Friday, September 13, 2013

What Measure is a Tusken?

(Originall Written for Jedi News

 A young Jedi perches atop a desert canyon in the dead of night. Below lay a camp of nomads, such as the kind that have kidnapped the Jedi’s mother and decimated the band that had initially set out to rescue her. The young man drops down, stealthily infiltrating the camp, and manages to find his mother. But it is too late. She cannot even finish her praise of seeing him all grown up before she passes away, filling the Jedi with such sorrow, rage, self-loathing, and fear, that for a moment the dark side takes him. Blinded by the dark, he slaughters the entire camp.

This is one of the most pivotal scenes in Attack of the Clones, and indeed the Star Wars Saga in general. It’s also one of the more troubling. How does one reconcile what happened? Many explanations have been put forth, but they all fail to take different things into account.

First of all, let’s look at why it happened the way it happened. The Jedi in question is, of course, Anakin Skywalker. Anakin will eventually fall to the dark side and become Darth Vader. We’re told that Anakin is a good person, and essentially he is. So how in the world does he turn to the dark side in any meaningful way? Well, we see the track laid down in Phantom Menace. It all has to do with emotion.

We see that the Jedi eschew emotions in order to keep a peaceful, unbiased view of the world free from the passions that frequently lead people astray. This is all well and good on paper, but most sentient beings, humans especially, are creatures of emotion. Instead of understanding this and emphasizing redirection, the Jedi are (ironically) so fearful of negative emotions that lead to the dark side that they preach outright repression. However, the more you repress, the worse things come out and at unexpected times.

Enter Anakin Skywalker. In Phantom Menace, we see he is good, kind, and eager to help. Yet he wears his emotions on his sleeve, and he’s far more loyal to people than to ideologies. The Jedi generally take new members as infants so that there will be no parental abandonment issues. Anakin is nine years old, however, and very much attached to his mother, Shmi, the only real family he’s ever known. The Jedi know this is bad news, but after Qui-Gon’s death they consider he might be right about Anakin being the prophesized “Chosen One” who will bring balance to the Force, and decide to train him anyway.

Now, you might say that Qui-Gon was wrong to take Anakin in the first place and should have left him where he was. Well, aside from the fact that slavery sucks and any chance to free someone is probably one to be taken straight away, I plan on talking about how Qui-Gon is different from the basic Jedi in a future article. For now, let’s leave it at the fact that Qui-Gon would have probably been able to arrange for he and/or Anakin to check in on Shmi periodically.

Unfortunately, Qui-Gon died, leaving Obi-Wan in charge. And while Obi did loosen up a bit, at the end of the day he was still a model Jedi who would forbid Anakin from even thinking about his mother. And because Anakin Skywalker is a creature of emotion, he misses his mother and fears for her safety, as she is still a slave. But as he is repressed, his negativity builds up. He becomes moody, and when he starts having prophetic dreams about her demise, not being able to act the hero and save his loved one eats away at him further.

So you can imagine that, once he finally does come to her aid while on his first solo mission, showing up just too late would break him. He had a moment of pure weakness and took it out on those that kidnapped his mother…as well as everyone else in the camp.

And now we come to the Tusken Raiders, better known outside fan circles as “Sand People.” What do we know about them, just judging from the movies? We saw them in New Hope as sort of violent Bedouin nomads who would kill you as soon as look at you. Can’t go out at night or too far into the wilderness, since the Sand People are roaming about. They attack Luke seemingly randomly. Is it a territorial thing? Maybe, but the next time we see them in Phantom Menace they’ve camped out on the Canyon Dune turn for the express purpose of taking potshots at the podracers competing  in the Boonta Eve Classic. They graze Anakin and cause Teemto Pagallies to crash. Clearly there’s malice there.

Finally, we find out in Attack of the Clones that they raided the Lars Homestead and captured Shmi Skywalker. An angry mob was formed, and few of them returned alive and even fewer unscathed. When Anakin finds Shmi, she is tied to a post and shows heavy signs of physical abuse, with cuts and scrapes. We are never told in the films why they took her or exactly what they did with her, though some supplemental material suggests a Tusken rite of passage includes torturing a living being for an extended period of time. In any case, the Tuskens are nasty, nasty customers.

But does this excuse Anakin slaughtering the entire population of the camp, an act that has been labeled tantamount to genocide?

Of course not, and it’s not meant to. We see afterwards that while he still harbors feelings of rage and hatred towards the Sand People as a whole, he’s nearly paralyzed by the guilt of what he’s done. This is definitely meant to show a major step in Anakin’s journey towards the dark side, and where his weaknesses lie. But he hasn’t truly fallen yet. We are meant to sympathize with his feelings, though we know he was wrong to act on them. We see he was wrong for the right reasons, for who among us can honestly say we wouldn’t be tempted were we in his shoes? But he went too far. He knows it and, as an audience, so do we. That’s why it’s uncomfortable for us. Anakin is supposed to be this great paragon, but he’s just as flawed as any of us.

There’s one last bit of ambiguity that I want to address, and that is Padmé’s reaction to this startling confession. I’ve heard arguments that Padmé should have condemned what to some seems an obvious psychopath, and that her choosing instead to comfort him shows that she has little character or condones the massacre. But Anakin is not a psychopath, not yet. The proof is in his emotions, how the mere memory is making him break down. Padmé probably thought his guilt was punishment enough, and for all his talk about “slaughtered them like animals,” I can imagine her doubting it was really as premeditated as all that. She probably assumed that he defended himself from violent attackers and grief made him indiscriminate. It’s honestly what I would assume had I not seen him start the fight with my own eyes, and knowing only what Padmé knows about Anakin up to this point. Plus, against her better judgment, thought she still refuses to admit it even to herself, by that point she was in love with him. Even the strongest people do crazy things when they’re in love.

As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and I think there is no summation quite as fitting for Anakin Skywalker’s story arc. The Tusken Raiders, by practicing their culture in the way they do, caused an innocent death. But the length of revenge taken on them was also wrong. It was the start of Anakin’s fall, but because of his guilt he can still be sympathetic, and it’s clear he could have been redeemed even then had other events not transpired the way they did. For any movie to spark this kind of discussion, especially a silly space opera for 7-12-year-olds, is certainly a mark of quality in my book.


  1. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, albeit without a clue how to do iambic pentameter:

    What a piece of work is a Tusken! How noble in
    reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving
    how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
    in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the
    world! The paragon of animals (whom I have slaughtered
    most bloodily, for they are whom I loath!)

    Expert analysis, Adam. I've been in more than a few Tusken Massacre flamewars myself. I've locked rhetorical horns with both those who think the Tuskens deserved what they got (and then some!) and those who felt they couldn't sympathise at all with Anakin after he annihilated the tribe. The massacre is a greyscale division in the chronology between the cocky, confident, self-absorbed but ultimately harmless young Anakin and the brooding, violent adult Anakin who ultimately defects. Just compare his demeanour at the beginning of AOTC with that at the beginning of ROTS. An OT parallel is Luke's revelation of his parentage and his grievous wounding on Bespin resulting in a change in Luke's character. After that, he's the authoritative Jedi in the making, strikingly different in his overall demeanour from the cocky young Rebel pilot and farmboy.

    Something I enormously appreciate about the PT (not exclusively so, albeit, but it excels at this) is that despite its space opera broad brushes, it portrays most of its characters and plot entities as complex individuals rather than purely archetypes. In the context of AOTC's Tatooine section, Anakin, Padme, the Tuskens and the Lars family are all shown to be flawed in some very big ways. I anticipate seeing your article on Qui-Gon, because he is the one PT character who is most commonly regarded as flawless, and I've seen many differing points of view on that notion.

    1. Your preamble made me think: why did the people doing Shakespeareean Star Wars start with New Hope when I-III are already very much like the Bard's work?

      Yes, Qui-Gon won't be here for a while, but I'm looking forward to writing it.

    2. That's possibly one reason right there: ANH, as sublime as its mixture of influences is, is more of a clear-cut space opera than the other films, especially compared to the PT, so there might be some appeal in the irony of rewriting it in Shakespearean prose. To be clear, ANH is still more likely to have its script picked over by distant future high school English literature classes than 'most any other film I can think of. It's also the one everyone thinks of when they think of SW and definitely the most upbeat of all the films.

      There might be other reasons, but you fill the gaps. :P

    3. "Something I enormously appreciate about the PT (not exclusively so, albeit, but it excels at this) is that despite its space opera broad brushes, it portrays most of its characters and plot entities as complex individuals rather than purely archetypes"

      This is true of the original films as well, to be fair.

    4. Hence the "not exclusively so" qualifier, and even then most of that complexity comes in the later half whereas I-III kind of revels in it from the beginning.

    5. Mm, I wouldn't say so. In terms of characters the trilogies both work in the same fashion, which is to first establish the characters in archetypal fashion, then build on them through the next couple films (this is for the moment ignoring issues of actual quality- I obviously have reservations about how well the prequels *do* develop those characters, but that's irrelevant to the discussion at hand).

      I mean, for all that Anakin or Padme or Obi-Wan might have more complex and nuanced characters later on, it's hard to really define them as such within the confines of TPM. You might see *seeds* of what develops them further on, for sure, but then isn't that true of Luke, Leia, and Han as well?

    6. I'll give you Leia in Hope subverts the damsel in distress from the off, but everyone else seems content to play their roles in Hope (not to say there's no character development, but it's pretty standard). Phantom's ensemble, on the other hand, sprouts much sooner due to that film's obsession with duality.

      Granted, I think this has more to do with the fact that IV-VI faced far more gear-switches in terms of plot development than I-III.

    7. Don't forget you also see Luke's recklessness along with his idealism, and Han's capacity for compassion and love along with his cynicism. I mean, that's the nature of what sequels do with characters- the first film takes characters that grow and develop, and the next film takes that as a starting point and goes in new and more nuanced directions with them.

      (also, duality does not *necessarily* mean character depth. Padme being both Queen and Handmaiden, for example, isn't something that impacts her character, at least not in a way that we *see* in the film. She's still fairly static, mainly taking on the Leia role)

    8. I disagree, though it is subtle enough to miss. Queen and Haandmaiden are very different personalities, but once she reveals herself to Boss Nass, she becomes an amalgamation.

      Also, you're using "depth" and "complexity" interchangeably, when they mean very different things.

    9. I wouldn't say so- the occupation has an *impact* on personality (well, actually, it's typically the other way round for a lot of characters, but still), but it doesn't outright define that personality- You can have a feisty queen and a feisty handmaiden. So what matters is how we *see* those sorts of things impact the character and how the character grows and develops from that.

      And when talking about characters, "depth" and "complexity" are so close to each other that they're almost basically interchangeable... when you're giving a character more depth, essentially what you're doing is making them more complex.

    10. Not always. However, I'm in no mood to argue semantics and it's beside the point. The point being, naturally, that Star Wars is awesome.