Hello! I’m Anika AKA Pixie and you are listening to the Endless Anakin Playlist Podcast, in which I use popular music as a frame to discuss anything and everything Star Wars.
This episode is inspired by the song “Paralyzed” by the artist NF.
I decided to start with the foundation of my Anakin obsession. This is a story I’ve told before, on panels and podcasts, in blog posts and twitter threads, all over the place. It’s the story of my introduction to Star Wars and that story is a good introduction to me.
I first met Anakin as Darth Vader. It was in the third film of the original trilogy, Star Wars Episode Six: Return of the Jedi and I was seven years old. I don’t remember anything about that first time watching other than Darth Vader. Of course I’ve now seen the film fifty times, but, I still have this very strong memory of… of the moment when Darth Vader chose to save his son and destroy the Emperor. Here’s how I tell it:
I met Vader in Return of the Jedi. I was seven, and he was sad. Although I didn’t know it at the time, his son had turned down the opportunity to rule the galaxy with him. Which reminded him that Luke’s mother had also opted out of ruling the galaxy with him. Because she, and his best friend, indeed all of his friends, hated the Empire and all it stood for and all those who stood with it, including Vader. And now, so did his son. So he was sad. And he was also scared. The last time he’d taken a stand he’d lost everything and put evil in power. He was shy about trying again.
When Luke was attacked, Vader fought back. He couldn’t save himself, or any of the people he lost. He could change anything that had already happened. But he could save his son. He loved Luke more than himself, more than the Empire, more than the whole galaxy. I was seven and Darth Vader wasn’t a monster, he was the father I wanted. Someone who would throw his whole life away for me.
That’s what stood out to seven year old me…Darth Vader loves his son more than anything and everything else. Some thirty years later, taken with the long view and after everything else we’ve learned— and are still learning because Star Wars isn’t planning to end any time soon… Now, as an adult, there is more going on there. Vader doesn’t just love his son more than the Empire, or the galaxy, or even himself, Vader, Anakin, loves his son more than his pride. And more than his shame. And more than his fear. That’s why he can finally act, after so many years of living inside his mistakes.
In talking about Return of the Jedi George Lucas is quoted as saying “I like the idea that the person you thought was the villain is actually the victim, and that the story is really about the villain trying to regain his humanity.”
I like that idea, too, George. A huge swath of my favorite characters in fiction across all fandoms are victims who ended up villains, in one way or another at least. And it’s not because I prefer the bad boy, or I like danger. It’s because that story of trying… that’s powerful, that’s relatable. That’s beautiful.
I first heard the song “Paralyzed” in a Draco Malfoy vid by magloveswinter on youtube, which I’ve linked in the show notes. In that video, along with the song the artist includes quotes from the Harry Potter films, including Dumblrdore telling Draco [quote] “Years ago I knew a boy who made all the wrong choices.” [unquote]
I love that line. I love it in the context, in the Half-Blood Prince film, because it works. In the scene Draco has Dumbledore cornered and defenseless and all he has to do is cast the killing curse. To succeed, in what he’s been trying to succeed at the entire movie. That’s it. He could win. But he doesn’t. Draco joins the Death Eaters, he fights on the side of Voldemort, he even creates the circumstances that allow Dumbledore to be killed. But he doesn’t do it himself and in fact, we don’t see him kill anybody.
And then there’s Dumbledore, who is talking about Tom Riddle. But maybe, if we’re feeling generous to Dumbledore which I’ll be honest I’m usually not, I see Dumbledore the same way I see Yoda, someone who is convinced that fighting evil is all they need to do to be good. But Yoda does finally admit his failures in The Last Jedi and Dumbledore’s musing about a boy who made all the wrong choices can be interpreted as that level of self-awareness, that Dumbledore is talking about himself, “I knew a boy who made all the wrong choices.” Or maybe what I mean is, he’s saying we can still make better choices. Draco can, and does, and Dumbledore can and Yoda and Luke and Anakin and Ben Solo….we can always make better choices.
The entire prequel trilogy, and the Clone Wars series, are about people, mostly good people, making all the wrong choices. Over and over again. But Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi, too, say those choices do not have to define them forever.
My moment, Anakin’s choice to act in Return of the Jedi, is vital to understanding who Anakin is. It seems clear to me in Return of the Jedi, especially in his earlier scenes on the bridge with Luke, that Anakin is tired of being Vader. In A New Hope, and now in Rogue One, he’s the villain. The hidden face of the Empire, a hunter and a killer and “more machine than man”.
Then in Empire Strikes Back he’s completely unhinged. He’s murdering his own people left and right. He’s leading his army into an asteroid belt to pursue one random freighter. He’s setting out a whole dinner to use as a trap…? He’s creating a new way to torture and transport prisoners… It’s a lot. And it all builds up to his offer to Luke, to rule the galaxy as father and son. An offer Luke not only refuses, he flings his injured body into a shaft to escape. It’s so dramatic, they’re such Skywalkers all the time, but I digress.
In his final film, Vader is done. He tried. He shot for the moon, laid his soul bare to his son and was rejected. Again. And he’s done. He’s tired. He just goes through the motions the entire film. Meet the emperor. Lead the troops. Catch his son. Deliver Luke to the emperor. Fight. Fight. Fight. He barely emotes, only shows any interest in what’s going on at all when he learns about his daughter and then immediately makes it about Obi-Wan. When Palpatine urges Luke to kill his father and take his place, Vader barely reacts. When Luke refuses, and throws away his lightsaber, Vader stands up and shuffles out of the way. He’s broken down the entire time. He’s broken down before the film begins.
Anakin’s first choice, in Revenge of the Sith, to strike Mace Windu and allow Palpatine to kill him, is barely a choice. It’s impulsive and he immediately regrets it. In comparison his final choice, in Return of the Jedi, to stop Palpatine and allow Luke to get away, is measured. He looks between the Emperor and his son, he listens to Luke’s cry for help, and he visibly makes a decision. But the result of both actions is the same: Anakin participates in the death of a person who has full authority over him, and that action disrupts the balance of power across the galaxy. Those two choices are bookends of Vader. And Vader is Anakin, he never stops being Anakin. But Anakin also exists beyond Vader, beyond those two choices.
“Darth Vader”, the title and the suit and the myth of the monster…Anakin lives with and with his own choices. Inside a trap he created with them. He has a castle on Mustafar, he literally surrounds himself with his mistakes and his failures and his losses.
Anakin made one horrible choice when he was barely an adult. And then he spent his whole life making it over and over and over again and punishing himself — and everyone else — instead of making a different choice. Instead of trying again. Ironically Vader is what Yoda made him – he does or he does not. He doesn’t try. Anakin, like Draco, is trapped. Paralyzed.
And then finally, after so many years of pain, he makes a different choice. To answer Luke’s pleas to help him. That moment, after so many years, he broke free. He acted. He made a decision to do something…different. To do something helpful. To do something against Palpatine. Most importantly, to do something. He pushes past the paralysis, past the depression, past the trap.
We, I, often focus on the choice to save his son, but he also chooses to kill his master. Notably in Revenge of the Sith he doesn’t choose to kill Mace Windu, that’s just what happens. He chooses to save Palpatine. It’s so twisted that the wrong choice is saving a life and the right choice is taking one. But what I take from it, what I’ve always taken from that, is that choosing is the point.
Trauma is paralyzing. And trauma is destructive, especially when it is unacknowledged, ignored, or brushed aside. Star Wars and Harry Potter and most fiction and a lot of life is about dealing with trauma and what happens when we don’t.
Draco gets out. Draco survives his canon, survives his childhood, the war, the abuse. And all his wrong choices. I spend a lot of time thinking about what would be different if Anakin, and now Ben, got that chance, an ending that was a beginning. I comfort myself thinking that Hayden’s appearance as a Force ghost in Return of the Jedi and Adam’s lack of an appearance as a Force ghost in Rise of Skywalker are both proof that their ending IS only a beginning. We just haven’t seen the rest.
Stories have whatever value we give them. When I was seven years old I fell in love with Darth Vader. And I’m still in love with Darth Vader. Because he loved his son. Because he made better choices.
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See you next time and may the Force be with you.
Final take, for real this time. God, this is hard. Okay.
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