Over the years, Star Wars fans have rated the deaths of their favorite characters. From Jedi to Sith, Rogues to Mandalorians, we have wailed like a mother, crying, “My baby makes me so proud,” at some, and sworn like a sailor at others, cursing, “Man, I can't believe that happened. How could he go out like such a punk!” As a teacher, I always tell my students that everything in a story happens because the author wanted it to happen that way. If that’s true of Star Wars as much as it is of literary works, then that leaves us with a question: what was George Lucas and the writers of Star Wars trying to tell us through the ways that these iconic characters met their ends? Was there a deeper meaning behind having some characters go out in such an epic way while other just as iconic characters tripped embarrassingly across the finish line of life? To help answer these questions, I analyzed the deaths of five characters across the classic Star Wars Trilogy: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and Emperor Palpatine. In doing so, it becomes clear that George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, and the rest of the crew on these films crafted the deaths of these characters to mirror their actions. The characters who led selfless lives or lives of service had deaths that were honorable and epic, a celebration of their lives. In contrast, the characters who used their powers and abilities only to gain material goods or power died in ways that matched their lives: with little fanfare and few to mourn them.
Obi-Wan Kenobi’s life was characterized by sacrifice. As a Jedi, he was called to give up many things in order to be an instrument of justice in the galaxy. Birth families, possessions, and love came second in order to serve the weak and downtrodden of the galaxy. During the Clone Wars, Obi-Wan fell in love with a young Duchess of Mandalore named Satine, but rather than pursue it, he stuck to the Jedi path. He sacrificed his own personal happiness because he was dedicated to the way of the Jedi (and maybe a little scared that she didn’t feel for him in the same way; after all, he does admit in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars episode, "Voyage of Temptation," “If you had said the word, I would have left the Jedi Order.”) Following Order 66 and the fall of the Jedi, Kenobi was forced to sacrifice again. The loss of all his friends and Jedi family took Obi-Wan to the edge of hopelessness, but he dedicated himself to the protection of the son of Anakin Skywalker. Despite the fact that Anakin, someone Obi-Wan described as his brother, had taken everything from him, Kenobi left almost all signs of the only life he ever knew behind in order to preserve the boy that he and Yoda thought might be the best shot to right the wrong course the galaxy took that fateful day on Mustafar. All of Kenobi’s life of sacrifice came to a head in the hangar bay of the first Death Star. Face to face with his apprentice again, Obi-Wan engaged in a duel. Despite his lack of practice, there was the chance that Obi-Wan may have bested Vader, but that was not his chosen path. As Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids ran to the Millennium Falcon, Obi-Wan gave the very last thing he had, his body, so that the boy he’d watched and loved might live.
Ben Kenobi’s sacrifice led to a death of great significance. His body gone, his spirit fled into the force only to go on and affect the galaxy still. During the Battle of Yavin, Luke is able to trust in the Force and destroy the Death Star because he listened to the disembodied voice of Obi-Wan. Could he have punched those proton torpedoes past the Death Star’s ray-shielded exhaust port and blown that space station sky high without using the Force? Maybe. He certainly thought his experience blasting womp rats from his T-16 Skyhopper qualified him to do so, enough that he would voice that little countryism in front of a room of trained pilots who were all thinking, “Wait. You want us to go do what now?” It should be noted that despite Luke’s self-confidence in the briefing room, this was nothing like shooting womp rats. He saw many of his fellow pilots get shot down, including his best friend, Biggs Darklighter; he sent a wounded Wedge Antilles out of the battle after his ship was hit, and he lost Artoo from another blast from a TIE’s laser cannons. Despite all those signs that his time was up, he didn’t highjack that X-Wing and bug out. He trusted that there could be something to that weird, quiet, disembodied voice of a man he has only just recently met that told him that he had something special inside him. That’s a recipe for an instant Death Star firecracker, and the catalyst for all of that was the death of a man who gave up his happiness time and time again, so that others might be better able to find their own.
In the education field, there is always talk of being a lifelong learner. It means exactly what it sounds like, you don’t allow yourself to ever reach a point in your career where you say that you know it all and can learn nothing else. By being a lifelong learner, you continually expand your knowledge and grow as a teacher and human being. Yoda was a master at this. Towards the end of the Clone Wars, Yoda heard the disembodied voice of the deceased Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn, and despite initially believing that it could not really be his lost friend, he listened to this unlikely voice and learned many important lessons. The most practical may have been the ability to retain your consciousness after death in the form of a force ghost; yet, the most important lesson may have been a reteaching of what it meant to be a Jedi. The order had been manipulated like pieces on a chessboard by Darth Sidious, and it led to a war where the Jedi chose to compromise many of their most basic principles in order to win. Through his journey following the teachings of the Force Priestesses, Yoda was reminded that to fight the war in the way they were doing was to lose what it was that made them Jedi. As Mace Windu stated in Attack of the Clones, “We [the Jedi] are keepers of the peace, not soldiers.” In order to protect the republic that they prized so much, the Jedi forgot that they were to sow peace and not war, to serve people and the Force, not government. Yoda had to unlearn the lessons he and I the Jedi had recently taken to heart and go back to basics.
Compared to the passing of most of the Jedi we see, Master Yoda’s death must seem pretty mundane. After almost 900 years of triumphs and tragedy, he slips quietly and gracefully into the Force. It’s easy to write off Yoda’s death as being boring and perhaps significant only because he’s freaking Yoda, but it’s worth pointing out the profound impact his death has on Luke’s path and that it can have on ours. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda tells Luke that “Wars not make one great.” Yoda’s death is proof of that. He doesn’t need to go out in a blaze of glory, spinning like a lightsaber-tipped pinball through a mob of stormtroopers and Sith. His death is important because it most closely resembles our own lives. His death comes at the end of almost 900 years of learning and teaching, and he effected many. Even in his final conversation with Luke, Yoda says an awful lot. He verifies Vader’s claim of being Luke’s father, tasks Luke with confronting his father and the Emperor, and with his dying breath reveals the existence of another Skywalker. All of this propels Luke through to his most defining moment as a character: his defeat of Darth Vader through love and compassion not through violence and cutting off of limbs (I’m looking at you, Obi-Wan). Yoda’s death mattered because it was both his final lesson as a teacher and led to his first lesson as a force ghost. As Yoda’s spirit sits next to Obi-Wan’s and Anakin’s on the forest moon of Endor, he looks at Luke with pride because one of the greatest experiences a teacher can have is to have your pupil teach you something in return, and Luke taught Yoda a lesson about the compassion and love of the Jedi that day.
Anakin Skywalker life was one of opposites. He committed countless acts of heroism and bravery in the name of the citizens of the Galactic Republic only to balance that scale with scores of murder and persecution in the name of the Empire. Anakin’s life of Jedi servitude was corrupted, destroyed, and brought into a horrible state of balance by his life as a Dark Lord of the Sith. All of this led to his final confrontation with his son Luke on the second Death Star. There were many ways that his battle with Luke could have ended. If he killed Luke, he would have continued to serve in the rage-filled graces of a master who treated him only as a pawn to accomplish his will. If he turned Luke to the darkside, they may have overthrown Palpatine, but it would have most likely have only led to Luke eventually murdering his own father to gain power; after all, part of the Sith code states, “Two there should be; no more, no less. One to embody power, the other to crave it” (Darth Bane: Path of Destruction). Palpatine did this to his own master, Darth Plagueis; Vader planned to do this to Palpatine, if possible; and Luke would have done the same to Vader. Another possible outcome would be that Luke may have killed Vader, but that would likely have ended only with Luke stuck in the thrall of the dark side of the Force, serving as Palpatine’s new enforcer while Vader was left alone, a broken toy soldier who had outlived his usefulness. Luckily for Vader, the unthinkable happened. As he watched his son toss away his lightsaber and claim the title of Jedi in Anakin’s name, the electronic scales began to fall away from his eyes, and when Palpatine was torturing and preparing to kill Luke, Darth Vader could no longer keep the spirit of Anakin Skywalker imprisoned in the well of hatred and despair that had become his life. Anakin acted quickly, decisively, and lovingly to save the life of his son. In doing so, he returned from the tomb that what was the armor of Darth Vader and became his true self once more.
For me, the life of Anakin Skywalker is simultaneously both profound and challenging. I find the idea that he can commit such atrocities only to be redeemed by his son profound because it doesn’t make sense. How can a single act of kindness wipe clean the debt incurred from deaths like those of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Mace Windu, the younglings, and all the residents of the planet Alderaan? Mathematically it can’t. With Vader, the ledger should be irrevocably stained Sith red. That’s what makes his death so meaningful. It challenges us to reach beyond our limited understanding of sins and punishment and asks us to somehow believe that no matter what someone has done there can still be good in him or her. I don’t know if I can believe that even though I am asked to. If someone maimed or killed one of my friends, wife or daughter, I don’t know if I could easily believe that he or she could find redemption. I don’t know if I’d want to in that case, but that’s what makes Anakin and Darth Vader so pivotal. His character challenges us to struggle with problems that may be most beyond our mortal ability to understand: the concept of forgiveness and grace. That’s what makes his death and redemption so meaningful.
On the other side of the paradox that is Anakin and Darth Vader, is Emperor Palpatine. In the name of nothing more than his own lust for power, he killed and enslaved countless beings across the galaxy. His machinations brought to an end the Jedi Order, justified the destruction of Alderaan, and valued people only so much as they were helpful to him. From Darth Maul to Count Dooku, Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker, each was only valued as a way for him to keep his power.
Despite being such a powerful figure in the Star Wars Saga, the Emperor’s death is rather ignoble. Vader lifts him up above his head, walks him over to the pit, and throws him down. Despite the fact that Palpatine is able to deal the killing blow to Vader through his force lightning, he is almost literally tossed into a garbage can. In theory, the most powerful being in the universe at that time found that for all of the power his plotting had gained him, Luke’s faith in his friends and father won. Palpatine's lust for power had destroyed what once may have been worthwhile of his life leaving him with a death as cheap as trash.
Of all the deaths in the Star Wars galaxy, Boba Fett’s may be the most depressing. The most dangerous bounty hunter in the galaxy, the scourge of Mandalore, was brought down by the bumbling luck of a blind Han Solo. Unlike the Emperor, some may argue that Boba Fett did not deserve to be killed in such a way. As a bounty hunter, Boba Fett was simply carrying out the law. He hunted down Han Solo and other people who were terrorists and thieves acting out against the established law of the legitimate government, the Empire. Yet the same could have been said about people who supported segregation and slavery. To the letter of the law at the time, they were in the right, but by the moral code we are still struggling to hardwire into our society, they were dead wrong. While Boba Fett may not have overtly sought power as Palpatine did, he consciously chose to support a government that oppressed and enslaved others. Even the methods that Boba Fett employed to fulfill his bounty show us a man who has lost much of the moral center he may once have possessed. In Star Wars #6 by Marvel Comics, Boba Fett is sent by Darth Vader in search of the pilot who destroyed the Death Star. Through a series of three panels, Boba shoots some Rodians, slaughters some Jawas, and presumably executes a moisture farmer. As Boba states, “Someone on Tatooine knows his name. I want that name. And I don’t care who has to die for me to get it.”
Image courtesy of "Star Wars #6" Marvel Comics
Even if we can argue that Boba is hunting Luke, a Rebel terrorist, in the name of the ruling government of the time, his methods show a man devoid of any shred of mercy or decency. He has become a killing machine; a buzzsaw of blaster, blades, and armor that kills without remorse in the name of completing a job. Maybe that is why Boba Fett’s fate (at least for now) is to lie either partially digested in the Sarlacc Pit or perhaps dead and stripped of his armor on Tatooine. In his zealousness to become a great bounty hunter, he crossed lines that made him less a man and more just a morsel for an even bigger monster to chew up.
The way a character dies in Star Wars matters. It reflects the internal worth of a person. As they descend down a path of depravity, they earn a death of small renown with few fans who say, “Now, that was a satisfying death.” Their deaths match their lives. In a similar way, holding true to the path of moral integrity and service leads to a death that is honorable and meaningful to viewers. We weep for each Jedi’s and rebel’s noble end because through the good they did in their lives they deserved better. Perhaps that’s the way George Lucas planned it, and no force lightning or armor, no matter how cool, can overcome the will of the maker.
Are there deaths that you feel contradict this theory? Can you think of more deaths that help prove this concept? Are there details about Palpaltine or Boba Fett that give their lives enough value to earn them an honorable death? Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions with me through Twitter @mapplebee7567.