I’ve lurked and commented on this sub for some time but first time posting. I haven’t seen anything about this yet and it’s something that stuck out to me the last couple times I watched Empire.
Throughout the movie, Vader kills a few imperial officers for failing him: Admiral Ozzel, for coming out of hyperspace too close to the rebel base, alerting them, and Captain Needa for losing the Milennium Falcon when they were hiding on the star destroyer before floating away with the trash. He even expresses amusement in doing this (“Apology accepted, Captain Needa”). Vader rules over his subordinates with an iron fist (no pun intended) and does not accept failure — and, let’s be honest, he enjoys killing.
However, after Luke escapes Vader in Cloud City, Admiral Piett assures Vader that the Millenium Falcon’s hyperdrive has been deactivated, but R2 gets it back back up and working before they can be captured. The audience has been set up to expect Vader to kill Piett for this obvious failure, and the Admiral himself seems to expect it. But Vader just walks past him without so much as a look in his direction.
I’ve seen in old posts people briefly talk about Piett being somehow more competent and less arrogant than the other officers, but I don’t see this as being the case.
This is our first real glimpse of Anakin under the mask. Vader is at his most brutal and most evil in Empire: chasing the Rebels out of Hoth, delivering some pretty serious losses; the aforementioned murders of his own officers; taking over Bespin and forcing Lando to turn on Han, “altering the deal” several times; torturing Han without even asking him any questions just to cause him enough pain for Luke to feel it across the galaxy; Using Han as a human lab rat for his carbon freezing chamber; taunting Luke throughout their fight and cutting his arm off, etc.
But when he reveals himself to Luke and when he talks to Luke through the force when he’s on the Falcon, we see an entirely different Darth Vader, one who spares Luke and pleads with him to join him. There’s almost a tone of desperation in his voice. And instead of being angered by his refusal and resolving to destroy his son for it, he seems dejected and disappointed at losing his son. Finding out his son is alive represented the first beacon of hope in his life in 2 decades, ever since he lost Padme, and his failure to turn Luke brought him so much sorrow that he didn’t even care enough to kill Piett.
This is the first evidence in the movies since Vader first put on the suit that there’s a real human being under there, not a senseless machine of violence. I also think this is where Luke begins to sense the good in his father, feeling his pain and sadness and vulnerability as opposed to his usual stoic anger and hatred.
Maybe this is obvious to most people, and thats why I haven’t seen much discussion on it, but this scene always sticks out to me as a very important turning point in the life of my favorite character, Anakin Skywalker.
TLDR: Vader spares Piett not because of his value to the Empire, but because of his sorrow for losing his son, the first beacon of hope in his life since he first put on the suit.