“Our meeting was not a coincidence; nothing happens by accident,” says Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn to the slave child whom he has just freed. His actions, he later explains, are guided through the Force, an enigmatic energy that flows through and guides all living things.
The boy, we know, is Anakin Skywalker, a child of immaculate conception, created of the Force and born into a life of servitude with the weight of destiny upon him. But despite his tragic trajectory, fans have lampooned George Lucas’ maligned prequel trilogy for demystifying Anakin. I’d argue, though, if you dig a little deeper, the three films actually illuminate and enrich his character.
Despite existing outside of the Galactic Republic, the political clash between the Trade Federation and the Republic in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace finds its way to Tatooine, an otherwise unassuming desert planet in the Outer Rim. You likely know what happens. Three key figures that will influence and define Anakin’s life, Qui-Gon, his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Padmé, the young queen of Naboo, escape the trade blockade surrounding the planet. But with their hyperdrive damaged in the clash, they have no other choice than to land on the nearby planet for fuel and restoration. Upon landing on the outskirts of the Mos Espa spaceport, both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan sense a great, Anakin-shaped disturbance in the Force.
The young Skywalker begrudgingly calls this backwater planet home, and it’s perhaps because of this that he later reveals his contempt for sand, suggesting the extent of his hatred for his homeworld. And who can blame him? For the nine years he spent on Tatooine, he and his mother were slaves, first sold to Gardulla the Hutt, who later lost them to Watto, a junk-dealing, human-trafficking Toydarian. Though Anakin claims it’s his affinity for building things that has helped him survive so long, it’s the emitter device embedded within their bodies that keeps slaves subservient. If any attempt escape, the device will detonate. The threat of death hovered constantly over them.
It’s little wonder Anakin is despondent, even fatalistic in amongst an otherwise cheery façade. All the ‘whoas’ and ‘yippees’ aside, casting Jake Lloyd was a smart move. He imbues the character with a nuanced anger and arrogance – a sneer behind the smile.
Within these confines he’s created an inner fantasy life. Anakin, after all, dreams of being free of forced labour, flying away from Tatooine, becoming a Jedi Knight and returning to free the slaves like some sort of Star Wars Moses. On meeting Qui-Gon and spying his lightsaber, Anakin is convinced he arrived on-world to liberate them. Indeed, Anakin is arrogantly aware his future lies somewhere beyond the sands. Therein also lies his anger. When Padmé, his future wife and mother to his children, asks if he’s a slave, Anakin sneers and snaps back that he’s “a person”. Even at this age, he is filled with a constant conflict of emotion, the seeds of which germinate over parts two and three of the saga.
The beauty of the Force in the original trilogy was in its simplicity. As Obi-Wan so eloquently put it in A New Hope, “the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
It was an aspect observed in religions the world over, something everybody could get behind in one capacity or another. But Lucas subsequently introduced the idea of microscopic organisms at the root of the force and all living things. It smacks of writing away the mystery where no explanation was needed. But it does serve to illustrate the incredible power inside Anakin, whose Midi-chlorian count is off the chart. And it’s this fact that convinces Qui-Gon that Anakin is the child of prophecy, thought to bring balance to the Force. Whether he was created through Sith manipulation or from the Force attempting to balance itself is open to speculation.
Watto, then, usually forces Anakin to compete in the podraces, but in this instance it’s through Qui-Gon’s intervention that young Skywalker takes part. He strikes a deal with the Toydarian for Anakin to enter the annual Boonta Eve race. Unable to resist a bet, Watto takes the bait, meaning if Anakin wins, Qui-Gon gets the parts he needs, but losing means he forfeits the ship to Watto. Qui-Gon later wagers Anakin’s freedom, even using the Force to influence the roll of a chance cube determining his fate, such is the tenacity of his belief.
Three laps of the pod circuit (and one glaring homage to Ben Hur) later, and Anakin has not only won the parts required for his new friends, but also his freedom.
On learning the news, Anakin is by turns bewildered and ecstatic before realising that the freedom is his alone. Qui-Gon was unable to free his mother, Shmi. She understands her future is to remain on the desert planet, where she will serve to anchor Anakin forever to Tatooine, ensuring his attachment, anger and arrogance always exist within him. She too feels the necessity of destiny, knowing the fundamental truth that Anakin was meant to leave with Qui-Gon and co.
Leaving his mother behind is one of the defining moments in Anakin’s life as a Jedi, as much as their reunion a decade later helps crystallise his descent into darkness.
The Jedi Code forbids familial and romantic attachment as both invite temptation and entice the Dark Side. In Revenge Of The Sith, a conflicted Anakin seeks council with Master Yoda who tells him to let go of everything he is afraid to lose, that “attachment leads to jealousy, the shadow of greed, that is”.
The attachments first to his mother and latterly to Padmé define and dictate his actions. Each attachment is given form to root it in the physical and outside of Anakin, symbolic of his fall to the Dark Side, but also essential in his redemption. The first is C-3PO, the protocol droid he built to help his mother. The second is Luke, one of two children he later had with Padmé. In true fairy tale form, Anakin fell in love with Padmé when they first met. Even at nine years old he somehow understood the gravitas of his feelings for her. There they remained, a passion that turned to worship in the years before they met gain, the same timespan before he would be reunited with his mother moments before her death.
If Jar Jar Binks, trade blockades and Midi-chlorians were the worst The Phantom Menace had to offer, then Darth Maul was arguably the best. The fight between Darth Sidious’ apprentice, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon is one of the stand-out saber battles of the entire saga. And it’s an encounter that costs Qui-Gon his life. After striking Maul down, Obi-Wan rushes to his master’s aid, whose dying wish is that his padawan trains Anakin in the ways of the Force, something Obi-Wan had at first been against. Denying his master’s last request, however, was an impossible feat. The Jedi council, likewise, backtreads on their earlier decision and grants Obi-Wan the rank of Master and permission to train Anakin, perhaps even only to honour the fallen Qui-Gon.
But the council were blind to the influence of Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord posing as the seemingly benevolent senator Sheev Palpatine, who would become a friend and confidant to Anakin in the years between his apprenticeship and adulthood. During this time, he would prey on Anakin’s weaknesses: his anger, arrogance and, most crucially, his attachments, forming him into Darth Vader. His fall to the Dark Side was as much rooted in destiny as in the influence of his early upbringing long before Qui-Gon arrived on Tatooine and freed him from slavery, or before the toxic, inevitable influence of Sidious.
Lucas has said that the flaws that Anakin carries are those shared by all classic mythological heroes. But for Anakin, these flaws go beyond the normal human tragedy, and his dilemma is in balancing them with his desire to be a good Jedi and his duty to the Order.
This is the source of his pain, anxiety and anger and ultimately, we know, Anakin fails. It’s seeing his journey to the darkness begin in adolescence and play out into adulthood that cements Anakin as one of, if not the most, interesting character in the Star Wars saga for me. Whether read as a self-fulfilling prophecy, existentialism or a manifesto of human failure, there’s so much more to Darth Vader than a breathing mask, a black cape and a grudge the size of a Death Star.
Originally published on Den of Geek