John Ostrander: Redeeming Vader
By its nature, a trilogy connects. In movies, it becomes a single story united by narrative and/or theme. Each component film should stand on its own but they should come together as a single narrative.
Star Wars, especially the Original Trilogy (now known as Episodes IV, V, and VI), is a good example of this. In it, Luke Skywalker follows the Hero’s Journey (as defined by Joseph Campbell ), working with and through classic archetypes as he becomes not only a Jedi but a true hero. It is Luke’s story.
A funny thing happened when Lucas brought out the Prequel Trilogy (also known as Episodes I, II, and III). The story shifted from its focus on Luke Skywalker to his father, Anakin Skywalker, who was the villain of the Original Trilogy – Darth Vader. The overall story is now the fall of Anakin and the final redemption of Darth Vader. It completely changes the focus of all six movies. We are asked to accept this. At the end of Episode VI, Anakin’s Force Ghost takes its place with the Force Ghosts of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, the two Jedi who represent the wise mentors and forces for good.
I have serious reservations about this. I don’t know if Anakin/Vader deserves or achieves redemption. Anakin, as he turns to the Dark Side, betrays all his friends. He kills children. Let me repeat that – he kills children. Episode III makes it clear even if it doesn’t show it. Anakin/Vader leads a cadre of Clone Troopers into the Jedi Temple and we see him confront children, the young students, some of which look to be six to eight. They know him only as a Jedi and trust him. We are later told that some of their corpses had lightsaber marks on them and Anakin is the only one who has a lightsaber in that attack. Anakin killed the children. How is that redeemable?
Why does Anakin turn to the Dark Side? Partly because he feels his fellow Jedi aren’t treating him with enough respect; as tragic flaws go, this is rather petty. Also, Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine, Anakin’s mentor, convinced Anakin that he could prevent Anakin’s wife, Padme, from dying. Ever.
Anakin had Separation Anxieties. He couldn’t save his mother from death at the hands of the Tusken Raiders so, once again, he slaughtered every Tusken man, woman, and – once again – child in the tribe. But Sidious tells Anakin he can keep Padme from ever dying and the chump believes him. It’s enough to send him careening down the path of the Dark side, becoming Darth Vader in the process.
And yet both Padme and, later on, Luke insist that there is good in him. Damned if I could see it.
How is Vader redeemed? When he decides he can’t turn Luke to the Dark Side, he decides to turn Luke’s sister. He tries to kill Luke. Instead, Luke defeats him, literally disarming him. Palpatine wanders in and tells Luke to kill Vader and take his place. Luke refuses, tossing away his lightsaber … a rather boneheaded move. Sidious then shoots lightning from his hands and starts to slowly turn Luke into a Crispy Critter. Vader, despite his son’s pleas, just watches for a few moments before finally turning on Sidious and tossing the Emperor to his doom, getting mortally wounded himself along the way. And this act supposedly redeems Anakin.
What exactly did Anakin/Vader do? Did he renounce the Dark Side? No. Did he regret his betrayal of his fellow Jedi? No. Did he feel bad about slaughtering the innocent children? Nope. He turned on his former Master because Sidious was killing Anakin’s son whom Vader himself had been trying to kill only a few moments earlier.
I admit to being an agnostic but I’m specifically a Roman Catholic agnostic. I was raised and steeped in the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and the notion of redemption was a strong part of that. The concept is that suffering expiates past sin or sins. Anakin/Vader sacrifices his own life to destroy Sidious. Why does he do it? To save his own child. Motivations matter and, it seems to me, this one is private, personal, and rather selfish. I don’t see the act as redemptive.
If Anakin isn’t redeemed, then the story for all six movies falls apart since it has become Anakin’s story. He’s not heroic, he’s not tragic, he becomes a monster. He massacres whole groups of beings, he betrays his friends, he kills children. Making the first six episodes retroactively about him just undermines the whole series.
Disney could actually fix some of this. Lucas kept on tinkering with “Did Han Solo shoot first?” (Yes, Han shot first.) Disney could remove the scenes and lines that indicate Anakin killed children if they want. Otherwise, we can just look forward to Episode VII. No Anakin, no Vader to morally compromise the story.
Or so we can hope.