Monday, November 09, 2015

The Balance of the Force (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Anakin's Journey)

I knew at the beginning of the year that I'd want to write about Star Wars some, but I wasn't sure how to fit it in with all the James Bond I had going on. Then the Nerd Lunch guys invited me to be a recurring panelist on their Star Wars episodes. And then Dan Taylor and I started the Starmageddon podcast. So I've had way more opportunity to think about and discuss Star Wars than I imagined I would just writing a few posts on this blog.

But as we come into the final stretch for The Force Awakens, I want to put together my thoughts so far in one place. It helps me process to write things down and it'll help me talk more coherently in coming podcast episodes if I get this all straightened out. Because finally, at long last, I think it's possible to even get it straightened out. I wasn't able to do it on my own, but thanks to many different people (some friends, some online writers, and some professionals working in the Star Wars universe) I think I've finally figured out what George Lucas was trying to say about Anakin's journey and what it means for Luke. He did this so imperfectly, but I can at least finally see the bones of the story I think he was trying to build.

If you've listened to the Nerd Lunch episodes covering Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, you've heard me talk about the revelation that the Jedi aren't the perfect good guys that we expected them to be after the original trilogy. Obi-Wan paints a romantic picture of the Jedi for Luke, but that's the memories of an old man romanticizing the past. And to be fair, Obi-Wan never sees the Jedi for what they are, not even in the prequels. They're arrogant and complacent and sadly, so is he.

The Clone Wars series drives this home in a powerful way, especially in the last couple of seasons, but the evidence is all over the prequels, too. Mace Windu is the prime example of this. I had to get past my preconceived notions of Samuel L Jackson as a righteous, noble character, but once I was able to let that go, I realized that Mace is the personification of hubris. Every line out of his mouth in The Phantom Menace is just wrong.

"The Sith would not have returned without us sensing it."

"We'll discover the identity of your attacker."

"He will not be trained."

Yoda tries to temper it some, but as the spokesperson for the Council, Mace makes the wrong decisions over and over again.

And Qui-Gon totally knows it. That's why he has a history of defying the Council. Which is why he's also the best character in Phantom Menace. And it's why he had to die. In order for Anakin to ultimately fall to the Dark Side, Qui-Gon can't stick around. If Qui-Gon had trained Anakin, there never would have been a Darth Vader. It took Obi-Wan's blind trust in the Council to push Anakin away. All through Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan is critical of Qui-Gon's methods. He's trained with Qui-Gon, but his allegiance is squarely with the Council. Because of that, as Anakin's teacher, he tries to keep Anakin under tight control in hopes that Anakin will also learn to trust the Council. But he's wrong and it leads to tragedy.

The Coucil's complacency and hubris is even more evident in Attack of the Clones. Mace again refuses to believe something that doesn't fit his extremely narrow worldview. He rejects the idea that Count Dooku may be a bad guy, simply because Dooku used to be a Jedi. "It's not in his nature."

Yoda admits that arrogance is "a flaw more and more common among Jedi. Too sure of themselves they are. Even the older, more experienced ones."

Dex has a line where he says, "I should think that you Jedi would have more respect for the difference between knowledge and wisdom." He gets it.

You have the librarian saying, "If an item doesn't appear in our records, it doesn't exist." And Obi-Wan, bless him, totally buys it until he goes to Yoda, where it takes a little kid to see the obvious that Kamino has been deleted from the archive. All of the adult Jedi are too trusting of the system. That's also why the mystery of the clone army's origin is dropped so abruptly. Once Obi-Wan learns that it was commissioned by a Jedi, no one questions it anymore. The Jedi just claim it. Clearly it's theirs.

This is why Anakin has a hard time fitting in. He's too much like Qui-Gon. He's too willing to question everything, which annoys the crap out of all the other Jedi and simply widens the rift. One of my favorite scenes in Attack of the Clones is when Padme questions Anakin about love. She says that she thought love was forbidden for a Jedi.

Anakin's response is that attachment and possession are both forbidden, but that "compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi's life. So you might say we're encouraged to love." Lucas isn't generally a great writer, but I love that line. It does so much. It shows Anakin trying to find loopholes in the Jedi system, but it also shows how broken that system really is. Attachment is forbidden?

Look, I get it to a certain extent. It's the whole "fear leads to anger leads to hate" argument. When Yoda first meets Anakin, he's concerned about Anakin's attachment to his mom. That's why the Jedi usually grab Padawans so young, before they can form attachments. But like Pax said in one of the Nerd Lunch episodes, the Jedi have made this a stringent rule that they believe applies to everyone regardless of individual circumstances. There is wisdom in the awareness that attachment can lead to negative things. But to suggest that attachment always leads to negative things and so prohibit it... that's bantha poodoo.

By trying to find loopholes around these unthinking restrictions, Anakin is also trying to fulfill the prophecy about bringing balance to the Force. The Force is a living thing, but the Jedi have turned it into a legalistic system of rules. We had some discussion on Nerd Lunch about what the Jedi expected a balanced Force to look like. We never figured it out though, because I don't think even the Jedi know. (Or if they do, Lucas isn't telling us.) But what I think it means now (and thanks to Starmageddon co-host Ron Ankeny for pointing this out to me) is that Anakin is working on marrying both sides of the Force: Light and Dark.

We're told that the Light and Dark sides represent Good and Evil, but what if it isn't that simple? The Jedi - contrary to how Obi-Wan remembers them in Star Wars - are not wholly Good. And Anakin's slide to the Dark Side is not because he suddenly turns Evil. It's at least in part a sacrifice that he makes out of love for Padme. As they're practiced in the prequels, the Light and Dark sides are better redefined as Reason and Passion. The Jedi have gone full Vulcan, while Palpatine and the Sith are all about the emotions. The thing is though that the emotions and passions in question are always negative as discussed by both sides. The Sith are only interested in fear and anger and hate. And the Jedi have gone too far the other direction in trying to avoid those feelings. What Anakin argues - and he's totally right - is that there's a middle approach. A person can be passionate and feeling without giving in to negative emotions. It's risky and potentially dangerous, but it's also far more rewarding and potentially beneficial than the alternative.

Unfortunately, Anakin goes too far. His love for Padme does open him up to Palpatine's manipulation and the Sith Lord succeeds in widening the chasm between Anakin and the Jedi to an uncrossable level. But it's super important to realize that this absolutely could not have happened had the Jedi not been every bit as tired and ineffective as Palpatine claimed that they were. That - in addition to Anakin's fears about Padme's safety - is what pushes him to assist Palpatine in killing Mace Windu. And that's the step too far for Anakin. After that moment, he realizes that he can't go back and that he has to be all in with Palpatine. That's why he goes to the Jedi Temple and kills everyone, including the younglings. It's not that he's suddenly evil and all into it. As unconvincing as Hayden Christiansen is most of the time, I can see on his face at the temple that he doesn't want to be doing what he's doing. It's crushing his soul.

Palpatine's torture of Anakin doesn't stop there. One of my biggest issues with Revenge of the Sith has always been Padme's "death by sadness," but writer Joseph Tavano explains that that's not what happened at all. Click that link for the full theory, but the short of it is that Padme's death is actually orchestrated by Palpatine. He told Anakin earlier that he didn't know how to bring someone back to life, but that he and Anakin could discover the power together. That's exactly what happens. Anakin should have died after his fight with Obi-Wan, but Palpatine keeps him alive long enough to put him through a painful, horrifying surgery that amplifies Anakin's hate and anger to uncontrollable levels. With all of his considerable power, this ball of rage fights to survive and reaches out with the Force to literally steal life from the person he's most connected to.

That's why Padme's medical droid makes such a big deal out of her being completely healthy. That line has always thrown me, because I knew that Lucas was trying to say something specific with it. I just couldn't figure out what that was. Without the line, we could explain away Padme's death as simply a complicated pregnancy, but Lucas specifically wants us to know that that's not what's going on. Tavano's reading of the scene explains what's really happening. Anakin is killing Padme to stay alive. When Palpatine tells him, "You killed her," he's not lying. Palpatine's not only aware of her death, he intentionally set up the circumstances to bring it about, serving two purposes at once by pushing Anakin completely into the Dark Side and also eliminating Anakin's last tie to the person he was.

The prequels aren't a grand adventure story in the tradition of the original trilogy. They are - by genre - a Tragedy. We see the decline and fall of the Jedi (helped along by Palpatine, but also by the weight of their own complacency) and the utter destruction of Anakin Skywalker who has failed to fulfill the prophecy. He has not brought balance to the Force.

But his son might.

And I would argue that he does. When Luke leaves Dagobah in Empire, Yoda and Obi-Wan's biggest concern is that Luke isn't ready to face Vader. That's often interpreted as concern that Luke will learn the truth about his father, but it's not just about that. From Yoda and Obi-Wan's point of view, there's more at stake than simply Luke's figuring out he's been lied to. They're concerned about his potentially falling to the Dark Side. "Remember your failure in the cave." Facing Vader will bring up all sorts of emotions that Luke hasn't yet been trained to suppress. And will do so in the presence of the person best suited to encourage and exploit those feelings.

Because Luke is sidetracked after facing Vader (gotta rescue Han!), he never returns to learn about all the restrictions against attachment. His feelings have opened him up to the Dark Side, which is why he seems way more powerful at the beginning of Return of the Jedi than his training in Empire would suggest. We also see him doing questionable things in Jedi like Force-choking Gamorreans. He's even wearing Sith robes.

But he never completely gives in. Not completely. I mean, he stumbles several times. He does go after the Emperor with his lightsaber and fully intends to murder the old man. Since Vader stops him, I used to read that as Vader's (probably unintentionally, but who knows?) saving Luke from the Dark Side. As if the Emperor's actual death was really what would magically complete Luke's fall. It doesn't matter whether Luke's attack was successful. What mattered was that he give in to his feelings of anger and hate. And that's exactly what he did in that moment. He gave in to the Dark Side.

But there's another moment shortly after when Luke is blind with rage and about to murder his own father and he pulls back. His love for his dad - his attachment - saves him.

My point is that Luke is all over the place in regards to the Dark and Light sides of the Force. He uses both; never fully falling into either. I don't know if Obi-Wan knew what he meant when he told Luke to "trust your feelings." I'd like to think that he matured and grew more wise in his later years on Tatooine, but he still doesn't seem to get it when he's talking to Luke on Dagobah. The irony though is that Luke has learned to trust his feelings. Because he didn't complete his training with Yoda, he never learned to suppress them. He's a mixture of Reason and Emotion; able to use his feelings to manipulate his power without sliding completely into negativity and darkness. Supporting Ron's reading that I mentioned earlier, Luke has finally brought balance to the Force.

On a recent episode of Starmageddon, Dan and I talked about why Luke hasn't been in the most recent marketing for The Force Awakens. He's not in the final trailer (except for an arm that we assume is his) and he's not on the posters. When asked about that, JJ Abrams' response was, "A-ha! You noticed!" leading to much speculation about what Luke's role in the new movie will be. The rest of this article will be me summing up the theory that Dan and I came up with. There are no spoilers, because neither of us actually know anything, but if you'd prefer to see The Force Awakens completely untainted by speculation, you should quit reading here. You've got all my thoughts on Anakin's journey, the Balance of the Force, and how Luke fulfills that prophecy in the original trilogy.

But if you're curious about some thoughts on what that could mean for the future... read on!

I reject the idea that Luke will become the villain of the next few Star Wars movies. Partly because he's the hero of the original trilogy and it would be cheap to turn him evil, but mostly for all the reasons I mentioned above. He's Balance.

But as Dan said in the Starmageddon episode, Luke could very well be the MacGuffin that both the good guys and bad guys are after in The Force Awakens. If he's the Balance, then there's the opportunity for either side to tip him to their cause. If Luke realizes that, it's completely plausible that he's attempted to remove that opportunity by going into hiding (especially if he's had some scary failures in the last 30 years). So a big part of the plot of The Force Awakens could be about trying to bring Luke - and so the Force itself - back into play. Don't know. Just sayin'. Give the whole Starmageddon episode a listen if you want to hear more.


Paxton said...

Love this, Michael. Well done. Your thoughts echo mine. Especially as you carry forward to Luke and how he uses the Force.

There were a few expanded universe books that dealt with the radical idea that the Force wasn't "light" and "dark". That it was inherently neutral. What made the Force "light" or "dark" was the intent with which it was being manipulated. I like the idea that one must know both sides of the Force and straddle both sides to fully understand and use it to its fullest extent. Locking away certain aspects of yourself to avoid the "dark" is more harmful than good.

Your speculation about Luke is 100% dead on what I was thinking as well. I'm mostly avoiding spoilers but the rampant "Luke is missing" speculation is hard to avoid. Luke is "my guy" so I immediately want to reject him being the villain, so my supposition was similar to yours. Self-imposed Yoda-like exile so he couldn't be used as a tool by either side. Maybe he felt he needed to finish his training (on Dagobah!) and had a vision that if he returned he could become the downfall of his friends? I don't know. Just speculation. But that's my current thinking.

Loved this article. Can't wait to maybe discuss this further on Revenge of the Sith in a few weeks.


Michael May said...

Thanks, man. Our conversation about what Luke does in Jedi plus these ideas about what he may have been doing prior to Force... it's making me emotional just thinking about it. He's so unbelievably heroic and self-sacrificial.

Hope we're right. :)

Derek Ash said...

I think this is brilliant, well-thought, and while it feels a bit like it could be passed off as just "fan-theory" (and thus ignored in the upcoming films), it also feels 100% correct. It is a shame that Lucas dropped the ball so badly when it comes to telling this story in the prequels.

I'm curious if you've ever seen this video on youtube "What if "Star Wars: Episode I Was Good?" by Belated Media ( I haven't watched it in a looong while but I remember it having some great ideas on how to make the prequels better as a whole. I don't know how much of those fixes would have completely tromped over the theories you posit here for Lucas's message, but I Think if the two were married, the movies could have been really smart, really important, and really great.

Mr X said...

Rumors can still be spoilers. Please post warnings.

Michael May said...

Didn't I?

snell said...

Two thoughts--

A) Anakin did bring balance to the Force. After Episode III, there were two Sith and two Jedi left alive. That's balance. Obi-Wan and the Council just blindly misinterpreted the prophecy to mean "good will win" or whatever. But of course not. They've gone from a system with dozens (hundreds?) of Jedi and no Sith "for generations" to complete balance.

B) Another sign of Jedi incompetence: they know the Force is conveyed by physical means (midichlorians). We're told (at least in the original trilogy) that the Force runs strong in families. And yet, the Council forbids the Jedi to form attachments (and apparently to wed, and have offspring). In other words, their own credo was cutting them off from creating the most powerful practitioners of the Force. So instead of the children of Yoda and Mace, et. al., inheriting their parents' midichlorians and becoming powerful Jedi, the Council was forced to go recruiting randomly among the populace, a population from which the strongest Force practitioners were removed from the breeding stock. No wonder they were finding it harder and harder to control the Force, as those most able were never even being born. (This can also be seen as a reason why the Force allowed Anakin to be created, in order to reintroduce a strong source of midichlorians into the wild, as it were).

Paxton said...


A) There were more than two Jedi left after Order 66. Obi-Wan and Yoda were the most notable, but scores of others went underground. The Kanan character currently on Star Wars Rebels was one of them.

B) You bring up a great point here. One I never really thought more about. The Jedi cutting off their own nose to spite their face by not reproducing. Amazing. Great point. The Jedi Council had to go.



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