In the days leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, fans wondered how it was possible for Emperor Palpatine, who perished pretty unambiguously at the end of Return of the Jedi, to be alive and cackling again more than 30 years later in the timeline. In the days after the release of The Rise of Skywalker, fans are … still wondering that.
The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t go to great lengths to explain Palpatine’s return, possibly because there was no way to explain it that would leave us all nodding our heads in satisfied understanding. So instead of inserting some technobabble to justify the undoing of a previous movie’s climactic event, à la Avengers: Endgame, The Rise of Skywalker asks its audience to accept it and move on. As Poe Dameron says in one especially self-parodic hand-wave, “Somehow, Palpatine returned.” Naturally, we were never going to leave it at that, so let’s overanalyze how the Emperor may have survived or reanimated, and what he hoped to achieve.
After his absence from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Palpy Kool-Aid Mans into the trilogy via the first two sentences of The Rise of Skywalker’s opening crawl: “The dead speak! The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of REVENGE in the sinister voice of the late EMPEROR PALPATINE.” Before we have time to wonder whether an imposter has perfected a Palpatine deepfake, Kylo Ren stalks into the Sith stronghold on Exogol and comes face to face with his grandfather’s former master. It’s the actual Emperor, in the pasty, festering flesh. And he has a giant fleet, which he offers to bequeath to Kylo if Kylo kills Rey and embraces his dark-side destiny. As we later learn, though, his real goal is to lure Rey, his secret granddaughter, to Exogol and persuade her to strike him down, which would (for undisclosed Sith-related reasons) allow his power and that of the thousands of Sith spirits he carries inside him to transfer into her.
In case there was any lingering doubt about this being a Palpatine pretender, Resistance leadership holds a briefing based on information from a First Order spy (later revealed to be General Hux), who’s confirmed Palpatine’s reappearance. “He’s been planning his revenge,” Poe Dameron says. “His followers have been planning something for years. The largest fleet the galaxy’s ever known. He calls it the Final Order. In 16 hours, attacks on all free worlds begin. The Emperor and his fleet have been hiding in the Unknown Regions on a world called Exogol.”
After C-3PO chimes in to say that Exogol is the “hidden world of the Sith,” Poe continues, not so subtly, “So Palpatine’s been out there all this time, pulling the strings.” Leia answers, equally unsubtly, “Always, in the shadows, from the very beginning.” So, definitely not a new development dropped on us at the end of a trilogy made by multiple creators who didn’t sync up their stories, then. Got it.
There are two big questions to tackle here. How did Palpy survive, and why did he lie low for roughly 31 years before making his grand reentrance?
Let’s start with the “how.” Beaumont Kin, the late-arriving Resistance fighter played by Dominic Monaghan, lays out a few possibilities: “Dark science. Cloning. Secrets only the Sith knew.” It’s probably safe to say it was at least one of those things!
In Return of the Jedi, the Emperor, trailing Force lightning from his fingertips, plunged into the reactor core of the second Death Star, which the Rebels were about to blow up. A cloud of energy billowed up the shaft, seemingly marking Palpatine’s incineration.
In the Dark Empire comic books, which resurrected Palpatine in a new, youthful clone body, that blue light was retconned into a representation of “the Emperor’s living energy, his conscious dark force, leaving his body.” The Emperor’s essence instantly entered the distant clone body he’d prepared for the purpose. As Dark Empire author Tom Veitch saw it, Palpatine had departed his fortress on Coruscant and challenged Luke to kill him only because he knew the new body was ready, leaving him with little to lose.
In theory, the same thing could have happened here: Sheev stashed a spare body on Exogol, which he woke up in when he “died” on the Death Star. Palpatine had helped steer the creation of the Republic’s clone army, and although the Kaminoan cloning facilities were shut down after the Empire rose, Palpatine could have commandeered their technology for his own use. A vat containing parts of bodies that look like Snoke stands in Palpatine’s pad in The Rise of Skywalker, which suggests that Snoke was a clone created by Palpatine. “I made Snoke,” Palpy tells Kylo. And when Kylo threatens to kill him, Palpatine says, “I’ve died before,” which might refer to the death of his original physical frame. Cloning seems like the most plausible workaround for Palpatine’s Return of the Jedi demise.
The problem with this scenario is that the Palpatine of The Rise of Skywalker is incredibly old and decrepit. His eyes are milky and seemingly sightless, and he’s immobile, suspended from a high-tech hook that appears to pumping him full of life-sustaining nutrients. (Now he’s the one who’s more machine than man.) Palpatine was born about 65 years before Revenge of the Sith, which would make him about 118 in The Rise of Skywalker—when 118 years old you reach, look as good you will not—but he looks even older, thanks to the aging effects of delving into the dark side and channeling Force lightning.
If Palpatine could have cloned a new body and migrated his consciousness into it, he probably would have. Nor would he need Rey if he could keep cloning himself indefinitely, occupying a new body whenever his dark-side use wears an old one out. Yet if he can create copies of Snoke, why wouldn’t he be able to do the same for himself? Maybe the dark side damaged his DNA, preventing a perfect copy. Maybe midi-chlorians can’t be cloned (which could be why the ex-Imperials in The Mandalorian are looking for Baby Yoda), or he can’t carry a thousand generations of Sith with him into a cloned body, or his cloning equipment is on the fritz. Your guess is as good as mine. We do know that Palpy didn’t replace Snoke with an intact clone, even though Snoke was hobbled, although there could be other reasons for that: Maybe Snoke had always limped so that no one would suspect he was an artificial creation, or maybe Palpatine didn’t want to arouse suspicion by swapping in a new clone for an injured one, especially when Palpy was almost ready to reveal himself.
One way or another, this looks like Sheev’s original body, kept alive long after its natural expiration date. How could he have made it off of the Death Star? As Poe said, “Somehow.” His body faded from view, but we didn’t exactly see it disintegrate. Maybe he used his powers to shield himself from the reactor core’s radiation, survive the Death Star’s explosion, summon a ship, and flee to Exogol. When he said, “I’ve died before,” he may have meant that he was believed to have died before. If he’s stayed in the same body since birth (or another cloning operation is no longer an option), then his death at the end of The Rise of Skywalker might actually last. This time, his body does disintegrate (because, for some reason, he keeps shooting Force lightning at Rey even after she deflects it at his face, and despite Mace Windu doing the same thing to him in Revenge of the Sith), so if he can’t clone-hop, he’s probably permanently dead.
We can’t completely rule out the cloning possibility, but Palpatine has other methods of prolonging life. During the Resistance briefing, someone whispers “to cheat death,” an allusion to Palpatine’s line to Anakin in Revenge of the Sith: “To cheat death is a power only one has achieved, but if we work together, I know we can discover the secret.” That “one” was Darth Plagueis, Palpatine’s master, who discovered how to manipulate midi-chlorians to extend and even create life. Before Palpatine killed Plagueis, as Sith apprentices do, he absorbed all that his master had learned. In his conversation with Kylo, Palpatine repeats a line from the scene in Revenge of the Sith when he told Anakin about Plagueis: “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.” Presumably, some of those abilities helped him stay alive.
It’s also conceivable, if even farther-fetched, that Palpatine employed some form of time travel or transit between alternate planes, a possibility suggested by the Star Wars Rebels episode “A World Between Worlds.” In Rebels, Palpatine tempts Ezra with the prospect of bringing his parents back to life, telling him, “You know it is possible to change fate. There are infinite paths and infinite possibilities.” Ezra prevents Palpatine from gaining control of the world between worlds, but maybe Palpy subsequently discovered a way to walk between realities and undo his own death. If he had, though, one would think he could go back and simply prevent the Death Star’s destruction. Of all the ways to explain Palpatine’s presence, this one is the least supported by what we see on screen.
However Palpatine survived (or came back to life), why did he choose to stay out of sight for a few decades? This one is easier to answer: Working in the shadows and slowly amassing strength comes straight out of the Palpatine playbook. After the events of Return of the Jedi, Palpatine’s forces were scattered, and whatever physical form he took was likely weakened. Had he publicized his survival, the Rebels would have hunted him down. So, like Sauron after his defeat at Barad-dûr and Voldemort after Harry repels his Killing Curse, he retreated and bided his time. Exogol was an ideal hideout: As C-3PO says, it doesn’t appear on any star chart, and it can’t be reached without the Sith wayfinder (which Palpatine may have inherited from Plagueis or uncovered during his own research into Sith history). And just in case an outsider did stumble across the system, Palpy hid his forces under the planet’s surface, which he further masked with a massive storm (which clears up after Rey defeats him).
From Exogol, Palpatine orchestrated the rise of the First Order, using Snoke as his mind-controlled puppet. Because Snoke was a cipher, not a known Sith lord, the war-weary New Republic was lulled into a false sense of security and tolerated the growing threat. Just as the Sith hid their existence from the Jedi for centuries before Darth Maul confronted Qui-Gon Jinn, and just as Palpatine hid his true nature from the Jedi as he rose to Supreme Chancellor, so did Palpatine reenter “phantom menace” mode and hide his role in the First Order as Snoke rose to Supreme Leader. Meanwhile, he lured Ben to the dark side, seducing him both as Snoke and by speaking to him in Darth Vader’s voice. As Palpatine says when Kylo finds him on Exogol, “I have been every voice you have ever heard inside your head.” Palpy may have used Snoke’s ring to possess him, much like the Sith comic-book character Momin used a mask (which Darth Sidious recovered from a Jedi vault) to possess people.
By the beginning of The Rise of Skywalker, conditions are ripe for Palpatine to come forward. The Resistance has destroyed Starkiller Base and escaped Crait, and Kylo has slain Snoke. Palpy’s long-lost granddaughter, Rey—the daughter of his previously unsuspected son—has come to his attention and started to develop her powers, and she and Kylo have made a connection (enabled by Palpatine/Snoke). And the Sith Eternal—the cultists who surround Palpatine on Exogol, and presumably staff his Star Destroyers—have constructed his fleet of Xyston-class Star Destroyers and outfitted the ships with planet-killing cannons. Plus, his body might finally be failing, so he may need to act now.
Thus, Palpy’s plan is to draw Rey to Exogol, where he can possess her and live on in the new Empress of the Sith. (There’s precedent for that sort of Sith ceremony in the Legends timeline, which Disney decanonized.) If that’s the plan, one might wonder why Palpy, as Snoke, ordered Kylo to kill Rey in The Last Jedi. It could be because he knew Kylo would betray Snoke to save Rey, and that because Kylo got away with that betrayal, he would be more likely to betray Palpatine—but unwittingly play into Palpy’s plan—by teaming up with Rey and accompanying her to Exogol rather than actually killing her. One might also wonder why Palpy can’t just let Kylo kill him and possess Ren’s body instead. He may prefer Rey as a vessel because she’s more powerful than Kylo, or because it’s easier to transfer into a relative, or because he’s vain enough to want the next Sith ruler to be his own blood.
Palpatine succeeds in luring Rey to Exogol, but his plan doesn’t pay off: Like Luke before her, Rey resists the temptation to kill him. When Ben arrives, though, Palpy sees another solution. By absorbing the power formed by the Force dyad between Ben and Rey—another new concept that we’ll just have to accept—he can rejuvenate himself and go on ruling without transferring his essence into anyone. That plan only fails because, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, a thousand generations of Jedi are stronger than a thousand generations of Sith. (Maybe a millennium of restricting Sith membership to two at a time gave the Jedi more spiritual manpower and cost the Sith the Force tug of war.)
We’re left with many more questions. Where do the Sith Eternal come from, and what do they get out of this arrangement? When and how did Palpatine have a son? Did he do it the, um, natural way, or did he create his son’s life the way he may have created Anakin’s? If the former, was unlimited power enough of a turn-on for someone to willingly sleep with him in spite of his bad case of Sith skin? Was his son Force-sensitive, and if so, did his dad ever try to possess him? Why didn’t stealing Ben’s and Rey’s life essence kill them?
Everything that transpired with Palpatine in the final film of the Skywalker saga may have done so according to J.J. Abrams’s design, but the director decided to keep most of Darth Sidious’s secrets locked inside his mystery box. Future Star Wars books, comics, or on-screen stories may offer more info on the Emperor’s past, but as far as The Rise of Skywalker is concerned, “Somehow” will have to suffice. And so some Star Wars fans may find themselves echoing K-2S0’s line from Rogue One: “I find that answer vague and unconvincing.”