Was the Empire an Abject Failure in Star Wars?

As I continue thinking about Star Wars, which I do enough to cohost a fairly awesome podcast called Aggressive Negotiations with my dear friend Matt, I happened across another thought that strikes me as the root of something that shows how deeply thoughtful the storytelling has been on the whole.

I was rewatching Solo: A Star Wars Story again, and the opening text establishes that the Empire still hasn’t quite gotten complete control of the galaxy. The first words after the Lucasfilm logo are, “It is a lawless time.”

Given Solo‘s placement in the timeline of the narrative, it’s a scant decade before the original Star Wars. The Empire is still engaged in massive shipbuilding efforts, and hasn’t even taken control of the spice mines at Kessel. Their rule, while apparent, is anything but complete.

The original Star Wars clearly establishes that there are other parts of the galaxy the Empire hasn’t gotten under control, as well. The backwater world of Tatooine is a dusty remnant. The Phantom Menace shows that the “noble Republic” didn’t care about it, and by all appearances the Empire doesn’t, either.

Given that Solo takes place well after the events of Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) is just about two decades after the same, the Empire has been ascendant but never absolute in its power. The excellent animated series Star Wars: Rebels also shows through the struggle at Lothal that the Empire was never able to extinguish the spark that would flare out to become the light of freedom.

Solo a Star Wars Story kessel millenium falcon | kesseljunkie
The Millenium Falcon visits my home planet!

By Comparison, the First Order

Given that the First Order took over the entire galaxy in a couple of days, just to find out a year later that Palpatine was not only still alive but in possession of an even larger fleet that would supersede their force (ahem), the Empire seems a bit of a dud.

After all, if Snoke’s First Order was able to take over the galaxy in a couple of days, and Palpatine’s Empire couldn’t even establish complete dominance in two decades, then doesn’t that just mean the First Order was “better” than the Empire ever was? In essence, Kylo Ren didn’t need to “finish what Vader started” (if you ignore his entire redemptive arc concluding with Return of the Jedi) because he did what Vader never managed.

Grandpa didn’t even manage to overthrow Palpatine, with a Death Star at his disposal.

I’d argue, of course, that it’s more of a bug of the storytelling with the sequel trilogy, as opposed to a strong support of the argument I’m offering here.

I don’t think the Empire was an abject failure, and in fact I think its long journey of creation is a fascinating piece of world-building.

The Empire Was Not a Failure at All

While it was established by name in Revenge of the Sith, it took those decades for the Empire to become the monstrous behemoth that the Rebels were fighting to overthrow because that’s simply how it would have to be done.

The Empire’s journey of creation respects and highlights the fact that systems aren’t easily converted in a matter of days or months, and it’s not always the people you think who are at work. Palpatine maneuvered for some time within the system of the Republic to corrupt the people in positions of power because he had to do that.

Even Emperors need supporters to create an empire. Without key support, they would be overthrown. There are plenty of past and current examples of this fact.

Fervent zeal in the population isn’t born overnight, either. It needs to be inculcated into the first generation after the overthrow. So long as people are alive who remember how things were before the Emperor, the work won’t be completed, unless you can distract them with fear.

The Empire had to use the crime syndicates to make people afraid, and make them grateful for the sense of order and security the Empire offered. This would cow the older citizens who just want an end to the chaos, because how much would their daily lives change anyway?

The chaos would also provide great distraction from what the Emperor was achieving behind the scenes. When life is turmoil, details of governance get fuzzy.

It’s an intricate, and, if you’ll pardon the term in the context of discussing a space fantasy, realistic approach to things.

So no, the Empire wasn’t an abject failure. It was a great success in that it overthrew the galaxy in a methodical and convincing fashion.

That’s why its story remains a fascinating lesson in the dangers of hate, anger, and greed.


Author’s Note: Agent Bun recently commented, “I don’t know how you manage to find so much to talk about with Star Wars,” in reference to the podcast. I assure you, it’s easier than she might suppose.