It’s your standard rags-to-riches-to-rags tale. Sheev Palpatine, a Force-sensitive kid from a small mid-rim planet, dreams of something bigger, runs for senator, and wins. Respected by his colleagues, he becomes a trusted and influential figure in the galactic government. Under the guise of a wise, sober statesman who just happened to love wearing evil robes, he fomented a great galactic civil war using the dark powers of persuasion he learned as an apprentice to Darth Plagueis the Wise (before murdering him in his sleep). As the separatist crisis intensified, his colleagues elected him Supreme Chancellor and awarded him sweeping emergency powers which he, a lover of freedom and democracy, promised to return the moment they were no longer needed. Now the foremost political leader in the galaxy, he slew four Jedi Knights who had come to arrest him; he triggered Order 66, causing the Republic’s clone soldiers (whose production he had secretly set in motion years earlier) to murder their Jedi generals; he had the Jedi younglings slaughtered to ensure a new generation would not rise to take their places; he proclaimed himself Emperor; built a moon-size superweapon; and brought order to the galaxy. Then, while overseeing the construction of a second superweapon, he was chucked like a cigarette butt into an architecturally nonsensical air shaft by his personal assistant because he was mean to the man’s son. The end.
OR SO WE THOUGHT!
Emperor Palpatine (aside: What’s the protocol here? Is it like with the president where you always refer to the person by their title even after they’re out of office? I’m going to continue to refer to him as “emperor” out of respect) is back.
“Long have I waited,” Emperor Palpatine says in the Rise of Skywalker trailer. “And now, your coming together is your undoing.”
But how can the emperor be in this movie? How could he have survived? Is he some kind of Sith poltergeist? Is he a clone? What in the name of George Lucas and Ian McDiarmid is going on here? HOW UNLIMITED IS THIS DUDE’S POWER? There are a few possibilities …
He’s alive and in his original, gross body.
There’s precedent for this. Before the trailers for The Rise of Skywalker confirmed Palpatine’s appearance, he was basically the only character in Star Wars to ever actually perish from falling into a bottomless chasm.
At the end of The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul, Palpatine’s Dathomirian onetime apprentice, was cut in half by a young Obi-Wan Kenobi before tumbling into a similar shaft. The agony from his maimed torso fed Maul’s hatred of Obi-Wan, supercharging his dark Force powers and allowing him to survive the fall and his wounds. He ended up on the literal trash planet Lotho Minor. Maul sustained himself on rats and, over time, managed to scavenge enough material to build himself a new lower torso and an intricate set of arachnid-like legs. Which, you have to imagine, also included some kind of valve and tube mechanism for pooping and peeing, respectively. That’s not just surviving, folks. That’s thriving. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. Darth Maul.
Years later in story canon, on Bespin, Luke Skywalker took his iconic swan dive into a Cloud City techno-gorge after his duel with Darth Vader. Cloud City was a tibanna gas mining operation and strong air currents swept through the interior of the refinery complex. Luke, like a leaf on the wind, was swept up by one of these drafts. The current pushed him sideways, breaking the momentum of his fall, depositing on him on a weather vane. He was able to contact his crush/sister Princess Leia using the Force. Leia had the Millenium Falcon turn around and pick up Luke and the rest is history.
In Star Wars Age of Resistance: Supreme Leader Snoke #1, the powerful titular dark Force user hurls his apprentice Kylo Ren into a ravine. “Use your fear,” Snoke says. “Let it crystallize into anger. Turn that anger into power.” Kylo does as he’s told and stops his fall. “If you are to rule by my side, then I can’t have you defeated by heights.”
Palpy, a much more powerful Force user than Maul, Luke, or Kylo, was comparatively hale and hearty when Darth rag-dolled him out of sight and, for the past 36 years, out of mind. Sure, he did take a few licks from his own Force lightning, but in retrospect, the amount was minor. In Revenge of the Sith, Mace Windu reflected Palpy’s lightning back at the Sith lord and Palps withstood this for an extended period of time. Yes, it melted his face, but, like, other than becoming a Coruscant 2 and a Tatooine 5, he was fine. Anyway, he wanted his face melted; the better to get Anakin Skywalker to feel sorry for him and turn to the dark side. It would have been well within Palpatine’s ability to slow his fall using the Force, if indeed that’s what happened.
There is the matter of the explosion of energy that accompanies Palpatine’s fall. Stopping a fall is one thing; surviving a blast like that is another. But if Rise of Skywalker proposes that the Emperor survived, this display will simply be retconned, like Luke and Leia being love interests in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back before being revealed as siblings in Return of the Jedi.
Palpatine being alive in his original, gross body would also still leave open the question of how, exactly, he got out of the wreckage of Death Star II and where he’s been all this time. More importantly, Palpatine’s survival would imperil Anakin Skywalker’s redemption at the end of RoTJ, the emotional resolution of the original and prequel trilogies. So, if this theory is correct, hopefully J.J. Abrams got this right!
He’s a ghost of some kind.
It is a rule (in as much as there are rules) of Star Wars canon that Siths, as dark side adherents, can’t become Force ghosts. In a 2016 since-deleted exchange on Twitter, Lucasfilm creative Pablo Hidalgo responded to a question asking whether Siths could become Force ghosts.
There are examples of Siths continuing on as disembodied spirits after their deaths, however. In “Sacrifice,” the final episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Yoda travels to Moraband, the spiritual homeworld of the Sith. Various apparitions of Sith warriors confront the Jedi master. Yoda enters the burial temple of the legendary Sith and creator of the Rule of Two Darth Bane. The fiery, Sauron-like visage of Bane appears and attempts to intimidate Yoda. “Real you are not,” Yoda says in his inimitable way. “You do not fear me?” Bane asks. “No. Exist you do not anymore,” Yoda replies. And with that, Bane’s specter is banished back into its tomb.
Darth Vader #23–25 offers a more robust version of Sith afterlife. In the story, written by Charles Soule for Marvel Comics, Emperor Palpatine gifts Darth Vader with the mask of Momin, a Sith warrior and sculptor. Momin’s art was inspired by fear and pain. “The purest of emotions, because they are the first we feel,” he tells Vader. Momin wanted to freeze an entire city in its moment of ultimate fear by threatening it with a superweapon then stopping the flow of time, thus creating his pièce de résistance. The Jedi got wind of this and stopped him. Momin’s body was destroyed by the massive energies he sought to wield and his consciousness was trapped inside his mask. Momin—who, I guess, technically did not “die”???—is able to take possession of bodies who wear his mask. (Not Vader, however; too grizzled and too mentally strong.) However, the body Momin inhabits is still a normal body, bound by the limitations of flesh and blood, unable to wield the Force, and capable of feeling pain and being killed. Dissatisfied, Vader Force chokes and murders Meat Suit Momin repeatedly.
Later, Momin betrays Vader. He opens a door to the dark side, reacquires his original body, and duels Vader. He even manages to slice off one of Darth’s cybernetic arms. Vader ultimately prevails by crushing the reanimated sculptor, ironically, under a stone slab.
Perhaps the explosion we see when Emperor Palpatine falls is merely the disintegration of his body, and his mind “lived on” trapped inside some kind of object. This could potentially explain why Kylo and Rey have traveled to the wreckage of Death Star II. It also tracks with the latest Rise of Skywalker clip, which shows Kylo exploring some kind of temple. Perhaps, as with Vader and Momin, a dark side locus, a passageway to the dark side of the Force, will be how Palpatine fully regains corporeality.
He’s a clone.
The Emperor, in his mind, had one rival: death. In pre–Disney Legends canon, Palpatine’s yearning for immortality drove him to clone himself numerous times. He kept a shadow capital on the core world Byss and there stored his cache of backup bodies. Palpy had mastered the Force power known as essence transfer and using this method, he was able to upload his consciousness into an awaiting clone.
Clones exist in current canon, of course. The grand clone army of the Republic was the result of a secret, multiyear cloning program run out of the planet Kamino. (Be warned, this is a tangled tale.) In Attack of the Clones, the Kaminoans said that a Jedi named Sifo-Dyas, a former member of the council, placed the initial order for a clone army. Dyas, a contemporary of Count Dooku, had become convinced that the galaxy would soon be at war. He argued in front of the Jedi Council for the creation of a grand republican army to meet the looming threat. The Council found this kind of talk disturbing and stripped Dyas of his seat on the council.
At some point after that, Sifo-Dyas contacted the Kaminoans and put in an order for some clone soldiers. The Kaminoans, gifted and experienced cloners, thought that Dyas was representing the Galactic Republic. Why the Kaminoans thought this, what Dyas told them, and how he was able to open a cloning account with little-to-zero credits down is unknown. What we can intuit is that then-senator Sheev Palpatine got wind of the deal. We know from Legends canon that he had an interest in clones, so perhaps he was watching Kamino, just waiting for an opportunity. Whatever the case, he had his apprentice Count Dooku get in between Dyas and the Kaminoans. Dooku had Dyas murdered by the Pyke crime syndicate, then either impersonated Dyas or simply convinced the Kaminoans to allow him to take over the project. He recruited the bounty hunter Jango Fett to provide the DNA, erased Kamino from the Jedi archives, and presumably bankrolled the project out of his enormous generational wealth.
Did Palpy make clones of himself? Does essence transfer exist in canon? Since The Force Awakens, there’s been speculation that Supreme Leader Snoke was an experimental Palpatine clone that was taken out of the oven too soon. Those theories were mostly dismissed at the time. But! A recent Reddit thread points out that in publicity photos for The Mandalorian, Omid Abtahi, who plays the mysterious Dr. Pershing, is wearing a jacket with a symbol that appears similar to the Kaminoan symbol seen in The Clone Wars animated series. This would seem to support the idea that international superstar Li’l Baby Yoda is a clone.
More, there is! On December 3, Disney announced that the penultimate episode of The Mandalorian would be moved to Wednesday, December 18, instead of the following Friday, and contain “an exclusive sneak peek” of The Rise of Skywalker, which opens Thursday, December 19. POTENTIALLY CRUCIAL CONTEXT: The Mandalorian is set about five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, when remnants of the Empire might have just begun to coalesce into the First Order.
Will the episode contain a tie-in to the film? Might it connect the emperor’s Kaminoan army project to his apparent survival and appearance in Rise? Is being batted like a shuttlecock between corporate-owned entertainment mediums and streaming platforms in an endless cycle of cross-promotions really the future of monocultural storytelling? Fuck. I guess we have to watch to find out.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Snoke as a Sith.