[Originally written October 17, 2010. For a follow-up blog, see "Anakin Skywalker: Tatooine's Messiah"].
Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith upends the moral compass of the traditional Star Wars universe as the millennia-old tension between Jedi and Sith comes to a head. From the very opening scrawl, a moral impossibility is thrust upon the audience. “War! The Republic is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Dooku. There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.” This seems impossible. How can there be heroes on the vile side of the Separatists’ droid armies AND on the side of the Republic’s clone troopers and Jedi? How can evil and good exist on both sides?
This highlights the moral proposition that Lucas gives us in Revenge of the Sith: that the same moral “flaws” that are thought to lie solely on the Dark Side exist just as much on the Light Side. Lucas’ criticisms here show exactly why Anakin, the Chosen One, was needed to bring balance to the Force—a role that he does not fully accomplish until Episode VI.
The institution of the Jedi Order, like any institutionalized religion, is not immune to the vices and weaknesses of beings. While called ‘defenders of the peace’ by Mace Windu in Episode II, by Episode III their role has grown into one of exerting force through the military. Jedi are now ranked as “Generals” and lead battalions of clone troopers on a myriad of worlds across the entire galaxy. Spread thin, they are far from the community of each other and have their consciences worn down as they watch their campaigns kill millions. In a strange twist, many Jedi grow closer to their clone troopers than they do to each other: long-term fighting has shifted their mindset to be like clones that have been specifically bred to fight and kill.
Moreover, the special insight the Jedi have from the Force has been disappearing. Even in Episode II, the Jedi know that their ability to sense the future has diminished. By now, it is completely gone, so far gone that they cannot discover the Sith Lord right beneath their noses. Thus the Jedi have turned into super-soldiers with special abilities, but they have no ability to be moral prophets, blinded by the growing power of the Dark Side (Or are they blinded by their own faults? Does Jedi militarism detract from their focus and thus keep them from being able to grasp what is truly happening in the galaxy?)
The Separatists, while certainly rebels, only desire more freedom from the over-centralized, corrupt Senate on Coruscant. In particular, they want more freedom of trade and commerce—hence the support of the Commerce Guild, the Banking Clan, the Trade Federation, and Techno Union. As the war drags on and claims billions of lives, some start to wonder if the war is worth fighting. This is another element of Lucas’ critique: the Jedi are blindly serving the Republic, when they cannot be sure they are actually fighting for the best side. Padme wonders aloud, “Have we become the evil we sought to destroy?” Yet this is a question the Jedi never stop to ask. Like America in the Vietnam War, they continue to fight without really knowing why. Later on, the remnants of the Separatists form the nascent Rebel Alliance, and the ‘enemy’ becomes the good guy.
Additionally, the Jedi are over-dogmatic. Anakin Skywalker is the classic foil to the Jedi. He is special, the “Chosen One” with greater Force potential than any Jedi, and yet is nearly refused from the Jedi Temple because Yoda deems him too old and too afraid. Anakin is the Jedi who breaks the rules, who knew his family, who gets married. Anakin, despite his mastery of the Jedi way, finds himself an outcast, a reject, from the inner circle of the Jedi. Partly that is his own fault because of the secrets he hides even from Obi-Wan (Padme, the Tusken Raiders), but the Jedi Order is at fault as well. Mace Windu especially harbors deep, obvious disdain and mistrust of Anakin. When he is appointed to the Jedi Council, Mace pointedly shuts him down and makes sure Anakin knows he is only accepted provisionally, without the ranking of Jedi Master. This is especially hurtful to Anakin in particular because he needed the Master ranking to access secret Jedi Holocrons in hopes of finding a way to save Padme.
Jedi dogmatism alienates Anakin and provides leverage for Palpatine. “Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?” he asks Anakin. “I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you.” Palpatine has done two things here: painted the Jedi as withholding of vital information, and shown himself to be the Provider of this information to Anakin. Jedi dogmatism forbids the teaching of Sith legends and practices, not realizing that they would soon pay for their ignorance. After all, prior to Darth Maul’s appearance in Episode I, the Jedi Council had claimed that the Sith had been extinct for millennia— a serious miscalculation.
Another realm of Jedi dogmatism lies in the area of the passions. Episode II highlights this tension perfectly: Anakin struggles to explain to Padme how the Jedi can be forbidden to love, and yet also are called to take care of the galaxy. Can one care for another being without loving them in some way? Perhaps, but the deeper problem is what to do with passions when inevitably arise. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan had had their own flames when they were younger, but they had been with fellow Jedi and only after more extensive training. Anakin, on the other hand, had been taken in at ten years old, after many of his passions had been allowed to grow (“I sense much fear in you” Yoda says in Episode I).
Anakin’s forbidden marriage to Padme flies in the face of Jedi laws against attachment. These laws had served the Jedi well for centuries, as attachment did not mix with the semi-nomadic, risky, and servant role the Jedi had in the galaxy. Attachment could breed greed, jealousy, and favoritism. The danger was that a Jedi would threaten the greater good in order to save the one they cared about. As Yoda tells Anakin, “You must learn to let go of everything you fear to lose.” But can one blame Anakin that he has emotions, when these come so naturally to humans?
Thus when Anakin states that the Sith rely on their passion for their strength, the viewer wonders if perhaps that is what Anakin is doing as well. In the fight against Dooku aboard Grievous’ ship, it is only when the Count goads Anakin on that Anakin truly starts fighting fiercely. It seems that Anakin does use his emotions to defeat Dooku: his fear for the wounded Obi-Wan’s life, his anger against the evil Dooku, and his pride (“My abilities have doubled since the last time we met”). As they battled right in front of the captive Supreme Chancellor, Palpatine could hardly have missed what was happening to Anakin… and had been happening: “Remember what you told me about your mother and the Sand People?” he reminds Anakin of his massacre.
|Two blue lightsabers. Who's the bad guy? Who's the good guy? Maybe it's not so simple...|
Another contradiction on the side of the Jedi is that while they emphasize cool, dispassionate thinking, they also rely heavily on “feelings”. In the beginning of Episode III, both Obi-Wan and Yoda separately advise Anakin to “search [his] feelings”. This is essentially a euphemism for “listen to the Force”, and we’ve heard that before. But Palpatine gives Anakin the same advice, to search his feelings about the true intentions of the Jedi. And it works—Anakin dwells upon his growing doubts about the Jedi, and those doubts are reconfirmed upon reflection. This is not manipulation by Palpatine. The Force truly is telling Anakin about the flaws in the Jedi. After all, they asked him to spy on Palpatine, and Mace Windu refuses to trust in Anakin. Lucas therefore uses the Jedi’s own mantra against them. Thus when Palpatine states that the Jedi are planning to take over the Republic, Anakin senses enough truth in that statement to not reject it on face.
Lucas’ critique of the Jedi dwells especially on their veiled moral relativism. Obi-Wan screams at the end of Episode III, “Anakin, the Sith are evil!” Anakin replies, “Well from my point of view the Jedi are evil!” “Then you truly are lost,” Obi-Wan states with finality. Yet this is highly ironic, for only twenty minutes earlier Obi-Wan had told Anakin: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Thus Obi-Wan’s own position is to be relativist when it suits him and absolutist when it suits him. This is true elsewhere in the movie as well. Jedi dogmatism says never to execute prisoners, and doing so to Dooku does give Anakin a guilty conscience. Yet Mace Windu is perfectly willing to execute Palpatine. The moral relativism of the Jedi is deadly to their case, because it is only in being morally superior that they can claim any kind of authority. Once Anakin sees that they operate according to their own interests, like any cause, he feels much less obligated to side with them.
The fight between Mace Windu and Palpatine is the tipping point of the whole movie. Anakin, knowing Mace is morally wrong to want to execute the unarmed Palpatine, tries to dissuade him. He is also conflicted with many emotions: He is in a forbidden romance with Padme and has promised to save her. The Jedi show disdain for the Chancellor and have asked that Anakin betray him. The Jedi have passed over him, the Chosen One, to lead the mission against Grievous, even though he is a more capable Jedi than Obi-Wan at this point.
Palpatine, on the other hand, offers him respect, influence, freedom to feel emotions, and new powers to save anyone he loves from dying. Anakin probably did not intend to kill Mace Windu, but he did choose to stop him. This betrayal could not be undone, and now Anakin knows he has lost all his friends and allies. Except, perhaps, for Padme. And thus with his new identity (Darth Vader), he was willing to do anything, including invade the Jedi Temple, to save her.
Anakin did not turn to the Dark Side because he was evil. He reveals his true intentions when he tells Padme that they could overthrow Emperor Palpatine, rule the galaxy and make things the way they should be. He just wanted the freedom to love Padme and the ability to right all the wrongs he saw. The Jedi had shown themselves to be selfish and rigid, while the path of the Sith allowed him to keep his power and emotions. Anakin turned to Palpatine because he faced rejection everywhere else.
And in the end, Palpatine was the only thing keeping him alive. After his injuries in the fight against Obi-Wan, Darth Vader was bound by Palpatine’s power to manipulate midiclorians to keep him from dying (just like Darth Plagueis could do). Thus in Episode VI when Vader throws Palpatine into the Second Death Star’s reactor shaft, he knows he is dying not because of injuries (which only involved a severed artificial hand and some electrical shocks), but rather because he had just killed the source of his life. In a final act of defiance, Anakin takes off his helmet to look at Luke in his own power, no longer dependent on the Emperor.
So was Anakin the Chosen One? Did he bring balance to the Force? I believe that despite his fall to the Dark Side, Anakin did bring balance. I have argued that the Jedi were corrupt and misguided, listening only to their narrow view of the Force instead of what the Force actually demanded of them. The Sith, in turn, were too selfish, using the Force solely for personal power. Anakin provides a bridge between this gap. He uses the Force and obeys its moral code, but also allows himself to feel emotions and to have attachments to people important to him. While he is forced to choose the Dark Side for a while, there is still good in him. And it is not the moral code or regulations of the Jedi that bring him back to the Light. As we see in Episode VI, it is love for his son that finally causes Vader to turn against Palpatine, freeing him at last. Like God towards us humans, it is Love that redeems.
The New Jedi Order, which Luke starts after the events of Episode VI, has fixed the problems of the Old. Jedi are now allowed to love, marry, and have children. They are accepted into training despite being “too old”, and there is a greater knowledge of the dangers of the Dark Side. Anakin truly did bring balance to the Force at last, in a role that radically changed the Jedi Order forever.