This post is in reply to Joy Spicer’s request here. Not that it takes much to persuade me to write about this topic.
Now, there are really two ways to answer this question. The first is simple enough: after seeing Attack of the Clones as a 12-year-old lad, my reaction to Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Senator Amidala could be summarized as follows:
Well, you know, I was 12 years old! At that age, I was not unlike the P.G. Wodehouse character Bingo Little, of whom, it will be recalled, Bertie Wooster says:
Ever since I have known him – and we were at school together – he has been perpetually falling in love with someone, generally in the spring, which seems to act on him like magic. At school he had the finest collection of actresses’ photographs of anyone of his time…
But there is more to the story than just that. Otherwise I wouldn’t waste your time. To find it, we must analyze the thread of political theory that runs (somewhat confusedly) through the Star Wars prequel series. Basically, it’s about how a republic turns into a dictatorship. The mechanism for this is a state of exception, as described by political theorist Carl Schmitt.
In Episode I, Senator Palpatine manufactures a crisis to secure the office of Chancellor. In Episode II, he manufactures another crisis to assume emergency powers. In Episode III, he uses his emergency powers to dissolve the Congress and place all political sovereignty in the office of the executive. It is the Schmittian blueprint to a “t”. (By the way, if you didn’t waste your youth studying political theory and you want to know who Carl Schmitt is, read this, and you will be left with no doubt whatsoever that he knew a thing or two about destroying a republic.)
Right, so how does Padmé Amidala, Honorable Senator, former Queen of Naboo (and of my 12-year-old heart), figure into all this?
Well, she pretty much represents the last vestiges of an actual Republic based upon civic virtue. She is an upstanding citizen who follows a sort of cursus honorum requisite for a life of public service. Unlike the Jedi, who, whatever their personal merits, collectively form a weird and esoteric cult that has more power than it should, Padmé is the closest we get to seeing what a good member of galactic society should be. An aristocrat, in the Classical Greek sense of the word: the best society has to offer.
Padmé believes in the Republic. She understands how the system is supposed to work, and does her best to preserve it. It’s only very late in the collapse era that she begins to realize that it is not enough, that, as she puts it, “the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists.”
Yes, unfortunately for Padmé, she was born at a time when the virtues of the Old Republic have gone the way of all flesh. As Palpatine says to her, in one of the few instances where he might not be lying:
The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good.
Even more unfortunately for Padmé, she is in a movie written and directed by George Lucas, who, though in many ways brilliant, has no ear for dialogue and an unfortunate proclivity to substitute some of Padmé’s political scenes with a confusing chase through a robot factory.
(In all fairness to Lucas, I loved the robot factory when I was 12, but come on…)
And then, the unkindest cut of all, that Lucas chose to emphasize Anakin’s fall to the dark side, which is the least interesting part of the story. How did the great hero, Anakin Skywalker, become the ultimate symbol of evil, Darth Vader, we wonder? “Well,” the prequels answer us, “Turns out he was always kind of a jerk, TBH.”
I don’t solely blame Lucas for this. The Phantom Menace put more weight on the political aspect and on Padmé’s story. And the audiences hated it. I suspect Lucas chose to shift his focus in the next two films to give us more space battles and lightsaber duels, and de-emphasize the bit about how a Republic collapses. Which is why so many of Padmé’s political scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. (Or, at least, on the bonus features section of the DVDs.)
And so by Episode III, her whole character arc collapsed into irrelevance, culminating in a truly stupid scene where she “loses the will to live.” Lucas might as well have just put a title card on the screen that said, “Padmé died on the way back to her home planet.”
But, none of that changes that she’s still one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars films. She’s doesn’t have magical space wizard powers or exceptional piloting abilities; she’s just somebody who tries to take on the most evil man in the galaxy using her wits. And sometimes she even wins! Her bad luck was that nobody was interested in a character like that, not even the guy who wrote it.
As an aside, I do find it peculiar that she’s one of the few characters Disney hasn’t miraculously resurrected to appear in further installments. Everybody and his brother came back as a ghost in the newer films, but not Padmé. I guess that’s what happens when you lose the will to live instead of merely being sawed in half and thrown into a pit, or blown up aboard a space station. Not that we should expect any explanation beyond, “Somehow… Padmé returned.”
Anyway, you haven’t come to hear me kvetching about major media corporations’ lack of originality. Have you? No. That would be too… lucky.
And yes, I know from Joy and other sources, that Padmé’s character is examined in more detail in the Clone Wars animated series. I have not watched that. Forgive me. It’s a me problem. I dislike the art style intensely and have never really been able to get over that to follow what is, I’m sure, a most enjoyable story.
As a final note, it’s important that I emphasize while Padmé is my favorite character who appears in the films, she’s not my favorite character in all of Star Wars lore. That honor goes to someone else entirely. I bet long-time readers can guess who it is…