Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?
No one would blame you if you didn’t. Maybe you missed the tale in Revenge of the Sith because you were reeling from the bubble ballet visuals or the blue George Lucas cameo, but the scene describing the Sith Lord’s fate is worth revisiting in light of the Emperor Palpatine’s involvement in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
In the first trailer for the film, Palpatine’s laugh is preceded by Luke Skywalker (who is dead) in voiceover: “No one’s ever really gone.” Star Wars has positioned itself as a saga with hope as a primary motivator for our heroic characters, so it’s easy to hear the line as a glimmer of hope. But, like the Force, there’s a Dark Side to the implication: Could the Emperor, last seen plummeting to his death, still be around to threaten our heroes? He certainly appears to be if the final trailer, which shows a cloaked presence sitting tall above Rey, is any indication.
Darth Sidious, who floated through galactic politics as Sheev Palpatine, was one of the most powerful Dark Side Force users to ever exist in Star Wars. And if you reach back into that canon, you’ll find the highest powered Force Users on both the Light and Dark Sides are obsessed with conquering death. To understand Palpatine in Rise of Skywalker, we have to remember the tragedy of Darth Plagueis and dig deeper into what’s happened in the last decade of Star Wars stories.
The original Palpatine in the Star Wars movies
In the original 1977 Star Wars, the Emperor gets name-drop-only-status only. In Empire, he’s a hologram. He finally appears in physical form in Return of the Jedi to tempt Luke to the Dark Side. Vader tosses him down a reactor shaft and he definitely dies. When Return of the Jedi was first released in May 1983, all we knew about Palpatine is that he liked to build Death Stars and kill Rebels.
The prequel trilogy turns Emperor Palpatine into a symbol of ultimate evil capable of converting Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. We follow his rise from Senator of Naboo to the Supreme Chancellor, but little time investigating his shadowier motives as Darth Sidious, the Sith Lord. The prequels are messy films and the parts about politics are often boring scenes to slog through; it’s easy to overlook that Palpatine tells his own origin story while explaining the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise.
Here’s the important part of what Palpatine tells Anakin:
Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life [...] He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying. The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural [ …] Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep.
A bit of Sith history (or Sithistory, as cool kids call it)
The Sith are a tricky bunch, especially Count Dooku (aka Darth Tyranus) and Darth Sidious, who took on other apprentices all throughout the comics and animated series. There are only supposed to be two Sith at any given time, because of something called the “Rule of Two” established by the ancient Sith Lord, Darth Bane.
Darth Bane was the sole Sith survivor of the order’s wars with the Jedi, and blamed some of the Sith’s loss on infighting amongst some of his powerful contemporaries. Bane’s “Rule of Two” sets up a structure where there are only two Sith Lords (Darths) at any given time: a Master who wields the ultimate power of the Dark Side, and an Apprentice to serve the Master and covet that power.
In the ideal Sith relationship, both Master and Apprentice are constantly out to kill the other, which is seen as testing and maintaining their strength. The only way to make more Sith Lords is for the Master to replace and kill the current Apprentice or for the Apprentice to grow in strength to finally kill the Master. It’s “checks and balances” but based on strength, with the power of the Force as a test for fitness in leadership. Darth Plagueis was killed in his sleep by his apprentice, Darth Sidious.
If you believe Palpatine (and you’d be wary to completely buy in), then Darth Plagueis taught his apprentice, a pre-The Phantom Menace Darth Sidious, everything that he knew. In theory, this would include the power to create life with midichlorians and prevent people from dying, though Palpatine claims to have not learned those particular details. Later in Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine says he was unable to save Padmé from dying and the whole immortality line of questioning is dropped, to Darth Sidious’ benefit. James Luceno’s novel Darth Plagueis goes deeper into the relationship between Palpatine and Plagueis himself and also confirms that Plagueis took the knowledge of conquering death to the grave. But the novel is part of the “Legends” expanded universe, which is no longer considered official canon.
The whole Force ghost thing
If the Sith can conquer death, what does “conquering death” even look like? The phrase Palpatine uses when talking to Anakin is “prevent people from dying.” Later in Revenge of the Sith, Yoda simply tells Obi-Wan Kenobi that Qui-Gon Jinn (who had been dead for almost two whole movies at that point) had “learned the path to immortality.” Since the end of that movie is filled with so many crazy things, like Padmé dying of a broken heart and Vader yelling “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” it’s easy to overlook Yoda telling Obi-Wan to train with Qui-Gon to be immortal. Anyone who has seen the original trilogy knows that Jedi who disappear when they die they can come back as Force Ghosts. In theory, that’s the immortality Qui-Gon Jinn discovered, later granted to Obi-Wan, Yoda, and now Luke Skywalker.
In the sixth season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Yoda follows his Force feelings and comes in contact with both Qui-Gon Jinn’s consciousness and an apparition of Darth Bane. When he finds Qui-Gon (still voiced by Liam Neeson), the former Jedi exists in the ether of the Force, beyond time and space, and manifests as tiny, floating balls of light. Qui-Gon’s study of the link between the Cosmic Force that controls all things and the Living Force, which gains its power from all living things, showed him how to keep his consciousness intact while transitioning between being a Jedi of the the Living Force and part of the Cosmic Force.
From a Certain Point of View, a canonical collection of short stories from 2017, later revealed that Qui-Gon eventually learns how to manifest his old body as a blue, semi-transparent Force Ghost and trains Obi-Wan in the deserts of Tatooine. One can safely assume that Yoda also trained under Qui-Gon, as both Yoda and Obi-Wan’s bodies disappear when they die. (Qui-Gon’s body remained, but he had to reform himself from his consciousness in the Cosmic Force.) When Luke’s body fades from existence at the end of The Last Jedi, that symbolizes that Luke eventually trained in “immortality” from Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, or the ancient Jedi texts and has kept his consciousness and form in tact while moving out of the Living Force.
This naturally brings into question the death and subsequent Force Ghosting of Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. So far in the ancillary stories, we haven’t seen Anakin or Darth Vader train in any sort of Force Ghosting, yet there he is standing beside Yoda and Obi-Wan on the outskirts of the Endor party at the end of the film. Anakin’s pale body doesn’t appear to disappear when he dies on the Death Star, and by the time we see him on the funeral pyre, someone has replaced the mask of his Darth Vader helmet.
That said, since Anakin was the Chosen One that turned Dark, it isn’t out of the question that he was capable of keeping his consciousness in tact after death. Anakin had killed the Emperor, his Master, and risen to become the Dark Lord of the Sith before dying as Anakin Skywalker … did he learn some skill from Palpatine? Does the Dark Side of the Force consider returning as an apparition to be some sort of trick rather than a true conquering of death?
Most hints at Palpatine’s motivations, beyond ruling the galaxy so he could build Death Stars, have been cemented in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Since Disney bought Lucasfilm and rebooted the canon, fans have received subtle hints that the Emperor had many devious projects going on while we were so focused on the rise of Darth Vader and the Empire. From abducting Force sensitive children and hunting down the last of the Jedi to excavating the Sith temple on Coruscant and establishing secret outposts filled with powerful artifacts, the Emperor never put all of his Force eggs in one basket.
In the canon-approved Star Wars: Rebels animated series, which takes place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, both the Emperor and the Dark Side learn some new tricks. The heroes of that series are introduced to a glowing red, triangular device called a Sith Holocron that could be used to unlock a weaponized Sith Temple hidden on a planet called Malachor. The Jedi also had Holocrons; in Rebel’s predecessor Star Wars: The Clone Wars, they were devices used to store knowledge and information, like a really advanced external hard drive that operates using the Force. According to Rebels, as Empire took over different planets in the solar system, Palpatine was expanding his knowledge in The Dark Side. In the show’s final season, the Sith Lord can even open up a portal into a place beyond time and space called the “World between Worlds.” Which is kind of like saying “he uses magic to look through time,” except in Star Wars.
Palpatine couldn’t straight up time travel, so it’s unlikely he’ll step through a wormhole into the plot of Rise of Skywalker at the end of this year, but a recent plot in a Darth Vader comic might connect Palpatine’s use of “Sith Alchemy” and Qui-Gon Jinn’s method of maintaining consciousness to not become immortal to avoid dying, but to come back from death.
Enter Lord Momin
In a recent run of Marvel’s Darth Vader comics called Fortress Vader, we learn the tale of Momin, another ancient Sith who developed a weapon capable of wiping out an entire city. He eventually loses control of his experiment and dies in the process. However, Momin’s consciousness was stored in his mask which was then kept at the Jedi Temple Archives. After the events of Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine found the mask and Momin showed the Emperor his past. Darth Sidious gave the mask as a gift to Darth Vader around the time he moved to Mustafar, the lava planet where he fought Obi-Wan Kenobi. Momin then starts possessing people on Mustafar until Vader discovers what’s going on and gets Momin to infect a local life form. Why? Momin claims he can build Vader’s Fortress into a Dark Side portal from which he can retrieve Padmé … from death.
A predictable and Sith-y thing happens: Momin double-crosses Vader and uses the portal to resurrect his body, don his possession mask, and become a real Momin again. The unpredictable thing that happens is that after Vader squishes new Momin with a big rock, he opens the portal and finds Padmé, who refuses to return with him because she recognizes that “Anakin Skywalker” is dead. Which does a lot to explain why Vader stops looking for a way to conquer death, but also sounds a lot like Darth Momin found out a way to resurrect himself by using his consciousness in a possessed object.
That might be the type of immortality the Emperor would be interested in. Did he manage to learn anything from Momin before passing the mask off to Vader? If you want to ask the mask yourself, you’d have to take a trip to the new Galaxy’s Edge theme parks where Lord Momin’s mask hangs on Dok Ondar’s wall.
How Emperor Palpatine exists in The Rise of Skywalker
The Expanded Universe canon has established that Emperor Palpatine used his time as ruler of the known galaxy to expand his powers from simple lightsaber skills and finger-tip lightning to full on Sith Alchemy, a form of magic. Sheev spread his Empire far and wide under the guise of an orderly ruling class, but in actuality he was probing the secrets of the Force and the true power of the Dark Side. He wanted to conquer death.
The Rise of Skywalker trailer and sizzle reel footage suggests that Palpatine might have figured out one of these methods to return. Sometime between his rise to power in Revenge of the Sith and his apparent death in Return of the Jedi, Palpatine found secret troves of Sith knowledge, and had prepared for his eventual demise. Trailers for Episode 9 keep showing a battle between Kylo Ren and Rey on the wreckage of the Death Star II — the only Death Star the Emperor actually took up residence in before it was exploded.
Did Sheev bring part of his private collection of Sith Magic to his final space station? Could Palpatine use a Sith Holocron to possess a body like Darth Momin used his mask? Could Palpatine step out from the World Between Worlds once a Force User opens the portal? And when Palpatine returns, which powerful Force User of the Resistance Era is more likely to be a worthy apprentice? Whiny Ben Solo or the pure power that is Rey? As with everything Star Wars, the answers found in lore tend to raise more questions.
Dave Gonzales is an entertainment writer and podcaster. Find him on Twitter @Da7e.