Leaving the theater after watching Rogue One for a second time, I had two questions that stood out:
“Why did I watch this movie in a normal seat when I could have gone to a theater with recliners, again?”
“What was Saw Gerrera really doing in this film?”
Since the first question had an easier answer (because that’s where it was playing when I had the time to see it again), I started scribbling notes about Saw in order to figure out what his role in the film truly was. And here’s the conclusion:
Saw is the Rebellion’s version of Vader.
Viewers of the Clone Wars series on Cartoon Network will remember Saw from the Onderon arc in Season 5. Some years later, Mon Mothma and the Rebellion leadership describe Saw as an extremist and someone who was once considered an ally of the Rebellion but had since been separated as a result of his tactics and tendencies. Saw’s violence is affirmed when Jyn Urso and Captain Cassian Andor are caught in the crossfire between Saw’s group of “freedom fighters” and the Imperial occupiers of Jedha City, on the moon of Jedha. We see an assault launched in the middle of the day, when the market streets are crowded with families, shoppers, and stormtroopers. Heartstrings are tugged as a little girl is caught in the midst of the guerrilla attack.
It is easy to draw parallels between the visual storytelling used in this act of Rogue One and films that depict modern warfare in the Middle East (think Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, etc.). In those parallels, the Imperial forces are akin to American service members (seen as outside occupiers) and Saw’s band of merry men is the Taliban (or, more contemporaneously, ISIS), with the indiscriminate killing, ambush-attack style, and assault-and-pilfer tactic. Presuming that this attack is a pattern of Saw’s behavior in the past, it becomes clear why the Rebellion decided to sever ties with him. He would be too dangerous, too outrageous, in his execution of the goals set by the Alliance.
When we get to finally interact with Saw Gerrera himself, hiding in an old (presumably) Jedi temple on a desolate and barren planet, we can finally get to know him first-hand. Saw, played by Academy-award winning actor Forest Whitaker, has obviously been through the wringer of war but there’s still some strange things about him. It is clear that Saw is paranoid since the in-universe populace does not know what he looks like (which is why defecting-Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook mistakes Saw’s lieutenant for the leader himself). Not an unreasonable characteristic for a man of Saw’s renown. After all, Bin Laden hid in caves throughout the desert and was finally captured at an austere compound in an entirely different country than he was presumed to be in; we should not be surprised that the leader of a terrorist organization should be so wary of alleged defectors with promises of “a message.” Visitors to Saw are even bagged in order to prevent them from knowing the precise location of Saw’s secret rebel base, hidden in the ancient Jedi temples.
Saw’s physical body bears testament to the violence of his past: cybernetic legs, chest plates, and a breathing apparatus that sounds, well… familiar.
He keeps some sort of pet monster, named the bor gullet, which, possessing the ability to discern truth from lies, does not seem to fit the motif of the rest of the film at all. The film relies heavily on being grounded in real-world physics and such. There are no other monsters or fantastic elements to the story. Rather, it is more a heist movie that could be placed in a (futuristic) setting here on Earth instead of in a galaxy far, far away. Unless it is meant to remind us of another torture device…
Saw still also clings to the emotional connections of his past. When Jyn confronts Saw and the two hash out their background, we understand that Saw saved Jyn and took her in as a part of his cadre from the time he rescued her from Lah’mu (the remote planet where Galen Urso hid his family and self from Director Orson Krennic). Saw was forced to abandon Jyn when the rest of his group began to uncover Jyn’s true identity. It seems that Saw disguised Jyn so that she could not be used for more nefarious purposes; the suggestion is that Saw’s group wanted to use her as a hostage in order to extort gain from Galen in his role in the Death Star’s creation. In order to prevent that, Saw left Jyn behind, and Jyn, being left to her own devices, follows the path of a career criminal and miscreant that leads to her eventual capture and imprisonment. But, despite all that, Saw recognizes her as a close friend, or even as a lost daughter of his own. He is joyfully surprised when he sees her, and only as the pieces of the puzzle are put together does that diminish. It is important to note that, as the possibility that the Alliance has sent her as an assassin to take out Saw, he responds with sorrow instead of anger. This is as opposed to when he first interrogates Bodhi Rook, where he responds with seething distrust. He sends Rook to the bor gullet for a vicious, torturous interrogation in order to be sure Rook is not sent from the Empire. He is willing to sacrifice Rook’s mental well-being (“one tends to lose one’ mind…”); no such threat is made of Jyn. Clearly, there is still a relational attachment between Jyn and Saw.
Lastly, Saw’s final acts are to give Jyn exactly what she came for (as well as something she had not come for at all) and ensure she can escape the impending doom wrought by the Death Star. Once accepting the truth in Jyn’s words (that she is there not to kill Saw but to find her father), Saw shares the message from Galen, including that element which reignites the embers a daughter’s love for her father: love. Saw helps to reconfirm for Jyn, on Galen’s behalf, that she has never been forgotten by anyone. She is still loved, still part of the family. It can be inferred that Saw feels the same sort of reconnection that Galen wanted to experience towards Jyn, that reestablishment of familial belonging and trust. With that intact, Saw ushers her and Cassian out of the hideout in order to avoid the wave of devastation headed their way.
What does any of this have to do with Vader? If we consider the impact of Vader not just in the context of Rogue One but also with other elements of the Star Wars saga, there are interesting similarities that arise, and help draw a distinction between the overall approach of the Empire and the Rebellion. Through this establishment, though, we can discover something about the integrity of both entities.
In Rogue One, Vader only has two scenes that he gets to participate in. Based on prior knowledge of the character (both prior to this film as well as afterwards), Rogue One provides one of the only viewpoints missing from the mystique of the character: what did the rest of the galaxy think of Vader? Is he well-known by the average inhabitant of the galaxy or is he kept secret by the Emperor, more of a whisper in the shadows?
Here, Vader is shown as a dangerous villain who resides in a black castle on the desolate and volcanic planet of Mustafar (confirmed via extra-filmic resources). He is a dangerous being, capable of incredible violence without consideration for his victims. He is willing not just to use his extreme abilities on the enemies of the Empire but even on the agents of the Empire. Krennic, going to Vader in order to seek an ally on the inner counsel of the Emperor in the hopes of subverting Governor Tarkin’s intentions of usurping control of the Death Star, leaves with a bruised windpipe, a chastened ego, and also the ally he was looking for. Vader and Saw both show ruthlessness in executing their prerogatives: Saw with indiscriminate warfare, and Vader with indiscriminate displays of violence against others. Vader’s penchant for violence is on full displayin the last three minutes of the film where he stalks down and annihilates the Rebels attempting to pass the Death Star plans from person to person to get them off the ship that Vader has boarded. The classic Star Wars trilogy does not seem to display the same type of one-versus-many domination displayed here. In fact, you have to go to the recent run of Marvel comic book series Darth Vader and Vader Down to get similar examples of the terror he can inflict. The story of Vader would certainly get around the Rebellion, if not the rest of the galaxy, except no one would use the terms “ex-Jedi” or “Dark Lord of the Sith” to describe him. They would be more likely to use “monster” or “demon” when describing him. In fact, when he appears in the hallway of the ship to collect the Death Star plans, black smoke comes from the end of the hallway and all you see is the red saber ignite to reveal the presence of Vader, as if he appeared out of the black smoke like a phantasm or the Grim Reaper himself; quiet, pacing, certain of his ability to kill every trooper that stands between him and his goal.
Even their physical forms echo each other, with the cybernetic replacements and breathing assistants both individuals employ to compensate for their wartime injuries. While Rogue One does not recount Saw’s wounds, we have seen the exact events that lead to Vader’s cybernetic enhancements. Vader was left for dead on Mustafar by his former master Obi-wan Kenobi after a grueling lightsaber battle. Vader, trying to kill Kenobi for his supposed-plotting against him (while he was still Anakin Skywalker), drags himself from the metaphorical fires of Hell only to be reborn as the technology-dependant black armor-clad villain we have known since 1977. Saw likely experienced similar engagements where his physical body was wracked and ruined, requiring the devices seen in Rogue One. The breathing apparatus is the heavy-handed introduction into the comparisons between Saw and Vader. Saw tugs on his breathing mask to take a gasp of some unknown air or chemical for an unknown reason, but the sound effect is nearly identical to the ever-present noise that Vader’s mechanical breathing system makes. Saw’s may not be life-dependant since he does not require it at every breath, but there is something in there that he needs in order to maintain his presence in the moment. Regardless of what it contains, the impact is the same: both characters have been through Hell and come out the otherside with ruined bodies, and possibly ruined spirits.
So then there is the emotional state. While Saw’s arc plays out in the 10 to 15 minute screen time allotted in Rogue One, Vader’s is given three (3.1?) movies to fully develop. Where Saw is still compassionate to his surrogate daughter Jyn once he is aware of her survival and employment in the Rebellion, Vader comes around to a similar conclusion (albeit through a much more roundabout method) with his own children. Once Vader is aware of Luke Skywalker’s identity as the pilot who destroyed the Death Star, he is also able to divine that Luke is the surviving child from Vader’s deceased wife Padme Amidala. Vader’s quest (in The Empire Strikes Back) is to track Luke down and either convince him to join Vader and defeat the Emperor, or to kill Luke once and for all. Since Luke is able to escape, Vader returns to the Emperor, ever the faithful lap dog. However, Luke surrenders himself to Vader and allows Vader to make the final decision regarding Luke’s fate. In the life-and-death moments in the climax of Return of the Jedi, Vader’s familial instincts and desires, coupled with what light side may have remained him, encouraged by the self-sacrificing acts of the son, return in full strength, allowing him to dispose of the Emperor and rejoin the family relationship he longed for his entire life.
Looking back at Vader’s life, we understand that he never had a father figure that he could call his own until he met Qui-Gon Jinn, and that ended shortly after it began. Kenobi, the surrogate father and older brother, was not enough to overcome the competing influence of then-Chancellor Palpatine. Only when Vader saw Luke’s love for Anakin, the father that Luke never had either, was he able to undergo the transformation from villain to hero, similar to Saw who was able to find fulfillment and belonging once reconnected to Jyn. Interestingly enough, just as Anakin lost his family (Shmi, Qui-Gon, Kenobi), Guerra loses his family (his sister). Both Saw and Vader are redeemed by the restored relationship with their children. Ergo, they parallel each other in their life journey, albeit on different scales and in different time frames.
So after considering their reputation, their physical beings, and their emotional reconnections, there is one last thing to consider for both Saw and Vader, but here the connections diverge. How are they used by the outside powers-that-be?
The Rebellion saw fit to separate Saw from its plans and purposes after concluding that his methods were too extreme. Vader was promoted and empowered based on his extreme methods by the Empire. The Empire, willing to rule by fear and terror, maintained its mandate and stuck to its principles by endorsing the methods of Vader: extreme prejudice in the administration of Imperial rule. However, despite casting Saw off, the Rebellion was forced to compromise on its principles in attempts to re-enlist the aid of Saw Gerrera. Seeing their chances diminish and dwindle, the Rebellion must embrace that which it first cast off: extreme action against an extreme opponent. Essentially, the Rebellion must resort to the tactics of the terrorists in order to stop the evil Empire. This forces a crisis of confidence: what if the Rebellion simply becomes a different version of the same evil it seeks to eliminate? By bringing Saw back into the fold, they are in danger of doing just that.
However, Saw’s life ends on Jedha when the Death Star wipes out Jedha City, causing an environmental catastrophe which consumes Saw’s temple hideout as well. His final words give meaning to why he does not flee along with Jyn and Cassian, his pleading words: “Save the Rebellion, save the dream!” In giving Jyn what she needs (in the information on destroying the Death Star and the confidence that her father was still a good man who loves her), Saw is the one who saves the soul of the Rebellion, and saves the dream. He sees the evil that his methods might bring if they become the methods of Alliance itself. But by giving Jyn the message from Galen, he provides the right type of leader with the right motivation to pilot the destiny of the Rebellion. Jyn leaves Jedha with newfound purpose and strength of character, drawn from the inspiration of her father: fight the evil of the regime without compromising the characteristics and qualities that make you so different from that regime. This has an immediate impact when Cassian chooses to defy orders and not kill Galen Erso.
In the end, Vader and Saw are cut from the same cloth: tools of war, with bodies broken by that war, but with souls redeemed by those who love them. In their final acts, both characters give themselves up to save their loved ones and bring their loved one’s’ hopes and dreams to reality. The tragedy of Darth Vader is writ small in Act 1 of Rogue One but on the side of the Rebellion rather than the Empire. The implications here are simple: how far was the Rebellion willing to go to stop the Empire? By employing their own version of Darth Vader, threatening the very justification for their existence in trying to overthrow a tyrannical Emperor by simply becoming a new version of the same tyranny. But while the Empire uses Vader exactly as it would be expected, Saw redeems the Rebellion and corrects the dangerous direction it could have gone down.
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Comment below to let us know what parallels we missed between the guerrilla Gerrera and the demonic Darth Vader.
Follow author Drew Brett @TheDrewBrett