Love them or hate them, the Star Wars prequels prove by comparison why the original trilogy boasts such universal appeal. We love Luke, Han, Leia, and their ragtag band of rebels because they act from a profound moral conviction. They pursue liberty at any cost, and defy tyranny with admirable resolve. The prequel heroes, by contrast, spend a lot of time wringing their hands.
Over the course of the saga, Skywalker and son operate as essentially the same character presented in different contexts. Despite enjoying the collective instruction of the entire Jedi Order, Anakin falls to the Dark Side. Conversely, his son Luke adheres to the Light despite coming of age in dark times.
Upon due consideration, the prequels reveal that the Jedi Order was the true phantom menace. They took an innocent child with earnest moral impulses and turned him into a deeply conflicted, morally confused time bomb ill-equipped to deal with reality. Surely, the Sith were evil. However, despite an alleged moral dichotomy, so were the Jedi. Our recognition of their error makes it difficult to regard them as heroes and thus care about their plight. In the end, the teachings of the Jedi led directly to Anakin’s fall and the galaxy’s plunge into darkness. Perhaps that’s a large part of the reason we don’t care for their story that much.
The Jedi of the Old Republic operate from a disturbing moral ambivalence, fully personified in Grand Master Yoda and reflected to lesser degrees in the rest of the Council and their knights. At the close of Attack of the Clones, after reluctantly deploying the titular army to counter a clear and present separatist threat, Yoda rebukes Obi-Wan for regarding the outcome as victory.
Victory? Victory, you say? Master Obi-Wan, not victory. The shroud of the Dark Side has fallen. Begun the Clone War has.
Therein lies one of the distinguishing characteristics of the prequel trilogy, an aversion to war among its heroes. From Queen Amidala’s initial refusal to “condone an action that will lead us to war,” to Yoda’s above noted refusal to acknowledge a moral mandate to destroy aggressors, the prequel protagonists spend most of their time trying to weasel out of conflict – and thus exasperate it.
Anakin stands out as a refreshing exception. He hungers to punish evil, to destroy threats to peace and justice. With his master nearby but unconscious during their final confrontation with separatist leader and known Sith lord Count Dooku, Anakin gains the upper hand but hesitates before eliminating the threat. His conflict can be compared to that facing real-life coalition forces engaging terrorists and insurgents on the battlefield. More than one critic objected to the killing of Osama bin Laden. From Spiegel:
A vice president of German parliament, Katrin Göring-Eckhardt, told the daily newspaper Berliner Zeitung: “As a Christian, I can only say that it is not a reason to celebrate, when someone is killed in a targeted way.” Göring-Eckhardt, a member of the Greens, said bin Laden should have been arrested and put on trial.
That’s precisely what Anakin claims he should have done with Dooku. However, the sentiment comes across forced, motivated by a sense of religious duty rather than rational judgment.
That struggle between code and judgment resolves in the other direction when he walks in on Jedi master Mace Windu’s confrontation with the evil mastermind Darth Sidious. As council members go, Windu tends most hawkish. Initially intent upon arresting Sidious, Windu reacts to the increasingly evident threat by choosing — as Anakin did with Dooku – to abandon the Jedi code and destroy the Sith. Likely motivated in part by a sense of guilt for his previous deviation from the code, Anakin intervenes on Sidious’ behalf, arguing that the Sith lord should face trial.
In that moment, Anakin finds himself hopelessly adrift in a sea of moral confusion. He lacks a sound moral reference, something solid to grab a hold of, and gets swept out beyond any hope of return. While the sin is his own, his upbringing in the care of the Jedi Order cannot be dismissed as inconsequential.
It all comes back to attachment. Throughout the prequels, we hear the Jedi warning against attachment. Anakin must leave his mother, abandoning her to slavery and ultimately to death. Anakin must let go of his anger, no matter whether it proves justified. Anakin must refrain from romantic love, because passion apparently cannot be controlled. Anakin must refrain from mourning the dead, and instead serenely accept their passing.
It’s worth noting that these prohibitions are never placed in any rational context. Yoda merely asserts as self-evident fact that:
Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.
Thus attachment must be avoided to stave off any fear of loss. But what sense does that make?
If death need not be feared, why fight at all? What value is there in peace and justice if not to preserve life? And if we seek to preserve life, are we not expressing an attachment to it?
Anakin’s confusion and moral conflict arise from the friction generated between this contrived prohibition on attachment and his natural hunger to live! He wants to enjoy life. He wants to be with those he loves. He wants to live with them in peace, and protect them from harm. These are rational values which the Jedi irrationally condemn as a path to the Dark Side.
And so Anakin’s masters set the stage for the Revenge of the Sith. Unable to dislodge Anakin’s sense of duty to the Jedi Order, Darth Sidious shifts tactics, dangling a promise of esoteric knowledge which could preserve Anakin’s chief value – his wife Padme. It may at first seem that the Jedi prohibition on attachment is thus validated. However, Anakin’s real problem is not his attachment to his wife so much as a religious code which runs contrary to that rationally conceived value. It is only because he has been taught that attachment is wrong that he wanders haphazardly into the embrace of the Sith.
Indeed, when you go back and view the original trilogy within the context of the prequels, the saga becomes an affirmation of rationally conceived familial attachment, and thus a damnation of the Old Republic’s Jedi. Think of it. A New Hope is literally born of the forbidden love between Anakin and his bride. Despite the best conspiratorial efforts of the remaining Jedi – Yoda and Obi-Wan – the familial relationships between Luke, Leia, and Anakin come to light and dictate each character’s behavior.
Recall that Yoda and Obi-Wan never change their tune. The latter outright lies — or tells the truth “from a certain point of view” — to keep Luke from developing an familial attachment to Vader. The former continues to encourage Luke to let go of attachments. As much as the original trilogy introduces Yoda and Obi-Wan as wise old wizards with a master plan, in the end, their effort turns on its head. Their plan to train Luke like any other Jedi and send him to destroy Vader and his emperor falls flat. Luke does not defeat Vader through serene detachment, but by channeling a righteous rage in defense of his sister. Following suit, the good in Anakin reemerges from the vestige of Darth Vader when drawn out by paternal attachment to Luke.
All episodes considered, the saga presents a twist ending. The Jedi were wrong. The Force could only be brought into balance by the very attachments their order rejected.
Check out the previous installments in Walter Hudson’s ongoing series on Video Games, Villains, and Values: