Production on Revenge of the Sith is well under way when George Lucas decides there are far too many scenes taking place in the Chancellor’s office. He has an important scene to film and setting yet another conversation in Palpatine’s high-rise work-space will diminish its significance.
So essential is this scene to the Star Wars Saga at large that George has the idea to set it within an actual in-universe event, a grand aquatic ballet of sorts which he names Squid Lake.
Lucas makes a call to Ryan Church, a concept design supervisor for the film, and makes a request for the scene’s new backdrop. As Church tells it:
“My now-wife and I were going out to dinner and I got a call, which I rarely did, asking me to develop ideas for a scene that George wanted to change. He wanted the scene to take place at a ballet or an opera. He said, ‘Think about it being Swan Lake, or Squid Lake with squid guys.’ So I was thinking that we could do a space twist on a water ballet and have this giant ball of water in zero-gravity.”Concept Design Supervisor Ryan Church, 2005
When put that way, the choice seems outlandish, even a bit silly. But the scene, of course, is now emblematic of Anakin’s descent. It’s Palpatine testing the waters to see if he could bring Anakin Skywalker under his influence as a potential Sith Apprentice. We see how easily Anakin takes the bait.
Seated at the ballet, Anakin learns from Palpatine that the Sith are said to be able to stop death. Anakin has been plagued by visions of Padme in agony during childbirth and fears she won’t live through it. This revelation from Palpatine gives Anakin the oppurtunity to succeed where before he failed: he could save Padme, and never lose anyone again the way he lost his mother.
And in his hubris, Anakin believes he can open himself to the dark side to learn this power and save his wife and that everything will be fine.
What could possibly go wrong?
Lucas’ use of an in-universe stand-in for Swan Lake as a backdrop for this scene is apt. Anakin’s story is a thematic parallel of Siegfried, the knightly protagonist of Swan Lake and Palpatine could easily play the part of Rothbart, the antagonist. And that makes Padme Odette, the Swan/Squid Maiden.
Swan Lake tells us the story of Siegfried, a newly-knighted prince and how his own noble ambition brings the destruction of his kingdom, the woman he loves, and ultimately, himself.
The story begins with a celebration held in honor of Siegfried’s new rank. He has come of age and is rewarded with prestige, not unlike Anakin who in Episode III has just returned from serving in the Clone Wars and is to be awarded medals for his exemplary service.
Siegfried, though, is uninterested in all of this frivolous pomp. Even though everything in his life seems to be going well (he has nobility, prestige, friends) he is melancholy. He knows that however successful he may be he will never be able to follow his heart and marry for love. It is forbidden. As a prince, he will be married off for the sake of growing his royal family’s power.
While Anakin may not be a prince, he is the chosen one and a Jedi knight despite being far too old to be taken on as a Padawan when he was brought to the temple years ago. He has a great master and is respected by his soldiers. And yet, Anakin is made miserable at the thought of being without Padme. He, like Siegfried, balks at the idea he should not be allowed to marry for love and so he has.
In an attempt to rid Siegfried of his depression, his friends take him off into the woods on a hunt and they come upon a flock of swans swimming on a lake. Somehow, Siegfried is separated from his friends but finds a lone swan. As he aims his crossbow at the swan, it transforms into a beautiful woman named Odette.
She recounts to Siegfried how she was transformed into a swan by the evil Rothbart and that his spell can only be broken by a virgin youth who swears to marry her and remain faithful to her. Luckily for her, Siegfried is just such a virgin and is already madly in love with Odette. He immediately promises to marry her. Before he leaves, Odette warns him that if he should betray her, she will be left under this evil spell and remain a swan forever.
But Siegfried would never betray Odette. That would be like Anakin betraying Padme. They’re happy. Why should anything change?
Enter evil wizards.
Rothbart is very attached to the idea of ruining things for Odette as well as Siegfried’s kingdom. So when he hears that a dance is being held in the prince’s home, he decides it’s the perfect opportunity to trick Siegfried into betraying Odette.
How does Rothbart know about Odette and Siegfried? This is sort of dependent on the specific production of Swan Lake. He finds out one way or another, but what’s important is that he’s found out; in the same way that Palpatine casually reveals that he somehow found out not only that Anakin is secretly married to Padme but that Anakin fears for Padme’s life.
Rothbart’s scheme involves transforming his daughter Odile into a seductive likeness of Odette. When Odile arrives at the dance, Siegfried is overjoyed that his love is in attendance. They dance and everyone in court can immediately see how truly overjoyed Siegfried is by this woman.
When Siegfried and Odile dance, he falls entirely under her and Rothbart’s spell. As the dance concludes, Siegfried proposes to Odile.
When he does, the kingdom is shrouded in darkness and swept away by floods. Siegfried, now alone, rushes to the lake to find Odette to beg her forgiveness for betraying her.
But if Revenge of the Sith is Swan Lake and Padme is Odette, then who is Odile? The answer is also Padme. Or rather Anakin’s idea of Padme once his temptation to the dark side has begun.
Troubled by his visions, Anakin’s fear of losing Padme causes him to act selfishly. He takes it upon himself to protect her through means that he has chosen without input from Padme. Anakin now sees Padme as his to protect. This idea of Padme as a possession is Anakin’s Odile.
Palpatine leading Anakin to believe that only through the dark side can Anakin save Padme is his Rothbart-esque way of encouraging Anakin’s changing perspective of Padme.
Similarly, Siegfried allows himself to be seduced by the deceitful Odile, a glorified image of Odette conjured by Rothbart designed to prey on Siegfried’s vulnerabiltiy, his insatiable need for companionship.
The ending of Swan Lake depends on the production but generally Odette is doomed to remain as a swan. What happens to Siegfried varies greatly, but the ending chosen by the Bolshoi is particularly interesting.
In their production, Siegfried is swept up in a battle with fate incarnate, summoned by Rothbart. Siegfried fights bravely trying to escape his fate but in the end “is made weak by his single combat with fate” and “finds himself alone on the empty banks of the lake of his dreams.”
Fate, in Revenge of the Sith, is represented by Obi-Wan Kenobi. While Kenobi’s presence on Mustafar serves mostly to satisfy the inevitable conflict between the master and his former apprentice that was first referenced by Vader in A New Hope, he is also there to represent the Jedi as a whole as it is the order of the Jedi that, through misguided action, set Anakin on his path to the dark side by taking him from his mother.
Anakin’s combat with Obi-Wan is then symbolic of Anakin confronting the entire Jedi for their original sin against him. He rages against his former master but as in Siegfried’s case, it is too late and his fate is sealed.
Obi-wan defeats Anakin and leaves him alone on the empty banks of the fiery lakes of Mustafar.
In that opera house on Coruscant, Anakin sits disinterested in what Palpatine has to say until Palpatine mentions the tragedy of Darth Plagueis. Anakin is roused from his boredom. There’s a cut and the camera now takes the viewer behind Anakin as he turns and looks at Palpatine and wonders why the Chancellor of the Republic is speaking of Sith lords.
It’s the very start of Palpatine’s temptation of Anakin to the dark side. And as Anakin engages Palpatine and seals his fate, we see between them the Mon Calmari swimmers playing out our hero’s impending fall.
- Revenge of the Sith Director’s Commentary