When we first meet Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode I “The Phantom Menace,” he is only a young boy. He’s idealistic and optimistic, full of hope and dreams and a desire for adventure. He is so excited to meet two real-life Jedi Knights — Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi — and he wants to be just like them, using the Force to do good in the galaxy.
So how does this innocent young boy transform into a bitter, broken man known as “Darth Vader” — a man that most of the galaxy sees as a monster with no hope for redemption?
If you watched “The Phantom Menace” and then immediately skipped to “A New Hope,” you might have a hard time believing the transition from Anakin to Vader. However, the films and TV shows in between reveal Anakin’s slow descent to the dark side — and also show the seeds that are sown that later lead to his redemption.
Anakin’s tragic story fulfills the Jedi mantra “fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.” But in the end, it is the rejection of those things — and the opening his heart to love one final time — that ultimately saves him.
Fear leads to anger
Jedi are supposed to avoid attachments, but by the time Anakin becomes a Padawan, he’s spent years with his mother, and that bond is not easily broken. Even when he leaves Tatooine, his thoughts often return to his mother.
During the events of Episode II, when Anakin finds that his mother has been tortured and killed, he acts out his grief by destroying an entire village of Tusken Raiders as revenge.
Anakin is not wrong to love his mother, and it’s perfectly natural that he grieves her loss. In fact, the Jedi should have never forced him to give up his relationship with his mother or instructed him to repress his emotions.
Anakin has to keep his feelings and his fears locked up inside him, and when they become too strong for him to contain any longer, the results are disastrous.
Of course, Anakin is ultimately still responsible for his own actions, and he should not have murdered the Tusken Raiders. But if we’re going to fully understand the story that George Lucas is trying to tell with Star Wars, then we have to consider what portion of the blame the Jedi are responsible for.
The Jedi are right to teach that fear can lead to anger. Although sometimes fear can be a healthy response (i.e. motivating us to stay away from dangerous situations), it can also poison our lives, making us view the future as something we should dread. We fear what we can’t control, and this uncertainty can lead to frustration and anger, causing us to lash out.
A much healthier path is to acknowledge one’s fear and deal with it in a more constructive way. If Anakin had been able to speak with the Jedi more openly about his concerns for his mother, the Jedi could have helped him work through those feelings — and maybe even helped save his mother’s life.
Sadly, the encounter with the Tusken Raiders is Anakin’s first major step down the path of the Sith.
Anger leads to hate
Anakin’s struggle with the Jedi rules regarding attachment continue with his feelings for Padmé.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with falling in love; however, due to the Jedi code, Anakin has to keep his marriage to Padmé a secret. Living with this constant tension and fear of discovery strains their relationship, even if they don’t realize it.
Anakin remembers losing his mother, and he fears for Padmé’s safety too. In Episode III, he goes to the dark side in an attempt to save her, but his love becomes possessive and toxic. He gives into anger once again and ends up killing the woman he loves because he can’t see past his rage.
Anakin’s anger at Padmé’s “betrayal” and his mistreatment at the hands of the Jedi lead him to hate his old life and massacre a number of innocent Jedi. He even tries to kill Obi-Wan, although Obi-Wan gains the upper hand in their duel.
If you allow anger to fester too long, it can turn into hatred, which then becomes a toxic force that can destroy everything you know and love.
In the span of one movie, Anakin’s anger and hatred destroy his life, his love, and his future. Palpatine “saves” him by turning him into a cyborg, and Anakin doubles down on the dark path he’s chosen. The young boy who was once so full of hope and promise seems to be lost in the darkness forever.
Hate leads to suffering
If “A New Hope” was the only Star Wars movie you watched, you might think that Darth Vader is a somewhat generic “bad guy.” He doesn’t seem to be particularly troubled by the crimes of the Empire, and he seems pretty content to be a villain.
It’s only when we dive into the other movies, TV shows, and books/comics that we see just how miserable Darth Vader is. He continues to try to suppress his feelings, pushing his fears and grief and regrets into a dark corner, where he *almost* forgets that they are there.
But the ghost of Anakin Skywalker continues to haunt Vader, and he suffers inside the dark metal armor that Palpatine has trapped him in.
Luke Skywalker is the only person in the galaxy who believes that Vader is worth saving. He looks at the legacy of fear, anger, and hatred, and wants to help his father find freedom.
Thanks to the love of his son, Vader finally accepts responsibility for his mistakes in the past and lets go of the darkness inside him, so that he can save his son.
There’s a lot of debate about the concept of redemption in the Star Wars universe, and some don’t believe that Vader’s final act of sacrifice should be enough to redeem him in the eyes of the galaxy.
Yet I believe that Vader’s sacrifice was absolutely genuine, and it is a beautiful moment of hope and a testament to the power of love.
When Vader saves his son, he doesn’t automatically undo all the pain he’s caused in the galaxy. In fact, the Skywalkers are still dealing with the fallout caused by Vader’s actions (see: the fall of Ben Solo and the exile of Luke Skywalker).
But Vader’s story reminds us that there’s always hope, and that if you have made mistakes, you can still make your way back to the light. As Luke Skywalker says in “The Last Jedi,” no one is ever really gone.