Michael O’Connor debuts on RetroZap with an exploration of the nuance in Anakin and Padmé’s relationship.
Power to the Prequels! is a new ongoing column that aims to critique and analyze the Star Wars prequels and demonstrate their worth as individual films and also as components of a larger saga. The goal is neither to blindly praise these films nor condemn them but rather to specifically and respectfully consider the artistic decisions made by director George Lucas and draw conclusions that may differ from the mainstream consensus.
Since I’m new here and this is my first piece for RetroZap, I suggest we break the ice in the most uncomfortable, awkward way possible. One of the biggest banthas in the room of any Star Wars conversation is the romance between Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones, so that seems like a great place to start.
I’m going to come right out and say it: some of the scenes between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman are my least favorite of the entire saga. These two should so obviously NOT be together. But is this a fault of direction, acting or script? Is this a case of Lucas trying to sell us on a romance that simply, objectively does not work on the screen?
No, not really. I think there’s something more subversive at work here.
The romance between Anakin and Padme has its defenders, and many excellent pieces have been written about what makes the two of them a strong and believable couple. I am sympathetic to the notion, but I disagree with the conclusion. I think the mistake that both the haters and the lovers of this star-crossed couple commit is believing that the romance should be taken at face value. Schmaltzy John Williams score aside, the film takes every opportunity to demonstrate why these two are fundamentally wrong for one another while still making a logical case for them to end up together.
Spoiler warning: it doesn’t have anything to do with romantic love.
Let’s start with Anakin. At this point in the story, he’s not evil, he’s worse; he’s a teenager. He’s arrogant, sullen, petulant… like many young men at that age. He’s lived the last ten years separated from an affectionate, loving mother and been told to let go of his feelings of attachment towards others despite the fact that he’s already had at least eight years to practice doing the opposite (a key reason why Yoda cautions against training him). To make matters worse, Palpatine has been manipulating him for a decade, feeding on his insecurities and subtly undercutting the Jedi’s teachings. He strokes his ego early in the film, insisting that he is “gifted” and will become the “greatest” of all the Jedi, “even more powerful than Master Yoda”; apparently, Anakin believes this propaganda, as he tells Obi-Wan that he already considers himself to “rival Master Yoda as a swordsman.”
But clearly that’s a load of bullshit. Consider Anakin’s record in Attack of the Clones. He leaves his master open to attack by Zam Wessel after causing the bounty hunter’s speeder to crash land, completely loses control in the Tusken Raider camp after failing to save his mother, manages to get separated from Padme in the Geonosis factory and then gets his hand mechanically sewn into steel, is captured by Jango Fett and the Geonosians in his failed effort to rescue Obi-Wan, gets electrocuted and then amputated by Count Dooku, and manages to lose his lightsaber, then gets it destroyed, then briefly acquire a second lightsaber in his duel with Dooku… and then gets it destroyed too.
This kid is a rookie, and deep down he knows it. For all his talk of Obi-Wan holding him back, his arrogance and cocksuredness is really just a smokescreen for his feelings of inadequacy. He’s supposed to be The Chosen One, but he’s a complete failure as a Jedi protege; he’s trying to live up to everyone’s high standards and he keeps getting humiliated in the process.
So what does this have to do with romance?
Enter: Senator Amidala. Anakin has had ten years to build up the image of Padme into something that isn’t even real. He’s obsessed with her as an IDEA, an objectification of feminine perfection. Lacking and longing for a maternal figure in his life, he allows Padme to fulfill this role in his mind. She was the one who first showed affection and concern for him after leaving his mother behind on Tatooine and he’s used to seeing her as someone who is beautiful, mature, and caring.
But the problem is that his infatuation for her doesn’t evolve past that idea. He is in love with her because of the way he feels around her, simply by her existence rather than any particular human trait or action she performs in his presence. As he says to Obi-Wan, “Just being around her again is… intoxicating,” and later to Padme on Naboo, “Your presence is soothing.”
The real Padme–what she represents, how she feels about the galaxy, her personal interests, passions, and feelings–is ultimately meaningless to him. He bristles at her attempt to take charge of the Naboo accommodations, insisting that he is in charge of security. It’s a strange, awkward moment and I think it’s worth dwelling on. There’s an insinuation here that Anakin doesn’t really know Padme at all. She is a former leader of this planet and would know the best place to hide from potential attackers; he reduces her to a damsel in distress stereotype, projecting upon himself the role of protector and warrior. There is something condescending and even a bit sexist in his insistence that he should be in charge.
Similarly, Anakin is largely disinterested in anything Padme has to say about politics and social philosophy, the two things in the galaxy that are most important to her. When he lets slip his true feelings about the way the government should function in the Naboo meadow and Padme calls him on it sounding like a dictatorship, consider his response. He says, “Well, if it works” and then bluffs himself out of the potentially damaging comment with a laugh, convincing her he was just kidding.
We know that he wasn’t, so why this artful bit of misdirection? Because he is not questioning his infatuation with Padme and he is purposefully ignoring or avoiding altogether whatever threatens to sabotage his idealized image of her (and subsequently trying to avoid the same in her eyes towards him). Rather than engage Padme openly and speak to her honestly in an effort to learn whether they are actually compatible, he changes subjects when things get uncomfortable and insists that he’s “given up trying to argue” with her by the time they reach Geonosis.
In his mind, she is someone to win over, to help him feel superior, to cover up in his own mind his limitations as a Jedi. She is the balm for his wounded ego and a maternal figure to ease his anxieties and self-doubt, not a true romantic partner.
Perhaps all of this is obvious enough, but it begs the question: why would someone as smart, resourceful and cultured as Padme Amidala fall in love with this guy?
The answer is that she doesn’t. Not really.
Consider what we know about Padme. This is a young woman who grew up taking care of an entire planet. Then she relinquished that role to become a senator and now finds her ability to affect change considerably hampered by the political bureaucracy of a deadlocked, corrupt Senate. Her whole raison d’etre is to help others, to make the galaxy a better place.
She has never experienced a normal childhood, never had a serious relationship outside some crush on an artist while working for something called the Legislative Youth Program. This is a career-oriented woman who prioritizes her mission for making the galaxy a better place over her personal life.
But Anakin forces her to think about herself. Sure, he does it in the least suave way possible with his creepy leering and all his talk of dreaming about her and his teenage melodrama nonsense about the kiss he pressured out of her becoming “a scar” if she doesn’t commit to him.
But he’s telling her something she’s not used to hearing and forcing her to consider herself not as a politician or royalty but as the subject of someone’s longing. It’s hard to not feel flattered, even if the first instinct is embarrassment, unease and reaching for whatever happens to be the Star Wars equivalent of pepper-spray.
But being flattered is different from being excited by the possibilities of a relationship with somebody. Padme is in the unfortunate scenario (foisted upon her by Chancellor Palpatine) of spending her every waking hour with Anakin, which means she either has to surrender to his affections or constantly fend off his advances. To her credit, she repeatedly does the latter and makes it pretty obvious that she feels uncomfortable with his feelings for her and does not share them. She thinks of him as a friend and a kid and shuts him down every time he awkwardly flirts with her.
Even during a moment of weakness with the kiss on Naboo, she tears herself away and resets the boundaries. She even puts the kibosh on Anakin’s crazy plan to develop a secret romance, refusing to answer whether she feels anything for him. It’s only when Anakin stops trying so damn hard to campaign for her love that she finally sees in him the quality that attracts her.
She sees Anakin’s anguish and concern over his mother, how it tears him apart, how he is so utterly committed to his attachment for someone that he will endanger his mission, fly to the other side of the galaxy and then go gunning for Tusken Raiders solo (even after news of a whole hunting party getting slaughtered). She sees a raw, exposed Anakin when he returns and bares his soul to her, admitting that he murdered everyone in the village out of revenge and fury.
She could abandon him at this point. She could be frightened and turned off and repulsed by him as the audience is in that moment. We’re yelling at the screen, “Get away from this guy! He’s trouble! He’s going to torture his future daughter, cut off his own son’s hand and stand idly by as some pompous aristocrat blows up a peaceful planet!”
But of course she can’t see the future. Instead she sees a problem she thinks she can fix. She’s found her raison d’etre again. The Senate may be a clusterfuck, but surely she can reach this one person. Surely she can save him.
Padme’s love pledge to Anakin at the Geonosis Arena is a particularly integral scene and also a bit mystifying. When Padme professes her commitment to Anakin, he seems almost as shocked as the audience. She loves him?! HOW? WHY?
I think there are a couple of things going on here. First, she sees someone who has just lost his mother and has now failed to save his master; she knows they’re both going to get killed, and she decides to tell him WHAT he wants to hear HOW he wants to hear it. I believe that her over-the-top insistence that she’s been “dying a little bit each day” since he came back into her life and that she “truly… deeply…” loves him is as much trying to convince herself of the emotion as it is to convince him.
She is making a conscious decision in this moment, but it is still circumstantial and emotional. I’m not saying she’s intentionally lying about her affections to Anakin; rather that she has confused her honest, platonic, maternal affection for Anakin with romantic love, partly because she’s inexperienced in romantic relationships and partly because she’s about to be torn apart by a herd of crazy space beasts and wishes to feel the mutual glow of love in that one moment prior. To me, this is as crucial—and almost as tragic—a turn for a character in the prequel trilogy as Anakin’s decision to join the dark side in Revenge of the Sith.
Any chance of retreating from her love pledge after they survive the arena promptly ends the moment Anakin gets his ass kicked and his arm chopped off by Count Dooku. Handicapped and dispirited, he is in greater need of healing of both the the emotional and physical varieties than ever before.
In the final moments of Attack of the Clones, the juxtaposition of the two ceremonies—a clone army assembling and Anakin and Padme’s wedding—serves as ominous warnings for the future of the galaxy. Palpatine has manipulated both the Republic and the Separatists and successfully started a galaxy-wide war to cement his position of power; meanwhile Anakin has inadvertently ruined a young woman’s life; his weaknesses, his vulnerabilities, his injuries both mental and physical, his childish temper-tantrums of bravado and passion have caused Padme to confuse her charitable affections for his well-being with romantic love.
The joyless, funereal pall hanging over the wedding, the clouds in the distance, the setting sun, even the droids’ fidgeting are clues that this is not true love between two people meant for each other; rather it is a mutual commitment between two people who could not be more different and who will inevitably fail to find true love in their lifetimes.
Michael O’Connor is a writer, filmmaker, and designer with a deep affection for film, literature, comic books… and craft beer. You can read his musings, check out his stories and watch his films at OCONNOBLOG. You can also check out his apparel company, George Shot First, and pick up a one-of-a-kind t-shirt or hat in honor of Star Wars creator George Lucas! Follow him on Twitter and Facebook at the links below.