I was hesitant at first to make this its own installment. One 5,000-word post on 90 seconds of Maul screaming in a desert was certainly a dramatic way to begin this close read. Three posts* and over 15,000 words on 40 seconds of Obi-Wan cradling Maul? Surely that’s just becoming excessive.
And yet, the previous installment’s title, “It All Comes Down to This,” was no exaggeration on my part. This was the exact moment in which I fell in love with Star Wars all over again. This is Luke-throwing-away-his-lightsaber-level of iconic. This is the core theme of the franchise – compassion – distilled down to a single action. This moment deserves examination.
Especially since Maul has become one of the best examples in Star Wars about the power of compassion.
*Yes, Part 9 will be tackling yet another angle of these 40 seconds. There is a lot to unpack here.
BEFORE WE MOVE ON
With ableism and the stigma of mental illness alive and well in our media and our culture, I would be remiss if I didn’t address its existence both in Star Wars as a whole and Maul’s story in particular. This unfortunately means that, in discussing this portion of Maul’s journey in my “Twin Suns” close read, ableist undercurrents will be present. Particularly, I will have to touch on how Maul’s connection to the Dark Side is manifested as a mental illness. To pretend otherwise would be to deny that ableism, even unintentional ableism, exists in Star Wars.
I have written on this slighty more extensively in my blog post – #SWRepMatters: Mental Health.
THIS IS HOW YOU FIND ME, BROTHER. DISCARDED, FORGOTTEN.
These forty seconds which I adore so much start with this:
Ben Kenobi catches Maul.
It’s such a simple act, and yet all the more powerful for it. It could have been just as easy to let Maul hit the ground, as Qui-Gon, Satine, and Savage had all fallen before him. As Maul himself did, time and time again. No one was there to catch him on Naboo, Mandalore, or Malachor, and his victims (of his violence or of his hubris) were likewise discarded. Even here in “Twin Suns” we see Maul do what Ben could have done.
When Ezra lunges at the vision of Maul in the desert, Filoni uses the frame of the camera to hide whether or not Maul is actually there until the reality hits Ezra hard. It’s similar to the trick Filoni uses to surprise us with Ben’s killing blow. And here, Maul lets Ezra collapse to the ground with a derisive laugh, and then leaves the boy abandoned to be bait for Kenobi.
In Part 1, we explored how Maul had been living in abandoned places for the entirety of Rebels, but it goes beyond that. Maul has been living in abandonment over the entire course of his life.
In Son of Dathomir, we receive two conflicting stories of how Maul came into Sidious’ possession. Maul’s mother, Talzin, claims he was stolen from her, Sidious forgoing his promise to make her his apprentice by taking her son. Sidious makes this claim:
Maul came to me as a child – a not-so-appreciated gift from Mother Talzin. Her spite for me runs deep…
In this instance, I am inclined to believe Sidious. There is no reason for him to lie to Dooku about whether or not Maul was stolen or gifted to him. Talzin, on the other hand, tells her version of the story in Maul’s presence while trying to win Dooku’s alliance. She needs, and probably wants (based on how she later sacrifices herself for him), Maul to think well of and remain loyal to her. Thus Sidious’ tale of Talzin willingly handing Maul over to him rings truer.
Once owned by Sidious, in the old Legends continuity, abandonment remained a looming possibility. In The Wrath of Darth Maul, Maul: Lockdown, and the short comic “Marked,” Sidious threatened Maul with replacement by another apprentice again and again. This constantly undermined Maul’s self-worth and sense of purpose.
“Marked.” Star Wars Tales Volume 6.
The potential canonicity of such threats is strengthened by a visual call-back from the canon Son of Dathomir to the Legends tale “Marked”:
Left: “Marked” (Legends). Sidious informing Maul that his fear of abandonment by Sidious will make him strong and obedient, featuring a flashback to Sidious acquiring Maul as a child.
Right: Son of Dathomir (canon). Sidious relates to Dooku how Maul came to him, featuring a flashback to Sidious acquiring Maul as a child.
Whether or not such threats will see completely see the light of canon again, we still know that the eventual abandonment by Sidious after Naboo stung hard and deep.
And such is how you found me, brother: discarded, forgotten. (The Clone Wars, “Revenge”)
…Since new apprentices are apparently so easy to find. (Son of Dathomir)
The Sith… used me as a weapon, then cast me aside. Abandoned me! (Rebels, “Twilight of the Apprentice”)
The last thing we ever hear Sidious say of Maul, his first apprentice is this:
Maul’s future has been erased. (Son of Dathomir)
With Talzin dead and waste laid to Dathomir, Maul was again discarded from his old Master’s considerations. And after the rise of the Empire, even old allies like Gar Saxon turned their oaths to Sidious, leaving Maul but a piece of their history, if he is even given that. Upon seeing the darksaber again, Bo-Katan has no words to say of Maul’s wielding of it; her only thoughts are towards her sister.
While it’s easy (and truthful) to blame Sidious for a lot of this, it’s also clear in his adult years that Maul himself perpetuated this cycle of abandonment by refusing to leave the Sith philosophy behind him, even after he left the Order itself. Maul has constantly been looking to reclaim a sense of purpose, to fill the emptiness in him, and the Force actually keeps giving him answers. But because he pursues those answers from the Sith mindset, he keeps coming up empty-handed.
I am lost… and yet I can feel [it], so close, so close.
In Rebels alone, he’s given someone (Ezra) to advocate for him so that he has a chance to join something bigger, to find a purpose again. But in choosing to manipulate and betray Ezra, he loses any chance of even a friendship with him. When he’s looking for hope, he’s given a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who, in their last real conversation, had told Maul that he could make a choice to turn from the Dark Side. But instead of pursuing his original question of hope, Maul reverts to revenge and in doing so causes his own death.
It would have been a thematically fitting end to Maul, had he fallen untouched to the sand, his grip on the Sith philosophy leaving him abandoned at the very end. There would have been a touch of poetic justice as well, seeing how Qui-Gon, Satine, and even those he cared for (Savage and Ezra) were never caught. Let Maul fall, and complete the cycle of events. But compassion disagrees.
SYMPATHY IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
It’s important to note the manner in which this act of compassion is framed.
This is why [Return of the Jedi] is brilliant. The interest we have in Darth Vader is mostly because of Return of the Jedi. It’s not because of The Empire Strikes Back. …We all think all that interesting character stuff happened in Empire Strikes Back, but it didn’t for Vader. It all happened in Return of the Jedi, and then when you watch Empire Strikes Back after Return of the Jedi, you see all these layers that you didn’t see before. …Jedi informs Empire in the same way that Empire informs Jedi…
<Lawrence Kasdan voice> “Why would [Luke] save his father, George? I don’t understand”
<George Lucas voice> “Because we’re going to take Darth Vader and make him into a sympathetic character.”
When Star Wars was first coming out, Darth Vader was a cold and calculating villain and little more. He only became sympathetic to audiences only after we saw him through Luke’s eyes in Return of the Jedi. Slightly contrasted to Vader and Return of the Jedi, we did get to watch Maul’s arc through The Phantom Menace, The Clone Wars, and Rebels before “Twin Sun” was released. It’s been enough to make the audience not only sympathize but also empathize with Maul.
Nevertheless, he frequently undercuts his own moments of sympathy because of what he chooses to do with the trust and compassion offered to him. His brother brings him back from the brink of madness, and in return Maul slaughters an entire colony and forces Savage into submission. Obi-Wan tries to reach out and show compassion for his childhood trauma, and in return, Maul kills Satine. Ezra empathizes with, trusts, and advocates for Maul, and in return Maul torments him and his entire family.
This is taken to the extreme in “Twin Suns,” where we never see Maul through any sympathetic lens until after his fight. His visions of Savage (the source of his sympathetic viewpoint in The Clone Wars) were cut from the final script, as well as this storyboard image of him in sorrow after Ben tells him he has “nothing.”
Dave Filoni’s storyboards.
In the episode itself, we have no such glance. The shot cuts right to Maul’s snarl as he begins to pick at Ben’s reason for being there. This leaves Maul with a bitter and cruel role, which perfectly fits him as a character: that undercutting of his own sympathy. The cold open shows him as desperately vicious, followed swiftly by manipulative cunning. His presence then becomes a torment to Ezra, leading him into traps and goading him into despair. When he finally shows up by Ben’s fire, it’s the throne room of Mandalore all over again, as discussed in Part 5. Hateful, mocking, and cruel. Not even his own moments as our viewpoint character is Maul seen as sympathetic, which says something about how he perceives himself.
Always remember, I am filth…
Recall how earlier in the episode, we were told who our viewpoint character was through motif of eyes. The opening shot placed us in Maul’s shoes as we saw what he saw. We were passed onto Ezra’s point of view through an extreme close-up on Ezra’s eye. Now, with Ezra shuttled off home, we step into Ben’s shoes. There’s no single viewpoint character in the conversation in two conversations here between Maul and Ben, but it’s shared equally between both of them, the camera placing us right between them and their words.
The one place we see Maul sympathetic in “Twin Suns” is through Ben’s eyes, that look of pity. That must have been deliberate. Because Ezra doesn’t need to redeem Maul; he needs to be free of him. Because Maul doesn’t comprehend the compassion that will be his redemption.
This redemption in Maul, while radical, does not come out of nowhere. In fact, we’ve watched compassion act as a transformative agent in his life throughout the two animated series. “Twin Suns” was the coup de grâce of it all, literally the “blow of mercy.”
IT GROWS STRONG AND FIERCE IN YOU, LIKE A CANCER
In the two-parter “The Magician’s Apprentice”/“The Witch’s Familiar” in Season 9 of Doctor Who, the Doctor is confronted by a long-time enemy of his. The creator of the Daleks, Davros, is dying, and he requests that the Doctor be there at his deathbed. What results is a winding yet poignantly simple exploration of mercy.
Upon learning that the Doctor came to Davros’ deathbed not to gloat, but rather simply because Davros asked him to, Davros responds with scorn:
Davros: Compassion, then.
Davros: It grows strong and fierce in you, like a cancer.
Doctor: I hope so.
Davros: It will kill you in the end.
Doctor: I wouldn’t die of anything else.
Davros: You may rely on it.
There are many parallels with “Twin Suns,” in which Maul is easily cast as Davros (or Missy) against Ben as the Doctor. I recommend taking some time to explore those parallels and divergences; it’s a great exercise in seeing how similar themes are played out in different stories.
I wish, just once, we had been on the same side.
Look, the sun’s coming up. We’re on the same side now.
(Davros and The Doctor, “The Witch’s Familiar”)
For the sake of this close read, however, I simply want to focus on that particular conversation about compassion between Davros and the Doctor.
Here I’m actually going to do a bit of recasting. Davros’ lines don’t necessarily go to any one character from “Twin Suns,” but rather to a concept or theme, like Sam Witwer once played as the Son in the Mortis Trilogy. The Doctor’s lines likewise don’t go to anyone, as the conversation becomes a monologue-
Compassion, then. It grows strong and fierce in you, like a cancer. It will kill you in the end.
– a monologue which perfectly describes the character arc of Maul.
Stay with me, because we need to lay down some Force philosophy first.
“Compassion” is frequently cited as a weakness of the Jedi and other Light Side wielders. It makes them vulnerable, predictable, and exploitable by Darksiders (and bounty hunters, and the Empire, and…). Maul himself takes advantage of this: letting the Naboo transmission slip through on Tatooine to track Queen Amidala, slaughtering the colony on Raydonia and allowing Satine to get her message out on Mandalore to lure in Obi-Wan, and using Ezra’s immense capacity for empathy to gain his trust.
So there is some truth to the idea that “compassion is a weakness,” but it’s merely a sliver of the whole. The true reason the Dark Side rejects compassion is because compassion is its greatest threat. Despite the “Rule of Two,” Sith and other Darksiders are constantly attempting to recruit other Force wielders to their cause. Which, on the surface, doesn’t make sense. To quote the comedy recap blog Snark Wars:
…and please, readers: with this, allow me to recite some things (this is by no means an exhaustive list) that have annoyed, enraged, or otherwise inspired a distressed emotional rant from the People of Star Wars:
– Obi-Wan Kenobi being dead (Anakin, Luke, Everyone)
– Obi-Wan Kenobi being alive (Maul, Vader, Tarkin, probably Sheev)…
– Someone not joining the Dark Side (Everyone evil. Normally this would fall under “typical thing a bad guy gets mad about in any franchise”, but this one only gets me in Star Wars because, really: 99% of the time it would do these guys ZERO good to have MORE Darksiders running around. It’s just more people to compete with and have possibly try to murder you later! Guys, think it through. Did NO ONE hear the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?! FFS.)
The reason, however, that this trend exists in Star Wars is because the Dark Side is ultimately about control. Not self-control, as the Jedi teach, but the control of others, and coercing someone to play by your rules is the ultimate means of control. At least until someone starts playing the game better than you (see: Sidious and Plagueis).
In the Legends novel Darth Plagueis, the Sith espouse that they are the ones in control of the Force, unlike the Jedi who submit to its will. The Jedi are buffeted about by fate, they claim, but it is the Sith that bend even the Force to their will. In canon, we see shades of that philosophy, particularly in the method in which the Sith create their lightsabers. In the novel Ahsoka, we learn that the Jedi listen for the song of the crystal that belongs to them, and in The Clone Wars we learn that constructing a lightsaber is an act of cooperation with the Force. The Sith, on the other hand, take kyber crystals and “bleed” them, bending them to their own ends.
But this claim of the Sith and other Darksiders – that they are in control and the Dark Side is not – is false. The Dark Side is insatiable and will always keep taking, even from its servants.
Just as in the Mortis trilogy in TCW, which begins with a state of balance between light and dark, the dark side ultimately proves insatiable. Kylo Ren cannot resist the lure of the throne… Balance, it turns out, is not found in the light and dark sides teaming up against a greater enemy, because when that enemy is gone, the dark side remains insatiable. Kylo only wants more. (Mark Eldridge, “The Force Reinforced” on Eleven-Thirty-Eight.com)
Kylo is the more conflicted soul, but… he ends TLJ as the definitive example of Lucas’s conception of the dark side: corrupting your thoughts, making you want more and more, and leaving you with nothing. His brief alliance with Rey in the throne room is unsustainable, because the dark side in TLJ is what it has always been: an insatiable desire for power, and violently lashing out at anyone who may take it from you. (Mark Eldridge, “Resolving the Grey” on Eleven-Thirty-Eight.com)
We have seen this in Ezra’s journey here in Rebels as well. Recall our discussion in Part 3: Maul and the influence of the Holocron was a violent ripping away of what was left of Ezra’s youth. The Rebellion may have called him into greater responsibility, honed him into a young man, but the Dark Side simply kept taking from him. Because it’s never the user who is in control, but the Dark Side itself, and it only grows in power the more it’s used.
Son: Can you feel it, sister? Can you feel the anger? The hate. The fury.
Daughter: Their conflict is feeding you, isn’t it?
(The Clone Wars, “Altar of Mortis”)
Therefore, the greatest loss a Darksider may face is death, but the greatest loss the Dark Side itself can face is redemption. The death of a Dark Side user may be a setback, but in the long run, it’s simply the loss of a tool that can be replaced. The redemption of a Darksider to the Light is the loss of control itself. And redemption is not found through moral arguments or comparisons of power; it’s found through compassion.
Darth Vader’s redemption through Luke is the most obvious example of this, but he’s not alone. It’s Ezra’s empathy that causes Saw to back down on Geonosis and brings about a character shift in Hondo by the Rebels finale. It’s Ventress’ love that saves Quinlan Vos from the Dark Side. And then there’s Finn, who broke away from the First Order and its conditioning not through someone else’s compassion for him, but through his own compassion for others.
This is why the Dark Side rails so hard against even the idea of compassion; because through compassion, it loses control.
Consider prejudice for a moment. If you have a bias against something – race, gender, political affiliation, etc. – you will automatically have a lower regard for what someone with those credentials has to say, especially if they are speaking from the experience provided by said credentials. In short: if you are sexist and a woman attempts to speak to you about a situation from the female perspective, you will dismiss it because you have learned to disregard the worth of women.
This is what the Sith do with compassion. Painting it as nothing but a weakness to be exploited, they attempt to take away its power to ensure that their followers cannot be swayed by it. Perhaps consciously, they truly believe that’s exactly what compassion is: a weakness. But when everything is stripped away and nothing but the Dark Side is left, it reacts to compassion in a wholly different manner.
And where have we seen the Dark Side in its purest, most undiluted form?
No, not the Son. While he was an avatar of the Dark Side, we know from the word of the Father that he 1) chose it and 2) wasn’t fully consumed by the time of his death. Another example of compassion undermining the Dark Side’s power.
Palpatine, perhaps? Definitely a stronger argument as we have yet to see any genuine compassion or selflessness from that man, but he’s still able to present the appearance of it. Even as Emperor, he was able to convince some of his followers that he was working towards the greater good. He was immersed in the Dark Side, but not consumed by it.
So, who was?
Yes. Yes, Spider-Maul is indeed our most refined example of the Dark Side.
Witwer once stated that where we find Maul in The Clone Wars is…
…showing, for the first time, the raw, unadulterated – this is what the Dark Side is. It’s not cool lightsaber fights, jumping around, and having awesome costumes. …It’s also madness and despair and agony. Let’s just give [the audience] the Dark Side without a guy strong enough in the moment to hide all this underneath. (Star Wars Celebration, The Clone Wars Season 5 Premiere Panel)
What we see in Maul here is the pure heart of the Dark Side. It’s ugly, pathetic, and pitiable. And what’s its response to compassion?
The barest display of it from Savage sends Maul fleeing.
His avoidance of Savage in the moments beforehand were framed more as a predator stalking its prey rather than someone fleeing a threat. Even as Savage proves himself to be a more difficult meal than the others Morley has sent his way, Maul still presses his attack. But the moment Savage addresses him definitively as “brother” – with a note of longing and pity in his voice, no less – Maul breaks off and runs. Consumed by the Dark Side, he flees the greatest threat to his current state: compassion.
But already, the “damage,” so to speak, is done.
The first display of compassion gives Maul his voice back; he actually speaks, and like a child learning words, his first is “no.” As Savage pursues him and continues to insist on Maul’s worth – “You are my brother!” “[Morley] should have been helping him!” – Maul grows more and more verbose and coherent. Though it will take Talzin to restore his mind, and Maul never fully rejects the Dark Side, it is Savage’s compassion that brings Maul back from being wholly consumed by the darkness.
Maul incrementally becomes a better person through the compassion of Savage and Ezra. I should note before continuing, however, that becoming a “better” person doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a “good” person. Even at the end of his life, Maul is no hero. But he did improve.
Under Sidious, Maul had no concept of loyalty to anyone outside himself and Sidious, and the latter was not secured through compassion. In the 2017 run of the Darth Maul comics, he casually considers how he would have had sport hunting Cad Bane’s crew if he had no other use for them. The only thing that gives him pause in killing Eldra Kaitis is the idea of her as an ally to the Dark Side, but the notion is quickly dismissed to avoid challenging Sidious so openly.
Once rescued by Savage, Maul still maintains his brutality and forces Savage into a Master-Apprentice dynamic, “depersonalizing his brother” or trying to (Filoni, IGN Interview). But that compassion Savage showed Maul doesn’t fully allow it. Maul still becomes distressed when Savage is injured and breaks off an assault to pull him out of harms way. He holds himself back from assaulting Vizsla and Bo-Katan when they put a gun to Savage’s head. And his grief over Savage’s death leads him into the most open defiance of Sidious he has ever displayed.
[Maul] realizes he’s losing something meaningful beyond just controlling people or using people. There’s a real relationship here. (Sam Witwer, “Star Wars Animation: 10 Year Anniversary Special Part 2,” The ForceCast)
Thanks to Savage, there is a part of Maul that learned to love. We see him in Son of Dathomir try to rush to his mother’s side even as her fate is sealed. We see him express similar concern for Ezra in Rebels, trying to keep the young Jedi safe on Malachor and on Dathomir. According to Dave Filoni in the “Twin Suns” audio commentary, “Maul’s life changed and began again when he met Ezra, so [he knows] he’s probably going to need Ezra in the end.” That empathy Ezra showed him on Malachor, along with the parallels to Savage finding him in a cave on Lotho Minor, retriggered that desire for compassion in Maul. This time, Maul is aware of that desire (even if he doesn’t fully understand it) and doesn’t try to push it down as he did in The Clone Wars, but rather openly begs Ezra for it in the ruins of his homeworld. Much like how he begs Ben Kenobi for hope in the end.
Again, Maul still commits horrendous atrocities up until his death, and I’m not arguing that his treatment of Savage or Ezra was good. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge the contributions both Savage and Ezra had to Maul’s redemption. In spite of what Maul did to them, their compassion was an influence on his life that brought him to the point where he was able to accept forgiveness and forgive Obi-Wan in return.
This growth is visually reinforced by how Maul dies. In the famous Ring Theory essay, Mike Klimo points out that Maul’s first death is thematically similar to Sidious’s: “A Sith falling down a deep chasm to his death.” However, after Maul returned, his actual death reflects that of Qui-Gon and that of Vader in Return of the Jedi: “A slain Jedi being cradled… And a funeral pyre” (Klimo, page 3). Through the compassion of Savage, Ezra, and Ben, Maul is spared the fate of oblivion that befell his Master.
IT WILL KILL YOU IN THE END… YOU MAY RELY ON IT
In “Twin Suns,” Maul is almost always lit by some form of red or “hot” colored light. The suns in daylight, the red of his lightsaber, or the glow of the fire, and when one light source vanishes, one of the others takes its place. When Maul attacks the Tusken Raiders at night, we get our shot of him only after his blade is activated. Similarly, he strikes out the fire with his lightsaber, never leaving himself illuminated by anything soft or welcoming. The rage is always burning in him until he registers Ben’s blow and he lowers and deactivates his lightsaber(s). Suddenly, he’s lit only by a soft blue. The smoke that billows from his chest brings to mind the fire he kicked out only moments before. It’s the very death he had unknowingly prophesied over himself over three decades before.
As “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1a), so Ben’s compassion quells Maul’s rage. And his desire for vengeance is satisfied by the knowledge of the Chosen One: “He will avenge us.” There is nothing left from the Dark Side for Maul to cling to in order to preserve his life as he did on Naboo. It’s compassion that finally lets him rest. Even the peace he expects to find in the Chosen One’s vengeance is steeped in that compassion.
Neither Maul nor Obi-Wan can be the ones to fix this problem that the galaxy is facing, to right the wrongs that they have suffered in the past when they were being moved on the galactic chessboard by Palpatine. …The active pursuit of revenge can’t solve this problem.
…But Luke… Luke can solve this problem.
He can avenge them because he doesn’t carry the weight of their past with him, he’s a blank slate in a sense. Despite suffering his own losses to the Empire, he’s not fighting for revenge. The end result of him fighting against the Empire and redeeming his father (who then kills Palpatine) is that Obi-Wan and Maul will be avenged – the word here implying more of a passive result. (Haruspis, “Star Wars: Rebels, Twin Suns – A Narrative Appraisal”)
Luke refuses to play the Dark Side’s game, rejecting its control and instead embracing compassion even if it means death. It may have been Anakin Skywalker who killed Palpatine, but it was Luke who broke through the cycle of vengeance. Everything that Maul ever sought, from vengeance on his abuser to the simple desire to not be abandoned, was bestowed through compassion in his final moments.
For the first time, Maul is able to let go and recognise that this story will go on without him in a way that will bring some justice to what he and Obi-Wan suffered as equals – as pawns in Palpatine’s game.
… In his final moments, I believe that this was the “hope” Maul was searching for, and that all who have suffered (as he did) at Palpatine’s hands will find the same peace.
Maul won’t be around for that galaxy, he’ll never get to see it or feel it, but he knows it’s real. For once, that is enough for him. (Haruspis, emphasis mine)