Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker could see Palpatine return - having possessed the mask of Darth Vader. The first trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker ended with a very familiar laugh, revealing that the Emperor will return from beyond the grave. Confirming this, the trailer was aired at Star Wars Celebration. When the lights went up again afterwards, delighted fans found that Palpatine actor Ian McDiarmid himself had taken to the stage.
But, while all attention has focused in on this particular mystery, there's something else that's been rumbling in the background since Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That film revealed that Kylo Ren had originally fallen to the dark side of the Force because of his reverence for his grandfather, Darth Vader. He had successfully retrieved the charred remains of Vader's mask from Endor, and kept the mask in his chamber, even going to it for guidance. He clearly believed he was communing with Darth Vader, which frankly made absolutely no sense given Vader was redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi and became a Force Ghost.
Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy has confirmed that Palpatine's resurrection was always in the works, which means other mysteries as far back as Star Wars: The Force Awakens may be tied to his mysterious return. So is it possible that these two issues are somehow tied together?
Palpatine Lives... Somehow
Lucasfilm has been building up to Palpatine's return for quite some time. After Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, they reset the canon, erasing the old Expanded Universe from continuity. Since then, Lucasfilm has been releasing a range of new canon content, from tie-in comics to official novels. And these tie-ins have consistently been stressing that the Emperor sought to find a way to live on after death. "The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural," Palpatine observed in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, and he's been shown attempting to learn the secrets of every one of those abilities. Meanwhile, in the comics the Emperor has even sponsored scientific attempts to overcome death, notably a cloning experiment that would allow his consciousness to be transferred to a clone body.
Chuck Wendig's "Aftermath" trilogy is set in the years immediately after Return of the Jedi, and it revealed that some of Palpatine's closest advisers - Sith cultists who believed in the Emperor's powers - were confident he'd return from the dead. "Palpatine lives on," one declared. "We will find him again out there in the dark. Everything has arranged itself as our Master foretold. All things move toward the grand design." The passage was presented from the point of view of another Imperial who thought this adviser was insane, which meant readers ignored it - at least until the trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It's clear that Lucasfilm is priming viewers to expect Palpatine's return; not just as a spirit, but a full physical resurrection given McDiarmid is returning. Supporting this, Palpatine's advisers used some very interesting words to describe the return of Palpatine in Aftermath: Empire's End. One talked about him being "enfleshed." So the only question is - how will the Emperor pull this off?
Sith Masks Are A Known Resurrection Tool
It's crucial to understand that, in Star Wars canon, a Sith cannot become a Force Ghost. Doing so requires submitting to the will of the Force, including to the inevitability of your own demise, and the Sith Code runs entirely counter to this. But in the old EU, a Sith could indeed survive death by another means; at the moment of death, they were able to transfer their essence into another person, a nearby relic, or even a specific geographical location. In the first case, anyone who's close to a dying Sith can actually be possessed by them; in the second, a Sith can implant their consciousness in an object such as a mask, and continue to exert an influence through this relic; and in the third, the Sith spirit can be bound to a specific place and essentially "haunt" it. Lucasfilm may have dropped the old continuity, but Force powers don't appear to have changed much; even Luke Skywalker's new abilities in Star Wars: The Last Jedi had been seen before in Legends.
In fact, Lucasfilm has been deliberately stressing the idea that Sith spirits can live on through their masks. The "Aftermath" trilogy featured a group of Sith cultists who called themselves the Acolytes of the Beyond, a cult formed by one of Palpatine's old advisers. They possessed a range of dark side artifacts, including ancient Sith masks. In one scene, a girl donned one of the masks and fell under its influence, losing all doubt and fear, giving in to bloodlust and rage. The description of the mask was reminiscent of the one Kylo Ren wears; it may not be the same one, but it was disturbingly similar.
More recently, Charles Soule's Darth Vader run ended with the tale of Lord Momin. A Sith heretic, Momin had been conducting a powerful Force ritual at the moment two Jedi intervened. The imbalance in the Force caused Momin's ritual to backfire spectacularly, and as a result he found his spirit trapped inside the mask he used to wear. That mask became one of Palpatine's treasured possessions, and the Emperor freely confessed he learned many lessons from Lord Momin. He finally gifted the mask to Darth Vader, who took it to Mustafar; that backfired when the Sith spirit was able to tap into the power of the dark side nexus on Mustafar, and literally recreated his long-gone body. Soule's story not only supports the idea that a Sith spirit can live on in a mask, but also that it can indeed "enflesh" itself at a place steeped in the dark side of the Force.
Kylo Ren Has Apparently Communicated With Darth Vader's Mask
Of course, Palpatine wasn't wearing a mask at the moment of his death in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. But there was still a Sith mask on the Death Star, one that the Emperor himself had provided; the mask of Darth Vader. This mask has seemed strangely important to the ongoing Star Wars saga, with Kylo Ren retrieving it from Endor and taking it to his own chambers. Curiously, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren seemed to believe he could communicate with it, receiving its guidance. He believed he was interacting with his grandfather's spirit, but that made no sense given Darth Vader was redeemed from the dark side. The Force Ghost of Anakin Skywalker wouldn't seduce anyone to the dark side; if he were so inclined, he'd be unable to become a Force Ghost in the first place.
That raises the intriguing possibility that Kylo Ren was communicating with a different spirit; that Palpatine transferred his essence into his apprentice's mask, a smart way of seeking to live on after death. This would be classic Palpatine, subverting the Sith Rule of Two. Traditionally, every Sith apprentice is expected to one day betray and supplant their master, but the Emperor doesn't seem to have believed in that much. It would be so very in-character for him to give his apprentice a mask that he intended to possess at the moment of his death, meaning he would be able to haunt, and ultimately dominate, the apprentice who had betrayed him. What's more, the Emperor could be confident that Darth Vader would return to his home on Mustafar, giving Palpatine's spirit access to the same Force nexus that Momin had been able to use to resurrect himself. Viewed through this lens, ironically Darth Vader's death was a miscalculation on the Emperor's part; fortunately Ben Solo traveled to Endor and picked up the mask, giving the Emperor a second chance.
Vader Would Be Palpatine's Best Way To Seduce Ben Solo
If this theory is accurate, it subtly rewrites the history of the sequel trilogy. Leia believed that Supreme Leader Snoke was the one who had seduced her son to the dark side, but this raises the chilling possibility that it was Palpatine himself - pretending to be the spirit of Darth Vader. The Emperor has always been a master of manipulation, as shown in the prequels, and he excels at manipulating Skywalkers. He would undoubtedly hone in on Ben Solo's reverence for Darth Vader, and choose to present himself as the spirit of Ben Solo's grandfather, convincing the youth he was doing the right thing by turning to the dark side.
Snoke himself becomes merely an opportunist, a pretender who claimed Palpatine's throne - and would no doubt be viewed with amusement by the Emperor. Star Wars: The Last Jedi treated Snoke as an irrelevance, killing him as though he simply didn't matter. If Palpatine is the mask of Darth Vader, the true being who seduced Ben Solo to the dark side, then Snoke really was just a minor obstacle. In The Last Jedi, Snoke was scornful of Kylo Ren's reverence of Darth Vader; it would be ironic if the Supreme Leader's disdain had missed what was truly going on.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019