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In The Empire Strikes Back Darth Vader has little to no compunction toward executing screw-ups such as Ozzel and Captain Needa, but at the end when the Millennium Falcon escapes to hyperspace despite Admiral Piett's assurances the Falcon's hyperdrive was sabotaged Vader simply walks away. Why did he let Piett live?

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    Could be that it simply wasn't Piett's fault. He did have the Falcon's hyperdrive sabotaged and it wasn't Piett's fault that Artoo was able to repair it. Needa took responsibility for losing the Falcon in the asteroid field, while Ozzel made a grave tactical error counter to Vader's plans. Plus maybe Vader was just so disappointed with losing Luke that it outweighed any fury he might've felt. – SpaceWolf1701 Dec 25 '19 at 2:33
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    Vader probably realized he'd run out of admirals if he continued like this... – Rebel-Scum Dec 25 '19 at 18:44
  • @SpaceWolf1701 it doesn't seem as Vader would care whose fault it was - his executing admirals seems more about conveying the message that THINGS MUST WORK, I DON'T CARE WHOSE FAULT IT IS, DO WHAT YOU NEED TO. – mgarciaisaia Dec 27 '19 at 16:11
  • @mgarciaisaia He only executed one Admiral -- Ozzel -- aside from being recalcitrant and bumbling earlier (note that if Vader hadn't shown up just in time he'd have dismissed Hoth as a possible location out of hand), he screwed up a nicely planned assault in an attempt to "show initiative" and then failed to actually think it through, leaving them with the worst of both worlds and a lengthy ground assault that gave the Rebels way more time than they otherwise might have to plan a defense and evacuation. – Shadur Dec 28 '19 at 11:55
  • @SpaceWolf1701 Good answer, but that's where it belongs, not in a comment! – Max Barraclough Dec 28 '19 at 13:50
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It was probably not Piett's fault, and Vader recognized that. Vader had been in personal command of the imperial forces on Bespin, while Piett remained aboard the Executor, out in orbit. There is no reason to think that the order to sabotage the Millennium Falcon had to have been relayed through the admiral; Vader could just have told some of the imperial personnel that that he had brought down to Cloud City with him to take care of it. They would have completed the job, then reported that fact back up their normal chain of command—ultimately up to Piett.

Moreover, it is clear from the original novelization of The Empire Strikes Back that Vader already considered Admiral Ozzel to be a liability, even before he screwed up the approach to Hoth. (This is implied in the film as well: "You have failed me for the last time, admiral.") Simultaneously, the dark lord recognizes that Piett is a talented officer, and while Piett is captain of the Executor under Ozzel—and thus the next-most senior naval officer in Vader's taskforce—Vader does not promote him solely because he is next in line, but also because Piett has proven his effectiveness. Vader presumably knows that he cannot execute every talented officer, every time they make a mistake.

Finally, Vader may be less likely to punish his underlings' errors so severely when they come right on the heels of his own failure. Catching the Millennium Falcon with the tractor beam was an emergency backup plan. The main plan to capture (and freeze) Luke had failed, and that was nobody's fault but Vader's. In the last few shots of the Executor bridge scene, Piett looks shocked and scared, but Vader just strides away—with a slower, less purposeful walk than usual—knowing that the failure to capture Luke was overwhelmingly his own fault.

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    I must have missed the bit where we get Voldemort’s appraisal of Piett in the films. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 25 '19 at 23:49
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Voldemort? – pladams9 Dec 26 '19 at 15:54
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    @pladams9 “The dark lord recognizes that Piett is a talented officer”. ;-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 26 '19 at 16:10
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    @JanusBahsJacquet One of Vader's titles is "Dark Lord of the Sith". – nick012000 Dec 27 '19 at 13:37
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Voldemort should get in line, "the dark lord" character title cliché has been used in fantasy for ages. – Gnudiff Dec 28 '19 at 23:42
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This is addressed in the film's original junior novelisation. Vader doesn't kill mindlessly and he doesn't kill flunkies who've done nothing wrong.

Maintaining his slow stride, Vader glanced to his right and barely noticed Admiral Piett. The Sith Lord could practically taste the Imperial officer’s fear, but as angry as he was at losing Luke, he knew that Piett — unlike some recently deceased Imperial officers — was not at fault. Vader had much to contemplate, so he looked away from Piett and kept walking.

Without a word, he left the bridge.

The Empire Strikes Back: Junior Novelisation

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It wasn't Piett's fault that R2 repaired the hyperdrive. Vader asked him if his men "deactivated the hyperdrive", in that sense he did exactly as he was asked to do. Now, if Vader asked Piett to have his men "destroy the hyperdrive" and they instead disabled it, then perhaps he would have a reason to kill him but in this case all they did was temporarily damage the hyperdrive which R2-D2 was able to later on repair. There was no failure on Piett's part, they were bested by a force with superior knowledge of the Millennium Falcon.

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  • Sure, but the question is why Vader didn't kill him, not whose fault it was. – Valorum Dec 26 '19 at 12:55
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    @Valorum I think the argument that Piett hadn't done anything wrong is quite relevant. There was no reason for Vader to kill him. – James Hollis Dec 26 '19 at 22:27
  • Ozzel personally screwed up leading to the Battle of Hoth, and Needa had failed to capture the Falcon shortly thereafter while Vader was still ticked at Ozzel's failure, and then showed up to personally claim responsibility. Piett, on the other hand, hadn't personally done anything wrong. – Keith Morrison Dec 29 '19 at 1:23
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TLDR, it's all about Vader's character arc.

Talk about having a busy movie! He has learnt that he has a son, faced him in mortal combat and in a moment of madness, betrayed the Emperor only for Luke to emphatically reject him. Finally Luke has acknowledged him as father, confirming the bond between them.

By the time the Falcon escapes the dynamic has evolved. The original, failed task of capturing Luke has become obsolete and there are new, more powerful considerations in play which will be explored in Return of The Jedi.

Vader’s character has fundamentally changed with his interaction with Luke. He is ready to take his first steps towards redemption and it is no longer suitable to show him cruelly dispatching underlings.

He is also distracted, and with so much to process at this singular moment even Jar-Jar Binks would be safe in charge of the Imperial fleet.

Piett is there on the screen to help us observe these changes in Vader, right up close and personal.

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