If you think that Emperor Palpatine’s greatest weapon is the lightning he can fire from his fingertips, you’re wrong. If you think it’s his Death Stars, or his legions of faceless stormtroopers, you’re wrong. If you think it’s his compromised, captive Chosen One, that’s also not quite right. The greatest weapon wielded by Darth Sidious is narrative, or to be more precise, the narrative.
To celebrate the anniversary of the first (story-chronological) installment of the Skywalker saga, I looked at how The Phantom Menace presents Darth Sidious at his most brilliant and cruel, as he fashions a frustrating and dysfunctional narrative for the heroes to be locked in, a conflict that they cannot understand or comprehend but must fight in anyway. The spectacular, multi-story conclusion to that film is nothing but a byproduct for the villain, who has already achieved his objective by the end of the second act.
As we now careen towards the conclusion of the Skywalker saga with the impending release of The Rise of Skywalker and the apparent return of Darth Sidious in some form, it is worth looking at how the Emperor operates, what his modus operandi is, and how that has not only affected but in some ways controlled the direction of this epic tale, including the sequels so far that he has (seemingly) not had a hand in.
It’s a pageant
Ostensibly the most obvious example of Palpatine crafting a narrative to conquer his foes is the Clone Wars itself. A crisis is engineered in the Republic, and the figurehead for the opposition is a fallen Jedi in the form of Count Dooku. Of course, we the audience know that the arsonist and the fireman are one and the same; Dooku under the guise of his Sith mantle Tyranus was the one who enlisted Jango Fett to serve as template for a clone army. The “mystery” element of Attack of the Clones has always been something of a damp squib, perhaps because the resolution of the film is a large-scale, almost parodically huge battle of two manufactured armies locked in an instant, prefabricated conflict. The climactic duel between villains and heroes feels like a formality…because it is. It is part of the narrative of a real war, which the Clone Wars are decidedly not.
More entertaining than the “how” of Attack of the Clones’ plot is the “why”. Is it by pure accident that Obi-Wan Kenobi chances upon the two armies, thereby triggering the Battle of Geonosis and the war itself? Or is it indeed part of the grand design of the master Sith’s Pied Piper routine? Of the three prequels Palpatine is featured in Attack of the Clones the least, but he does rather pointedly suggest not only the volatile Anakin Skywalker but the slayer (sorta) of his former pupil Maul, the eminent Master Kenobi for the task of guarding the imperiled Senator Amidala.
The “Detective Obi-Wan” plot is something of a nonsense, and its protagonist doesn’t make for an overly good sleuth. It is a manufactured mystery – the deletion of Kamino from the Jedi archives is a limp cover-up that is quite literally solved by a child; Jango Fett’s choice of an extremely specific and traceable weapon that only comes from one place is an odd one in a galaxy where blasters tend to be the ranged weapon of choice. This is to say nothing of his choice to head directly to the Separatist headquarters once his cover his blown.
Like The Phantom Menace, the plot that the Jedi must navigate is covered only thinly with shellac; it has just enough markers to prompt forward action, triggering the standard operating procedures of the Jedi Order and therefore springing all the mini-traps along the way. In short, Sidious knows his audience. He targets said audience seemingly in idiosyncratic ways that will befuddle or even insult the intelligence of those outside that demographic, but will work wonders for those in his firing line. Oddly enough, the same can be said of George Lucas.
This methodology of weaponized narrative follows through into Revenge of the Sith, when Palpatine blithely casts himself as a feeble captive of the villainous Dooku and his ludicrous cyborg henchman General Grievous. It is a master development in his story, bringing the danger of the war right to the doorstep of the Republic and the Jedi while serving as a bloodthirsty audition for a new Darth. The comical introduction of Grievous himself is Sidious pushing the idea of greater and greater villains to absurd extremes – a robot with four lightsabers can legitimately be framed as a top-priority threat, and again it is the job of the perfect Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi to do the Jedi Knight things.
And so even when the Jedi are starting to cotton to the idea that something is amiss and are looking into Palpatine as a rather suspect figure, they are still being strung along unblinkingly by his narrative. This isn’t about the dark side of the Force shrouding anything, it’s about Palpatine understanding the Jedi better than they understand themselves. “All who gain power are afraid to lose it.” The master plan reaches its grand climax as Sidious pulls back the curtain, creating a brilliant self-fulfilling prophecy around his own supposed persecution. There are three Star Wars films in which the bad guys truly win, and they’re the first three.
It’s the most honest work I’ve ever done
The concept of Palpatine as a puppet master is not an invention of the prequels, of course, it just happened to be more widely and intricately realized there. Even back to his original lines in the unaltered version of The Empire Strikes Back, he is implied to be playing a long and deadly game with The Adventures of Luke Skywalker.
In Return of the Jedi, beyond the battle for Luke and Anakin Skywalker’s souls, Palpatine is up to his old tricks: his plan to crush the Alliance is once again through a narrative. This time, it is an almost direct reprise of A New Hope. Taking the first real setback he has suffered, albeit one which was incurred while he was delegating to Peter Cushings both digital and real, as well as the head and torso of the Chosen One, he repeats and refashions the narrative. There’s another Death Star! Rebel spies have, at great cost, secured vital information: this one isn’t finished, and so is vastly more vulnerable and not yet operational! And the grand prize, the Emperor himself, will be there! The Rebels, now in a vastly stronger position than they were at the time of A New Hope, are presented with…an easier, more decisive version of A New Hope. It can’t fail.
Palpatine lures his enemies with the promise of having a successful Star Wars story. But then, even in the prequels he was using versions of the New Hope narrative as bait. That is why the original film will always be special – it is the most pure story of the set, it is unfettered by Palpatine’s typical machinations. The objectives and stakes are clear – at least in terms of what evil represents. Curiously, and quite by retroactive accident, a false narrative is indeed forged that clouds the hero’s vision…but it is an invention, ironically, of that perfect knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, spinning his tale of a separate Vader and Anakin. Once that story is obliterated, and Luke discovers the truth, he then proceeds to scythe through Palpatine’s bullshit with an absolute and unshakable focus. And that is why Luke’s faith in and forgiveness of his father, even with the added context of the sequel trilogy, will always be one of the most beautiful things about the saga, because he believes it contrary to all the evidence and his own form as a serial doubter of the power of the Force. It is a brief respite, but one more powerful than any vague and misguided prophecy the Jedi of old might cling to.
Now we just need Act III
The concept of Star Wars characters being trapped by their own understanding of the narratives before them is at the heart of the sequel trilogy; in some ways it is the sequel trilogy’s reason for being. Once the galaxy has escaped the fog of Palpatine’s machinations, how do they move forward? How can anyone truly understand all that happened, when so much of it was a series of choices made by one man?
After enjoying a thirty-year peace in which there is no Star War to speak of, the forces of darkness are awakened. The origins of Supreme Leader Snoke are a mystery to us, but regardless his modus operandi is highly reminiscent of Palpatine’s, and he seeks to corrupt the best of the light, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, the apprentice of Luke Skywalker. But it’s Luke himself that is the trigger point here. Because we know that Luke will do something, just like his father, and that is what springs this particular trap. It is no different than the cruel vision that Anakin was presented with, that of his wife dying tragically during childbirth. Even if Palpatine had nothing to do with that moment, it’s something that would have delighted the old monster.
From there the galaxy is plunged into a dark, high-octane cosplay of the Galactic Civil War, unwittingly participating in familiar refrains of that conflict but in a fragmentary manner. The victories are somewhat hollow, like those of the prequels — yet another Death Star is destroyed but at immense cost, with the near-instant reprisals of the First Order exacting a heavy toll on our heroes. The crippling nature of Luke Skywalker’s failure actually leaves the hero Rey in search of a narrative, looking for a hero to take up the sword without initially humoring the idea that it’s her. While her friend Finn is ensnared in a half-baked, desperate plot that is as futile as the endeavours of the prequel Jedi, Rey is led along by a construct of Snoke’s. Again, this is a Palpatinian construct, punishing direct action and using a concoction based on the Redemption of Anakin Skywalker, with the rescue of Ben Solo from the dark side being the compelling bait. This backfires spectacularly however, because Snoke lacks the fundamental understanding of his enemy that Palpatine tended to have. All he sees in Kylo is the heir to Vader, rather than the son of an unpredictable, fire-from-the-hip scoundrel.
The concept of these constructed narratives is carried on in the end, however, by its most unlikely champion: Luke Skywalker himself. He fashions the narrative of his supposed last stand on Crait, humiliating the First Order and the newly-minted Supreme Leader with a grand-scale Jedi Mind Trick, luring them into predictable direct action. The shoe is on the other foot, and the game master is the greatest Jedi of all time. His story reaches its target audience of the next generation with intense immediacy, changing the course of the galaxy’s future no matter what might be thrown down between the Resistance and the First Order in the final chapter of his family’s saga.
And so what now of Sheev Palpatine, Darth Sidious? With Luke’s act the battle has finally been met at his level. If he is to return in The Rise of Skywalker, it must be with his most dastardly, most cunning narrative yet. How can he flip the world of the heroes on its head? What does he do with Kylo Ren? And if he has not truly returned and has some other, shadowy function in the film as a relic of the past, his legacy still looms large over the world. How can the First Order fight something that has reached a mythic proportion? How can the heroes live up to it? There is no quantity of blasters and fighters and capital ships that can change that outcome, no superweapons or technological advancement to power it. The laser blasts and saber clashes are insignificant in the shadow of the true war, which is a war of stories and storytellers, of contradictory myths and legends that confound and intrigue both in the real world and in the galaxy far, far away. And the victors will be the ones with the best story to tell.