I have coloured my ‘Facebook cover’ pitch black today as an expression of the darkness that Aleppo’s fall exudes. As my profile picture there I have taken this shot of Darth vader, the tragic villain, because of the story this picture tells us.
Every installment of this new series of posts place one picture in centre stage and reads a story just from that picture. What better than, in the week of Rogue One’s premiere, to start with Darth Vader.
The tragic villain of the Original Trilogy
When Darth Vader came onto the scene in 1977 he surely was a terrifying villain. In his raid on Princess Leia’s cruiser he appears to us as the Empire’s executioner and henchman. One who does not shy away from ordering the assasination of peasants and farmers, like Luke’s Uncle and Aunt. His officers around him in A New Hope are however not as filled with dread as they will be in Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi. But when we see him next to Grand Moff Tarkin we see a different side to him. While the Imperial Officers all cannot await to unleash the terror of the Death Star onto the Galaxy, Vader talks denigratingly about this ‘technological terror’ relative to the power of The Force. It is a still deeply evil, but more contemplative Vader. During the trench-run in the final moments of the Death Star’s existence we see him struggling. His ‘contact’ Luke generates a strange hesitation in him.
Vader is no doubt the second-place villain of the original; Star Wars film, with the first spot royally deserved by Tarkin. Tarkin orders the genocide on Alderaan, Vader is complicit by not doing anything to prevent it. By th end of that film it is, especially with hindsight, so evident that there is something deeply tragic about this villain. Encased in an armour that sustains him a miserable life, he seems surrounded by an Empire that ridicues what he cares most about: The Force. ‘Sorcerer’s ways’ his Imperial Officers dub it, not so different from the way Han Solo derides it in front of Obi Wan. But where Obi Wan confidently ignores Han’s scepticism, Vader lashes out so as to prove it by force-chocking an officer … until Tarkin reigns him in. Vader is a raging yet caged amaelstrom of anger.
Vader is a tragic villain because he fights for an Imperial cause he doesn’t believe in. An Empire that does not believe in him. He is kept on a leash, as Leia points out. As the story of Vader progresses in that original trilogy we learn that it is his own daughter who delivered that cutting analysis. It is his own son who obstructs his path to bring ‘peace to the Galaxy’ and end the Galactic Civil War. His ultimate victory is not a redemption in front of the watching eye of the galaxy, or a heroic defeat of his Emperor, but making his peace in private, just before death takes him, with his son … in the hope his son will tell his daughter.
The tragic hero of the Prequel Trilogy
Many say that this story was enough, nothing needed adding. But I disagree. The Anakin Skywalker that came out of the mask of Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi was not the Anakin who existed prior to hsi encased period. As a child on Tatooine he possibly had the happiest time of his life. Wattoo was a slave-driver but perhaps not the worst imaginable. He had a loving mother, friends and felt a connection with the world he grew up on, even with the Sand People (made explicit in the novelization of The Phantom Menace). He is on speaking terms (even when those terms include insults) with Sebulba and his senses are attuned to the Sand in the Sandstorms on Tatooine. It is truly his home.
When adventure, when heroic destiny calls him all these ties are severed harshly. For he Jedi he is a ‘thing’ … the Chosen One … to Padme he is a lover as much as he is a threat. He grows to ‘hate sand’ in a world where ‘soft & tender’ seems within reach of an arms length. Yet his love affair with Padme is as rough and coarse as sand … and it also gets everywhere into the machinery of his life and hers. His mother dies at the hands of ‘his’ Sand People and Anakin loses his innocence and his soul in his massacre at the Sand People. Two films later he will also order (off screen) the death of Owen and Beru Lars, Luke’s uncle and aunt, the people that took him in their home when we was searching for his mum, their step-mum.
The Clone Wars offers us a peek into Anakin’s private quarters in the Jedi Temple. The walls of his little bunk containing a poster of … Sebulba, his pod-racer frenemy from ‘better days’. He cares deeply for his padawan, Ahsoka Tano, that he trains during the Clone Wars but he loses her too. Anakin’s heroic destiny takes him through the destruction of all that he cares about, and gives himself no little part in this self-inflicted mortal wound to his soul. Anakin is the executor and henchman of his own undoing, but not its architect.
Somewhere after Revenge of the Sith he completes his journey into darkness, without having ever intended this path on which he seems drawn inexorably by his own actions as much as by other people’s plotting and deceit. Is perhaps Ahsoka’s sacrifice on Malachor the only spark of light in the twenty years of darkness that follows his encasement into Vader’s suit? “I won’t leave you … not this time!” The first half of what she says to him will be repeated many years later nearly verbatim by Luke on a crumbling second Death Star. It seems to me that it is something Anakin, anchored in the depths of Vader’s darkness, will never have forgotten. Where Padme told him that he was going down a path she couldn’t follow, his apprentice tells him that she will not leave him a second time.
One reason why I love this picture so much is that in Vader’s pose the whole tragedy of his life, his ill-choices, his paranoia regarding the lives of his loved ones and above all his complicity in the savagery of his Emperor’s new Empire seem to be reflected. The red colour shows him in turmoil and yet there is this hard glasslike exterior that lets nothing in and leaves nothing out. The Episodes I through VI fill this picture with all the turmoil, all the regret but also all of the anger and hate that a failed life can generate. But it leaves just enough room in that hermetically sealed darkness inside for a spark of light, for a weakly voiced ‘not this time’. A tiny hope that one day a day will come where complicity will end. A day where ‘I won’t leave you’ will be answered not with ‘then you will die’ but with ‘then you will live’.
As I watch Aleppo disintegrate under my watchful eye but oh so inept and passive, oh so complicit in atrocity, there is a bit of Vader in each of us.
When you stare up towards the citadel of Aleppo with its characteristic mosque tower on the edge of the citadel, the similarity with Rogue One’s Jedha is though surely unintentional still uncanny.
I hope that, like Vader, one day we will find a new way to say: not this time.