The (Unearned) Redemption of Darth Vader (writing)

One of the things that bugs me about the original Star Wars trilogy is the redemption of Darth Vader. On the surface, it’s a simple story about a fall from grace and a noble rise, but then I start thinking about it. It just doesn’t sit right with me, and that’s probably because of a problem I have with much of the Star Wars universe. Everyone is related, more or less, and so we have a trilogy about an extended family around which the universe revolves.

I am not a fan of such themes.

It’s not that I’m against family. I’m lucky enough to have a pretty good family myself, and I don’t take it for granted. Yet the underlying theme of Star Wars is that nothing matters more than family. I have some mixed feelings on that.

When we first meet Darth Vader, there’s no indication there’s anything within him worth saving. He isn’t a good person, nor does he demonstrate the slightest virtue aside from looking good in a cape and being a badass dude. In the original Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back, Vader is never anything but ruthless in his enforcement of the will of his masters. He’s the implacable dragon of the Emperor, and he is only here to kick Rebel ass and blow up planets.

And then, at the end of Empire, we discover he’s Luke Skywalker’s father.  (Spoiler alert)

When Return of the Jedi rolls around, Luke has set a new goal for himself. To save and redeem Darth Vader and the sole reason for this is that he now knows Vader is his father. If Vader was just any ol’ Sith Lord, Luke wouldn’t give a damn. But daddy is worth saving because he’s daddy. It wouldn’t bug me as much if Vader demonstrated any sort of saving grace at any moment before this. If we were given a demonstration, however small, of Vader’s embers of nobility and reluctance to enforce the Emperor’s iron rule. But none of these moments exist. The film’s entire justification for Darth Vader being worthy of being saved, of being even capable of redemption, is that he’s Luke Skywalker’s father.

And that bothers me.

But Darth Vader’s actual act of redemption, such as it is, isn’t one of nobility or self-sacrifice. No, he acts completely out of character and rashly strikes out at the Emperor. Not because he sees the Emperor as evil. Not because the Emperor has committed and will continue to commit atrocities. No, it’s all to save Luke Skywalker. Really, Vader doesn’t give a shit about some little farmboy from nowhere until he realizes he is his son. And even then, he doesn’t care until he sees Luke about to die. One might argue he saves the day (though really, not at all, considering the Death Star’s destruction is unrelated to anything the Emperor is doing at the moment). But he only does so because he, like Luke, is unwilling to let his son be killed. Note that he’s perfectly willing to let strangers die by the millions, but as soon as Luke might die, he acts.

It’s a strangely selfish, foolhardy act as well. This sort of fits if one incorporates the prequels into the story (though at the time, they weren’t written yet so let’s just put those aside for a moment). Darth Vader finds redemption by saving his own blood relative by killing someone. It is an inherently selfish and violent act, not an act of redemption or sorrow, but of simple destruction. It is (ignoring the prequels) a strangely uncharacteristic act for this character.

And I just don’t think I care for it.

From a storytelling perspective, it works fine. Most continuing universes end up having all the characters related to one another in one way or another because when writers want to feign cleverness, they just find some connection to cram into the backstory. And at the time, it didn’t bother me, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve found our sense of tribalism and familial loyalty to be a dangerous thing. Darth Vader isn’t much different than most of us. He might be conflicted, but it’s only when he might lose something that he feels the need to act. It’s only heroic if one believes that killing one man can make up for all the horrible things Darth Vader has done in his life. And that’s hard to do, especially when you take into account he’s a mass murderer of children, much less the other horrible things he must’ve done in the Emperor’s name.

Yes, I’m overthinking it. That’s my job. I’m a writer. But it’s also a philosophy I simply can’t get behind. It’s not that I couldn’t believe in his eventual redemption, but it takes more than a single act of violence to prove that. It takes a real effort, a real demonstration of change. Instead, he’s cleansed of all his sins simply by killing a boss, as if that boss was responsible for all of Vader’s evil.  Frankly, it’s bullshit, and it rings hollow to me now.

Does it ruin Star Wars for me? Not really. I don’t watch Star Wars anymore. I am resolutely disinterested in any and all things Star Wars. I make no judgment call on the quality of its various tie-ins and spin offs. I have no investment in any of it, and like everything of such volume, there are great elements to Star Wars and not so great elements. Just like there are great Superman stories and very dumb Superman stories.

But this conflict of philosophy certainly doesn’t help anything.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,



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One Comment

  1. Will Clark
    Posted January 4, 2016 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Thought you might find this reedit clip interesting. Great read, by the way!!

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