This article contains major The Rise of Skywalker spoilers. You can read a spoiler free review here instead.
The Rise of Skywalker was not shy about revealing one its biggest twists early into the marketing of the movie. First teased in the teaser that debuted at Celebration Chicago, Emperor Palpatine remained a central focus of the trailers leading up to the movie’s release.
To some viewers, the Emperor’s return might come as a shock, considering that he was seemingly killed at the end of Return of the Jedi, his death bringing an end to the Sith. While The Rise of Skywalker is light on answers regarding Palpatine’s survival, we know a few things from tie-in books that shed some light on how the Emperor is back in the final chapter in the Skywalker saga.
Here’s what we’ve learned:
How Did Palpatine Survive?
Kylo Ren finds Palpatine about five minutes into the movie, meaning to kill the former Emperor because he believes the Sith to be a threat to his reign as Supreme Leader. The first shot of Darth Sidious reveals the conditions he’s been living under for the last thirty years. Strapped to grotesque machinery inside a lab on the ancient Sith planet of Exegol, life support and twisted Sith magic are the only things keep Palpatine alive.
But how did he retain his physical form after being thrown into the Death Star reactor shaft by Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi? Even if the fall hadn’t killed him, his body almost certainly wouldn’t have survived the destruction of the massive space station. The closest we have to an answer is “The Tradegy of Darth Plagueis the Wise,” a story Palpatine tells Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith about his former master, who could manipulate midi-chlorians and stop those he loved from dying. Darth Plagueis grew so powerful that he could help anyone cheat death…except himself. At some point during his rise to power, Palpatine murdered Plagueis and became the new Dark Lord of the Sith.
While Palpatine tells Anakin later in the movie that he hasn’t completely uncovered the secrets to Plagueis’ powers, it seems that the Emperor did eventually learn how to resurrect himself at some point. This particular story is yet to be completely told, so it’s hard to really say how the Emperor preserved his physical form and traveled to Exegol. “Just go with it,” the movie seems to say.
One thing that is resolved in the opening minutes of The Rise of Skywalker is the origin of Supreme Leader Snoke and the First Order. The former dark side villain is revealed to be nothing more than a fabrication, created by Palpatine’s followers in a lab to conceal the true leader of the First Order. He’s also Kylo Ren’s true master, having been “every voice inside his head,” teasing that he’d made the impressionable boy think he was talking to the spirit of Darth Vader but was really just doing Palpatine’s bidding. Turning Ben Solo into Kylo Ren is part of the Emperor’s larger plan to turn his granddaughter Rey into the new Dark Lord of the Sith so that she may continue his legacy. How Palpatine had a son that no one has ever even heard about is another story for another day.
At some point, the Emperor also amassed a cult following on Exegol, creeping Sith loyalists who covered themselves in black, including their faces. This cult is known as the Sith Eternal, and they’ve appeared before in Star Wars canon. In fact, a subsect of this faction was first introduced in the first major post-Return of the Jedi novel of the Disney canon, Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, which begins the story of the Empire’s final defeat after the Battle of Endor. In a brief, ominous interlude, we meet the Acolytes of the Beyond, a group of dark side worshippers who seek to acquire Sith artifacts, such as Darth Vader’s old lightsaber for mysterious purposes. Later, this same group committed a series of terrorist attacks against the New Republic. In The Rise of Skywalker, they return as part of a much bigger group of worshippers protecting the ultimate Sith prize, the Dark Lord himself.
There’s still the question of how the Emperor amassed such a huge fleet without the New Republic or the First Order knowing about it. The simple explanation is that Palpatine created the Final Order within the Unknown Regions, an uncharted part of the galaxy that’s very difficult to navigate — not to mention that you need to acquire special Sith device (of which there are only two in the known galaxy) to even locate the ancient planet of the Sith, where the fleet was being built. For all intents and purposes, the Final Order was able to operate in secrecy for thirty years.
A few tidbits in Aftermath also suggest that Palpatine actually began searching for Exegol during his reign as Emperor, setting up Imperial outposts and research labs to chart unexplored areas of space. The Emperor was likely planning his return and last stand on Exegol decades before his initial fall. It’s possible these secret Imperial research centers were also studying ways to genetically engineer Snoke and resurrect the Emperor.
The Emperor’s return from the grave isn’t exactly a new concept, having also been resurrected in the now non-canon Legends timeline. A comic series titled Dark Empire, written by Tom Veitch and drawn by Cam Kennedy and Jim Baikie, marked the return of the Emperor less than a decade after he’d been destroyed in Return of the Jedi. Unlike The Rise of Skywalker, Dark Empire made no secret of how Palpatine was able to return to life.
Using cloning technology, the Sith lord is able to transfer his soul into a more powerful clone of his former self. It was cool bit of weird science at the time, to say the least, and played on the saga’s earlier mention to the Clone Wars, which up to that point existed only as a memory of the past mentioned every so often in the books.
The Emperor finally succeeds in turning Luke Skywalker to the dark side for a time, making the Jedi into his new apprentice. He also reorganizes the Empire, which after its defeat at the Battle of Endor had become divided in the absence of a true Emperor. Palpatine’s military might has returned and he immediately wages war against the budding New Republic.
As you’d expect, the Emperor’s plans are later foiled by Luke’s friends and family, and the Jedi is eventually able to destroy all of Palpatine’s clones, putting the Sith to rest once and for all. Or so Luke and the galaxy thinks. The Sith would later rise again in the Legacy of the Force book series, but that’s a story for another time.
Is Palpatine Finally Dead?
Now that we have the official canon death, resurrection, and death of the Emperor, could Palpatine and Sith rise once more after The Rise of Skywalker? Over the years, Star Wars has been defined by the eternal conflict between the Jedi and the Sith. As the franchise’s greatest, most recognizable villains, it’s unlikely that Disney won’t return to that well at some point. Whether the Sith return in a prequel adventure set in the era of the Old Republic or after Rey’s adventures remains to be seen. But don’t expect to never see the Sith again.
As for Palpatine himself, his defeat seems definitive, his body disintegrated by Rey and the Force energy of a thousand generations of Jedi before her. The Emperor’s physical form is no more by the end of the movie, which makes it impossible for the Sith lord to resurrect his walking corpse once again. Unless he’s stashed some clones elsewhere, it looks like Palpatine has finally passed on to whatever this universe’s version of hell is. It’s hard to imagine it really gets any worse than Exegol, though.