This holiday season, The Rise of Skywalker provided the final chapter of the Star Wars nonology known as the “Skywalker Saga.” Over nine movies, titled and presented as “Episodes,” audiences saw three generations of the Skywalker lines struggle with the Force while galaxy-engulfing wars played out in the background. For eight of those films, the antagonistic Sith followed a Rule of Two where only two Sith Lords existed at the same time. (“Always two there are,” Yoda says in The Phantom Menace, “a master and an apprentice.”) With Rise of Skywalker, everything Star Wars fans thought they knew about the Dark Side order changes, making even the most maleficent enemies more than what they seem.
[Ed. note: the rest of this post contains major spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker]
At the beginning of Episode IX, viewers bare witness to a Sith fleet of Star Destroyers around the Sith planet of Exogol, where an undead Palpatine holds court with the “Sith Eternal.” Don’t worry if this is your first time hearing the term “Sith Eternal:” The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t use the term, but the The Rise of Skywalker - Visual Dictionary names them as exactly who we’re seeing on Exogol. Also exclusive to the book — and absent from the film — is more information on how the end of the Sith in Return of the Jedi became a stadium full of chanting, robed acolytes in Rise of Skywalker.
In contrast to the long-held Rule of Two, the canon has now expanded to include the ancient Sith, a group of people who ruled the galaxy at some point before the Old Republic. Described in the Visual Dictionary as an “offshoot” of the Jedi Order, this faction of Sith went into hiding for the entire events of both the prequel and original trilogies of films. Although Darth Vader, Darth Maul, Darth Sidious, and Count Dooku were all legitimate Sith Lords under the Rule of Two, they were not representing (as far as we know) the Sith Eternal, who apparently hid in the Unknown Regions, including on Exogol.
The Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy of novels by Chuck Windig introduces a character named Yupe Tashu who was an advisor to Emperor Palpatine during the original trilogy era (though we never see him on screen). Tashu was not a Force user, but a “Sith cultist” and a student of the ancient dark side. Think of him as a counterpoint to Max von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka from The Force Awakens, a man aware of the Force who helped Luke locate Jedi artifacts. Yupe Tashu comes to lead the “Acolytes of the Beyond,” who are referenced as a group in the Visual Dictionary that keeps the interest of the Sith Eternal alive after the Emperor’s death. Yupe Tashu evidently gave Ochi of Bestoon (the guy who killed Rey’s parents with the MacGuffin dagger) access to ancient Sith texts that made him a believer. Not in Palpatine necessarily, but in the Sith Eternal way of life as a belief system. In the movie he’s called a “Jedi hunter” but the Visual Dictionary refers to Ochi as a “Sith assassin,” which tracks more in a post-Return of the Jedi galaxy in which there would have been very few Jedi left to hunt.
When we first see the Sith Eternal on screen in The Rise of Skywalker, they are a couple of hooded figures tending to the machinery around the tub of Snoke clones and the hanging Palpatine. When we next see them, they’re filling a subterranean coliseum, chanting and waiting for Rey to strike Palpatine down. It’s set up in the opening crawl of the film to make us think Palpatine is pulling the strings, but based on the expanded reading material, the Sith Eternal are the ones who have been running shipyards for generations. More importantly, when Palpatine is threatening Rey, he says he is “All of the Sith.” This is after he makes his arguments about him being her family, after Rey has decided not to strike him down in anger.
This all raises a key question: What if Palpatine wasn’t the big bad of The Rise of Skywalker at all? What if the villain was just wearing a Palpatine mask? There’s reason to think so when exploring everything J.J. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio have left open in their trilogy-capper.
Since we’ve toiled over the unexplained question of how Emperor Palpatine ended up in his old body on Exogol, Lucasfilm story group editor Matt Martin has gone on to downplay a fan-theory-igniting moment in Marvel’s Star Wars comics. Palpatine, it seems, probably can’t simply create life out of midi-chlorians, even though that’s what he alludes to in Revenge of the Sith (which was a fine shadow “I am your father” moment, but I guess it was just a retconned misspeak, like when Kylo Ren told Rey her parents were nobodies). This throws an interesting wrinkle into The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, which positioned the Sith idea of “conquering death” as an alternative to the Light Side’s Force Ghosting. Maybe the best any Force-wielder can hope for is to retain their consciousness beyond death. The “unnatural” part of the Sith powers would be manifesting a body, then shoving Palpatine’s soul into it. That puts the Sith Eternal’s motives into question: Why would the Eternal suddenly pledge allegiance to a Sith Lord that lived and died while they remained in hiding on Exogol?
At the very beginning of the movie, Palpatine reveals to Kylo Ren that he has been “every voice [he’d] ever heard inside [his] head” as he cycles from Palpatine voice to Snoke voice to the voice of Darth Vader. This lines up more with the concept of New Palpatine being he literal embodiment of “All the Sith” rather than him being the actual, resurrected Emperor Palpatine. The being we see on the mechanical arm tells Kylo Ren to kill Rey, which doesn’t make a lot of sense if Palpatine needs Rey, but does make sense if the All Sith needs a Force-wielder to kill out of anger in order to transfer into a flesh body. Rey would want to kill the evil, Empire-leading grandfather who had her parents murdered. If Rey had to face down a completely new character that didn’t play into her worst fears about her identity, it wouldn’t have been a moment of tension. Given who Rey is, it makes the most sense that it be something appearing as Palpatine tempting her to kill him in that moment.
Whatever New Palpatine really is, he doesn’t actually use his powers in his physical form until he’s sucking the life out of the juicy Force Dyad that is Rey and Ben Solo. He goads Rey into striking him down so the All Sith could live in her. The Force Eternal chant behind him, and the whole thing feels like a ritual while mirroring what the Emperor wanted Luke to do on the Death Star II in Return of the Jedi. Whatever Sith magic is at play in the scene, and was back in Return of the Jedi, a kill out of hate seems necessary for the All Sith to take literal root. When Palpatine Sith-Vampires himself back into a recognizable red robe with glowing yellow irises, whatever was there has become a physical being, just as capable of being killed as he was before.
Anyone who watched The Clone Wars animated series won’t be surprised that there are Force Gods in play in the Star Wars canon. On Mortis, a planet strong with the Force, there are three beings: The Father, who is powerful, but represents a third way avenue for the Force that is both light and dark; The Daughter, who is the living embodiment of the Light side of the Force; and The Son, who is the living embodiment of the Dark Side of the Force. Over a three-episode arc in season 3, Anakin Skywalker, Ahsoka, and Obi-Wan visit the planet and interact with these Force Gods as they toy with Anakin, “The Chosen One,” who is supposed to bring balance to the Force. The Son of Mortis is a shapeshifter and can appear as anyone or anything, often tempting those on Mortis with visions of people from their past. Though he can also play with them by showing potential futures. The Father says The Son can appear as anything he wishes. This is the best representation we’ve had of a single being representing the entire Sith/Dark Side until New Palpatine, and it’s a version that chooses its form by what is convenient to its motive.
If the Sith Eternal have hid out in the background of Star Wars this whole time, doesn’t it make more sense that they would have found their way back to something like the Son of Mortis rather than pin their hopes on an in-name-only Sith Lord who was defeated when his cyborg apprentice threw him down a shaft? A man who, yes, orchestrated the overthrow and mass murder of the Jedi Order, but then stopped having new ideas at “build another big gun moon-station”?
The Rise of Skywalker takes the Rule of Two that the prequels were so obsessed with using as a basis for the Sith culture and tosses it out the window. What we have instead is a new background of cultists who are serving something that appears to be Emperor Palpatine, but has no business actually being Sheev Palpatine. The All Sith wants a body, a real one, having inhabited some Snoke clones in its time, and it wants the most powerful Force user it can find to inhabit, in order to trigger the soul-jumping option whe killed out of hate or fear.
That means making equal plays for both Kylo Ren and Rey, which makes Palpatine’s first order in Rise (to kill Rey) make a little more sense. It makes sense why the face of the All Sith shows up looking like Palpatine at this moment. Or it makes a whole lot more sense that Sheev died on the Death Star II and a Force God used him like an Emperor suit to traumatize a galaxy and a granddaughter than old man “build a Death Star” suddenly reappearing 30 years later. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t have the answer, but in all the galaxy, this is the closest we have to one making sense.