The Initial Problem With Snoke
The reason why people so bought into Snoke being important is really because otherwise, he was a waste. It's easy to forget now we're more than halfway through the sequel trilogy and Disney Star Wars movies will outnumber Lucas-produced films in less than four years, but before Lucasfilm was bought in late 2012 and development on Episode VII started, Star Wars was over; Darth Vader rose, he fell, and balance was brought to the Force. To continue into the future meant finding a way to reframe the very much complete story of Anakin Skywalker as something more cross-generational that could go along.
That's undeniable tricky when you have such a prior resolution, and so many eyes went towards Snoke; this mysterious, old figure had the potential to tie everything together. Conversely, for him to just be a random Force user from the Unknown Regions would mean the sequels were inessential to the original Star Wars story, and the franchise was more soap opera than it was a space one. This is why the Darth Plagueis and First Jedi theories are so appealing; they give a genuine purpose to the character that spans all three trilogies (and beyond).
But, as we now know, Snoke wasn't the big bad. He didn't need justification because that wasn't important. He's important primarily because he dies, we just couldn't appreciate that until we got to the moment itself.
Snoke Was Just A Red Herring For Kylo Ren's Uber-Vader Arc
In no uncertain terms, Snoke was a red herring. He presented an ultimate evil for our heroes to fear and villains to kneel down before, but with the real purpose to shield from view until the very last moment that the true bad guy of the sequel trilogy was Kylo Ren. The Last Jedi already managed to sow doubt about Ben Solo's true destiny thanks to his relationship with Rey and the growing sense he was going to be the only Skywalker in the new generation, but the constant presence of Snoke made it all the easier to swallow; kill the Supreme Leader and there'd be a massive power gulf (indeed, for the brief portion of Episode VIII between Ben killing his master and assuming their role, the film exists with the distinct possibility of all characters living happily ever after).
But he wasn't just a narrative plaything. By investing just enough into the character in The Last Jedi, building on what was there in The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson made Snoke into an essential part of Ben Solo's fall. All his life, the boy had been lumbered with flawed father figures: Han Solo was, by his own admission, a disappointment who tried to hold back his Jedi training (who Kylo, of course, eventually killed); Luke was a renowned legend who struggled to teach him and - from Ben's perspective - almost killed him. Snoke was the third, the way out of his oppressive family and one who endorsed interest in the one other male in his family tree, Darth Vader. And yet from his treatment from the start of Episode VIII that relationship soured too, becoming imbalanced and Ben still treated like a child. He's mocked for losing to "a girl" and his cosplay affectations. He's no better off than he was under Skywalker.
To kill Snoke is the final step of Kylo's removal of the past, the step he needs to nullify his sibling bickering with Hux, to truly inherit his "birthright" as the grandson of Darth Vader. It's too early to speculate properly about Episode IX - The Last Jedi proved so much of fan dot-connection is more plot than it is story - but if the end game really is for Ben Solo to have gone darker and deeper than Anakin Skywalker (as suggested by Luke, Leia and Rey all independently concluding he's beyond redemption), then this is the moment where that is truly solidified.
Any Backlash, Ultimately, Misses The Point
The unexpected nature that makes Snoke's death such exciting and impactful storytelling has, of course, also led to it annoying some sections of the fanbase.
That can be understood, if not really agreed with when we layout the full intention. It obviously nullifies all those fan theories and, without the realization Serkis was never set to return, can come across as subversion for the sake of subversion. As we've explored, however, that's not the case, and so the real lingering concern with the Supreme Leader is that he's still a mystery: where did the dark side adept come from? Even then, without him being important to the story at hand, we don't need to know; Rian Johnson is right in saying to detail his past would be tantamount to dramatizing a Wikipedia page.
The Snoke twist is the most exciting turn in Star Wars pretty much since Darth Vader revealed his true identity to Luke; it challenges what we think we know and propels the series forward on a new path. Everyone was expecting something shocking in The Last Jedi, but it's fair to say no one predicted this.
- Star Wars 8/Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) release date: Dec 15, 2017
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) release date: May 25, 2018
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019