

      As to your question, “Why or how can we the audience sympathize/forgive Vader at the end of Jedi…”, it’s a very good one. I also think that it’s the underlying theme of any redemption story. Could I forgive what I’ve seen this person do? What is my feeling on forgiveness? Is forgiveness something that can be earned in short order, or is it something that must be earned through adequate penance?

      They’re great philosophical points to consider, and I’d have to say that like any great art, it asks the question then leaves it to you to answer for yourself. Also, Star Wars paints in broad, operatic strokes; if you’re looking for what’s happening in Vader’s soul at that moment, or for a protracted act of heartbroken remorse, the music cues are generally what you’re going to get.

      I know that if I were in the position, it would be difficult to forgive someone responsible for so much pain and devastation. I also know that morally I’d be called to extend that forgiveness because of my own religious and moral underpinnings. Which is a really tough challenge sometimes, but I know I’ve forgiven some doozies in my day, so maybe I could also find room in my heart to absolve this man.

  4. As always, excellent blog.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on the novelization of Revenge of the Sith. For me, it added a lot of insight into Anakin’s thinking as he made the choices that he did.

    1. Z,

      Thanks! Sorry for the late response.

      The novelization was tremendous on the point of teasing out the stages of Anakin’s soul at a given time in the story, and I agree that it helps flesh out a little more what was happening in that head of his. I think also the inclusion of scenes that were ultimately cut helped, and it’s frustrating as a fan to believe in my heart of hearts that those scenes should never have been cut in the first place.

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