Second in Command

March 20, 2013

What is it like to be a dark lord’s right-hand villain? Two powerful evil entities working together is not a terribly stable arrangement. If one villain dominates over the other, the lesser will probably be resentful and covetous of supreme power.

In some fiction, the conflict between evil master and evil minion is never really addressed. It may simply not come up in the course of the events that are being related to the audience. And it is not inconceivable that some villains may simply be content with a secure position as number two. However, most of them are presumably biding their time; knowing the weakness of their positions, they are waiting for precisely the right moment to strike.

The relationship between Darth Vader and the Emperor in Star Wars is especially interesting, I think. (My discussion here will focus only on the original trilogy; I think the subsequent movies and other media do not meet the same standard, and their treatments of Vader’s character are particularly poor.) In terms of skill with the force, it’s not clear what difference there is between the two Sith (although they clearly have technical or stylistic differences; Vader and the Emperor can both kill at a distance, but they do it in different ways—just as Luke and Vader block blaster shots differently, and Luke and Obi-wan deal differently with guards when they are sneaking into an enemy stronghold). Certainly, the Emperor has constructed a better conventional power base, and he is firmly in control—most of the time. When Darth Vader reveals his true identity to Luke in the bowels of Cloud City, Vader wants them to band together to destroy the Emperor and then rule together. After Luke escapes, Vader is left in an awkward position; it’s difficult to believe that the wily Emperor did not infer what kind of offer Vader had made to his son. For most of The Return of the Jedi, this knowledge is there in the background of the Emperor-Vader relationship; each man probably fully understands what the other knows. The conflict finally emerges in the final lightsaber duel. The Emperor would probably prefer that only one of the Skywalkers survive, so they cannot collude against him. The knowledge of this keeps Vader fighting with all his strength, and when Luke bests his father, the Emperor makes the subtext explicit: “Now, fulfill your destiny, and take your father’s place at my side!”

In some cases, the discrepancy in power between the dark lord and his chief minion is vast enough that the servant has almost no chance of unseating the master. Consider Sauron and his lieutenant, the Lord of the Nazgul. The Lord of Minas Morgul was once a human sorcerer, who was given a ring of power by Sauron. Sauron himself is a semi-divine being who fashioned the One Ring, which is incomparably mightier than any of the Rings of Men. While, at the time of The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is no longer in possession of his own ring, the power disparity between the two villains is still vast. The Nazgul wouldn’t stand a chance if they revolted directly against the dark lord. And the only way the heroes have to cut Sauron down to size is to unmake the One Ring itself; if the Nazgul rose up and attempted this, it would be the end of their own power as well.

Stability can be achieved in other ways as well. If a fictional dark lord’s abilities are curtailed in some significant way, they may rely on their second in command for a wide variety of duties. While Douglas Hill‘s Last Legionary young adult novels are hardly high-concept epic literature, they do produce an excellent science fiction version of the dark lord archetype. (For comparison, the Emperor in Star Wars is really just a prototypical fantasy wizard, in spite of the outer space setting.) The title character in Galactic Warlord remains unseen for the first three books, but agents of increasing power do appear, including the Warlord’s chief henchman, The One. The One is a frightening science fiction character—thoroughly vicious and megalomaniacal. However, he lacks the astonishing mental abilities of the bio-computer-enabled gestalt being that he ultimately serves. Yet because the Warlord cannot easily move from his fortified citadel, all high-level operations and negotiations are run through The One, and so the latter seems to be content in his position. Indeed, it would be easy for The One to kill the Warlord physically, but he does not. Doing that would not win him an empire; it would all collapse, because the mind of the Warlord is tied into the everyday workings of the whole system that it rules.

Another way of avoiding excessive fighting among the villains is if the dark lord’s minions do not really have free will. This can work in fantasy if the minions are alchemical creations of bound spirits. In science fiction, they may be robots. This is the approach taken in After World’s End by Jack Williamson (which also features one of the most strikingly original aliens I’ve ever come across). The evil mastermind who threatens the galaxy is the super-intelligent robot Malgarth, who is served by innumerable lesser machines. Malgarth is smart enough, however, not to give his creations the free will that he enjoys. This prevents them from ever rebelling, but they immediately switch sides once their master is destroyed.

However, sometimes conflict is unavoidable. Some minions are bound to revolt, and sometimes even a much weaker underling can overthrow a lord of evil. In such a scenario, the original dark lord frequently ends up chained in some special magical or technological dungeon. It might not be possible to kill the dark lord outright, or the new ruler might be holding onto their predecessor’s power as an ultimate weapon. Frequently (for reasons that probably have more to do with drama than logic), the caged lord will eventually break free—either slaying the usurper, or giving the good guys two separate enemies to face. (Either way, it’s bad news.)

Intramural conflict among a story’s villains can be a very effective device. It adds verisimilitude to what may be otherwise unrealistic-feeling settings, and in traditional, hero-centered fiction, seeing villains at each other’s throats can help to enhance the sense of solidarity with the heroic characters that a work engenders.


One Response to “Second in Command”

  1. I find the assumption that second-in-command villains will frequently be in a rebellious position simplistic and conceptually suspect (who the hell is to decide who the villain is, anyway–usually they don’t dress like Darth Vader).

    This strikes me as an odd post that assumes a caricatured, black-and-white view of speculative fiction content which isn’t always a good one.

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