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.
After the battle of Hoth, Captain Needa was tasked with catching the Millennium Falcon, which looked almost comically easy. Darth Vader probably just pointed at the Falcon, being chased by numerous Imperial Star Destroyers, and said, “It’s literally right there, just get it for me. That’s all you have to do. Easy peasy.” (In my non-existent Darth Vader fan fiction, he often uses the phrase “easy peasy.”) So how does Needa do with this simple task?
(Before we get into this, isn’t it weird how difficult a time the Millennium Falcon had leaving Hoth compared to Luke? Even when Luke gets back to his X-Wing, there doesn’t seem to be that much sense of urgency. Did Luke just decide to leave the side of the planet where the Empire wouldn’t see him? Is it that easy to avoid a blockade? Just fly off the other direction? Why didn’t Han do that? They wound up leaving around the same time? Luke even sees the Millennium Falcon flying away.)
Back to Needa: First, while in pursuit, Needa almost crashes into another Star Destroyer. (This may have been the moment he probably should have been force choked just to get it over with, honestly.) Then Needa loses the Falcon in an asteroid field. It’s at this point Needa has to start wondering about his job security. Darth Vader literally hires six (six!) bounty hunters to locate the Millennium Falcon, while the Millennium Falcon is still pretty much right in front of them! In the process of hiring these bounty hunters, an Imperial officer interrupts to tell Vader, “We have them.” At this point, the scene cuts away, but what we miss is Vader still telling the bounty hunters, “You know, I gotta say, I just don’t trust this guy in charge. I’m still hiring all of you anyway. I know that guy just said that we have them, but I’ve been down this road before and I bet we don’t have them. Anyway, it was nice to see you, Bossk. Take it easy, peasy.”
Alright, so now the Millennium Falcon is directly ahead of Needa’s Star Destroyer. It’s at this point Han Solo turns his ship around and flies directly at the Star Destroyer, then uses a landing claw to mount the Millennium Falcon on the back of the Star Destroyer. It’s a fun trick, but anyone with any sense should have just said, “Hey, can a TIE-Fighter take a quick look-see on the back of our ship to make sure these Rebel scum aren’t just hiding?” Nope, not Captain Needa. He just assumes the Falcon made the jump to lightspeed and is now gone. Instead of coming up with a plan, he just resigns himself to accepting full responsibility and apologizing to Darth Vader.
Look, what’s Vader supposed to do here? He just killed a guy earlier for being smug, what’s he supposed to do now that he’s got someone in front of him who is just terrible at his job? I bet Vader felt kind of bad about this one. I wish we could have seen the entire exchange between Vader and Needa. I bet Vader said something like, “Hey, man, you’ve put me in a really awkward position here. I already killed Ozzel, now what will it look like if I don’t kill you?” Vader had to do what he had to do here. He made the right choice. Needa was pretty terrible at his job.
Though, in the end, I like to think Vader’s line, “Apology accepted, Captain Needa,” was sincere. I know it sounds sarcastic, but it’s kind of hard to tell with Vader sometimes – he always kind of sounds sarcastic. But, if we choose to believe Vader’s being sincere here, it’s actually kind of nice. Anyway, rest in peace, Captain Needa … you deserved your force-choke.
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