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Did he need to, or was it optional?

Why would he answer to someone despite being powerful himself?

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4 Answers 4

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TL;DR:

Because Vader wasn't as powerful as the Emperor, and he knew it. If he picked a fight with Palpatine, he'd lose, and the Emperor would kill him. Thus, although he didn't entirely enjoy being subordinate to the Emperor, he knew he couldn't do anything about it until he had someone helping him. Vader couldn't even consider a coup against Palpatine until Vader had already secured an ally, and they could only launch the coup once Vader and his ally were more powerful together than Palpatine was alone.


George Lucas explains that the Emperor is significantly more powerful that Vader. If Vader hadn't been foolish, and lost a fight (and 3 limbs, and all his skin, and some of his organs) to Obi-Wan, he would have been twice as powerful (i.e., 200%) as the Emperor. Due to his injuries, he ended up being only 80% as powerful as the Emperor. Thus, he had no choice - obey the Emperor and live, or try to usurp him, fail because he wasn't strong enough, and die.

"Anakin, as Skywalker, as a human being, was going to be extremely powerful,” he says. "But he ended up losing his legs and an arm and became partly a robot. So a lot of his ability to use the Force, a lot of his powers, are curbed at this point, because, as a living form, there’s not that much of him left. So his ability to be twice as good as the Emperor disappeared, and now he’s maybe 20 percent less than him. So that isn’t what the Emperor had in mind. He wanted this really super guy, but that got derailed by Obi-Wan. So he finds that, with Luke, he can get a more primo version if he can turn Luke to the Dark Side. You’ll see, as this goes on, Luke is faced with the same issues and practically the same scenes that Anakin is faced with. Anakin says yes and Luke says no."
- George Lucas, "The Last Battle", Vanity Fair

Vader had no real chance of breaking free from subservience to Palpatine until Luke showed up. That's why he jumps at the opportunity and tries to convince Luke to join him so they can kill the Emperor together and rule the galaxy as father and son:

VADER:
You do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy...

You can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son. Come with me. It is the only way.
- Star Wars - Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

And Palpatine was so mad at Vader for getting maimed that he nearly left him to die on Mustafar:

His promising new apprentice, who was to be the greatest Sith who’d ever lived — maimed and burned, perhaps dead. Darth Sidious ground his teeth in frustrated anger. Part of him wanted to turn on his heel and leave what was left of Darth Vader to burn to ashes in the rising lava. Even if he was alive, even if he could be saved, Vader would be crippled.

And not just with his mechanical limbs. The Force — dark side as well as light — was generated by living beings, and it took living flesh to manipulate it.... And with so much of his body replaced by machinery, he would never come close to the potential he’d had.
- Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith - Junior Novelisation

We don't know if Vader would have used Luke to help kill the Emperor, then killed Luke and claimed unilateral control of the galaxy, but it is clear that Vader wants Palpatine dead, but can't kill Palpatine by himself. This realization - that he couldn't go toe-to-toe with Palpatine and come out of it alive - probably informed his decision to maintain the appearance of willing subservience until the deck was stacked in his favor.

In the end, the unanticipated factor of Luke's love for Vader, and Vader's reciprocal love for him, is what allowed the father and son to destroy the Emperor (this source is no longer canon, but is still worthy of note):

A glancing blow ruptured Vader's life-support system, and as he fell back against the bridge's railing he was unable to stop Luke's blade from severing his right wrist. Metal and electronic parts flew from Vader's shattered stump, and his lightsaber clattered over the edge of the bridge and into the apparently bottomless shaft. Badly wounded and utterly exhausted, Vader looked up to see Luke's lightsaber angled to deliver a killing stroke.

The Emperor had risen from his throne to stand on the stairway behind Luke. "Good!" the Emperor said. "Your hate has made you powerful. Now, fulfill your destiny and take your father's place at my side!"

So this is how it all ends, Vader thought.

But then Luke deactivated his lightsaber and said, "Never!" Flinging the weapon aside, he declared, "I'll never turn to the dark side. You' ve failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me."

The Emperor scowled. With immeasurable displeasure, he said, "So be it... Jedi. If you will not be turned, you will be destroyed."

Still lying against the bridge railing beside the elevator shaft, Vader watched the Emperor extend his gnarled fingers and unleash blinding bolts of blue lightning from his fingertips. The lightning struck Luke, who tried to deflect the crackling bands of energy, but was so overwhelmed that his body crumpled to the floor.

No, Vader thought. No. Not like this.

As the Emperor continued to strike Luke with his barrage of Sith lightning, Vader struggled to his feet. One leg was broken, and the other wasn't working right. Moving awkwardly, he shifted his bulk to stand beside his Master. On the floor, Luke writhed in agony, and was on the verge of death as he groaned, "Father, please. Help me."

Vader watched Luke curl into a fetal position as the Emperor hurled an even more staggering wave of lightning at his victim. Vader had no doubt that Luke was about to die. His son screamed.

Not just my son...

The Emperor unleashed another round of lightning.

...or Padme's son...

Luke screamed louder.

...but my son... who loves me.

Luke's clothes began to smolder as his body involuntarily spasmed. Suddenly, Vader realized that he was no longer concerned about his own personal future. Despite all the terrible, unspeakable things he'd done in his life, he knew he could not stand by and allow the Emperor to kill Luke. And in that moment of awareness, he was Darth Vader no more.

He was Anakin Sky walker.

It took all of his remaining strength to seize the Emperor from behind, lift him off his feet, and carry him to the open elevator shaft. The wretched Emperor continued to release lightning bolts, but they veered away from Luke and arced back to crash down upon him and his insurgent apprentice. The lightning penetrated Vader's life-support suit and electrified Anakin's organic remains, but he lurched forward until he could throw the Emperor into the elevator shaft.
- The Rise and Fall of Darth Vader

It was Palpatine's inability to foresee this turn of events, motivated by love - an emotion he couldn't understand - that allowed Vader to kill him. If Vader had acted on dark side motivations, or tried to match Palpatine in dark side powers, things would have gone very differently. But by simply grabbing Palpatine and tossing him down a hole, with his love for Luke being the motive, and knowing that he, himself, would be killed in the process, Vader exploited a blind spot in Palpatine's outlook that wouldn't have existed under any other circumstances.

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    You REALLY like that quote :) Jan 8, 2016 at 0:48
  • +1, but there is something odd about the last quote. The Emperor didn't foresee that Luke would destroy him. I seriously doubt Palpatine was planning on dying any time soon; he was counting on Luke to destroy Vader instead. And in the end it was Vader who did him in, not Luke. So is Vader lying or merely confused?
    – Andres F.
    Jan 8, 2016 at 3:30
  • @AndresF. - I think surprise and distraction explains a lot - Palpatine did say that "only together can we turn Skywalker" - he thought Luke was more powerful than either Vader or Palpatine. He was focused on Luke, then, and Vader only pulled off his about-face because Palpatine wasn't expecting it. And obviously, it cost Vader his life, so Vader was right, "from a certain point of view" - he thought that trying to kill Palpatine would result in his own death, and it did.
    – Wad Cheber
    Jan 8, 2016 at 3:37
  • @AndresF. Also, the Emperor MAY have foreseen that Luke COULD kill him (Vader says "can", not "will"). We don't know. We do know that Palp is emphatic - "the son of Skywalker must not be allowed to become a Jedi". Maybe the rest of that thought was "or he'll kill me". In any case, Luke does indirectly kill Palp - his love for Vader kindles Vader's love for him, which leads Vader to kill Palp. Palp wants Luke to kill Vader with hatred; instead, he kills Palp with love.
    – Wad Cheber
    Jan 8, 2016 at 3:47
  • i.e., without Luke's intervention, Vader couldn't have (and wouldn't have) killed the emperor. Luke made it possible, and Luke made it happen.
    – Wad Cheber
    Jan 8, 2016 at 3:48
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Vader's relationship with the Emperor is best described as "complicated" and fraught with deep Freudian urges.

  • He loves the Emperor and sees him as a clear father-surrogate

  • He wants to kill the Emperor and rule the galaxy

Vader felt complete at the Emperor’s side. Though the emptiness at his core never left him, it became a glorious emptiness in the glare of the Emperor’s cold light, an exalted void that could encompass the universe. And someday would encompass the universe … when the Emperor was dead.

For that was Vader’s final dream. When he’d learned all he could of the dark power from this evil genius, to take that power from him, seize it and keep its cold light at his own core — kill the Emperor and devour his darkness, and rule the universe. Rule with his son at his side.

and

Lord Vader did not mind waiting, though, nor was he even aware of it. For it was an honor, and a noble activity, to kneel at his ruler’s feet. He kept his eyes inward, seeking reflection in his own bottomless core. His power was great, now, greater than it had ever been. It shimmered from within, and resonated with the waves of darkness that flowed from the Emperor. He felt engorged with this power, it surged like black fire, demon electrons looking for ground … but he would wait. For his Emperor was not ready; and his son was not ready, and the time was not yet. So he waited.

Quotes from Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker by Alan Dean Foster George Lucas

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  • Honestly, the more Star Wars stuff I read, the more I think it's likely that George Lucas needs serious Freudian analysis.
    – Valorum
    Jan 8, 2016 at 1:01
  • +1 for reference to the surrogate-father relationship; excellent point! Jan 8, 2016 at 1:22
  • @N_Soong - Dude, that's your sister.
    – Valorum
    Jan 8, 2016 at 1:26
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There are two main reasons why Vader answered to the Emperor, his master:

  1. The Emperor was more powerful in the Force than Vader.
  2. Vader craved knowledge of the dark side from the Emperor, and did not want to kill the Emperor until he had all the Emperor's knowledge.

The proof that the Emperor was stronger than Vader is covered well by other answers to this question. In addition to their points, recall Vader what told Luke shortly before the confrontation with the Emperor on the second Death Star:

You don't know the power of the dark side. I must obey my master.

Star Wars: Episode VI Return of the Jedi

As the Sith Master, the Emperor is the embodiment of the power of the dark side. Vader indicates that the Emperor is powerful beyond Luke's imagination, and that Vader must obey the Emperor because the Emperor is stronger than Vader.

Vader also obeyed the Emperor because he wanted the Emperor's knowledge of the power of the dark side. Recall why Anakin pledged himself to the Sith:

Anakin/Vader: Just help me save Padme's life. I can't live without her. I won't let her die. I want the power to stop death.

Palpatine: To cheat death is a power only one has achieved, but if we work together, I know we can discover the secret.

[Anakin/Vader kneels before Palpatine.]

Vader: I pledge myself to your teachings. To the ways of the Sith.

Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith

The main reason why Vader joined the Sith in the first place was to gain power. The canon novel Lords of the Sith indicates that Vader still sought to learn power from the Emperor eight years after he lost Padme (when the events of the novel took place):

Soon after destroying the Jedi, the Emperor had told Vader that he would one day be tempted to kill him. He’d said that the relationship between Sith apprentice and Master was symbiotic but in a delicate balance. An apprentice owed his Master loyalty. A Master owed his apprentice knowledge and must show only strength. But the obligations were reciprocal and contingent. Should either fail in his obligation, it was the duty of the other to destroy him. The Force required it.

Since before the Clone Wars, Vader’s Master had never shown anything but strength, and so Vader intended to show nothing but loyalty. In that way, their mutual rule was secure.

Perhaps Vader would attempt to kill his Master one day.

Lords of the Sith, p. 27

Vader owed the Emperor loyalty in exchange for the Emperor's knowledge. The quote also indicates that Vader sensed the Emperor's strength, and Vader felt he also owed him loyalty for that reason (this goes back to the first reason: the Emperor was stronger than Vader).

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This comes back to the fact that we are dealing with the Sith, who obey the 'Rule of Two': you have a master and an apprentice. In this situation, the Emperor was the Sith Master, Darth Vader was the Sith Apprentice. So, because Vader was still the Emperor's apprentice, yes, he did need to answer to him!

Furthermore, the way in which the Sith work, when the apprentice feels it is time, they overpower their master and kill them, then becoming the new Sith master. No doubt, Vader was still of the opinion that he was insufficiently powerful to kill the Emperor.

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