Palpatine's Return For The Rise Of Skywalker Raises Major Questions

At last week’s Star Wars Celebration, we finally got our long-awaited first look at J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode IX in the form of a teaser trailer. From Rey’s lightsaber acrobatics to the return of Lando Calrissian to the intriguing title, the trailer gave us plenty to discuss, but the moment that made Star Wars fans lose their minds came at the end of the Rise of Skywalker trailer when we heard the laugh of franchise villain and presumed dead Sith Lord, Emperor Palpatine.

It was a hell of a tag to end the trailer on, and just so there's no ambiguity, J.J. Abrams confirmed to Empire's James Dyer that Ian McDiarmid's Emperor Palpatine is in the movie. This is incredibly exciting for a Sequel Trilogy that is arguably in need of a truly fearsome villain after the death of Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Yet while this cackling fan service-y reveal seemed to go a long way towards getting everyone amped for Star Wars again, Emperor Palpatine’s return opens up a whole can of worms (or Exogorth space slugs if you prefer).

Both in-story and on a macro level for the franchise as a whole, Palpatine’s return in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker raises major questions that will need to be answered by the time the final credits roll in December. There is a lot to unpack and we may know more as we get closer to the film’s release, but these are some of the most obvious questions that come to mind.

Emperor Palpatine's death(?) in Return of the Jedi

Does Palpatine's Return Diminish The End Of Return Of The Jedi?

Until Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced a new Star Wars trilogy in 2012, 1983’s Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi was presumed to be the chronological end of the franchise. That was fine because that film wraps up the trilogy in a narratively and thematically satisfying way. After years in service to it, Darth Vader rejects the Dark Side and kills Emperor Palpatine. In doing so, he saves the galaxy from the yoke of the Empire and his son Luke from death at the Emperor’s hands. Vader then dies as he was born, as Anakin Skywalker.

There is an argument that no matter what form he returns in, Palpatine’s return in The Rise of Skywalker diminishes that relatively perfect ending. If Darth Sidious still holds some sway in the galaxy, Anakin Skywalker’s redemptive act at the end of Return of the Jedi does not have the same level of consequence. Anakin’s sacrifice still matters, but it does not have the finality that it once did. It is no longer the final victory against that evil, but merely a smaller battle won in an even greater war.

You could say that Vader still saved Luke so that he could one day meet Rey and help her to one day finish Palpatine for good, but it’s not the same. The manner and form of Palpatine’s return will matter a lot as far as how this question will be answered, and the execution must be perfect for this not to feel like a forced return for a villain that already had a great death. If nothing else, the fact that J.J. Abrams consulted with George Lucas about the story is encouraging.

Darth Sidious in hologram form in The Phantom Menace

Is He Actually “Alive”?

Just because Ian McDiarmid is definitely in The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t mean that we will see Emperor Palpatine alive and interacting with the Sequel Trilogy characters in the 'present day.' All we've heard is a laugh; we haven't seen him yet. As far as we know, Sith don’t get Force Ghosts, an afterlife trade-off for the spoils they enjoy in the mortal realm. Ian McDiarmid also seemed to indicate that Palpatine is dead, at least to start off the film. Yet there are still ways that he could appear that wouldn’t undo the end of Return of the Jedi.

Emperor Palpatine could still be in the film and play a crucial role even if he isn’t a Force Ghost or resurrected. One possibility is that he could appear in hologram form. If Rey or Kylo came across a Sith Holocron owned by Darth Sidious, Ian McDiarmid’s character could impart knowledge and influence events from beyond the grave. Maybe it’s an arms race between Kylo and a Holocron versus Rey and the Jedi texts. If Palpatine appears via hologram, we would get to see him, but he would still be dead.

Another possibility that is very intriguing is that Palpatine could appear via flashback. The Sequel Trilogy has introduced flashbacks to the Saga and Palpatine flashbacks could provide further insight into this franchise villain. Flashbacks could also be used to answer some of the other questions on this list, like what connections he has to the events taking place in the film’s present.

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The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise

If He's Alive, How And In What Form?

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has a lot of heavy lifting to do to close out this trilogy and the Skywalker Saga as a whole, and if Darth Sidious returns in physical form, that adds significant weight to that load. This Sequel Trilogy has introduced new wrinkles to the mythology, so maybe being a Force Ghost is on the table, and appearing as a hologram would be easy to do, albeit something of a tease. But an actual physical return would require a lot of explanation.

If Palpatine is alive, as our own Mick Joest suspects, there are several possible explanations. In the jettisoned Expanded Universe, Palpatine had clones made of himself as a safeguard against permanent death. The EU is gone, but Lucasfilm has shown a willingness to cherrypick certain elements from it when needed. Another possibility is that his essence went into some Sith artifact after his body was destroyed, and Kylo Ren discovers it and somehow returns him to life.

There is also the Darth Plagueis elephant in the room. Palpatine indicated to Anakin that Plagueis taught his apprentice everything he knew. Palpatine also told Anakin that he didn't know the secret to saving Padmé. This could have been a lie and Palpatine truly did know how to cheat death like his master before him, but misled Anakin because Padmé would have only divided Anakin’s loyalty. Whatever the reason, we need to know how and why he is back and where he has been this whole time.

Emperor Palpatine

Was Palpatine’s Return Always The Plan?

We may never know definitively, but based on things that have been said over the years and the ways in which The Last Jedi diverges drastically from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it kind of looks like there was never a definitive and overarching plan for the Sequel Trilogy. So you could be forgiven for thinking that bringing back Sheev Palpatine in Episode IX is a last minute Hail Mary to unite the fanbase and give the Sequel Trilogy the imposing villain (and path to Kylo’s redemption) it has been lacking.

Speaking with Yahoo’s Kevin Polowy at Star Wars Celebration, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy indicated that Palpatine’s return has been in the works for a while, but they hadn’t decided on how exactly to bring him back. In some ways it makes sense; Palpatine was the big bad in the first two trilogies, so why not have this entire saga be about one family’s multigenerational battle against this one great evil. That may be the case, but it definitely makes you wonder why seeds weren’t really planted in Episode VII or Episode VIII.

Maybe J.J. Abrams is doing things in Episode IX that make Darth Sidious’ influence in the previous two films more obvious in hindsight (flashbacks perhaps?), but there is definitely a question about if there will be enough time to make it all work. If it was the plan all along, the execution will determine its effectiveness.

Snoke and Kylo Ren

What Is His Relationship To Snoke And Kylo Ren?

If this were Episode VII, Palpatine could come back with far fewer needles to thread, but as it stands, he is returning in a Sequel Trilogy that has been focused on new, seemingly separate villains. It would be a bit strange to have Palpatine return just for one movie, so I expect The Rise of Skywalker to retroactively hint at his presence and influence throughout this trilogy. That means we need to know his relationship to the other Dark Side users we’ve met, namely Snoke and Kylo Ren.

Those two are supposedly not official Sith, but the distinction is a bit unclear. It would make Sidious look weak (and make us lament Snoke’s death) to find out that he was biding his time waiting for Snoke to fall. You havr to think he had some kind of relationship with Snoke. Maybe the late Supreme Leader was a puppet of Palpatine’s, a proxy while the Emperor worked from the shadows and regained his strength.

There is also a theory that Snoke was Palpatine, i.e. a host body ravaged by the power of the Sith Lord. Snoke’s obsession with Kylo Ren’s Skywalker bloodline and desire to make a new Vader certainly had parallels to Palpatine’s desires to turn Luke. As far as the Knights of Ren are concerned, there was a rumor that they were in “The Beyond” (Unknown Regions?) this whole time and there they encountered a new threat. If true, Palpatine’s spirit could have been out there figuring out how to become even more powerful and he finally revealed himself to the Knights of Ren.

Rise of Skywalker protagonists at Death Star wreckage

How Do The Heroes Kill Him For Good?

With history’s greatest Sith Lord back to threaten the galaxy once more, and with the Skywalker Saga coming to a close, the heroes only have one movie in which to defeat him, and to bring closure to this saga, he must be completely defeated. But the very fact that he is back when we thought him gone means that killing him will prove quite the task though because if he didn’t perish completely after being vaporized at the end of Return of the Jedi, how do the heroes finish him off for good?

If Palpatine is a Force Ghost, we’d have to hope Luke could defeat him in that realm (this seems unlikely). If his spirit is still lingering in the galaxy, yet not able to take physical form, a la Sauron, Rey, Finn and Poe will have to figure out how to eliminate it. And if he is back in a body and knows how to cheat death, perhaps this will be a Horcrux situation where the heroes need to eliminate artifacts that his spirit could retreat into, so that when he meets his match he will be mortal once more.

One possibility is that Rey could get her Samwell Tarly on by turning to ancient texts to try and find answers to defeating an existential threat. Those sacred Jedi books have to come into play somehow. Maybe they contain a chapter titled ‘How to Kill a Sith For Good’ and finding something to do the trick, the film’s MacGuffin, will be one of the movie’s major plot points and the journey the heroes go on together.

Bringing Emperor Palpatine back shows that J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm are really swinging for the fences to unite the fanbase and end the Skywalker Saga with a bang. To that end, it is obvious that a lot of people are excited about Emperor Palpatine’s return, myself included. However, taking a swing this big is no easy thing, it comes with a lot of questions and potential pitfalls, but if they knock it out of the park it could be incredible. If nothing else, we’ve got plenty to speculate about from now until the next trailer.

Let us know your thoughts on these questions and any we didn’t think of in the comments below. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker blasts into theaters on December 20. Check out our 2019 Release Schedule to see all the movies you can look forward to before then, and for all the latest Star Wars news, stay tuned to CinemaBlend.

Nick Evans

Nick grew up in Maryland has degrees in Film Studies and Communications. His life goal is to walk the earth, meet people and get into adventures. He’s also still looking for The Adventures of Pete and Pete season 3 on DVD if anyone has a lead.