“…and I knew exactly what to do. But in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do.” — Michael Scott
According to Wookiepedia, a fountain of a knowledge so frivolous I can only deem it the most trustworthy place on the internet, little is known of Admiral Firmus Piett prior to his sudden promotion to Admiral of the Imperial Fleet. What we do know of Piett mostly pertains to his ascension in the military ranks. He joined the Imperial Starfleet a few years after the Clone Wars. He spent time in relative obscurity as an officer. Eventually he earned rank of Captain aboard the Fleet’s commanding vessel, the Super Star Destroyer Executor.
More is known of the final year or so of Piett’s career—and of his life—following his unceremonious promotion to Admiral after watching his predecessor, Kendal Ozzel, being terminated for incompetence. The word “terminated” operating, of course, in multiple senses of the word.
I envision a young, ambitious officer like Mr. Piett, fresh from his training, thrilling to the promise of such quick ascension. Yet he might have balked to learn how much time his future-self spends in fear. Time spent not pridefully managing the galaxy’s most fearsome navy, but instead quivering under the thumb of an infamously hot-headed man who murders officers for infractions no more egregious than modest incompetence. Worse still, after reversing his predecessor’s botched ambush and orchestrating a decisive victory against the Rebel Alliance mere hours after his promotion, his next orders from that hothead is… to chase down a smuggler’s freighter. A vessel whose passengers amount but to one member of Rebel leadership—Princess Leia—and a crew of passengers whose most apparent value seem to be their friendship with Luke Skywalker, a boy with whom his commander is inexplicably obsessed.
In lieu of his friends, might Vader have more efficiently utilized his ground forces by commanding his colleague General Veers to, say, capture that Skywalker fellow in the first place? Perhaps the smuggler and the princess, indeed heroes to their cause, nonetheless constituted a prize far too small to dedicate a fleet trying to follow, asteroid fields be damned? Was it not adding insult to injury when his commander, losing patience with his navy’s failure, hires bounty hunters to do the job instead? When they finally were captured, why did Vader not grill them about the Alliance’s post-Hoth rendez-vous point? (He reportedly didn’t ask any questions.) Did the summary execution of the fleet’s generals, after each new failure, not atrophy the military leadership, thereby charging the Executor—and its Admiral—with an atmosphere of needless fear?
Was Lord Vader, in short, wasting Admiral Piett’s time?
The advantage taken of Piett’s faithful service—of his proven strategic wit—by a leader of higher rank and of dubious temperament, underlines an evil more specific and universal to the human experience than any amount of black wardrobes, evil motivations, and climactic paternity tests can convey. And it is for that reason Darth Vader ranks as the enduring great villain of popular movies. He is far worse than the epitome of mustache-twirling evil; he is a classic horrible boss.
Following the classical presentation of Vader’s villainy in Star Wars, among the most important duties of The Empire Strikes Back would be to build on his archetypal evil to something that deepens his character while retaining that dark, fogged mystique that proves critical to coloring the movie’s unexpected, unfathomable twist. Irvin Kershner and company expand on the well-established fact of Vader’s evil to understand the fashion of it. The end goal seems paradoxical: delve more deeply into Vader’s evil, yet still make him feel inscrutable.
Kershner and his writers, Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, navigate that paradox. Accompanied by a nifty new John Williams march and increasingly aloof vocal delivery from James Earl Jones, Vader conveys the sentiment of added depth, even if relatively little of his inner life or core motivations play a clear role (At least, not til the end). Though you can’t really overvalue the impact of music or performance, how Vader develops as a villain in this installment is most clear when thought of as an intergalactic David Brent, or one of the eponymous horrible bosses from that terrible movie from a few years back.
Or maybe Vader is just a heightened version of Greg, the manager in that corner office where you work. Greg, who loses his temper at small missteps. Whose underperforming department trims costs and personnel everywhere but at the top. Whose boorish demeanor prompts seldom-addressed complaints to Human Resources. Everybody has a Greg.
Vader is in many ways a Greg. He is the pettiest of tyrants, behaving so erratically and fuming such paralyzing fear into the atmosphere, you begin to suspect as well the Dark Lord often submits padded expense reports to the Imperial Accountants. And like those same tyrants prowling outside your cubicle walls, you don’t actually care to know Vader. He’s in many ways better left an abstraction, some unknowable evil you try not to think about as you tuck your chin into your neck, keep quietly to yourself, and try not to draw his ire.
If Vader is Greg, then we are all Admiral Piett, the consummate office lackey, sticking to the boss’ inane script as long as he can without getting our income (and, in Piett’s case, his breath) cut off. Yet it’s not as if they can be completely ignored. Every milestone requires a manager’s sign-off, every muddled instruction warrants a clarification. You have to interact with Greg a few times a week, and it’s never fun.
Nearly every scene Piett shares with Vader inspires an imagined background noise of crackling eggshells, with the former retaining the stiffness of his upper lip whenever he feels the latter’s uncanny gaze. Typically, as evidenced by Kenneth Colley’s undervalued performance, the Admiral will afford himself a half-instant of terror and self-pity, before alerting all commands to deploy the fleet to Vader’s next calamitous endeavor. In those half-instances we see a man trapped. Trapped by his ambition, by his chosen métier. Trapped with an unpredictable manchild sure to ruin everything upon news of disappointment. When the smuggler and the princess manage one final ingenious escape, Vader administers one final warning: “Don’t fail me again… Admiral.” Vader’s reached the end of his tether. And Piett, the end of his.
Just as it’s on Piett to be the true pride of Vader’s fleet, it’s on him to allow Vader’s villainy to loom strong. Like Piett, we only marginally understand the mechanics of the Sith Lord’s obsession with Luke Skywalker and his friends. Like Piett, all we fully understand is the terror he wields to keep everybody terrorized, operating at his whim. Through Piett, we know Vader is not one to interpret failure generously.
Admiral Piett does fail, ultimately, in his objective to capture the smuggler’s ship. And as that ship flings itself into lightspeed, despite Piett secretly deactivating its hyperdrive, you see the face of a man who knows he’s committed his final, incorrigible failure. In his face you see a loyal Imperial servant. You see the consummate office drone who’d received one promotion too many, realizing his end was coming.
Only it doesn’t come. As the impetuous Lord Darth Vader looks at the stars, he simply turns away—sadly, it seems. And then he slinks back to his chambers. Admiral Piett lucks himself into yet another stay of execution, and he probably doesn’t realize why.
But we realize why this time. Because as Piett was busy commandeering his lord’s fleet, Vader had been down on Bespin. We see him entrap Luke Skywalker, tempting the Jedi prodigy in vain with a significant piece of his genealogical puzzle. Finally, we as viewers understand how the motivations of the petty tyrant aren’t entirely petty. This is the point where we need Admiral Piett no longer. Now we know something about his terrible boss he will never know. The time to fear Darth Vader is over, and the time has come, instead, to begin to understand him.
Perhaps this is why Admiral Firmus Piett appears so little in The Return of the Jedi, though he’s arguably Empire‘s most important supporting character. (And, I must say, one of the best.) He retreats from our empathy, back to the nameless obscurity from whence he came. He conducts his duties competently enough, which I deduce from the fact that he survives. Piett finds himself, alas, among the countless casualties at Endor. Victim of the emancipation of a galaxy he’d worked so hard to keep ensnared. He dedicated his life to his duty, mind not how insidious that duty was. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for a man whose duty—whose destiny—subjected him to the impish whims and family squabbles of a great, little man.
In the next movie, as his erupting Star Destroyer Executor engulfs him in flames, I cannot resist an uneasy sympathy for an Admiral who, it bears repeating, is one of the bad guys. Piett’s death is deserved, yet it is unjust. His own pyre burned ignominiously among the stars, aboard the ship he spent years toiling. His horrible boss would get his own pyre not much later, however. A pyre conducted solemnly, religiously, by the son he never knew he had. Unceremoniously did perish the man who excelled at his job, and with redemption did the petty tyrant who sucked at his.
This is the second in a series of film essays on the Star Wars film series. The schedule for the series and links to all posted essays can be seen below:
- It’s the Sound that Defines Star Wars (1977)
- Essay on The Empire Strikes Back (1980) — TODAY’S ESSAY
- Essay on Return of the Jedi (1983) — Friday, December 8
- Essay on The Phantom Menace (1999) — Saturday, December 9
- Essay on Attack of the Clones (2002) — Sunday, December 10
- Essay on Revenge of the Sith (2005) — Monday, December 11
- Essay on The Force Awakens (2015) — Tuesday, December 12
- Essay on Rogue One (2016) — Wednesday, December 13
- Final Thoughts — Thursday, December 14