Astute readers may note that I never followed up my Phantom Menace review with reviews of the other five Star Wars films. And while I do hope to deliver complete reviews for all of them at some point, I felt more compelled to write this specific article that I’m posting today. From watching all six Star Wars films back-to-back, this bit of subject matter is what impacted and stood out to me the most from the experience. And I figured the most cohesive way to commemorate such an epic movie-marathon would be to talk about this subject and character in particular.
“causing harm in a way that is gradual or not easily noticed”
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
It is a staple of villainy, cinematic and otherwise, to manipulate and deceive. The “bad guys” are those who use deception and trickery to achieve their own nefarious ends. Lying is a particular kind of falsehood that rings as particularly malicious to most audiences. It’s amongst the most personal expressions of evil there is – few things feel like more of a violation than being deceived for the sake of the deciever’s own personal gain.
This sentiment can be seen in different narratives and religious traditions around the world, representing in all different time periods. In Christian tradition, deception is the defining aspect of Satan, The Devil himself. And given the strong presence of Christian influence in American culture, it makes sense that the antagonists in many, if not most American works, are based off of this understanding of Satan. Some portray him directly, some indirectly, but it has always been an objective of many, many filmmakers to attempt to capture on film the best, most truthful depiction of Satan, of evil itself. I would argue that none have accomplished this better than George Lucas in his Star Wars Saga.
Were you to ask the general public who the villain of Star Wars is, most would reply with a resounding “Darth Vader.” But those who know their Star Wars are acutely aware that Vader is not the true source of evil in Lucas’s universe. The true answer is “Darth Sidious”, otherwise known as “The Emperor” or “Palpatine”. Sidious is pure evil. Sidious is irredeemable. He is a human so consumed by evil he may as well be considered a pure manifestation of The Dark Side. From the Saga‘s very beginning in The Phantom Menace, Sidious is pulling the strings, manipulating everybody and everything around him in order to accomplish his ascension into political power.
Sidious, unlike most villains, is one half of the most important and fundamental character dynamic in the entire six-film saga. The other half being Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader. This relationship is the most layered and nuanced of any in the series, and is the most representative of the central struggle within Star Wars. The fundamental conflict of the Star Wars Saga is based around good and evil, yes, but, unlike The Lord of the Rings, for instance, the concepts of “good” and “evil” aren’t represented in two hyper-distinct “sides”. The conflict is universal, yes, but it’s focus is inside the heart of the individual. Specifically, the individuals of Anakin and Luke Skywalker. The question at hand is less “will the good guy beat the bad guy?” and more “will the hero end up in the light or the dark side? Will he come out of this good or evil?”
In the case of Anakin, his struggle is largely defined by the influence of Sidious, who operates under the guise of Palpatine; senator, later chancellor, and public servant. It is well known to Star Wars fans, both casual andserious, that Palpatine lured Anakin into the fold of The Dark Side, taking him on as his apprentice and partner in intergalactic totalitarianism. But the roles of “master and apprentice” are, in my view, perhaps not the most accurate descriptors of the relationship between Sidious and Anakin. And this is where the brilliance of the character of Palpatine truly lies, the brilliance in how George Lucas tried, and succeeded, to capture the character of The Devil himself. For, truly, Sidious and Anakin are not “master and apprentice” nor are they “teacher and learner”, but rather “abuser and victim”. Before the eyes begin to roll, let me be clear, I don’t mean any kind of sexual abuse. I don’t believe sexual subtext is a primary theme in how Lucas writes his characters. Rather, Sidious is a spiritual abuser, one of the highest, most horrific order.
What sets Sidious apart from other abusive film villains, is the breadth and the depth of his abuse. Every relationship he has is characterized by some kind of abuse or another. There is no such thing as “friend”, “partner” or “ally” to Sidious. There are only victims, two types at that: the ones he can use, and the ones he cannot. The former become his slaves, the latter, he brings to a swift and decisive end. The evils of his character are so profound, so deeply ingrained in the fabric of the narrative, that the argument could be made that no character in Star Wars is not his victim, save Sidious himself. The Senate is his puppet. As he states in The Phantom Menace in one of his most iconic lines, responding to Viceroy Nute Gunray’s inquiry about the legality of landing troops on the planet of Naboo: “I will make it legal”. The Senate is comprised of public servants who are merely pawns which Sidious uses to further his goals, goals which ultimately necessitate the enslavement or demise of all the manipulated. The Jedi, he wipes out. Killing the vast majority and sending the rest into various forms of exile. The Separatists, more pawns whom he tricks into instigating galactic civil war, only to neuter their defenses and betray them at the conflict’s close. He is also the master of more than one apprentice through the saga, before Anakin there was Maul and there was Dooku. Dooku, like the separatists, is one whom Sidious feigned alliance with, only to dispose of when it was fitting to The Dark Lord’s plans. Considerably less is known about Maul, but the fact that Sidious sent his Sith apprentice on a mission that resulted in his death seems to suggest his intentional disposal, especially when considering that Sidious had met and apprenticed Dooku around that particular time period. Both apprentices were manipulated by Sidious and done away with when their usefulness was at and end, because they were both placeholders for the Sith Lord’s ultimate goal: Anakin Skywalker.
There is one example of Sidious’s wide-reaching abuse that I find the most potent, one that is only ever truly addressed in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series. That example being the clone army he commissions to have created. The series reveals the clones to not be the heartless conspirators most audience members presumed them to be, but rather unwilling participants in the Sith Lord’s schemes. Of all the pawns in Sidious’ game, there are none more tragic than the clones. Created by, manipulated by, used by, and disposed of by Sidious, their very existence is a testament to the Dark Lord’s all-encompassing evil. The revelation in question, specifically regards a chip placed in the mind of the clones that, through methods not quite specified, can be activated, altering the clone’s brain chemistry and turning them into Jedi-killing Stormtroopers. It is suggested throughout the relevant episodes, that the Stormtrooper personality haunts the dreams of the clones, tormenting them, and warping them psychologically. It’s a crucial piece of information that makes the events in the turning point of Revenge of the Sith all the more unsettling and tragic.
The point being, Lucas, when given the chance to make a set of prequel films plus a television series, used that opportunity to reinforce and reinterpret much of the existing story. And there is no other area that he reinforced more than the character of Sidious, and there is a reason for that. The moments aboard the Second Death Star in Return of the Jedi suddenly take on newer, more potent meaning, and an already stellar finale reaches new heights of emotional power. By developing the character of Sidious, he allowed the villain’s tentacles to work their way into every crevice of the Star Wars Saga so that his presence may be tangibly felt in every moment of the series. That all the evil, all the injustice stems from one, definitive source. So when that source is finally defeated, the resolution is absolute in the closure it provides.
In these days of serious upheaval in the American Evangelical church, it’s hard not to see the actions of Darth Sidious taking on new relevancy. In a time when people are coming forward in droves to bring to light the abuses of spiritual leaders it’s hard not to feel a sense of additional weight in the evils of villains like Darth Sidious. In a way, George Lucas was addressing things a decent bit ahead of his time. Sure, spiritual abuse has always been an issue, but it’s hard to see these characterizations take on more meaning than they do during these particular days of national upheaval on the religious front. The careful luring of the young and the troubled, the systematic removal of all outside sources of stability, the gradual alienation of the victim from all influences except those of the abuser. It all rings frighteningly true and it echoes the real-life stories of many who have suffered at the hands of an abusive spouse, teacher or pastor.
As his name suggests, Sidious’s tactics are subtle and go largely unnoticed and unaddressed until it’s far, far too late. In the case of Anakin, he leans on the young Jedi’s guilt and bitterness at his inability to save the life of his mother, promising him the power to save the lives of all those he cares about. The power to literally prevent death by manipulating the fabric of life itself through deep knowledge of The Force. Anakin is successfully lured by the Sith Lord, believing that he can help protect his wife, Padme from the death that he is haunted by visions of in his nightmares. What Anakin didn’t know is that Padme’s death was not only contrary to his master’s plans, but fundamental to their execution. He slowly shatters the young man’s trust in his Jedi elders, and successfully creates a rift between him and Padme. By the time Anakin is aware of the complete, pervasive deception of his “master”, he has been duped into turning on an killing all those who cared for him, all those capable of truly helping him. Palpatine’s true nature becomes clear to him far, far too late. So late, that he literally has nothing left to live for, save Sidious.
Of all Star Wars media, the most potent portrayal of Sidious in this regard is in the novelization of Revenge of the Sith, written by Matthew Stover directly adapted from the screenplay by George Lucas. In the novel, Sidious is tactfully characterized as “a shadow”, a cancerous, dark presence that weighs on the minds and souls of those he seeks to destroy, either physically or spiritually. The depth and cruelty of his evils are best displayed in the novel’s climactic scene. The film’s portrayal of this scene is well known; Vader, enraged and heartbroken by the death of Padme, unleashes The Force in a powerful wave, crushing all of the droids and medical supplies in the room around him. He destroys basically everything in the room, sans his new “master”: The Shadow, Darth Sidious. The novel elaborates greatly on this point, turning it into the crucial final moment in Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness. The novel reveals that his desire is to, in fact, crush the life out of Sidious. But he can’t do it. No matter how much he hates The Shadow, he can’t bring himself to kill him because The Shadow is all he has left. The Shadow understands him, The Shadow accepts him, The Shadow embraces him. Deep down, no matter how much he hates the man who victimized him, he cannot bring himself to kill him. It’s a chilling picture of the evils of spiritual and psychological abuse that states plainly what was left as subtext in other Star Wars media. It epitomizes Sidious’s ultimate desire: to cripple the will of his victim, to steal away their happiness and the love of those who care for them, and then to finally reduce them to a state of psychological impotence. Unable to fight, unable to resist. Devoid of the will to live, save for The Dark Lord’s command to keep on living. A person reduced to a tool by which Sidious can inflict more suffering on others, as he sees fit. Sidious’s motives in this regard aren’t entirely unique, many others ostensibly have similar goals. And yet Sidious stands as one of the few who was ever truly successful, successful enough that he enslaved an entire galaxy. Successful enough that he victimized every last person he ever so much as glanced at.
If there was ever a singular motivation George Lucas had that pushed him to create the Star Wars prequels, it was Sidious. Sidious is the key to these films. Lucas sought to take the fairly nebulous, but still potent evil that The Emperor represented in Return of the Jedi and flesh it out into something deep, something personal, something so sick and monstrous that it doubled the meaning behind those beautiful climactic scenes between Luke and his father. Almost every scene of the prequels was written and directed to serve the character of Sidious, to strengthen him. To strengthen his internal hideousness. To strengthen his menace. To turn the demonic overloard audiences witnessed in ’83 into The Devil himself in both appearance and personality.
It is this understanding of who The Emperor is, and what he means to Darth Vader that fundamentally reinforms, and reinforces, the story we see in the Original Trilogy. The first, most pertinent example of this is in The Empire Strikes Back, directly after Vader’s famous revelation to Luke. In the iconic line, Vader says “Luke, you can destroy The Emperor, he has foreseen this.” He speaks in a bid to gain the allegiance of his son, but that singular line reveals so much about the relationship between Vader and Sidious as it relates to our understanding gained form Revenge of the Sith. On it’s most surface level, Vader’s bid seems to be an appeal to Luke’s own vanity and lust for power, a presumption that Vader makes because of his own innate lust for power. But underneath that is something quite different. Vader is pleading with his son to rescue him from his abuser. Vader hates Sidious, he hates him more than any being in the galaxy. But not a jealous hate, as would be easy to assume given Vader’s “villain status” in Empire, but rather a helpless spite. The hatred of a captive for his captor. The hatred of a slave for his owner. Vader is little more than a rabid dog on The Emperor’s chain, he knows this, and he yearns to be free of him. He needs to Sidious to die, but is psychologically incapable of doing the act himself. He needs Luke to, essentially, rescue him, which is precisely what he’s asking for in that moment.
The climax of Return of the Jedi, while loaded with subtext in and of itself, is brought to its full realization with the additional knowledge obtained in the prequels. It’s important to note during these scenes how little dialogue Vader actually speaks. Once The Emperor enters the equation, Vader almost has nothing to offer, unlike his typical, aggressively monologuing self. He’s a dog on a chain, a vehicle through which Sidious can manipulate Luke and nothing more. In the presence of his master, Vader is no more than a tool. Toward the end of the duel between Luke and Vader, Vader suffers a dismembered hand, after which he dutifully slouches back to Sidious’s side. He then observes with indiscernible emotion as his son is torturously electrocuted to what would be his death by Darth Sidious. Vader just stands by like an apathetic pet. It’s not his place to feel one way or another about the death of Luke Skywalker, Anakin is dead, the boy dying in front of him is no more his son than any of the other thousands of Jedi that he executed before. It’s this specific, psychologically manacled understanding of his character that makes the final moments of this particular conflict all the more powerful, as they represent not only a return from dark to light, but also a victim finally confronting, overpowering and destroying the monster that stole his very identity from him through lies and manipulation. It is a mirror image of the scene in which he fell into darkness, giving into the lies of Darth Sidious and turning on Mace Windu, his friend and mentor. It is a fulfillment of the moment where he cannot bring himself to kill The Shadow because he believes that The Shadow is all he has left. In those final moments, Vader realizes that he still has Luke, that Sidious was not truly successful in stealing everything from him. It is only then that he gains the power to rise up and destroy his abuser once and for all. Finally enacting justice and retribution for the thousands upon thousands of dead and shackled bodies that the Dark Lord left in his wake. This is, I believe, the guiding rhetoric behind the recent blu-ray addition of Vader’s cry of “NOOOO!!!” upon seizing The Emperor. It’s an echo of the last time he uttered that word, when he was helpless to kill his tormentor, except this time it’s not an expression of helplessness, but of defiance. A definitive, unmistakable answer to the lies and manipulation that have poured ceaselessly from the lips of the liar that is Palpatine: a resounding, roaring “NO!”. And with that declaration, he throws The Devil himself over the bannister and into the metal abyss below. It’s a moment of triumph and of profound justice.
It’s for this resolution that Lucas created the character of Darth Sidious. He meticulously created The Devil as best he could on the page for one definitive reason: to destroy him. It’s rare to see a villain as intelligent, as evil and as well-realized as Sidious that never falls into the trap of perverse worship. He is an image of pure, unglamourized evil in the most unapologetic way that it can be portrayed onscreen. But the most important part about Sidious is not his poisonous rhetoric or political tactics, the most important thing to remember about Sidious is that he lost. He lost in the most profound sense of the term. The victor of Star Wars is not, ultimately, the one who stood by his principles to the very bitter end (though Luke does find his own victory as well). The true victory belongs to the victims, or, more specifically the victim in Anakin Skywalker. The abused. The manipulated. It is for him that justice is finally done, and the image of his spirit watching over his children celebrating their freedom in that final scene on the Endor moon is a reminder of that. That no matter how downtrodden or weak or helpless, their is always a chance for a victim to throw off their shackles and find victory if they just know where to look to find their hope.
Andrew Allen is a television and film writer for Action A Go Go. He is an aspiring screenwriter and director who is currently studying at the University of Miami. You can check him out on Tumblr @andrewballen and follow him on Twitter @A_B_Allen.