The Tragic Star Wars Governor: A Look at General Panaka
The Star Wars prequels brimmed with potential, satisfaction, and some disappointment. We got an awesome soundtrack, for starters, and updated CGI. We also got savory and unsavory characters to go with the tragedy.
While doing an appreciation post about Finn because Finn is my favorite character, I was reviewing on the other POC in the Star Wars universe. We had Lando, Mace Windu, and Captain Panaka. And I realized that Panaka deserved more than a cursory mention. He deserves so much more.
Quarsh Panaka first appears in The Phantom Menace as Queen Amidala’s security advisor. He doesn’t believe that peace can prevail on such a valuable planet, and presses her to arm the castle and prepare for war. Though Amidala protests, as a peace-loving authority figure, they manage to compromise with her having bodyguard doubles and emergency blasters in the throne room.
Panaka’s main concern is to keep his queen safe, and to defer to Palpatine. He also has to listen to her when she doesn’t want his advice. This effort to protect his queen becomes harder when the Separatists invade, and try to force Amidala to sign a treaty. As Panaka tells the Jedi who rescue them, the Trade Federation needs Amidala alive to sign the treaty, but backs off when Qui-Gon points out they could kill her and install a puppet who would bow to their demands. Panaka’s job is not to be right, but rather competent. He will bend to logic, cool and brusque as it may be.
The interaction between the queen and captain is important. Panaka, unlike Qui-Gon Jinn, never treats Amidala like a child even though she is fourteen according to Star Wars lore. Technically she is his superior, even in handmaid disguise, and Panaka never forgets it. He lays out the facts and his advice without nonsense or patronizing gestures, with his agenda to keep her alive and en route to Coruscant in one piece. Amidala understands the risks of her position, and she takes his advice always under consideration. A queen cannot hide in the shadows, and there is more than one way to fight. Once again, they compromise as he leads her climactic mission into the throne room, and she locates the blasters he hid.
After the movie, the years pass and eventually Panaka has to guard a new queen. He chooses to serve Chancellor Palpatine, and inform him on what he learns. Padme Amidala becomes a Senator, once again a target, but Panaka has to send his nephew to guard her. He has to keep his distance, and not because his actor had conflicts with the franchise. Panaka learns of how Amidala married Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi knight who cannot have attachments, and told the Chancellor. He passes on this information to the Emperor, who proceeds to use it to tempt Anakin to the dark side. It’s unclear if Panaka knew about this, or about his role.
Amidala after decades of fighting for a free Republic dies after giving birth to twins when her husband joins the new Empire. Panaka never sees her again onscreen, though we can hope that he attends her funeral. It was not his job to mourn the girl that grew into a woman, but he mourned for her anyway. We can presume that he mourned for her children, and the leader that Naboo lost. Like Vader, he only had the Emperor left to obey. Meanwhile the galaxy lost its freedom, and two different families raised babies that would grow into rebels. Panaka would only have memories of the teenage queen that refused to go to war.
The expanded material add a dour ending: Panaka sides with Palpatine during the transition from Republic to Empire. Unusual for a lightning-striking bad-tempered Emperor, Palpatine rewards him with a governor position. On the surface Panaka accepting the position may seem treacherous and traitorous, but we have to consider the following: Panaka knew Palpatine from the time the latter was a senator. The politician has always sided with Naboo, and prioritizes keeping its people safe. As far as Panaka knows, Palpatine has Naboo’s best interests at heart, and believes that you have to rule by force to protect the ones you love. It’s completely plausible that Panaka didn’t know the circumstances of Amidala’s death, though it’s confirmed he knows she bore children. We can assume that Panaka, like Anakin, was led to believe the babies died with their mother. The Emperor wouldn’t want to lose that leverage.
Panaka encounters a teenage Leia, who in traditional Naboo garb bears a canny resemblance to her mother. Leia at this point is prepared to fight for the Rebellion and engage in undercover work. For the moment, however, she is just dipping her toes into subterfuge. Panaka gets suspicious and gains hope; perhaps there is a chance that Amidala’s legacy survived. Bail Organa provides enough information to provide more hope. Panaka prepares to tell the Emperor was he has discovered, but a rebel bomb ends up blowing him apart before anyone knows what he has deduced. The secret dies with him, and Vader finds out years later when Leia has established herself as a rebel.
Most tragic figures have a fatal flaw. This undoes them and paves the way to their destruction. Darth Vader’s flaw, for example, is to take drastic means to protect the ones that he loves.
Panaka’s fatal flaw is obeying orders even when he disagrees with them. Sometimes this flaw isn’t even a flaw but a necessity, as we see when he advises Queen Amidala to not land the ship on Tattoine. Even so, as he put it to her, they had no means of fighting the Trade Federation. They could have forestalled the invasion with an organized military, but Panaka instead had blasters and bodyguards installed because he would defer to his queen regardless of the reality check.
Ultimately Panaka’s tragedy lies in his willingness to side with force, rather than side with what’s necessarily right. We don’t know what he thinks of Order 66, or knowing that the ambassadors that saved his queen are probably dead. He keeps those feelings to himself, unless they interfere with his job. Jedi are not part of the Naboo military equation. This is why the Emperor rewards him with a governorship, and trusts him. Panaka would have sold Amidala’s daughter to the Emperor, because he defers to his leader.
Panaka’s a soldier, and his job is to obey orders, and to also provide strategies to protect his superiors. This is why the rebels kill him: not because he is a bad person, but because he happens to have chosen the immoral side of the war.
Stereotypes (Not) Present
One refreshing aspect of Panaka is that, unlike Lando, he was never condemned for taking a rational course of action or forced to commit terrible things. The captain chooses his destiny. He became the Emperor’s governor, but even in the Star Wars universe Bail Organa calls him a good man. As one of the franchise’s few POC characeters before The Force Awakens and Rogue One, he would have to set an example for a new generation. The irony is that Mace Windu overshadowed him as the cool military black guy, because Samuel Jackson was present for all of the prequel films.
Panaka is admirable because he is loyal, intelligent, brave and pragmatic. He isn’t a minstrel show when siding with the Emperor, or what TVTropes would call a category traitor. In a better series of films with improved plausibility, he would stand out more.
I am thankful that in the prequels we had Captain Panaka. He was a voice of reason in the middle of Jedi and Gungan melodrama. Also he would have fought Darth Maul for Amidala.