Why Anakin’s Conversion To The Dark Side Made Sense

Obi-Dan Finckobi

James Gray considers Anakin Skywalker’s conversion to the Dark Side unconvincing. He wanted more Hobbesian philosophy like is implied in the original trilogy. Such thinking is presented as part of Anakin’s view on the world, in episode II at least when Anakin and Natalie Portman are frolicking in the meadow and they have an unusually artfully scripted back and forth about politics. But even without that, I think Anakin’s conversion was one of the most satisfyingly executed parts of the prequels. There are some ways it could have been even richer but nonetheless I felt it viscerally when I read the book and then the first five or six times I watched Revenge of the Sith in the theaters. Here is how I saw the psychological process of Anakin Skywalker over the course of the three films.

Imagine being the most powerful 8 year old human being in the world. You can do virtually anything you try. Things no other human can do. Then one day the freaking Jedi show up and take you away on their starship and you’re like, YESCANMYLIFEGETANYBETTERTHINGSARESTILLGOINGENTIRELYMYWAY!!! Oh, and you singlehandedly defeat an entire robot army with your piloting skills and luck. That you can do anything you want, and have anything you want, is the lesson life has taught you so far.

But then the Jedi spend a decade mistrusting you. They try and hold you back from fulfilling your powers. For your mentor, you have to deal with a stick in the mud who you’re actually more naturally powerful than. He’s constantly on your butt. You secretly think he holds you back because of his own fears due to his own limitations and because he resents deep down that he knows you’re better than he is. You become a creepy control freak because as a kid you never had to deal with frustration and you’re still not totally convinced you have to, but all your superiors force you to.

Also, you’re deeply in love with NATALIE FUCKING PORTMAN and SHE WANTS YOU TOO (after you push through her initial resistance to get your way as you think you’re entitled). And yet you’re forced into a constraining celibacy. You secretly defy the rules anyway and you have this marriage you always wanted–but you need to keep it completely hidden. 

NOW, also since you were 8, ever since you arrived in Coruscant you get to hang with this awesome old SUPREME CHANCELLOR OF THE GALAXY who has been like the father you never had. But better, he’s like the grandpa you never had. He doesn’t treat you with fear, suspicion, discipline. He basically lets you stay up all night and do whatever you want. He believes in you. He tells you you’re the most powerful Jedi ever and you should go with your feelings–that you know better than the council. You shouldn’t buy into their limits they’re putting on you. He also teaches you about politics, about how a galaxy needs a strong hand to impose order, etc. He undermines everything the Jedi are trying to teach you at home and stokes those your ego and those rebel fires in your heart. He’s the only one besides Natalie Portman that you tell after you kill the sand people. You know, those sand people who killed your mom when your callous mentor was telling you to ignore the danger she was in, when you were clearly having premonitory dreams warning you she was in danger?

Now, the moment of truth comes. You have reason to believe that the one person you’ve completely invested your heart into is in mortal threat–but you don’t know how or why or when, and you’re terrified. The only advice Yoda has for you is “go, let her. attached, be you not. a sucker’s game, that is.” And you’re like, BUT I’M IN LOVE and it’s NATALIE FUCKING PORTMAN. And Grandpa tells you, “dude, you ARE powerful enough, I have secret powers too and TOGETHER we could stop her from dying. I’m one of those Sith you’ve been taught to hate but all that is lies and deceptions. We’re really the good ones. The Jedi are holding out on you, man. They don’t care if Natalie Portman lives or dies BUT I DO.” 

Now Jules from Pulp Fiction, who’s been giving you dirty looks since you were 8, is on the verge of KILLING GRANDPA. You’ve heard rumor the Jedi are going to stage a coup. You already know firsthand they’re politically conniving as they’ve unethically asked you to exploit your relationship with Grandpa for information. And now here’s Jules threatening to kill the supreme chancellor and the only guy who has a plan to save the woman you love. The only way to save her is to kill Jules. Finally you’re like, “fuck it, if I have to choose between Jules and Yoda on the one hand, and Grandpa and Natalie Fucking Portman on the other, I’m going with Grandpa and Natalie Fucking Portman.”

After that the political philosophy just falls into line as a matter of removing cognitive dissonance. Anyone who’s been through an ideological/identity/community conversion should get it. One day you’re on one side technically but with this mass of other beliefs and values you are sympathetic to but won’t quite accept because of your loyalties/identity/community/dominant paradigm. You’ve already been learning your political views for a decade from Grandpa. You’ve already been primed. Then one day the switch flips, the Gestalt shift happens, and you’re killing Younglings. Trust me, I’ve been there! I deconverted from a religion, replete with a decisive deconversion moment, and I was viscerally satisfied with Revenge of the Sith for the way it evoked what that’s like. I’ve never seen anything else come close to expressing what it is like. The Godfather is the other great conversion series, but that’s about the slow process. This was about the day and night changeover.

Then, the part I loved most was the way it made sense of Vader’s reconversion at the end of Return of the Jedi. Because at his core, Anakin was a guy motivated most of all by love. He could not deal with the Jedi commitments to rules over love. He couldn’t deal with the demand to cast off love as an ascetic. He could not deal with holding back his powers when those he loved were on the line. And the Jedi completely disillusioned and failed him because they didn’t know how to have a constructive channel for his love or his power. They didn’t teach him to harness it. They tried to make him extirpate it. They failed him in the most fundamental way. Their religion was fundamentally flawed and harmful to him. Only a kid raised from infancy could deal with it. And then in his unleashed passion and intensity for control he winds up losing his mind and trying to control the one he loved to the point of accidentally killing her. An utterly devastating moral failure, right out the gates after being freed to trust his heart completely out of an over-corrective extreme. And he is physically destroyed. Psychically and morally and politically enslaved to the emperor. More machine than man. Throws himself into his work. Throws himself into running the empire. Until the day that he discovers his son and realizes he has a chance to overthrow the emperor if only they team up. He becomes obsessive about the plan. He has, ahem, A New Hope.

Then at the end of Jedi, Luke redeems Anakin by loving him to the point of death. Luke could kill Anakin but he refuses. He would rather let the emperor kill him. In that Anakin sees the light. He sees someone with his own heart. His own priorities. Willing to die for him. And Anakin is like, “WTF have I been doing with my life? Fuck this shit.” And he kills the emperor and himself. He’s found someone who loves like he did, but more wisely. That son of his is worth dying for.

Your Thoughts?

For more on Star Wars from Camels With Hammers, see “Jar Jar Binks is George Lucas’s Critique of Democracy.”

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Benjamin Porter

    Jar Jar was still incredibly annoying.

  • http://www.skepticink.com/dangeroustalk/ Staks Rosch

    I am one of those people who takes my Star Wars very seriously. I actually loved the prequels. I think your analysis is spot on. Good job. I also loved Padme’s slow realization that she loves Anakin. A lot of people didn’t see it, but I thought it was great. At some point, I’ll have to have a conversation with you about Obi wan’s obsession with his lightsaber and why the lightsaber dependency is a big issue in the saga.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      At some point, I’ll have to have a conversation with you about Obi wan’s obsession with his lightsaber and why the lightsaber dependency is a big issue in the saga.

      This is new to me. What are you thinking about? (Does he also make a point of saving Qui Gon’s?)

  • http://www.skepticink.com/dangeroustalk/ Staks Rosch

    I’ll try to give you the short version of it, but when we first meet Obi wan, he gives Luke his father’s lightsaber and tells him that the lightsaber is “the weapon of the Jedi knight.” This was really bad advice and totally wrong! In fact, Obi wan realizes just how wrong it was at the end of ANH when he shuts off his lightsaber and allows Vader to kill him. He becomes “more powerful than Vader could possibly imagine.”

    Now when we watch the prequels, we see Obi wan’s obsession with the lightsaber really early along. He is always chastising Anakin about losing his lightsaber. He even tells him that his lightsaber is “his life.” Anakin also mentions Obi wan’s obsession when Anakin loses his lightsaber and Obi wan isn’t even around. This tells us that Obi wan has obsessed over the lightsaber for a long time.

    When AOTCs came out, I was worried about the Yoda/Tyrannous fight, but Lucas handled that really well. Both Tyrannous and Yoda treated the lightsaber like was a kids toy. Tyrannous even said, “It is clear we aren’t going to be able to settle with with our knowledge of the Force, we’ll have to settle it with lightsabers.” He shows almost a contempt for the lightsaber.

    Also, in ROTJ, Luke realizes that the lightsaber isn’t the weapon of a Jedi too. He throws his away before declaring that he is a Jedi. Luke’s weapon is his compassion for his father. So when Luke is calling out to his father for help, he isn’t being a whinny brat like some people might think. That is actually his attack. Luke is a far more powerful Jedi than people give him credit for.

    That’s the short of it, but I can go on all day. :-)

  • http://Disqus Obliged_Cornball

    This is possibly the first *g00d* defense of the prequels that I’ve ever read, and I thank you for sharing it. I’m ultimately frustrated with their execution in many many places, but you may be on to a redeeming element in the story.

  • Laurent Weppe

    the first five or six times I watched Revenge of the Sith in the theaters

    Worst Cosmic Wars EVER

    Anyway, regarding Ani turning into big bad robot guy…

    It’s not that I don’t get where Lucas wanted to go with Anakin: the freakishly talented wonder kid who does not fit in standardized education and suffer from a series of miscommunications with elders who mean well but don’t know how to reach out to him is most probably in the top five themes most commonly used coming of age stories,

    But Dear God was it sloppily executed: the pacing was a mess: shoddy exposition sequences followed by overly long action scenes which led to little time for character development, which was, itself, wasted in pointless “romance” sequences. Even what I consider to be the most clever aspect of the prequel trilogy -the Galactic Republic does not collapse because of some invasion from nowhere (coughKOTORcough) or from some impossible dark conspiracy with millions of accomplices, but from petty squabbles between politicians which get out of hand and pave the way to the emperor’s rise to power- is so baddly showed that you’ll miss the overarching theme of Palpatine’s character arc if you don’t pay extra attention.

  • andyman409

    Maybe its just the filmaker in me… but I cant help but think that, if this were what Lucas was going for, it could be done a LOT better. For instance, he could’ve added more scenes portraying the Jedi council in a negative light, or more scenes emphasising anikans overly loving side too. Instead, we get shots loaded with clones and droids we have no sympathy for. so I think Lucas had another thing in mind when making this film. something that can be quantified and that is green

  • Jake

    Huh, I was ready to call bullshit from the title, but you actually make a good case. The movie still sucks though (and I say this as someone who’s downright proud to have been given the pledge name Princess Leia in my college fraternity), cause so much more of this *could* have been more overtly incorporated into the movie so it would have sense to more of us without needing you to come along and explain it :-P

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/amilliongods/ Avicenna

    The best part about Droids is that they are a perfect enemy…

    They are faceless and moral free victims. When you shoot one you don’t have to hear about how he was two days from retirement and how Sally will miss him dearly. And the books understand how droids fight. They regularly use poison gas because “droids don’t have to worry” and acid as a weapon.

    The books do it well. Jedi are not Generals. They regularly screw up at the start of the war leading to much bitterness because war is pragmatic. Your weapons are not the best but the most cost effective. At some point a pencil pusher has done the mathematics and yes many armies marched under this principle. Now the problem is the Old Republic “mentions” what happens to Jedi when they get to be generals. It ends “poorly” because the Jedi are NOT pragmatic to begin with. They try and do the “Jedi Thing” with Clones resulting in losses because the Jedi don’t think that Killing “5 People today to Save 50 tomorrow” is an acceptable thing.

    Then as the war progresses you see Jedi getting better at pragmatism, forgetting the reason why they aren’t pragmatic is that pragmatism is a slippery slope to someone with that much power until they become no better than the sith. To borrow a quote? “Somehow your decapitations are better than their decapitations?”

    And the more pragmatic they get the more lost they get.

    That being said? The CGI fight scenes were excellent even if ROTS forgets the advantage of using droids (why are they scared!) but someone does need to draw a diagram for them.

    The original fight sequences were elegant for the time but modern sequences were very very nice. Why on earth would you not show a fully realised Darth Vader demonstrate how ludicrously powerful he is even as a cyborg…

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      The best part about Droids is that they are a perfect enemy…

      They are faceless and moral free victims. When you shoot one you don’t have to hear about how he was two days from retirement and how Sally will miss him dearly. And the books understand how droids fight. They regularly use poison gas because “droids don’t have to worry” and acid as a weapon.

      The problem is that this makes the moral and human costs and drama basically nil. (Especially when the droids are persistently incompetent against Jedi skills.)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/amilliongods/ Avicenna

      Yes but remember we wanted an enemy jedi could cut apart and not terrify little children. Even Luke’s barge fight was relatively non-violent compared to the blood bath that would have been Episode 1′s droid battle scenes had they been “living”. And in the books they keep pointing out how incompetent even humans are vs. Jedi. Killing a Jedi is no mean feat and anyone who does so is a total badass.

      And the issue was the movies didn’t do justice to the droids. In the books droids are portrayed as weak not because they are incompetent but because they are rigid and cannot operate outside parameters and trade federation Droid Controllers are merchants. Many of the later books demonstrate General Grievous as incredibly devastating as a commander and incredibly competent with the strengths and weaknesses of the droids.

      Jedi die in alarming quantities in the book considering how few they are. They point out by the time order 66 was about many Padawans were being rushed.

      My issue is that Lucas has some terrible plot (Gah Young Anakin was terribly cheesy as an actor. If you had him be 18 he would mirror Luke) points. Jar Jar, ridiculous politics and ridiculous conversation.

      Also? You know how people hate Jar Jar for the racist accent? Has anyone noticed the accent of the Neimodians from the Trade Fed?

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

    I’m a bit amazed and pleased at how well this is being received (here and elsewhere). I’m so used to only prequel hate! Thanks for the open minds!

  • B-Lar

    Next week: 10 reasons why the 3rd Matrix movie was actually not that bad.

  • Alex Khan

    That’s actually very convincing, perhaps in my judgement of the quality of films I completely overlooked this. Very nice.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability D4M10N

    I still hate the prequels, but this is by far the best possible spin on Anakin’s story arc. It’s so damn good, George Lucas wouldn’t get it.

  • Elemenope

    Pretty much the only thing I liked about the prequels (besides the often pretty sweet lightsaber battles) was Lucas didn’t wuss out on the nagging notion that the Jedi had it coming. Besides being monastic stick-in-the-muds who had accrued a ridiculous amount of quasi-official power (you know, beyond their actual Jedi abilities), as you point out, their religion lacks the tools to deal with something as simple as a rebellious teenager who loves his mommy. Not to mention their religious prophecies are about as good as religious prophecies generally are (i.e so vague that they only fit retroactively and are never functionally helpful).

    Much of the footage that ended up on the cutting room floor in AOTC actually made the love story aspect much more plausible (they don’t go, as they do in the theatrical cut of the film from barely tolerating each other to being head-over-heels in the space of three scenes) which makes his rather manic attachment to Padme more believable.

    • Elemenope

      Of course, there is always this devastating (mostly NSFW) review, which I tend to think puts the coffin nails in the notion that the prequel films are good.

    • John Alexander Harman

      The Jedi were also pretty clueless in interpreting their own prophecy: they assumed that “bringing balance to the force,” at a time when the light side was ascendant and practitioners of the dark side existed only in hiding or exile, would be good thing. Anakin brought balance, all right; when he was done, there were two living Sith and two living Jedi in the galaxy (at least as far as the movies are concerned — in the EU, it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that).

      Massacring the “younglings” (that neologism was one of the most grating details about the entire movie for me) didn’t make a whole lot of sense, either. I think a smarter villain would have planned another layer of betrayal beyond what Palpatine did to the Separatists and the Jedi: after the clone soldiers killed the Jedi, kill the clone soldiers (probably by triggering a virus already latent in their identical DNA), put all the blame on them for the near-annihilation of the Jedi Masters and Knights, make Anakin the sole head a new, reformed Jedi order, and train all those force-sensitive kids as dark Jedi to serve the empire. The Sith “rule of two” never made much sense, and in the EU there were other Force-using servants of the Empire who weren’t members of the Sith order, such as Mara Jade and Joruus C’Baoth.

  • Chris Garnett

    This was really well written. For me personally, I can understand and believe the conversion story. I disliked Hayden Christensen as Anakin and that’s one of my gripes with the prequels. Perhaps it wasn’t his fault as an actor, but the delivery of his lines in the movies just wasn’t doing it for me.

    A friend of mine recently made a great observation of the episodes I-III, and that’s if you look at them as though they are graphic novels, instead of the Star Wars movie aesthetic that IV-VI developed, they’re actually much more enjoyable. I have to agree with this. The dialogue in the prequels is similar to the tone and style in most Expanded Universe comics.

    Anakin/Vader is my favorite character. I will read any and all EU stories involving Vader. I think he is the most interesting, so I really appreciated this article.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      the delivery of his lines in the movies just wasn’t doing it for me.

      Me neither. I recommend that in general people watch the prequels with the audio in a foreign language, with English subtitles. It removes the stiff line deliveries and the dialogue becomes more matter of fact and less corny.

  • Laurent Weppe

    You know, there’s still something which grates me about your interpretation of Saint George Second Parable: Anakin never deconverted: both the Sith and the Jedi believe in the Force (for good reason: the choke people at distance and turn into a near invincible badass with nearly a millenia of life before you IS a pretty sweet deal), and as Vader, he still found one imperial lack of faith “disturbing”: he merely changed sect: he left a monacal order which imposed a lot of ascetic rules to the upper-echelon of its own hierarchy to become prince of an aristocratic “church” which imposed a lot of rules to the plebs under its rule

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      I never said he deconverted. I explicitly referred several times to his “conversion”. I only referenced my own deconversion because conversions and deconversions have a lot of similarities.

  • Paul Loebe

    Uh…yeah! So epically on point. I concur.