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Episode 7: Better

[🎵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 “Better” by Regina Spektor and the topic is Padmé Naberrie Amidala Skywalker.

This episode is part of 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 Padmé Amidala. You can read more about it on my blog as well as on tumblr, twitter,  instagram and tiktok, all at @politicalpadme. And for the record, yes! I made it up. I realized the name pun five years ago and ran with it. As always, I don’t know why Disney hasn’t hired me yet. 

I first heard the song “Better” in the series finale of the CBS series The Good Wife. Alicia Florrick, the titular good wife, has enough in common with Padmé that I mashed up the series with the prequels some years back and I immediately added the song to my Padmé playlist. It’s quirky and catchy but there’s an underlying sadness. And fatigue. Alicia and Padmé are both so tired of trying and trying and still failing, still losing. But ‘better’ matters.

Padmé remains a somewhat controversial figure in Star Wars discourse. The prequels were unpopular with critics and audiences and especially fans of the original trilogy. I am an outlier in that, and have been for twenty-two years. I was a hardcore Star Wars fan years before The Phantom Menace premiered, but the prequel trilogy didn’t “ruin my childhood” quote-unquote or destroy my love for the galaxy far far away. They enhanced it. I created a blog and a podcast and a fandom holiday because of the prequels. Because I want to celebrate them and analyze them and even critique them, but because I love them. And Padmé is a big part of why.

Prior to The Phantom Menace the sum total of what we knew about Luke and Leia’s mother was that she was “beautiful, kind but sad”. And that only according to the vague memory of her daughter. Luke, the hero, and protagonist of the entire original trilogy, has no memory of his mother. Obi-Wan, who was literally by Padmé’s side when the twins were born, never mentions her. Even Vader never mentions her.

That’s not unusual. The dead mom trope is a cliche and the original trilogy is about Vader and Luke, father and son. Padmé, and Leia as Vader’s daughter, are an afterthought. The prequels make her real.

Padmé is a child queen and an idealistic senator who has an illicit relationship with a Jedi and dies. Her critics don’t like her in Episode One because she speaks her mind. They don’t like her in Episode Two because she falls in love. And they don’t like her in Episode Three because she cries. She’s too strong right up to the point where she’s too weak. It’s a needle that is impossible to thread. But threading it is a task given to every female character in every genre of fiction in every medium. And certainly to every woman in Star Wars.

Leia comes closest to succeeding or to avoiding the test, but she has the benefit of time and nostalgia. For twenty plus years Leia was the only significant woman Star Wars character on screen. She’s smart and she’s good at shooting. She’s attractive and she falls for the cool guy. She’s important but not as important as the men. She’s a hostage to be rescued and a prize to be won and a back-up Skywalker. Most of what we love about Leia is in the performance, not the story. Padmé is different. I love Natalie Portman, and I love her performances, but Padmé is amazing even without her.

I’ve said before that George Lucas made Leia awesome by accident. He was telling Luke’s story, all the other characters served that and Leia maybe most of all. She sets him on his journey and then inspires his movements and his choices on the Death Star, on Dagobah, and on Endor. But making her Luke’s secret twin retroactively adds depth to her scenes with Vader in the first and second films. And it makes her powerful in the Force. But it’s still all about Luke, and Vader, and the Skywalker legacy, not Leia.

It can be argued, it has been argued to me – at me, really – repeatedly, that the same can be said for Padmé. Padmé is just Anakin’s love interest, just Luke and Leia’s mother, just Palpatine’s pawn. And Padmé is all of those things, but she’s not ‘just’ anything. George Lucas went out of his way to show the audience who Padmé is separate from Anakin. People have also argued at me that introducing them as children, and waiting for the second film to show their love story, was a mistake. I disagree, I think it’s genius. We get an entire movie about who Padmé is before she becomes part of a couple. 

The way I see it, Padmé is the protagonist of The Phantom Menace. She’s the character who goes on a journey, both physically and emotionally. She’s the one who grows up and she’s the one who drives the action. Anakin is introduced to help tell Padmé’s story. He helps her get off planet and he opens her eyes to the inadequacy of the Republic. The Phantom Menace is Padmé’s story just as much as A New Hope is Luke’s story. And what’s really brilliant about the way the prequels are plotted is that Revenge of the Sith is Anakin’s story and Attack of the Clones is their love story. Balance!

So, what do we learn about Padmé before we even meet Anakin? She’s ruling a planet at the tender age of fourteen, so she’s ambitious, and she’s privileged. She’s introduced threatening the Trade Federation, so she’s bold. But despite her threat she doesn’t want to provoke a war, she’s attempting to negotiate, through the Republic mediators, the Jedi. So, she’s a diplomat, not a conqueror. And she trusts the system. She has that amazing silent moment of sadness by the window, a display of quiet vulnerability. Then when the city, planet, and queen are captured she literally tells us she is brave. And all of that is in the first ten minutes. 

Sabé uses her authority to make Padmé clean up Artoo, which is great and tells us plenty about Sabé and about their relationship. But Padmé takes that opportunity to not only do a good job with the droid, but to befriend Jar Jar. Next she invites herself onto the mission to Mos Espa and turns her curiosity and compassion to Anakin. 

While on Tatooine she looks out for Jar Jar, argues with Qui Gon, respects Shmi and Shmi’s feelings, and quickly becomes Anakin’s favorite person in the galaxy, which ends up being a problem but oh well. On Coruscant she continues to look out for both Jar Jar and Anakin while also making an appeal to the Galactic Senate on behalf of Naboo because, remember, she is Queen of a whole planet. At fourteen.

The politicians play politics and Padmé plays right along. She follows the advice of Senator Palpatine, who we know from supplemental materials to be her mentor, and that also ends up being a problem, but oh well! The entire Skywalker Saga is about people trusting Palpatine when it would be better for everyone everywhere if they didn’t. 

In any case, Padmé is the first one to stand up to Palpatine, and mess up his plans. He expects her to stay in the capital, to wait for him to be named Chancellor, and to stay out of his way now that she’s set him on his road to ultimate power. Instead, Padmé returns to Naboo to confront the Trade Federation directly, and she takes two Jedi and their problem child with her.

She approaches the Gungan leadership, ignoring centuries of mistrust between their peoples and taking responsibility for Naboo colonialism. As Queen, Padmé treats Boss Noss as an equal and begs him to join her fight, bending her knee in deference. Having secured an army, Padmé next lays out an attack plan, and goes to battle, and wins. She leads the charge on the palace and successfully captures the Viceroy, ending the conflict and saving her planet.

Through the Battle of Naboo we learn that Padmé is strategic and observant. She listens to Jar Jar when he proudly speaks of his people and correctly understands the best way to appeal to the Gungans and to Boss Noss. She presents her plan to a council made up of her personal guard, the Jedi and the Gungan generals, and acknowledges the risks. She’s hands on, charging into battle herself, but also delegates. She trusts each member of her team to do their part. The Gungan ground troops take on the bulk of the Separatist army. The Jedi handle Darth Maul. The pilots take out the shielding. Padmé’s guards and handmaidens accompany her in the assault on the palace and they help distract and confuse the enemy so she can capture the Viceroy. In the aftermath she mourns Qui-Gon’s sacrifice, celebrates the Gungan army, and again takes a moment to acknowledge and support Anakin.

In The Phantom Menace Padmé is beautiful, kind, and sad. But she is also clever, daring, angry, forthright, intelligent, compassionate, vulnerable, diplomatic, sullen, desperate, cheeky, curious, direct, and demonstrative. She’s a self-possessed leader but also very young and naive, especially in her scenes on Tatooine and Coruscant. Palpatine manipulates her, Qui-Gon dismisses her, Gunray does not consider her a threat. But in the later scenes of the film, they all pay her more attention and show her more respect. She’s no longer a girl being moved around the board like a pawn, she’s a player in the game, and she’s good at it.

Padmé’s core traits are introduced in Episode One and direct her actions throughout the story. She consistently seeks diplomatic nonviolent solutions. She speaks up. To her peers, her superiors, her loved ones, she doesn’t give anyone a pass. But she also doesn’t give up on them. She extends her hand in compassion not confrontation. She seeks to help, and to bring people together. 

And she’s also reckless, she rushes into danger. She’s impatient and frustrated by the slow pace of democracy. She’s incredibly hands on, an active participant in her life and the life of the Republic she serves. She pledges herself to it, and to Anakin, and she is devastated when she loses both in quick succession to the same corruption.

Dying of a broken heart is the final thing about Padmé people like to argue at me. It’s the grand finale, their trump card: how can I, how can anyone call Padmé a well developed character with a strong point of view and a satisfying story when she dies for no reason?

But that’s what the prequels are about. That’s what Star Wars is about. Not that there’s no reason. That the reason isn’t the point. Continuing is the point. Speaking up, rushing into danger, offering a hand. Trying. Or doing. I get angry at Yoda a lot but I think he and I are actually saying the same thing. Padmé’s death does not define her. It’s her life that matters. Her choices, her desires, her needs, her actions, even her mistakes. Padmé never gives up on her diplomatic solutions. She never stops looking for the good in people.

However you interpret it – that Palpatine stole her life force or that Anakin is solely responsible for choking her or that the compounded losses were too much and she gave up – Padmé was a casualty of the war and of the Empire. Just like the Republic and just like all the Jedi, including Anakin.

I spoke last time about the similarities between Anakin and Daenerys Targaryen. There’s a quote from A Song of Ice and Fire that always makes me think of Padmé, too. It’s said about Lyanna Stark, who like Padmé in the Original Trilogy, died many years before the story begins and is barely mentioned even though her son is the hero of the whole story.

Like Padmé, Lyanna had a whirlwind forbidden romance, married in secret, and died right after giving birth, while a war raged and power was transferred through deception, murder, and madness. Lyanna’s son was raised in secrecy by his uncle and he didn’t learn the truth about his parents until he was an adult and fighting another war that was really the same one. The quote from A Game of Thrones, Ned Stark describing his late sister to the daughter who most resembles her, is similar to what Leia tells Luke in Return of the Jedi. They both start with beautiful, and Lyanna is also kind, and sad, like Padmé, too. I care about Lyanna because I see Padmé in her. They were both doomed, gone before we met them, and misunderstood in fandom. Here’s the line, from the first book, chapter 22 Arya II. Ned says Lyanna was, and I say Padmé was:

“Beautiful, and willful, and dead before her time.”

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 itunes, Amazon, Spotify 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 BB-9E with Finn.

BB-9E is the Dark Side version of BB-8. He’s on screen in The Last Jedi for maybe 40 seconds, but of course I love him. I paired Darth BB with Finn because they share the screen and I’m highlighting them this week because Finn is the sequel character I think is most like Padmé and Luke in temperament.

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

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Endless Anakin is a Manic Pixie Dust production. Song: “Robots Don’t Cry”, Anika Dane

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