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Episode 5: Help, I’m Alive

[🎵Accessing] 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 and Star Wars adjacent.

This episode is inspired by the song “Help, I’m Alive” by Metric and the topic is something very important to me: Anakin Skywalker’s anxiety. 

According to J M Barrie fairies can only hold one emotion at a time. He wrote in Peter Pan, 

“Tink was not all bad: or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good. Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time. They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a complete change.”

Peter Pan and Wendy, J.M. Barrie

That makes me think of Anakin, and also myself.  When I introduce myself as ‘Anika AKA Pixie’, I am referencing Tinker Bell and this characterization is how I describe my own anxiety disorder. It becomes so overwhelming I can’t hold any other emotion. I can’t even remember other emotions exist.

I have a birthday late in the year so I started first grade at age five. I was six months younger and at least a head shorter than everyone in my class. But I was bright and excited to learn, and I adored my teacher, Mrs. Dooley. One morning, Mrs. Dooley stepped out and left us in the charge of a teacher’s aide, Ruth, a gruff woman without any of Mrs. Dooley’s talent for interacting with children. Ruth required us all to be silent. I don’t remember exactly what I did, only that I made a noise of some kind. And it’s entirely possible I did it on purpose because that’s the kind of contrarian child I was. (That, for the record, is why I relate to Alice in Wonderland. )Anyway, I made a noise and Ruth jumped on it and called me a troublemaker. She wrote my name on the board and when Mrs. Dooley returned, Ruth made me stand up in front of the class and explain why. 

“I’m too loud,” I whispered.

The next morning I refused to go to school. My mother was bewildered, I’d been excited to go every day since I’d started. No one had told her what happened because it was a non issue to everyone except tiny five year old me. She had to drag me to the classroom because I refused to walk and she demanded to know what had happened? I was sobbing so much I couldn’t breathe. 

Mrs. Dooley explained, “Oh, she got in trouble, but it was nothing!” They ‘d forgotten. She looked me in the eyes and said she wasn’t angry with me. My breathing calmed, my tears stopped, and I skipped into the classroom with barely a goodbye to my mother.

But this is the first panic attack I remember.

In fourth grade, I shut myself in a closet one afternoon because I was the slowest at cursive. And handwriting is my nemesis to this day. In fifth grade, I quit the gifted students program rather than give my presentation on rain water in front of the class. In sixth grade, I had an assignment to choose a song to lip-sync and choreograph and I worked on it  for hours every day for a week. But I never performed it. I pretended I’d forgotten about the assignment.

In eighth grade, my mother died. I didn’t hold anything back that night. I held my poor dog so tight he hid under the table for hours after someone finally pried him out of my arms. I found a box of cards…congratulations to my mother for finishing nursing school. She completed her nursing school exams exactly one week before she died. I ripped them up in a fury. To tiny little pieces. A whole pile. I started singing “Amazing Grace” at like 3:00 in the morning and the pastor and his wife and whoever else was there…it was really crowded…joined in because why not? Then I took a bath and… I didn’t sleep til morning. 

In eleventh grade, I had a solo in the school musical. But I wasn’t the lead. That was Heather, who had never been in a school production before this one. I hated her for being taller than me, prettier than me, more popular than me, and annoyingly also a nice person. And a good actress and a great singer and her name was “Heather”. Basically, she was everything I wanted to be. Opening night she got three bouquets during curtain calls. And she absolutely deserved them. Hours later I was at a party in my friend’s basement and I threw a soda at my friend and when asked why? I said “because Heather got three bouquets.” The German exchange student in the cast thought it was very childish and crazy but all my friends just shrugged. I was known for being explosive and emotional.  Throwing drinks was totally normal.

I cried all the time. I shouted all the time. I danced all the time. I was afraid all the time. I experienced and expressed every emotion as if it was the only one that mattered because in that moment it was.

I had room for only one feeling at a time. 

All that was a long time ago and I learned to manage my anxiety. But it took time and effort and patience and help. My first grade teacher’s aide expected me to behave a certain way without explaining why or teaching me the skills. That’s why I relate to Anakin.

In The Phantom Menace, Anakin is introduced as an affable kid with good instincts and fast reflexes. He’s gifted, he’s kind, and he’s self-assured. He believes in himself. Not his power, not his destiny, not his potential…he believes in himself.

“I’m a person,” he tells Padmé. “I’m a person and my name is Anakin.”

But almost immediately the Jedi undermine his confidence. Not intentionally. But they put him through a bunch of tests, they tell him he failed because he loves his mom, and then they argue about what to do with him in front of him. While he’s surrounded, literally, by their judgement, and after he’s already left his mother behind and even said his goodbyes to Padmé. Anakin tried to follow their rules with only the barest grasp of what they were, and they told him it wasn’t enough. He wasn’t enough.

“I don’t want to be a problem,” he tells Qui-Gon. In just two meetings Anakin has already internalized the Jedi Council’s opinion that he is a problem. 

When we meet up with Anakin in Attack of the Clones, after ten years of Jedi training, he’s changed. He’s lost his self-assurance. He’s confident — cocky, but that’s different. He can’t trust his instincts. He has to relearn how to talk to Padmé. He’s at turns tentative and impulsive and that’s a dangerous combination in anyone, but especially in someone with Anakin’s access to power.

Attack of the Clones is brilliant in visual storytelling, something I think is often discounted, or completely missed, in commentary about the clunky dialogue and the alleged over reliance on special effects and CGI. We visit five very different planets in Episode 2 and they are all beautiful. The cinematography is amazing. It’s just a hugely colorful film. Every scene on Naboo is stunning. So soft, so romantic, vibrant and alive.

Obi-Wan spends an entire sequence of scenes dripping wet, has a whole fight in the rain followed by a space battle that includes the single best sound cue in cinematic history. My favorite song of all songs also first appears in Attack of the Clones, “Across the Stars”. All the costuming is incredible, Padmé literally wears a rainbow. The lightsabers lighting up across the arena on Geonosis… it’s so incredibly satisfying and I don’t even love the Jedi.

There’s so many shots that are just too beautiful for words. The shadow hug on the Lars estate. The angry Binary Sunset.The fire-lit confession. Padmé tumbling in the sand after falling from the transport on Genosis. The kiss framed by the arena. The shot of Boba and his father’s helmet breaks my heart every time, it’s breaking my heart just saying it out loud. And I will never stop talking about the moment at the very end when Bail Organa (love of my life) drops his fist on the balcony, the creation of the Army of the Republic goes against everything he believes in. There’s just so much, Attack of the Clones is a visual masterpiece. 

And throughout the film, Anakin fidgets. 

In the elevator and on the sofa he adjusts his robes, he plays with his hands. His fingers flutter at the balcony on Naboo, and he picks in the grass in the meadow. In the workshop on Tatooine he tinkers. He picks up random bits and pieces, flings one when he can’t reign in his anger and sorrow. 

Anakin has issues with focus. He is easily distracted and overly solicitous. He’s awkward and he doesn’t know what to do with his self. He’s not any good at being still or staying in the moment, two things Jedi are taught and expected to do with ease. Inaction is a hallmark for them.  I always think of Qui-Gon sitting down in the middle of the battle with Darth Maul, it’s peak Jedi. But Anakin is consistently terrible at not acting. He doesn’t sit down, he rushes at Dooku and loses an arm. 

But just like I skipped Kindergarten and didn’t learn how to stay quiet in class, Anakin skipped the youngling phase. He lacks the foundation Jedi inaction is built on. And he reacts poorly when people expect it to be instinct. Anakin was playing catch-up, which probably caused more anxiety.

But he tries! In the morning on Naboo, and in the evening on Tatooine, he stands watching the sun. Both times disturbed by his mother’s plight and both times he rushes to find her, but he gets his emotions in check first. As best he can, at least. He tries to do it the Jedi way, but he trips up because the Jedi way would actually be to let it go and he can’t do that. All of this is repeated in Revenge of the Sith

There are two moments in Attack of the Clones that really stand out for me and tell me so much about Anakin and what he’s feeling. First, early on in the film, in the packing scene with Padme, Anakin is standing by the window and he floats a ball around with the Force. He’s rambling on about his mentor “as wise as Master Yoda, as powerful as Master Windu”. And he goes on to express his gratitude and then immediately follows up with the complaint that Obi-Wan is holding him back, that actually Anakin has outpaced him already. Anakin’s emotions are all over the place but he’s trying to reign it in, he’s trying to express himself in the Jedi way. And I think that the ball is part of that. It’s a throwaway background moment, but my eyes are always drawn to that ball, to that tiny moment of magic.

Using the Force to float a ball would probably make Obi-Wan grumpy quote unquote just the way Anakin says using the Force to float a pear does. Floating random things because he can tells the audience that Anakin is both powerful and flippant. But he’s also fidgeting. I think he uses the ball to get control of his feelings, to give him focus. It’s not so unlike the balls Luke uses in A New Hope and Rey uses in The Rise of Skywalker as part of their Jedi training. Anakin is making the attempt to use a traditional training technique to focus and get out the Appropriate Jedi Response before moving on to his clumsy attempt to communicate his complicated feelings to Padmé. He wants to reign in his anger at Obi-Wan’s perceived slights, he wants to charm and impress Padmé. Instead, he has what amounts to a tantrum and then makes Padmé uncomfortable. He completely fails at both his objectives in spectacular Skywalker fashion. But he tries.

The second moment is on Tatooine, at his mother’s burial. After falling to his knees he scrapes the ground and grabs a fistful of sand. The sand grounds him. It’s, as we know, coarse and rough. It hurts and that’s exactly what he needs in that moment. Imagine the emotional whirlwind that Anakin’s experienced over those I don’t know three? days. The excitement of his first kiss. The disappointment of that relationship stalling. The nightmares. The desperation to find Shmi. The sorrow at her death. The rage of his killing spree. The shame over those actions. The exhaustion that all of that brings and the emptiness it leaves him with. 

I’ve brought up Anakin’s relationship to sand in various places before, what he really means when he says ‘I don’t like’ it. I honestly love the line and Hayden’s performance of it. And this moment at his mother’s grave I see as an extension. The sand represents slavery, poverty, loss, now death. But also home, family, love, that sense of belonging and identity that he’s lost.

“I’m a person. My name is Anakin.” That feeling, that ‘help, I’m alive’ feeling that he exhibits in this scene.  That’s what the song is about. That’s what anxiety is.

In The Phantom Menace we are told about Anakin’s fear. Warned, even. It’s so present and so dangerous it will lead to suffering, to destruction. But we don’t see it. In the council, when the Jedi are arguing about him and about Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, too, he looks worried. And when he says goodbye to his mother, he’s also worried and afraid. But fear is a completely normal response to both those situations. Leaving your mother behind and, oh, your whole entire planet probably forever… And you’re nine and six hours earlier you were a slave with a transponder that would literally blow up if you left. That would cause an unreasonable amount of stress and anxiety in anyone. And then he gets to wizard school and they reject him so he went through all that for nothing. He’s allowed to be afraid. And frankly, he’s allowed to be angry.

But Anakin’s anxiety is visible in Attack of the Clones. It’s not on display the way it is in Episode 3 which could easily be retitled ‘Revenge of the Anxiety’ or ‘Anxiety of the Sith’. But it’s visible. It’s on screen in all those little moments. And if going to the Dark Side gives him stability and a sense of identity and agency, control over that fear… Well, that’s also relatable. It’s understandable. And it’s a story I love. Darth Vader isn’t a monster, he’s a scared little boy.

To quote Yoda, “fear leads to anger” so tune in next time for a discussion of rage and the similarities between my two favorite characters, Anakin Skywalker and Daenerys Stormborn. Also, coming soon is PadMay! You’ve heard of May the Fourth be with you and Revenge of the Fifth and/or Sixth, but PadMay is a month long annual event to celebrate Padme Amidala. You can read more on my blog as well as on tumblr, twitter, and instagram at @politicalpadme. 

Follow my playlists on YouTube and Spotify and after the episode, the song I’ve discussed will immediately play. Links can be found at anakin.me. That’s A-N-A-K-I-N-dot-M-E. Please follow, like, subscribe and tell all of your friends to do the same. [🎵Accessing] See you next time and may the Force be with you. [ 🎵]

My single “Robots Don’t Cry” is now available on iTunesSpotify and more. To celebrate the release, I commissioned the artist Danielle Balanqua, who you can find at balangawa, b-a-l-a-n-g-a-w-a, on instagram, to create a series of ten artworks featuring droids and their best friends. 

Today’s droid is L3-37 with Lando Calrissian.  

Elthree is an activist for droid rights who starts a rebellion in the Spice Mines of Kessel. She’s Lando’s assistant, co-pilot, and close friend, the only person per se that we see him really trust fully and mourn openly in the whole saga. She is bold and forthright and determined to win agency for herself and her peers. This whole series that I commissioned showcases droids with clear personalities and relationships, that all prove her point that droids are more than the sum of their parts. I love Elthree almost as much as Lando does. 

 Enjoy the art, and please, give “Robots Don’t Cry” a listen. 

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