Darth Vader is one of the most feared movie villains of all time, having been established in the original trilogy, explained in the prequel trilogy, and worshiped in the sequel trilogy. He even got a little screen time in Rogue One for no other purpose but intimidation and wiping out Rebel scum in the most brutal ways possible.
But one thing fans have been curious about is why, in the original 1977 movie, was Vader subservient to Grand Moff Tarkin? If the Dark Lord of the Sith was the apprentice to Darth Sidious, why is it that Tarkin – none other than a high-ranking military officer – is the one to hold Vader’s leash, as Princess Leia famously said?
We now know the definitive, canon answer to that question, thanks to the most recent edition of Marvel’s Darth Vader comic series. But let’s examine everything else we know about their relationship.
Vader first met Tarkin during the Clone Wars when he was Anakin Skywalker, in the aptly named TV series, The Clone Wars. It was clear that Skywalker had an appreciation for the tactical genius, and even looked up to him. In return, Tarkin held some level of appreciation for Anakin despite having negative feelings about the Jedi leading the Republic in the war.
Fast forward to an earlier edition of the Darth Vader comic series, which takes place in the aftermath of Revenge of the Sith. Vader has earned his first lightsaber (which is another fun story, all of itself) and is struggling with how the newly-formed military doesn’t really understand his place in the hierarchy. The Emperor gives his apprentice a little leeway to strike some fear into the masses, and Vader does so by picking several officers at random and choking them to death in front of everyone.
But Palpatine had one caveat – don’t mess with Tarkin.
So, to recap. Vader has known Tarkin from his days as Anakin Skywalker and they have an established relationship of mutual respect. The Emperor has also made it clear to Vader that Tarkin is important to him, which we know relates to the construction of the Death Star. And to take it one step further the canon novel Tarkin reveals that, because of his experiences with Anakin in the Clone Wars, Tarkin had shrewdly figured out Vader’s true identity.
In the recent issues of Darth Vader, Tarkin calls on the Sith for a favor. He had been tasked with retrieving – kidnapping, really – the king of Mon Cala, the uncooperative leader a water planet with importance to the Empire. For this mission he needed the delicate touch of Vader, who could more easily get down to the planet, track down the king, and get back unharmed.
With Tarkin in his debt, Vader now calls in his favor in the most recent comic – he wants Tarkin to hunt him. Vader knows that he is powerful, but is unsure of his own limitations because of his reliance on the suit. He needs to know how enemies might come at him, because inevitably they would. What better ally to task with this than the most brilliant military tactician he knows?
Tarkin gets together a task force with his very best men, and the comic details his efforts in learning Vader’s limitations – like from how far away he can use the Force to choke someone. In reality, Tarkin is sacrificing the lives of his soldiers to learn how best to go at Vader. And toward the end of Tarkin’s seemingly fruitless effort in taking down his opponent on this distant and foreign planet, he acknowledges that his only remaining option is to run.
Vader follows, tracking Tarkin out into the wide open fields and leaving him to know that, inevitably, the Sith Lord would get close enough that he could use the Force to kill him. But in reality, Vader has lost. Tarkin knows that there is a lot of electrical activity in these open fields, and he keeps at a safe distance long enough to see Vader struck by lightning – frying his circuits.
However, the crumpled and defeated Sith still mustered enough energy to choke Tarkin, only for a moment, to make sure the Grand Moff knew that even when he wins he can never truly win.
So, that’s a major part of why Vader seems willing to take orders from Tarkin in A New Hope. The two have mutual respect; Tarkin for Vader’s power and Vader for Tarkin’s brilliance as a leader. Although Vader exists outside the regular chain of command, he feels welcome to question just about any leader within the Empire with the exception of Tarkin, who he trusts – to a degree.
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