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