There are many stereotypes about the large and diverse Star Wars fanbase. We’re all nerds arguing in our parent’s basements. Predominantly white, pimple-faced teenage boys, right? You can envision what I’m talking about. But the most interesting stereotype is about how fans view the three different trilogies.
It goes something like this: The original trilogy is God’s word spoken down from heaven, the prequel trilogy is unholy drivel, and the sequel trilogy is either a SJW crusade that’s ruining their childhood or something new and inspiring – no middle ground on that one. But while some surely feel this way, this is just as ugly and untrue as any other stereotype.
While the audience is actually pretty split on the new movies, the topic of the prequel trilogy must be addressed. The three films have long been considered the bastard children of the saga, created in George Lucas’ mind and brought to life via CGI and his own effort as director – something he didn’t do with The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi. But The Phantom Menace was released nearly 20 years ago and Revenge of the Sith came out 13 years ago, meaning most fans under 30 were probably introduced to Star Wars thanks to the prequels.
That doesn’t mean that they’re great movies. There are objective problems, including bad dialogue, confusing plot points, and racist caricatures of Asians, African-Americans, and Jewish people. But there’s also a lot to like, especially in the universally-agreed-upon best of the bunch, Revenge of the Sith. It’s one of the most necessary chapters of the Skywalker saga, featuring Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side and the rise of the Empire. However, even those who enjoy the prequels find it hard to get over one minor detail: Padmé’s death.
How could Padmé Amidala, former Queen of Naboo and a member of the Galactic Senate, die so pathetically of a broken heart? Well, many fans – including myself – don’t think she did. And the evidence suggests that we’re right.
Let’s look back at what is historically said about Padmé’s death in the final moments of ROTS and debunk some of what we know to be false. Padmé did not die of a broken heart, and that much is actually in the movie. It’s commonly said that she died of a broken heart in conversation (okay, on the internet), but she only tells Anakin that he’s breaking her heart when she finds out all the gruesome shit he’s done. She totally survives having her heart broken.
The movie does tell us, thanks to some doctor droid we’ve never seen before, that Padmé is dying because she has lost the will to live. But let’s examine everything that little droid says to Bail Organa and Obi-Wan Kenobi (emphasis is my own).
Medically, she’s completely healthy. For reasons we can’t explain, we are losing her. We don’t know why. She’s lost the will to live.
Recall that these are droids, and they are only able to understand what is programmed into them. A blunt way to put it would be that droids don’t know shit about the Force. Absent a reasonable medical explanation for Padmé’s death, the droid simply throws up his little arms and says “For reasons we can’t explain, we are losing her.”
Granted, the next line is painfully bad and has no place in the movie – a real problem for the prequels in general. The droid says that she has lost the will to live, and that’s where the audience focuses. Eventually, it becomes this unfortunate meme of the once badass Amidala becoming nothing but Anakin’s teary-eyed victim, dying of a broken heart because she can’t go on without her husband.
Let’s leave that there and go back a bit in the movie. Anakin and Padmé didn’t have the healthiest relationship from the start, but they appear legitimately happy early in the film. She’s pregnant and he can’t wait to settle down and be a daddy, despite the problems that this will cause for both of them. Everything is going moderately fine until Anakin is manipulated by some outside source. His bad dream of Padmé dying in childbirth becomes an obsession, and we know that’s because Skywalker had a similar dream of his mother right before she died in his arms.
Most viewers probably guessed it at the time, but later in the movie it’s made clear that Chancellor Palpatine is the one who is manipulating the situation. He even sits Anakin down and tells him the story of Darth Plagueis the Wise, which without the context of Anakin’s dream and fear of loss is kind of out of place. Here is the monologue from what probably is the best scene in the trilogy.
It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you. It’s a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise, he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life. He had such a knowledge of the dark side, he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying … he became so powerful, the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he know, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. Ironic; he could save others from death but not himself.
Lucas goes way out of his way to beat you over the head with the fact that Palpatine is talking about his own master, Darth Plagueis. There is even a 2011 novel titled Darth Plagueis (no longer canon, unfortunately) which details how Palpatine gets his master drunk and then murders him. But the most important takeaway here is that Palpatine is admitting to the audience that he has the power to manipulate life and death.
Which is exactly what he does at the end of the movie.
Fast forward to Mustafar when the Emperor arrives. Darth Vader is a smoldering scab without any arms or legs. His body is covered in third-degree burns and his lungs are failing. The fact that he is still alive is nothing short of a miracle. As Darth Sidious finds his apprentice, he sends his clone troopers away to get a medical capsule and kneels down in the dirt next to Vader. It’s never explicitly said what Palpatine is doing here, but the context is that he appears to be working up some sort of dark side voodoo to keep Vader alive.
What follows is one of the coolest and most subtle things about ROTS, if you know what you’re watching. Padmé gives birth to the twins while Vader is being worked on and kept alive. She is dying, gasping for air and struggling to stay alive – something that someone who has lost the will to live probably wouldn’t be doing, by the way. Meanwhile, Vader is in tremendous pain. Right as the procedure is finished and Darth Vader breathes his first breath from inside the suit, Padmé closes her eyes and passes away.
If you want to blame George Lucas for being too unclear, that’s fine. The line about her losing the will to live was never intended to be more than a robot’s bad explanation of a situation it couldn’t possibly understand. But all along, it was Sidious as the master manipulator. He was the one who had the power to influence life and death, and the final scenes of the movie show that Padmé’s life was taken from her so that Darth Vader could live.
Some people don’t like this explanation. It’s too much of a reach, or is granting too much credit to Lucas. After all, if his true intention is that Padmé’s life was taken by Palpatine, why didn’t he make it more obvious? But in my mind, looking at it any other way ignores all the clues.
A big part of the story of ROTS is Sidious’ ability to keep people from dying and influence the Force to create life. But he never explains how this ability works, and wouldn’t it make sense that keeping someone alive would require stealing another person’s life-force? After all, this is a dark side Force ability we’re talking about.
The other side of the coin is story-writing. While nobody is going to accuse Lucas of being perfect in crafting the prequel trilogy, there are some basic rules of story-writing. One of them is referred to as Chekhov’s Gun, which says that every element bringing a story together needs to be used. The example is that if you have a pistol hanging on the wall in act one, it needs to be fired in act two.
We’re in Chekhov’s Gun territory with this portion of the story. It begins with the tease of Padmé’s death in childbirth, and then comes to a head with the Darth Plagueis the Wise monologue. At this point we know we’re going to see Darth Sidious use this strange dark side ability, but probably not in the way that Anakin is hoping.
To have the result be that Palpatine uses the dark side to keep Vader alive while Padmé dies for a mystery reason is a cheap payoff and bad story-telling. If the Emperor really, truly had no involvement in her death, then how is he able to inform Vader – within SECONDS of Padmé dying – that he killed her in his anger?
And then, as Vader becomes filled with rage at the thought of having killed his wife, Palpatine lets out an evil smile. This smile doesn’t come from enjoying the pain of his apprentice – although we know that he did enjoy it. This smile comes from an even more evil place, from having been the facilitator. Again, Palpatine was always the master manipulator.
This was his plan all along, and it came together beautifully. Palpatine had to let out a smile and admire his work. He had destroyed Anakin Skywalker by killing his pregnant wife – ending the Skywalker bloodline, he thought – and creating his fearsome apprentice, Darth Vader.
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