From Hero to Villain
How the Star Wars Prequels tell an important story of mental illness and abuse
I grew up on the Prequels. I’ll admit they aren’t the highest quality at times, but they are important to me all the same. Critics say the questionable acting and CGI make the Prequels hard to watch but one of the most common complaints I’ve heard is that they are also hard to watch because of Anakin Skywalker’s character. He is “whiny,” “petulant,” “weak-minded,” and “self-centered.” I agree that he is hard to watch, but not because of those things. He is hard to watch because he is suffering, openly and vividly. Perhaps he seems “whiny” but I entreat you to recall his whole story. His arc is one of abuse, manipulation, and suffering.
The prequels take place about 30 years before the originals in which Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo take down the Empire. They depict the events of the Clone Wars and Palpatine’s rise to power. Most importantly, they depict Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader.
Anakin’s story is a detailed depiction of mental illness and the cycle of abuse. When we first meet Anakin, in The Phantom Menace, he is a slave. His very life is owned by Watto, who won Anakin and his mother from Gardulla the Hutt. He is property. Anakin is freed with the help of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi but leaves his mother behind, still a slave.
Even without the events of the next two films, that’s more than enough trauma for one person. We do not know what kind of abuse Anakin suffered at the hands of Gardulla, but we do see Watto be harsh with him. Anakin’s mother seems to be the only person to show him love, but he has to leave her to pursue his dream of becoming a Jedi.
When Anakin leaves Tatooine, he suddenly has autonomy, the freedom to make his own choices. However, Anakin immediately goes into training, learning the strict rules of Jedi aestheticism. The Jedi, regardless of all the good they may have done for the galaxy, take Anakin’s autonomy away from him once again. He may have chosen this path, but how much true freedom of choice can a former 9-year-old slave have when asked by his idols to join them? In hindsight, this decision deprived Anakin of a stable emotional connection beyond the Jedi brotherhood. Therefore, it makes sense that as an adult he abandons everything in order to protect his loved ones.
Ten years after The Phantom Menace we meet Anakin again. We learn that he often ignores Obi-Wan’s orders in favor of his own half-cocked ideas. We learn that he feels, deeply. And then there are the dreams. Anakin dreams of his mother dying. Nightmares are not an uncommon symptom of trauma. He goes to rescue his mother only to have her die in his arms. In his anger, Anakin murders the entire village of Tusken Raiders who tortured her. Afterwards, he confesses to Padmé that he’d do anything to prevent this from happening again, that he would one day become strong enough to prevent death itself.
It’s this fear and the resulting anger that ultimately turn Anakin to the dark side. The dark side offers the power to prevent death, or so Palpatine tells him. Palpatine seems to know Anakin’s fears intimately, even his dreams of Padmé dying in childbirth. Palpatine plays off these fears to convince Anakin to follow him. At the same time, Anakin is mistrusted by the Jedi Council for already being too close to Palpatine and too emotional.
Multiple psychiatrists have informally diagnosed Anakin with borderline personality disorder, a mental illness characterized by instability in mood, behavior, and self-image. I won’t break down the entire diagnostic criteria and how Anakin meets them, but two of the symptoms are “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment” and “inappropriate, intense anger.” In case you’re not making the connections, one might consider death a form of abandonment. Regardless of Anakin’s 21st century Earth diagnosis, it’s clear to see that he is very Not Okay.
Anakin regrets what he’s done. We see this multiple times, even before his redemption in Return of the Jedi. His regret does not excuse the crimes he has committed. Nothing can. However, before writing him off as a character, consider this: Anakin is one of the most human characters in the trilogy. He is riddled with flaws, driven by fear, and the product of suffering. Anakin is allowed to feel and express his emotions more than anyone else. He openly weeps, which isn’t exactly something we get to see from men onscreen all that often. At the encouragement of Padmé, Anakin talks through what he’s experiencing. We are accustomed to seeing heroes who either make no mistakes or make a few before righting themselves. The prequel trilogy is the story of a troubled man who makes every single mistake, the story of the cycle of abuse and untreated mental illness.
When viewed as a 6-part story, Anakin’s story lines up more closely with the redemption narrative we’re used to. Perhaps the response to the Prequel Trilogy indicates that someone turning from good to evil is much harder to watch than a redemption arc. In my own personal opinion, it shows that while many viewers love a mysterious villain, watching the suffering it takes to become one is not so popular.
The portrayal of Anakin’s suffering is compassionate. He is frequently supported by Padmé and Obi-Wan. He is told his nightmares won’t come true, but he is never ridiculed for having them. And even after he turns to the dark side, Obi-Wan considers him manipulated by Palpatine’s lies, not truly evil. He is never ridiculed for believing the Emperor’s lies. When Anakin has his final break on Mustafar, Obi-Wan and Padmé plead with him, only turning to violence after Anakin himself does. They tell him again and again that they want to help.
Despite the violence perpetrated by Anakin, this is a more humane portrayal of mental illness than many films that refer to it by name. Perhaps it’s precisely because it goes unnamed that it can escape the cultural taboo on mental illness. Representation of mental illness in media is notoriously lacking. Villains are the ones most often coded as mentally ill and they rarely have redemption arcs or nuance to their situation. The choice to flesh out Anakin’s beginning offered a unique opportunity to give shades of gray to Vader’s arc, which I believe George Lucas and Company succeeded in doing. To me, this success makes the trilogy a valuable part of Star Wars and, because of representation, film history. It’s not every day you see a compassionate portrayal of abuse and mental illness in blockbuster geek media. It’s not a perfect portrayal, of course. The literal murder is not at all great for representation. But when the landscape for representation is so bleak, these films stand out to me.
Whether you loved or hated the prequels, let us not forget that they covered incredibly serious topics like mental illness, abuse, corruption, and genocide in a more nuanced way than many other films. Anakin’s story is one of suffering, a kind that demands to be seen and is allowed to unfold without censorship. This alone makes the prequels worth a second look.