Return of the Jedi has the reputation of being the weakest installment of the Original Trilogy, but it’s one of my favorite episodes of the film Saga, in large part because of a single perfect moment that plays out like this:
Luke drives Vader to his knees, severs his arm… and sees that Vader too had a prosthetic arm. We can see in Luke’s eyes that he is recognizing, perhaps for the first time, the extent to which he is Anakin Skywalker’s son, and that by acknowledging that awful inheritance, he has begun to understand his father and himself.
The Emperor advances, urges Luke to kill Vader. Instead, Luke deactivates his lightsaber and discards it and says…
(Come on—say it with me.)
“Never. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
My personal theory is that it is at this precise moment that the fate of the entire galaxy tilts irreversibly toward the light.
It’s a transcendently odd development: the key to a story with the word “war” in its title turns out to be nonviolence. Whose idea was that? It doesn’t feel like the kind of decision by committee that has dominated the franchise ever since. If we’re feeling uncharitable (and Star Wars fans always are), we might attribute it to George Lucas’s synthesis of the simplest, most universally palatable aspects of Buddhism and Christianity. It’s not an especially profound lesson, or an especially sophisticated narrative device.
But it is an unusual and, I think, a brave choice. Our expectation of fiction for adolescents is that the good guys will beat the bad guys by dint of strength or low cunning. And there is some of that traditional conquest dynamic in Return of the Jedi: although Luke backs down, Vader saves the day by hurling Palpatine over the railing, so it’s not exactly a pure victory for pacifism. And, of course, there’s Han and Leia’s derring-do on the Forest Moon.
Still, I love that all the Rebellion’s best-laid plans go badly awry until Luke takes a moment to stand outside of his entire concept of the central conflict in his life. He doesn’t really solve the problem of the Sith; his idea of the problem just expands until he realizes that it’s not all about righting the wrongs the Empire did him. It’s the final step of that journey into a larger world that began in the first film: the realization that other people hurt us because they’re hurting, too, and that no one will ever grow beyond that place of pain until we’re brave enough to extricate ourselves from the entire dynamic of conquest and counter-conquest.