Friday, September 10, 2010

The Redemption of Anakin Skywalker

For me, Star Wars used to be the story of Luke Skywalker and his hero's journey from a simply farmboy to a Jedi Knight and champion of good. It was about his struggle with tyranny and his own shortcomings. It was about the finding of a lost family and, yes, the redemption of his father. This whole arc made the original trilogy feel very 'complete' to me.

And then the prequels were released and it changed everything. Taken as a whole, the story is NOT about Luke's journey, it is all about Anakin Skywalker. His rise to power. His fall from grace. His corruption and his final redemption. This shift in focus was, for me, a bit jarring at first. I mean, it changes the skew of ALL the movies, even one's that I had 'lived with' for most of my life.

I've made no secret of the fact that I have a love/hate relationship with the prequels. And during my 'hater' periods I have always felt a bit 'cheated' by the shift in focus, especially because it raises the question of whether or not Anakin really deserved to be redeemed- or rather, whether it was possible for him. That is a pretty deep question when you think about it.

Though I personally believe in redemption (especially as it applies to spiritual redemption), there are things that a person can do that, to me, are irredeemable. Or at least seem to be. Anakin Skywalker is guilty of a lot of these things. In Episode II, the scene where he kills an entire village of Sandpeople is almost played off as being somewhat 'justified'. Afterall, they did kidnap and kill his mother. Padme certainly doesn't seem to have a problem with it. She just hugs 'poor Anakin' after he informs her he slaughtered women and children. It was very jarring to me, since Padme had always been played as idealistic. And now she's almost saying "It's okay, they weren't humans." I'm not sure if I'm the only one who picked up on that vibe or not or if it was intended. But to me, this isnt' just a minor happening. It is a major, soul-darkening event. And even if Anakin didn't do anything else bad in his life, he would have a lot to 'answer for' with this. Yes, Sand People may be brutal (at least this particular tribe evidently was), but... the children? Unless you buy into the notion that someone can be 'corrupt' from birth then those Tusken children were innocent blood.

In Episode III I almost begin to feel for Anakin again. He's in a very tough spot, personally speaking. He's leading a double life. He gets no respect from those at his 'job'. He's in the middle of fighting a war. He's about to become a father. And then he has visions of his wife dieing? Yeesh. That is a lot to cope with. But even all of these 'extenuating circumstances' cannot justify the actions Anakin takes. Consider how many other people are involved in the war. The pressures they are facing. The loss. Does that give them the right to act with complete selfishness? No. And that is what Anakin does. He may have convinced himself that his turning to the Dark Side was 'for the good of his wife and children', but it is really so that HE will not lose what he has. And this brings me to Anakin's other unforgivable sin- the attack on the Jedi temple. This is truly his darkest moment. Slaughtering Jedi younglings? How can you /ever/ come back from something like that. It again shows Anakin's selfishness, that he would snuff out all of these lives just to protect his own family- even though he knows that his wife would not want him to do so. It is all about him, about his needs and wants- though I'm certain he continued to justify it to himself that it was 'for the good of his family'- and maybe he even bought into the whole line that it was for the good of the galaxy as well.

The slaughter of the Separatist council was bloody as well, but I still rank it as less of a 'sin' than the sack of the Jedi temple. Why? Because those he slaughtered were part of the war. Manipulated or not, they chose to wage war. Through their actions, millions died. There is a certain justification to it in that regard- though not one I necessarily condone.

After becoming Vader, Anakin continues for YEARS- killing probably hundreds personally and millions more by his orders. Yes, some may have been 'combatants' fighting in a war, but (from the stories that have been written), he was also responsible for many civilian deaths as well.

I guess the real question is, after all of that is any kind of redemption even possible?

Part of me wants to say no. To say that sinking to the depths Anakin did is unforgivable. But redemption is the central to my own belief system- and it seems to be part of Luke's as well. But even though I say that, there are people who I do believe are irredeemable. Adolph Hitler. Joseph Stalin. A slew of serial killers and child molesters. Do any of them DESERVE to be forgiven? No. No matter what the 'excuse' for their behavior, the things they did are so horrific that I can't believe they would wind up any place other than 'hell'.

And yes, I know that Star Wars is make believe. Some may think that comparing Vader to Hitler is 'wrong' on some level- but movies are (when they're good) a medium that makes us think about 'real' things, no matter how fantastical the setting. I mean the Empire had STORMTROOPERS for goodness sake. The parallel was intended and quite evidently so.

So, does Anakin 'deserve' his redemption? That is a tough question. And for me it is one with a lot of caveats.

For me, the first condition that has to be met for redemption is retribution. At some point, you have to be 'punished' for the horrible actions you took. You must 'pay the piper'. Right or wrong, this is how I feel. An evil person who lives a life of luxury only to 'repent' on their death bed just...doesn't cut it. While at first glance it may seem that Anakin doesn't ever really 'pay' for his crimes, I think that he actually did. First of all, there was the horrible mutilation of his body- and being turned into a cyborg 'monster'. Secondly, he became a pawn for a more powerful person. He wasn't 'doing his own thing' all those years, he was at the beck and call of a person who could kill him if he did not obey. Thirdly, Anakin had to live with the memories of all the horrible things he did. This may sound cliche or even a cop-out, but I think Anakin was a good enough person at heart to feel bad about what he had done- you could see it in his face when he went to kill the Younglings at the temple. It wasn't an easy thing for him to do. It probably wasn't easy to live with either. And finally: He lost his wife and his children- not due to any outside danger, but due to his own actions. His whole purpose for going to the Dark side was to save them, but in the process he caused the death of his wife and lost his unborn children. And he had to live with THAT his entire life.

The second condition to be met for redemption is honest repentance for your actions. This is where Vader seems to differ from real-world counterparts. Hitler never apologized for his actions, never saw the wrong in them. The same can be said for Stalin and so many other horrible people. As I said before, Anakin had just enough good in him to know what he was doing was 'bad'. For a time, when he thought he had lost everything, I'm sure he just abandoned himself to the evil. But when he found Luke it seemed to me that something must have been reborn inside him- a 'hope' for something better. In the movies, Luke comments on Vader's internal 'conflict'. And though Vader denies it- it is later proven to be true.

How is it proven? In actions. Not words. That is the third condition for redemption. You can't just SAY you 'feel bad' about what you did and hope to 'make it up some time'. You have to DO something to prove it. In Vader's case it was in the final Battle with the Emperor. He is already exhausted and wounded from his duel with Luke. He obviously knows (or believes) that he would be killed if he ever attempted to attack the Emperor. And yet he does so anyway to save his son. It is a selfless act. He decided that he would rather die than allow his son to be killed. And that's what happened.

And finally, in order to achieve redemption from crimes as horrible as those Vader committed, there can be no 'happily ever after'. At least not in a conventional sense. If Vader had lived through the duel with the Emperor, do you think the Rebels would have just 'forgiven' him? Allowed him to join their ranks? Pardoned him from all his crimes and allowed him to comfortably retire? No. At the very least he would have been tried for war crimes and most likely executed. The best Vader could have hoped for would be to head off on his own and live a life of isolation— or perhaps attempt to make up for his misdeeds by fighting his own war against the Empire and/or the Sith. But no matter what he did, he would have to live with the 'stain' of his deeds. Yeah. So I guess that means that in my book, the only true redemption from soul-scarring evil is through an honorable death while trying to undo what you have done.

If you look at all of the above conditions, you'll note that Anakin meets my criteria for Redemption. I know he doesn't in a lot of people's minds, but in mine he does.

1 comment:

  1. As per Christian belief, no one is irredeemable. No one is good enough to redeem themselves from even minor transgressions; you and I and Hitler and the child-serial-killer are all equally unable to bridge the infinite distance from our wrongdoing under God's perfect law to a state of innocence; we're just constantly digging the whole deeper, and can never do enough to counteract the wrong we've done; it's an ever-mounting debt. Now, you may argue that Hitler and the child-killer are much FURTHER from that place than the 'minor' transgressions of you and I, but when you're dealing with an infinite distance, relative positions don't mean much.

    That's the point of salvation and grace in Christ; it's not possible to earn or deserve forgiveness- redemption is given as a gift. There's no need to pay the piper because the piper was paid in advance, by Christ, utterly forgiving one's debt... be it a few minor actions, or the ravages of Hitler.

    Thus, since retribution has been satisfied by Christ, the first of your three conditions has been met. Since there is no action sufficient to earn redemption on our own, the third has been waived. that leaves only the second- genuine repentance- and it is on that that (from a Christian perspective) redemption and repentance hinges.

    Why do I bring all this up (aside from the personal belief that as many people need to hear it as possible ;-) )? Because I think that's the direction Lucas was coming from with Vader, too. See the below excerpt...

    "The unmasked Vader would now appear as a ‘ghost’ along with Yoda and Ben at the end. [Howard] Kazanjian [the producer] had changed his mind about this being such a good idea. “I’d started thinking about it and I said to George, ‘Why? This guy- he’s like Hitler. He’s killed. He’s done all of these terrible things and now we’re saying he’s equal with Yoda and Obi-wan, as if he’s gone to heaven or whatever.’ And George pointed at me, he was real close, and he says, ‘Isn’t that what your religion is all about?’ And boy, that was like being slapped on the side of the face, because yes, it is what my religion is all about, and obviously his, but I hadn’t thought it through.”"

    -The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, by J.W. Rinzler