An Increasingly Inaccurately Named Trilogy: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back


Ring theory - essentially the best read on the interrelationships between the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy to date - is based around nested correspondences among the films. The fringes of this, which pair Return of the Jedi with The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith with A New Hope, are an inherently tricky business, with its interpretations standing in opposition to the more intuitive approach of reading The Phantom Menace and A New Hope as roughly analogous. But the middle, in which Attack of the Clones and The Empire Strikes Back are read as fundamentally related films, is a rock solid bit of interpretation that pays considerable and rewarding dividends.

The most obvious similarity is structural: both films spend their middle sections alternating between two roughly equally weighted storylines, to the point where they very clearly have two protagonists, in this case Luke and Han. This is most interesting in terms of Han, whose upgrade to co-lead serves as confirmation of his moral centrality to whatever the saga is doing in this second trilogy. And in this regard, the most interesting thing about The Empire Strikes Back is its ending, with Han encased in carbonite. Sure, it’s not the only massive misfortune to befall our heroes by the end, what with Luke being maimed and all, but he’s already got a proesthetic by the end. The change that has consequences and that provides the direct hook going into Return of the Jedi is Han being taken off the board. After all, our case for Han’s centrality to A New Hope was rooted in a willfully silly reading of it in contrast to the prequel trilogy. In terms of the film’s own concerns, Han is a secondary character introduced well into a film that’s almost entirely about Luke’s journey. Here, however, his removal from the narrative is a deforming crisis.

Which brings us to the big difference between Attack of the Clones and The Empire Strikes Back. Where Attack of the Clones was liberated by its status as the middle portion of a trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back is constrained by it, and especially by the fact that it has to be the middle part of a trilogy whose first part was made under a completely different mythology and without the assumption that it would be part of a trilogy. We’ll come to the biggest consequence of this in good time, but for now I want to look at the ways in which this means the film has to set up a new status quo without it seeming like setup, which is the lengthy opening on Hoth, the primary narrative purpose of which is to quickly reconfigure the relationship among the principal characters so that Han/Leia is a more obvious ship than Luke/Leia and reaffirming Han’s loyalty by having him abandon his plans to leave in order to rescue Luke. (Arguably this makes Han/Luke the most reasonable ship of all, but never mind.) This mostly gets hidden behind what’s admittedly the best action sequence of the original trilogy, but it’s still flagrantly what Hoth is there for.

But there’s more setup than just that. The big and obvious one is Darth Vader, who has inexplicably gone from overseeing a catastrophic military defeat to being given a seemingly more expansive command than ever before, hanging out with bounty hunters and criminals, and being obsessed with Luke. All of this is the raw material for a stunning series of comics by Kieron Gillen that probably have the best case of any spin-off material for being essential, just because once the saga commits to being about the Skywalker family the moment where Anakin finds out that his life for the past twenty years has been a lie becomes by some margin the most staggering omission from the saga. (One suspects that the rejigged dialogue inserted when Ian McDiarmid was substituted in for the Emperor here was intended by Lucas to be the moment he learns Luke’s his son, but the lack of an actual reaction from Vader and the fact that the opening crawl makes it clear Vader is hunting for Luke specifically makes this a less than successful retcon.)

Luke, meanwhile, finds himself shunting over to a different sort of plot. Unlike Vader or Han, this is something we see unfold on screen, but nevertheless A New Hope ends with Luke being understood primarily as the Rebellion’s newest recruit, whereas The Empire Strikes Back makes him into the last Jedi. Indeed, once the Battle of Hoth is resolved Luke is basically done with being a member of the Rebellion, as his plot in Return of the Jedi is decidedly isolated from the Rebellion as well. Instead Luke is used as a lens to understand what the Jedi are/were. Which is to say, he spends most of the movie with Yoda.

Obviously this requires one of our periodic forks between chronologies. For the intended audience, Yoda is a strange turn that, like the cantina scene in A New Hope, dramatically increases the sense of what’s possible within Star Wars. From that perspective, he’s the first real alien character to appear in the series, and the first one to have time to focus mainly on explaining the Jedi instead of having to do everything that Obi-Wan was saddled with in A New Hope. This makes him full of potential, which is only deepened by the fact that he’s a fantastic character design and genuinely funny.

Of course, if this is the fourth film you’ve seen him in then you’re mostly struck by the bizarreness of his first scene being a bunch of Jar Jar-style physical comedy. (Indeed, in practice Jar Jar is probably best understood as Lucas trying to recapture the tone of Yoda’s first scene.) And then pretty much everything he actually teaches Luke comes off as lame pseudo-Buddhism belonging to an ethical system that the series has already examined and found wanting. To some extent this smooths the film a bit - within its own logic it’s not entirely clear whether Luke is wrong to go after Han and Leia or not. With the prequels bolted on, Yoda’s advice to stay and keep training comes off as exactly the same sort of moral cowardice that led to the Jedi just standing by in the face of the Sith and slavery, or to Yoda going into exile after one battle with Palpatine.

The problem is that the smoothing does nothing for the narrative drive of the film. Sure, it’s clearer what the film thinks is going on, but it also means Luke is directed by Obi-Wan (who is by miles the more credible of the two surviving Jedi) to go spend an entire film with a muppet fuckup. Indeed, this is probably the second biggest thing the prequels screw for the original trilogy. They unabashedly depend on the audience knowing and loving Yoda, hence their gratuitous reveling in his two lightsaber duels once he becomes CGI. But as a result they put no real effort into earning audience fondness for the character in the way that they have to for a recast Obi-Wan, such that when one arrives at his appearance here it simply doesn’t hold together.

Which, to be fair, is actually a complaint you can level against The Empire Strikes Back in general. It’s frankly difficult to get the timeline to work so that Luke spends more than about a week on Dagobah, and even that requires a maximally stretchy view of how long space travel takes. In terms of what’s actually on screen, where Han and Leia’s plot gives the sense of being relatively continuous action, Luke’s training seems spread out, like we’re checking in on it only occasionally over time.

The film mostly gets away with this, due largely to the arrival of Lawrence Kasdan, who ends up being an odd throughline from here to The Force Awakens when tackled this way. While in reality Lucas directed A New Hope, took on a more producerly role for the next two films, then stepped back in for the prequels, arranged in episode order his influence ends up fading from the series to be replaced by other figures, of which Kasdan ends up being the most substantial. There’s little sense of Kasdan as a visionary figure in the same way Lucas is. Rather, he’s exactly what Lucas isn’t - a narrative technician capable of crafting actual character storylines. There’s an odd sort of tension that emerges from this. On the one hand, Han and Leia’s romance feels relatively plausible and coherent, giving the film a well-structured arc that only A New Hope matches out of Lucas’s films, and even that not in a particularly character-centric way. On the other hand, the same basic anxiety about emotions that leads Lucas to make falling in love the reason Anakin falls to the dark side emerges, such that as soon as they clearly start falling for each other weird carnivorous space slugs start appearing to disrupt things, a level of weird sexual displacement generally unseen outside of Lovecraft. But for the most part The Empire Strikes Back has a superficial coherence that the previous films have lacked. All of which builds towards the bit I’ve been ostentatiously talking around, namely “I am your father.”

And we’re back to the old struggle - a moment that reads one way as the film intends it that reads a very different way after Lucas is done rearranging. And as with A New Hope, it’s impossible not to at least be aware of the famous and totemic power of the line. But its power has always been based on its shock value. As reveals go, it’s pretty much the single most obvious thing Lucas could have done, notable only because somehow he clearly didn’t think of it until well into the development of The Empire Strikes Back. Having failed utterly to set it up he managed the ostentatious shock twist as a replacement, but there’s very little one can actualyl muster up to call this “good” or “impressive.”

Meanwhile, if you come at it having seen everything from The Phantom Menace through A New Hope, the scene is a nothing - a moment one has basically sat through two entire films waiting for the characters to catch up to. Luke’s reaction - already somewhat far from Mark Hamil’s best acting - becomes a moment of sheer bathos. It’s there entirely to be an exclamation point on a shocking reveal, whereas if one comes to The Empire Strikes Back in story order the moment then it has to be about the consequences of the revelation to either Vader, which we’ve already talked about, or to Luke, which, yes, “nooooooooooooooooo” technically accomplishes, but not in a particularly satisfying way.

And yes, this is obviously a ridiculous thing to ask of The Empire Strikes Back, though I don’t think it’s actually any more ridiculous than asking The Phantom Menace to introduce Star Wars or Revenge of the Sith to simultaneously provide a satisfying origin for Darth Vader and a satisfying conclusion to Anakin Skywalker’s story. (If your instinct here is to squawk “but it’s literally impossible,” you’ve gotten half the joke.) But where other films in the series have responded to being asked to do ridiculous things like “exactly what they say on the tin” by serving up intriguing bundles of contradictions and provocations, The Empire Strikes Back ends up revealing just how little there is past the initial sugar rush of “the sequel to Star Wars.” Ultimately, there’s just not a lot this film does beyond set up Return of the Jedi. If you’re in the age range for whom the film landed with precisely that impact, and especially if you’re among the fabled few who got to hear its best-known line in a movie theater in 1980, well, it’s easy to see why this movie holds the reputation it does. For anybody else, well…


  1. A New Hope
  2. Attack of the Clones
  3. The Empire Strikes Back
  4. The Phantom Menace
  5. Revenge of the Sith


col 3 weeks, 6 days ago

as one of the "fabled few" (er, isn't this most of the US population over age 43 or so?) who first heard the line in the theater, i recall a sense of confusion---was it possibly a Vader mind-fuck, a way to try to turn Luke (& maybe Obi-wan was his real father, etc?). also without the prequels, Vader's motives become more interesting and opaque--did he know this all along & only now reveals it? did he just find out? the sense of mysterious gamemanship goes away once the prequel mythos is added as backdrop.

yeah the cross-cutting of the two storylines really doesn't work, time-wise; surprised there hasn't been a recon in which it's shown that Dagobah is in some alternate dimension where 1 week = 2 years or somesuch.

one point to add is that it's among the more visually striking of the movies (mainly due to Kasdan/Kershner?)--Chewbacca carrying around the dismembered C-3PO on his back, the hellish carbonite chamber scenes.

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Aylwin 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Dagobah is a place where intensive and demanding training takes place. As such, the well-known physical principle of Training Montage Time Dilation applies.

A good dojo is just an enlightened black hole that knows how to kick an opponent's kidneys out through his ears.

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James Brough 2 weeks, 1 day ago

As the hyperspace drive on the Millenium Falcon is bust, is it possible that it actually takes months to get to Bespin? I know it's not really what the film's saying, but maybe there's enough wiggle room...

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Eric Gimlin 3 weeks, 6 days ago

I know that I, with the level of obsession only a 9-year old geek could muster, was wondering until RotJ came out how they were going to explain Vader's claim. "It's the truth" was a candidate, and it may even have been the leading candidate much of the time because there was no other clear explanation as an alternative.

The mind boggles at what the flame wars would have been like 15 years later...

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Roderick T. Long 3 weeks, 3 days ago

In those days they used to release the comic-book adaptations before the movies. So I went in already knowing the big reveal.

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Lance Parkin 3 weeks, 6 days ago

'Luke's reaction' isn't 'nooooo!', though, Luke's reaction is to be given the chance to rule the galaxy or to die, and to decide that, OK, he'll kill himself.

... the problem being that because every single thing Yoda told him is wrong, it's a decision based on the false premise that he will inevitably fall to the dark side.

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Roderick T. Long 3 weeks, 3 days ago

Yeah, Satan offering Christ the kingdoms of the earth is the clear intended parallel.

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Lance Parkin 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Also, I've always loved the passive aggressiveness of 'don't make me destroy you'. But then last night, I rewatched the Dawn of the Gods episode of Blakes 7 and the Thaarn says that to Cally, so definitionally, that can't be a clever line, after all.

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Jarl 3 weeks, 5 days ago

>Also, I've always loved the passive aggressiveness of 'don't make me destroy you'

Now that you mention it, that line sorta echoes/"rhymes" with "Don't try it, Anakin."

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Prole Hole 3 weeks, 5 days ago

I hope you're not trying to suggest the Thaarn is anything other than a towering intellect worthy of respect and worship...

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Lambda 3 weeks, 6 days ago

I think The Empire Strikes Back has tended to appeal to me over the others mostly because "the heroes fight the powerful evil empire... and survive, just about" is a far more relatable story than the standard "the heroes fight the powerful evil empire and win". (Whilst also being far less routine and familiar.) Being able to keep doing the right thing even when it doesn't seem to be doing much good and there's no victory on the horizon is important.

(It's certainly not "the sequel to Star Wars". For most of my childhood, I thought there were episodes 2, 3 and 4 which had just never been on telly for some reason.)

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T.Hartwell 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Fascinating essay as always (and I love the slight trolling inherent in ranking Attack above this film), but I do think you’re underselling the extent to which Empire works on its own merits. A lot of it comes down to Luke’s arc—I think we’re meant to interpret most of what happens with him as Luke starting to fear that he is not all good, that there is a level of darkness within him (most obvious in the cave scene, which with the prequels behind it just looks like obvious foreshadowing, but on its own terms can only be read as Luke fearing that he may become like Vader). So Vader’s revelation at the end serves as a natural escalation of that fear---of Luke being forced to confront the fact he has a darker side within him.

I think what makes the Vader twist work isn’t that it’s just a shock reveal, but in how it recasts your perception of both Luke and Vader—Luke I talked about, but Vader is also subtly reconceptualized from an unforgivably evil man to someone with…well, not good necessarily, but more complex motivations. This extends outwards in Empire on a thematic level, which is predominately concerned with deepening the morality of the original film. I think much of the Han/Leia romance is focused on this (the film is clearly setting Leia up to make a choice between Luke and Han, which Return absolutely punts on), and Lando is the most obvious manifestation of that goal—a fundamentally good person who betrays his friends for what he feels is a worthy cause. As a sequel to Star Wars, Empire is concerned not about being ‘bigger’ or ‘better’, but about taking the fundamental bases on which Star Wars is built and deepening them to provide a more complex universe.

None of this is extraordinarily brilliant, of course, and you can argue the film as going against itself with Yoda (who should be just as grey as the other characters but the film unequivocally supports—one thing the prequels actually help with, as you note). And it’s interesting to note just how nondescript Empire’s advances look when you watch the films in Episode order—Empire’s plays at morality are fascinating when it’s the second film in the franchise, and dull as shit when it’s the fifth one. But I still like it—at the very least I find it the prettiest of the films along with Phantom, and Kershner’s direction here is actually something pretty special. Mostly I just appreciate the cohesion, and think it gets undersold by the droves of people who praise it as being “the dark one” (in actuality, I find it to be one of the most uplifting of the films once you get to the end, but that’s just me).

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David Anderson 3 weeks, 6 days ago

I was inclined to disagree that Han is the protagonist of his section of the film. Which is odd, because he obviously is if you look at the plot. Thinking about why I was inclined to think of the Han section as an ensemble I realised that the film splits the formal protagonist and the viewpoint character: Leia is the viewpoint character. We're being introduced to things that Han knows about already as Han introduces them to her; we're being asked to evaluate characters as she does.
I can't work out all the implications (though it means that Han is seducing the audience who are gendered female).

I haven't seen anyone complement you on the title of the series which is brilliant.

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Ozyman.Jones 3 weeks, 5 days ago

The series title is, knowing the reading habits of our revered writer as he has revealed them across the years, probably an homage to the tag-line on the cover of Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams.

Which doesn't detract from its use, but adds a nice layer of absurdist humour to the whole proceedings, what with Star Wars fandom being so damned po-faced much of the time.

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David Anderson 3 weeks, 5 days ago

The clever bit is that Star Wars and THHGttG are almost contemporaneous. Phil's title raises the spectre of a world in which Star Wars is a well-respected and loved fan favourite and THHGttG a massively influential cultural gravitation well.

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John Galbraith 3 weeks, 6 days ago

No mention of Lando ?

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prandeamus 3 weeks, 6 days ago

So, (not being scholared in literary theory) what's the comparison between "Ring Theory" and a Chaistic structure: ( At first glance, looks the same sort of thing to me.

At least it's not the Hero's Journey this time.

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Jarl 3 weeks, 5 days ago

According to that Wikipedia link, they're different names for the same thing.

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prandeamus 3 weeks, 3 days ago

D'oh. Missed that...

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Missi Roch 3 weeks, 5 days ago

I think The Empire Strikes Back has tended to appeal to me over the others mostly because "the heroes fight the powerful evil empire... and survive, just about" is a far more relatable story than the standard "the heroes fight the powerful evil empire and win". (Whilst also being far less routine and familiar.) Being able to keep doing the right thing even when it doesn't seem to be doing much good and there's no victory on the horizon is important.

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Ozyman.Jones 3 weeks, 5 days ago

Thanks again, Phil. I'm rating this in your blogging oeuvre just below the Tardis Eruditorum and slightly above the GoT entries.... (Last War in Albion is interesting, but as I don't read comics, and never did, most goes over my head.... it's probably bloody brilliant!)

In the days before ubiquitous VHS and the novelisations being the only, unreliable, method of revisiting the movies the 'betrayed and killed your father' lie and subsequent 'I am your father' reveal were not so jarring. At least among the group of teenaged fans I hung with, it was seen as not that big of a deal. Sure, Obi Wan lied, but to protect Luke's feelings; truthfully, our parents did that almost every week as kids.

I believe I would belong to a fairly small clique who didn't find out about the Luke/Vader reveal watching the movie, or by being 'spoiled', but by reading the Donald F. Glut novelisation. Our family was travelling at the time of the movie release and I read the big scene at about 30000ft above Bass Strait, between Hobart and Melbourne. I must have exclaimed something out loud, and quite loudly, judging by the surprised looks from my nearby passengers, and the stern glower from my dad across the aisle.

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John Seavey 3 weeks ago

"The big and obvious one is Darth Vader, who has inexplicably gone from overseeing a catastrophic military defeat to being given a seemingly more expansive command than ever before, hanging out with bounty hunters and criminals, and being obsessed with Luke."

It's not inexplicable when you remember that he wasn't the one overseeing the Death Star--Tarkin was. Remember, the Emperor's plan was to dissolve the Senate once and for all and rule through pure threat of force, with the Death Star as an ultimate weapon that would intimidate planetary governors into falling in line and prevent the Balkanization of the Empire into a thousand little fiefdroms. In that light, having his hand-picked Sith apprentice lurking around in the background acting like a Rent-a-Thug was a great plan; it kept Tarkin feeling smug and powerful, while giving Palpatine an unquestionably loyal assassin within arm's reach of Tarkin should he ever come to the obvious conclusion that the person in charge of the Death Star was the real power in the Empire.

But with the Death Star destroyed, suddenly there's no ultimate threat that Palpatine can use to impose order. He has to go into crisis mode until Death Star 2.0 is ready, increasing Vader's visibility and giving him a fuckoff gigantic Super Star Destroyer to tool around the galaxy in and kick the shit out of the Empire's enemies. The Emperor isn't going after the Rebels in 'Empire' because he legitimately believes them to be a threat, he is going after them to send a message to every Moff and Grant Moff in the galaxy, "Don't think you can get away with fucking with me just because I can't blow your fucking planet up from orbit." Vader's increased profile and willingness to fuck up Imperial admirals who piss him off makes perfect sense in light of his new role as Temporary Death Star Substitute.

And of course, in that light it's perfectly understandable why Death Star 2.0 has no weaknesses and a throne room for the Emperor. Why live on Coruscant when you can sit in the living embodiment of military might?

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Phil Sandifer 3 weeks ago

Sorry, yes, upon further looking Gillen's observed plot hole is that he was the sole survivor. Which strikes me as thoroughly valid - a regime such as the Empire is going to need a scapegoat for the debacle that is the Battle of Yarvin. Vader is the only available person. A promotion remains hard to envision in light of that, at least not without a presumably interesting story in the gap.

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