Spoilers ahead for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Back in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader put aside his allegiance to Emperor Palpatine and briefly became Anakin Skywalker once again in order to save his son Luke from certain death. That moment of sacrifice claimed Anakin’s life but also offered him a moment of redemption, which was good enough for the powers that be to grant the former Sith lord a Jedi death and allow him to return later on as a Force Ghost. And it came with the added bonus that Emperor Palpatine died, too, ending his reign of terror.
Except that he didn’t. It’s been revealed in official trailers that Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) will return in some form in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. And while that decision certainly undercuts Vader’s sacrifice and the supposed restoration of balance to the Force in the original trilogy, as our own Matt Goldberg mentions in his review, it shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise. Palpatine has popped up in all sorts of Star Wars titles over the years, though all of them occurred in a timeline that predates the events of Return of the Jedi. It’s not a shock (Force-lightning pun intended) that Palpatine returns to close out the Skywalker Saga since his plans have driven the Dark Side of that story from the very beginning. But just how did the supposedly dead Emperor return? (Here’s another spoiler warning.)
To answer that, we have to go back briefly to where Palpatine’s story began. Originally a native of Naboo, Sheev Palpatine rose through the ranks of the Galactic Senate from senator to Supreme Chancellor to, eventually, Emperor. While the public face of Palpatine was scary enough during his rise to power, the hooded visage of his Sith alter ego Darth Sidious was much, much worse. Pretty much every awful event that’s happened throughout the entire Star Wars saga has been caused by or at least arranged by Palpatine/Sidious; without him, Star Peace would have continued unabated until some other upstart made a power grab. So it follows that Palpatine’s ultimate plan would come to fruition in the final installment of the nine-movie saga.
But wait, didn’t Palpatine fall to his death through the core of the Death Star II? Technically, yes. But since Palpatine has long had a fascination with both the destruction of the Jedi and achieving immortality, it stands to reason that the mad emperor would have had a contingency plan for just such an occasion as his untimely death. This is the same Sith lord who killed his own master Darth Plagueis, by the way, in order to usurp his power and take an apprentice in accordance with the Rule of Two. Sidious’ apprentices—Maul, Tyranus, Vader–have not exactly fared well over the years, while the Emperor himself continued to live on. It makes sense that he at least considered that Darth Vader would one day attempt to assassinate him, he probably just didn’t think it would be in an act of self-sacrifice. No matter; the end result is the same. Palpatine died, but was resurrected in a previously prepared clone of himself.
Yup! The same Emperor who co-opted Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas’ plan to raise a clone army also (presumably) tasked the Kaminoans with cloning replacements for himself should his body fail. (Why he wouldn’t opt for a younger, stronger version of his body remains to be seen, but maybe his DNA was too degraded and corrupted by the Dark Side to produce anything but lumpy, mottled recreations of his withered self. Shoulda stuck with that strong Fett stock!) So on one hand, in the past, Palpatine and the Kaminoans conspired to implant a bio-chip in every clone trooper in preparation of carrying out the Jedi-exterminating Order 66, while on the other hand, they also had a built-in back-up plan to keep the Emperor alive and kicking for decades to come. So when Vader tossed the previous Palpatine to his death, the Sith lord’s consciousness, memory, and power flowed into the new and waiting vessel in the hidden regions of space on the uncharted planet of Exegol.
Okay, so Palpatine had clones of himself ready and waiting in vats; that’s now a former Legends idea that’s been canonized somewhat. That doesn’t mean the exchange was easy-peasy. In The Rise of Skywalker, the current incarnation of the Emperor is hooked up to a massive scaffolding of sorts that’s keeping him alive, a device that’s anime-worthy in its design, honestly. Palpatine may be alive, but barely; he needs the universe’s most powerful Force-wielders of both the Dark and Light sides to restore him completely, in a nod to the Mortis gods of the Father, the Son, and the Daughter. But that’s a story for another time…
For more on Rise of Skywalker check out Matt’s review right here, our breakdown of the ending, that Snoke reveal, and the whole Rey’s parents thing. And be sure to let us know what you thought about the concluding chapter of the Skywalker Saga here.