What never ceases to amaze me about the Star Wars films is that, no matter how many times I’ve watched them, I still notice things I’ve never noticed before or have realisations I’ve never had before.
With the six original films in particular, I’ve watched them more times than I could possibly count, but I still feel like I’m watching through a new lens every time.
In this instance, I was watching Empire Strikes Back a week or so ago – a film that I’ve probably watched at least once a year for about twenty years. And it was on Dagobah that something dawned on me that never had before.
Specifically, it’s the scene where Luke goes into the Dark Side cave. When he goes in, he leaves Yoda and Artoo outside.
Just before he sighs nervously (or ominously – it’s open to interepretation), Yoda looks over at Artoo Deetoo. The image above is not the scene I’m talking about: I couldn’t find an image for that, but if you know the film well enough then you’ll know precisely the moment I’m talking about.
So, what is this look exchanged between the two of them, why was it highlighted in the scene and what does it ultimately mean? You could argue that, at a basic level, it’s just a random acknowledgement that both Yoda and Artoo are nervous about Luke.
But then you have to rewind the clock and remember the pains George Lucas went to in the prequels to show that Artoo Deetoo is essentially the bearer of all knowledge – the witness to all key moments in the saga.
If there was ever a scripture written to chronicle the Skywalker Saga, it would be ‘The Gospel According to Artoo Deetoo’. Artoo knows everything.
He was there when Qui-Gon found Anakin.
He was there when Anakin met Obi-Wan.
He was there when Anakin and Padme got married in secret.
He was even there on Mustafar when Anakin went to murder all of the Separatist leaders.
And he was there when Padme was giving birth to Luke and Leia: as was Yoda.
While there’s long been fan debate over whether the elderly Obi-Wan in A New Hope recognises Artoo or not, it seems to me that Yoda in ESB does recognise Artoo. Go back and watch Revenge of the Sith: and Artoo and Threepio are right beside Yoda, Obi-Wan and Bail Organa standing outside of the room in which Padme is giving bith.
So come back to Empire Strikes Back: and it’s clear that Yoda knows Artoo and Artoo knows Yoda. What’s genius then in these scenes is that , while Luke is around, Yoda acts like he doesn’t know Artoo – but in the one moment where Luke isn’t present (he’s in the cave), Yoda lets the act slip and he glances over to Artoo, as if the two of them are having a moment.
It’s almost as if the two of them are acknowledging to each other that they’re maintaining an act for the benefit of Luke. Luke going into the cave is the first moment Yoda has in which he can drop the act for a little bit.
Clearly, Artoo has been withholding information from Luke the whole time anyway. Lucas made it explicit in Revenge of the Sith that only Threepio’s memory is wiped – Artoo retains full memory of the events of the prequels. And we know he talks to Luke all the time – so he has clearly made a conscious choice not to tell him things about Vader/Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda, his sister Leia, his mother Padme, etc.
It makes me wonder if there should’ve been a scene in ROTS where Yoda or Obi-Wan were giving instructions to Artoo: or at least Artoo should’ve been inserted into the scene where Yoda is explaining things to Obi-Wan and Bail Organa and they’re discussing what to do with the Skywalker children.
As it is, ROTS shows us that scene of Yoda, Obi-Wan and Bail and then it cuts to Bail Organa in the corridor telling Captain Antilles to take good care of the two droids, but to wipe the protocol droid’s memory (at which point Artoo Deetoo laughs).
But clearly the implication has always been that Artoo is on an equal footing with both Obi-Wan and Yoda in this ‘plan’ for the future: in many ways, Artoo is the key to everything.
It’s Artoo who not only brings Leia’s message to Obi-Wan in A New Hope: but Artoo who also brings Luke to Obi-Wan and Artoo who shows Luke his sister for the first time. It’s Artoo who also brings Luke to Yoda.
So when you’re seeing this look exchanged between Yoda and Artoo when Luke is in the cave, it’s as if Yoda is saying ‘well, ok, our plan has come this far – let’s hope it goes well from this point on too‘.
What I love about this is that Yoda is actually putting on an act when Luke arrives on Dagobah anyway: pretending that he isn’t Yoda and using this as a chance to study Luke’s attitude. But the great thing here is that, even when he drops this level of the ‘act’ (by admitting that he is Yoda), he’s still maintaining a separate act – the ‘act’ that he doesn’t know Artoo-Deetoo.
Yoda is essentially allowing Artoo to keep his ‘cover’.
It’s this subtle Yoda/Artoo dynamic in ESB that makes me think that Obi-Wan in A New Hope is basically doing the same thing – pretending he’s never seen Artoo before and allowing Artoo to maintain his ‘cover’.
While it’s questionable whether Lucas intended any of this while he was producing the original films, there’s no quesiton that he did intend it to be implied once he was making the prequels: why else bother to include the detail of Artoo’s memory not being wiped while Threepio’s is?
The implication has to be intentional that Artoo is essentially acting like an undercover agent in the OT: he is one third of the Trinity, with Yoda and Obi-Wan, who will guide Luke Skywalker to his destiny to help restore freedom to the galaxy.
The amount of reflection or thought-process triggered by just this one tiny, tiny moment in ESB – a brief look from Yoda to Artoo – reminds me why I love Star Wars so much.
Those films interact with each other on so many levels – some of them big, some of them subtle. There’s always multiple ways to watch the saga, multiple narratives and sub-narratives, connections, nuances and resonances.
And there’s always something new you’re noticing for the first time.