Star Wars: The Last Jedi might contain a clue as to how Emperor Palpatine’s return has evaded our heroes’ notice until Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Played by Scottish actor Ian McDiarmid, Sheev Palpatine has long been recognized as Star Wars’ biggest and most powerful villain. Throughout the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the seemingly mild-mannered senator slowly seized power over the galaxy, and seduced the heroic Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to the dark side.
And though his appearances were scarce across the original trilogy, the Emperor - and Darth Vader’s - evil influence were surely evident in their dealings across the galaxy. This ensued until the climax of Return of the Jedi, when a regretful Vader betrayed his master and threw Palpatine to his apparent death.The Emperor was largely believed to have perished at this point, with fractured Imperial remnants - like the First Order - forming in his absence. However, it would now appear that Palpatine somehow survived his fall into the Death Star’s reactor. The first Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker trailer shockingly contained the Emperor’s iconic cackle, and director JJ Abrams later confirmed that McDiarmid had returned to the role.
The notion that Palpatine will soon be battling with Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her friends prompted a flurry of speculation as to how he could be seen returning in The Rise of Skywalker. But Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) intonation of “no one is ever really gone” suggests that Palpatine never truly went away in the first place. If so, a crucial scene in The Last Jedi may illuminate how the notoriously slippery Sith Lord has remained hidden for so long.
How Palpatine Succeeded In The Prequel Trilogy
When the original trilogy was released, audiences wondered how someone that was so overtly evil came to rule the Star Wars galaxy. The following prequels soon answered this question and, as maligned as they may be, they tell a story that mimics real history. Through his devious machinations, Darth Sidious hijacked the Republic’s democracy and - surreptitiously - spread discord and fear throughout the increasingly corrupt organization. But, as his alter-ego Sheev Palpatine, he projected a virtuous, grandfatherly image to win support and slowly take charge as Supreme Chancellor. The Jedi Order were oblivious to his existence at the time of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, but they were soon alerted to the presence of an elusive dark sider as Palpatine’s power and influence grew. But rather than triggering their attuned senses, the aura of the dark side confounded the over-confident Jedi Order.
This is was an important plot point since, as A New Hope had established, Force-sensitives can recognize a being’s identity, allegiances, and intention through proximity alone. Darth Vader famously demonstrated this in the saga’s first movie, when he immediately recognized that Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) had inadvertently joined him aboard the Death Star after their ill-fated trip to Alderaan. Conversely, Master Yoda had numerous meetings with the Chancellor, and though he was occasionally suspicious of Palpatine, he didn't recognize him for what he was until it was far too late. However, though Palpatine was eventually successful, he could not prevent Yoda and the Jedi Order from being aware that a powerful Sith Lord was moving against them. And that’s where Luke Skywalker's use of the Force in The Last Jedi comes in.
The Last Jedi Revealed A New And Important Force Ability
Some 50 years after Palpatine took control of the senate (and 30 more since his death at Vader’s hand) Luke Skywalker was deep in exile – until the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, that is. The scavenger Rey located the one-time Jedi Master, and though she couldn't convince Luke to return to the Resistance with her, the heroine persuaded him to teach her the Jedi way. The Last Jedi details Rey’s first of three lessons, where Luke encourages her to open herself up to the Force and find the balance within. Rey began to sense the abundance of life around her, but she is shocked that she could not “see” her Master there among it. The narrative soon unveils why this is the case. It transpires that Luke, who had been traumatized by his failure with Ben Solo (Adam Driver) and become disillusioned with the legacy of the Jedi, that he had willingly cut himself off from the living Force itself.
Luke had done this so that he wouldn't be tempted to use his considerable powers in any way. Indeed, this move not only deprived him of his telekinesis, but of his empathetic connection to the wider galaxy. Certainly, Luke couldn't sense the link that Snoke (Andy Serkis) had forged between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and he was also dismayed to learn of Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) death having not felt it through the Force previously. It was only through sheer will and determination that he could open himself up to the Force again later in the film, whereby he immediately sensed his sister’s (Carrie Fisher) plight light-years away.
Conversely, cutting himself off meant that others couldn't locate or sense Luke either. Even in his strong psychic visions with Rey, Luke remained invisible to his nephew. This narrative thread is notable for several reasons. The first of these is because it was originally an ability of the old Expanded Universe; thus, The Last Jedi marks its first appearance onscreen. Secondly, The Last Jedi’s comic book adaptation confirmed that removing oneself from the Force is an act that only experienced Force-users can perform. Star Wars movies tend to introduce Force abilities, which are then re-used and developed in later installments. Therefore, there’s a strong chance that this capability will feature in the future - namely in The Rise of Skywalker.
Does This Hint At Palpatine's Plan In The Rise of Skywalker?
From possessing Darth Vader’s mask to disguising himself as Supreme Leader Snoke, there are numerous theories speculating how Palpatine has cheated death to appear in The Rise of Skywalker. But several of these can already be ruled out. Given that Palpatine’s original actor is returning - and prominently featuring in The Rise of Skywalker's promotion thus far - it seems unlikely that he will feature in a minor capacity. Therefore, it’s unlikely that Palpatine will return as a young clone, possesses another being, or be relegated to a cameo as some sort of Force vision.
But then a question presents itself: If Palpatine survived his plunge into the Death Star, and has been operating since Return of the Jedi, how did Luke (as the leader of the new Jedi Order), Snoke, or Kylo Ren not know that he had endured? It seems particularly strange that the latter two would not have mentioned him in either The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, especially as an arrogant boast of the power of the dark side and its sway over the galaxy. The Last Jedi supplies the answer to this issue. Palpatine could very well have cut himself off from the Force - not out of guilt as Luke did - but to avoid detection from enemy Jedi and his rival dark siders.
The notion that Palpatine would have suppressed his formidable power might seem to be at odds with what we know about him. After all, Sith yearn for power and to dominate through mastery of the Force, and Palpatine is certainly no exception. But this kind of subterfuge isn't so far-fetched when we consider Palpatine’s prior modus operandi throughout the Star Wars saga. As we know, the prequel trilogy depicted Palpatine playing the Republic and the Separatists against each other so that, regardless of which side won, he could seize control at the end of the Clone Wars. Few characters were aware of his dual identity, let alone that he was controlling both sides. As such, cutting himself off from the Force and pretending that he’s dead is simply taking this tried and tested formula and pushing it to the extreme.
Certainly, it’s a plan that could work very well in The Rise of Skywalker since Palpatine enacted a similar plot over half a century prior - and it proved very successful. Given the galactic situation in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, it's hard not to imagine that it could work again. Star Wars: The Last Jedi ends with not just a singular half-trained Jedi, but a diminished Resistance and Republic, along with an increasingly unstable Kylo Ren leading the weakened First Order. Everything has proceeded in a most beneficial fashion for Palpatine to stage a swift and savage coup to rule the galaxy once more - without anyone knowing he was there beforehand.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019