Look, I am not condoning Darth Vader’s behavior in The Empire Strikes Back – force-choking your colleagues is not cool. In fact, if I were Emperor Palpatine, I would have considered making Vader do some sort of broadcasted PSA where he had to say just that, “Force-choking your colleagues is not cool.” (And, preferably, in that 1980s sitcom, “very special episode” style where the main character is doing some sort of menial task, then looks up, sees “us,” then explains to us the dangers of sniffing glue.) And it’s maybe hard to remember now, but the first time people saw The Empire Strikes Back, it was kind of shocking to see Vader kill members of his own team. Vader only kills two officers in the Galactic Empire, that we see – Admiral Ozzel and Captain Needa; for some reason it seems like more and maybe that was the point – but Vader didn’t force-choke any member of his own military in the original Star Wars. (Though, he did threaten one person with a force-choke, but let him go.) This was a new phenomenon.
So, no, I’m not condoning the fact that Darth Vader force-choked Captain Needa. But, looking at all this from Vader’s perspective, under the rules he had already established, Vader was right to kill Needa. Needa was really bad at his job. We’ll get to that. But first, let’s start with poor Admiral Ozzel.
(I should say here that all this stemmed from a visit to my neighborhood bar that plays movies instead of sports. And, often, they play the Original Trilogy. On this night The Empire Strikes Back was on, a movie I’ve seen so many times now, I almost can’t help but watch it from different perspectives. And, this time, it was from the perspective of “Darth Vader has quite a few nincompoops working for him.”)
Admiral Ozzel was, briefly, the commanding officer in the attack against the Rebel Alliance’s once hidden base on the remote ice planet of Hoth. Now, Ozzel had already caught the ire of Vader for questioning that the Rebels were even on Hoth in the first place. And it didn’t help that Ozzel was pretty smug about the whole thing. If anything, Admiral Ozzel was bad at reading the room. Vader was pretty clear the Rebels were on Hoth, “That’s it. That’s the system.” It takes a special personality to decide to chime in to an unhinged person with magical powers with, basically, “Um, actually, it’s probably just some smugglers.”
So Ozzel finally gets himself force-choked to death by having his fleet come out of lightspeed too close to Hoth, which allowed the Rebels to put up their shields, resulting in the whole ground battle involving AT-ATs and Snow Speeders and harpoon guns we love so much. Vader would have preferred a more stealth approach, as to avoid the whole ground battle and just bomb the base from orbit, like we saw at the beginning of The Last Jedi. Anyway, by this time, Vader was pretty fed-up with Ozzel – “he’s as clumsy as he is stupid” – and force-choked Ozzel to death over video conferencing for, basically, a difference of opinion on military strategy. (The coldest thing about this was that Vader couldn’t even be bothered to force choke Ozzel in person. He basically did it over FaceTime. If you ever answer your phone and you see Darth Vader is on the other end, it’s probably best to just hang up.)
Anyway, the case could be made Ozzel’s death was an overreaction. Ozzel had “um, actually”ed Vader, so Vader was already annoyed and the whole lightspeed thing was just the final straw. But, having already set that precedent, Captain Needa had to go. Captain Needa was legitimately bad at his job.