Star Wars fans all over the world lost their collective minds when Emperor Palpatine’s familiar laugh erupted at the end of the first Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker teaser trailer in April. Palpatine was back? How? He supposedly died at the end of Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader tossed him into the second Death Star’s reactor core. While fan theories have run rampant since then, the final trailer gives every indication he’ll play a significant role in the Dec. 20 film.
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen Star Wars Episodes I-VI (or you’ve never seen them — it’s okay, we won’t tell anyone), you might be fuzzy on how big a role Palpatine played over the course of the Skywalker saga. Here’s a refresher on the infamous Sith Lord and some speculation, but no spoilers, on what his presence might mean for the current trilogy’s most powerful Force users, Rey and Kylo Ren.
Though we first saw Emperor Palpatine in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and he was mentioned briefly in its predecessor, A New Hope, his real story started long before. Originating from Naboo, the same planet of Luke and Leia’s mother, Padme Amidala, Sheev Palpatine’s double life started at a young age when he discovered he was strong with the Dark Side of the Force. Just as Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader and Ben Solo eventually took the name Kylo Ren, Palpatine became Darth Sidious, one of the most powerful Sith Lords that has ever lived.
Behind the facade of Naboo’s Galactic Senator Sheev Palpatine, Sidious helped engineer the downfall of the Galactic Republic and the rise of the Empire. And he worked on these plans for years, constantly sowing seeds of conflict, nurturing them, and then harvesting them only when the time was right and he could gain the most power. Aided by Ian McDiarmid’s skillful portrayal, Palpatine makes Supreme Leader Snoke look like a rank amateur at Dark Side manipulation.
In 1999’s The Phantom Menace, Senator Palpatine counsels Queen Amidala while also fermenting conflict as Darth Sidious, engineering an attack on Naboo by the Trade Federation that eventually results in him ascending to Supreme Chancellor with Amidala’s help. Once his apprentice Darth Maul “dies” (not really, but more on that here), Sidious takes another apprentice in Count Dooku (Darth Tyranus) and through him, helps engineer the start of the Clone Wars in 2002’s Attack of the Clones. Through all this, he grooms young Anakin Skywalker and bides his time as the young man grows more powerful in the Force and more disgruntled with the leadership of the Jedi.
It’s the relationship between the two that’s one of the most consequential of the first six films, as the Sith Lord senses the potential and the darkness in the man and carefully manipulates him to his own ends, preying on Anakin’s fear that his true love Padme will die and that the Jedi do not treat their Chosen One with enough respect.
This manipulation reaches its culmination in Revenge of the Sith. In one of the greatest scenes of the prequel trilogy, Palpatine tells Anakin the story of his master, Darth Plagueis the Wise, a Sith Lord so powerful he learned how to create life and conquer death. At the time, the story seemed like it might explain Anakin’s mysterious virgin birth and how the promise of saving Padme seduced him to the Dark Side, but if Palpatine somehow survived, it takes on even greater importance. Has the man conquered death itself?
Though Anakin discovers that Palpatine is Darth Sidious and informs the Jedi, he eventually turns and pledges himself to Palpatine. As the newly christened Darth Vader, he helps execute Palpatine’s Order 66, which eradicated most of the Jedi and paved the way for Palpatine’s ascension to Emperor.
He’s not finished toying with his apprentice though. As Darth Vader rises from being grievously wounded from his battle with Obi-Wan Kenobi on the lava fields of Mustafar and turned part machine, Palpatine takes pleasure in telling him he killed Padme (though he had Force choked her, she lived long enough to deliver their twins), smiling as the former Anakin Skywalker erupts in grief. He gives the man nothing to live for and helps turn him fully into the monster that haunts the original trilogy.
With Vader at his side, Palpatine rules with increasing brutality until the Rebellion against the Empire brings Anakin’s very much alive children, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, into the fight. Both Palpatine and Vader sense Luke’s power in the Force and the Emperor wants Luke turned to the Dark Side. Once again Vader seems poised to do Palpatine’s bidding until Luke refuses. Palpatine tries to murder Luke for his insolence, but Vader’s love for his son proves too much. He sacrifices himself to save Luke and throws the Emperor to his apparent death.
But that still doesn’t stop Palpatine’s manipulations, as his demise triggers the Contingency, his truly bonkers plan to destroy the Empire after his death. The Contingency was mostly detailed in various Star Wars novels, comics, and video games, but we do see the aftermath in The Force Awakens as Rey scavenges the ships from the Battle of Jakku, the key final fight that finally brings down the Empire. Defeated, the remaining Imperial forces flee to the Unknown Regions and based on Palpatine’s plans, start rebuilding. Though the New Republic emerged triumphant for several decades after the Galactic Civil War, the Contingency helped sow the seeds of the First Order’s eventual rise. Pretty impressive for a guy who’s supposedly been dead for over 30 years.
And that delivers us to The Rise of Skywalker. The first question on everyone’s mind is how could the Emperor survive not only being thrown into the second Death Star’s reactor, but its subsequent explosion? Is he a Force Ghost, or did he not actually die? Or did he die, but then escape the bonds of death through what he learned from his master Darth Plagueis? From a shot in the final trailer where Rey faces off against him, he does look more corporeal than ghost-like — but this could also be a vision of Rey’s. It is worth mentioning that in the old Legends/pre-Disney timeline, he survived through a series of clones. Now we’ve seen clones in this series before…but let’s hope we’ve left them behind in the Clone Wars.
No matter how he’s survived — if in fact he has survived — what does his existence mean for our two most prominent Force users? The final trailer left some tantalizing clues, but before we get to that, let’s examine how he might affect Kylo and Rey individually. We know Supreme Leader Snoke targeted Ben Solo at a young age, pulling Han and Leia’s son toward the Dark Side. But given Snoke’s still-mysterious origins, was the Emperor pulling the strings all along, realizing that if he couldn’t turn the son of Anakin Skywalker, he may be able to turn his grandson? And was Kylo really hearing Palpatine’s whispers all those years when he thought he was hearing Vader’s?
Once Kylo finds out his grandfather’s Sith master survived, how will he react to the fact that he’s not the biggest big bad around? He killed Supreme Leader Snoke and assumed the title, thinking that he was now in charge of both the First Order and the galaxy. Will he fight Palpatine or pledge himself to the Sith lord, promising not to fail as his grandfather did? And on Palpatine’s side, since Skywalkers have been problematic apprentices and Kylo is, to put it kindly, rather erratic, would he prefer a different Force user instead, one with just as much raw power as the Skywalker heir, but a lot more discipline?
Which brings us to Rey and how Palpatine has potentially affected the course of her life. Is she really just a Force-sensitive nobody abandoned on Jakku or do her incredible powers come from a darker, more insidious source? Part of the Contingency involved Jakku, with Palpatine particularly singling the planet out for attention and it seems like a weird coincidence that a powerful Force user like Rey emerged from the same place. If it is just a coincidence, did Palpatine sense her natural Force strength early on and help engineer a hard life on a sandy planet that would leave her susceptible to the Dark Side’s allure? (Hey, it worked with Anakin.) And since she’s been searching for her place in the galaxy, does she finally find it as Dark Rey or is that just a seductive vision of what she could be under Palpatine’s tutelage?
But a key moment in the trailer reveals that the most intriguing element of Palpatine’s presence is what it means for Rey and Kylo as a pair. We know the film explores the connection between the two, and it’s Palpatine that says, “Long have I waited. And now, your coming together is your undoing.” Will their powerful Force bond leave them vulnerable to his attack, bringing one or both of them down? Or are they simply too powerful when united, posing a threat to him just as they did to Snoke?
Whatever the reason that Palpatine may target them, if Ben Solo finally reemerges to join with Rey in destroying the Emperor once and for all, it might be the fitting final act for the Skywalker saga. Anakin’s grandson receives redemption and takes down the man that engineered his grandfather’s fall as he and Rey rebalance the Force. No matter what happens when The Rise of Skywalker is released, Palpatine’s reappearance certainly brings the saga full circle.