Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
“Now, go, my son…”
– Anakin Skywalker
Part I: The Underworld
“It is of course impossible to free oneself from one’s childhood without devoting a great deal of work to it… The swift passage of the years and the overwhelming inrush of the newly discovered world leave a mass of material behind that is never dealt with. We do not shake this off; we merely remove ourselves from it. So that when, in later years, we return to the memories of childhood, we find bits of our personality still alive, which cling round us and suffuse us with the feeling of earlier times. Being still in their childhood state, these fragments are very powerful in their effect. They can lose their infantile aspect and be corrected only when they are reunited with adult consciousness. This ‘personal unconscious’ must always be dealt with first, that is, made conscious, otherwise the gateway to the collective unconscious cannot be opened.”
– C.G. Jung
In these essays, and even in other writings on the franchise, I have often made special note of Star Wars’ backward-looking quality. These are films that push the medium forward into an exciting new future with groundbreaking special effects, and yet both textually and meta-textually, they are always concerned with the past. With Episode I, over two months ago, we started at the beginning and looked ahead to the story’s ending. Episode VI – as the third film released, as the sixth film in the saga, and as the final installment in this series of essays – is profoundly concerned with looking backwards. Its title is apt; Return of the Jedi is, in so many ways, about the action of returning.
The first two paragraphs of the opening crawl set up this sense of recapitulation. As the film begins, Luke is returning to his home planet of Tatooine. As a significant rite of passage on his journey to adulthood, Luke must return to his childhood, here represented by the planet where he grew up, the planet he claimed he would never see again – a deeply symbolic gesture towards the reintegration of childish psychological contents. The construction of a second Death Star, “even more powerful than the first,” is also significant; the Empire, too, is returning to the past.
Visually, the film begins with a return – specifically, to the opening shot of Episode IV. The composition and camera movement is almost exactly the same – a pan down to the surface of a planet, before a Star Destroyer flies overhead. Yet there are key differences: here, the planet is orbited by the second Death Star, an eerie, half-built grey moon. The Star Destroyer is not pursuing a small Rebel ship but deploying a set of smaller Imperial ships. The planet is not brown, but green, recalling the opening of Episode I.From L to R: “Star Wars” (1977), “The Phantom Menace” (1999)
All the Star Wars films are rife with intertextual references, but when it comes to callbacks, Episode VI – as befits the last installment of the saga – may be the most dense and least subtle, as it seeks to close the ring and bring the six-part cycle full circle. This is the culmination of Star Wars as Lucas envisioned it, not only concluding the story of the original trilogy, but that of the prequel trilogy as well. Together, the six films form a symbiont circle, and this sixth film is the last piece of the puzzle.
From the opening shot onwards, images are reused and repurposed with gleeful abandon. Vader makes his first entrance, as he did in Episode IV, in a theatrical cloud of white smoke. Soon after, C-3PO and R2-D2 have returned to the desert of Tatooine, and are again wandering through the same sandy wasteland. Not only are there countless minute references through dialogue, framing, and design work, but the broad strokes are, for the most part, familiar.From L to R: “Star Wars” (1977), “Return of the Jedi” (1983)
Indeed, almost all of Return of the Jedi is comprised of elements taken and refashioned from the other five films. Here we have a return to the dune seas of Tatooine, and to Yoda’s hut and the swamps of Dagobah, and to a primitive village, and to the monochrome hallways of a Death Star. Locations recur, as do actions. Imperial installations must be infiltrated, rescue attempts carried out, masters consulted, superweapons destroyed after demonstrating their power. There are sober Rebel military briefings and long-awaited duels between old adversaries. According to Jung, “everything old in the unconscious hints at something coming” – and here, five films’ worth of material must be drawn to a point. All the remaining narrative and thematic threads must be woven together into a unified conclusion.
The discussion of duality, so prominent in The Phantom Menace, has remained consistent throughout the saga, and here it recurs again, visually and verbally. “We shall double our efforts,” the hapless Moff Jerjerrod (Michael Pennington) assures Darth Vader in the film’s first scene. (Emphasis mine.) Luke presents Jabba the Hutt with a gift of two droids, and the biker scouts on the forest moon of Endor travel in groups of two. “You take that one, I’ll take these two,” Luke says to Leia during the chase. (Emphasis mine.) Throughout Star Wars, pairs of complementary opposites are circling each other in a dance of conflict and reconciliation. This happens on the battleground of military warfare, with the Republic and the Separatists, the Empire and the Rebellion. It happens on a metaphysical level, in the struggle between the Dark Side and the Light – which, of course, is at once the largest and most intimate struggle of them all.
In my essay on The Phantom Menace, I mentioned Jung’s notion of the transcendent function, a healthy synthesis that is brought about between the conscious and unconscious. Here in Return of the Jedi, we see the transcendent function finally achieved – the union that the entire bifurcated galaxy has been straining towards. Here, the Jungian themes that were present in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are followed through their conclusion.
“The answer obviously consists in getting rid of the separation between conscious and unconscious. This cannot be done by condemning the contents of the unconscious in a one-sided way, but rather by recognizing their significance in compensating the one-sidedness of consciousness and by taking this significance into account. The tendencies of the conscious and the unconscious are the two factors that together make up the transcendent function. It is called ‘transcendent’ because it makes the transition from one attitude to another organically possible, without loss of the unconscious.”
Here, we see the conclusion of Luke’s bildungsroman narrative, as he finally comes to a full and proper integration of his two bifurcated selves – the conscious self and the shadow or unconscious self inherited from and symbolized by his father, Darth Vader. In order to overcome the influence of the unconscious self, Luke must undergo another descent, confronting his shadow head-on, instead of repressing or denying it, as Anakin did. This process will be repeated in various forms throughout Return of the Jedi, and it will be instrumental in bringing the galaxy to a state of balance.
The first iteration comes about in the film’s first act, as the heroes set out to rescue their frozen compatriot, Han Solo, from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. In my previous essay on The Empire Strikes Back, I made note of the way the evil, authoritarian Empire co-opted the forces of the galactic underworld, previously associated almost exclusively with the good, ramshackle Rebels, by hiring bounty hunters like Boba Fett and working with criminals like Lando. The underworld is roughly analogous to the galaxy’s subconscious – a stratum that operates below and outside the controlling intelligence of the Empire. In Return of the Jedi, the first thing the heroes must do is reclaim the underworld by purging it of evil in the form of Jabba the Hutt and his minions, including the allegorically-named monster Rancor. This entire sequence externalizes Luke’s internal struggle to cleanse his unconscious self of corrupting influences – a task he must accomplish before he is ready to confront the external evil of Vader and the Emperor.
The way Return of the Jedi reintroduces the members of its core cast is telling. Each is presented in a way that recalls past stories. We first see C-3PO and R2-D2 in a familiar context, walking through the desert. Chewbacca is again posing as a captive, chained by his allies to gain entrance to an evil lair. Lando is revealed to be disguised as one of Jabba’s guards, in a recapitulation of his previous arc – he appears to be a villain, but unmasks to show his heroic true self to the audience. Han is asleep and must be woken from his slumber, recalling his moral awakening over the course of the previous films. Leia, like Lando, is first reintroduced in disguise. She is posing as a bounty hunter, but unmasks and declares her love for Han, recalling her key development in The Empire Strikes Back, which concluded with a revelation and declaration of love.
Luke’s entrance is delayed until about twenty minutes into the film’s runtime, just as it was in A New Hope. However, his entrance here does not mirror his own there – he is not at a farm, in a subordinate role to his uncle. Instead, it mirrors Vader’s initial entrance in A New Hope, as Luke enters the gate of Jabba’s palace clothed in a flowing black cloak. He is disguised as well, as his shadow self – he even casts a long shadow on the wall of the hallway as he strides in. Intriguingly, though this marks Luke’s true entrance, his initial appearance is in the form of a hologram projected by R2-D2, recalling Leia’s role in the first act of A New Hope. Luke has taken on the attributes of both his father and his sister. But more on that later.
Descents are vital throughout the Star Wars films, and the entire sequence at Jabba’s palace acts as a kind of descent narrative – the two droids are sent down into hellish underground dungeons where their mechanical kin are tortured, Luke falls through a trap door into the Rancor’s lair, and in the conclusion, the heroes are to be dropped into the maw of the subterranean Sarlacc. Imagery of the unconscious abounds, in the profusion of nightmarish creatures, or in Han’s consignment to a watery dungeon.
Jabba’s palace, as the locus of the underworld, is a more perverse version of the menacing but largely harmless Mos Eisley Cantina from Episode IV. The presence of Jawas in the palace is another callback to Episode IV, and the dungeon of discarded droids recalls the interior of the Sandcrawler R2-D2 and C-3PO were imprisoned in earlier. The design work here is full of loaded imagery and inversions, with the medieval theme of its axe-wielding, pig-like guards and the impressively repulsive practical effect of Jabba the Hutt himself. (I know it looks gross, but some scholars argue that it could be delicious.)
Jabba, interestingly, is a green creature, surrounded by other green elements, such as the green chalice or hookah by his side, and his green, pig-like Gamorrean guards. Jabba is a thorough perversion of the most important part of the soul, completely lacking in empathy or compassion, existing solely for self-gratification. Notice that, when we meet him, he has chained a green slave girl, who is quickly disposed of by being dropped down the trapdoor to the Rancor. Jabba enslaves the best part of the soul and causes it to be destroyed by the unruly passions of the Dark Side. During her nocturnal rescue attempt, Leia successfully wakes Han from his carbonite slumber, but is captured and unmasked immediately afterwards. Jabba is a creature of the night, commonly associated with the untamed unconscious, and cannot be defeated till day.
Luke first appears to Jabba as a blue hologram, offering a peaceful resolution to the conflict by negotiation – an idea that Jabba rejects. Because Jabba refuses to deal with Luke rationally, Luke must do battle physically, although, as befits a Jedi, this is not his first choice. Jabba, mirroring Watto from The Phantom Menace, insists: “Your mind powers will not work on me, boy.” Luke’s quest to free Han and his friends from Jabba’s clutches mirrors Qui-Gon’s quest to free Anakin from slavery. Both Jedi Knights resist using outright force, instead assenting to play convoluted games in order to win the desired result without bloodshed. However, Jabba’s continued refusal to be rational results in Luke’s fall into the lair of Rancor – whose allegorical name recalls explicitly moral tales like Spenser’s Faerie Queene or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The Rancor is one of Star Wars’ great practical creature effects, and Luke’s battle with it is an excellent set piece, as thrilling as it is fraught with meaning.
Before it turns its attention to Luke, the Rancor picks up and eats one of Jabba’s Gamorrean guards – a foreshadowing of evil’s self-defeating nature later in the film. Luke, in keeping with his consistent focus on reclaiming the past, uses relics and fossils (literally, old bones) to defeat Rancor. As in the previous films, Luke’s adherence to the Jedi traditions and ways of the past is instrumental in his moral formation and the defeat of his unruly passions. Finally, Luke kills the Rancor by hurling a skull (the head) at a switch that causes a gate to fall and crush the beast’s neck – literally separating its head from its body. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke needed to learn discipline to keep his appetites in check; here, we see that his training has been successful, as he subjugates his passions to his ideals.
However, even this defeat is presented tragicomically, as the Rancor keeper weeps over his fallen pet. Throughout Return of the Jedi, violence is not seen as something to be cheered, even when it brings a respite from conflict. This empathetic vision will be crucial to the film’s climax.
Although Luke defeats the Rancor, he is still imprisoned, and Jabba sentences him and his friends to be taken out to the Dune Sea – the sea being another bit of Jungian unconscious imagery, here sapped of all life – where they will be fed to the “almighty Sarlacc” and be “slowly digested over a thousand years.” Again, Jabba and the creatures surrounding him are associated with the appetites, gluttony, and greed; digestion, of course, is an action of the stomach. “You should’ve bargained, Jabba,” Luke warns, still desiring to resolve conflict with negotiation, but Jabba is an entirely appetitive creature, devoid of reason.
Indeed, R2-D2 and Leia, both strong proponents of reason, are enslaved here, reduced to instruments of passion. Leia is chained in a revealing slave costume, for a time defined only by her sexuality, while R2-D2 is consigned to carry drinks. Both characters, in Jabba’s perverse world, exist only to gratify the Hutt’s appetites. The sails of Jabba’s barge are a bright, striking red – suggesting that the whole thing is, quite literally, carried along by passion. “Beast!” C-3PO exclaims angrily at the horrid creature Salacious Crumb, aptly describing the animalistic nature of Jabba’s entourage.
Throughout this sequence, the Platonic soul has been twisted and turned upside-down, but the always level-headed R2-D2 is able to set a restoration of order in motion by shooting out Luke’s green lightsaber, putting the power of the heart and spirituality back into the good guys’ hands. For the first act of the film, the color green has been associated solely with Jabba, but Luke reclaims the color and begins to make things right. Forced to walk the plank in a scene that adds pirate-themed swashbucklers to Star Wars’ list of influences, Luke jumps down, but grabs the edge of the plank and flips up, spinning through the air. This is a neat physical expression of his arc throughout the trilogy, and in Return of the Jedi itself: the descent is a necessary precedent to the following ascent.
During the following battle, we see the film’s first indication that something like fate or the will of the Force is on our heroes’ side, in the deus ex machina of Boba Fett’s ignominious demise. Han, acting blindly, strikes the bounty hunter’s jetpack, crippling the technology upon which he is dependent, causing him to fly through the air and land in the mouth of the Sarlacc. Indeed, throughout the battle, many of the villains fall into the Sarlacc Pit – devoured, fittingly, by passion. In a similar ironic twist, Jabba is strangled by Leia with the very chain he used to imprison her. Yet for all this violence, a great deal of the set piece revolves around Han’s amusingly fumbling attempts to save Lando’s life; throughout Return of the Jedi, despite the prevalence of battle scenes, the emphasis is on saving life rather than taking it. Later, during the final battle, Han will have a similar role, where his main goal is to save Lando’s life by destroying the Imperial shield generator.From L to R: “The Phantom Menace” (1999), “Return of the Jedi” (1983)
The sail barge sequence is rife with foreshadowing and references to previous events. Salacious Crumb torments C-3PO by taking out one of his eyes – mirroring C-3PO’s half-blindness in The Phantom Menace. R2-D2 zaps Crumb, foreshadowing his later zapping of an Ewok, and pushes C-3PO off a ledge, as he did in Attack of the Clones. When the two droids land in the sand, R2-D2’s periscope emerges from the dune sea, mirroring shots in Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, and The Empire Strikes Back. Luke and Leia swing on a rope, recalling the famous “for luck” scene in A New Hope, and of course, the sequence concludes with the spectacular destruction of the bad guys’ ship/base – mirroring the conclusion of A New Hope and foreshadowing the ultimate end of Return of the Jedi.
By the end of the film’s first act, the underworld has been reclaimed for good, but the journey is not over. In a telling beat, during the battle, Luke is shot in the hand by a blaster, and the workings of his mechanical prosthetic are exposed – an ominous symbol that his connection to his cyborg father runs deeper than one might expect.
Part II: Faith in Your Friends
“Your overconfidence is your weakness,” Luke taunts Emperor Palpatine during their confrontation in the throne room on the second Death Star. “Your faith in your friends is yours,” the Emperor spits back. Both are accurate in their assessments. Palpatine’s hubris will be his undoing, while Luke’s gravest temptations will center on his love for his friends. Yet Luke’s faith in them will ultimately be rewarded.
In this film, the third to be produced, Lucas is certainly continuing to refine the color symbolism introduced in A New Hope and further strengthened in The Empire Strikes Back. Return of the Jedi builds off of the visual language established in those films, using the same colors in similar ways while also adding complexity. When Han is thawed out, the carbonite glows red – the passions (Leia’s love) awaking him from enforced sleep (sleep and dreams, of course, being associated with the mind). Later, piloting a shuttle to the Endor moon, Han is lit by red light when he fears that the Empire will detect them. The same device is employed later, when he is pestering C-3PO about very pragmatic needs – supplies, weapons, etc.“Fly casual.”
When they go to the forest moon of Endor, all the heroes wear green camouflage, but Leia’s is the most striking, and the vividness of her clothing associates her with her brother and his green lightsaber. Like Luke, she will be instrumental in bringing about union between the conscious, symbolized by the Rebellion, and the unconscious, in the form of the primitive Ewoks.
The speeder bike chase on Endor is a vital and thrilling set piece. When placed in the context of the six films, it closely mirrors the podrace from Episode I in its visual language, sound effects, and overall arc. Both sequences take place, roughly, around the halfway point in their respective films. In both, a good guy speeder flies up into the air and then soars back down again to catch up to the bad guy speeder. Most crucially, in both cases, the race ends with the two parties becoming entangled and then forcefully torn apart. (Additionally, Luke urges Leia to “jam their comlinks” – a communications disruption recalling various lines in Episode I.)“Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”
During the Rebel briefing, the latest variation on a scene that has become ubiquitous in Star Wars films, color symbolism comes out in full force. On the display, the Death Star is a small red dot orbiting a massive green sphere – communicating a reassuring primacy of good over evil. On the display, it is protected by a yellow shield. The red core of the Empire, Palpatine and his appetites, protects itself with technology. Note also that this inverts the end of Episode IV, in which the Rebels’ small green base orbited a giant red planet. Here the Death Star is orbiting the “forest moon of Endor” – a moon orbiting a moon. The attack, which again aims at the Death Star’s main reactor, explicitly recalls the earlier space battle, complete with the familiar instruction to “Lock s-foils in attack position,” and Admiral Ackbar’s admonition, “May the Force be with us.” Yet there are also key differences. The scale of the battle is much, much larger, and it’s one of the series’ most technically impressive sequences. Here, instead of acting as a mere target, the Death Star itself is lashing out at the heroes with its power as a “fully armed and operational battle station.” Most importantly, though, in this instance, unlike Episode IV, the heroes cannot merely destroy the Death Star from the outside. Throughout Episode VI, the good guys are unable to simply eliminate or banish the forces of evil; instead, they must enter their realms and destroy them from the inside.
Return of the Jedi, more than the previous two films in its trilogy, is focused on Luke’s journey above all others, and I’ve long maintained that the conclusions to Han and Leia’s storylines are less fleshed-out and satisfying. However, looking at the film more closely in the context of the six-part saga, I’ve become convinced that despite having less significant screentime, Han, Leia, and even Lando are given very fitting conclusions to their arcs.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Lando maintained that fear of the Empire was the price one pays for being respectable. There, his responsibility for Cloud City and those under his authority was what allowed the Empire to tempt him. Here, Lando is again in a position of authority and responsibility – “You’re the respectable one, remember?” Han jokes. After his inauspicious introduction, Lando continues to demonstrate real heroism as he takes on more and more responsibility, becoming a general in the Rebellion. Where Han, in The Empire Strikes Back, was reluctant to be defined by his association with the Rebels, Lando embraces his new role – something Han, for all his moral progress, is still reluctant to do.“She’s the fastest ship in the fleet.”
“I know what she means to you,” Lando says to Han, referring to the Millennium Falcon, which he is going to fly during the assault on the Death Star. Han’s giving up the Falcon to Lando – a representative of respectability and responsibility – is a key gesture, but through his behavior, we see that Han is deeply reluctant to relinquish the freedom his ship represents. “It’s not my fault,” he shouts, trying to bargain with Jabba when first released from carbonite – still shifting blame and leaning on the same excuse, a sure sign of immaturity in Star Wars’ moral universe.
Leia has never struggled with accepting responsibility, but she grows in other ways during Episode VI. Just as Luke is becoming more like his father, Leia becomes more like her mother. Just as Padmé united the Gungans and the Naboo in Episode I, Leia is instrumental in uniting the Ewoks with the Rebels in Episode VI. She does this by shifting from a more stern and commanding role to something more nurturing and maternal – albeit without relinquishing power or agency. Leia, who has never been particularly spiritual – she tells Luke that the Force is a power she “doesn’t understand and could never have” – learns to trust in a higher power, to let go of Luke and let him face Vader as he believes he must. In the end, because of her sisterly love for him, she is able to sense through the Force that Luke survived the destruction of the Death Star.
“Who are you?” Han asks after being released from carbonite by Leia. He is unable to identify her because of his blindness (from “hibernation sickness”) and her disguise as a bounty hunter. She removes her mask and answers: “Someone who loves you.” Both Han and Leia must move beyond independence and a strong desire for self-definition. Once they are both able to truly see each other, they are mutually defined by their love for one another.
“I think my eyes are getting better,” Han says while being escorted to the Sarlacc pit. “Instead of a big dark blur I see a big light blur.” Han’s vision is, in fact, improving, as he awakens to spirituality and the light of the Force. This change of perspective, from skeptic to believer, brings a corresponding change in character. When Leia is lost in the forest of Endor, Han says sincerely, “I hope she’s all right” – a vulnerable expression of hope, in sharp contrast to his cynical persona from Episode IV. And although he is initially disdainful of the Ewoks and reluctant to enter into community with them – notice the way he tries to tear away the little creature hanging affectionately to his leg – by the end of the film, he is willingly celebrating with them in their village.
During the attack on the bunker, Leia is shot in the arm, and Han moves to bandage her wound, taking on a somewhat uncharacteristic protective and nurturing role. This important growth in Han’s character is paired with a similar development in Leia’s; when they are cornered, she saves his life by shooting the Stormtroopers holding them at gunpoint. The reversal of roles is completed by a reversal of their iconic exchange from the carbon freezing chamber in Episode V: “I love you,” Han says here, and it is Leia who responds, “I know.”
Yet the truest mark of Han’s growth comes at the very end of Return of the Jedi, after Leia has sensed Luke’s survival. “You love him, don’t you,” Han says, mistaking the nature of the siblings’ relationship. “When he comes back, I won’t get in the way.” Han’s romantic love for Leia has finally become truly selfless, as exemplified by his willingness to let her go.
In fact, Han is now so selfless that he doesn’t even get annoyed when an Ewok interrupts his and Leia’s kiss.
A better man than I, to be sure.
Part III: Divine Influence
In my essay on The Phantom Menace, I located one of Star Wars’ core thematic concerns in the union of the conscious and the unconscious – and there, I pinpointed the relationship between the cultured Naboo and the primitive Gungans as being emblematic of this theme. Here, as the saga comes full circle, the motif of the primitive warrior tribe returns in the form of the Ewoks and their alliance with the Rebellion.
The Ewoks are even more primitive than the Gungans, with their rudimentary technology, early attempts to cook and eat our heroes, and penchant for speaking in incomprehensible gibberish. Jar-Jar’s dialogue can usually be deciphered without too much effort, but the Ewoks speak entirely in growls, grunts, yelps, and squeals. “They’re using a very primitive dialect,” C-3PO explains, trying to translate. Their use of horns recalls the Gungan war calls in The Phantom Menace, and their wooden village in the trees bears a distinct visual similarity to the underwater Gungan city, along with more technologically advanced counterparts, Kamino and Bespin, which were associated with water and clouds, respectively – both symbols of the unconscious.
While the first act of the film followed the heroes’ attempts to reclaim the world of the unconscious from the malevolent influences embodied in Jabba the Hutt, the second act on the forest moon of Endor also revolves around a kind of reclamation. Here, though, the Ewoks are not irredeemably hostile, malicious, or evil. Although the heroes must free themselves from imprisonment at the furry creatures’ hands, they are able to bargain and reason with them – tactics that proved unsuccessful with Jabba. The Ewoks immediately threaten the heroes with spears, but Luke and Han are initially more bemused than threatened, and the furry creatures are never seen as genuinely frightening. Thus, the unconscious, having undergone a kind of purgative process, is enlisted as an ally. (The Ewoks’ reddish gliders recall the red sails of Jabba’s barge.) Tellingly, Leia first earns the trust of the appetitive, stomach-driven Ewok by offering it food. Subsequently, she scares it by removing her hat, revealing her head. Just as Luke must use his reason to direct his passions, Leia, Luke, Han, and C-3PO must overcome the Ewoks’ appetitive tendencies – literally, their desire to eat the heroes – before they can become their allies in the battle to come. The Ewoks, lacking as they are in significant ways, are a tremendously helpful asset for the Rebels. They are perceptive of dangers that the Rebels miss – as when Leia is warned of an approaching Stormtrooper by her little Ewok friend – and they know the terrain and geography better, allowing Han to lead his team to the less heavily guarded back entrance of the shield generator. Endor, with its lush forests, is a natural world, the Ewoks’ habitat, and the civilized Rebels must rely on their assistance to navigate and reclaim it. When one Ewok hijacks a speeder, C-3PO worries that he has done something “rather rash” – but this rash action proves helpful, drawing the biker scouts away from the base. The continued assimilation of the primitive is instrumental in the Rebellion’s victory over the Empire.
The battle between the Ewoks and the Empire is perhaps too farcical for its own good, with the primitives’ wooden traps and crude technology too easily and quickly overwhelming a legion of the Emperor’s “best troops.” Still, this final military conflict feels appropriately summative, rife as it is with references to past battles in the saga. “Bring those two down here!” an officer shouts, referring to C-3PO and R2-D2 – the latest in a long line of references to doubles and pairs in dialogue. The defeat of the AT-ST walkers by entangling their legs recalls the Rebels’ victory over the AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back. Han’s gaining entrance to the shield generator by impersonating an Imperial officer recalls his attempts at bluffing in the Death Star detention block in A New Hope. Indeed, throughout, the iconography of the Empire is co-opted and taken over by the Rebels – as when Chewbacca commandeers an AT-ST walker.
The heroes’ first encounter with the Ewoks does not go so fortuitously. Chewbacca, a beastlike warrior who acts as a kind of representative of the primitive mindset in our main group of protagonists, sees some food and springs a trap set by the Ewoks – something only the balanced Luke is able to perceive, though not soon enough to stop it. “Great, Chewie, great,” Han says sarcastically. “Always thinking with your stomach.” Chewbacca, acting on his appetites, falls into the trap – and the blue R2-D2, a representative of the head or intellect, frees them by cutting the net open. “Oh, my head!” C-3PO exclaims afterwards.
The primitive, stomach-driven Ewoks immediately revere the gleaming, intellectual C-3PO, and here we see the final stage in the protocol droid’s development. Although 3PO has often filled the simple function of comic relief, I’ve noted in previous essays that his role as a translator is key to the unification of the heroes throughout the original trilogy. When C-3PO is imprisoned at Jabba’s palace, the droid caretaker asks him a familiar question – “You are a protocol droid, are you not?” C-3PO responds with his now-familiar answer: “I am C-3PO, human-cyborg relations,” but the caretaker cuts him off: “Yes or no will do.”
In the pit of the underworld, communication is stripped down, reduced to its bare essentials. In contrast, C-3PO’s ostentatious manner of speaking, despite often being the butt of a joke, is a revelation of his humanity. When C-3PO objects to impersonating a deity for the Ewoks, Han, scoundrel that he is, mocks the droid’s insistence on being “proper.” Indeed, characters often dismiss or ignore C-3PO, but Return of the Jedi affirms that he serves an indispensable function, and expands the parameters of his role. When asked about space battles by Luke in A New Hope, C-3PO described himself as “not much more than an interpreter, and not very good at telling stories.” However, in Return of the Jedi, we see C-3PO moving into a new role as a storyteller, disproving his earlier claim. “If I told you half the things I’ve heard about this Jabba the Hutt,” he regales R2-D2 as they approach the gate of the palace, “You’d probably short-circuit.” The doubling motif returns here (“half the things”), and dismayingly, storytelling – previously associated with goodness, as in Obi-Wan’s inspiring speech to Luke – has been hijacked by Jabba the Hutt, spreading fear and darkness instead of keeping old traditions and the desire for virtue alive. In The Phantom Menace, Jar-Jar, who filled the role of the fool or clown, explained what had just transpired to Padmé, in an instance of buffoonish storytelling. In Return of the Jedi, C-3PO tells the Ewoks the story of the two preceding films, complete with sound effects. The two scenes mirror each other, emphasizing that both characters serve analogous roles. Indeed, they serve almost the same purpose, and accordingly, once C-3PO appears in earnest, Jar-Jar’s screentime diminishes rapidly.
During the storytelling scene in the Ewok village, C-3PO fulfills the highest function of his role as an interpreter. Prior to this, he has performed the action of translation, merely relaying information without embellishment – or with embellishments of a largely practical or self-centered kind. Here, the act of storytelling is analogous to the act of interpretation, but in retelling the story of Star Wars, C-3PO communicates its moral and spiritual dimensions to the Ewoks. Like Obi-Wan, he fashions a narrative that stirs the affections of its hearers, guiding them towards the path of good and away from the path of evil.
It’s also worth noting that in Episode I, the union of the Naboo and the Gungans occurred at a religious site or “sacred place.” Here, the union of conscious and unconscious is again predicated by a shared acknowledgment of a higher power, as Luke uses the Force – or magic, or religion, or spirituality – to convince the Ewoks to set him and his friends free, just as Qui-Gon appealed to the Gungan’s religious beliefs to save Jar-Jar’s life. This influence of the properly balanced Jedi, identified by their green lightsabers, uses religion to bring about compassion and empathy between the two factions, properly uniting them and orienting them towards a good goal.
In contrast, the Emperor acknowledges a higher power – but, as Yoda predicted in Revenge of the Sith, his faith in the Dark Side of the Force is misplaced. In a deeply ironic reversal, the Emperor, in his position of authority, has assimilated the very flaws that proved to be the undoing of the Jedi Order in the prequels. “I can’t see,” Han says, stricken by blindness after he is thawed out of carbonite – but though Han is physically blind, the same kind of blindness that afflicted the Jedi in the prequels is again present. Here, though, the dynamic has been comfortingly reversed: in the prequels, the good guys were blind to their impending doom. “You have paid the price for your lack of vision,” Palpatine taunts Luke, but ironically, it is now the villains who are unaware of their inevitable destruction. There are other visual similarities that drive the point home. For instance, the Emperor spends almost all of his screentime here in a spire-like observation tower on the Death Star. The design of the tower, strikingly, resembles the structure of the Jedi Temple in the prequels – and like the Jedi, the Emperor’s downfall is a direct result of his underestimating the power of attachment and familial bonds.
The color symbolism surrounding the Emperor and his Empire helps to clarify the reasons behind his ultimate downfall. In the opening scene of Return of the Jedi, an Imperial shuttle approaches the Death Star, and the pilot requests that the shield be lowered: “Code clearance blue.” (The interior of the shuttle has blue lights.) However, inside the shield generator, the technicians – framed with red lights – insist that the shield will only be deactivated once the code is confirmed. The Emperor, although a master manipulator, is driven by the passions of fear and greed. When he makes his first onscreen appearance, mirroring Vader’s earlier fog-wreathed entrance, he is flanked by royal guards robed in bright red. Yet the passions will prove insufficient to safeguard the Emperor’s rule – in fact, the royal guards will prove entirely useless, never even fighting onscreen. This passion-driven Empire is deeply resistant to the entry of new, unknown ideas. Its domination over the galaxy is not merely physical, but intellectual.
Rushing to complete construction on the Death Star, Moff Jerjerrod grumbles to Vader that the Emperor “asks the impossible,” directly mirroring Luke’s complaint to Yoda during his training on Dagobah: “You ask the impossible.” The dynamic has indeed been reversed. In the prequels, the good guys were driven by reason, and were overwhelmed by passion. Here, the Emperor has lost touch with practicalities, and is possessed entirely by misguided ideals. The good guys, meanwhile, have won passion to their side, and are in touch with their emotions and appetites.
Elsewhere, when the Rebels are actually going to infiltrate the forest moon with an Imperial shuttle, Admiral Piett tells Darth Vader, “It’s an older code, sir, but it checks out. I was about to clear it.” The Empire, with its oppressive, inhuman vision of industrialized progress, fails to account for things of the past – recall the military leaders in Episode IV, scoffing at the Jedi and their “ancient religion.”“It’s an older code, sir, but it checks out. I was about to clear it.”
Palpatine, at various points later in the film, speaks to aides wearing purple robes – the only significant appearance of the color in the original trilogy, recalling its prevalence at the end of Episode III, in which passion subverted reason. Here, we see that a reason driven by passion is as untenable a governing force as a reason divorced entirely from passion. The Emperor, urging Vader to be patient, sounds suspiciously like his old enemies, and is unaware that he has come to have the same weaknesses. He is now the mind of the galaxy, but like the Jedi before him, is isolated from it, alone in his tower, dependent on an organization of largely incompetent inferiors to maintain his rule. “Only together can we turn him to the Dark Side of the Force,” he tells Vader, latching parasitically onto the relationship between father and son.
Because of his repetition of the mistakes of the Jedi, the Emperor is similarly unable to see that the will of the Force is against him. “Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen it,” he gloats, but throughout Return of the Jedi, he misinterprets the workings of fate to be in his favor. Vader bringing Luke to the Death Star is not an opportunity for the Emperor to win a new apprentice; it is exactly what will spur Vader to turn on his master and vanquish him. The Emperor, like the Jedi before him, overestimates his own ability to control events, and makes sweepingly hubristic claims about his manipulation and orchestration: “Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design.” The Emperor deliberately exposes his own weakness to bait the Rebels into a trap, underestimating their strength and overestimating his own. The will of the Force is not on his side; it is on theirs. The Empire’s self-defeating nature is dramatically emphasized not only by Vader’s ultimate decision to turn on the Emperor, but also when Admiral Piett’s Super Star Destroyer, disabled by an A-Wing, crashes into the surface of the Death Star. The dark side, ouroboros-like, consumes and destroys itself. (This is also a mirror of the events in the Emperor’s throne room; Vader, associated with the Super Star Destroyer in The Empire Strikes Back, will turn on his master, the Emperor, associated with the second Death Star.)
“I used to live here, you know,” Luke remarks to Han as they are shuttled across the Dune Sea to the maw of the Sarlacc. “You’re going to die here, you know,” Han replies. The cynic thinks that fate is inevitable and circular. Luke, on the other hand, knows better.
Part IV: Like My Father Before Me
Earlier, I noted that Luke’s entrance in Return of the Jedi mirrors Darth Vader’s first appearance in A New Hope. His clothing and actions reinforce the comparison: he is wearing a flowing, black cloak, much like Vader’s iconic cape, and when he is confronted by a pair of Jabba’s guards, he chokes them with the Force – an action only Vader performs in the original trilogy. Although he rejected the temptation to join Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, here we see that Luke is indeed becoming more and more like his father. Throughout the film, he wears one black leather glove over his mechanical hand, symbolizing his split nature.
These associations with Vader would seem be an ominous foreshadowing, but they are counterbalanced by Luke’s continued adherence to the ways of the Jedi. Within his first minutes of screentime, he uses Vader’s Force choke, but he also uses Obi-Wan’s “old Jedi mind trick.” With his green lightsaber and dark garb, Luke is very distinct from any other Jedi we’ve seen, combining the traits of his Sith father and his mentors, Yoda and Obi-Wan. “It’s your choice,” Luke tells Jabba, “But I warn you not to underestimate my power.” Here, Luke mirrors Anakin’s famous declaration – “You underestimate my power” – but unlike Anakin, who was quick to hostility (“If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy”), Luke does his best to postpone violence, offering his enemy a choice. He does the same later, when confronting Vader and the Emperor. And in another striking contrast, while Vader hides his true self behind his helmet, Luke quickly removes the hood of his black cloak – unlike his father, Luke is willing to unmask himself. Here, the correct response to Luke’s parentage – the revelation of his own inherited capacity for evil – is not wholesale rejection of the father, but a kind of assimilation and sublimation. Jung views Jesus Christ as a figure who “preserves mankind from loss of communion with God and from getting lost in mere consciousness and rationality. That would have brought something like a dissociation between consciousness and the unconscious, an unnatural and even pathological condition, a ‘loss of soul’ such as has threatened man from the beginning of time.” In Return of the Jedi, Luke becomes a truly Christlike figure in the Jungian sense, bringing about balance and unity in a split, dissociated galaxy.
In my essay on The Phantom Menace, I argued that Freud’s concept of repression was key to understanding the state of Lucas’ galaxy. Here in Return of the Jedi, the conflict between the conscious and the unconscious is finally resolved in the arc of Luke and Vader, through the process of what Freud describes as sublimation – “in which the energy of the infantile wishful impulses is not cut off but remains ready for use – the unserviceable aim of the various impulses being replaced by one that is higher.” In other words, rather than denying one’s impulses and consigning them to the unconscious, one must acknowledge them, learn to control them, and direct them to a better goal. This is precisely the progression of Luke’s arc in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Throughout Empire, Luke must undergo the painful process of coming to acknowledge his own dark impulses, culminating in the shattering realization that Darth Vader is his father. His very lineage is tainted by evil. The way Luke responds to this revelation is critical: he does not deny the knowledge, but accepts it. Anakin, in contrast, refused to acknowledge his own capacity to choose evil, instead displacing responsibility onto external factors. Luke, despite his initial disbelief, accepts that Vader is his father – but instead of choosing to give into his own intrinsic darkness, Luke instead chooses self-sacrifice, leaping to what could be his death.
Thus, when we meet him in Jedi, Luke – having acknowledge his personal dark side – is learning to control it. He wears black clothing that reflects his father’s dark garb. He has become a great warrior and acts boldly, confidently, and assertively. However, all of Anakin’s potentially negative traits are softened and counterbalanced by Luke’s goodness and self-control. By bringing his unconscious impulses into the conscious world, Luke is able to control and direct them towards good. He has brought the dark side out into the light – which, of course, means that it is no longer a dark side. Luke has found the balance the Jedi seek.
Freud’s concept of repression and sublimation illuminates Luke’s arc and the arc of the Star Wars saga as a whole. Jung, similarly, writes about the “shadow” self – roughly analogous to Freud’s unconscious mind – which, “with insight and good will… can to some extent be assimilated into the conscious personality.” Both psychologists are concerned with reconciling the two halves of the bifurcated individual, and both argue for the assimilation of the shadow or unconscious by the conscious personality. Jung writes that this proves difficult because of the mind’s resistance to acknowledging the shadow, and its tendency to displace its qualities onto the other:
“These resistances are usually bound up with projections, which are not recognized as such, and their recognition is a moral achievement beyond the ordinary. While some traits peculiar to the shadow can be recognized without too much difficulty as one’s own personal qualities, in this case both insight and good will are unavailing because the cause of the emotion appears to lie, beyond all possibility of doubt, in the other person… [The subject] must be convinced that he throws a very long shadow before he is willing to withdraw his emotionally-toned projections from their object… The effect of projection is to isolate the subject from his environment, since instead of a real relation to it there is now only an illusory one. Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.”
This recalls the descents experienced by Luke and Anakin at the midpoints of their journeys – the descent into the Tusken Raider camp in Attack of the Clones and the descent into the Dagobah cave in The Empire Strikes Back. Anakin refuses to acknowledge his shadow self, instead locating his desire for possession in the other – the Sand People, who he slaughters. Because he denies this painful self-knowledge, Anakin is completely overtaken and ruled by his unacknowledged unconscious, and in the persona of Darth Vader, he is quite literally cut off from the real world by a mask. In contrast, during his experience in the cave, Luke destroys Vader’s mask to reveal his own face.
The interactions between Luke and Vader are absolutely central to Return of the Jedi and Star Wars as a whole. The two trilogies are constructed around their parallel arcs, as father and son repeatedly face similar situations and make different choices. This is a key expression – perhaps the most striking expression – of the ethos of Star Wars, its focus on movement towards fusion, synthesis, and unity. Although the language of the Light Side and Dark Side evokes connotations of dualism, Lucas’ saga does not ultimately posit a kind of coexistence as the resolution to conflict. This galaxy far, far away, is not a universe where good and evil are equal and necessary. Nor is it a universe where good simply eliminates evil; instead, good is both a vanquishing agent and a redeeming one. The galaxy is split, but over the course of the six films, the dichotomies are resolved – between reason and passion, the conscious and the unconscious, the light side and the dark.
“You must confront Vader,” Yoda counsels Luke while lying in his deathbed on Dagobah. “Then, only then, a Jedi will you be.” Luke cannot accomplish this process of sublimation and reconciliation alone. To achieve the requisite discipline, he needs the guidance and mentorship of Yoda and Obi-Wan. Yet in the end, these mentors are fallible and imperfect, and because of his faith in his father’s goodness, Luke’s actions diverge from their teachings. “Bury your feelings deep down, Luke,” Obi-Wan advises. “They do you credit, but they could be made to serve the Emperor.” Luke ultimately rejects this advice, firmly and openly expressing his love for Vader, and he is right to do so. His feelings carry him close to the Dark Side, but they are also what lead him to true victory. “There’s still good in him,” Luke insists, mirroring his mother’s dying words. He trains to become a Jedi under Obi-Wan and Yoda’s tutelage, but like Anakin before him, Luke rejects their philosophy of detachment. The two Jedi Masters both insist that Vader must be destroyed, but Luke knows that he must be loved. By remaining true to this familial attachment, Luke transcends the false dichotomy posited by Yoda, Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Palpatine in order to become a true Jedi in the mold of Qui-Gon Jinn. “I can’t kill my own father,” he says. Unlike Anakin, who lashed out at every father figure he had, Luke refuses to play into the cycle of Oedipal aggression, even though both Jedi and Sith insist that to do so is his destiny.“Rest. Rest I need.”
“Twilight is upon me,” Yoda says, preparing for his imminent death, “And soon night must fall. That is the way of things… the way of the Force.” Although the Jedi philosophy as propounded by Yoda and Obi-Wan still has blind spots Luke must see through, it still offers him many benefits, such as the moral/spiritual framework he needs to overcome the tyranny of the appetites. “Master Yoda,” Luke says, “You can’t die.” “Strong am I with the Force,” Yoda responds, “But not that strong.” The refusal to accept death was instrumental in Anakin’s downfall in Revenge of the Sith, but Yoda peacefully passes away, vanishing from the physical realm just as Obi-Wan did. Luke watches from a distance as the lights go out in his hut. Yoda and Obi-Wan are able to deny their passions and accept death peacefully because they believe it is not the end; because of their faith and their training, they live on as Force ghosts. Because the Jedi set an example of how to respond to the death of the body, Luke has the courage and willingness to sacrifice his life in the physical world for the salvation of his father.
“I can’t do it, R2,” Luke says after Yoda’s death. “I can’t go on alone.” But he is not supposed to. “Yoda will always be with you,” Obi-Wan says, appearing in his ghostly form. Indeed, the life of the Jedi is not one to be lived in isolation. This is what led to the downfall of the Jedi in the prequels. “When gone am I,” Yoda says to Luke, in a line that will prick up the ears of those looking forward to the eighth installment in the series, “The last of the Jedi will you be. The Force runs strong in your family. Pass on what you have learned.” Luke is called to something beyond himself – to engage with his family, and to train others in the ways of the Force.
Throughout Return of the Jedi, Luke is defined by his relationships with the two living members of his family: his father, Anakin, and his sister, Leia. Yoda’s last words – “There is another Skywalker” – point Luke to the revelation of his true relation to Leia. Luke’s acceptance of Leia as his sister, and vice versa, is extremely important. According to Jung, the unconscious is often symbolized by the other gender, a representative of everything contrary to one’s conscious mind. Male and female are akin to yin and yang – “Although man and woman unite they nevertheless represent irreconcilable opposites… This primordial pair of opposites symbolizes every conceivable pair of opposites that may occur.” Thus, Anakin’s union with Padmé to produce twin children, male and female, is a symbol of wholeness broken, with two pairs of opposites represented and separated.
According to Jung, for a male, “Just as the father represents collective consciousness, the traditional spirit, so the mother stands for the collective unconscious, the source of the water of life.” The conversation between Luke and Leia in the Ewok village begins with discussion of their mother. Leia remembers her vaguely – “Just images, really. Feelings… She was very beautiful. Kind, but sad.” “I have no memory of my mother,” Luke replies. Both of the Skywalker children are connected to one of their parents, and have no familiarity with the other. The conversation occurs under Endor’s blue night sky, as truth and knowledge are brought to light.
For Luke, who has no memory of his mother, it is Leia who fills the role of the feminine and thus becomes the “source of life.” The location of the feminine in the sister, rather than the mother, is crucial because it corresponds to Luke’s mastery of his unconscious self. “The mother is superior to the son, but the sister is his equal. Thus the deposition of the intellect frees the dreamer from the domination of the unconscious and hence from his infantile attitude.” By acknowledging and working to accept the shadow self, Luke frees himself from its unchecked influence.
“I have to face him,” Luke tells Leia, referring to Vader. When she asks why, his answer is simple: “He’s my father.” Jung writes that when the feminine unconscious becomes the life-giving factor, it creates “a psychic reality which conflicts strongly with the world of the father.” Indeed, Luke’s conflict with Vader in the third act of Return of the Jedi will be centered, in many ways, around their shared relation to Leia. Just as Jung said, Vader acts as a representative of the traditional spirit and the collective consciousness – here symbolized by the Emperor, but also associated with the Jedi Masters, Obi-Wan and Yoda. All four of these figures, in accordance with the traditions of both the Jedi and the Sith, urge Luke to kill his father.
“He’s more machine now than man,” Obi-Wan says. “Twisted and evil.” Elsewhere, he takes part of the blame for Anakin’s fall: “I thought that I could instruct him as well as Yoda. I was wrong.” Obi-Wan, who loved Anakin, nevertheless believes that he is beyond redemption.
“His compassion for you will be his undoing,” the Emperor gloats to Vader about Luke. The Emperor intends to prey on Luke’s compassion for his father, but he is undone because he fails to recognize Vader’s compassion for his son. When Luke enters the throne room as a prisoner, the Emperor uses the Force to undo his shackles – an ironic gesture, as the Dark Side promises freedom but gives only slavery. Vader, who was such a threatening presence in the previous two films, carries a heavy sense of resignation here. “You don’t know the power of the Dark Side,” he tells Luke. “I must obey my Master.” Vader’s willingness to go along with the Emperor’s plan to turn Luke to the Dark Side is striking when you consider that the plan calls for his death at his son’s hands. Although it is mostly hidden behind his mask, Vader moves through Return of the Jedi with a deep, mournful sense of hopelessness. “It is too late for me, son,” he tells Luke before taking him to the Emperor. Yet, despite his denials, there is conflict in him, which both Luke and the Emperor sense.
“My son is with them,” Vader tells Palpatine, having sensed Luke’s presence on the Imperial shuttle landing on the Endor moon. “Are you sure?” the Emperor asks, and Vader’s response is telling: “I have felt him.” Although he asserts his allegiance to his Master, Vader’s familial attachments to Luke are a strong factor in his decisions. “Strange that I have not,” Palpatine replies. “I wonder if your feelings on this matter are clear, Lord Vader.” Like the Jedi at the beginning of the Clone Wars, Palpatine’s ability to see through the Force is diminished because he denies the power of natural attachments and familial sentiments.
In this essayist’s opinion, the interactions between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor in the Death Star throne room make for the finest sequence in the entire Star Wars saga. For all the films’ striking moments, the sustained psychological, emotional, and thematic richness of these scenes is unparalleled.
Palpatine urges Luke to violence with two alternating tactics. First, the Emperor preys on Luke’s appetites by presenting the young Jedi with a situation where violence seems to be the only solution, inviting Luke to strike him down in order to save his friends. Second, he attacks Luke’s ideals, insisting that becoming his apprentice is “inevitable,” a matter of fate and destiny that has already been decided.
Vader, for his part, tempts Luke by preying on his attachments to his friends and family – recalling the way Vader himself was first tempted. The line “Your thoughts betray you” recurs twice in the throne room scenes – first spoken by Luke to Vader, and then by Vader to Luke. In both instances, they are referring to the other’s love of family, which complicates their ability to enact the Emperor’s scheme of violence. Vader is only able to incite Luke’s passions by threatening his sister.
Ironically, though the Emperor encourages Luke to attack, he refuses to do so himself; “We’re not going to attack?” an Imperial officer asks in bewilderment when told that he is only meant to keep the Rebel fleet from escaping. In Star Wars, the aggressor is almost never the victor, and Luke is right to restrain himself from lashing out violently; “I will not fight you, father,” he says, constantly caught between offensive and defensive impulses. Like Lancelot in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Luke fights his enemy, but continually spares him. He strikes down his father, but not fatally, and refuses to deliver a killing blow.
However, Star Wars offers a crucial inversion of the mythic death of Arthur. In Le Morte d’Arthur, the titular king falls in battle with his bastard son Mordred. The Arthurian myth ends with father and son destroying each other; the myth of Star Wars ends with father and son sacrificing themselves for each other in an act of mutual love.
Luke succumbs momentarily to overwhelming passion and wildly attacks Vader, defeating him and cutting off his hand. The Emperor applauds him, insisting that he kill his father and take his place, but Luke comes to his sense quickly. He looks at the exposed machinery of his father’s severed cyborg limb, and then at his own mechanical hand – a reminder of what he could become.
Rather than turn to the Dark Side, Luke makes a choice to hold steadfastly to his ideals and to subjugate his passions. “I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” he says, again adhering to traditions of the past, before throwing away his weapon and allowing himself to be defenseless before the Emperor’s wrath. “Father, please!” he shouts as the Emperor attacks him with Force lightning. This willingness to give up control and to be helpless – this act of self-sacrifice – is the culmination of Luke’s growth to maturity, and it is what sets the stage for Anakin’s redemption and the culmination of his own journey.
Anakin’s victory over evil was foreshadowed all the way back in The Phantom Menace, when he was only a boy. There, he had to enter the machine realm to destroy it from within – complete with red lights on his starfighter’s control panel mirroring those on the elevator to the Emperor’s throne room. Here, finally spurred to action by his love for his son, Anakin turns on the Emperor who made him what he is, picking him up and throwing him down a bottomless pit, recalling Darth Maul’s demise at the end of Episode I. Critics rarely give enough credit to David Prowse, the actor who filled Darth Vader’s suit; James Earl Jones’ voice is part of what makes the character so iconic, but Prowse’s body language is equally instrumental in creating the indelible impression Vader makes. Here, simple turns of the head speak volumes to communicate Anakin’s thought process, as he alternately considers his son and his master. His wordless decision to destroy the Emperor and save Luke may be the single most moving moment in the six films.
“Luke,” Obi-Wan counsels earlier in Return of the Jedi, “You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Here, Obi-Wan is defending his decision to tell Luke that Vader murdered his father: “Your father was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” Yet throughout Episode VI, we see that Obi-Wan’s point of view was the wrong one.
“So you have accepted the truth,” Vader says when Luke first refers to him as father. “I’ve accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father,” Luke retorts defiantly. He has taken Obi-Wan’s “point of view” ethos, but selected a different truth to cling to: instead of believing Anakin was destroyed, Luke believes, rightly, that he survives. “That name no longer has any meaning for me,” Vader says, but Luke disagrees: “It is the name of your true self. You’ve only forgotten. I know there is good in you. The Emperor hasn’t driven it from you fully.”
Luke is right about Vader’s true nature: “Tell your sister you were right,” the father says to his son as he dies. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin feared that Padmé would die in childbirth – that the advent of his children would herald the end of their life together. In Return of the Jedi, he finally decides to accept his own death for the sake of his child. “Luke,” he says, “Help me take this mask off.” “But you’ll die,” Luke replies. Anakin’s response is telling: “Nothing can stop that now.” At last, he has stopped running away from his inevitable fate. In the face of death, Anakin’s last wish is to unmask, to reveal his true self to his son, and to see his son clearly, for his own sake – no longer through the mask of his Vader persona, the self-absorbed, self-protecting mask that, as Jung put it, reduces the world to a “replica of one’s own unknown face.”
“Just for once,” he says, “Let me look on you with my own eyes.”
Father and son look on each other, and the moment passes. “Now go, my son,” Anakin says. “Leave me.”
“I won’t leave you here,” Luke replies. “I’ve got to save you.”
But salvation, as we know, is not merely a matter of the body. “You already have, Luke,” Anakin says.
“Father,” Luke says, “I won’t leave you.” But Anakin has died, and Luke takes his body to the forest moon and burns it on a funeral pyre – mirroring Qui-Gon’s cremation in The Phantom Menace, and Anakin’s half-death on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith.
Yet because of their reconciliation in life, father and son have not left each other in death. As he goes to join the celebration, Luke turns and smiles at the redeemed ghosts of the past.
But none of us can live in the past alone. Leia, the source of life, takes Luke’s arm and guides him back to the land of the living, where he is reunited with his good friends. Having reconciled himself with the past, resolved the dichotomies of the immature soul, and reached true maturity, Luke is ready to move into the future and to pass on what he has learned. The circle is complete. He is no longer a child, but a new man.