Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Worst Thing

At the exact middle of the Prequel Trilogy, the central character commits an act of horrible evil. Anakin Skywalker’s mother has been kidnapped, he goes to rescue her only to see her die, and he kills upwards of thirty Sand People in revenge. He then goes back to his girlfriend and cries in her arms over it. We cannot resist analyzing such a powerful piece of the story (even if any of the characters never do.)

Much like with the Phantom Menace, and the droids themes running throughout, the movies make no attempt to hide from this evil. It is explicitly spelled out that Anakin killed this tribe, including their children and women (presumably non-combatants.) Whether we dwell on it is left up to the audience, but we can’t not know.

And uncomfortably, the proto-Lord Vader is badass when he does it. In fact this is perhaps the first time in the trilogy that Anakin is unquestionably cool. The Sand People are not defenseless, they’ve already fought off one law enforcement party and presumably will continue doing evil for a while. They murdered his mother, and although we don’t know the details of it every piece of evidence is that it was horrible. So Anakin flies off on his land speeder, full of grim determination, with Duel of the Fates playing in the background. We are given every reason to wish Anakin some measure of vengeance. So when Anakin pulls out his light saber and deflects the first shots of the guards he is ambushing, part of us cheers for justice served.

The movie shows us what a terrible mistake that was. He commits mass murder and we are undeniably provided with the evidence that this was evil. Given that Attack of the Clones broader political theme is “sometimes you go too far when fighting even your legitimate enemies”, this scene fits in perfectly with that.

(Practically speaking, many movies contain mass killing done by the hero of course. Often without emotional consequence. Luke blew up untold thousands on the Death Star, and at ten years old Anakin made a similar attack of mass destruction. I generally feel that this is bad messaging and bad art, where the target of the attack is treated like an object, and the consequences to people are not considered. We hand wave it away with “they were military targets so it’s okay” and return to the character driven drama. Which is fine, since we are here for character drama and often these objects function mostly to highlight successes for the characters. So it is a very different style of scene, and message, when a movie takes time to show genuine regret and even utter horror over the murder a character inflicted.)

The second half of this arc follows shortly. Anakin breaks down and tells Padme what happened out there.

Annie, what's wrong?

I... I killed them. I killed them all. They're
dead, every single one of them...

(ANAKIN focuses on her like someone returning from far away.)

Not just the men, but the women and the children
too. They're like animals, and I slaughtered them like
animals... I hate them!

(There is silence for a moment, then ANAKIN breaks down,
sobbing. PADMÉ takes him into her arms.)

Why do I hate them? I didn't... I couldn't... I
couldn't control myself. I... I don't want to hate them...
But I just can't forgive them.

To be angry is to be human.

To control your anger is to be a Jedi.

Ssshhh... you're human.

Anakin confesses an act of utter evil to the epitome of good guy liberal democracy in these movies and… she has no idea how to react. Remember that the Senator is often a moral giant who opposes the military buildup, stepped down from being Queen when she could have continued, and in many other ways is doing the “right” things by the Republic. Yet what does she have to say in the face of genuine evil, but “you’re human”.

Assurance of humanity is a very disturbing point in response to Anakin killing aliens. He calls them animals, and Lucas’s costume design has always done a good job of making tribal cultures appear dirty and lower-class. Subhuman, almost (until we finally unite with them). People like Amidala and the Jedi should be the least racist of anyone in that culture, but slip into it easily when thrown off their emotional balance.

Not that this blog is supposed to give Padme Amidala lessons in how to treat her boyfriend. Perhaps she should have run away then and there, or had him tried, or gotten him extreme therapy to make sure he doesn’t kill again. But without comprehension of actual evil, she’s incapable of doing any of those things. 

We must understand that Padme is emblematic of the Republic’s failures and not personally accountable for them.

She was trained to fight conservatism in the Senate, not confront a vicious and grieving murderer. Much like the Republic has been trained to deal with technocratic problems like the Trade Federation taxation issues, and not solve slavery on rural planets.

So Anakin’s anger, and severe attachment issues get forgotten. Like Yoda sensing the Dark Side, all of the problems that bring down the Republic are explicitly presented in Episode 2, and ignored by the “good guys” in their mad dash, only in order to explode later.

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