Lights up after intermission. When last we left our heroes, the war raged throughout the Galaxy, down the space lanes and across siege fronts of the Outer Rim, and on to the capital's doorstep. An attempted surgical strike on the Republic's elected dictator had just been beaten back — leaving him all-powerful, even as members of his government began to wonder if they'd have been better off with him gone.
The secessionist rebels' last desperate gambit has failed. The Republic is finally secure — and everything has begun to sour. Plots and counterplots fizz and bubble beneath the skin of the sclerotic Senate. Across town, an order of state-employed warrior monks toys with a dangerous question: how to launch a legitimate coup in service of a governmental system that, practically speaking, no longer exists.
Now this paradox falls on the shoulders of two tragically gifted young men. One, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is focused on the ongoing frontier battles. The other, the war hero Anakin Skywalker, suffers from divided loyalties and hidden fears. The relationship between them has come under considerable strain. However, it still binds them tight —pulling them together as it pulls the Galaxy toward the destruction of all they hold dear.
Welcome to Decline and Fall, a Heat Death production from the Brothers Elbein. In this series, we recount one of the great American epics: the Star Wars saga, a tragedy of the overthrow of a republic and its replacement by first dictatorship, then anarchy. By looking at the story of, within and around Star Wars, we aim to provide a shadow history of the late age of the American Empire.
Last time, we covered the first half of Revenge of the Sith, Lucas' magnum opus. We discussed the jingoism and overreach of the American invasion of Iraq. We also touched the backs of our hands to the fever spreading through the edifice of the Republic and the soul of Anakin Skywalker, its self-appointed defender. Now — in Star Wars land, at least — things are coming to a head.
It's 2005. It's a galaxy far, far away. The action has risen enough. It's time to fall.
The first half of Revenge of the Sith is a political drama that concerns the growing disillusionment of the Republic's war hero and the politician dripping poison in his ear. A story that centers on the actions of Great Men and the particular emotional turbulence of a twenty-something professional killer. It's shaping up to be a nicely tragic story.
But does the future shape of the Republic truly rest solely on the shoulders of one troubled young man?
Probably not. Intrigue as they might in the capital city-planet of Coruscant, the brute fact of the civil war — a military machine rolling back and forth through the outlying star systems, sowing chaos and devastation in its wake — exerts its particular gravitational pull.
Until now, we’ve discussed that war in terms of the Galactic Republic and its would-be splinter state, the separatist Confederacy of Independent Systems. But any conflict of this size contains a fractal array of more minor wars, as pre-existing tensions catch fire under the general conflagration and old rivals take the opportunity to settle some scores.
Take the First World War as an example. Beyond the slugging match on the Western Front, author Hew Strachan writes, there was the scramble for the scraps of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, which included the British conquest of Palestine and the holy city of Jerusalem. Then there were the Arabian and Balkan wars for self-determination; the bloody fight over Germany's colonial holdings in Africa, fought mainly by the colonized themselves; and most famously, the overthrow of the Russian monarchy by socialists.
Or we could look at the kaleidoscopic conflicts of World War II: a neat name that crushes together two or three distinct wars of conquest, separate struggles between capitalist and communist factions, and countless rural guerilla movements against colonizers, landlords and central or imperial governments.
And so, under the loose banners of "Republican" and "Separatist," the Galaxy has come undone. The Lucas-produced Clone Wars television show fills in these far-flung struggles. Criminal cartels on the Outer Rim take advantage of the chaos to vie with one another for territory and power. In the oceans of Mon Cala, two aquatic species with long-simmering tensions go to war. In the jungles of Onderon, a local rebellion against a Separatist-backed government brings to prominence a fiery, violent young partisan named Saw Gerrera. On the white deserts of Mandalore — former home of the now-deceased Jango Fett, whose endlessly-repeated body now marches in serried ranks across the battlefields of the Outer Rim — the pacifist government teeters under an insurgency of the violent reactionaries who will soon be all anyone in the Galaxy can imagine when they say the word “Mandalorian.”.
For Chancellor Palpatine, however, mass bloodletting has only ever been an abstract and ever-shifting means to a concrete end. The mass mobilization and social reorganization allowed by — and necessary to — the vast undertaking of the Galactic War has served as a useful pretext for accumulating power, forming a powerful state military, and flushing out potential threats.
Palpatine stands all but victorious, a colossus astride a galactic battlefield largely cleansed of his enemies — with any who might remain comfortingly close to home. It's time to begin snipping loose ends.
He appears first — via hologram in his guise as Sith puppetmaster Darth Sidious — to the beaten General Grievous. The half-droid general is licking his wounds on an out-of-the-way planet in the Outer Rim. With the death of Count Dooku, he is now the de facto head of whatever is left of the Separatist splinter state. (Civilian control of the Separatist cause seems to have entirely broken down.)
Palpatine's instructions to Grievous are curt, clear and callous: pack the remaining Separatist leadership off to another, even-more-remote planet and await orders. Then he turns and delivers Grievous' new location to the Jedi Council via a bit of "captured intelligence." It is a move that accomplishes several goals. First, it eliminates Grievous, the last serious armed threat to Republic authority. Second, it distracts the Jedi. The Order is stretched thin: several of the Council's senior leadership and most accomplished knights are mired down in ongoing sieges on the Outer Rim, each at the head of personal battalions of clone infantry. Those who aren't already assigned to active fronts soon will be: Yoda, for example, is off to reinforce the Wookies, a species of yodeling sasquatch-like people in the tremendous forested planet of Kashyyyk against a droid incursion.
The task of taking Grievous off the board thus falls to a relatively junior leader: Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Skywalker wants to go with him, of course. (Perhaps he longs to play the dashing warrior with his friend. He also may want a bit of space from the many, many intrigues around Palpatine.) Either way, the two share a warm moment as thousands of clone soldiers bustle around them. Skywalker offers a genuine apology for his recent arrogance and moodiness. Kenobi, in turn, provides some genuine praise for Skywalker's skill and some much-needed reassurance.
The two part as friends — but they do part. Kenobi is moving forward alone into one last thrilling war story. Typically, it’ll prove to be the wrong one.
Kenobi's battalion heads to Utapau, where Grievous' remaining forces hide. Utapau is one of Star Wars' more interesting locations: a land of karst sinkholes and cenotes traversed by alien pterosaurs and great feathered lizards, who stalk the fringes of cities are built into the sides of great, plummeting chasms. Here on Earth, in places like the Yucatan Peninsula – or the newer utopias of Central Florida – these landscapes hold a particular cosmological meaning. Shaped by the hidden hand of subsurface water and erosion, they are liminal places: portals to the spirit world and the land of the dead. (In Yucatec Mayan beliefs, the boundaries between such realms are negotiated by messengers like snakes, including old feathered Kukulcan himself.)
Utapau is thus a place of descent toward hidden depths, which makes it simultaneously an excellent stage for a pulp adventure and the perfect set piece against which to experience sudden, plummeting revelation. To enter such a place — as Kenobi is about to — is inevitably to come away changed.
Kenobi isn’t precisely alone, of course: he’s got an entire expeditionary force of clone soldiers with him. In a previous entry, we spoke about the clones as weapons of war: a pre-packaged army gifted to the Republic, grown from the genetic material of a bounty hunter now three years dead. The narrative in Attack of the Clones treats them mainly as objects, slave soldiers grown in vats and raised in communal mess halls — the Janissary forces of the newly-militarized state. In Revenge of the Sith, however, we can see some flashes of personality amid the infantry — sovereignty and individuality pushing out of the faceless mass. Clone medics attend to their wounded; the men call out to one another in the heat of battle. Kenobi seems to have an easy, battle-forged relationship with his second-in-command, Commander Cody, with the two joking before launching into their fight.
As with much else, the Clone Wars show expands this idea, demonstrating that the clones are fully realized human beings who find ways to differentiate themselves from one another as much as possible. (If you've ever met a pair of identical twins, this idea should be immediately intuitive.) This has the immediate effect of softening the moral abscess at the core of The Grand Army of the Republic — and the ultimate impact of underscoring it. True, the clones aren't a faceless mob of robot people – which at first is comforting. But that fact only magnifies the evil done to and by the hands of this military: an army of literal brothers made up not of volunteers but slaves, grown and programmed to be cannon fodder. Commissioned rather than conceived, the clones exist only because they were purchased to fight in the war to destroy the Republic. The gleam in the eye that led to their creation was not love or lust — it was avarice, the hunger for power, and the will to empire.
And in that drive — into which Palpatine had conscripted them long before either the war or they had come into existence — they march under the aloof command of military officers of an entirely different caste. In Revenge of the Sith, whatever their personal feelings, they are tools of the state — tools the Jedi seem to feel no guilt in wielding. Tools that the Jedi do not even seem to see as anything else.
As his clone infantry prepares for the assault, Kenobi goes ahead, his spaceship descending onto a landing pad decorated with bone. The people of that sinkhole city are hostages, he learns — but they provide him with Grievous' location, along with (appropriately enough) a delightfully huge feathered lizard able to negotiate the sides of the cenotes. And so, on lizard-back, Kenobi sneaks inside Grievous' lair to face his old foe.
The sequence that follows is Star Wars at its absolute pulpiest. Standing alone before his army of battle droids, Grievous decides to duel Kenobi himself. He has some reason to be confident in this: as he boasts to the Jedi Master, he was trained by Count Dooku — a man who's beaten the snot out of Kenobi at least twice. Moreover, the cyborg has a technical advantage. In a genuinely great bit of character design, his arms unfold into two pairs, each gripping the lightsabers of dead Jedi. As he strikes at Kenobi, the blades begin to whirr into a buzzsaw of light.
But Kenobi manages to hold Grievous off quite ably before the fight’s interrupted by his clone battalion. As Republic gunships drop into the cenote and the clone infantry engage Grievous’ droid forces, the droid general flees atop a spherical motorcycle, Kenobi giving chase on his bugling feathered serpent. (Honestly? Cinema.)
Back and forth, the two spar across the battlefield, neither quite able to get the better of the other. Down, they descend — ever down. First, Kenobi's lightsaber goes flying. Then they lose their mounts. Finally, they end up face to face on a hangar platform, Kenobi unarmed, facing a larger, stronger opponent. Their final fight takes on a certain desperate, scuffling quality. No more elegant fencing, now; Grievous pulls a gun, and Kenobi knocks it away. Grievous throws Kenobi around; Kenobi pries his chest plate open to reveal the wet sack of organs inside.
Finally, the Jedi Master shoots his old enemy in the chest with the general's laser gun. The final, action movie-style dismissal of his foe — and the weapon he used to kill him — represents Kenobi in a nutshell: "So uncivilized.”
But it's worth lingering for a moment on Grievous' death, because it ripples with portent that usually goes unremarked upon. From the moment of the first laser blast, flame explodes inside the droid general's metal frame, boils through his mask, and devours his organic materials — in Star Wars terms, his personhood — from the inside. And throughout, Kenobi keeps shooting him. It's a genuinely ugly way to die, and it's also Lucas offering Kenobi a scrambled, refracted vision of his future. One cyborg burns to death at Kenobi's hand. Soon, another will be born the same way: in fire.
Returning to the battlefield on lizard-back, Kenobi pauses to chat with Commander Cody. The clone officer has recovered Kenobi's lightsaber and passes it back to him with a slight smile. "I think you'll be needing this."
“Thank you,” Kenobi says, the heroic general on the back of his feathered steed. “Come on. We’ve got a battle to win!”
But, of course, the real battle has already happened. It came while Kenobi was at the bottom of the sinkhole, having his last great adventure, receiving a vision of the future he didn't understand. And so the Jedi Master surges up the walls of the cenote on the back of a feathered serpent into a different world.
Below him, the faithful Commander Cody receives a call.
Afternoon on Coruscant. The blue sky hangs innocently behind the endless skyscrapers. In the conference room of the Jedi Council, word has just arrived that Kenobi has engaged Grievous. The war could be effectively over in a matter of hours.
Skywalker is dispatched to bring the news to Chancellor Palpatine. The conflicts of the past few days have weighed on the younger man: He’s confused, exhausted, and troubled. Things with Amidala have been strained, partly by his worrying pronouncements that he will save her from the fate that awaits her in his nightmares.
It is, therefore, a distracted man who arrives in the Chancellor's plush apartments. Sensing that the decisive moment is at hand, Palpatine gets to work on him immediately. The news about Kenobi he brushes aside; all of this is merely the boring execution of his soaring plans. Instead, he rises and gestures for Skywalker to walk with him while deploying the usual mixture of flattery for Skywalker's skill and poison about the Council's motives. Finally, he risks making the direct pitch. "Let me help you to know the subtleties of the Force."
Beside him, Skywalker's gate stiffens. Until now, Palpatine has appeared to be simply a friendly layperson, his dark powers merely those of politics. “How do you know the ways of the Force?”
And now, at last, Palpatine tips his hand. In the conversation that ensues, he finally reveals himself to be an accomplished sorcerer, one trained by a powerful and nameless master. And to be honest, his opening argument — a semi-tantric line about the unification of the shadow and the light, a rejection of the cerebral monasticism that has withered the Jedi Order and that bars Anakin from openly seeing the woman he loves — isn't a bad one. "If one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects, not just the narrow dogmatic view of the Jedi," he says. "If you wish to become a complete and wise leader... you must embrace a larger view of the Force."
Fair enough. But, of course, the Chancellor isn't interested in spiritual synthesis. Skywalker can only achieve the power he needs through him, Palpatine tells the increasingly shocked and horrified Jedi. His voice drips with false sincerity. Only through Palpatine can Skywalker save his secret wife … whom Palpatine absolutely should not know about.
A few times in Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine — ever the gambler— risks overplaying his hand. (Like the time he got himself trapped on a crashing starship.) This is one of them. Palpatine has declared himself a liar and an ideological enemy to the Jedi at large, if not Skywalker specifically. He has announced himself as the secret conspirator whose machinations have been troubling the Jedi council. And he has done so in front of a young man with famously poor impulse control, who typically resorts to violence to solve complex problems. The sort of man who might easily take Palpatine's head right here, consequences be damned—the kind of man who immediately draws his sword.
But Palpatine doesn't waver. "Ever since I've known you, you've been searching for a life greater than an ordinary Jedi's. A life of significance. A life of conscience.” Then, in a calculated gesture of trust, he turns his back to the furious Skywalker and asks if he’s going to kill him.
Skywalker is visibly considering it, and says as much. But Palpatine's immediate praise of his anger spooks him. Bringing himself under control, he informs Palpatine that he's turning the matter over to the Jedi Council, and departs to do just that.
As it happens, the Jedi Council has finally realized what they might have to do to depose Palpatine. That means contemplating practical steps — which inevitably entails an actual military coup of their own. The Chancellor is, recall, the legally elected head of the government. Should they depose him, they must secure the Senate to oversee a peaceful transition. (A dark line of reasoning, Yoda notes via long-distance call, but he doesn't forbid it, either.)
As soon as they receive word of Grievous’ death, the Jedi Council members on Coruscant spring into motion. Master Windu and a trio of others go to the Chancellor's office, intending to force Palpatine to lay down his emergency powers. Skywalker falls in with them on their way out of the Jedi Temple. His face resolute, he shares the news about Palpatine's true identity.
Whatever his private misgivings about this business, Skywalker has decided that arresting Palpatine is a good move here — thus making him a party to the unfolding coup attempt. More than that, he wants to come along and help.
But this shouldn't be a surprise. The brash, violent and somewhat authoritarian Skywalker is precisely the sort of person who might jump aboard a military coup aimed at restoring democracy. Let's take a detour and consider a historical case study to see why.
First, the "military coup to restore democracy" is a particular beast, somewhat distinct from the specifically anti-communist military coups of the Cold War or the astroturfed "populist" power grabs of the 1930s fascist movements. This particular form claims to uphold not just the abstract moral purity of the state or to protect it from communism: it instead fetishizes returning to a specific sort of civilian legitimacy, albeit under the guidance of a watchful military.
One of the more interesting recurring examples of the form is Turkey, which has a long history of military “interventions” — first against the latest Ottoman sultans, then against the Republic of Turkey itself. Beginning in 1960, elements within the Turkish military launched a dizzying array of coup attempts, some through the deployment of tanks, others via strongly-worded memoranda. Twice, Turkish democracy came under direct military rule. In 1983, after a third coup, the military dissolved all previous political parties and called for new elections, transitioning back to a civilian regime. That regime eventually gave rise to the reformist-turned-authoritarian Erdogan, who survived a 2016 coup attempt by a military faction that claimed to be acting out of concern for Turkey’s democracy. (The actual political factors at play were considerably more complicated.)
Can a military act protect Democratic power in a system? Writing in the 1996 edition of the journal Middle Eastern Studies, scholar Ihsan D. Dagi noted that the interventionist streak in the Turkish military was "brought about due to its self-perception as 'guardian of the state' and its distrust of politicians." Naturally, this line of thought is reasonably authoritarian: the military needs to come in, clean up and restore order after fickle, foolish democracy. (Sound familiar?) But that approach has historically been cut with an aspirational commitment to Attaturk’s “modernist” philosophy: a notionally secular, westernized and democratic state.
Dagi lays out the resulting dilemma: a military that continually gets involved to 'clean up' after politicians but that also reasserts its commitment to democracy and transitions back to civilian rule—until the next time. Once the redline of military intervention in civilian government is breached, it becomes that much easier to contemplate. It becomes, in fact, part of the standard political toolkit.
But it's a high-stakes tool. The 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan failed partly due to a lack of support from Turkish opposition groups and the rest of the military. One source estimates that 300 people died in the attempt. Erdogan's government instituted a massive two-year crackdown on protests. It detained around 40,000 people in the immediate aftermath, with subsequent purges of the army, judiciary, and schools.
This is the path the Jedi are steeling themselves to walk down. It's a dangerous path not only for the Republic but for them. Because in military coups, you absolutely must not miss.
The Jedi are going to miss, and they're going to miss about as badly as it's possible to do so.
It happens like this.
First, Windu orders Skywalker to stay behind “for [his] own good.” Perhaps subsequent matters might have unfolded differently if Windu had brought Skywalker along or had given him some specific task to occupy himself. Instead, he leaves Skywalker benched — with nothing to do but chew over Palpatine's promises, working himself up into a frenzy of doubt and fear.
Instead, as it will transpire, Windu and three other Jedi, not nearly enough, stride into Palpatine's office like gunfighters. Swords spring into their hands. Windu gets to the point immediately: they're placing the Chancellor under arrest in the name of the Galactic Senate.
Palpatine’s affable mask slips. The venomous, arrogant voice of his alter ego, Darth Sidious, emerges through McDermid’s slack, suddenly sociopathic face, as he finally brings years of subtext into text.“ I am the Senate.”
The words resound like a long-laid trap snapping closed. Because, of course, he's right. As noted last entry, Palpatine has controlled the Senate for three years, with broadly popular acclaim from its members. For all that the senatorial plotters — not invited to this particular adventure, you'll notice — sniff that the constitution is in tatters, we've seen no sign that his amendments are illegal. Instead, as he promised long ago to a different sucker, he made them legal.
This points to another particularly American process: that through lobbying, control of the courts or suborning of regulators, minority interest groups can render the previously unthinkable — or even illegal — entirely legitimate.
For the Galaxy, the upshot is this: Palpatine is the Republic, and the Republic is Palpatine. He’s now the head of a state remade daily in his image, commander of the armed forces, law-giver, administrator, the final word. The only thing he’s broken is custom. The law, in black and white and gunmetal gray, is his. Now, the Jedi have given him the last thing he needed: a pretext.
Palpatine speaks it with a certain calm, satisfied relish. “It’s treason, then." And his lightsaber drops into his hand.
What happens next is not just the narrative navel of Revenge of the Sith: it's the crucial turning point in the Prequel Trilogy and perhaps of the larger epic. It's a sequence that looms over the original films like a half-forgotten curse, a bit of backstory that Lucas couldn't resist wanting to revisit.
First: the scene. Here are Palpatine and the Jedi, their blades finally drawn. The Chancellor's a capable swordsman, cutting down Windu's escort without trouble. (Yet again, the vaunted skill of the fabled Jedi Knights proves sadly lacking — but then, perhaps most of the effective warriors are off on the battlefront.)
But Windu’s better. Before long, the powerful Jedi Master has his enemy out on the edge of a vast broken window, at the edge of the building’s precipice, with a lightsaber in his face. There, Windu coldly informs him that he’s under arrest.
Suddenly, Skywalker runs into the room. He's been unable to stop thinking about Palpatine's promises and his own fears. If the Chancellor dies in the Jedi's coup, what of his offer to save Amidala? And so rather than sit still, Skywalker rushes out to intervene, with no clear idea of what that intervention will look like — save that Palpatine must be alive at the end of it.
With Skywalker’s appearance, the situation within the office spirals fully into chaos. Everyone is yelling their heads off. In what reads as a moment of genuine rage, Palpatine throws black magic at Windu in the form of powerful lightning bolts; the Jedi catches them on his blade and reflects them back into the politician’s face.
It could all go wrong for Palpatine here. There is no way he planned to end up on his back with a lightsaber on his face, literally and figuratively on the brink. All Windu has to do is snap the blade forward, and he will bring Palpatine's great game to an unceremonious end. The Republic will be dead either way. But the Chancellor could very easily join it.
So, with Windu's sword at his throat, Palpatine puts on his most desperate and outstanding performance. He shouts that the Jedi are traitors, that they've launched the coup he'd warned Skywalker was coming. He appeals to Skywalker’s friendship and loyalty. He sobs that he’s too weak, that Windu will kill him, that this is wrong, and that Skywalker needs him.
"He must stand trial," Skywalker pleads. Out of a belief — regardless of his shaky history in this arena — that the Jedi shouldn't murder defenseless prisoners? Or out of a conviction that, on some level, Palpatine is the Republic?
Windu’s having none of either. “He has control of the Senate and the Courts,” the Jedi Master snarls. “He’s too dangerous to be left alive.” Palpatine has successfully made himself legally untouchable. But the law is nothing to a man with a sword; right now, Windu has the sword. Yet whether due to Skywalker's pleading, Palpatine's apparent weakness, or his long-held scruples, he hesitates — and is lost.
Because for Skywalker's above, scruples and proceduralist arguments are just that: arguments. Fundamentally, he believes that he needs Palpatine to save his wife, which means that he needs the Chancellor alive, which means that right now, at this moment, he’s sleepwalked his way into being on Palpatine’s side.
And so, as Windu prepares to bring the blade down, Skywalker stops him, his lightsaber semi-accidentally cutting off the Jedi Master's sword hand.
It is not some moment of calculated betrayal. It is, instead, a spasm of blind panic. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make the worst mistake of your life.
Windu staggers, shocked. Palpatine's smile is a thing of poisonous satisfaction. The mask of the weak and dying old man drops away into full, cackling malice. With a blast of magical lightning, he hurls the shocked Chairman of the Jedi Council out the window to fall into the bottomless depths of Coruscant. "Power!" he screams, his voice a howl of triumph. “UNLIMITED POWER!”
Now, Palpatine stands fully revealed. The discharge of black magic has scarred his face, revealing the truth about him: it has stripped away the glamor of the politician to reveal the rotting, hungry thing beneath. Old, corrupted, yellow-eyed, disgusting: the devil in all but name. He offers the stricken Skywalker an apprenticeship, power, and his wife's salvation.
As a mark of their compact, he also offers him a new name: Darth Vader.
And Skywalker falls to his knees and accepts.
Later in he-who-was-once-Skywalker's life, in packed cinemas across Jimmy Carter's America, our parents' generation watched Darth Vader looming over their screens like a black samurai demigod, barrel-chested and skull masked. His true identity is the pivotal revelation of Lucas' original trilogy, the narrative axle around which the story spun.
But if Vader/Skywalker was the fallen prince of the righteous Republic, that suggested a question that Lucas could never release. If "how Democracies die" is the poli-sci future history part of Star Wars, this is the character drama — what happened to Darth Vader? How did this man, Anakin Skywalker, fall into evil?
Popular memory hasn’t been kind to Lucas’ attempt at answering. Unlike The Empire Strikes Back — which revealed some of Vader’s backstory — Revenge of the Sith, which tells his origin, isn't remembered as a classic. It might have grossed $1 billion worldwide and impressed even that king of the fans, Kevin Smith. ("This is the 'Star Wars' prequel the haters have been bitching for since "Menace" came out," he said, "and if they don't cop to that when they finally see it, they're lying.") But the general response was and remained a gnawing dissatisfaction.
And you know what? The film is perplexing, frustrating and profoundly upsetting text — in part because it sets up the pieces and spins them in motion but does not offer a clear answer to that question. It only makes it more poignant: What makes Skywalker willingly submit himself to Palpatine, a man he now knows to be the worst possible news?
Was Skywalker always a little bit fascist, waiting for a strongman to pledge himself to? That feels too easy. He's always been troubled, scarred by a past life of slavery and a reckless, near-pathological need to submerge himself in death-defying situations. But he is a young adult on the front lines of an epochal, Galaxy-spanning Civil War. His youth, background and circumstances also go a long way toward explaining his arrogance, petulance or general lack of self-control, if not excusing. Had one of Palpatine's disciples not killed Qui-Gon Jinn, had the political situation in the Galactic Republic developed a bit differently, Skywalker might have turned out fine.
Does his relationship with Amidala explain his fall, then? That doesn't feel right, either. True, it was the carrot that Palpatine dangled to lure him away from the Jedi. It is rather toxic and uncomfortable to watch — but this is also not a sign of inevitable evil. In part, their tortured chemistry seems reflective of their being alone, together, amid political collapse: a tumultuous relationship they must keep secret at all costs — or risk being cast out entirely from their privileged positions. (With a baby on the way to turn the pressure up.)
It’s true that Skywalker’s terror of losing Amidala — and of loss and abandonment more generally — certainly plays a large part in what comes next. Indeed, Lucas' stated philosophy throughout the prequels makes this line clear: Attachment leads to fear, fear to anger, anger to hate, and hate to suffering.
And yet Skywalker doesn't even seem focused on that temptation. As Palpatine speaks softly to the stricken Skywalker, the older man rather offhandedly reveals that he doesn’t hold the secret rite for prolonging life — it's something the two of them would have to work out together. Skywalker is seemingly too stunned to notice. If he did, that volcanic rage might have bubbled back up, and Palpatine might have been the next one to fly out the window.
Perhaps the most accurate answer is the least satisfying one: that evil is so often banal, as the woman said. Cackling, self-aware villainy is very rare. Far more common are exhaustion, greed, guilt, rationalization. Despair, moral fatigue, the simple accident of being scared and sleep-deprived in the company of ordinary men at a time when the opportunity for badness comes upon them.
This is where Star Wars was bound to lose the Vader-Must-Be-Badass cadre. For Skywalker, as for all of us, evil is a thing that takes no particular explanation. It looms beneath at all times like a great black gravity well, exerting its subtle, patient tug. Until, finally, he succumbed.
Skywalker's conduct in this scene — he has not yet truly become Vader — is thus interestingly passive. His eyes are hollow and unfocused, suggesting a state of shock so profound as to be permanent. He appears to have finally cracked under the pressure of divided loyalties. He cannot imagine returning to the Jedi: he has just helped kill the head of their Council in halting their attempted coup. It seems the only thing he can imagine is to stagger forward, clinging to Palpatine's empty promises like a life raft. Those promises provide a convenient excuse for him to take what Palpatine can provide if only Skywalker will help him. His formal power. His official legitimacy.
That claim to legitimacy matters. Skywalker, remember, has no particular attachment to the deliberative or consensus-building heart of Republicanism. He defaults toward action — and with that tendency comes a kind of unthinking authoritarianism.
But if Palpatine had been an interloper, an outside force, his temptation probably wouldn't have worked: Skywalker does hold an almost totemic belief in the Republic as a state and a cause. Palpatine has represented that state for as long as Skywalker has been a part of it. As the pontiff of rightful rule, he can offer absolution and certainty to a man who desperately needs both.
By submitting to Palpatine, then, Skywalker can tell himself that he's not a traitor or, worse, a dupe. He can tell himself that he's still doing what he's always done: serving the state and protecting his wife. Anything he does for the state from here will be legitimate, too — no matter how horrific.
And so that’s the tack Palpatine takes with him. In launching their coup against the Senate’s duly appointed Chancellor, Palpatine explains to his new apprentice that the Jedi — all of them, even his erstwhile friend Kenobi — have shown themselves enemies of the Republic and mortal threats to both of them. (On this latter point, given that Skywalker has now chosen his side, Palpatine isn’t exactly wrong!) If they are to be safe, if the Republic is to be safe, they must strike first. Skywalker must take a detachment of clone troopers to the Jedi Temple tonight and wipe out everyone he finds there.
“If they are not all destroyed, it will be civil war without end,” Palpatine intones. “Do what must be done, Lord Vader. Do not hesitate. Show no mercy.”
And so we come to the Jedi Purge, an event that will ripple throughout the rest of the series in profound ways.
The mechanism is simple and quickly told: Palpatine speaks a coded phrase — "Execute Order 66" — out across the military bands to the Clone detachments accompanying the Jedi on the Outer Rim. That army of clones that Palpatine ordered, whatever their essential humanity, were grown and programmed to a final purpose: this is it. Smoothly and without apparent emotion, they turn their guns on their unsuspecting commanders.
We see it first on Utapau, where Commander Cody — mere minutes after handing Kenobi back his lightsaber and sending him on his way — orders his troops to fire on the Jedi. The heavy guns knock the Jedi Master off his feathered steed, dropping him back into the waters of the cenote. From there, Revenge of the Sith launches into a genuinely affecting and ugly sequence. All across the Galaxy, on every battlefront, Jedi die. They are shot in the back and blasted out of the sky, as they discover too late that the army behind them was never actually under their command.
Visually, the wartime killings of the Jedi mimic the practice of "fragging," the murder of officers by drafted soldiers in Vietnam — an increasingly common occurrence as military discipline broke down and that war dragged toward its stumbling, bloody conclusion, and precisely the sort of thing Lucas would have been familiar with. (Writer George Lepre estimated that around 900 such events occurred between 1969 to 1972. We never get a precise number for how many active Jedi there are — or how many die that day — but that feels like a pretty reasonable number.)
There's an even more apparent political equivalent here: the famous "Night of Long Knives," the 1934 Nazi purge ordered by Hitler to consolidate his power. That series of extra-judicial killings — carried out by the SS — saw the murder of Hitler's former partners, the paramilitary thugs known as the "Brownshirts," under the excuse that they were plotting a potential coup.
Similar programs of top-down, extra-judicial political mass murder have never been carried out within the core of American governance. (The Western frontier, where genocide and atrocity were often tools of policy, is another matter.) But similar events occurred in several places throughout the American hegemony in the aftermath of World War 2. In the Pacific, particularly in Korea and Indonesia, American forces allowed — and sometimes actively participated in — vicious purges of leftist insurgents or labor forces, many of whom had been their allies only a few years before. This policy, which left-leaning historian and journalist Vincent Bevins dubbed “The Jakarta Method,” soon became an open secret, carried out by U.S.-backed governments across Latin America.
Like these campaigns, the Jedi Purge is not restricted to military figures. Skywalker, as ordered, goes to the Temple with a battalion of clone troopers. Together they murder everyone they find there: instructors, apprentices, and children.
This mirrors another violent, common American trope: the school shooting. Revenge of the Sith was written and filmed a few years after the 1999 Columbine Massacre, where two teenagers — one a psychopathic reactionary, the other an angry depressive — sought to emulate the Oklahoma City bombing, in which right-wing terrorists killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building. The shooting occurred barely a month before the debut of The Phantom Menace, leading to some very odd coverage of the Star Wars Gala in Denver.)
The teenage pair fell far short of their target — they killed just 13 of their fellow students — but placed a far greater stamp on the American consciousness. Surviving journals by both of the perpetrators suggest that the massacre was a nihilistic terror attack of the sort that would play out in American public spaces again and again, with increasingly deadening regularity, over the ensuing decades.
Whether Columbine played any role in Lucas' conception of this specific scene is impossible to know. But watching this sequence now, it's impossible not to think of other shootings: the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings, which claimed the lives of 26 people, including 20 six- and seven-year-old children, or the similar 2022 shooting in Uvalde, Texas. It's all there in the visual language of a dead-eyed young man striding into a room full of frightened, hiding children, bearing a weapon of war.
As Skywalker strides in, the children look up, relieved to see a friendly face — relief which fades into terror as his lightsaber ignites, just before the camera cuts mercifully away.
But the invocation of a mass shooting isn't the primary aim of the scene. Mass shootings are often inspired — to the extent that "inspiration" is even the right word— by a bubbling soup of reactionary grievance and disaffected, nihilistic fantasy.
There’s plenty of that in Lucas’ conception of the Dark Side (think of bug-eyed Palpatine screaming about “Unlimited Power!”), but what's going on here is something different, though no less gruesome. In Revenge of the Sith, this mass murder is carried out under the auspices of government policy. It's an inhuman atrocity, and most people carrying it out are visually dehumanized. Throughout this sequence, the clones are again presented as faceless automata, never seen without their helmets, all speaking with that same murderous voice. They are compelled — by programming, like droids — to kill everyone they find. (Making one wonder, of course, what memories they will be left with when they return to themselves.)
As with the last scene where he bows to Palpatine, Skywalker's participation here represents a problem. As we've noted above, there's no reason to label him a psychopath or to suggest that his actions in the Purge speak to some innately evil nature.
In an academic work published last year, Jonathan Leader Maynard, an expert on mass killings at King's College London, argued that a relaxed attitude towards killing is all it takes to lay the foundation for mass atrocity. For Leader Maynard, as The Atlantic noted in an essay on his work, once a wartime society begins to tell stories about how mass killing fits a broader social or strategic purpose, “mass killings become more likely.”
For the killers, that ideology becomes the glue binding together those who give the orders, those who carry them out, and the broader public — ensuring they “all tolerate, or even applaud, atrocities.”
Chillingly, those who carry out such atrocities don't have to be true believers — they don't even have to buy into the ideological backing at all. "Instead, the existence of the ideology and its widespread acceptance in society can provide a sufficient justification for their violence," The Atlantic noted.
Skywalker is just such a non-ideologue. He has long lived in a culture of mass death — he has even murdered children before. The ones he killed in the Tusken camp in a crime of passion were part of the people that tortured Skywalker's mother. That can be read as a particularly vicious act of frontier violence against a group that Tatooine's settlers do not appear to consider people. On top of that, he's now spent three years fighting a war for the very existence of the Republic — a state that has now been bound up with Palpatine and in service of which he has undoubtedly been responsible for some level of what is euphemistically called "collateral damage."
In essence, Skywalker — the Top Gun maverick and merry warrior — has always been extremely willing to use violence against those dubbed acceptable targets. Now that the Jedi have been moved into that category, he kills them just as quickly as he killed Tuskens, Geonosians, droids, or any other enemy put in front of him.
And if the war he's fighting is now being carried out in his former school, waged via a weapon he was taught to use there — well, that's what wars and warriors ultimately do. They come home.
And so the Temple burns. Flames and smoke lick the Coruscant sky. A concerned Bail Organa, senator of Alderaan, Jedi ally, and chief architect of a competing senatorial plot against Palpatine, races to the scene in time to see clone soldiers killing children — and barely escapes with his life. Meanwhile, a pregnant Amidala watches the distant carnage in her apartment, wondering what it means.
We might ask that as well. The Jedi Order was a deeply flawed and ineffective institution that signally failed the Republic it claimed to serve.
But even leaving aside Palpatine's ideological hatred of them, the order was nonetheless a potential check — and occasionally an actual one — on his power. This, after all, is why he co-opts, subverts, and ultimately eliminates all of them he can find, just as he had the corporate interests of the Separatists.
Was their downfall inevitable? Probably. Perhaps Palpatine would have strung them along longer if they'd proved more tractable. Maybe not: the plan to finish them off in a single go works best if they're still separated and embedded with Clone forces, an organizational scheme in which Palpatine had a hand. Either way, Order 66 was always Palpatine's ace to play — and one he must have planned long before the war's first shots were fired, when he contracted the clone-builders of Kamino to build him a bespoke army with a secret kill-switch in their heads. He got extremely good value for his money.
The Jedi Purge serves a particular set of narrative purposes as well.
First, a good chunk of Star Wars' main characters have been — and will be — Jedi, or allies of the Jedi. The destruction of the Order is thus a foundational event for everything that follows. Wizards are often (though not always!) singular characters in classic fantasy. The Purge neatly moves the Order from a political entity to a mythic one: a symbol of a lost and glorious past that makes its surviving members more special.
But the Purge also serves as a narrative shorthand for Palpatine's ruthlessness and the nature of what his new imperial rule will entail. The Republic, whatever its many flaws of neglect and weakness, has not been shown to do things like this: if an empire, it clings to the trappings of liberalism. The Jedi Purge is thus an expression of state change, in both the political sense of a shifting regime and the physical one of water turned to ice. It may even be the pretext for the Empire's violent creation.
The Jedi helped gestate the world that was coming. But they had to die for it to be born.
Palpatine is not a man to let a crisis go to waste. After setting the purge of his domestic political opponents into motion, he turns his attention to the crippled Separatist movement. He calls the Separatist leadership — once again in his comic-opera guise as Darth Sidious — to let them know that his apprentice is on the way to “take care of them.” (One of the virtues of UNLIMITED POWER, in Palpatine’s view, seems to be the peerless opportunities it affords to finally be an enormous ham).
He dispatches Skywalker to behead the Separatist council in their bolt hole, the volcanic planet Mustafar — about which more later. The younger man performs this task with the same mechanical efficiency he showed, cutting down children in the Temple.
(Last to die, incidentally, is Trade Federation representative Nute Gunray, the first of Palpatine's dupes we ever met, and being a willing instigator in the crisis that got this whole ball rolling. His end is unceremonious: Skywalker cuts him down mid-sentence as he moans that Palpatine promised them peace.)
Meanwhile, Palpatine calls a special session of the Senate back on Coruscant. There, hooded, eyes glowing — Darth Sidious merging with the once-affable Chancellor — he makes a series of bombshell announcements. First: the Separatist threat has been decisively ended. Second, the Jedi Order has launched an abortive rebellion, making them enemies of the state.
“The attempt on my life... has left me scarred and deformed,” he cries. “But I assure you. My resolve has never been stronger! In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire!”
Empire. It's the first time Star Wars has deployed the word, and it's worth discussing what it means — and how Palpatine expresses Lucas' fears and ideas on the subject.
Empire is a historically tricky term, but the most general definition goes like this: a large (generally predatory) state that exists to bind together multiple smaller entities under the unified rule of an imperial center. Whatever the rationale for their establishment — religion, ideology or personal and familial aggrandizement — empires tend to share a function. They are extractive engines, mining the resources of the margin to benefit the capital's relatively small ruling clique and the public works and agricultural programs that support them. Be it the Assyrians and the Romans of the Mediterranean, the Inca or the Mexican Triple Alliance of the Americas; the Ming Chinese or the British Empire: all largely existed as a system to direct plunder inward to the few at the center. And in doing so, they tend to push violence outward onto an eternally moving frontier. Blood out to keep the money flowing in. That's why the whole edifice exists.
Here is where the concept intersects with American history and Star Wars: you don't need an authoritarian emperor to have an empire. (Though historically speaking, establishing the preconditions for the one and the other often turns up in due time, like a cockroach sniffing out cake left for too long on a table.) To pick a characteristic example: it's been said of the Roman Republic — an oligarchical republic with a few, exceedingly grudging nods to representative democracy — that they conquered an empire more or less by accident, as various Roman senators hungry for personal fame and fortune involved themselves in the affairs of their neighbors, financed private armies to grab territory and generally tried to steal everything that hadn't been nailed down. You might say that the empire eventually conquered Rome itself.
Notably, the American settler empire took its inspiration from the Roman Republican model for essentially similar reasons: a largely oligarchical system, full of people hungry for profit, continually looking for the next horizon to conquer. Some in the 1800s got extremely open about a doctrine of nakedly colonial and occasionally genocidal imperialism; others, working on the British model, tried to spiffy it up with paternalistic appeals to civilization. (The money flowed to Washington either way, and it still does.)
But much as the British imperialists looked at the Romans and saw a warning of inevitable imperial decline, American historians and political thinkers have often uneasily noted that Republican empires rarely stay Republican for long. Throughout the post-WW2-growth of the American hegemony, the figure of the authoritarian conqueror-in-waiting has loomed as a consistent cultural boogieman, from Douglas McArthur to Richard Nixon and every president after him.
This, then, is the role Palpatine serves for Lucas: the inevitable strongman, arriving to prove that you can’t have a democratic system in the heart of an empire without having a Caesar, too.
Yet Palpatine's announcement to the Senate goes over exceptionally well with most present, who know where their bread is buttered. One possible reason for that: thanks to Palpatine's scheming, the star systems with a problem with the Galactic Republic had already left or were induced to leave. (Another U.S. analogy: when all the nation's Democrats seceded during the Civil War, the ground was clear for a decade of Republican rule.)
But plenty of factions in the newly-forming Empire see potential opportunities in a new system, which now must turn itself to the profitable and graft-prone business of reabsorbing the Separatist worlds. Those inclined can easily find a silver lining in the new regime: the Republic hasn't been working for a long time; perhaps a new approach is called for, a bit of tough reform.
Others are cheering for victory and an end to a long, crushing war.
Not everyone's happy, of course. Amidala, who's hugely pregnant, is caucusing with Bail Organa. Both listen to the speech with increasing shock and the reaction with absolute disgust. The senatorial plotters kept their powder dry and thus evaded immediate repression by Palpatine. (How might things have gone if the Senate faction and the Jedi had coordinated? Maybe worse. Maybe better. We'll never know.) Now they get a front-row seat as their worst-case scenario happens before their eyes. Amidala at least gets the thesis line in a film that's often sidelined her — and will continue to do so, as we'll discuss presently.
"So this is how liberty dies," she spits, watching the man she helped put in power destroy the system to which she has dedicated her life. "With thunderous applause."
But is the Galactic Republic truly over? It suits everyone present to pretend that it is. But in fact, much as the Senate played a significant part in Roman political life throughout the imperial period — a clearinghouse of real power, however effectively circumscribed by that of the Roman Principate — the edifice of the Republican state will totter on for a while longer. Palpatine’s speech nods to the tricky balancing act underway: it is cloaked with appeals to the Republican virtues of security and peace. Notably, despite his other moves to shore up his power, he leaves the Senate intact.
In some ways, the declaration of imperium is a branding exercise: a new coat of paint atop the still-decaying husk of the old Republican edifice.
That rhetorical dance between the radical and the traditional also occurs right after Skywalker returns from the Jedi Temple massacre before Palpatine sends him out to behead the Separatist movement on Mustafar. He drops in to visit Amidala, who’s distressed and confused by the distant carnage visible on the skyline.
Skywalker hugs her but is distant, almost stone-faced. Robotic, even. Christiansen's performance here isn't bad, even given Lucas' characteristically stiff dialogue. Curtly, he gives her the party line on the Jedi coup. But he hastens to reassure her, as well.
“I will not betray the Republic,” he tells her. “My loyalties lie with the Chancellor and with the Senate . . . and with you.”
It's a grim little moment, considering the dramatic irony at play. Skywalker is clinging desperately to the legitimacy of an institution that Palpatine is about to dissolve formally. And so all he can do is leave her with a rather empty-sounding guarantee: "Wait for me to get back. Things will be different. I promise."
As it happens, not all of the Jedi are dead. Amid the chaos of the purge, at least two senior members of the Council have survived.
On Kashyyyk, the jungle home of the Wookies, Yoda manages to sense the trap snapping shut. As his clone soldiers prepare to kill him, he strikes first, decapitating them before the Wookie military leadership. (The Wookies warble to each other as the troopers die, but the speed with which they spring into action to shepherd Yoda away suggests that the sudden betrayal by the clones has not come entirely as a surprise.)
On Utapau, meanwhile, Kenobi has managed to survive as well: swimming for safety in the waters of the cenote and dodging clone patrols before stealing Grievous' old starfighter and making for space.
The two rendezvous with Senator Organa aboard his spaceship, where the Alderaani senator fills them in on events and brings them back to Coruscant. Amid the clamor of Palpatine's announcement, Kenobi and Yoda sneak into the Jedi Temple to broadcast a warning to other surviving Jedi to stay away. (In film terms, this is a very convenient mission, seemingly designed to get them back to Coruscant for plot purposes. But: fair enough.) It's also here that they discover what Skywalker has done: first through the realization that many of the bodies bear the marks of a lightsaber, and then as they contemplate the footage of their erstwhile comrade leading the soldiers through the Temple.
It's a shattering moment for both of them to contemplate the absolute, crushing enormity of their failure.
They deal with it in their own customary fashions. Yoda is stoic, almost grim — yet revitalized. It's as if he's finally awakened from a long, restless sleep. He declares that he's going after Palpatine himself. Is this some self-destructive penance for his earlier blindness to Palpatine's true nature? Does Yoda genuinely believe he'll be able to cast Palpatine down in an open wizard duel? Either way, concerns about the thing's politics — duties to the state, legitimacy, etc — are clearly gone. This is an attempted assassination by the last and greatest surviving member of the Order that Palpatine has all but wiped out.
Kenobi, for his part, reacts with something more like denial. It's not that he doesn't believe Skywalker to be responsible; it's more that he does not want to face the man he trained and even loved. The man who — for reasons he'll never really understand — has utterly betrayed him.
Next to that betrayal, the one by Palpatine is easy. The new Emperor is the devil, a man Kenobi and his colleagues have long held suspicions about. He begs Yoda to let him stay and join the attack on the Emperor rather than go off to face the consequences of his own mistakes.
Yoda won’t permit it: Skywalker is Kenobi’s responsibility. All he can do is send Kenobi off with a tenuous excuse of his own to cling to as he heads off to kill his oldest friend. "Twisted by the Dark Side, young Skywalker has become,” Yoda intones. “The boy you trained, gone he is. Consumed by Darth Vader.”
Yoda pointedly does not say — but we can infer — that he does not expect to survive the battle with Palpatine and that Kenobi is to be the last of the Order, its lifeboat bobbing on the tumultuous seas of the new Empire.
The two bouts that follow are intercut, as is so much of Revenge of the Sith. We, however, will take them one at a time, beginning with the relatively more direct confrontation.
After the special session's close, Yoda walks into Palpatine's office. Throughout the short conversation that follows, Palpatine is oozingly patronizing, as he befits a man who has waited a long time to let his true colors show. (Also, a man who's played out a winning hand. Also, again: a giant ham.)
However, the aged Yoda acquits himself quite well in the ensuing battle. The fight proceeds through the empty hallways before spilling into the now-empty Senate chamber. Palpatine ends up weaponizing his thematic legitimacy in an extremely unsubtle way: by throwing Senate boxes at his foe via the Force. He is the Senate: he can do that sort of thing. (The Star Wars promise under Lucas is that the metaphors will always punch you right in the nose.)
But while Yoda does give Palpatine a workout, he ends up not being quite strong enough to deal with him and is forced to make his escape — again with the aid of Organa.
An interesting what-if to consider is that the fight is close enough that had Yoda not sent Kenobi away, they might have been able to bring Palpatine down together. God only knows what might have happened next — chaos, probably. Two members of a now-criminalized order murdering the newly autocratic chief executive in the aftermath of a recent purge, with a just-announced imperial reorganization of the state on the table? The damage would have been done.
Organa's senatorial faction could have stepped in if they had moved fast and were willing to be a little bit ruthless in asserting their legitimacy. But what seems more likely is that the whole thing would devolve into a factional scramble for power that further cracked the Republic apart, as fleet admirals and regional power brokers become warlords. (We're still headed in that direction, as it happens. But in this timeline, at least, we're taking a long way around.)
Kenobi, meanwhile, goes to Amidala to figure out where his friend-turned-enemy is. It’s an interestingly fraught conversation, in part because Kenobi has to break three sets of news:
- that he is indeed aware Skywalker and Amidala are in a relationship,
- that Palpatine planned out the purge on the Jedi in advance,
- and that Skywalker actively helped, to the extent of murdering children.
Amidala is flabbergasted and claims not to believe him — though it’s far more likely that she doesn’t want to. (Though she must surely be thinking now about a nomad camp in the desert and women and children he left lying dead.) But she's distraught enough that she decides to take her ship to go and confront Skywalker in person on Mustafar.
Mustafar is the last of the planets we’ll be introduced to in this trilogy. It's a world of boiling volcanoes and belching, flowing lava, with mining stations crouching like islands of stability and order amongst the chaos and fire.
Other Star Wars locations have been pulp adventure settings married to an interconnected state system: Tatooine as the eternal frontier, Naboo the prosperous periphery, and Coruscant the glittering, jaded imperial center. Shades of this double usage exist on Mustafar as well: miners who wander the lava wastes on enormous fleas, pointedly ignoring all the high drama around them. (Another Star Wars promise is that around every set piece battle, you will find working stiffs still wearily doing their jobs.)
But Mustafar belongs to an entirely different, more metaphorical cosmology. It exists beyond the boundaries of the political: a place of thundering emotion, the last operatic stage for the closing confrontation of Lucas’ last great epic. The physical expression of fire and death. A paradox planet: always dark, always burning.
You might call Mustafar the embodiment of Anakin Skywalker’s soul. You might even call it Hell.
The experience that follows for Amidala is — in every way — a nightmare. She arrives to find Skywalker brooding on the landing platform of the Mustafar mining facility, waiting for her. The following conversation feels nonsensical: Lucas is, again, not particularly accomplished at writing actual emotion into his workmanlike dialogue, and Christensen and Portman both struggle to communicate the shifting emotional beats.
The resulting conversation, however, achieves a compellingly disturbing strangeness. Amidala is distraught, demanding an explanation and pleading for a believable excuse. Skywalker isn't responding to her — first blankly reassuring her, then telling her (again!) that he's become strong enough to save her and doing everything possible to protect her.
Now that he has sacrificed so much in service of it, this is a point that he probably even believes. His responses to the actual woman in front of him thus feel increasingly monomaniacal. When Amidala begs him to come away, he seems almost disbelieving. "We don't have to run away anymore. I have brought peace to the Republic. I am more powerful than the Chancellor. I can overthrow him, and together you and I can rule the Galaxy. Make things the way we want them to be."
It's a startling admission: both an indicator that his grasp on principle really is a fig leaf and that Skywalker now regards Palpatine as, at best, tomorrow's enemy.
And while this isn't how Lucas and his team play it, there's an interesting potential offramp here, too. Skywalker likely imagines a coup of his own, perhaps with the support of Amidala's senatorial coalition and maybe establishing some constitutional monarchy. (Though it isn't clear how the erratic, tortured and impetuous Skywalker seizing power would be a better outcome than the omnicompetent, if decidedly evil, Palpatine.)
But perhaps Lucas doesn’t entertain this plan because these are delusions of grandeur. Any such move would require them to storm Palpatine's fortress in Coruscant, where the new Emperor sits secure, protected by ships of the line and slave armies and the support of a grateful galaxy. Skywalker, by contrast, leads no faction, has no constituency or power base (aside from the one he has recently helped murder) and offers no compelling case for Amidala's senatorial colleagues to put him anywhere near the levers of power. This isn't a serious political proposal, in other words. It seems instead to be a simple fantasy of revenge — the same reckless urge to fix that has driven Skywalker into such desperate straits.
Either way, Amidala refuses to dignify it. Portman's line deliveries in this scene are not the best of her career. However, as Anakin rants, her eyes shift and harden for a moment, as if she's seeing him — really seeing him — for the first time. She gives him a look of disbelief, horror, and revulsion. Perhaps she's politically astute enough to know that he's talking nonsense. Maybe, like everyone else, she's simply broken and exhausted by the war. She's undoubtedly shattered by her discovery that — amid the broader collapse of the Republic and cheerful betrayal of her Senatorial colleagues — the man she thought she knew was capable of atrocities at home and abroad.
And she is, recall, nine months pregnant.
But what Amidala has to say doesn’t matter anyway. Because it now turns out that Kenobi has, in what’s frankly an astounding dick move toward a woman he seems to consider a friend — stowed away on Amidala's ship to find Skywalker. At his sudden appearance, the confrontation between Skywalker and Amidala escalates into something genuinely ugly.
Anakin's resentment of Kenobi has generally been a building undercurrent in their interactions in this movie. But there's an aspect of Lucas' original script that didn't precisely make it into the final film: Skywalker is suspicious of Amidala having any relationship with Kenobi, to the point that he gets openly twitchy whenever the other man’s name is mentioned.
Lucas — for whatever reason — de-emphasizes Skywalker's romantic jealousy in the film's final cut. But that hint of sexual suspicion, resentment and possessiveness lingers here. It surfaces out of Skywalker's other frustrations like a momentary flash of a shark's fin before the bite.
As that rage rises, Amidala's tone shifts, switching from grief and anger at Anakin to horror at Kenobi's sudden appearance. Suddenly, she's begging for her life. Her pleas fall on deaf ears. Skywalker reaches out through the Force and chokes her — silences her, really — before dropping her unconscious form to the landing deck.
It's a nasty bit of spousal abuse and a sadly familiar one: the young soldier returning and murdering his wife. (But then, as numerous examples in American policing and military attest, violence workers often bring their violence home.)
The moment also emphasizes Amidala’s ultimate disposability. Her character — who Attack of the Clones set up as a primary lead alongside Skywalker and Kenobi — is effectively shoved out of Revenge of the Sith by the psychodrama between the two men. Instead, Amidala spends the film as a symbol for Skywalker to cling to until that grip chokes the life out of her and drops her like garbage. As a characterization, it tells us a lot about him. It doesn't tell us much about her.
Save, perhaps, that her life — once so promising — has been its own awful tragedy, and all the more so for being totally swallowed up by that of her husband.
The argument between the two Jedi is frankly perfunctory for both parties. Both men approach it in their usual ways. Skywalker is manic and grandiose, his voice laced with long-restrained venom and resentment. He tells Kenobi that the older man has turned Amidala against him. In contrast, Skywalker has brought peace and security to his new empire. Kenobi's replies are stiff, cold and lecturing: the voice of reason delivered too little and too late.
"Don't lecture me, Obi-Wan," Skywalker snaps. "I see through the lies of the Jedi, and I do not fear the dark side as you do. I have brought peace, justice, freedom, and security to my new Empire."
“Your new empire?” Kenobi snaps right back. His voice rises — he believes in the Republic, he shouts. In democracy.
“If you’re not with me,” Skywalker spits, “you’re my enemy.”
This was a timely line, as was endlessly remarked upon at the film's release. The George W. Bush quote it resembles, "if you aren't with us, then you're against us," was delivered at an “antiterrorism” summit in 2001. Lucas has consistently denied that he was making a direct reference and may be telling the truth: Bush was drawing on a particular strain of belligerent jingoism that goes significantly back in American history. (See also: "un-American," "America! Love it or leave it!") The sort of phrase is generally thrown around, in other words, when more reactionary factions are contesting democratic systems. Lucas putting those words in Skywalker's mouth is a thunderingly obvious bit of political messaging, even if it's not specifically a Bush-related one.
Kenobi's response — "Only a Sith deals in absolutes" — is equally interesting, although for different reasons. Because there's one last offramp here: Kenobi could have attempted to reach out to his old friend and bring him back. In doing so, he would have to acknowledge that Skywalker has strayed into a very dark place, but that he doesn’t have to stay there.
Not that returning is easy for Skywalker, of course. He's committed several genuine horrors just over the last day or so: the death of Jedi children, and his brutalization of Amidala, to say nothing of past atrocities.
But moments of grace that follow heinous actions are something of a Star Wars convention. (That is, after all, how Anakin's story will ultimately end.) It's a very simplistic and also rather deep idea: that the only thing that makes someone irredeemable is their refusal to seek redemption, or at the very least, atonement. If worshiping the Dark Side involves turning away from the whole universe into a private misery of the self — at least you can always turn back.
Yet Kenobi — and the Jedi Order of his time more broadly — don't seem to see the Dark Side as something that can potentially affect anyone. And in believing that only the evil gives in to evil, they also miss the powerful draw that the promise of atonement could exert on someone once fallen.
Instead, the Jedi of this period describe the dark path with superstitious awe: a moral taint, a mark of Cain that, once achieved, can never really be transcended. Their religion lacks, perhaps, a concept of "sin" — or its related concepts of "ignorance", or "doubt" — as an essential part of being alive, and with it the compensatory rituals to help the sinner come home. Faith in absolutes has thus brought Kenobi to this pass as well. It's a blind spot he'll hold until his dying day — and, in fact, far beyond it.
But the words don't matter. Because as the two men speak, they are also circling one another, already taking off their cloaks in preparation for their duel.
The battle that follows ranges across the burning landscape, from towers to platforms floating on rivers of lava, the sooty sky illuminated by the volcanoes erupting on the black horizon. Skywalker is deteriorating rapidly at this point: his eyes have long since turned a burning yellow, an apparent sign of moral corruption that comes with embracing Sith teachings. A few more words are exchanged between hammering, furious blows, including Kenobi's exhausted, grim admission that he's failed his old pupil. (This exchange also leads to an absolute howler of a Lucas line from Skywalker — "From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!" — that Christensen throws his soul into but can’t save.)
Skywalker's still an excellent swordsman, but in this particular match, Kenobi is better. In a final moment, the younger Jedi — stationed on a platform floating in the lava river — makes a brash, ill-judged leap to the black shoreline to continue the fight.
Kenobi cuts off his remaining limbs in mid-air in a single stroke.
The loop of prophecy snaps closed. Here is that moment of fate, foretold in an Utapau cenote through the fiery death of one cyborg. Now another is being forged, with Kenobi as the fulcrum between them. Skywalker lies on the beach, cut down by his lightsaber: that "civilized" weapon that is nonetheless a weapon. The younger man's clothes smolder and then ignite. He screams as he struggles to climb the embankment with one mechanical hand. And then he, too, is burning, burning, burning. “I hate you,” he screams at his old master, his voice breaking. “I hate you.”
Does Kenobi see it? Is there a moment of sickening familiarity? We'll never know. The Jedi is lost in his anger. He rages that Skywalker was supposed to be chosen one. He talks about his feelings, too little and too late. But whatever it would take to finish his old apprentice — mercy, moral fortitude, bravery, ruthlessness, cold-eyed practicality — he doesn't have it.
Instead, he leaves his brother to burn.
What follows are twin, paired scenes. The crippled, burned wreckage of Anakin Skywalker pulls himself out of the lava — to be whisked away by Palpatine, who has sensed his apprentice’s distress through the dark bond between them. Kenobi, meanwhile, retrieves the unconscious Amidala and brings her back to a secret starbase, presided over by Senator Organa, with Master Yoda in attendance.
Amidala dies in the soothing lights of the medical bay — another prophecy coming true. A medical robot tells Kenobi that she has expired, "even though she's medically healthy."
It's one of the few genuinely discordant notes in the movie because her death does not require a particular explanation. Consider: amid the public failure of all she had worked for, she ran off to have a harrowing, traumatic experience while heavily pregnant, got violently assaulted by her lover, and went into premature labor while on a ship far from any medical facility.
This is not a lily, in other words, that particularly needed to be gilded.
But Star Wars under Lucas has always had a self-conscious tinge of myth and fairy tale; that is the mode he's working in here. The former queen and senator of the Naboo lives just long enough to name the twins she gives birth to, the children whose very conception had sent Anakin off on his downward spiral. One of them is named Luke, the other Leia — names that will acquire a specific totemic power in their Galaxy and (retroactively) in ours.
These children, all present agree, must be hidden: That is, after all, what happens to children of power in myths. And so, appropriately enough, two childless couples present themselves. Senator Organa volunteers to take the daughter — his wife, the queen of Alderaan, has always wanted a little girl.
Kenobi takes the boy back to the frontier, to the one place in the Galaxy Anakin Skywalker will never want to look: Tatooine. Beru and Owen Lars will raise Luke, water farmers who have also clearly wanted a child. At the same time, Kenobi vanishes into the deserts in self-imposed exile — his mission is to wait and keep watch.
Anakin Skywalker, meanwhile, inherits a hellish mad science lab: a workshop of hissing steam and grim machinery, as close as Lucas will ever come to fully invoking a classic Universal horror movie. There the remains of the wounded Jedi — we might say Grievously wounded — are converted into another cyborg entity: part machine, part man.
The life-support suit Palpatine installs him in is an imposing thing: hulking, black-caped, with a mask somewhere between a skull and a samurai helmet. (In a terrific POV shot, the mask comes down toward Skywalker's face with the awful inevitability of a door dropping shut.) The rest of his life will be spent in a prison that walks, with a voice that rolls out like mechanical thunder, converting his wild rantings into basso pronouncements of granite, authoritarian fact.
He awakens asking for Amidala. Palpatine — happy to cut Skywalker's last potential link to anybody but himself — responds that Anakin has killed her, along with their unborn child. (It's a malicious and controlling line, and where Amidala's concerned, it's also basically true.) Skywalker responds by ripping out of his medical restraints, howling, the sheer magical force of his pain and power making a maelstrom of the room.
As long as he lives, nobody — not even himself— will ever refer to him as Anakin Skywalker again. For allies and enemies alike, it’s easier to pretend that Skywalker died there on Mustafar, burned up by fire and hatred.
Yet if Palpatine's galactic empire is a rebranding of the broken Republic, then something of Skywalker also lingers within the newly-christened Darth Vader. He'll never publicly stop serving the government that he sacrificed everything good in his life for.
And he'll never forgive the man who led him down the path to ruin.
Alone among the other prequels, Revenge of the Sith leans heavily on psychodrama, charting the personal struggles of a collection of people — mostly, it must be noted, Jedi and political elites — amid the collapse and reformation of Galactic society.
We’ve chosen to tell this story with an eye toward a looming, inescapable conclusion: that from a historical perspective, the Republic in its current form was dead well before our story started, even if the corpse managed — and will continue to manage — the occasional twitch.
But by the way, Lucas tells the story, the film also offers a thesis: personal choices matter.
To wit: Palpatine's games danced on enough of a knife edge that things might easily have gotten away from him. The Jedi could have been less arrogant or more competent; The Republican institutions that Organa and Amidala championed could have tried to arrest the rot. Anakin Skywalker himself could have made different decisions.
What's left is a story of failure that resonates all too well today, almost 17 years after the film's release. Its brute, simplistic operatics capture something of the desperation — and the terrible stupidity — of our current times.
President Bush would go on to serve until 2008, after which he retired comfortably on a Texas ranch and took up painting. Half the world away, the wars he and his administration began ground on and on, devastating the civil society of Iraq and Afghanistan, the carnage eventually spilling over into neighboring countries.
The substance of those years would continue far longer than their style. As a phrase, the "global war on terror" would fall out of fashion, but American imperial violence abroad would not. No senior American official would ever face trial for war crimes, and nobody in American intelligence would lose their job over the torture program; indeed, some of those who oversaw it, like former CIA director Gina Haspel, would eventually find themselves promoted. The Supreme Court that coronated Bush would continue to lurch further and further into open revanchism. The excess military weapons churned out by the American war engine for overseas combat would increasingly be handed off to American police for use in their own more local occupations.
Worst of all, those claiming to oppose these oversteps and overreaches — like Bush’s successor, liberal internationalist Barack Obama — would only further codify them, creating an ongoing spiral deeper and deeper into life under the gun. And when faced with a genuine internal coup attempt — one that offered a glimpse of the forces openly contemplating the internal conquest of the American empire, including an American president and the majority of a party within the legislature— the liberal institutionalists would shrink from the challenge.
There's a certain psychotic optimism in the American character, a belief that things will eventually get better without anyone having to do anything. We think things will ultimately work out — because of new demographic realities, a rising generation of idealistic youth, or because people will somehow, for some reason, 'see sense.' We think we are progressing toward something that the long arc of history bends — as a famous man once said before his assassination — toward justice.
But the truth is that history does not arc or bend. Often, it coils, the failures of the past drawing around the future tight as any noose.
It’s instructive to remember that lots of things don’t work out. That things can continue to get worse. That rot sometimes can't be arrested. That people, institutions, and entire countries can fail and die.
What’s notable about Revenge of the Sith and its predecessors is not just the magnitude of the failures by Kenobi, Amidala, Yoda and the rest. It's their banality. At the great contest of their lives, they, the Jedi Order, and the Republic itself failed. (If you wanted to be nicer about it, you could say that circumstances changed and the Republic's liberals didn't.) They proved unequal to their challenges, whether internal rot or exogenous shock. They did not rally, and they did not stave off disaster. When their moment rose before them, they did not meet it.
They failed, and most of them died. And for the Jedi as a collective — the best of the tragic good guys we grew up idealizing — that was simply the end of the story.
This is the state of play as we head towards what we call Classic Star Wars: the edifice Lucas built in the shadow of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, and that he created the Revenge of the Sith to explain.
In one of the last shots of the film, Vader and Palpatine stand aboard the bridge of a battleship, looking out over the first skeletal portions of the superweapon from Geonosis. Palpatine has successfully crushed every civic and corporate body in the Republic that could challenge his centralized authoritarian state — trade unions, guilds, and the Jedi. The Senate is a rump body. And the military is, for now, a force of clone slaves and a small Naval admiralty, soon to be bolstered by wider recruitment and increasing militarization.
But nobody's exempt from failure. By his willingness to publicly rip out the Republic's heart while dressing himself in its skin, Palpatine has also been planting seeds he didn't intend. Hardened veterans. Political radicals. Disaffected thinkers. Malcontents. The remnants of purged orders.
The Emperor from Naboo needed a war to grab control of the state. But he'll soon find that stopping the Galactic Civil War will be harder than starting it...
Next time on Decline and Fall: Three separate projects depict the birth of an insurgency. New empires take over the Star Wars galaxy — both in-universe and out — and discover that ruling is far more complicated than expected. The blowback begins.