Why 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' Needed to Bring Back the Emperor

“No one’s ever really gone.” Lucasfilm continued Star Wars Celebration Friday with the Episode IX panel and the first teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode IX, now officially titled, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. And with Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) voiceover promising life beyond death comes a sinister and familiar laugh that suggest a darker side to words originally intended to provide comfort. The panel ended with The Emperor himself, Ian McDiarmid, emerging from the shadows of the stage, strongly suggesting that Emperor Palpatine will have a significant role to play in this final chapter of the Star Wars Saga, and the fates of Rey and Kylo Ren.

During the panel, director J.J. Abrams spoke about how he, screenwriter Chris Terrio, and Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy, went back through all of George Lucas’ work and every Star Wars film to come up with a fitting storyline for The Rise of Skywalker that served as a grand finale but also its own individual film. When you consider that Palpatine was the force that set the events of this film series in motion (retroactively speaking by way of the prequels), then it’s fitting that he should be there at the end. While the return of Palpatine had been a popular theory ahead of the release of The Force Awakens (2015), the existence of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) seemed to suggest a new Sith threat instead. But after the revelation that Snoke wasn’t Sith, and his surprising demise in The Last Jedi (2017), the space was created for a new evil to rise, an evil that could not fully fall to the ever-conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). If The Last Jedi was about putting the Jedi and the idea of their infallible goodness to rest then The Rise of Skywalker may be about Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) journey to bury the Sith and their ideology and allow for a new terminology to describe force-users: Skywalkers.

When we last saw Palpatine onscreen, in Revenge of the Sith (2005) we got a look at the full extent of his powers, and lightsaber skills. There’s far too little known about The Rise of Skywalker so far to speculate as to whether Palpatine’s presence will become known through a physical appearance complete with red lightsaber, or simply through the Force, but the Star Wars Expanded Universe, since retconned into Star Wars Legends after Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm, has set a precedent for Palpatine’s return. Though the Emperor was killed by Darth Vader in The Return of the Jedi (1983), the Dark Horse comics series Dark Empire (1995), Dark Empire II (1995), and Empire’s End (1997) chronicled Palpatine’s return through younger and healthy clones and his continued desire to make Luke his apprentice. But when his clones began degenerating he tried to transfer his spirit into the body of Han and Leia’s son, Anakin Solo, before being killed off for good and his soul trapped in the netherworld.

As Star Wars fans have hopefully learned by now, the Star Wars Legends novels and comics aren’t any form of reliable source material through which to predict the events of the sequel trilogy. I don’t expect The Rise of Skywalker to adapt the Dark Empire saga in any fashion, but I do think that Palpatine’s presence will draw further connections between the sequel trilogy and the prequel trilogy. For the most part, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have relied heavily on the characters and stories established in the original trilogy. Outside of a few brief references to clone armies, and the failure of the Jedi council, the prequels have been largely unmined in terms of both alien races and established plot points. But Palpatine, who we truly got to know in the prequels and see the depth of his evil and political manipulation, is a way for Abrams and co. to bring the narrative of the Skywalker bloodline full circle and close it off in order to make room for whatever comes next from Lucasfilm. Whether we see clones, or a reference to Palpatine’s awareness of the ability to create life through the Force, I expect The Rise of Skywalker to be a love letter to 42 years of Star Wars, and provide a sense of completion for all three trilogies.

It’s going to be a long wait until December, but the Rise of Skywalker teaser gave us just enough information to hold us for the months to come. Somehow and someway Palpatine is back, and we can practically feel his Force lightning making our anticipation surge.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens Dec. 20.