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emperor palpatine giggles aboard the Death Star Image: Lucasfilm

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Answering the biggest questions about Emperor Palpatine’s return to Star Wars

Episode IX is light on explanation, but franchise history fills in some blanks

“The dead speak!” begins the opening crawl of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. “The dead” is Emperor Palpatine, who has begun broadcasting across the galaxy, puzzling everyone who was pretty sure he didn’t survive his fall in Return of the Jedi. How did he come back to life? J.J. Abrams’ second sequel offers few answers, allowing years of Star Wars storytelling do the heavy lifting (if you know where to find it).

[Ed. note: This post contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.]

The Rise of Skywalker, a trilogy capper, sets a lot of new rules for Palpatine’s powers. This follows Star Wars screenwriting tradition: Along with introducing the character in the flesh in Return of the Jedi, George Lucas established the idea that someone could be turned to the Dark Side by killing someone in an act of anger or fear. The prequel trilogy kept its secret Sith Lord (aka The Phantom Menace) hidden until Revenge of the Sith, and teased the idea that Sheev created Anakin Skywalker out of midi-chlorians. In the Skywalker Saga, big Palpatine revelations get squeezed into the final installments.

Palpatine is a mess when he shows up in The Rise of Skywalker. Until the very end of the movie, he stays attached to a large machine, his eyes have no pupils, and his hands are mangled. When Kylo Ren and the audience stumble upon him, he’s perched next to a tank full of Snokes. He says he “made” Snoke, and based on the laboratory setup, the idea is that we should probably take him literally. Although it’s ironic to evoke the lyrics to a song titled “Once in a Lifetime” to talk about Palpatine, who has lived multiple lifetimes: “How did we get here?” The lore of Star Wars media past provides a little clarity that the film does not.

To have a granddaughter, Palpatine needs a son

The big twist in The Rise of Skywalker is that Rey is the granddaughter of Palpatine, connected through blood by her father’s line. So when did Palpatine have a son? There isn’t a canonical answer, but there is a rumor from Legends — the pre-Disney Expanded Universe material decanonized in the lead-up to The Force Awakens — that could provide some bread crumbs. They center around a character first introduced in Attack of the Clones: Palpatine’s assistant Sly Moore.

blue horn guy, evil old man, and white bald lady stand at a hovering podium
Mas Amedda, Emperor Palpatine, and Sly Moore address the Galactic Senate.
Image: Lucasfilm

That Sly Moore was aware that Palpatine was Darth Sidious the entire time she served him is an idea that survived the EU lore purge and remains canon in the sequel trilogy era. She sits to the left of him whenever Palpatine addresses the Senate, and is looking like she’s having a grand time at the space opera in Palpatine’s box before she’s dismissed so Palpatine can talk to Anakin. Sly Moore was said to be fiercely loyal and might have had the power to cloud people’s minds, indicating she may have been Force-sensitive.

In the Legends canon, a man claiming to be the son of Emperor Palpatine, born when Sly Moore inseminated herself with one of Palpatine’s DNA samples, shows up on the Spice Mines of Kessel. His defining feature? Three eyes. And he’s called … Triclops. The theory is a bit of a stretch, but the idea that Sly Moore would have sired the son of Palpatine before the Emperor disbands the Senate entirely in A New Hope can’t be disproved, and there aren’t a lot of female characters around that spend time with Palpatine.

Was the Emperor keeping his genetic material around? As Dominic Monaghan’s character says in passing in The Rise of Skywalker, there was a lot of dark science happening in Sith circles over the years, so the answer is ... probably. Gross.

The Emperor survived Return of the Jedi — but then what?

There’s reason to believe that Palpatine conquered death before he was tossed down the shaft of the Death Star II in Return of the Jedi. The Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, comics, and cartoons indicate that Palpatine was dealing in “Sith Magic,” though he never focused on just one death-beating scheme at a time. Star Wars Rebels showed us that by the Imperial Era, Palpatine was looking into the magical “world between worlds” that allowed a user to gaze through space and time. The vagary of using magic opens doors to pretty much any possibility in the Star Wars universe. Like, say, Palpatine really dying on the Death Star II, then coming back to life.

star wars return of the jedi death star shaft explodes with blue light Image: Lucasfilm

When Darth Vader tosses Palpatine down the Death Star shaft at the end of Return of the Jedi, a blast of blue energy indicates that something down there had broken. And up until this year, it seemed that was the last gasp of the Sith Order. In The Rise of Skywalker, Palpatine says he’s “died before,” a clear reference to his plunge in Episode VI, which ended with the Death Star II exploding into chunks that fell to the various moons of Endor. It was safe to assume his body was destroyed in the process.

How Palpatine ends up on Exogol in a body that looks like Palpatine is a mystery the movie itself does not solve. The context clues and an explicit reference from Monaghan’s character lead back to an unlikely place: cloning, that hook from the prequel trilogy that everyone loved.

The Emperor’s history with cloning

In the early ’90s, non-canon (Legends) comic book series Dark Empire, Palpatine resurrects himself after the events of Return of the Jedi thanks to the dozens of clones he had been able to quietly breed during his rule. Everytime a Palpatine body dies, the Sith lord uses a trick of the Dark Side of the Force to jump into a new body. The clone, in this case, gets overwritten by the Emperor. In the sequel series Dark Empire II, Palpatine threatens to body-hijack Leia’s child, and successfully does to a few Jedi. The good guys eventually defeat the emperor when one of his possessed souls drags Palpatine’s essence to Force Hell before it can body-jump in an act of soul sacrifice. (Star Wars of the ’90s!) There are indications that some of these ideas have been re-canonized, at least the concept of overwriting a soul with another, more powerful one.

The idea that Palpatine would maintain a secret trove of clones to jump into tracks with what we know about the character in the new canon, even if we haven’t happened across any Palpatine shells yet in the Expanded Universe. Emphasis on yet — we’ve only just learned that the guy somehow had a legitimate son.

One problem Palpatine encounters when jumping into multiple bodies in Dark Empire is that using the Dark Side of the Force at the required levels makes his body age and deteriorate. This was used to explain the Emperor’s appearance in the original trilogy, long before we learned he scarred himself when Mace Windu reflected his Force Lightning back at him. That could still mean that using the Dark Side wears on a person physically, but it’s just not something we’ve seen resurface in canon yet.

The Snoke clones mystery

As we see from the shot of the Snoke clone tanks early in The Rise of Skywalker, Palpatine created the First Order’s former Supreme Leader. But was Palpatine also Snoke the whole time? Some new in-canon references, plus some reveals about Snoke back in The Last Jedi, suggest that to be the case.

In a recent run of Marvel’s Darth Vader comic books, readers learn the tale of Darth Momin, a Sith who managed to maintain his life force in a mask. When someone would put that mask on, they would be possessed by the spirit of Darth Momin. His plan was to use Mustafar’s strong connection to the Dark Side, and Vader’s desire to resurrect Padme, to build a portal that would allow you to bring people back from Death. Eventually, Momin manages to resurrect himself, and then Vader crushes his head and mask, ending that experiment very quickly.

The canon-approved comic establishes the resurrection of a strong Sith using a possessed object on Mustafar, a morsel that leads us back to The Last Jedi. When we finally see Snoke in the flesh for the first time, he’s wearing a golden robe in a room full of red, and a ring with a black stone in it.

snoke sits on the destroyer throne wearing his black stone ring in Star Wars: The Last Jedi Image: Lucasfilm/Disney

According to The Last Jedi Visual Dictionary, the black stone of Snoke’s ring is from Mustafar (which we have no canonical record of Snoke ever visiting) and the markings are ancient Dwartii glyphs. The description is a very damning indication of the Emperor’s hand in Snoke’s existence. The Four Sages of Dwartii, ancient philosophers whose teachings were malleable enough to become the basis for the Galactic Republic and be embraced by the Sith, appear as statues in Palpatine’s chamber in the prequel trilogy, and again as giant statues in the elevator down to Exogol. Palpatine is even shown taking one of his Dwartii statues into his Sith temple in the cartoons. If there was an object that allowed Palpatine to throw his consciousness into a puppet body, history suggests it is Snoke’s ring.

So why not make another Snoke after his death in The Last Jedi? The ring was on that ship that got Holdo-Maneuvered! He’d need a new object to restart the process.

In the recent Marvel comic Age of Resistance: Supreme Leader Snoke, we see Snoke training a younger Kylo Ren. “If I had your uncle by my side instead of you,” he tells the boy formerly known as Ben Solo, “I would have ruled this galaxy long ago.” The uncle being referred to is Luke Skywalker, and knowing that Snoke was a clone that didn’t exist during the Age of the Empire means this is almost certainly Palpatine referring to Luke’s temptation on the Death Star II. If Luke had killed Vader in anger, Snoke/Palpatine would have ruled the galaxy long ago. Like, 30 years ago.

Maybe it’s natural, maybe it’s midi-chlorians

For the climactic battle on Exogol, the Emperor tries to get Rey to strike him down in anger so his consciousness can pass on to her and she’ll rule the Final Order as Empress Palpatine. He does this in his decrepit form, before Ben Solo shows up and gives Palpatine a delicious Force Dyad to vampire off of. Knowing how Palpatine wants absolute power, it’s a fair assumption that had Rey struck him down, he would have taken her body and overwritten the consciousness of his blood relative.

The term “life force” is thrown around in relation to the new power of Force healing (as opposed to the non-canon term “essence”), implying Light Side users can use the Force to transfer their life over to another. As a shadow power, Palpatine sucks life from the Dyad and into his hands; that reads more like a now non-canonical “transfer essence” ability that Palpatine used to move between clones in Dark Empire. This pure dyad energy allows him to regrow his fingers and regain his yellow irises for the final battle.

Dark Empire comic cover featuring Palpatine’s big head and clones in tubes Image: Dark Horse Comics

The pivotal moment brings up another way Palpatine could have conquered death: He could have become the supreme master of midi-chlorians. In the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise scene from Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine suggests the Dark Side can create life. It’s also implied in Marvel’s Vader comics that Palpatine created Anakin himself. With enough Dark Side power, did Palpatine re-form a body from scant genetic material, or nothing at all? That would explain why the white-eyed version of him needed to stay connected to machinery on the secret Sith planet, and even then he would’ve been fairly helpless if Kylo Ren had decided to kill him right at the start of the movie.

This could be why a clone body could never be sufficient if one wanted to be truly immortal: You’d need to have a natural body to use up, and if it was one that ritualistically killed you in a Sith manner, that’d be great. When in doubt, just suck the life force out of someone.

The strangest choice The Rise of Skywalker makes — among a bevy of strange choices — is to begin with the inevitability of Palpatine being alive, and expect that our answers would come from piling on more Force powers. It’s an odd way to write a franchise story, assuming that some future Expanded Universe material will fill in the gaps of your big, bad villain, but that’s who Palpatine has always been in the third Star Wars movie of a trilogy: an evil surprise full of mystery and Force power.

For now, the way Palpatine became immortal is at the scientific theory stage, the result of connecting the lore dots from across past and present Star Wars stories. Where we’ll get firm answers may be up to the Expanded Universe.

A Son of Palpatine Disney Plus series, anyone?