In preparation for the finale of Clone Wars, I did a binge watch through the highlights of the first seven seasons. The show starts a bit slow and takes some time to get its footing, but once it gets rolling, it’s absolutely great – easily one of the most fully realized elements of the Star Wars universe beyond the original trilogy. It does a great job with fleshing out its corner of the story and breathing life into all of the characters it touches. But there’s one glaring place it falls down – it does not give us any sort of adequate explanation for how Anakin becomes Darth Vader and turns to the Dark Side, or why. This was left to remain with Episode III, which also did a dismal job of showing this transition. It’s simply not believable that the character of Anakin, as he’s portrayed even to the very end of Clone Wars, becomes the greatest villain the universe has ever seen. There are a few glimmers of rule breaking – sometimes he kills someone to fix a problem and Obi-Wan shrugs disapprovingly. But even to the end, he’s still Anakin Skywalker, hero of the Clone Wars, and you’re rooting for him. There’s really no Darth Vader there.
As you might expect, I have a way to fix it.
Let’s back up a bit more and start with something else that’s completely unbelievable – Anakin’s relationship to Padme. As portrayed in Episode II, Padme goes from not really wanting to be around Anakin to being in love with him very quickly. There’s no real explanation offered for this change of heart, though it’s hinted at a bit. Anakin is probably the most powerful Force user… ever. It’s never explicitly stated that this is possible, but we know that the Force can have effects on people who aren’t Force-sensitive. What if the Force could be used to manipulate someone’s emotions and make them fall in love? If that’s not a Dark Side power, I don’t know what is. But what if a sufficiently powerful Force user could do this subconsciously, without even realizing they were doing it? Let’s say that’s what happened. Padme isn’t really in love with Anakin, but she thinks she is due to the effects of the Force, and he doesn’t even realize what’s going on. Things go on like that for a while, their relationship progresses. And then, eventually, she gets pregnant, with at least one extremely powerful Force sensitive fetus (Leia’s Force-sensitivity is up in the air, we’ll discuss that another day). As this child grows within her, a protective aura follows, and she starts to resist and realize what has transpired. Padme goes to the only person she can trust with this information, General Kenobi. Anakin doesn’t understand, he’s confused. Maybe this is the point at which Palpatine throws the switch and convinces Anakin that Padme and Obi-Wan are conspiring against him. In a jealous rage, he confronts them.
Anakin has always been the better warrior, more cunning, more daring, more bold. Obi-Wan is losing, but maintaining his ground. Anakin starts to get frustrated with the fight, and Padme tries to break it up. Anakin loses control and inadvertently unleashes a Force lightning blast, which stands to mortally wound Padme. At the last minute, Obi-Wan inserts his lightsaber into the blast, turning it back on Anakin. The feedback leaves his body badly scarred and damages his limbs. Obi-Wan speaks some reason into him, but it’s too late. Anakin is devastated by what he’s done. His body is wrecked, and his mind is crushed under the weight of years of guilt, brought to a head by the murder of the woman he does truly love. Padme is rushed to a medical droid where the twins are saved, but she doesn’t survive. Palpatine arranges for Anakin to be transferred to his private hospital for special care, but no one ever checks up on him because they’re distracted with the fall of the galactic Senate and the massacre of the Jedi which somehow takes 20 more years to result in the destruction of the Republic.
Anyway: Arise, Lord Vader.
It didn’t have to go specifically this way, there are a lot of other ways to tweak it. Maybe Obi-Wan and Padme have a secret attraction and there’s a love triangle, more motivation for Palpatine to spark. Maybe there’s some other event that doesn’t involve fridging Padme (like even the canon version does). Maybe you don’t like the whole Force lightning thing and that’s too close to how Palpatine got the way he was (but I’d get rid of that too). The point here is that like so much other recent Star Wars, they were so close to having this be epically great, and missed the mark with sloppy storytelling and weak character motivations. Anakin being such a powerful Force user that he can tap into Dark Side powers without even realizing it, and then becoming addicted to it after a mental collapse from accidentally hurting people he loved – that would have been a pretty interesting arc to me. We’re never given a compelling reason why Anakin turned to the Dark Side, and the masterful filling in that the rest of Clone Wars did brings this into even harsher focus.