Obi-Wan Kenobi: Why did Darth Vader recommit himself to Palpatine?

Psychology provides four answers to why Darth Vader recommitted himself to Palpatine at the end of the series.
Darth Vader image courtesy of
Darth Vader image courtesy of /

Few can watch the 2022 Disney+ series Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi without perching on the edge of their seats the entire time. Who can forget the epic rematches between Obi-Wan and the newly christened Darth Vader or the look in Kenobi’s eyes when he sees the terrible injuries and suffering his abandonment of Anakin Skywalker on Mustafar has wrought?

That moment, a masterful piece of acting by Ewan McGregor comes at a poignant place in the series. Obi-Wan, escaping from a cavern of boulders in which Vader has just tried to bury him alive, attacks Vader with a welter of boulders of his own, so savagely thrown with the Force that one wonders if Obi-Wan himself isn’t in the process of turning to the dark side. He rushes at Vader with his lightsaber, splitting his helmet open.

And then … Obi-Wan sees his face and says, “Anakin.” Then he says, with tears in his eyes, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Anakin. For all of it.”

For an instant, no longer than a stolen breath, it appears that Anakin could accept the apology. That a healing moment could occur. That all is not lost.

Then Vader threatens Obi-Wan once again, goes back to Mustafar, and pledges his loyalty to Palpatine a second time.

Psychology has some illuminating things to say about this. What is going on here? Why does Vader pledge himself to Palpatine again?

1. It isn’t Stockholm syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is an experience named after a famous bank robbery in 1973 in Stockholm, Sweden, in which the bank employees who were being held hostage refused to testify against the bank robbers and actually raised money for their defense once they were released.

According to Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc, in Stockholm syndrome, hostages begin to feel affinity and pity for their captors, even love. Generally, this occurs because the perpetrator treats the captive kindly or at least refrains from harming them.

It would be difficult to argue that Anakin feels love for Palpatine, even in the first half of Star Wars—Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

2. Vader’s issue is partially Battered Person’s Syndrome

  • Battered person's syndrome keeps a person in an abusive situation long past the point at which it would be better to leave. Dr. Samia Yunus writes that the six symptoms of Battered Women’s Syndrome are:

    *Denial. Both Palpatine and Vader deny how harmful their rule really is. Vader denies how harmful Palpatine really is to him.

    *Learned Helplessness. “You don’t know the power of the dark side. I must obey my master.” Who can forget that moment?

    *Hypervigilance and anxiety. Sometimes Vader is rewarded, sometimes he is punished.

    *Low self-esteem. More on that below.

    *Depression. It's difficult to imagine that, living through what Vader has, he wouldn't be depressed.

    *Isolation. The Rule of Two is about as isolating as you can get.

3. What Anakin says next after Obi-Wan apologizes reflects a phenomenon called carried shame.

Carried shame is prevalent in people who were raised by unresponsive caregivers and pronounced in people who were abused when they were young. It occurs when a parent’s behavior makes a child feel frightened or worthless. The child concludes that the parent behaved that way because the child is, in fact, “worth less” than other, presumably better, people. One can see an instance of this when Anakin goes to Yoda for help with his premonitions of Padme’s impending death and is informed that he’s simply supposed to be able to let go of others like magic, as if something is wrong with him for having a strong grief reaction in anticipating anyone’s death.

But it gets worse once Palpatine takes over. Renowned therapists Pat and Pia Mellody’s story of the “shame coil” is most helpful in understanding this.

“When Pia and Pat Mellody first began to discuss the concept of “carried shame,” Pat provided a useful metaphor from the physics of electricity. He likened the transfer of a parent’s shaming of a child to what happens when one coil of electric wire is placed next to another coil, and one coil is charged with an alternating current. The adjoining coil picks up the energy from the charged coil, even though the coils are not touching. Since human emotions are similar to energy fields, they can be transferred from the person who’s feeling the emotion to another person in close proximity. Of course, the emotional energy must be powerful enough for effective transfer (in physics, this is called “induction”).

It was Pia’s startling insight that the emotion of shame reaches the crucial “voltage” for “induction” when the person acting shamefully does not acknowledge that his/her behavior was shameful. The shame energy unabsorbed by an act of conscience or contrition has nowhere to go but out into the atmosphere to be picked up by the “adjoining receptor” that “adjoining receptor” is the child. The child then feels the parent’s shame as if it were his own. What he feels is not the result of something that is wrong with himself, but something that is wrong with his parents."

Palpatine has just wantonly committed many millions of murders in his engineered war against the Separatists, but he does not acknowledge that he has done anything shameful. When he then tricks Anakin into helping him murder Mace Windu, now Anakin has put himself in the position of doing whatever it takes to keep Palpatine in power, lest Anakin be murdered himself.

However, Anakin knew full well how shameful the acts Palpatine had committed were. Since Palpatine does not acknowledge shame, Anakin accepts it all. It’s now his fault this person is in power. Anakin now has the added burden of his own guilt since he becomes complicit in murdering Windu and then all the Jedi in the Temple.

We see some progression in his ability to process his own guilt when Anakin, who earlier has said, “I am what you made me,” and tried to burn Obi-Wan to death in retribution, now says, “I am not your failure, Obi-Wan. You didn’t kill Anakin Skywalker. I did.”

Anakin implicitly labels himself a failure here with this syntax. He has also just said, “Anakin is gone. I am what remains,” literally proclaiming himself to be less than he was prior to becoming Sith. He’s placing himself on a par with Palpatine, equating himself to be the same. When he returns to Palpatine, carrying the shame of Palpatine's deeds, the shame of having fallen for Palpatine's deception, and now his own murders and selfishness,
he is rejoining his other half as he sees himself made from the same cloth.

4. Codependency.

Anakin Skywalker exhibits some symptoms of codependency from the time he loses Qui-Gon Jinn to the end of his life. A child goes to parent figures for comfort. If the child is told, say, that he has nothing to cry about, or perhaps that he should be able to effortlessly lose his attachment to someone and feel no grief when they die, the child believes what the parent system says over his own feelings.

We can see that throughout his adult life, Anakin is looking for someone else to tell him how he should think and feel. And he careens back and forth between the Jedi Order and Palpatine, even turning to Padme when neither has answers that make sense. “I’m not the Jedi I should be,” he tells her. “I want more, and I know I shouldn’t.”

But he can’t explain to Padme everything he means, so even she can only offer inadequate guidance.

Nonetheless, at the time of Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi’s epic last battle, Lord Vader still doesn’t think for himself and crumbles to Palpatine’s lead. Recovered from the battle and back on his throne on Mustafar, Vader rails and rails to Palpatine about how he’s searching for Kenobi and is determined to kill him.

Oddly enough, it’s Palpatine who has somewhat of a healthier viewpoint, although he combines it with a subtle threat. In essence, he points out how obsessed Vader still is with revenge after ten years. It isn’t Palpatine who wants Kenobi dead; it’s Vader.

And at the subtlest hint that Master is displeased at that, Vader lets it go. Immediately, it’s “Kenobi means nothing. I serve only you, my master.”

So, sadly, abuse and codependency have formed a sort of emotional web that keeps Vader trapped and dependent on Emperor Palpatine. Only his love for his son is strong enough to encourage him to finally think for himself and finally break free.

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