Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Long Redemption of Anakin Skywalker

Full-on Star Wars nerdery ahead. Really not relevant to anything else. Enjoy at will.

Like I said earlier this week, I watched the holy trilogy again in mid-December. Jedi has always been my favorite, which I used to hide and no longer care to hide. It's because Jabba fascinated me when I was a little girl, and because Luke's journey (and Hamill's deep grip on the character) has become electrifying, and because the space battle at the end is excellent chaos, and because I love redwood trees. (I don't love the Ewoks, but I'm not offended by them.) Lots of other reasons, too, but I'd essentially be summarizing the highlights of the movie if I went on. Empire is the better film, but I like Jedi best.

We got to the scene when Luke turns himself in to Vader down on Endor - when they have that pivotal conversation about Luke's father, about the Dark Side, about Anakin. I paused it, and I said that I thought this point in the trilogy is where Anakin's characterization in the prequels is at its most threadbare. A conversation followed that lasted half an hour or more, and that made me reverse my opinion altogether. I wish I'd had all my other SW friends in the room, but that's why I'm writing it up here.

Let's, just for the moment, take the position that everything in the prequels is deliberate and makes sense.

I'll give you a minute to get there.


So Vader reacts strongly to Luke saying Anakin - "That name no longer has any meaning for me." I thought about it and realized that Vader probably associates the name with failure: to save Padme's and his mother's lives, to defeat Obi-Wan, to be an actual Jedi Knight instead of a sneaky, totalitarian, attachment-holding traitor. Think about Anakin's life, and it's not that surprising that he turns on Luke with a finger-shake and says no, no way, that's not me. Especially if we buy what the prequels sell about Padme, that she's the great trauma of Vader's life - but even if we don't buy that particular item (and...yeah, I don't), his reaction still makes sense. Considering this, I started to wonder more.

It's pretty terrible that no one on the Jedi Council understands the prophecy about Anakin, i.e. the meaning of the word balance - balance means Light and Dark, you dummies, which means he's, you know, probably going to be evil.

But, again, let's accept that and go forward. One of the things I hate most about the prequels is how thoroughly Anakin is set up as A Bad Dude even when Jake Lloyd is still playing him. He has negative and fascist impulses from really, really early in his life. All that bad seed crap indicated to me that everything Luke says in the last half of Jedi, about there being a good guy buried inside the black plastic death's head, is negated. Which sucks, because that arc of Vader's is part of what gives the trilogy its goddamn meaning, and to just be like "Nope, he was evil all along" makes the end of Jedi almost nonsensical.

But I listened to Luke's dialogue a little more carefully, and I thought about Anakin. (I thought about ANAKIN, not about Hayden Christensen.) Evil or not, this guy has been through the wringer. He's had twenty years or so to live in that suit and think. Along comes a little pissant from Tatooine - a planet that has some seriously bad juju for this guy - a little pissant who's the son of his beloved Padme, who's been hidden from the guy for the aforementioned twenty years (in the suit), and here he comes to the forest moon being all "I totally know everything about the Force, Father, having had a tiny fraction of the training that Jedi Knights once had, and although I don't know anything whatsoever about your actual life, I know there's some good in you."

Fucking punk, right? What do you know, little farm boy? Who do you think you are? How do you have the first idea who I am and what's inside me?

But Luke is right. There is good in him. Good somehow germinated inside the suit during those long years, while the son came of age. Or so we can assume, because Anakin is in fact redeemed at the end of the film, with Hamill's beautiful tears.

The hypothesis Matt and I came around to in this conversation, while the movie stayed paused and stayed paused so we could talk, was that prior to the Empire, Anakin was little more than a pawn of the prophecy, of the Force's need for balance. That the Force tugged him and his power to the Dark Side. And that once the Jedi Order had been mostly eradicated, the decks were cleared and it was time for the Light Side to come back in. Even if Anakin inclined to evil from Jake Lloyd forward, he did, saw, learned, evolved enough during his years as Darth Vader to see that the Sith way was not the way.

Which means - hold on to your hat - that Anakin has a real and very long character arc, one that makes genuine and richly meaningful sense, from the prequels on through the holy trilogy.

This arc is obfuscated by Hayden Christensen's timelessly bad choices about how to play the character and George Lucas's shocking inability as an actor's director to help him make other choices. But it can be teased out. It's a young man with training and talent, but zero wisdom, seizing power that's much too big for him and using it to the ends to which his unfortunate destiny and poor influences push him. He thinks his redemption can be localized in a person, but when she dies, he considers himself lost.

At this point he's lost pretty much everything a man can lose. Pobrecito.

Later, it's a man coming to realize, at the end of his sad and turbulent life, that his ways are wrong. His son comes along to show him that he is redeemable after all, and, leaning on his son's strength, he sets aside the ways that, after all, did not serve him.

Before 1999, my understanding of Vader's arc was that at the end of Jedi, he returns to a good self that had been driven from him by the Emperor. That's why the innate-evil playbook in the prequels pissed me off so much - because if there never was a good self, the arc makes no sense. But I had to unlearn what I had learned. Anakin's arc isn't about returning to a former version of himself. It's about making a new self, finding inside him a good man that may never have existed until his son (touchingly) sees the good in him that no one else has. That's cool. That has resonance.

If Christensen hadn't decided to play Anakin as a perpetual adolescent; if he had the kind of subtlety that a character who is at once a tool of a plan that is not his own and a foolhardy warrior too assured of his own abilities requires of an actor; if some of the dialogue given him hadn't been so wretched; if so many of the human elements in the prequels hadn't failed so completely - if, then all of this arcy goodness might have been clearer from 2002. The bones of it are there. Lucas knows his Joseph Campbell, for sure. A better screenplay, a better director, and a very particular actor might have made all this as magical as Luke's arc in the holy trilogy.

I'm so grateful for the ridiculous long conversation that showed me this aspect of Anakin/Vader. Now I just feel like his characterization in the prequels is a shame, a set of missed opportunities, rather than actual travesty. The canon, the clay, can still make good shapes in my mind. And I can now look on the character, if not the actor playing him, with a little more respect.

DFTBA. Nerd power off.

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