History of Palpatine

(Welcome to The Emperor Reborn, a three-part series examining the role of Sheev Palpatine and the long shadow he casts over the Skywalker Saga, including the upcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.)

In this final chapter of The Emperor Reborn, we examine how Palpatine’s shadow looms large over the sequel trilogy and what his return in the new movie could mean.

The Force Awakens

“If Skywalker returns, the new Jedi will rise.” – Supreme Leader Snoke

Set thirty years after Return of the Jedi, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens sees the First Order return from the Unknown Regions to crush the New Republic with their superweapon, Starkiller Base. While General Armitage Hux seeks to gain political power, Supreme Leader Snoke and his apprentice, Kylo Ren, are searching for the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker.

Early concept art for The Force Awakens shows the Death Star II wreckage and Rey swimming underwater to retrieve the map to Luke Skywalker from the Emperor’s sunken throne room. While Palpatine isn’t directly referenced in the film, his voice is heard during a Force vision that Rey experiences upon touching Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, which belonged to his father before him. Again, the concept of ancient relics imbued with power or imprinted by past events, appears. 

Another powerful relic is Darth Vader’s helmet. Recovered from the funeral pyre on Endor, the Dark Lord of the Sith’s charred and disfigured mask is now the property of Kylo Ren. The Master of the Knights of Ren speaks to the helmet, seeking guidance on his internal struggles.

“Forgive me. I feel it again… the call from the light. Supreme Leader senses it. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I’ll let nothing stand in our way. Show me, grandfather, and I will finish what you started.” – Kylo Ren

“Show me again” suggests that this is not the first time Ren has spoken to Vader’s helmet. We are to infer that the mask replies by showing Ren a Force vision of some kind – an indication that the dark side is stronger than the light. Anakin Skywalker returned to the light in Return of the Jedi, so who’s Ren talking to? 

Ren, son of Leia Organa Solo and nephew of Luke Skywalker, should know the truth about Vader – about Anakin’s redemption – but he seems to be under the impression that Vader never fully turned. Perhaps whoever is speaking through the helmet is deceiving and corrupting the conflicted Solo, stoking the flames of hatred and aggression within.

There’s a moment during Kylo Ren’s reunion with Han Solo in The Force Awakens that feels sincere. “I’m being torn apart. I want to be free of this pain,” he says, with tears in his eyes. He continues, “I know what I have to do, but I don’t know if I have the strength to do it. Will you help me?”

Han, of course, will do anything for his son. And then, as the last beam of light streaming through the hatch overhead vanishes, Ren is eclipsed by darkness. He ignites his weapon, stabbing his father through the chest and back. But is it truly Kylo who makes the killing blow, or does he lose himself in that moment – are his actions controlled by someone or something far stronger?

The Last Jedi

“The Mighty Kylo Ren. When I found you, I saw what all masters live to see: raw, untamed power. And beyond that, something truly special – the potential of your bloodline. A new Vader. Now I fear I was mistaken.” – Supreme Leader Snoke

In Rian Johnson‘s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Snoke is most displeased with his apprentice. While Ren succeeded in killing his father, the deed split his spirit to the bone, leaving him more conflicted than ever. Unbalanced, he was bested by a girl who had never held a lightsaber. 

“Skywalker lives. The seed of the Jedi Order lives. As long as it does, hope lives in the galaxy,” says Snoke. “I thought you would be the one to snuff it out. Alas, you’re no Vader. You’re just a child… in a mask.”

Meanwhile, on Ach-To, Luke Skywalker briefly mentions Palpatine’s true identity – Darth Sidious – while explaining the fall of the Jedi Order to Rey. Palpatine’s shadow continues to loom large over the events of the Sequel Trilogy. “The Emperor’s Theme” – originally composed by John Williams for Return of the Jedi – can be heard during the scene in which Snoke tortures Rey in his throne room. 

For a guy who isn’t a Sith, Snoke sure does act like one. In addition to his red throne room, his loyal Praetorian Guard wear red armor reminiscent of the Emperor’s Royal Guard. He also has purple-clad Attendants, not unlike the Emperor’s Royal Dignitaries. And like Palpatine, his overconfidence is his weakness. After proclaiming, “I cannot be betrayed, I cannot be beaten,” he is betrayed and beaten by his apprentice, who strikes him down with Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber. 

Anakin defeated the Emperor, and his lightsaber defeated Snoke. As George Lucas would say, “It’s poetry. It rhymes.” The Supreme Leader even talks like Palpatine. Compare these two pieces of dialogue from Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi.

Palpatine: “Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design. Your friends up there on the Sanctuary Moon are walking into a trap. As is your Rebel fleet! It was I who allowed the Alliance to know the location of the shield generator. It is quite safe from your pitiful little band. An entire legion of my best troops awaits them. Oh… I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive.”

Snoke: “Oh… have you seen something? A weakness in my apprentice. Is that why you came? Young fool. It was I who bridged your minds. I stoked Ren’s conflicted soul. I knew he was not strong enough to hide it from you. And you were not wise enough to resist the bait. And now, you will give me Skywalker. Then I will kill you with the cruelest stroke.”

Snoke’s “Young fool” comment echoes the Emperor’s words as he tortures Luke in his throne room. “Young fool… only now, at the end, do you understand.” Again, for a guy who isn’t a Dark Lord of the Sith, Snoke sure does stick to the playbook. 

Kylo Ren, meanwhile, isn’t interested in the Sith. “It’s time to let old things die,” he pleads to Rey. “Snoke, Skywalker. The Sith, the Jedi, the Rebels… let it all die.” 

Declaring himself the new Supreme Leader of the First Order, Ren confronts Skywalker in a lightsaber duel on the planet Crait but is unsuccessful in killing the last Jedi. Now, in Rey, the seed of the Jedi Order lives, as does hope.

“Maybe Sith can come back. And maybe there’s some all-powerful mastermind Sith that’s controlling whatever the dark side is. We did talk a lot about how the final battle frontier for the Jedi might be in the spirit realm. So you have to have a bad-guy ghost.” –  Artist Christian Alzmann, The Art of The Last Jedi

The Rise of Skywalker

“Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design.” – Emperor Palpatine 

At this year’s Star Wars Celebration, director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy revealed the title of Episode IX with a Very Rad™ teaser trailer. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the third installment of the Sequel Trilogy, following The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017), and the final chapter of the Skywalker Saga. 

Then, at D23 Expo, Disney and Lucasfilm unveiled a video montage celebrating the legacy of Star Wars, which introduced new footage from The Rise of Skywalker, including a shot of Rey in Sith robes wielding a red, double-sided lightsaber. What’s most interesting about the footage to me, though, is the shot of a dormant fleet of Imperial Star Destroyers in what is presumably the Unknown Regions.

Retrofitted with devastating superweapons, could this massive fleet – carrying legions of Sith Troopers, no doubt – be the final part of the Emperor’s contingency plan? A Sith Armada, lying in wait, preparing for their master’s return. But how will Palpatine resurrect himself in The Rise of Skywalker?

“I will achieve immortality. Even if I am killed, I will return from the chaos of non-being to restored physical life. This, even my Master could not achieve. I knew it was so when I halted his breathing and watched the light vanish from his eyes. He sought the secret of life, to live forever, but I took his life. I remain the ultimate Sith.” – Palpatine (from 2014’s Book of Sith: Secrets from the Dark Side by Daniel Wallace)

Go back to Tom Veitch’s Dark Empire – Palpatine’s mastery of the dark side had become such that he was ready to transfer his essence and replace his aging body with a young one. In the Expanded Universe, Palpatine transferred his spirit into a clone of himself. The Sith Lord’s evil essence caused the clone body to degenerate at an accelerated rate, forcing him to jump to a fresh clone periodically.

On October 21, the epic, final trailer for The Rise of Skywalker was released. While we don’t see Palpatine, we do hear new dialogue from the Dark Lord. “Long have I waited,” he says, as Imperial Star Destroyers rise from the surface of an icy planetoid. “And now your coming together is your undoing.” 

The line is an echo of the “Your overconfidence is your weakness” / “Your faith in your friends is yours” dialogue between Luke Skywalker and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. But who is coming together? Is it the massive Resistance fleet seen in the trailer, preparing for a final assault on the First Order? Or is it Rey and Kylo Ren who are coming together to destroy the Sith?

Shortly after the release of the final trailer, Lucasfilm creative art manager Phil Szostak revealed on Twitter that unused thumbnail sketches by Ralph McQuarrie for Return of the Jedi influenced the design of the Emperor’s new throne room in The Rise of Skywalker. If the Uneti tree on Ahch-To holds the knowledge of good – the ancient Jedi texts – then Palpatine’s throne is quite literally the seat of evil. It is the Heart of Darkness, deep inside the Unknown Regions; the epicenter of evil and perhaps the origin point for the Dark Side itself. 

But how did Palpatine survive his fall in Return of the Jedi? Perhaps he transferred his essence to Snoke. Consider Snoke’s ring, his way of speaking, and his affinity for throne rooms, red guards and purple advisors. Consider, too, the fact that “The Emperor’s Theme” plays as he tortures Rey with Force Lightning. Is it a stretch to think that Snoke is yet another puppet manipulated by Palpatine? It would also explain the former Supreme Leader’s appearance – his frail and broken body the result of years of decay from hosting the Sith Lord’s insidious spirit.

As Snoke, Palpatine assumed control of the First Order and oversaw construction of Starkiller Base, a worthy successor to his technological terror, the Death Star. He manipulated events to draw Ben Solo to the dark side, corrupting the young Jedi and undermining Luke Skywalker’s attempts to rebuild the Jedi Order. Using Vader’s Helmet, he clouded Kylo Ren’s judgment with lies and deceits, pushing him to do what Luke never could – kill his own father.

And then Kylo Ren killed Snoke. If Palpatine was using the Supreme Leader as a vessel, the Sith Lord will require a new host in The Rise of Skywalker. Will it be Ren, son of darkness and heir apparent to Lord Vader? Or will it be Rey, the nobody from nowhere? Perhaps it’s a new character; a disciple – like Snoke – waiting in the Unknown Regions. Maybe Palpatine didn’t transfer his essence at all and Snoke was simply carrying out his master’s bidding while he regained his strength. Maybe Palpatine lost his mortal coil, but remained alive in ghostly form, like Voldemort, the Dark Lord of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Maybe he intends to siphon the Force from Kylo Ren and Rey to resurrect himself through the unlimited power of the dark side. 

“See what I have become? Mere shadow and vapour … I have form only when I can share another’s body… but there have always been those willing to let me into their hearts and minds…” – Voldemort, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

How will Kylo Ren react to the revelation that he’s been a pawn of Palpatine? Will he pledge himself to the ways of the Sith? It seems unlikely that Ren, who wants to kill the past and carve out his own legacy, will kneel before another master. Unless, of course, it’s to deceive the Dark Lord and betray him. Perhaps this discovery will be the tipping point in Ren’s struggle against the light, leading to his redemption. 

“Darkness rises, and light to meet it. I warned my young apprentice that as he grew stronger, his equal in the light would rise. Skywalker… I assumed. Wrongly.” – Supreme Leader Snoke

And what about Rey? It’s highly unlikely that Rey, the Millennium Falcon, Lor San Tekka, and the Emperor’s Observatory are found on Jakku by sheer coincidence. If Palpatine is responsible for Anakin’s birth, is it possible that he also created Rey? Her parents could still be nobodies – Shmi Skywalker was a nobody, too, after all. Or, could Rey be the true Chosen One of Jedi prophecy – a vergence in the Force, destined to bring balance by destroying the Sith? Only time will tell.

We have to consider the film’s title, The Rise of Skywalker, as well. If Palpatine represents the ultimate darkness, then powerful light – a Skywalker – must rise to destroy him. Will Ben Solo and Rey team-up, like the Skywalker Twins in Dark Empire, to defeat the Dark Lord of the Sith for good? Perhaps together they will unlearn what they have learned and forge a new understanding of the Force – a philosophy that balances light and dark.

In fact, designs for the ancient Jedi Temple mosaic in The Last Jedi were inspired by Taoist symbology of the yin and yang. Both George Lucas and The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kirshner were influenced by Asian philosophical and religious traditions, particularly Zen Buddhism, so it’s quite possible this is the ultimate lesson to be learned in the saga: dark and light within each other, the balance of dualities.

No more Jedi. No more Sith. Only “Skywalkers” – those who inspire hope across the galaxy through their selfless commitment to serving and defending the downtrodden and oppressed. Star Wars has always been about family, both found and inherited, and what better way to bring home the idea that anyone can use the Force than to proclaim that anyone can be a Skywalker?

Will any of this speculation prove true? Difficult to see, the future is. We still have two months until The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters and – hopefully – answers all of our burning questions. Regardless of Rey’s parentage or Kylo Ren’s destiny, the Skywalker Saga will culminate in a very poetic way, with the resurrection – and destruction – of the man responsible for the fall of the Republic, the birth of the Empire, and the Skywalker bloodline’s rise to prominence: Palpatine.

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