Decline and Fall: Anatomy of a Tragedy
War drums boom in the black above Coruscant, as space opera turns deadly serious. A pair of fighter-craft shoot across the screen, looping in daredevil twirls over the lip of a great battlecruiser. Below, a full-scale fleet engagement rages: a three-dimensional confusion of capital ships slugging it out above the globe-spanning cityscape of the Republic capital.
Explosions and debris rock the reaches of upper orbit. Bolts from great laser cannons spear through the void. The fighters whirl down through the explosions and debris, spiraling at breakneck speed past dead ships and their blasted or flash-frozen crews, headed for the enemy flagship.
Sometimes big things break slowly and steadily, dissolving before your eyes with the quiet inevitability of a disappearing tide. But sometimes they hold, steady, steady, straining with grinding, agonizing, stasis. Until suddenly they burst, like the meltwater cooped up behind the placid surface of a rotting glacier. Betraying no evidence of danger — until the dam finally breaks, and the flood comes.
This is such a moment. Three years into the Galactic Civil War, what began as a tax dispute over a mildly prosperous frontier world has brought the Republic to the point of breakdown. A military commander from the secessionist movement has executed an audacious attack, snatching the Republic’s chief executive in an attempt to end the war. He does not know that even in carrying out this move he is a pawn caught up in a subtle, far-reaching game, one whose outcome he cannot see.
The pilots of the two fighter craft — bantering over their radios as they pirouette in toward the flagship — don’t see it yet, either. Both are war heroes, members of the elite Jedi Order, seasoned by years of brutal conflict. They have the cocky swagger of the men who (as this film arrives in theaters) are riding F-18 fighter jets over Iraq in this galaxy, on this side of the screen, far, far away from the orbital battle they now dance through. Warrior-monks turned Top Gun jockeys, on a mission they believe holds the key to restoring liberty and justice to their ravaged Republic.
They’ve come in hopes of landing the final blow, confident that everything is going to be fine. It's going to be fine.
It’s going to be fine.
This is Decline and Fall, a Heat Death production brought to you by the Brothers Elbein. In this periodic series, we are recounting for you one of the great American epics: the Star Wars saga, a tragedy of the overthrow of a republic and its replacement by dictatorship, then anarchy. By looking at the story of, within and around Star Wars, our aim is to provide a shadow history of the late age of the American Empire.
Our story began with The Phantom Menace, which debuted as a relatively minor outburst in the 1990s proved an ominous warning of coming trouble. Last time, we pondered Attack of the Clones, which hit theaters as jingoistic war-fever swept the earliest 2000s, laying the groundwork for further conflict and decay, and ending with bombs falling in the desert.
When our story begins it’s May 19th, 2005, and the bombs are still falling. The past three years have seen the (never formally declared) American empire flexing its muscles in a spasm of reaction. The state — which had generally been content to exercise its power through proxies, brutal economic pressure, and the occasional diplomatic nicety — now stands revealed at its most nakedly aggressive. A swift punitive expedition against the administration of Afghanistan has thrown the ruling Taliban regime out of power. A second invasion into Iraq has likewise decapitated the ruling party. American flags fly over the military occupation zones in Kabul and Kandahar, Mosul and Baghdad.
Of these two wars, the Iraq campaign is the first to sour. The conflict had been drummed up by two basically fraudulent press campaigns, which reached their crescendo between the release of Attack and Revenge. First, the Bush Administration claimed to have evidence that Iraqi dictator and occasional regional menace Saddam Hussein was on the verge of getting nuclear weapons. And if the American public wasn’t convinced by the — at best — extraordinarily flimsy evidence on display, all concerns were brushed aside by the administration. Their press campaigns baldly stated that it would be foolish, even disloyal, not to act. “We cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," Bush said.
This led implacably into the second debacle: American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s argument that Iraq’s government could be both toppled and safely replaced by a bit of light blitzkrieg. Under this “Shock and Awe” doctrine, Americans would storm the country, flipping it cleanly and quietly back into what it had been in the 1980s: a reliable regional proxy like Egypt or Israel. A steady base for American imperial projection into the Middle East.
At first, all seemed to go precisely as Rumsfeld had planned. A month after the invasion of Iraq began in March of 2003, Baghdad fell. And so on May 1, 2003, almost exactly a year after Attack of the Clones premiered, President George W. Bush played the starring role in what is, in hindsight, one of the most ironic bits of show business in American history.
Three weeks after U.S. troops routed Saddam Hussein from power — kicking off an orgy of looting that would see entire ammunition dumps disappear into the burgeoning insurgency — Bush landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier parked off the coast of San Diego. Clambering from his aircraft in a flight suit, the president projected the swaggering cool of the fighter pilots we met at the opening to this piece: the kind of effortless machismo cemented in American culture by generations of action movies. Beneath a banner that read “Mission Accomplished,” the president announced a new day for America.
“The War on Terror continues, yet it is not endless,” Bush intoned. “We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.”
And he was right. The tide was turning — but only in the sense that an easy victory was giving way to a long, grinding, decades-long defeat.
By May of 2005, the depths of that defeat were beginning to come into focus. Like many imperial defeats, they were largely self-inflicted. As Spencer Ackerman writes in Reign of Terror, power in Iraq had been given to over to the autocratic head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, American viceroy Paul Bremmer. In the summer of 2003, Bremmer and the Authority disbanded the Iraqi army and banned the national Baath party, which a generation of government bureaucrats had been required to join. For years, Baath members, who had long run Iraq's public sector, were banned from serving in it.
It was a startlingly efficient move — if Bremmer's goal had been to sow the seeds of perennial chaos. At a stroke, the Authority simultaneously destroyed both military and civilian institutions, disenfranchised millions of Iraqi citizens, and created the ingredients and brain trust necessary to run a powerful insurgency. Pentagon officials neglected to fix the Iraqi infrastructure they’d broken, Ackerman writes, and in another humiliating move, allowed the looting of the Iraqi National Museum — a repository of treasures from a chain of empires going back to the ancestral states of Western civilization.
Meanwhile, a certain sector of Americans found the invasion highly profitable. By the time Bremmer left, $8.8 billion in allotted reconstruction funds had vanished without a trace, while American private contractors — from wholesalers to military condottieri like Blackwater — feasted.
The rebellion against American occupation was inevitable — and yet the ferocity of it seemed to catch American power by surprise. At the end of 2004, the U.S Marines largely flattened the Iraqi city of Fallujah in an attempt to root out a stronghold of the country’s new insurgency.
The battle had begun on the tail end of the 2004 presidential election — a supremely dirty campaign that brought President George W. Bush back to power. He won after tarring his opponent, veteran John Kerry, as a coward and a liar — an efficient bit of political theater that helped distract from the clear evidence that the “simple,” “just” war his administration had promised was running off the rails.
The sense of failure arrived not just in terms of military reverses on the battlefield, but also in what we might refer to — not especially fancifully — as rising evidence of the role the Dark Side had come to play in America’s occupation. In April 2004, CBS broke the then-shocking news that American reservists at the old Saddam-era prison Abu Ghraib had carried out physical and sexual abuse against Iraqi prisoners. The prison regimen there had been quietly created by Rumsfeld’s intelligence chief, Ackerman writes, with the explicit goal of “Gitmo-izing” the facility. Yet no senior official was ever punished. The Bush Administration blamed the guards, thirteen of whom went to prison, and the Pentagon commissioned a series of reports promising that the rampant assault at the prison was an aberration.
Yet the horrors of Abu Ghraib were, in effect, policy. They were also just the first hints of the bleak, back-room secrets that would spill out over the next decade. In the fall of 2006 — just before his party was wiped out in midterm elections — President Bush would admit the existence of ‘black sites’ operated by the fearsome Central Intelligence Agency, where U.S. and allied agents systematically tortured the detainees hoovered up across the imperial frontier. This torture, laid out in a confidential International Committee of the Red Cross report presented to the Bush Administration and leaked to the New York Review of Books, was of a particular sort: not medieval tortures on the rack but something both more insidious and more straightforwardly brutal.
“When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting,” detainee Abu Zubaydah told the Red Cross. “From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.”
Like many detainees, Red Cross investigators determined, Abu Zubaydah had also been repeatedly waterboarded: a torture that stimulates one of the most powerful and agonizing human reflexes — the feeling of being drowned — without leaving any incriminating marks. A choke that requires no physical hand around the throat.
Looking back on these stories from 2022, what’s shocking is the absence of shock. It is now almost impossible to remember what it felt like to be stunned by the knowledge that the United States was running a secret international torture program. Now it is obvious, gray, banal. It joins the atrocities of the Vietnam War, the secret massacres and coups of the Cold War, Iran-Contra and El Mozote and the Jakarta Method. The naked imperialism of the late 19th century and the open genocide of the early 1800s — all of it flat, enervating, deadening.
More hauntingly, it’s difficult now to connect to the idea that revealing these things might change them. The grinning skull hiding behind the niceties stood on full display for a decade, and nothing happened. When it was all over, they covered the skull back up, and everyone went on.
One thing was different, however. For the first time since the 1970s — the time when a young director named George Lucas was toying with the idea of trying his hand at pulp samurai space opera — Americans began to speak, ever more openly and self consciously, about the nature of our empire. And here came Star Wars, that epic reflection of the American id, its fingers once again pressed to the nation’s pulse.
Revenge of the Sith premiered on May 19th, 2005. The film is by far the best reviewed of the prequels, and one of the better Star Wars movies, period: delightfully weird, epic in scope, and surprisingly dense and tight. It does have its flaws. Lucas’ dialogue is still deeply clunky and labored, and his actors still sometimes struggle to deliver it convincingly.
But crucially, and particularly in light of later offerings, it is also almost stunningly unselfconscious, trading equally in big, goofy emotions and shameless pulp storytelling. It’s not trying to convince you of its bonafides as Star Wars Content.™ Revenge of the Sith is Lucas himself, at the height of his craft, producing a film he’s clearly long wanted to make.
That film is also the most overtly political of a highly political trilogy. But despite the obvious parallels, Revenge of the Sith’s depiction of a fraying republic and executive overreach isn’t a direct commentary on the Bush administration. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune given soon after Revenge hit theaters, Lucas recalled that the screenplay had been largely completed prior to September 11th, 2001 —the period when he was working on pre-production for Attack of the Clones.
Indeed, the rough outlines for both films pre-dated Bush’s election. “We never thought of Bush ever becoming president, or then 9/11, the Patriot Act, war, weapons of mass destruction," film producer Rick McCallum told the Tribune. “Then suddenly you realize, `Oh, my God, there's something happening that looks like we're almost prescient.'”
Lucas was, if anything, looking backward. Over the three decades before he began filming Revenge of the Sith, the director had nurtured a private theory as to how democracies turned into dictatorships, a pattern whereby — as he told the Tribune — "democracies aren't overthrown; they're given away." Simplistic? Sure. But it accurately reflected an ongoing process — a series of thefts, power-grabs, intrigue and general spreading instability — that had been underway in America since at least the late 1960s.
In fact, Lucas reminisced to the Tribune, the first Star Wars was based in part around a much earlier episode of imperial aggression and executive overreach: the Vietnam War, particularly the campaigns of President Richard M. Nixon.
In Nixon’s first election — it can now be decisively said — Nixon conspired with the South Vietnamese government to blow up chances of a negotiated settlement with the North, effectively sabotaging both President Lyndon Johnson’s peace process and, ultimately, his political future. Then, with no effective means of getting the leverage on the leverage on the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table before his own re-election, his administration began the secret, illegal bombing of Laos and Cambodia to try and get Hanoi to return to the table. The need to keep that secret, in turn, led to the Nixon administration’s deepening paranoia about press leaks, desperate efforts to assert control over political opposition, and ultimately to the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon out of office.
In future installments, we'll dig deeper into the Vietnam-era resonances in the nucleus of Star Wars. But it’s worth noting that this comparison was very much on Lucas’ mind from relatively early on. In 1981, according to the 2013 book The Making of Return of the Jedi, Lucas attended a story conference where writers asked if Palpatine was a Jedi.
"No, he was a politician," Lucas replied, somewhat pompously. "Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the Senate and finally took over and became an Imperial guy and he was really evil."
Palpatine had done this, Lucas explained at the time, by "pretending to be a nice guy." In one sentence, he’d effectively outlined the prequel trilogy a generation before shooting them. To Lucas, the cartoonishly evil creator of the Empire was simply the mask-off version of a more conventional politician. A man with a plan, glad-handing and horse trading, until he’s in a position to remake the whole system in his image.
And this time, unlike Nixon, the avuncular Chancellor Palpatine is going to get away with it.
But here's the thing about a well-executed tragedy: knowing how it ends doesn't spare you. As in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet — which starts with the narrator frankly admitting that these two cute kids you're about to meet are going to fall in love and die badly — the ending of Revenge of the Sith is never in any doubt. It's the getting there that breaks your heart.
When last we checked in on our heroes, they had just failed to stop a secession crisis from exploding into open warfare. Now, the opening text tells us that war has raged across the splintered Republic for three years.
While the fighting has largely been confined to the sacrifice zones of the Outer Rim — the frontier regions where it will largely remain for the rest of the series — it has gradually swelled until it threatens the capital itself. Across the galaxy, clone armies have marched against droid battalions, with the planetary forces of various sectors pulled inexorably into the conflict. After years on the back foot, the Separatists have executed a string of tactical victories which have culminated in this daring full-scale assault on the planet-city of Coruscant. The goal of this raid? The kidnapping of Chancellor Palpatine, the Republic's chief executive.
And thus, in a bit of irony worthy of Ian McDermid’s best smirk, the Jedi are flying to his rescue.
Here they come now, spiraling in their spaceships through the orbital warzone: the urbane, sardonic Obi Wan Kenobi and the kinetic, troubled Anakin Skywalker.
Skywalker is no longer the creepy, post-adolescent weirdo whom we last saw marrying his secret lover, Sen. Padme Amidala, in a covert ceremony on her home planet of Naboo. Instead, the Jedi Knight is now a much more relaxed and mature-seeming man. The Clone Wars, a 2008 animated series later produced by Lucas — though neither written nor directed by him — does its best to retroactively fill in Anakin’s growth into adulthood. It depicts his camaraderie with the clone infantry under his command, and his mentorship of a young Jedi apprentice, which is rocky but ultimately fulfilling (which makes it all the more heartbreaking in hindsight).
It’s interesting material, but exists to explain a change that’s already clearly legible onscreen. Because from the first moment Skywalker appears onscreen in Revenge, the conflict seems to have lifted a weight off his shoulders, giving him an acceptable outlet for his restless energies. Dashing wartime heroics? Defying death from a pilot-couch, swirling neatly around burning hulks and blasting droids? Brother, that's what he was made for.
In some ways, this is Skywalker at his best, the way others will later prefer to remember him: a master of violence, well-honed and sharp, directed in the pursuit of a seemingly righteous cause.
But if we stop to think, it might occur to us that his clear enjoyment of fighting — especially given his actions in Attack of the Clones — is not a great sign. There are some people for whom trauma becomes a kind of addiction, and for whom the only way they can think clearly is when in the midst of chaos. Who goes to pieces when the shooting stops — or goes looking for excuses to make it start again.
Skywalker's onetime master Obi-Wan Kenobi seems, if anything, mildly annoyed to still be participating in these sorts of sophomoric shenanigans. Nonetheless, he and Anakin have clearly developed an effective wartime partnership. The two bicker contentedly as they board the Separatist flagship, effortlessly hacking apart combat drones as they fight their way into the chamber where Palpatine is being held. There the chancellor awaits them, bound to a chair that seems, in hindsight, suspiciously thronelike. While Palpatine is notionally a prisoner, the scene is blocked in such a way that he’s clearly in command of the situation. Or appears so, at least.
Throughout the prequel trilogy Lucas leans heavily on dramatic irony: almost any viewer will know that Palpatine will go on — is fated to go on — to overthrow the Republic. But as we’ve seen throughout the preceding films, and will see in this one, there is an element of deliberate chaos in Palpatine’s takeover: he operates in part through labyrinthine, comic-book villain schemes, many of which come down to rather wild and reckless-seeming gambles. (A general attitude of Alea iacta est, you might say — although when you are a powerful dark wizard, perhaps the dice have an unusual habit of coming up in your favor.)
Was Palpatine's capture intentional on his part? It would fit both his purposes and his rather emergent management style. On the other hand, a full fleet engagement is a fantastically dangerous thing to orchestrate in the skies above one's own capital.
But perhaps that is part of his plan: that residents of Coruscant, long used to thinking of the war as something that happens far away to poor provincials or citizens of the lightly-governed territories, will see the flashes in the skies above the towers where they live. Will feel the ground shake as capital ships plummet from the sky to kill uncounted thousands. Will see the wrecked buildings and mutilated survivors on the multifarious channels of whatever passes for Coruscant cable news. Perhaps Palpatine feels it’s time for the long dirty war to come home; time for soldiers from the territories to sow carnage right at the state's doorstep. Time for the core worlds to feel just a bit … unsafe.
It's generally safe to assume that Palpatine has a lot of irons in the fire at any given moment. One of them comes striding into the room almost immediately after the Jedi arrive: Count Dooku, a former Jedi disgusted with the sclerotic self-dealing that has come to define Republican rule. (Or simply an old man in search of a state that offers him more power and lower taxes.)
The fight scene that follows feels rather perfunctory, but necessarily so: it’s an overture to the actual climactic conflicts still to come. Dooku holds the two Jedi off for a while, eventually knocking out Kenobi before attacking Skywalker in earnest. The last time this happened, he thrashed the young Jedi and took his hand. Today, Skywalker — faster, stronger and ultimately more ruthless — returns the favor. The younger man literally disarms the older him in a neat bit of sword work.
Standing there with his blades at Dooku’s neck, however, Skywalker hesitates. The nominal leader of the Separatists kneels before him, defenseless and stunned. Kenobi, the hectoring voice of reason and Jedi morality, is out cold. Palpatine, the apparent prisoner, chuckling, avuncular, orders the young warrior to kill his prisoner. Now.
“I shouldn’t,” Anakin replies. The tension builds.
For just a moment, the camera lingers on Dooku’s expression: a blend of shock and deeply wounded surprise. Even, perhaps, a bit of belated understanding. When he entered his partnership with Palpatine, Dooku must have known that the man was in ruthless pursuit of a grand vision. Now he seems to realize the true nature of that vision, and of the man upon whom he’d placed all his hopes. Dooku was never really a partner, or an apprentice. Palpatine exists for Palpatine alone.
A lesson it'll cost Skywalker nearly as much to learn.
"Do it," Palpatine snarls. The Jedi's hands twitch. The Separatist leader's head bounces onto the floor.
This is the second war crime that we have directly seen Anakin commit — his wholesale massacre of the Tusken camp in Attack of the Clones being the first. And here, as there, Skywalker seems a bit shocked with himself afterward. It was wrong to kill a defenseless prisoner, he mumbles. (A useful moral rule that he’ll try to apply again later, at the worst possible moment.)
But Palpatine brushes aside his concerns. In a rather subtle bit of cruelty, he invokes Skywalker's earlier massacre — which the younger man has clearly revealed to him in a moment of vulnerability — to imply that this sort of vengeance is just a natural extension of his nature. In some ways, he's right: Skywalker is a killer, and it's clearly been a rough and morally injurious few years. But he doesn't seem to appreciate that being minimized. He'll be quite cold to Palpatine throughout the rest of the rescue.
But before we escape this starship, we have one more player to consider. After some shenanigans in an attempt to get to the hanger bay, the trio is captured by droids and brought to the bridge, and the gaze of General Grievous.
As with all wars, the scroll-text reminds us, “there are heroes on both sides.” Grievous (Matthew Wood, scenery chewing) is one of those who has picked the wrong side in every possible sense. The commander of the Separatist's droid armies, Grievous is a hulking, spider-like cyborg in a very fancy cape. He’s a classic pulp villain, in fact: glaring, slitted reptilian eyes, squishy organs protected by his chest plate, an outrageous Foreign Accent™ and a bad cough.
Grievous, who keeps a collection of lightsabers harvested from dead Jedi in his cape, is certainly dangerous. But he's also generally shown to be a coward and an opportunist. He doesn't really seem like an ideologue — at least, beyond his visible and visceral distaste for Jedi.
What was such a figure up to, before the outbreak of Galactic civil war? (Or before taking a security contract in Iraq?) Revenge of the Sith never tells us, but we can infer: he was likely a professional general from the Outer Rim, or somewhere else beyond the borders of the Pax Republica. Someone akin to the mercenary captains of the Renaissance: a professional soldier, exercising a professional’s disdain for that greatest of business liabilities: the fair fight.
Grievous is also our first sustained look at the figure of the cyborg in Star Wars. The warlord is described — in the opening text and in conversation — as "the droid general.” This is, in part, a reference to his forces: those many marching battle droids churned out by the arms dealers of the Separatist alliance. But interestingly, characters also talk about Grievous as if he’s himself a droid, rather than an organic being occupying a cybernetic shell.
Skywalker, notably, also received a cybernetic limb replacement of his own at the end of Attack of the Clones. Now, robotic limbs are a useful bit of prosthetic technology if you have access to them, so it’s not clear that such replacements and augmentations are that big a deal in the Star Wars universe. Yet Skywalker keeps his mechanical hand covered by a glove around company, while Grievous generally wears a rather concealing cape. To the extent that we can draw conclusions from offhand Lucasfilm decisions around design and costuming, open display of these sorts of prosthesis doesn't seem to be socially acceptable.
Recall that fully robotic entities are essentially unpersons in the Star Wars universe. Most seem to be at least a little sentient, and yet they exist as eternal subalterns: manufactured slaves, drone fighters, background workers, pets. (Even those who are fully-realized characters, like C-3PO and R2-D2, can express their agency only in subversive ways, as befits eternal servants unable to act openly on their own.) Machines clearly are not considered people.
Perhaps in the minds of Galactic citizens, then, any greater post-organic conversion — the sort that can’t be easily masked, the sort that reminds people of droids — comes with an implicit loss of personhood. That would make Grievous and other cyborgs particularly sinister figures: abominable blends of the biologic and cybernetic that have, in a sense, betrayed the flesh.
But this is a dangerous line of thought. It implies, after all, that personhood is based largely on one's percentage of organic content. If Skywalker — already down one hand — were a more perceptive sort, he might see this connection as ominous. His difference from Grievous is only a matter of time and degree. The droid general exists to foreshadow his own ultimate fate.
The two have one other thing in common: both are, in their own ways, quite reckless. Grievous' decision to bring the Jedi captives to the bridge — also Palpatine, whom, unlike Dooku, he clearly doesn’t recognize as his ultimate boss — ends badly. Naturally, the Jedi get loose and wreak havoc. In response, Grievous makes a wild play of his own: he blows out the bridge window and uses the resulting decompression to make his escape.
As a result, the Jedi and the Chancellor are now on a crashing capital ship aimed directly at the planet below. Ian McDermid’s face is wonderfully expressive during this whole sequence: it’s one of the few times in this series when Palpatine looks genuinely worried, aware that all his carefully laid plans have somehow led him into the cockpit of a battleship about to collide with a planet, and there’s really not a damn thing he can do about it.
But his luck, as ever, holds. Anakin is, remember, a very good pilot. He manages to land the disintegrating battleship on Coruscant's surface without killing them — or apparently anyone else.
And that’s that. The ship has landed, the chancellor has been saved, and the Separatists have lost their nominal leader and a good chunk of their fleet. The war is clearly entering its terminal phase.
The Personal is Political
Or is it? The second act of Revenge of the Sith pulls the focus squarely onto Coruscant’s hallways, meeting rooms, and private parties. Now that the front has safely retreated back onto the far frontier, the Republic’s various stakeholders are trying to figure out their next moves. The personal is about to become directly, viciously political, creating a welter of plots and counterplots.
Anakin Skywalker, accomplished fighter and political naif, is interested in none of this. Finally back on the same planet as his secret wife, Padme Amidala, the two risk a visibly affectionate embrace in a public hallway.
Right there, Amidala blurts out some extremely important news: she’s pregnant.
Skywalker doesn’t take it well. His face flares into an expression of sudden panic, before transitioning into a mask of unconvincing joy. She, for her part, is visibly and understandably upset by his reaction.
Revenge of the Sith offers our primary onscreen glimpses of Amidala and Skywalker’s marriage, as distinct from their (as we’ve previously noted) creepy and extremely messy courtship. Much of it has clearly been spent apart, with Skywalker fighting in the wars and home only for brief periods. Amidala hasn’t always known whether or not he’s alive or dead. The occasional moments they’re able to snatch together have clearly been incredibly passionate, and naturally so: they’re hot twenty-somethings in the middle of a taboo, long-distance relationship amidst a great galactic war.
But there’s also fundamental immaturity to it as well, visible in the rather fumbling way they speak to one another. Reviewers have often noted that Portman and Christensen don’t precisely have a sizzling chemistry. But in this case it actually works toward the film’s purposes. If their declarations of passion feel forced — well, they are. There’s clearly a fundamental disconnect between these two, however much they love one another. (There are darker undercurrents, as well: Lucas’ shooting script contains few lines of dialogue hinting at an undercurrent of possessiveness and mistrust on Anakin’s part, a lingering suspicion of his wife’s friendship with Kenobi. Most of that material is excised from the finished film, but hints of it remain.)
Now, as Amidala notes later that evening, they’re in a fix. Skywalker has broken his vows — of non-attachment, if not specifically celibacy — to an Order he doesn't seem to have any intention of leaving. If the Council finds out, the couple believes, they'll expel him. And in an interesting throwaway hint about her own planet’s mores, Amidala mentions that the Queen of the Naboo will replace her as Senator if she has a child while apparently single.
“Do you think… Obi Wan might be able to help us?” Amidala asks, in the voice of someone raising a potentially sensitive subject.
A door slams shut behind Skywalker’s eyes. “We don’t need his help.” Then, a moment later, as if he’s trying to convince himself: “Our baby is a blessing.”
This is the point where Skywalker begins to go a bit off the rails. At night, he’s tormented by visions of Amidala’s anguished face as she dies in childbirth. On one level, this isn't much of a surprise; the prospect of sudden fatherhood has been known to produce the occasional stress dream, to say nothing of fatherhood that has to be kept secret. But for Skywalker, this is a deeper issue. Beneath his daredevil bravado, the young man has long been a pulsing knot of fear, largely around the prospect of loss. As a child, he was forced to abandon his mother as a condition of his new life as a Jedi. As a teenager, he was unable to prevent death, despite it being foretold via a similar set of nightmares.
All of those tangled feelings of love, regret and terror now rest on Amidala, driving him to clutch her ever tighter out of a kind of generalized anxiety. Dreams of her death are precisely the sort of thing Skywalker can't simply shrug off.
Worse, Skywalker has no real source of support to turn to here: he won’t talk to Obi-Wan, he doesn’t seem to have any other friends, and he can’t risk revealing his secret relationship. During his one attempt to consult with Master Yoda, he's so vague that the old sage — not understanding what Skywalker is really asking him — can only offer some deeply unhelpful guidance. “Death is a natural part of life,” he intones. “Rejoice for those around you who transform into the force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is… Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”
Skywalker doesn’t answer, but his response is clear in his eyes: fuck that. Skywalker — man of action, fixer — is set on his course. He’s going to save his wife and unborn child, visions be damned.
The pressure on Skywalker is only going to increase, however. The battlefields of the Outer Rim were, paradoxically enough, safe territory for him. His presence in the Republic capital now means that he’s an available political game piece for whoever can snatch him up.
So let’s consider how matters currently stand in the Galactic Republic, after three years of punishing war. With the planets most dissatisfied with the crumbling Republic helpfully split away in the Separatist bloc, the loyalist systems are exhausted, battle-scarred, and clinging to the state more tightly than ever.
As long as the crisis lasts, Palpatine stands as the legal chief executive of the Senate, the theoretical governing body of this interstellar union. He enjoys significant majority support in the legislature. And he’s making direct moves to shore up his power, largely though appointing his own officials at every possible level.
Elements within the Senate have finally noticed. For what follows, we must turn to a pair of rather crucial scenes that Lucas filmed but ultimately cut from the film’s theatrical release.
In them, an informal meeting of senators convenes in the office of Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits, the picture of genteel, slightly absent liberalism). Organa is the senator and prince-consort to the queen of planet Alderaan. Among the others present are the sweet-faced senator from Chandrilla, Mon Mothma (Genevieve Reilly, a genius bit of casting that will take almost two decades to pay off) and Amidala, one-time elected queen of Naboo, and now the planet’s designated Senator.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider the people in this room. For one thing, most of them are coded as fairly elite power players in Coruscant’s high society. The planets they represent — places like Alderaan, Chandrilla, even to an extent Naboo — are comfortably Republican, and clearly quite wealthy in comparison to the hardscrabble systems on the Outer Rim.
And notably, all of them are human.
On one level, that’s natural: for all its pretensions to belonging to a galaxy filled with a multitude of other peoples, Star Wars is a story constructed by, for and largely about humans. But it bears mentioning, nonetheless — the burgeoning elite opposition to Palpatine is coming from his own species, and more pointedly, his own social set.
The mood in the room is grim. Palpatine has been pushing through constitutional amendments more or less at will, Organa tells the group, such as the appointment of governors — presumably, military governors, given the ongoing war — to oversee all star systems in the Republic. All of these changes are obviously an attempt to sideline the Galactic Senate itself.
Organa builds the thought out to its obvious conclusion. “We cannot let a thousand years worth of democracy disappear… without a fight.”
The moment hangs heavy in the room. “What are you suggesting?” an unnamed senator asks.
“I’m not trying to sound like a Separatist,” Organa hastens to say. Mothma concurs: they are loyalists, trying to preserve democracy within the Republic.
Of course, the democracy the people in this room espouse is, in practice, synonymous with their own power. The Senate that has never actually seemed all that democratic when it comes to the day to day citizens of the Republic. Mothma admits as much: a sizable majority of the body — those more venal, clearer eyed, or with a finger/claw/digit to the wind — doesn’t really mind trading governing authority for something more cushy and ceremonial.
Mothma is correct to call this corruption, but it’s the kind of corruption you find on a corpse: a process of devouring, digestion and state change. In Rome, the sidelining of the Senate into a ceremonial country club was a key and largely consensual feature of the state’s transition into autocratic rule. (The occasional spasms of violence after that transition, particularly the assassination of Caligula, were prompted in part by those prickly aristocrats insisting on social respect, not by serious attempts to reassert full senatorial authority.)
At this point, regardless of what the "loyalist" senators claim, the deliberative processes they espouse have broken down beyond repair. Organa and Mothma, at least, seem to have belatedly woken up to this fact. “We cannot continue debating about this," the Senator from Alderaan snaps, before revealing that he and Mothma are putting together an organization. A secret one.
By unspoken agreement, the precise nature of this organization goes unsaid. It does not need to be said. Everyone in the room knows what they are talking about.
This is a pretty crucial development! Whatever else you can say about Palpatine, he’s been acting within the confines of the law — glorying in the loopholes and institutional blind spots that should have kept someone like him out. (A useful reminder, perhaps, that there is a world of difference between what is legal, what is traditional, and what is right.) By contrast, the approach that these senators are carefully not discussing is therefore something both illegal and radical, however necessary: the funding of organized resistance to the current, legally elected regime. A coup — or a revolt.
Rebellions are seldom born in any particular moment or place: they are instead shaped by a multitude of different factions, from street-fighters to organizers to elites with scores to settle. Here, in this room, among these rich senators, one such seed of rebellion has been planted, by people whose vision of liberty may not accord well with ours.
The other notable thing? Organa and Mon Mothma insist — and pretty much everyone else in the room agrees, including a visibly conflicted Amidala — that the Jedi Order not be looped in. The Chancellor, they believe, has control of that particular order, and thus the “Guardians of the Republic” cannot be trusted to back up the senators’ nascent plot.
This is a fair concern. The Jedi Order have been enthusiastic participants in the war. They serve as generals of the clone battalions and are thoroughly integrated into the Republic’s military command, which exists largely under Palpatine’s personal direction. But in a bit of tragic irony, the Jedi Council, among them Chairman Mace Windu and Master Yoda, are also — separately — beginning to have serious doubts about the Republic’s current state, along the same lines as the Senate conspiracy.
Jedi throughout this trilogy have tended to speak dismissively of Politics, i.e, that rather distasteful thing that the Senate does. Perhaps at one point this was wise: staying out of high-level politics makes sense for an itinerant order of diplomatic warrior monks, interested primarily in being seen as the impartial arbiters and guardians of the local citizenry.
Indeed, as the Republic expanded through the Galaxy and the Senate waxed in strength, the Jedi have maintained a sort of studied neutrality in the face of day-to-day factional struggles — a posture that for centuries has likely been the safest bet for the Order’s future.
But at some point in the past, the Jedi Order settled in the capital, and slowly grew enmeshed in the Senate’s business — while steadfastly denying that any such thing had happened, and refusing to learn or develop the skills to do it well. As the Senate began its slow decay, the Jedi Order also failed to pick up the slack. Assuming, that is, they even acknowledged any slack to begin with. (This has to be seen as deliberate policy from figures we’re accustomed to seeing as heroes: the sagacious Master Yoda, after all, has been a guiding hand of the Order for centuries.)
Now, the Jedi Order is in a singularly tricky situation: having long ago been coopted, they are now realizing they’ve been coopted — and have to figure out how to extricate themselves. Their working plan? Cooperate with the Chancellor for now, then use the defeat of the Separatists to push Palpatine to give up the emergency powers he’s accumulated. This is less a developed scheme than an intention. More than anything else, it is suggestive of a larger atmosphere of crisis: even these steadfast, institutionalist servants of the Republic are finally beginning to ask serious questions about the state’s future, and whether they should take a hand in it.
Palpatine, however, is already making moves. Shortly after Skywalker’s meeting with Yoda, the young Jedi is summoned into the Chancellor’s office. There, Palpatine warmly informs him that henceforth, he’ll be serving as Palpatine’s appointed representative on the Jedi Council. His duty will be to serve as the “eyes, ears, and voice” of the Republic. (A neat bit of business, this: it neatly implies that the interests of the Jedi Council are distinct from, and perhaps opposed to, the Republic it serves.)
Palpatine neatly brushes aside Skywalker’s protests that the Council won’t accept such an outside appointment — he knows knows that they will. Moreover, he understands that rubbing the Council's noses in the fact that they have to accept it— they’re too deeply enveloped in the Republic’s military to easily deny it — means that they’re likely to react very badly.
It’s an expert provocation, and the Jedi Council rises to it with an ineptitude staggering for a cabal of self-described spiritual warriors. True to Palpatine’s expectations, they allow Skywalker onto the Council. But out of either pique, institutional pride, or an attempt to maintain some (long vanished) independence, the Council outright refuses to grant him the rank of Master. In a singularly ill-advised move, Master Windu curbs his protests by calling him “young Skywalker” and ordering him to take a seat.
There, Skywalker sits and stews while the Masters discuss the ongoing war.
Here is one of this story’s many off-ramps from disaster. Imagine, for a moment, that the Council had played this differently. Imagine if they’d gritted their teeth and spoken as softly and warmly to Skywalker as Palpatine does. If they had swallowed their doubts and approved his appointment as master, and done their best to reaffirm his place in the order. They could have sent him happily on his way, partially suborned by the group to which he, after all, owes the most, and to whom he is most loyal.
They could, in a word, have practiced some politics. Had these arrogant monks done so, then perhaps their next move would not have been so disastrous.
Instead, as a freshly-humiliated Skywalker leaves the Council meeting, the Jedi Masters double down on their mistake. They send Kenobi — a friendly face, ostensibly — out to talk to him.
Throughout this trilogy — not to mention the original trilogy to which it serves as backstory — Kenobi has been presented to us as the consummate Jedi. Now, then, seems like a good moment to consider the man in more detail.
His backstory is easily sketched out: he’s grown up in the Jedi Order since early childhood, making the order the only family he’s ever known. He lost his master too young, was knighted too young, and took on guardianship of his master’s other apprentice/Messianic pet project too young, as well.
Kenobi's reaction to this sudden influx of responsibility? Striving to become the very model of a modern Jedi Master.
By Revenge of the Sith, Kenobi is a man of genuinely admirable qualities. Urbane, courtly, and cautious, Kenobi is also something of a Jedi of the world: consider his odd friendship with freelance adventurer/diner owner Dexter in Attack of the Clones. He can think on his feet, has good investigative instincts, and is willing to ask awkward questions. While a trained and ruthless killer, he is also sober and restrained. Though an accomplished swordsman and decent pilot, he lacks the thrill-seeking urge — and, let’s be honest, battle-lust — displayed by Skywalker. Most of all, he has a keen sense of duty to both his institution and his state, and he discharges his obligations to both to the best of his considerable ability.
Also to Kenobi’s credit, he’s not utterly hidebound: it’s implied (and the shooting script confirms) that he knows Skywalker and Amidala have a relationship, and he doesn’t seem to care. The Lucas-produced Clone Wars show will shade this in: Kenobi has had his own flirtations with leaving the order for a woman, though he ultimately held to his vows.
But if Kenobi’s virtues reflect well on the Jedi Order, his flaws likewise embody its broader weaknesses. Apprenticed to a famously unorthodox teacher, he seems to have rebelled in turn by clinging to orthodoxy. He eschews "politics" as a matter of reflex, and refuses — as if on principle — to develop any skills at it. Indeed, Kenobi can be stunningly bad at navigating any conversation where strong emotions are present. (In a funny moment earlier in the film, Grievous sarcastically calls him "the negotiator," in tones that make it clear what he thinks of Kenobi's abilities in this arena.) His superficial friendliness masks a fundamental emotional distance.
Therefore it’s with Skywalker — former apprentice, friend, and emotional volcano — that his greatest flaws become apparent.
Rather like his onetime pupil, Kenobi seems to be battling down a bone-deep terror, repressed and hidden for so long that he is no longer aware of it; as though he can hold the collapsing Republic together with good manners and merciless self-control. His occasional attempts to offer Skywalker guidance therefore lack his former master’s warmth. Instead of genuine support, Kenobi tends to default to a customary blend of benign neglect and patronizing scolding. Does he love Anakin, in some brotherly way? Probably. But it never really seems like Kenobi sees Skywalker —or even that he particularly bothers to look.
It's Kenobi's curse in this movie that he consistently is the voice of reason in the most off-putting way possible — a Jedi Cassandra doomed to deliver good advice in the perfect packaging to make his friend reject it.
And just as the Skywalker's inner darkness gives him the starring role in the tragedy to follow — so too must a hefty pile of blame rest on his former master's shoulders.
Let's go back to where we left Skywalker: humiliated, angry and frightened, stalking away from the Council meeting. Behind him comes his old friend Kenobi, trying to reel him back in.
At first, the older Jedi takes a genuine stab at comforting his friend, pointing out that a man his age being on the Council in any capacity is a great honor. But, being Kenobi, he can’t resist a high-handed comment: “The fact of the matter is you are too close to the chancellor. The Council doesn't like it when he interferes in Jedi affairs."
“I swear to you, I didn't ask to be put on the Council,” a clearly embarrassed Skywalker replies.
“But it's what you wanted,” Kenobi shoots back, with the poisonous irritation of something he has waited too long to say. “Your friendship with Chancellor Palpatine seems to have paid off.”
Then, having simultaneously insulted his friend — and reminding him what he owes Palpatine — Kenobi gets down to brass tacks. The Council had an ulterior motive for approving Skywalker’s appointment, he explains: since Palpatine trusts the young Jedi, they want him to report back to them on the Chancellor’s dealings.
Skywalker is visibly shocked. “They want me to spy on the Chancellor? But that's treason… why didn’t the Council give me this assignment when we were in session?”
Kenobi has the grace to look uncomfortable. “This assignment is not to be on record.” Moreover, he hastens to explain, the Jedi owe allegiance to the Senate, not its leader—particularly not a leader who’s managed to extend his own power, legally or not. His voice takes on an urgent tone, the old panic taking hold. “Use your feelings, Anakin. Something is out of place—”
This is too much for Skywalker. He points out that Palpatine has been nothing but a supportive friend since his arrival on Coruscant as a boy. “You're asking me to do something against the Jedi code,” he spits. “Against the Republic. Against a mentor and a friend. That's what's out of place here.”
That night, a troubled Skywalker tries — in his customarily blunt and fumbling way — to express his fears to Amidala. He clearly hasn’t told her about the Council's orders. But at last, he can smell the rot on the wind, and hear the grinding in once-oiled gears. “Sometimes I wonder what's happening to the Jedi order,” he tells his wife. “I think the war is destroying the principles of the Republic.”
Music to Amidala’s ears! Amidala, recall, is the former elected queen of Naboo’s (human) society, and a Galactic Senator. She’s a more flawed and interesting figure than she initially seems: as institutionalist in her way as Kenobi, as impetuous as Skywalker. Despite her love for the Senate, she’s already responsible twice over for handing it to Palpatine. Despite her attempts to prevent the Galactic Civil War, she played a key role in kicking off its first battle. Amidala is, in many ways, Star Wars’ Good Liberal: she sees the decay of her state, but cannot quite fathom any role for herself in how it came to pass. Yet the ensuing years of warfare have only strengthened her conviction that the Republic is on the wrong course, and her decision to try and do something about it.
Revenge of the Sith doesn’t give us much of this, alas. In fact, the film sidelines Amidala quite badly, compared to its predecessors: the psychosocial struggle between Kenobi, Skywalker and Palpatine squeezes her out of the frame almost entirely. Even her appearances in deleted scenes— where, recall, Amidala is party to the Senate conspiracy to thwart Palpatine — depict her as hapless and distressed.
Knowing that Amidala is making subversive offscreen moves of her own, however, gives the following exchange an interesting charge. “Have you ever considered that we may be on the wrong side?” she says, carefully broaching the subject. “What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists... and the Republic has become the very evil we've been fighting to destroy?”
No sell. Skywalker stares at her. “I don't believe that. And you're sounding like a Separatist.”
Amidala forges on. “You're closer to the chancellor than anyone. Please, ask him to stop the fighting and let diplomacy resume.”
“Don’t ask me to do that!” Skywalker snaps. “Make a motion in the Senate, where that kind of a request belongs.”
Too late, Amidala seems to realize she’s stepped on a nerve. But when she asks what’s wrong, Skywalker stonewalls her. In the shooting script, the two lovers finally defuse the moment by wryly acknowledging each has things they aren’t telling the other. But in the film itself, the moment just lingers, sickening, even as Amidala asks Skywalker just to hold her.
Skywalker’s problem here — which he appears agonizingly aware of — is that he’s a blunt instrument, and knows it. Subterfuge and divided loyalties? Uncertainty? Not his thing. He’s a man who favors the simple, direct, and preferably violent action of wartime.
Yet immediately upon his triumphant return to Coruscant, he finds the three people who matter most in his life — Palpatine, Amidala and Kenobi — each trying to maneuver him into being some combination of confidant, go-between and spy, It’s a role he’s desperately unsuited for and flatly doesn’t want. Out of those three people, there is only one he wholly trusts.
Unfortunately, that’s Palpatine.
Legitimacy and Force
Palpatine — having freshly dispatched his old and busted assistant, Count Dooku — is now seriously stepping up his attempts to woo the new model. As with any sinister seduction, what this mostly entails is a trip to the opera.
It’s a marvelous scene: strange globes and rivulets of energy pouring back and forth through the darkened theater, basso growls and hums resonating through the dark. As soon as Skywalker arrives, Palpatine orders his entourage to scram and encourages a visibly uncomfortable Skywalker to sit down beside him.
The Chancellor gets to work on him immediately. First a bit of war news, accompanied by flattery for Skywalker’s skills. Then to business. “You know I'm not able to rely on the Jedi Council,” he purrs. “If they haven't included you in their plot, they soon will…You must sense what I have come to suspect. The Jedi Council want control of the Republic. They're planning to betray me.”
This is classic Palpatine: the truth, twisted just enough to cut. The idea that the Jedi Order actually wants control of the Republic is ludicrous. But they are, of course, seriously upset by Palpatine’s legal — if now decidedly dictatorial — power. It doesn't take an evil genius to guess that they're having backroom conversations about it. And the conclusions those conversations will reach is inevitable: that any actual attempt to contest his position will require a plot to seize some sort of control over the mechanisms of the Republic.
So while Skywalker attempts a fumbling denial, Palpatine glides right over him. The Jedi, he sighs, don’t trust him, or — by implicit extension — the Senate, the Republic, democracy.
This conflation of himself with the state is a typically autocratic rhetorical flourish, but it's typical because it's got some weight behind it. Because by getting himself legally voted all that extra power, by making himself first man of the Senate, by following the procedural rules while subverting their spirit, Palpatine has devoured the Senate from the inside. That’s the genius of it: he’s made himself legitimate. (Literally, "legally sanctioned.") He is the law.
As long as Palpatine stands in control, therefore, any bold move to save the Republic from him would legally be treason — an illegitimate coup which would only become legal in retrospect, after its hypothetical success. If his enemies decide to try and strike at him, then they’re striking at everything they claim to uphold. It doesn’t matter if fascism now cloaks itself in the Republican flag; its enemies will have to tear at the flag to get him, and that makes them the radicals, cynics, and traitors.
This is, frankly, a line of bullshit. But an endlessly seductive one, particularly for those of an institutionalist frame of mind, who cannot see the seams where the ideas are stitched together like Frankenstein's skin.
And wouldn’t you know it, Skywalker is an institutionalist. It’s just that his primary allegiance is to the Republic as a state, without anything like Amidala or Kenobi’s commitment to Republicanism in and of itself. (Indeed, as a Man of Action, he has a lingering distaste for the deliberation and compromise that such a political form entails.) That Palpatine has achieved his power legally is good enough for him. And whatever his resentments around certain members of the Jedi Order, he really does believe in that whole “Guardians of the Republic” thing. He knows that plots in the shadows aren't how a Jedi is supposed to act.
And thus, in this moment of disappointment and disillusionment, Palpatine spies his opening. “They asked you to do something that made you feel dishonest, didn't they?” he says, more in sorrow than in anger, his voice warbling slightly in tragic sympathy. “They asked you to spy on me, didn't they?”
Skywalker’s face is an open book. Palpatine is quick to press his rhetorical advantage. Everyone who gains power is afraid to lose it, he points out. And when you really think about it, there’s not much difference between the Jedi’s embrace of power and that of their eternal enemies, that theoretically-extinct splinter faction, the Sith. He illustrates this by way of a parable: the story of one Darth Plaguis, a man whose mastery of the force grew so great that he could keep those he cared about from dying —yet whose immense power could not keep him from death’s grip.
In our world this is an an ancient myth: the doomed search for eternal life that curses Gilgamesh, to take one early example. And like that mighty king, whose great power could not save the ones he loved from death — so, too, have Skywalker and Palpatine strayed beyond a simple conversation about political power.
For all that we’re treating Star Wars in a largely materialist manner — and for all that we argue it rewards such a reading — there is a persistent aspect of the supernatural within it that cannot be ignored. The uncanny arrives in the language of myth: forcing itself unwanted upon the sensitive in omens, dreams, portents. The source of these shadows are ripples across space and time, created by the shimmering vibrations of the universe and the stirring, quantum entanglement of life itself. Lucas called it the Force, a vague catch-all term that recalls the Daoist idea that the truth that can be described is no truth at all.
In our world, we call it magic.
Where there is magic, there are those who wield it: cunning people; seventh sons of seventh sons; avatars of some greater consciousness; those with high Midi-chlorian counts. It’s all very much the same, practically speaking. In Star Wars, such people access magical power through either the pursuit of transcendental oneness or the embrace of singular amd consuming passion. At least where the Force is concerned, the moral laws of Star Wars are quite clear: to pursue the Light Side of the Force means attempting to connect to the whole. Those who pursue the Dark Side draw wholly from themselves. Taken to an extreme, that separation from the whole — expressed through a libidinal will to power and domination — effects a physical, corruptive change.
Here in this terminal phase of the Republic, adherents of the Dark Side have long since been hunted into secrecy. Yet despite locking away their shadow selves, the current iteration of the Jedi Order has failed in its spiritual task as well as its institutional one. For all that they espouse connection and contemplation of the wild Force, they also seek to contain it — even tame it. They count midi-chlorians, recruit children, use the Force largely to jump higher, move faster, fight more effectively.
And as they tapped that wellspring, somehow, gradually — perhaps so slowly they themselves did not notice — their connection to it began to wither and die.
This may be at the root of Kenobi's panic; of the quiet unease in the hushed conversations held between senior Council members: the future is unusually clouded. Their connection to the living Force has withered.
Hence some Jedi’s embrace of the messianic belief that the Force has somehow tilted out of balance, and that it needs to be set right again. (This, recall, is why Kenobi's master Qui-Gon Jinn took Anakin Skywalker with him in the first place.) Yet even these adherents seem to believe a refocusing of the cosmic scales can occur without great — even destructive — change. Theirs is a belief that denies eschatology, because they are convinced that Evil itself has already been beaten. Secure in their theological monopoly and dogmatic in their interpretations, comfortably seated at the end of history, they have left themselves complacent. Brittle. Blinded.
Skywalker has spent his whole adult life inside that dry, unchallenged intellectual hegemony, and rankles at it. So what Palpatine is offering him here is a very deft temptation: outside knowledge, delivered by a seemingly legitimate figure. The secrets that the Jedi don’t want you to know, coming from the lips of the man the Jedi want to shut up.
The Chancellor's parable works as it must. Skywalker — under pressure, confused, terrified of loss — ignores the clear moral about the futility of chasing power or immortality, as he’s clearly meant to. Instead, he focuses on the baited hook beneath. “He could actually... save people from death?”
“The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities... some consider to be unnatural,” Palpatine murmurs. The devil, sitting solemn in his chair, watching the dance of spheres in the dark. The faintest of smiles tugging at the corner of his lip.
“Is it possible to learn this power?” Skywalker asks.
Palpatine’s head turns, slow and meaningful, as he delivers the killing blow.
“Not from a Jedi.”
This has been Decline and Fall, a Heat Death series on Star Wars and America. Now wait, you might be thinking – Revenge of the Sith isn't over yet! And you're absolutely right. So as not to drop 21,000 words on you at once, our coverage of the film concludes later this month. (As Saul put it: "let's Peter Jackson this shit.")
Next time, on Decline and Fall: a coup d'état. A sudden purge. A government transitions – and so does a war.