Paradox of The Force III
Why do we need to be redeemed? What’s the point of redemption, atonement, or salvation? Why do things need to be made right? And, is one act enough to redeem a lifetime of doing wrong?
Most religions incorporate redemption into the precepts of their respective faiths but in philosophy, redemption best fits into discussions about ethics and morality, given that ethics is concerned with how we act and morality examines the practice of our actions. For example, prescriptive ethics might ask: Shouldn’t we seek redemption for our wrongs? Applied ethics would ask: How do we determine what constitutes appropriate atonement? A meta-ethical perspective would ask: What does atonement even mean? While a moral perspective might ask: do we have a duty to seek redemption?
It is an interesting aspect of our human nature that (1) we recognize when we’ve done something wrong, and (2) we feel a need to fix our mistakes, not just for those we’ve wronged, but also (and perhaps more importantly) for ourselves. If we have a conscience or a sense of morality, then it bothers us when we do something wrong, especially if we get away with something. It eats at us, keeps us awake, and disturbs our psyche until we either atone for it or we let the guilt and remorse destroy our soul.
This isn’t what happens to Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars – sorry George Lucas. Yes, Anakin eventually kills the Emperor, but it’s not because Anakin faced an existential crisis of morality, it’s not because we see him contemplating the horror of his actions, it’s not because we see him wrestle with the dogma of the Dark Side, and it’s not because we see him make any effort to make amends to anyone. Anakin only kills the Emperor because he wants to save his son, Luke – at the very last possible second.
Even then, Anakin was only moved to save Luke after Anakin tried to kill Luke in a light saber duel, threatened Leia (Luke’s sister and Anakin’s daughter), and lost the duel to Luke (by getting his hand chopped off). That’s not redemption, remorse, regret, a change of heart, or a “what the hell have I done?” moment. It’s not even a real self-sacrifice moment because Anakin was going to die anyway (either because he was defeated by Luke and his Vader suit had become compromised or because, if the Emperor had killed Luke, the Emperor would’ve probably killed Anakin for failing him). So, why does George Lucas think Anakin was redeemed?
Perhaps it has to do with Nietzsche, who seems to suggest that one act in one moment is enough to find redemption. As Nietzsche writes: “If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient […] all eternity was needed to produce this one event – and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.”
If Nietzsche is correct, then Anakin seized the single moment that made his redemption possible, becoming the tragic hero Lucas wanted him to be. If Nietzsche’s wrong, then Anakin’s killing of the Emperor was only an attempt at redemption. Either way, Anakin’s act stands in stark contrast to the actions of Galen Erso, who, as the Rogue One narrative seems to indicate, might be the true hero of the Star Wars saga – not because he was the most powerful Jedi (with the highest midichlorian count ever) but because he had a clear sense of morality.
What’s interesting about Rogue One is that it is simultaneously the most Star Wars movie ever made and most un-Star Wars ever made. This is because we get to see a small band of misfit, rebel heroes defeat the mighty Empire using ingenuity, courage, and a sprinkling or two of Force magic – that’s what Star Wars does best. But, we also see our endearing band of heroes die – all of them – no fanfare, no medal ceremony, no Ewok party, not even a “many Bothans died to bring us this information” speech acknowledging their sacrifice. Even the droid K2SO dies, how un-Star Wars is that?
Of course, they had to die. None of Rogue One’s main cast is ever mentioned in the original trilogy – it’s practical. Yet, the way Rogue One’s narrative built up to this ending (the reason they all died) reframes the entire foundation of the Star Wars saga, illustrating self-sacrifice as the ultimate form of redemption – which, oddly, helps affirm Anakin’s self-sacrifice.
Despite what the producers of the film or Disney marketing said, Rogue One is not a “stand alone” movie. If anything, it is the piece of the puzzle that finally lets us see that what we’ve been assembling for forty years is actually something very different than what we thought it was (yes, I had the 1977 Kenner 140-piece trash compactor jigsaw puzzle and I’m beginning to wonder if it had any K2SO parts floating around in it).
Luke, Han, Chewie, and Leia may have been the heroes we rooted for (and still do), but the original group of heroes were Jyn, Cassian, K2SO and the rest of their crew, whose mission to steal the Death Star plans is what actually led to the galaxy being saved. And the true hero who sacrificed himself for the greater good of the galaxy is Galen, Jyn’s father, who designed the Death Star’s flaw and, in doing so, became the tragic hero Anakin should’ve been.
Initially, Galen was a brilliant scientist who left his post when he realized the horror of what the Empire was doing. Whatever ethical philosophy we use to examine Galen’s choice to leave the Empire and become a farmer with his wife and daughter – such as a consequentialist, deontological, or virtue perspective – we can see that Galen simply didn’t want to be a part of the Empire’s plans. He didn’t agree with the consequences (governing through fear), he felt a stronger sense of duty to his family (especially Jyn), and he espoused a different set of values than the Empire. Simply put, he was a good man with a good conscience and strong sense of morality – as the opening scene of Rogue One suggests, the only thing Galen was bad at was lying, his character was simply too honest and pure.
What’s significant is that Galen ultimately chooses to go back and work for the Empire, after Death Star Director Orson Krennic finds Galen and orders Galen’s wife, Lyra, to be killed (while Jyn, who was very young at the time, happened to be watching). Most of us would want revenge (would you really turn around and go to work for the man who just killed your wife?) and Galen does get his revenge when the Death Star is eventually blown up. Yet, his vengeance is also atonement, for Galen isn’t completely innocent. Like Anakin, Galen turned to the Dark Side, though he wasn’t seduced, he was resolved.
Rogue One only gives us brief flashbacks of Galen’s work before he became a farmer and we never see him working after his wife dies. We’re left to piece together the part he played (mostly through the hologram message that Jyn sees on Jedha). What we learn is that Galen is the Star Wars equivalent of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who came to regret creating the atomic bomb and spent his later years lobbying against nuclear proliferation – it’s worth viewing the Youtube clip that shows Oppenheimer uttering the now famous “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” quote, as he says it with solemnity, tears, and the benefit of hindsight that only a lifetime of regret could see.
Galen Erso certainly regretted his work on the Death Star but as he saw it, the Death Star was going to be built whether he helped the Empire or not. Thus, he decided to focus his intellect to plant the infamous weakness in the Death Star that Luke Skywalker eventually uses to destroy it – and because Galen dies before it’s full power is unleashed, he never gets the opportunity Oppenheimer had to actually comprehend the destruction and loss of life he enabled or feel the weight of it (though, given his foresight, it seems reasonable to assume he’d thought about it and decided it was a risk worth taking).
Again, we could apply various ethical and moral theories to Galen’s decision to help the Empire and we’d see that his decision was indeed morally acceptable. But at root, it seems as if Galen wanted to give his life and his wife’s death meaning. Had he decided not to help finish the construction of the Death Star, his sin would have remained and the Erso name would’ve been worthless and insignificant – indeed the Rebellion considered him enough of a criminal to order his assassination. So, the only way to redeem himself (and give the Erso family meaning) was to sacrifice his life to make sure the Death Star could be destroyed.
This fits Nietzsche’s concept of affirmation – as Galen seized his moment – but it also illustrates Nietzsche’s idea of redemption as something that results from suffering. What’s required, for Nietzsche, is that we understand that our actions, especially those in the past, are something that we willed into being, rather than see them as something we couldn’t control. In other words, for Galen, he took control of his sin by using it to enable his redemption. He willed his actions and the Death Star into being, just as he willed the ability to destroy the Death Star – and thus, his redemption – into being.
It was an ethical and moral decision in its consequence, duty, and virtue. Doubtless, self-sacrifice for the greater good, as well as for loved ones, is virtuous and commendable from a moral and ethical perspective. Even his revenge and the immoral actions he had to utilize and embrace to pull it off (as he told Jyn in the hologram message “I learned to lie”) were in the service of a greater good and a greater outcome – certainly, utilitarianism and consequentialism, in general, allow for the ends to justify the means.
So, we can’t fault Galen for doing what he did (though, we could fault Anakin, as he knew exactly what he was doing and did it for selfish, not altruistic, reasons). Indeed, Galen is perhaps the greatest unsung hero of Star Wars and what is paramount is that, for Star Wars, Galen’s narrative changes the meaning of the initial Death Star’s destruction, as well as the nature of the Rebellion.
In the original trilogy, the Death Star was simply a manifestation of The Emperor’s lust for power and his desire to rule the galaxy through fear. Yet, in light of Galen’s role, the destruction of the Death Star transforms from a quest to defeat the Empire into a quest for redemption. As Rogue One shows, the Rebellion was ready to surrender before Jyn, Cassian, and their crew took matters into their own hands.
For the Rogue One crew, the quest was exactly about redemption. Consider the speech Cassian says to Jyn as he brings her a group of volunteers: “We’ve all done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion. Spies, saboteurs, assassins. Everything I did, I did for the Rebellion. And every time I walked away from something I wanted to forget, I told myself it was for a cause that I believed in, a cause that was worth it. Without that, we’re lost. Everything we’ve done would have been for nothing. I couldn’t face myself if I gave up now. None of us could.”
They all knew it would be a suicide mission and they signed up anyway because they didn’t want their lives to not have meaning. The beauty of it is that the only way to get meaning was to succeed, they had to steal the Death Star plans and get them to the Rebellion so the Death Star could be destroyed. Failure, as the saying goes, wasn’t an option. They had to find a way, no matter what – and it’s certainly interesting that Jyn, Cassian, Bodie, and perhaps even Chirrut and Baze, all seem to have Galen in mind during their fateful mission, as if they knew that their success or failure would either validate or negate Galen’s sacrifice.
Even K2SO seemed to know, despite being a reprogrammed Imperial Droid, that he needed to atone for the time he spent in service to the Empire by giving his life to help ensure the Empire’s destruction. Thus, the Rogue One team seized their Nietzschean moment of affirmation, allowing them to collectively atone for the things they’d done serving the Rebellion (or the Empire, in the case of K2SO, Bodie, and Galen).
What’s interesting is that none of the Episode films have this sense of urgency. Yes, the original Star Wars film dramatized the tension of a last-minute save. If Luke had failed, if Han hadn’t helped, if the Rebel Base on Yavin had been destroyed, the “bad guys” would’ve won. But really, they did win, not just because the Empire struck back but because eventually the First Order rose and kept on destroying planets. It’s why Anakin’s redemption doesn’t really work – because it ultimately wasn’t enough. Destroying the Emperor didn’t destroy the Empire, it just created the First Order and Supreme Leader Snoke.
Of course, this outcome was simply a repetition of what happened after Episode IV. The Death Star was destroyed but Vader lived, as did the Empire and this is what makes the next two episode films (and maybe even the Han Solo “stand alone” film) so crucial. Will Episodes VIII and IX work to restore the redemption Galen, Jyn, Cassian, K2SO and the rest of the Rogue Rebels gave their lives for (and which was seemingly negated after A New Hope) or will they continue to deny it?
The ending Episodes VIII and IX should work toward is one in which Kylo Ren contemplates the horrific nature of his crimes, realizes the evilness of the First Order, and gives his life to destroy Supreme Leader Snoke and the First Order for good (no more tyrannical regimes led by crazed dictators, no more clone armies, no more Death Stars). As much as we like Rey and Finn and Poe (and Luke, Leia, and Lando), the hero needs to be Kylo Ren because he’s the only one who could mirror Galen’s sacrifice and restore the redemption Rogue One worked so hard to achieve (which Anakin and possibly Luke seemed to have screwed up).
Thus, the lesson Rogue One illustrates is that the balance the Star Wars narrative is looking for isn’t found in The Force (it’s not about the Light Side versus the Dark Side or the Jedi versus the Sith) it’s found within ourselves and in our willingness to seek redemption through self-sacrifice. Or, from Nietzsche’s perspective, it’s about seizing the one moment that allows us to affirm our lives and redeem the galaxy.
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
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Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One. Penguin Classics, 1961.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Penguin Classics, 2017.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. DVD, Walt Disney Studios, 2017.
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“Star Wars Episode III: The Chosen One Featurette.” Youtube Video Clip, Sept. 10, 2010.
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