One of the earliest memories I can recall is that of a nightmare. I must have been 4 or 5 years old, but I remember like it was yesterday. I was standing in a room surrounded by darkness when suddenly a pair of red flaming eyes appeared. As I approached these bloody lights a form started to appear around them, a skull-like shape, but it wasn’t a face, it was a helmet, it was his helmet. I remember waking up screaming and running to my parents’ room, when my mother asked me what was wrong I just said: “He was in my dreams, Darth Vader was in my dreams”.
Since that day, and until recently, the helmet of Darth Vader represented for me evil itself. But after seeing all of Clone Wars and Rebels, and reading tons of books and comics, my point of view changed, what once was a symbol of horror and cruelty, soon became the embodiment of tragedy, loss, and guilt. I believe that Darth Vader’s helmet is the perfect visual representation of Anakin’s journey into the dark side… and back.
Throughout the saga, Vader’s helmet fulfilled three main roles (other than helping him breathe), show Anakin’s transformation into the dark side, show Anakin’s guilt and regret, and show Anakin’s vulnerability (granted this is in situations when the mask is removed or damaged). Let’s see some examples.
The first time the mask appears in the movies chronologically is near the end of Revenge of the Sith in the scene where Darth Vader’s armor is assembled. The last piece of the suit to be adjusted is the helmet, and just when the machines are putting it on Anakin we see a glimpse of his point of view: the eyes of the mask open up, almost like it’s come to life, and show red lenses that will forever change Vader’s point of view. One can even say this is the point the dark side completely clouds Anakin’s vision.
Just after this moment, we see the mask settle into Anakin’s face and the headpiece being placed, this is the true birth of Vader, the final moment in his transformation. One of the reasons the coronation of the Lord of the Sith is so important is that this is the moment when Anakin lost his humanity. For many the face is the “most human” part of the body, it’s the part we concentrate the most on, it’s where the eyes are, the so-called windows to the soul. So the moment the mask is put on Anakin’s face, it’s hidden in a skull-like prison. What once was a symbol of humanity is now a symbol of death and tyranny.
The animated series also has some key moments that show Vader’s helmet as the symbol of Anakin’s tragedy. At the end of The Clone Wars, when we see Darth Vader going through the wreckage Ahsoka left behind, there is a moment in which Vader looks into the sky, and if you watch very close, through the red lenses of the helmet, you can catch a glimpse of Anakin’s eye, filled with regret and guilt about the fall of Anakin and Ahsoka relationship. Later on, in Rebels, we see the reunion of these two, culminating in a duel. Vader’s helmet is damaged and once again we can see Anakin’s eye, this time showing both vulnerability and guilt. This is the last time they will ever be together and Vader/Anakin knows this, Vader took away any chance for Anakin and Ahsoka to be friends, brother and sister. Anakin sees this, and he sees it through the helmet, through the veil of the dark side, and for a moment he realizes everything he has lost.
And this brings us to the original trilogy where we see some of the best uses of the helmet, or in most of these cases the absence of it. In The Empire Strikes Back we see the helmet being put on Anakin’s scarred head, this is the first moment we see Vader as a human, as someone who is not pure evil, it gives us a chance for redemption.
Later in the movie, we see Luke having a vision where he sees his own face in Vader’s helmet. This is his worst nightmare, to become Vader, and this is represented through the helmet. Luke is afraid to be trapped in the same skull-shaped prison that his father is trapped in.
And finally, there is the most iconic moment in which the helmet is involved. The redemption/death scene. In his last moments, Anakin asks Luke to remove his mask just so he can see Luke’s face with his own eyes. In a scene that makes a perfect parallel to Vader’s coronation, the helmet is removed and Darth Vader is no more. The prison is broken, the veil disappears, Anakin is finally free.
And that is what everything is about. Ever since he was a little boy in Tatooine Anakin has been a slave, a prisoner, and the helmet brings that to life, it’s the symbol of his lack of freedom, the embodiment of Anakin’s tragedy.
Anakin’s journey is one of my favorite stories ever, it’s the story of a little boy consumed by his fears and the way he is able to overcome them. The fact that we can see that journey represented by a weird piece of plastic encapsulates why I love Star Wars, because it brings so many ideas and themes to light in the strangest and most amazing ways.