We often look at the villains or anti-heroes of movies as broken, flawed, or downright evil. The problem is we rarely look at what made them this way, if there could have been a way to prevent their fall. It took me a long time to realize the reasons two villains in the Star Wars universe spoke to me like they did, especially when I saw the reasons behind their fall. As someone who is neurodivergent and who has struggled with their emotions most of their life, one would think I’d latch on to the Jedi way of thinking, in fact that’s what most people wanted me to do. Emotional control, striving to better myself, the usual things people see when they think of the Jedi.
What they don’t see is the lack of positive reinforcement and the denial of care that is needed for people to thrive.
Growing up I always enjoyed movies like Star Wars, but I hated the messages people took from them to use on me. I came to loathe the Jedi due to people talking about how I should be more like them, how I shouldn’t let my emotions take control. I wanted to scream every time someone told me how anger clouded the mind or how anger led to the dark side. I even had a poster of quotations from Yoda on my wall that I grew to dislike so much that when I got the chance to get rid of it I set it on fire.
But it wasn’t until the prequels came out that I really felt a connection to the Star Wars universe. Even as an avid lover of the Expanded Universe the prequels, even with all their bad writing and cringe worthy romance scenes, spoke to me. I saw myself in the experiences teenager/adult Anakin went through, and that is why I’m going to state my case for why I defend both him and his grandson, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. In my argument for Anakin, I will be excluding his romance with Padme as I feel he would have fallen regardless of this, and she was merely one of the many catalysts to him eventually becoming Darth Vader.
I am the oldest of two children in my family, and I grew up with the constant reminders of my parent’s achievements. Phrases like, “We did it in X amount of years, why can’t you?” still ring in my ears. I started judging myself off my parent’s achievements instead of my own. I began to see myself as a failure because I wasn’t as good as they were or as good as I felt they wanted me to be. Eventually, I “fell to the dark side” and lashed out at everyone and everything around me.
It took me almost three decades to finally understand that the emphasis of good and evil people place on the light and dark sides of the force were incorrect, that the force was neither good nor evil and that while one side represented passion and emotion, the other side represented the balance through serenity and calm. The two needed each other for balance, and focusing on only one side would lead the person to errors in judgment. I realized that in many cases, the Jedi were just as evil if not more evil than the Sith they claimed to fight against.
In the prequels, we see a young Anakin being taken in by Qui Gon Jin. His potential is so great that Qui Gon even cheats when it came to whether Anakin winning the pod race would result in Anakin or his mother being freed. He is taken in front of the council and they too acknowledge his potential, but also that he is full of fear and emotional attachments. While they initially turn him down, at the end of the first movie we see him being accepted as a padawan.
As the years pass, he proves himself to be both powerful in the force as well as a quick and agile learner in almost every situation he is put in. We see him being placed in charge of a clone squadron and through the Clone Wars animated series we see him grow as a person as well as rising to prominence as a Jedi as well as a general. Every hurdle thrown in his path he overcomes, however the reassurance he needs in his actions, that he’s doing the right thing or that his actions are even worth it is often so lacking that he clings to any positive reinforcement he can get. When Palpatine praises him, he latches on to those few crumbs of kindness and reassurance because he is constantly being asked by the council to stretch himself thinner and thinner for little to no positive reinforcement.
While many could argue that the Jedi do not need such things, they do need to admit that you can only stretch something so far before it breaks. The Jedi council continues to place responsibilities upon Anakin without the reinforcement that others received, such as requiring him to take on the role of a Jedi Master but without the rank or title. They punish him for the slightest error or misstep, leaving him questioning himself and his own worth.
The council holds him to such high standards that when he fails to meet them he punishes himself. He begins to doubt his own actions and worth because he can’t meet the ever higher expectations. When he reaches out for help from those he’s supposed to trust and work with he finds himself told that a Jedi doesn’t need such reinforcement, that he should look to the force. He begins to feel the strain and weight of everything he’s being asked to do, and with no real form of reward or even a reprieve from everything, he begins to crack.
The council refuses to grant him the rank he has been acting in and performing, leaving him feeling like they’re just using him. He finds himself feeling like he’s being set up to fail, that no matter how hard he tries he won’t be good enough in their eyes. The council winds up being the one to place him in the arms of a person who would wind up using him for their own means by their requests to have him spy on Palpatine.
I found myself in the arms of an abuser because I was so desperate for positive reinforcement that I clung to any I could get. I clung to people who didn’t hold me to the same standards as my parents, to people who made me feel like I was worth it. Even though looking back I know my parents were trying to motivate me to do better, I found myself at the time feeling like I could never be good enough and so the moment someone came along telling me I was good enough, I clung to them…even if they only turned out to be saying that to use me.
We see Anakin finally falling to the dark side as he realizes that he will never be good enough for the Jedi council, but he is good enough for Palpatine. In his desperation for any form of positive reinforcement he clung to someone who only saw him as a means to an end. His pain and anguish that he had held back for so many years, the constant “you’re not good enough for X” finally breaking him to the point that he’s lashing out at everyone and everything, even the children who could have easily been taken and converted into dark force users like the kind we see in Star Wars Rebels.
It is only after he is finally spent, after he’s exhausted himself to the point that he’s near death, that he’s finally able to realize the damage he did. By lashing out he has wound up killing everyone he once cared for. He’s destroyed everything he knew and worked to maintain. He’s fully at the mercy of an abuser who will replace him once he’s no longer useful.
He’s fallen because the bar had been set so high he couldn’t reach and then was blamed for not being able to reach.
While he does in the end redeem himself, he passes this legacy along to his son and to his grandson. In The Last Jedi we hear about how Luke took Ben Solo and some other force sensitive children and began training them. Ben shows himself to be strong in the force and highly sensitive, and this leads to him in some ways not receiving the same reinforcement and work as the other students.
He’s the grandson of Anakin Skywalker and the nephew of the great Luke Skywalker, he should be able to do all of this standing on his head, right?
Luke talks about how Ben’s affinity to the dark side was growing and that he should have paid attention to it sooner, showing that he was making the same mistakes that had been made with Anakin. We hear from Kylo that it was Luke’s betrayal that led him to finally fall, leaving us to realize how much he looked up to his uncle. The man he trusted the most, who he looked to for the reinforcement he needed, was standing over him with an ignighted lightsaber. Even though Luke admits he wasn’t going to kill him, the damage was done. Ben broke and became Kylo. We see Kylo time and time again trying to prove himself to others, trying to prove he’s worth keeping around or that his opinion is worth listening to. We see him lashing out in anger but often turning it on inanimate objects as opposed to people when things become too much. While many could say he’s just a boy throwing a tantrum over not getting his way, almost all of the times he lashes out are due to failure on his part. Even as Kylo Ren he’s still seeing the bar that had been set by others hanging above his head. Every time he fails at something he realizes he’s not good enough, that he’s letting people down.
Even today, at almost 36 years old, I still look above my head and I see that bar that was set by my parents and others around me. I see how far out of reach it still is, I hear their voices asking me why I haven’t been able to reach it, why I couldn’t do it in the same time period they did. I can feel myself being stretched thin by their expectations and demands, and I can sympathize with Anakin and Kylo. I feel the constant struggle of giving up, of lashing out at everyone around me, of burning everything to the ground because I cannot do what others feel I can and should be able to do.
While most people look at Anakin and Kylo and see villains, I look at them and see two people who had so much expected of them that they finally broke. I see two people who were constantly held to ever more impossible standards, who were punished every time they failed but rarely if ever rewarded for their successes.