There are villains that scare you. They show their power, and you know you’d never survive an encounter from them. There are villains whose intelligence and scheming make life hell for the heroes, and you can be genuinely impressed by them. In both cases, love them or hate them, you know they pose a very considerable threat.
Then there are what TV Tropes describes as “Ineffectual Sympathetic Villains", villains that may be just as evil or at least amoral as other bad guys, but for whatever reason the heroes just can’t bring themselves to take them completely seriously.
As a lover of character archetypes, George Lucas has included this form of villain in the Saga more than once, most notably personified in the Nemoidians of the Trade Federation. While Nute Gunray and his cronies are hardly nice people, they are just as much victims of the forces behind the Republic’s fall as any of our heroes.
Despite what certain hack critics will tell you, all you really need to know about the Trade Federation is spelled out in the opening crawl of The Phantom Menace. The Nemoidians are greedy as a culture. The Republic has just imposed taxations on trade routes and the Trade Federation doesn’t like that because…well…they’re the TRADE Federation. Taxes will just eat into profits. So they protest by blockading Naboo in order to make some sort of statement.
So we’ve set these folks up as a bureaucratic nuisance. Yes, the “blockade of deadly battleships” seems like more action then they’d usually take, and to the Naboo this is very severe since as a Republic world they rely on imports for their way of life. However, the attitude of the Republic is very much “Really? This is what you’re doing?” Chancellor Valorum secretly dispatches the Jedi as negotiators not because they think the Nemoidians are a great threat, but because as Qui-Gon points out they’re cowards who will wet their pants at the sight of the legendary monks. This was meant to be a quick and easy resolution. Qui-Gon isn’t wholly wrong either; flagship captain Daultay Dofine is ready to surrender the second the Jedi are identified. Unfortunately, Dofine is not in charge of the Trade Federation. In fact, in this campaign, not even Viceroy Gunray is in control.
Once Gunray mentions “Lord Sidious,” we finally realize that all is not as it seems. This is no longer a simple trade dispute now that the future Emperor is involved, even if the Federation thinks it is. It is Darth Sidious who orders them to kill the Jedi and fully invade Naboo. The Jedi evade them easily, but the invasion goes off with little trouble. Suddenly the Nemoidians are no longer ineffectual. They’re building internment camps, denying the locals much more than simply trade goods.
But would they be doing all this if Sidious wasn’t ordering them to?
They certainly don’t seem to have any qualms about committing these atrocities, and yet we get the very clear impression that Gunray and company would not have gone along with this had Sidious not repeatedly told them that this would all pay off in greater profits and no repercussions. Often in conversations between Gunray and Rune Haako there is a palpable fear for doing what they’re doing.
Of course, Sidious was lying through his teeth about protecting them. In reality, they were set up as scapegoats for “Senator Palpatine” to gain a sympathy vote in his bid for Chancellorship. I’ll go into more detail on the Sith Lord’s plot in an upcoming article, but suffice to say the Nemoidians were the perfect patsies. They were a large corporation, charged through the nose for things everyone needed, inexplicably had their own military force AND separate representation in the Galactic Senate. And, has been repeated ad nausium, they were well-known to be disgustingly greedy.
Knowing this as an audience, it’s not all that difficult to feel sorry for the Federation.
Once they are defeated by a certain nine-year-old slave and Naboo’s young queen, The Federation becomes more of a joke to anyone not directly involved in the blockade fiasco. Nute Gunray has become bitter, and since he can’t take it out on the Sith since they’re still “helping” him, he decides to get revenge on Amidala for outsmarting him. How does he do this? He hires Jango Fett to think of an interesting way to end her life. So not only is he petty, he’s not about to get his own hands dirty. This is further driven home by about every line of dialogue from his mouth during Attack of the Clones.
Now, all of the Expanded Universe is dubious canon at best, even the Clone Wars which is supposedly meant to be even more canon than the regular EU but still…not completely canon? It’s confusing, but the point is that I’m going strictly by the films here. In the films, from this moment in the story on, Gunray and the Nemoidians are not considered much of a threat by the audience, nor by the main heroes except as part of the Separatist Leaders. Dooku, and later Grievous, are the real targets of interest. Gunray talks a big game, but he’s still seen as a joke, even amongst his allies.
Then comes the moment on Mustafar when the Separatist Leaders meet Darth Vader and their fates. Young Skywalker probably has a major beef with the Viceroy because of the threat he indirectly posed to his love, which makes it even sadder that he’s now in the employ of the one truly responsible for everything that has been happening. Nute Gunray’s last words are very interesting:
“The war is over! Lord Sidious promised us peace! We only wanted –“
Thus the end of a villain. And don’t be fooled, he is a villain. He possessed very negative character traits and did some pretty nasty things to a lot of people. But were his last words sincere? Did he truly just want peace? Or was he just begging for mercy, a coward to the last? I do think a part of him, however small, truly meant what he was saying, but it doesn’t matter either way. He was used, exploited, and ultimately discarded by the Sith. Merely a pawn in the truest sense of the world.
And if that doesn’t inspire at least a shred of sympathy, I don’t know what does.