"Governor Tarkin, I should've expected to find you holding Vader's leash."
Leia Organa was defiant in the face of evil. Her quip was addressed to Grand Moff Tarkin but it was also a dig at the Dark Lord of the Sith. While most of the galaxy lived in fear of the mysterious black-caped figure who carried out the Emperor's commands, Leia reduced him to nothing more than an attack animal – a puppet controlled by whoever was in power. And she was right.
Vader's servitude began the moment Anakin chose the dark side and knelt before his new master, Darth Sidious. As a Jedi, Anakin Skywalker had been impulsive, headstrong, and volatile – traits which should have been magnified tenfold when he became a Sith. Instead, Sidious kept Vader on a short, carefully constructed leash. How did he accomplish this? And what is the precise moment it began to weaken?
I can't live without her.
Before we explore how the chain began to break, first we must examine how it was forged.
After the death of his mother, Anakin's pain was inconsolable, but the one person who was there for him was Padme Amidala. She offered acceptance and empathy. The Jedi Order would have told Anakin that his grief was the result of his inability to let go of all attachments and he should rejoice that his mother was now one with the Force. Padme was unencumbered by dogmatic ideology. She saw his suffering and she provided comfort. Thus, Anakin's need for maternal love was transferred to her.
Palpatine exploited this. As a politician he saw an opportunity to become a mentor to Anakin, who was searching for guidance outside of the Jedi temple. As Darth Sidious, Palpatine also understood that passion and attachment were integral to the dark side. He used Anakin's fear of loss to convince him that he had the power to keep Padme safe from harm. Earning Anakin's trust was Palpatine's first step in crafting his chain of control. Before Palpatine could restrain him, first he had to isolate him.
I would never let anyone hurt you Ahsoka.
If Padme was the romantic love Anakin sought, Ahsoka represented the platonic. Whether as daughter, little sister, friend, or student, Ahsoka had a powerful influence on Anakin's life. She was a mirror through which he could see the younger and more stubborn parts of himself. And she was his moral compass, challenging him to be a better Jedi. But all of that came to end when the Jedi Council accused Ahsoka of a crime she didn't commit. Disillusioned, she walked away from the Order. And away from Anakin.
This further eroded Anakin's relationship to the Order. He began seeing it not as the pinnacle of virtue and justice, but as a den of hypocrisy. Fresh on the heels of this betrayal, Palpatine seized the opportunity to play politics by appointing Anakin to the Jedi Council as his personal representative. The Council saw through this ploy and accepted Anakin with the caveat that he would not be granted the title of Master. Anakin was outraged. He had been powerless to shield Ahsoka from an injustice created, in part, by the Jedi. The Council's preoccupation with politics and suspicion had cost him a Padawan. Now it was costing him a title he felt he had earned.
You're the closest thing I have to a father.
At the center of this chess match between the Council and the Chancellor were two friends. Obi-Wan had been Anakin's mentor, which is why the Council ordered him to give Anakin a secret assignment: spy on the Chancellor. When Obi-Wan delivered this news, his hesitation was apparent. He knew it was wrong to put Anakin in this position. But Obi-Wan believed in the Jedi Order and was not willing to defy it. He chose duty over friendship. Old wounds of resentment were reopened and Anakin began viewing Obi-Wan as an adversary rather than an ally, precisely as Palpatine intended.
Anakin's resentment eventually descended into jealousy. Restless thoughts clouded his mind. Visions of Obi-Wan kneeling at Padme's side fueled his anger. Was Obi-Wan somehow responsible for the danger she was in? Was he plotting to remove Anakin from the equation so he could have Padme for himself? These were the lies that Palpatine whispered in his ear. They formed the links of the chain that would keep Anakin enslaved in darkness.
You told me you could save her.
Cut off from his friends and support systems, Anakin's fear took over. By choosing the dark path, he believed he could control fate. He could prevent Padme from dying. Instead, it was this choice which put her in danger, and his rift with Obi-Wan exploded in an all-out war on the volcanic planet of Mustafar where Anakin was mortally injured and left for dead.
Palpatine swooped in like a scavenging bird of prey and plucked him from his agony and remolded him into a mechanized monstrosity. In his first moments as the helmeted machine-like Darth Vader, he learned of Padme's fate. His grief was uncontainable. Vader lashed out with the Force, crushing nearby droids, and targeting the one who had lied to him. The Emperor used this attack as an opportunity to test Vader and his control over him. He gave Vader a choice: to accept this gift of misfortune which would make him stronger with the dark side, or to die. Vader chose power. Locked within his prison of robotic limbs and artificial respiration, he needed that power more than ever. But the power to control fate was an illusion. It always had been. Vader's chain was complete.
Palpatine strengthened his hold on Vader by ordering him to use the planet Mustafar as a base of operations. Vader built his castle overlooking a landscape that was as desolate as his grief for Padme and as fiery as his rage towards Obi-Wan. It was in this savage place that Vader connected with his own suffering and grew more powerful in the Force. But Mustafar was also his punishment. Palpatine wanted Vader forever reminded of his failure.
From time to time, the Emperor would test Vader's loyalty by exposing him to places which sparked memories of his former life as Anakin Skywalker. The planet Ryloth, for example, was the site of such a test in which Palpatine arranged to have them marooned together and hunted by deadly pursuers. Vader rose to the challenge of protecting the Emperor's life, but in customary fashion for the Sith, he was also looking for opportunities to overthrow his Master. This ever-present conflict of interest kept both Dark Lords at the height of their power and challenged them to remain as strong in the Force as possible. But it also meant that Vader would see fewer opportunities to supplant Palpatine as the years went on. His chain grew heavier. That is, until Vader encountered a young pilot in the trench of the Death Star.
What is thy bidding my Master?
The moment Vader reached out and sensed the young pilot seems like the most likely event that caused the chain around his neck to weaken. A boy who could destroy a Death Star would make a powerful apprentice. Vader dispatched probes to every corner of the known galaxy seeking more information about Luke. But the Emperor was one step ahead of him.
In a subtle move of oneupmanship, Palpatine informed Vader that he knew the identity of the young pilot. The Emperor revealed that the rebel pilot was the offspring of Anakin Skywalker. By now, Vader knew this too, but he feigned ignorance. Master and servant were playing a game. Who would blink first and reveal his hand? Their shared attention quickly focused on turning Luke to the dark side. Palpatine was counting on Vader's desire to control the destiny of his only living offspring. Instead of weakening the chain, Vader's obsession with Luke only strengthened Palpatine's control over him.
If you only knew the power of the dark side.
Vader's pursuit of Luke grew more desperate. He was no longer satisfied to threaten incompetent subordinates with asphyxiation as he had with Admiral Motti years earlier. Vader now responded to failure with open displays of cruelty and severity as Admiral Ozzel and Captain Needa learned the hard way. He dispatched them without a moment's hesitation. He was ruthless and unforgiving and single-minded in his pursuit. Vader would not let anything stand in his way of reaching Luke before the Emperor did.
When Vader finally came face to face with Luke, he engaged him in physical combat. He had to see if Luke was worthy to stand with him against the Emperor. Luke may have lost a hand in the process but he proved his strength and potential as an apprentice. Luke was injured, his lightsaber gone, and he had nowhere else to run save for a few feet of scaffolding over a deep chasm. It was at this moment Vader revealed his true identity as his father. Vader's reveal came just when Luke had nothing left to lose and everything to gain. The shock of the revelation would be his introduction to the dark side. He would use that pain to grow more powerful in the Force. Obi-Wan's betrayal would fuel his hate, just as it had fueled Vader's.
But Luke made a different choice.
The shock and anguish in Luke's face gave way to resignation. He wasn't interested in power. He would rather die than accept what Vader was offering. Vader watched helplessly as Luke let go of the scaffolding and fell into the void below. Something stirred inside him. Luke had been pushed to the limits of despair. Shaken by betrayal and lies. And yet, he made a different choice.
It is your destiny.
Back aboard the Executor, Vader sensed that Luke had survived his suicidal plunge and was aboard the fleeing Millennium Falcon. The Falcon's hyperdrive had been disconnected, so Vader knew it was only a matter of time before the ship was captured. Vader reached out to him with the Force. One more chance to persuade Luke to fulfill his destiny and take his rightful place at his side. But something was different. This time, Vader's words came across more like a plea than an ultimatum.
R2-D2 managed to restore the hyperdrive before they were captured and as Vader watched from the Executor, the tiny ship sprang to life and disappeared into hyperspace. His son vanished before his eyes, and with him, Vader's best chance to overthrow the Emperor.
Vader stood silent for a moment. Imperial officers froze in place, fearing the inevitable. Would they all be slaughtered or would Admiral Piett pay the sole penance for what Vader had lost? Neither outcome occurred. Instead, Vader turned and strode off the bridge, preoccupied and conflicted. His son was gone – the son who had done what the father could not.
Luke's act of sacrifice had stirred something inside Vader. Perhaps it was confusion or obsession or doubt. Maybe it was that glimmer of humanity that Padme believed with her dying breath. Whatever it was, it distracted Darth Vader from his darker impulses long enough to spare the lives of every officer on the bridge of the Executor. Luke had managed to do something no one else could: he proved that the Emperor's control over Vader was also an illusion.
Title artwork by Tom Isaksen @www.characterink.com.