Monday, November 17, 2014

The Most Insidious Evil

Who is Darth Sidious?

He is the revenge of the Sith.


Earlier I mentioned characters who get a lot of description, and characters who purposefully get very little. It is amazing how little attention as a person Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine gets. His agenda dominates all six movies, after all, yet he doesn't even appear in one movie (Episode 4) and is unnamed in another (Episode 5). And for those four movies he does act in... what do we know of him?

We don't know where he came from, how or why or when he became a Sith, or anyone he cares about or knows outside his schemes. Most of his dialogue is as Chancellor, dripping with lies and condescension to the "good guys". Anyone else who had his screen time, we would know a heck of a lot more about. Three movies were made to tell us the backstory of Darth Vader, but we still know almost nothing about his master.

Palpatine is one of the most depersonalized characters in the entire series, which is interesting for someone who is the primary villain.

Which ties into the greatest concern about the Original Trilogy that I mentioned before. Is Star Wars describing a universe were "killing the one bad guy" solves everyone's problem? Or does defeating that one bad guy, actually stand for a far more comprehensive process?

So if he is more symbol than person, what does he stand for?


One of the few genuine things we know about Sidious is that he loves conflict. His plans always involve a ridiculous amount of "getting two sides to fight it out, while he maneuvers in the background", from Endor's moon to the Separatist war. He exhibits this especially on a personal level, taking an almost sexual satisfaction when he watches two potential apprentices fight each other for him (at the beginning of Episode 3, and the end of Episode 6).

One reading of these scenes are that he knows who will win each war or duel and has orchestrated their success, but I find it much more plausible that he set up a "No matter who loses, I win" methodology.

The scene where Anakin kills Count Dooku is one of the best scenes in the entire six movies.

It contains the endlessly repeated trope of a dismembered hand. We see Sidious's mask fall, as he hideously orders Anakin to kill. The look of betrayal on Dooku's face speaks volumes, which we will discuss later. Anakin uses *two* light sabers - his and Dooku's - to deliver the deathblow, symbolizing how Sidious always controls both sides of a fight. And of course, killing this enemy does nothing to solve anyone's problem. All of this is portrayed within a fairly swashbuckling laser sword fight.

Darth Sidious is conflict.


Conflict is inherent in the system.

From the very beginning of the series, conflict is there, and Palpatine is here, savoring and orchestrating these pointless battles. He is a sort of lawful chaos, insisting there will be competition and determining how it goes. (Whereas the heroes in the Original Trilogy are a sort of chaotic lawfulness, showing infinite trust in each other despite no one making them do so.)

Another one of Palpatines rare lines of honesty is when confronted by Mace Windu and his squad of Jedi.

MACEThe Senate will decide your fate.
PALPATINE(burst of anger) I am the Senate!

And at this point, who's to say he is wrong?

Not that Palpatine has respect for the Senate. He takes a maniacal glee in throwing pieces of the Senate around as Yoda during their duel, creating a pretty blatant image for the fall of democracy. But then, he's always cast off his tools to replace them with something even more powerful.

There are many names for what Sidious represents. Hatred. War. Capitalism. Evil. Distrust. Class and status. He is vengeance incarnate. This is the Dark Side of the Force and he is one with it. He is it.

(The Jedi would throw in "Anger". This is wrong. The Jedi focus on emotion and attachment as someone's undoing is repeatedly shown as incorrect. Luke is correct to ignore Yoda's advice to be indifferent. Darth Sidious is just as happy to use cool necessity as the reason to abandon someone to death as the Jedi are.)

To defeat Darth Sidious then, you can not merely strike him down (as he taunts Luke to do at the end of Episode 6.) It takes a genuine act of cooperation and trust to overcome conflict. A radical act of love.

A son giving up everything for the father he never knew, and his father giving up everything for this son. That is the trust Sidious cannot predict, and is conflict's only undoing.


One of the greatest complaints of the Prequels is that they make Darth Vader "uncool". Vader was one of the greatest badasses of cinema, voiced by James Earl Jones, and fans were looking forward to him as a Jedi. This was the man Luke had faith in after all, that could overcome his Dark Side programming when it mattered.

But Lucas didn't need to make Anakin Skywalker "cool". He already was one of the most celebrated figures in pop culture, let alone genre fiction. Making him a cool Jedi who succumbs to the Dark Side in one moment of weakness, would only glorify his whole fascist schtick.

Instead Anakin is a punk. He is whiny, badly-tempered, and incredibly insecure. He's right about most of the things he disagrees with the Jedi about, but gosh does he come across as an unworthy jerk.

In this light, now the trust shown at the end of Return of the Jedi makes no sense. Luke is desperate to believe that his father is still inside that suit somewhere, the "Jedi" he used to be? Now we know that man never existed, there never was some supercool Jedi who was the "true" father of Luke Skywalker. Hell he was barely a Jedi. There was just a whiny proto-fascist. If Luke had seen the Prequel movies, could he have put his life in the hands of Darth Vader? Could you?


But trust does not make sense.

Demanding to see the "cool" Anakin Skywalker is demanding proof of the goodness of the people you love. It is demanding his midichlorian count before you believe he is the figure of prophecy.

Radical faith is believing in the father you need even though he never existed in the first place. Darth Vader knows he was a horrible human being, but at the end he believes he can be something greater, when his son refuses to kill him.

That is the Light Side of the Force.

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