For all that it is an apocryphal line wrongly attributed to John Maynard Keynes, it is particularly apt for this article:
When my information changes, I alter my conclusions.
For the recent revelation that the Emperor will feature in Episode IX, along with the title being The Rise of Skywalker, changes things greatly. Now, of course, they could be playing games. Episode IX’s predecessor has become infamous for doing exactly that but this time? This time, I think not. They have put these two pieces out as a PR vanguard for the film. Each would be stunning by itself, but together? Well, gives new meaning to the old line of “always two, there are.” Combined they are a seismic bomb that could re-spin the entire trilogy, while also enabling it to take its place in the wider story.
I haven’t written for this site in a while, due to the destructive aspects of The Last Jedi. It was not just a case of killing Luke off, which has come to feel nastier as time has gone on, but that the film overall was highly destructive across the board. Speculate as to what will happen in the next film other than offing old characters? Er, with what? What is there to speculate with? As of the end of TLJ there’s twenty beings crammed into the Falcon against the entire First Order, with only Leia of the original trio left alive and the new trio comprehensively trashed to a far greater degree than anything ESB ever did. There is very little to work with here.
The new teaser trailer starts to supply the material to speculate with and the killer move in it is the final seconds – Death Star wreckage and a very ominous, very familiar laugh. Before I suspect they might have gone with a is-it-or-isn’t-it card but this time? Nah, they’ve gone: Fuck it, it’s the last film, we’ve no time for games, it’s the Emperor, ‘kay?
For all that I enjoyed The Force Awakens and pieces and elements of The Last Jedi, the backstory for these new films remains highly problematic for me. New challenges? Okay. New conflicts? Pretty much essential. New enemies? Can’t have conflicts without those. But the recipe they went with? Han and Leia have split up, their kid gone bad, bigger, badder quasi-Empire on the prowl, complete with new super planet-killer, Luke gone, R2-D2 comatose….it feels like they went to up to eleven on the sturm und dranq, that the aim was maximum angst.
Yet, if everything has proceeded as Sidious foresaw, then that means he had a hand in all of it and why? Well, the only reason for anything – vengeance. If the entirety of the backstory becomes recast as a grand plot of revenge, then it makes far more sense. Corrupting their kid so he turns against them, he did that before with Anakin Skywalker – and Ben sounds even easier to manipulate than his grandfather. That it plays out in such a way as to destroy his enemies’ marriage and then Han sacrifices himself in a bid to save his son would have delighted the watching Sidious. Come on, he loves to gloat, he would have been watching all of it.
How did the First Order manage to be so adept in both political and military respects? Why did the New Republic start off so well but so quickly succumb to political paralysis? Again, if you have the being who created the Clone Wars, to in turn create the Empire, pulling the strings, it all becomes far more understandable. That Sidious uses the legacy of the things he created to render his enemies weaker through their own idealism, while enabling the First Order to capitalize on Vader’s legacy and still-enduring spectre is exactly what I would expect of him.
The one element this does not entirely resolve is Luke, but it does open a door to a solution. While Luke almost lost to his father in the Death Star trench and later in the duel at Bespin, afterwards he was able to overcome it by drawing confidence from the fact he could develop his abilities further to maybe prevail against Vader. So it proves to be, but against the Emperor? Even if Luke had had his saber with him, it is unlikely to have made that much difference against the malevolent onslaught Sidious unleashed on him. Against the Emperor, Luke had no chance and was certainly going to die save for Anakin’s last-minute intervention. What scars does that leave on an already scarred person? We do not know what Luke saw in his nephew’s head, but what if he recognized signs of Sidious? What cataclysmic effect would that have on him? The one being he had no defense or strategy against, who outplayed him at every turn, who the audience know had defeated even Yoda? I could see this breaking Luke’s faith in the Force and himself.
At the same time, for the present, doing something radical with Luke as a Force ghost is not unprecedented. The Last Jedi redefined their abilities in a major way with that lightning strike by Yoda. A duel with Sidious, who is also probably not corporeal, could be a great showcase for Luke. Similar to his display on Crait, which was excellent but short.
What if becoming a Force ghost was the end Luke sought? The display on Crait will still be a damn cool sequence, but ascending to better combat Sidious changes Luke’s death greatly. Instead of a one-off, here-‘n-now symbolic act only, it is part of a strategy – save the Resistance now, then get Rey and the gang to go after the Emperor.
On the other hand, isn’t a thirty-year vengeance plan kind of overkill? For anyone else, it most definitely is, but not for Sidious. If anything Sidious still being on the stage while thought dead enhances developments like Operation Cinder. One criticism is that Sidious would not burn down his Empire, even for vengeance for the failure of letting him die, but if he is still, in some form, alive and has an Unknown Regions Empire in reserve, with the Starkiller built, then he has a replacement prepared. It allows for him to deploy a trusted pawn to take control of the First Order and warp it to his design, cue Snoke. If Cinder fails, then he simply takes the time to let the galaxy think it all over, then decades later, he takes advantage to hit them far harder than before.
Talking of the Unknown Regions, it allows the trilogy to give a post-death answer to who Snoke was. Snoke was Sidious’s catspaw, another disposable minion a la Maul, Tyranus, Vader – he was going for Luke as replacement, remember? Who would be next on that hit list but Ben Solo? Snoke is a figurehead until the time is right to reveal the First Order’s true master. The disfigurement? Snoke probably fucked up somewhere, maybe the academy massacre was seen as tipping their hand too much and Sidious slashed him in the head with a lightsaber (even bosses from hell have to keep up their Continuous Sith Development – Sidious does his by devising and executing punishments).
And then there is the personal element. More than anyone else – save Anakin Skywalker, who turned on him at the last – Luke, Han and Leia destroyed Sidious’s plans. Of course Sidious wants to screw with their lives while advancing his own plans.
There’s also a gloriously mad meta aspect to this revenge – that reunion of Luke, Han and Leia you wanted? Cue Sidious going: I’m afraid the reunion will not be happening any time soon. Yes, the very same audience that supported the heroes get included on the Emperor’s vengeance by having to put up with a crap future that has gone to shit for the characters they loved.
Could it all be a bait and switch? Might the Skywalker referred to actually be a redeemed Ben? Might it be a simple transfer of name and merely be symbolic? Will the Emperor’s role simply be minimal? I recognize that all of this could happen but if they were going to do that, why the crazy publicity of the last few days? I also think doing this would trigger a huge backlash. Episode IX’s predecessors had their controversies but this would dwarf them. Remember, this time there’s no next film to pick up the slack; this one has to nail it all the first time.
One problem looming is how to restrain both Luke and Sidious so they don’t entirely eclipse everyone else. This was the problem that Abrams and Co. could not solve in TFA so they moved Luke offstage. The problem is that issue with Luke looms even larger with a character like Sidious returning. With this recognition follows possible solutions – Rey has her adversary to defeat in Kylo. Independently of whatever happens with Luke and Sidious, he has to be taken out and Rey is the only one with the ability to do so.
Will they redeem Kylo? For all that they might be tempted to do so, I hope not. There was a minimal portrait of Anakin in the original trilogy, that the prequels built on, which showed Vader was once a good man – there is no corresponding portrait in the two ST films of Ben Solo, only Kylo. This is not a bad thing, as Kylo is very good in the role of bastard villain. Also, Kylo’s failure to return from the dark side emphasizes the unique nature of Anakin’s return and upholds Yoda’s view of the dark side.
There is the ought-to-be-unmissable idea of having Anakin turn up as well in all this. Why? First, seeing Anakin give his idiot grandson a verbal smackdown on the nature of the dark side would be fun. Second, where Sidious turns up can Anakin be far behind? Third, Anakin taking a role in finishing what he started on the second Death Star supports his earlier redemption and finally, allows for a scene between him and Luke on the Force plane.
Another hurdle will be how to square all these wider elements, while allowing Episode IX to tell its own story without turning Sidious into Darth Exposition. Here, I think a quality-over-quantity approach could work. The ST has taken a remix approach to the films, it has not been as simple as merely mimicking ANH then ESB then ROTJ. One scene it would be in its interest to remix is one where Sidious monologues his plans, a la the Throne Room sequence in ROTJ where he drops the bomb that the entire situation is a trap. It would only have to be a single scene, only a few minutes, but if the quality is there it is all that would be needed. Just do that for each of the pieces.
Would all of this result in an “all sins forgiven” for the ST? No, but it would make those irritations and vexations easier to deal with. The New Jedi Order was and remains both a famous and infamous series, but its conclusion is still the example of how to do a finale that not only works on its own, but enhances its predecessors too. The Unifying Force was utterly unexpected at the time. No one, be they fan or critic, saw it coming, but when it hit? Everyone found much to like in it. If you were a fan it took the story to a level you did not think it could go to; if you were a critic it realized the potential of its core concepts in a way that was far more effective and enjoyable. And it gave Luke and his nephew Jacen a pair of adversaries to defeat in the form of Shimraa and Onimi. Luke got his time in the spotlight, but so did Jacen. The opportunity is there for the ST to take this inspiration to render Luke and Rey versus Sidious and Kylo.
Finally, there is one last Legends tale that is another reason why bringing Sidious back for Episode IX is so satisfying for me – Dark Empire. This story, published 1990-91, brought back the Emperor and culminated in Luke dueling Sidious on a new, bigger, badder, black super-super Star Destroyer. It also had Sidious threaten to possess Leia’s third unborn child too, hmm, how about that? When ROTS came out in 2005, many, myself included, saw similarities between DE’s portrayal of the Emperor and the cackling, senate-pod-flinging unleashed Sidious. So, why not do so one last time?
I freely recognize that what I have sketched here will not work for everyone. Rendering the ST as the Emperor’s vengeance on Luke, Han and Leia; with it succeeding to the degree that Luke dies to become a Force ghost, Han dies, as likely does Leia is risky and dark, but not to the same excessive degree as before. Another benefit is this removes the very dubious and dodgy stuff that Lucasfilm did around Leia being a lousy parent due to working, ditto for Han – sure, you can say good people do not always become good parents but who wants to believe that of Han and Leia? It is also the fight back against that vengeance – even though they did not know who they fought, Han and Leia struck back as much as they could. Sidious succeeds in paralyzing Luke for quite some time, but in the end, even that fails and, for all his plans and victories, for all the pain, terror and death he inflicted on the galaxy for decades, Sidious falls.
How to end it all? I would be tempted to place money on Abrams doing a Force reunion for Han and Leia and then with Luke, in the aftermath of Sidious’s final defeat. Come to think of it, a final image of Luke, Han, Leia as Force Ghosts, flanked by Obi-Wan, Anakin, Yoda and Qui-Gon could be a fantastic ending.