As I said yesterday – machete order doesn’t help the prequels. It really doesn’t.
But it does help Return of the Jedi. I’m really surprised by that. If you manage to make it through Revenge of the Sith, if you manage to get to that moment where suddenly these actually are people, making terrible mistakes with terrible consequences, the whole Luke/Vader/Emperor conflict both makes more actual sense and finally – finally! – has emotional resonance.
Bear with me for a minute here, because oh yeah, I’m going to explain this.
First, the smaller point: Luke is right. I don’t mean about Vader/Anakin, leave that aside for a minute. I’m talking about Palpatine.
“Your overconfidence is your weakness,” Luke says, when he’s presented to the Emperor. Without knowing how we got here – without knowing how Vader got here – that doesn’t have a lot of impact. It’s a throwaway line, a bluff.
But we know how carefully Palpatine groomed Anakin, and how deep his plans ran at even the last critical moment in Anakin’s conversion, and how calculating Palpatine was. Leave aside what of it does and doesn’t make sense in the real world – last time, he was being careful. By Star Wars standards, he was being delicate, and deft. He can be; he has been; we’ve seen it.
Now, in Jedi, he thinks he doesn’t have to be. He can bash Luke about the head with blunt force mocking and goading. Frankly, it’s sloppy, and you really don’t see how it can be effective if Luke has any actual choice in the matter at all.
In other words, the Emperor is monumentally overconfident. He’s completely sure in his power, and convinced of the idea that Luke has no actual choice. If he’s right, he doesn’t need to do anything more; he can, in fact, rub Luke’s face in it, which is exactly what he’s doing.
It now, at last, makes sense. His overconfidence really is his weakness.
Second, the larger point: Anakin was a douchebag. But while Anakin the Douchebag was a jackass with delusions of grandeur – delusions those arrogant pricks the Jedi of the Republic fostered, I might add – he wasn’t evil. He demanded things he hadn’t earned, he was far too interested in power, we put up with his whinging and complaining and and and and and and all of these are qualities not of an abstraction, but of a person.
And in Sith, at least, you buy into that person as real.
So now we know who Luke is trying to talk to. We know there’s somebody in there who fucked up, and fucked up bad, and knows it. (And that that last is pretty much text from Jedi – “it is too late, for me.”) We’ve met the person Luke is convinced still hides somewhere inside the breathy monolith which is Darth Vader. We know who he was and how he got there, and we know that he didn’t like it.
So when Luke steps up to the same precipice that Anakin stepped up to all those years before, and we see him step back where Anakin fell, it means more than it did as a solo act. We saw his father fail; we see Luke succeed.
And that’s all fine and good, and already means more than it did, but that’s not all we see. We also see Luke reach down and pull Anakin back. Luke pulls Anakin out of Darth, and he’s fully there, for the first time in decades.
And the thing is, it’s not to redemption. It’s not that simple. Darth/Anakin is also right, when he says it is too late for him. He can’t undo all the horrors he helped create. He can’t wipe that slate clean, force ghost or no force ghost, I say.
But Anakin can make a second decision. He can’t undo his crimes, but he can sacrifice himself – his power, his life – to keep it all from happening again, to someone else. He can’t save himself, perhaps, but Luke aside, there is another, and now that matters, because even if Luke dies unfallen, Leia is next.
And Anakin can stop it.
That realisation – not the Emperor’s lazy, juvenile taunting – is what pushed Luke to the edge of the precipice; it’s also what pulled Anakin back up towards it, to where Luke could grab him, and pull him, impossibly, back over, back out of the dark. Not to undo the horrors he’s committed, but to stop them from happening again.
And none of that complexity is there without the backstory, particularly as presented in the machete order. At the end of Empire, Darth Vader is as scary a creature as he’s ever going to be. Without knowing how we got here, we have to take Luke at his word and hope he’s right, and when he doesn’t step into that chasm, it seems the obvious choice, and the Emperor’s attempts to “convert” him seem… frankly silly. Anakin’s restoration seems shallow. Only the menace of Darth Vader carried those scenes – before.
But now we see that there’s a lot more going on. That missing chunk of context – or that added chunk of backstory, as you feel you prefer – changes the film, far more so than any of Lucas’s clumsy Special Edition horseshit.
With all that new knowledge, that machete order knowledge, the crux of Return of the Jedi no longer feels empty. It’s now solid, it now bears weight – at long last, it has emotional import. There are actual stakes, there is actual dramatic risk, and because of that, you can actually care.
And that’s something I think everyone agrees was kind of difficult the first time around.
I can’t think of many cases where a terrible film and a… pretty mediocre film with flashes of quality, I suppose… made an already decent film meaningfully better. I can certainly think of the opposite. But that’s the situation we have here. The machete order really, really throws it all in front of you, in ways the official order wouldn’t. It’s a rough third course, it really is – but the finish is so much better for it.
So I guess I can’t really believe I’m saying this, but… if you like the original trilogy… you really should watch the prequels. Or, at least, two of the three, specifically in the Machete order. Because what really gets redeemed by all this nonsense isn’t Anakin, or the Republic, or even any of that whole fictional universe…
What’s redeemed, at long last, is Return of the Jedi – a film which finally, years later, no longer has any apologies to make.
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