“You’re not like other Sith.”
“I like to think I’m my own woman.”
~Lana Beniko, replying to a player query.
I realized something was amiss when I didn’t receive a mission to kill her.
For all the imprecations whispered about Lana Beniko--along with the simple fact that she was a Sith Lord--she was rather stubbornly proving to be the ally of my goody-two-shoed Jedi Consular. She was living up to the title given to her in the companion screen, “The Dark Advisor,” while redefining what it means to be “Dark” in the Star Wars universe.
Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) has many peaks and valleys in its storytelling, but with the character of Lana Beniko it reached one of its loftiest summits. She also personified a notable shift in the maturity of the game’s storytelling. The expansions in which she played a starring role took their cues from the critical success of Obsidian’s Knights of the Old Republic 2, which bathed Star Wars’ Manichean galaxy in shades of grey.
SWTOR, as a persistent world that is constantly expanding, badly needed some narrative evolution, some sense that it would grow up with the rest of Star Wars. The story over the last few expansions does just that, making the Sith Empire more believable and its evil more subtle and human rather than the comically macho escapades of burly men with mechanically altered voices.
Lana Beniko, a Sith Lord who helps you unravel a frightening plot by her own Emperor, is a ruthless pragmatist but not a mustache twirling villain. She provides a portrait of the curious idealism that can lead to support for authoritarianism--a lesson we perhaps need now more than ever--and how that idealism can be bent back towards nobler purposes.
Note: Needless to say, spoilers follow for most of the major plots in the SWTOR expansions.
The decision by Bioware Austin to bring back KotOR protagonist Revan in some fashion was criticized in some corners as wanton and unnecessary, but bring him back they did. He emerges as a threat to both the Sith Empire and the Galactic Republic, somehow resurrected, and leading a new army of loyalists from both nations on a new crusade.
Lana Beniko, a Sith Lord, teams up with Theron Shan, a Republic secret service agent, as both go rogue from their respective governments to root out the traitors who are aligning with Revan and sabotaging their nations from within. But Beniko is not like any other Sith you’ve met so far; soft spoken, even serene and thoughtful in her demeanor--though she will glare daggers at you if you call her “Miss Spooky Eyes.” She is neither boastful nor imperious--you might forget she’s Sith until you see Force lightning fly from her fingers.
Revan’s brief return, it turns out, is only the tip of the Forceberg. The Sith Emperor himself, on a neverending quest for immortality, uses Revan to reinvigorate his essence. The Emperor is now unleashed on the galaxy, to satiate his bottomless hunger. For Beniko, this is a nightmare on every conceivable level; you slowly learn that she has no taste for dark side ideologues, nor for their myriad ego-driven abuses and vainglorious posturing. She clings to a belief that a better, more ethical Empire is possible.
Instead, its emperor abdicates in the worst way. His first target is none other than an Imperial planet, Ziost. You and Beniko scramble to save as many lives as you can, organizing a resistance to the Emperor’s rampage. If you fight for the Republic, she hardly cares; she needs your skills to save people. In the end, while you meet with some success, the Emperor reaches a new summit of power and consumes all life on Ziost, leaving it a lifeless, ashen ruin.
Bioware does three interesting things here. 1) They put Beniko in an impossible situation that tests every facet of her faith, 2) They make the Emperor’s victims Imperials, 3) They designed daily quests that see you wander through the ruins of this world and contemplate the epic atrocity, with its shades of Hiroshima and Pompeii. In each case, what you come to realize is that the Sith Empire is a nation with real people in it, rather than cartoon characters. However misguided Imperial citizens might be, all should be able to sympathize with what happened to them at this literal apotheosis of fascism.
Lana Beniko is the primary point of empathy, someone who helps you realize why this nation of Dark Lords exists in the first place, helping you realize that it is a nation made up of people
Too often, the Sith in Star Wars appeared to be the epitome of utterly monstrous evil, in a way so blatant and so over-the-top it’s a wonder anyone follows them willingly. But if you have enough Lana Benikos out there--smart, competent, fundamentally decent people who just so happen to “pragmatically” believe democracy isn’t the best option--it’s easier to see where a well of believable support for such a regime might come from. Beniko is brilliant and resourceful, and she’ll save lives as soon as end them. “Knowledge, answers, truth, the Force: these are the things I hold dear. Titles don't interest me,” she says of being an unlikely Sith. Indeed, when she gives the Sith benediction, “May the Force serve you well,” it feels warm and sincere, rather than sneeringly hungry, a la your average angry-Sith-cyborg. Yet she willingly served a fundamentally monstrous, authoritarian regime.
That support is tested over successive expansions. She rises to become Sith Minister of Intelligence, only to fall from grace when the Eternal Empire of Zakuul invaded the galaxy, subjugating both the Sith and the Republic alike. She quit the Sith Empire entirely and went solo, looking for a way to rescue your character from Zakuul. Moving forward she truly comes into her own as a “Dark Advisor,” your left hand as Commander of a new alliance against the Zakuulians, one made up of both Republics and Imperials.
In a way, this alliance was the realization of Beniko’s pragmatism, a force that could overcome what she saw as petty ideological differences to face a greater threat. But old habits die hard; her advice often tends towards the ruthless, and pragmatism in her hands is a terribly cold thing. Trusting no one, denying second chances, restricting freedom, slipping into a chilly utilitarianism--as she did when she wanted to experiment on a fallen Jedi to discover how the renegade Sith Emperor had controlled her. But for Beniko, this is less about meeting a dark side ideal than it is about resolving a spreadsheet’s maddening figures; the most efficient and safe way to conduct business. Behind her severe features is a calculating mind, struggling with her own instinct to sympathy.
Through it all we’re given a picture of a Sith who straddles the line between good and evil, who sometimes does the right thing--even for the right reasons--but who still ended up an apologist for tyranny. It makes for a fascinating character, one who in her own way tries to atone for the evils caused by her acquiescence while still trying to hold on to her faith in the ways of the Sith. She strives to find something virtuous and redemptive in the dark side, so much so that she is no Sith by the reckoning of some of her contemporaries. She does not bathe in terror, but she did efficiently manage institutions that carried it out.
It’s an odd path to becoming a galactic revolutionary against another evil empire, but in the end she came to believe that virtue did not lie in Sith chauvinism or Imperial patriotism; it had to come through self-determination. “Darth Eyeliner,” as some fans on Tumblr have dubbed her, has some work to do on her ethics, but her competence and control under pressure is undoubted. She is a perfect portrait of an imperfect, morally troubled woman who manages to emerge as a fully realized human because she is so believably compromised.
She is neither the perfect Madonna nor the fell Whore that bedevil so many female characters throughout all media. She is dark, debatable, and troubling, as all true sinners must be.
Where Bioware takes her next will undoubtedly be interesting, and she dovetails nicely with the new, reform minded leader of the Sith Empire, Empress Acina. She too is a pragmatist who abhors blatant terror and recognizes that Force-choking competent subordinates every time you feel mildly annoyed is not the most ideal way to run a government. Whether or not Beniko will return to become a lieutenant of her Realpolitk-loving empress remains to be seen; perhaps she’ll continue striking out across the galaxy trying to find her own answers. I think I’d prefer her that way.
What links so many of these SWTOR expansions is that Bioware has been exploring what lay beyond the extremes of light and dark. You meet many Force-using heroes who exist outside the strictures of the Jedi and Sith codes. Even the game’s two iconic Jedi and Sith, Master Satele Shan and the force spirit of Darth Marr, ally with each other and learn much from one another after the Zakuulian invasion. To hear Darth Marr say “there is no death, there is only the Force,” an ancient Jedi mantra, is a striking thing indeed. Lana Beniko, morally compromised as she is in every direction, is a neat fit in this world where barriers are breaking down and all that is solid is melting into air.
It’s a strange home for so orderly a woman, but I suspect there is no more ideal galaxy in which she might flourish.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.