Masks and Redemption in Return of the Jedi

While I have watched ROTJ close to a thousand times in my life, I was really inspired to write something brief about how love and redemption are presented at the end of the film. In just one short scene, so much of the the Truth which the tale of Star Wars teaches is revealed. I am referring to the scene when Luke takes off Vader’s mask right before Vader’s, or should I say Anakin’s, death.

This one particular scene does such a great job of “unmasking” what I would is one of George Lucas’ main themes in Star Wars. What begins in The Empire Strikes Back is brought to its full potential at the conclusion of ROTJ. When Vader confronts Luke in TESB, his motives are merely selfish as he only wants Luke to join him so that they can overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy together; it’s still all about power for Vader.

Yet when Luke throws himself into the chasm of Cloud City I think what he does is plant a seed in Vader which shows to him that there is something more than the dark side, that there is something more important than power. When Vader and Luke meet up again in ROTJ after Luke surrenders himself on Endor, Luke tells Vader the Truth he has hidden himself from: “You were once Anakin Skywalker, my father.” Vader says that this name has “no meaning for me” but Luke fires back, “It is the name of your true self you’ve only forgotten.” Quite literally, Anakin has been hidden by the mask of Vader for so long that he truly has forgotten who he really is. It’s interesting as many psychologists have said for years that people make masks to hide themselves and stay safe. That is what Vader has done; his fear and loneliness causes him to hide behind the mask of Darth Vader. I think we too often make masks for ourselves so that we don’t have to face parts of ourselves.

Luke continually points out to Vader during their duel in ROTJ that he senses the conflict going on inside Vader. To Luke, it’s clear that Anakin is fighting to reemerge from the mask of Darth Vader. After Luke lops off Vader’s right hand (poor guy is always losing limbs!), he realizes what he has done and renounces the dark side. This was something Anakin was incapable of doing. Anakin’s fear won out causing him to join the dark side. However Luke gives him another example. Luke renounces the dark side because he knows who he is; “I am a Jedi.”

Yet the event that finally allows Anakin to reemerge from the mask of Darth Vader occurs as the Emperor begins to hurl force lightening at Luke with the intention of killing him. As each blast of lightening pours over Luke causing him more and more pain, it’s as if the lightening is also having an effect on Vader; each blast is burning off the mask that is Vader.

As Luke pleads, “Father!”, his cries for help break through the mask of Darth Vader and hit the heart of Anakin Skywalker. And thanks to the blu ray version we know Vader does not approve of his master’s actions towards his son. As he screams “NO!!!”, he throws the Emperor to his death thus saving the one person who has shown Anakin what selfless love is. Just as Luke was willing to die to try and redeem his father, now the father dies in order to save the son.

So finally we’re to the scene where I’ve been trying to make my point: the unmasking of Vader. Vader tells Luke he wants to look on him with the eyes of Anakin, no longer through the mask of Vader. Yet Anakin is incapable of removing this mask on his own. Quite literally, he is too weak and not to mention he only has one hand! So he literally needs the help of his son. I think this is a very powerful Truth statement being made. Just like Vader, we are incapable of removing the masks we wear on our own. Just as Vader needed the help of his son, so too do we need the help of others.

But what is it that ultimately unmasks Vader? Why love of course! Vader was so full of fear and so obsessed with power that he hid behind the mask of Vader and was incapable of being vulnerable to anyone. After the death of Padme, Anakin feels no one could probably love him so he hides behind the mask of Vader. But then Luke comes along and shows him again what true love is. So when Luke pulls back that mask which Vader has been hiding behind we see a great Truth about love: love exposes us and allows our true self to be revealed. When we are loved by another, be it a parent, a friend, a spouse, we are made vulnerable and realize that we no longer have any need for a mask! Love redeems and unmasks us!

-Karl

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  • Alex

    I just wanted to say this was one of the most outstanding pieces of analysis on redemption I have ever read. It is short, concise, but more importantly, it reveals the themes relevant to not only the Star Wars saga, but the final scenes of ROTJ.
    I just wanted to say thank you for this.

    • http://twitter.com/StarWarsReport The Star Wars Report

      Yes, Karl’s the man. -Riley

      • Karl

        You’re too kind, Riley!

    • Karl

      Thanks a lot for that, Alex! I appreciate your kind words so much and I apologize I’m getting back to you so late. It’s great to know I’m not just rambling ;)
      -Karl

  • Jack

    Thank you Karl, this really helped me.

  • Ohree

    It was a good read, really enjoyed it but I feel that you’re forgetting one thing – Admittedly it was something from the prequels so if you don’t count them like some people do then disregard this:

    Anakin only joined the Palpatine in order to save ‘the ones he loved’ because he didn’t want a repeat of losing his mother and I feel that after the death of Padme, and him not knowing that he had children, the only thing that made him stay was that the emperor was all he had, and also as you mentioned the fear.

    However with the discovery of Luke and later his sister – Vader had someone he loved again, his children and much like with Padme he wanted them to join him so they could rule the galaxy etc. But Luke didn’t want to join him or the Emperor so obviously the Emperor tried to kill Luke, which brings us back to why he joined Palpatine all those years ago, Vader wanted to save the ones he loved and and not have a repeat of his mother and Padme, this time he could save them, he let go of his fear and saved his son, destroyed the Emperor and sacrificed himself – consequently he fulfilled his destiny as the chosen one, the prophecy finally came true, Anakin Skywalker destroyed the Sith and brought balance to the force.

    That’s just my take on it.

    Lee