In Defense of Padmé Amidala: The Queen’s Sacrifice

When we first meet her in in Episode One, it’s pretty clear that Padmé Amidala is supposed to be the new/old Leia. She is a young royal from a small, peaceful planet. She has high ideals and a strong will. She gives orders and makes battle plans. She makes a desperate appeal, cheers up the protagonist, and presides over a medal ceremony.

Little Leia-loving me thinks “yay” initially — but the rest of me isn’t so impressed. And feminist me is a bit insulted. A universe populated by cookie-cutter “strong” women is not really so much better than a universe populated by cookie-cutter “weak” women. I like the idea of Padmé and Leia being similar, but I am not so excited by the idea of Padmé and Leia being the same.

Promo pictures of Padme (Natalie Portman) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) in Star Wars Episode II and Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) in Star Wars Episode IV; Fair Use
Padme (Natalie Portman) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) in Attack of the Clones and Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) in A New Hope; Lucasfilm

Luckily for me, in Episode Two Padmé moves away from the Leia archetype and in Episode Three she becomes someone unrecognizable from her daughter and her younger self. Throughout the series of three movies, Padmé fades away before our eyes. And for this she is met with much derision. But I love Padmé. All of her.

Queen Amidala, Star Wars Episode I; Fair Use
Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), The Phantom Menace; Lucasfilm, via StarWars.com

It is clear to me now that the Republic no longer functions.

– Queen Amidala, The Phantom Menace

I quote this line all the time, especially around this time in the American political cycle. I hate election season as much as the newsies and pundits love it. But it is a very important moment in Star Wars and it is significant that Padmé says it. Not because it makes Padmé the scapegoat for everything that follows, and a victim of Senator Palpatine’s manipulation, but because it adds a layer to her character that has nothing to do with Anakin and only peripherally to do with Palpatine.

As Padmé fades through the trilogy so does the Republic, just as the Empire grows in power as Anakin does. In the later trilogy they switch: the Empire and Anakin fall away as the Republic (in the entity of the Rebellion) and Padme (in the persons of Luke and Leia) regain control. Padmé does set everything in motion with her Vote of No Confidence and she is manipulated into it. But Palpatine is the greatest manipulator; that’s his role and he plays it well. He manipulates everyone. When he finally fails it is because Luke is his mother’s son.

Stills of younger Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Padme (Natalie Portman) in Episode III and older Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) and Luke (Mark Hamill) in Episode IV; Fair Use
Younger Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Padme (Natalie Portman) in Revenge of the Sith and older Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) and Luke (Mark Hamill) in A New Hope; Lucasfilm

My favorite rule in chess is the one where a pawn advances to a higher piece if it manages to cross the whole board. Padmé starts the game as a queen. In The Phantom Menace and The Attack of the Clones she plays an aggressively defensive game. In Revenge of the Sith she becomes cornered and chooses to sacrifice herself to protect her king, Anakin.

In A New Hope Luke enters the game as a pawn. He is talented but untrained and impetuous. For every win there is also a loss, but the other pieces protect him because they know if he makes it across the board, they have their best chance at winning it all. In Return of the Jedi, when Luke refuses to be Palpatine’s pawn — the way his father had been all these years — he becomes a knight. And in doing so, in making the same choice Padmé made on the day of his birth, he catches Palpatine in his own trap. Anakin is free to win the game.

Still of Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and Padme (Natalie Portman) in Episode III; Fair Use
Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and Padme (Natalie Portman) in Revenge of the Sith; Lucasfilm

So this is how liberty dies; with thunderous applause.

– Senator Amidala, Revenge of the Sith

Padmé’s fate is entwined with that of the Republic. It is clear in her dialogue. It is clear in her costuming — she is nearly always wearing layers, and ostentatious trappings. When she is not it is because “the Republic does not exist here” — on Tatooine, Geonosis, or Mustafar. Her clothes are as overdone and unwieldy — if beautiful — as are the politics of the Republic she serves. If we follow the symbolism to its conclusion, when she dies on that lonely asteroid it is not simply because she can’t deal with Anakin’s betrayal. Symbolically, she is already dead. The thunderous applause of the Senate broke her just as much as her husband’s abuse did. The combination kills her.

Still of Padme (Natalie Portman) in death, from Episode III; Fair Use
Padme (Natalie Portman) in death, Revenger of the Sith; Lucasfilm

Padmé makes the choice to die. Anakin killing her would not make her a stronger character. Anakin killing her would not make it a stronger story. She makes the choice to die. To sacrifice herself. Not for her children — if she was doing any of this for her children she would have chosen to live. And not for her politics, or her ideals, or herself.

Padmé can’t join Anakin, that would go against everything she stands for. She can’t fight him, she made that choice back in Attack of the Clones when she agreed to marry him. She can’t talk him out of it, she tried and failed. She does the only thing left to her, or so she believes in that moment. She dies. If protecting her was what drove Anakin to this horror then she will take herself out of the equation.

It’s not necessarily the right choice or a good choice. It’s not the choice I want her to make. But it is her choice. She owns it and we shouldn’t condemn her for being wrong or being weak unless we are also going to condemn everyone else in the movie. And I believe that to do that would be missing the point. It is an entire film, an entire trilogy, of wrong and weak choices. Maybe that’s why so many people hate the prequels. They succeed in telling their story and their story is sad. It has to be, that’s the only way the original trilogy works.

Still of Padme (Natalie Portman) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) in Episode II; Fair Use
Padme (Natalie Portman) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen), Attack of the Clones; Lucasfilm

She was very beautiful. Kind, but sad.

– Princess Leia, Return of the Jedi

Leia has no way of remembering her mother unless it’s through the Force, which I do find plausible. Still, she remembers her correctly, if not entirely. Padmé is very beautiful, kind, and sad. She is also as headstrong as her daughter, as compassionate as her son, and as reckless as every Skywalker — including, I am certain, whichever one(s) may be in the newest films.

Padmé’s final legacy is more powerful than even the Dark Side. Her final legacy is hope.

Still of Padme (Natalie Portman) with her infant son, Luke in Episode III; Fair use
Padme (Natalie Portman) with her infant son, Luke, Revenge of the Sith; Lucasfilm

There is still good in him.

-Padmé in Revenge of the Sith and Luke in Return of the Jedi

If Anika had a million dollars – she’d go back to school for marine biology, sell her house and pack her daughter on to an (internet ready!) boat, and sail the world saving marine life and writing a truly wonderful memoir about being a whale-saving-mommy-on-a-boat. Or she’d get her master's in Clinical Social Work and work as a children’s therapist with an office that features quotes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland colorfully painted on the wall. Or she’d start her own production company to put out fandom inspired albums, comic book musicals, and fund her Star Wars ballet. But if Anika had a billion dollars, she’d be Batman.