Some people feel that the Emperor’s attempt to turn Luke to the Dark Side in Return of the Jedi is a weak story element, in that there is very little in place to tempt him; that when we have heard of Vader being
seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, we should expect something more persuasive. Personally I feel that this misses the point. Certainly and trivially it’s true that “if you go with it, you can win the fight against Vader (your father!) and defeat me, the Emperor (although actually it will give me your victory)” is a rather weak argument. However, that entirely misses the point that it was never about an argument to begin with. Nobody ever said that Vader was persuaded to join the Dark Side. The Emperor was not depicted as a demagogue; his evil was blatant.
Ironically, the point that I think is missed by those who argue that the “seduction” of the Dark Side should have been more persuasive and had a more human element to it is that it was about…well, the Force. It was the Dark Side itself that was supposed to hold an unnatural and harmful attraction—not the course that took you there, not the goals it promised to, or actually did help you reach, but the power in itself: Once tasted,
forever will it dominate your destiny. Of course Yoda turned out to be wrong in being quite so absolute, but if we accept him (as the story clearly intends) as wise, then we may infer that his error must ipso facto have been a rare exception.
I think of it more like a metaphysical drug, a psychic super-heroin: Use it once or twice and you’re going to be hooked, not because you enjoy it so much but because it gives you no choice—even if the exposure, as it were, is largely accidental, unwilling, and transient, as Luke’s enraged onslaught at the end of Jedi.
You might argue that this is not clearly stated in the films and that I’m just making it up as a post hoc justification. To this I say—well, maybe, to some degree. Still, regarding (as I do) the original trilogy as the authorative canon, it’s the only interpretation that makes sense to me.
You don’t know the power of the Dark Side, Vader intones:
I must obey my Master. This was not loyalty, which is still a matter of choice. Rather, the power itself left him no options; he was enslaved to it, using it and under its control.
It also explains the Emperor himself very nicely—twisted and physically distorted, gleefully malicious apparently gratia malice; corrupted, then, by long decades of addiction to the Dark Side. (Need I explicate that I find this a more compelling interpretation than having his face melted by Samuel L. Jackson?)
Speaking of the Emperor, his behaviour lends perhaps the strongest support to my view. I think it is safe to assume that he, within the context of the Star Wars universe, is no fool, and is certainly well versed in the ways of the Force. He has lived with the Dark Side for decades at least, and experienced first-hand whatever effects it has had on him, body and mind. He is, then, pretty well placed to judge its effects on Vader’s mind. Now consider his actions, and his terminal error: He provokes Luke into fighting Vader, apparently expecting Luke’s rage to snare him in the Dark Side. If he did not have good reason to think that this might work, his entire scheme to capture Luke makes no sense. And as he didn’t have anything compelling to tempt or persuade Luke, I submit that he must have expected the intrinsic nature of the Dark Side to do it for him—as his experience had taught him it would.
That’s not the end of it, though, for his behaviour becomes far more foolish on the “psychological view”. The Emperor, seeing Luke caught up in rage, encourages him to kill Vader, and take his father’s place at the Emperor’s side—this while Luke stands over the fallen Vader, who obviously hears every word. Consider this: The Emperor distinctly informs Vader that he’s ready to toss him aside, have him killed, and replace him. But when Luke refuses, and Vader gets back on his feet, the Emperor has no qualms about having Vader by his side again. So: The Emperor demonstrates he’s willing to have Vader killed; Luke refuses to kill his father because he won’t submit and keeps insisting that Vader is not beyond redemption; so the Emperor chooses to torture Vader’s son to death right in front of him, turning his back on this seven-foot cyborg while standing next to a deep shaft into the chasms of the Death Star. Unless the Emperor had strong reason to believe Vader incapable of betraying him, this is beyond foolish: it’s suicide-by-cyborg.
Now, of course it turned out that he was wrong—Luke could and did refuse, and Vader, under these extreme circumstances, proved that though his will had been constrained by the Dark Side of the Force, it had not been utterly subsumed.¹ He was able to make a final choice and redeem himself, though it killed him. (And was this from his injuries, or from the Emperor’s dying lashing-out, or was this because at last he denied himself the addictive substance of the Dark Side on which he had become dependent—and so effectively killed himself?) But unless his mind was constrained, Vader’s killing the Emperor was not a dramatic redemption at all. Of course he might well kill the Emperor, redeemed or not; he had just been betrayed.²
The only way the dramatic climax of the saga becomes a dramatic climax is if you accept that Luke’s resistance was rare, unanticipated, and difficult; and that Vader’s redemption was profound, unprecedented, and hitherto believed impossible by everyone we had met along the way, save Luke only.
Some of you may argue that the psychological view would have given us a better story. Personally I don’t mind a bit of fairy-tale Good versus Evil, so long as it’s not my only fare, but I will not insist that you are wrong. My point is not that a Star Wars version with metaphysical evil is better than a Star Wars version with purely ‘human’ motivations—but rather that judging by the original trilogy, and Jedi in particular, the metaphysical version is the one that was actually made.
You could also argue that if what we saw was a metaphysical conception, it could have been made plainer and it could have been written better. Well, that’s certainly true of all things Star Wars. Nonetheless I disagree with the specific criticism that Jedi is inferior to Revenge of the Sith in that sole aspect of Anakin having a “real temptation” versus the Emperor failing to really tempt Luke with anything. I could even argue that it’s the other way around: By giving Anakin a concrete motivation and casting his apostacy in terms of human motivation, we’re forced to consider the strength and credibility of his sudden turn from “I just want to save my wife” to “alright, I’ll go slaughter some children”, and in terms of human psychology—well, that doesn’t look very plausible to me. Precisely by invoking the mystical corruption of the Dark Side, the original trilogy can at least justifiably ask us to invoke suspension of disbelief.
¹ At this point the Emperor has evidence that the Dark Side was a bit less absolute than he (and everyone else) had hitherto believed, but he didn’t really have time to consider the implications. Seeing Luke resist him, maybe he could have predicted Vader’s redemption, but in any case he didn’t have time.
² It is perhaps a little ironic that the very extreme emotional circumstances at play for Vader are precisely the reason why the “psychological version” would take all the drama out of the climax of the film, by making the choice too easy.