Firmus Piett’s most memorable scene in the Star Wars series is the moment of his promotion. Standing silently in the background, he watches nervously as his boss, Admiral Ozzel, gets telepathically strangled by Darth Vader, the homicidal sadist everyone in the Galactic Empire has to answer to. Vader summons him forward, gives him his orders, and intones, “You are in command now, Admiral Piett,” as Ozzel collapses on the floor. So goes life in the Empire: There’s plenty of upward mobility, but job turnover is high, and workplace safety truly abysmal.
Piett, played by Kenneth Colley, is a minor character in both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but he has the strange distinction of being the only Imperial officer to recur in any of the Star Wars films (excluding Vader, who seems to occupy quite nebulous territory on the Empire org chart). After rising to command thanks to the incompetence of Admiral Ozzel, he manages to hold on to it through the end of the Empire, dying in a blaze of glory during the last space battle of the original films. To the end, he emblematizes the peculiar, banal evil of George Lucas’s Empire: English, white, slightly stuffy, and firmly task-oriented, a functionary in a bureaucratic galaxy governed by evil space wizards. As Star Wars returns to theaters this week with a new entry, my wildest hope is that it can recapture that sense of the larger world Piett belonged to, and the dark humor playing out in his rise to power.
As with many aspects of the franchise, it’s hard to tell just how much thought George Lucas put into all of the details that littered the Star Wars movies. But the Empire is a particularly curious beast. It’s heavily coded as a stand-in for Nazi Germany, with Stormtroopers running around and atrocities committed at the touch of a button. As in many Nazi movies of the era, everyone is English and has a slightly ineffectual air. In fact, outside of Vader, whom everyone else seems to regard with a mixture of horror and disgust, the Empire is basically just a bunch of pencil-pushers. Its named officers (Ozzel, Needa, Motti) exist only to defy or disappoint Vader before he chokes them out. All except for Piett, busying himself away in the corner, managing to make it all the way to the top by following orders and keeping quiet.
It’s fun to imagine a strange Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like saga playing out in the background as Piett manages the vast civil service of a galactic dictatorship while fielding orders from Vader and his Emperor. Colley, who’s otherwise most famous for playing Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, is a model of order throughout the series. When Ozzel dies next to him, he motions with his head for some officers to remove the body. When Vader hires bounty hunters to try and track down Skywalker, Piett quietly registers his distaste. And when commanding the fleet against the Rebels in Return of the Jedi’s climactic battle, he’s stoic to the end, perishing when a starfighter crashes into his ship’s bridge.
Piett was a creation of Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter who wrote both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and who returned to write The Force Awakens, a coup that could help the new series avoid the more grievous mistakes of the prequel films. One of the biggest was the loss of any tactile sense of character or a larger, breathing world. Where the Empire had once been imposing on a grand scale and endearingly foolish on an individual level, now there were only CGI Clone Troopers and uncomfortably racist alien villains like the Neimoidians (who spoke with exaggerated Japanese accents). Kasdan knew there was fun in giving some grist to his background characters, not only to help viewers identify them, but to remind his audience that most of the Empire was just people doing their jobs. That doesn’t make them any less scary, of course—if anything, it makes the whole enterprise all the more distressing.
You don’t exactly care about him, but you do feel for Piett as he tiptoes around Vader. Kasdan even allows him a quiet scene of triumph at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Vader’s Star Destroyer, helmed by Piett, is closing in on the fleeing Millennium Falcon but loses it again, allowing Luke, Han Solo, and the rest to slip through the Empire’s grasp once more. As he did at the start of the film, Piett stands tensely as Vader watches the scene unfold from the bridge. But this time, Vader doesn’t strangle him like his predecessors; he just stalks off silently. In a series with many moments of triumph, it’s probably the smallest, but you can’t help but pump your fist for Piett as he breathes a sigh of relief. Life in the Empire is hard, and he’s managed to avoid the boss’s wrath to fight another day. Who among us can’t sympathize with that?