This article contains major The Rise of Skywalker spoilers. You can read a spoiler free review here instead.
Supreme Leader Snoke was the mysterious dictator of the First Order for the first half of the Sequel Trilogy, guiding Kylo Ren to the dark side via his obsession with Darth Vader. Portrayed by Andy Serkis, he loomed large literally and figuratively in the saga until Kylo Ren killed him in The Last Jedi. His death solidified Ren’s turn to the dark side. But The Rise of Skywalker re-frames Snoke’s backstory, finally answering fan questions about what exactly he is and where he came from.
As in The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson was more interested in how Snoke affects the main characters than in giving the galactic villain his own arc. He’s a classic space opera pulp antagonist, cackling ominously from a throne. Not as falsely warm (but perhaps just as manipulative) as the Original Trilogy baddie Emperor Palpatine, he instead evokes something older, a model of an ur-Sith.
As it turns out, he was part of Palpatine’s manipulations all along.
In the very beginning of The Rise of Skywalker, Kylo Ren fights his way into a dark labyrinthine of rooms hidden beneath a fleet of Imperial Star Destroyers. There he finds a medical facility, full of equipment and vats of nutrients or bacta or some unknown fantasy-science. In one of those vats float bodies identical to Snoke’s.
Is Snoke a clone? Popular fan theories and the non-canon Legends universe hold that Emperor Palpatine used the cloning technology developed during the infamous Clone Wars to create new bodies for himself. It turns out what really happened was similar but not exactly the same. This tendency to make concepts similar but not exactly the same as ones that exist elsewhere in Star Wars—canon or Legends—is all over The Rise of Skywalker. See also the Sith dagger and the Sith Wayfinder, which is not a holocron.
Emperor Palpatine didn’t clone either himself or Snoke. His own body is kept alive by medical machinery, possibly similar to that used in Darth Vader’s suit or used to enhance the zombielike death troopers. He’s still in the same form as he was in both previous trilogies; it’s just a lot crumblier now. Snoke doesn’t appear to have a template, a person upon whom the clone bodies are based. He’s a brand new thing, a body that Palpatine can puppet with the Force.
Palpatine made Snoke, he tells Kylo Ren. Every voice Kylo Ren has ever heard in his head has been Palpatine’s manipulations. Snoke was never really his own person.
One clue toward Snoke’s creation might have been mentioned in The Mandalorian. Kuill speculates whether Baby Yoda might be a “strand-cast,” a genetically engineered creature. Could Snoke be one of these? Episode 7, “The Reckoning,” has another connection to The Rise of Skywalker: Baby Yoda heals Greef Carga’s wound. Force healing becomes a critical part of Kylo Ren’s sea change and Rey’s victory.
Manipulating Ben Solo was one prong of Palpatine’s master plan. His ultimate goal is to continue the lineage of the Sith, who live in the Force inside each dark side student who kills their master in the ritual of the Rule of Two. He could do that through his granddaughter, Rey (yes, that’s the big twist in the third act), if she’s willing to turn. But he also knows she has a good heart.
He planted the Force bond between Rey and Kylo Ren, knowing it would lead them both further down the dark path, as well as that breaking it could provide him enough energy to revitalize his failing body and lead the Sith takeover himself. That takeover also includes the pinnacle of Operation Cinder, the Emperor’s last-ditch effort to destroy countless lives to cement his own authority.
Snoke’s history is that he has no history: he isn’t a veteran of the Clone Wars, or an ancient Sith. He’s a shell made to evoke those things, perhaps, to remind Kylo Ren of the place he wants in the Sith legacy. But he does have a physical presence in the story. In the comic series Age of Resistance: Snoke, it is revealed that he influenced Ben Solo early in the boy’s Jedi training. The two travel to several different planets, including the dark side cave on Dagobah.
Snoke intentionally increases Ben’s fear of losing control, conditioning the boy to use his fear of death to use the Force. The training was brutal, with Snoke throwing Ben into danger and forcing him to use the Force to claw his way out. Snoke also tested the lengths Ren was willing to go to use the dark side, including during a vision of Ren killing his parents.
Now that we know he was puppeted by Palpatine, Snoke’s words gain new context. Snoke isn’t a Sith himself because he didn’t need to be. He’s channeling Palpatine, who is training Kylo Ren in the way a Sith would do.
Like many parts of the Sequel Trilogy, Snoke both is and is not like a classic character. An empty shell for Palpatine to fill, he’s literally the dark side incarnate. He exists to train Kylo Ren, and in true Sith fashion he dies to train him too. Ultimately, it’s all part of Palpatine’s master plan.
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