By Jonathan Decker (Clinical Director, LMFT)
“Not the hero Star Wars deserved, but the one it needed”
When the prequel trilogy hit theaters, many lifelong fans felt blindsided by the portrayal of Anakin, the Jedi who became Darth Vader. Long imagining him to be a dashing and heroic figure, instead fans got a whiny child, a petulant teen, and an entitled lover. Many found him unlikable, targeting actors Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christiansen, along with the writing of George Lucas, for deflating a childhood hero and diluting the impact of the entire saga.
A closer look and a shift in perspective, however, display that the Anakin we got was (to paraphrase The Dark Knight) “not the hero Star Wars deserved but the one it needed.” Lloyd and Christiansen did their director's bidding and created a protagonist who, it turns out, was every inch the tragic hero we wanted him to be. The flawed prequels, far from diminishing the original trilogy, enrich it. Don't believe me? Open your mind to “a certain point of view.”
With degrees in psychology and family therapy (as well as over a decade treating patients), allow me to take you inside Anakin's head and heart. It will allow you to see him in a more sympathetic light. If you're not a fan of the prequels, this just may redeem them for you. Or not. I only ask that you consider my assessment.
“Anakin Falls Too Fast!” (But Does He?)
One of the chief complaints I hear against Revenge of the Sith is that Anakin goes from good guy to child-killer “almost immediately.” I have issues with the prequels (of which I am a fan, warts and all), but this isn't one of them. What's often not discussed is the role of a supernatural power (the Dark Side) in just how fast he fell.
Fact is, Anakin had wrestled with the Dark Side for years. He butchered Sand People and killed Dooku, but in his eyes those losses of control were justified as “eliminating evil.” He didn't use his powers against innocent people or noncombatants, so he still saw himself as a “good guy.”
As Dooku tells Anakin before his death “You have hate. You have anger. But you don't use them.” Anakin's belief in good (and, by extension, in his own goodness) is what allowed him to push back against the Dark Side. He flirted with evil several times, succumbed momentarily, but always found his way back.
The Jedi Order, and his role in it, is what keeps Anakin clinging to the Light Side, as the Order represents good to him (and his own goodness). Palpatine effectively gets Anakin to lose faith in the Jedi Order, thereby upsetting his concepts of right and wrong.
Anakin questions his place in the Universe. After all, if he's aligned with the Jedi Order and they are no longer good, then where can Anakin belong? Where can he be “good?” Still, even when Anakin begins to see the Jedi as corrupt, lying, and power-hungry and the Dark Side as the only way to save Padme, he continues to wrestle with the issue.
Only when he aids in the death of Mace Windu, someone he didn't see as “evil” before, does Anakin hit the tipping point. “What have I done?” Cheesy line? Maybe, but it also highlights Anakin's guilt. At this point he can no longer believe himself to be a good person, so why resist the Dark Side?
It is here that the Dark Side, as a malevolent supernatural power, rushes in. Anakin doesn't fight it anymore. He lets it happen, and it happens fast. It overpowers him. Yoda recognizes this later when he says to Obi-Wan: “The boy you trained, gone he is, consumed by Darth Vader.”
If (in Anakin's mind) the Jedi council aren't good, if HE'S not good, if there is no ultimate “good,” then all that matters is saving Padme and ending the war, no matter the cost. The Dark Side clouds his judgment. And he goes to work.
“From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!'
Still, a part of him clings to the idea of being “good;” he simply now sees the concept as relative. It's all about your point of view. That's why when Obi-Wan says “Chancellor Palpatine is evil,” Anakin's response is “From my point of view the Jedi are evil!” After falling to the Dark Side when he questions his own goodness, Anakin twists things in order to place himself on the “good” side of the equation and the Jedi on the “bad” side. It's the only way to live with himself. In order to believe that he's still a good person, he has to shift his idea of what good is.
But he's STILL conflicted. He's still confused. He's still wrestling with his conscience. There is still ACTUAL good in him. Killing those children didn't come without consequence or guilt. Why do you think he's crying as he overlooks the lava on Mustafar? He didn't enjoy it, but he saw all of it as necessary. In his mind, he's gone too far now to turn back. He has to continue. Why?
Vader's Purpose: The Psychology of a Sith Lord
His life purpose now is to end conflict. Through brutality and violence, to be sure, but to end it. He offers Padme the opportunity to overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy together “to make things how we want them to be.” He makes a similar offer to Luke in Empire Strikes Back, again to “end this destructive conflict.”
Everything he does, from building the Death Star to killing younglings to hunting Rebels, is meant to bring order to the galaxy and to end violence Galaxy-wide. In his twisted mind the ends justify the means. Like most great villains, he doesn't see himself as the bad guy. He sees the Rebels as the villains. This is why he calls Leah a traitor at the beginning of a New Hope. In his mind, she and her allies are extending the war and upsetting order.
His life is still about control. It always has been. He wanted to stop his mother's death and Padme's. In the picnic conversation with Padme in Episode II he says that people should be “made to agree,” suggesting an end to democracy in favor of a dictatorship. He was only half-kidding. Later, he fully embraces this ideology.
The “boring political stuff” in the prequels serves the purpose of setting up the disdain Anakin and Palpatine feel for the tedious bureaucratic process and their rationale for wanting a ruler. Both see firm control as the way to maintain order and bring peace to the Galaxy. And the people eat it up, to which Padme observes: “So this is how liberty dies… to thunderous applause.”
Liberty dies in part because Anakin puts little stock in freedom. As a slave (and later as a Jedi) he was constantly being told what to do. He was under the control of others, so of course he rebels and seeks to control everything. But, when all is said and done, he lives without love. People who control others are feared but not loved. No one believes in him. Everyone fears him.
Anakin's Purpose: The Humanity Behind the Mask
What interests me is that what saves Anakin is Luke's unconditional love. All Anakin ever wanted, from the time he left his mother and his mentor Qui-Gon died, is for someone to love him and believe in him like they did. That motivates ALL of the “whiny” behavior in Episode II. Ob-Wan didn't give him unconditional love. The Jedi council didn't believe in him. This also explains his arrogance. People who are judged and not accepted often get defensive, covering their insecurity by projecting overconfidence.
Anakin tries to meet his need for acceptance through Padme. That's why he's so clingy and pushy. If Obi Wan and the council had given him unconditional love and acceptance, he might not have come across as so desperate with the former queen. But he's really, at his core, a scared little boy who lost both his mother and his mentor, never finding his place after that. Maybe, he hopes, he could belong with Padme. So why does she fall for him? He's brave and handsome, but I think she had empathy for him. Even though he “had no game,” her compassion blossoms into love.
Palpatine pretends to give him both love and appreciation, playing Anakin like a fiddle. By the time Obi-Wan comes around and is a true friend to Anakin, the young Jedi was in too deep with Palpatine. The Chancellor had earned more influence over him than Obi-Wan had. That's why the strained relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Episode II, along with Anakin's “needy” behavior in that film, are so important to the story. The serve a definite purpose.
Family Ties: How Attachment Actually Saves Anakin
So along comes Luke, the first person since Padme to offer him unconditional love and to believe in him. The Jedi were wrong. While attachment can lead to fear, anger, and hate, it can also lead to affection, selflessness, and sacrifice. Luke goes against Yoda and Obi-Wan, who, interestingly, are STILL beating the drum of “don't let your attachments get in the way of your mission.”
Luke shows Anakin that love, ultimate goodness, and decency are real by being willing to die to redeem him. He exemplifies freedom, kindness, and hope, traits long since dormant in Anakin. Anakin's son believes in him and loves him, like Shmi Skywalker did, like Qui-Gon did, like Padme did, and like Obi-Wan did. His compassion reawakened, Anakin finally believes in himself.
The Dark Side no longer has sway over him. The Light Side rushes in. It's worth noting that Anakin changes as quickly from the dark to the light in Return of the Jedi as he did from the light to the dark in Revenge of the Sith. The reason in both cases is clear: his internal struggle had never stopped. But he dies on the side of good, and that's where he stays.
Anakin falls because he selfishly tries to save his attachments through power and control. He is redeemed by selflessly allowing his attachment to Luke to motivate him to let go of power, relinquish control, and sacrifice himself. As a family therapist, that speaks to me. We can motivate those around us to get love through kindness, not control. People change through unconditional love, not judgment. Sacrificing for loved ones can inspire them to do the same for us.
George Lucas isn't a perfect artist. But he is a genius.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.