Ever since we heard that familiar cackle at the end of the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker teaser back in April, the internet has been rife with speculation concerning the return of the insidious Emperor Palpatine to the Star Wars saga. When Ian McDiarmid, the actor who portrayed the physical embodiment of evil in both the original and prequel trilogies, came out on stage at Star Wars Celebration in Chicago to call for an encore of the trailer, fans knew that their ears had not deceived them. The Emperor, a.k.a. Darth Sidious, was back for the saga’s finale.
But how? Didn’t he die at the end of Return of the Jedi? Well, it would certainly appear so, but with Supreme Leader Snoke now out of the picture, all evidence is nevertheless pointing to the tyrannical ruler of the First Galactic Empire making his triumphant return as the big bad villain of the saga. So if you’re up for it, read along as we examine the possibilities surrounding the Emperor’s return by taking a closer look at some of the evidence supporting a theory that a few of us at SWNN (and a lot of other fans out there) have come to believe.
Before we dive into the theory and the evidence supporting it, I want to note that we are in no way claiming ownership of this theory as it’s already been around for a while now. But with the overwhelming amount of evidence behind it, we thought it was definitely worth examining a little deeper. So here goes…
Do you remember that iconic scene in The Force Awakens where we see Kylo Ren talking to the charred mask of Darth Vader? You know, the one where we first learn that he is the grandson of the late Sith lord himself? In this pivotal scene, Ren is sitting down by himself in a room opposite the mask of Darth Vader, warped and ruined by the flames of uncle Luke’s makeshift funeral pyre decades before. In what is seemingly a one-way conversation, Ren begins to speak to the mask of his grandfather.
“Forgive me. I feel it again…the pull to the light. Supreme Leader senses it. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I will let nothing stand in our way. Show me, grandfather, and I will finish what you started.”
– Kylo Ren to the Mask of Darth Vader
Before we move on, I want to take a second to appreciate how much Adam Driver just nails that scene. I imagine it would be difficult to express such raw emotion behind a mask, but Driver’s performance allows us to feel the struggle as if it were our own. We can also feel the enormous weight of the promise that he makes to his revered grandfather. That was such a great moment, and it stands as one of my favorite character-building scenes in the sequel trilogy so far.
Besides being a great revelatory moment in the film that provides background for the movie’s central villain, this scene is also a key component in setting up the return of Palpatine. We’ll get to the how in a minute, but first, I think it’s important for context that we take a time out to discuss the precedent that has been set in other media for the leap we’re about to make.
The Star Wars saga is vast, and for one to consume all of the canonical stories it has to offer is quite an immense undertaking, and that’s probably an understatement. Besides the twelve feature films that will have had a theatrical release by the time The Rise of Skywalker releases in December (yes, I’m counting the Clone Wars movie), the story of Star Wars has also been told across the small screen and the written page. Soon, we will have at least three live-action television series to join the list of canon media alongside the three animated shows, all working together with the movies, books, and comics to tell a massive interconnected story.
While not every story has a connection to everything, they all exist in the same fictional universe and work to inform the direction of the saga and future stories that will be told in the franchise. The Lucasfilm Story Group (a team within the company dedicated to preserving the integrity of the saga by making sure nothing contradicts with any existing stories) drew a line in the Tatooine sand a few years ago, declaring that only the films and the Clone Wars television show were considered official Star Wars lore (i.e. “canon”), and that, moving forward, all Star Wars media that is published from that point on would be official canon material, on equal footing with the films themselves.
For better or worse, they have held fast to that statement, and in the five years that the official Star Wars canon has been in existence, the franchise has released over forty novels (not counting the insane amount of children’s books) and thirty plus comic book series via Del Rey publishing, Disney-Lucasfilm Press, and Marvel Comics. It is now to the books and comics that we turn to further set the stage for the theory about Palpatine’s return.
In addition to having learned the unnatural ability to conquer death from his master, Darth Plagueis (before murdering him, quite naturally), and being one of the most vicious Sith lords to have ever plagued the galaxy, Darth Sidious was also obsessed with arcane knowledge. He fed this obsession by acquiring ancient Sith artifacts that he amassed over time and stored away in his palace and his luxury pleasure craft, the Imperialis (above).
During his time as Supreme Chancellor of the Republic, Palpatine kept a treasure trove of Sith relics like the Great Crystal of Aantonaii and various Sith scrolls hidden in the Grand Republic Medical Facility. Besides these hidden artifacts, the secret Sith lord boldly displayed other dark side relics in his office, such as a chalice that was used by the ancient Sith to burn incense during meditation rituals and the spirit urns that flanked either side of the entrance to his office (above). Although not confirmed yet in canon material, the 2012 book, Star Wars: Beware the Sith, a short book detailing the plans of the Sith throughout the Star Wars films, explains that Palpatine kept the remains of his master, Darth Plagueis, in one of the urns.
These artifacts were imbued with the dark side of the Force and were known to have a strong effect on people within their proximity, and when a large number of these artifacts were gathered together, the result was amplified exponentially, becoming a well of dark energy.
In 2014’s Star Wars: Tarkin, one of the first canonical Star Wars novels, author James Luceno describes how the Jedi Temple on Coruscant had been built upon the foundations of an ancient Sith shrine. Having taken the site from their enemy during the Sith War, the Jedi Order leveled the shrine to its foundations, erecting their new temple on the site as a symbolic representation of the light side prevailing against the darkness. However, unbeknownst to the Jedi, a hidden portion of the shrine still remained below the temple, and over time its dark influence permeated through the temple, clouding the Jedi’s vision and their ability to predict the future.
Palpatine discovered the shrine and often used it as his private place of meditation, having converted the Jedi temple into the Imperial Palace, his seat of power throughout his reign as Emperor. Destroying the Jedi at the end of the Clone War gave Sidious even greater access to these relics as the Jedi had kept such items hidden away in the temple. One of these spoils of war was the mask of the ancient Sith lord, Momin, which he obtained from the Jedi archives after his apprentice, Darth Vader, murdered the Jedi librarian Jocasta Nu in Charles Soule’s fantastic Darth Vader comic series.
Among the various types of dark side artifacts, Sith masks and helmets that were actually worn by ancient Sith lords seem to have a special significance. In Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath books, set after the fall of Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, we read about a dark side follower named Kiza that was gifted the mask of Viceroy Exim Panshard by the Emperor’s former advisor, Yupe Tashu. The mask was said to contain the screams of a hundred innocents that were murdered for the viceroy’s pleasure, and when Kiza wore the mask, she became overwhelmed by the dark side. She was not a Force-sensitive individual, but the mask still had a profound effect on her.
I want to talk specifically, however, about the mask of Momin that I mentioned before. We first saw this mask in Charles Soule’s Lando comic mini-series. In the comic, Lando and his pal, Lobot, along with a team of others, steal a luxury pleasure yacht filled with various priceless artifacts. Unknown to Lando and his team, however, the ship was actually the personal property of the Emperor himself, and the relics within would turn out to be much more than they bargained for.
One of these artifacts happened to be the mask of Momin. In the story, two of Lando’s team members, the catlike alien clones named Aleksin and Pavol are corrupted by the mask and become an instant threat to the others on board. The others are forced to take them out before deciding to abandon the evil ship and any hopes of profiting from its wicked contents.
The mask of Momin would once again come into play in Soule’s Darth Vader series, a comic that details the rise of Darth Vader, immediately following Revenge of the Sith. When Vader goes to Mustafar with the Empire’s chief architect to erect a palace of his own in which he could train and meditate on the dark side of the Force, his master gives him the mask, instructing his student that it could prove useful in “showing him the way”.
Sidious tells Vader that Momin’s legacy was unique among the Sith, as the ancient Sith lord preferred to use his dark powers to create rather than destroy. Vader expresses his skepticism by declaring that he had never even heard of Momin, and Sidious explains that his story was suppressed when other Sith had deemed his methods heretical. When then asked how that he knew the story of Momin himself, Sidious responds with a chilling revelation. The mask itself had told it to him.
Taking the mask to Mustafar, Vader directs the architect, Alva Brenne, to design a castle for him, but he soon grows frustrated with her failure to provide him a proper stronghold. When Brenne goes to show Vader her latest idea for the castle, her aide, Lieutenant Roggo is seduced by the mask, placing it on his head. When Brenne returns, Roggo, now possessed by the spirit of Momin, murders Brenne, and Momin, using Roggo as a conduit begins working on a design of his own. When Vader discovers him, he instantly cuts the man down, but the spirit of Momin survives, having attached himself to the mask.
Momin convinces Vader to allow him to build his design for him, a fortress that would be capable of focusing dark side energy to open a doorway to the dark side of the Force. Capturing a local Mustafarian for Momin to use as a new body, Momin’s work continues. Even Momin struggled to find a design that could withstand the harsh environment, but eventually, he succeeded. But, as Vader would soon discover, Momin had an entirely selfish motivation for helping the Sith lord. With Vader distracted by an Mustafarian invasion, Momin opens the door himself, using the dark side to resurrect his physical body. When Vader returns to the castle, he is forced into a duel with the newly resurrected Momin. Momin was certainly a gifted creator, but Vader was equally gifted in his ability to destroy, using the Force to crush Momin’s body against a rock, causing him to die once again.
As we now circle back around to the scene in The Force Awakens with the mask of Darth Vader, you can probably already see where this is going. Perhaps the conversation that Kylo Ren has with the mask of his grandfather is not so one-sided after all. Using what we’ve looked at with Sith artifacts and the story of Momin as a springboard, it’s time to make the bold claim that the mask of Darth Vader is the conduit for the spirit of Emperor Palpatine. How this exactly came about is unclear, but it could have very well happened in the Emperor’s final moments as Vader tossed him over the railing and into the Death Star II’s reactor.
As dark side lightning coursed through Vader’s body, perhaps the Emperor used the knowledge he gained from Momin and his former master, Darth Plagueis, to transfer his essence into Vader’s mask. Or perhaps when Luke burned his father’s body on Endor, the spirit of the Sith lord seized the opportunity to enter into the armor he left behind, hoping that one day, someone would come along and discover it. It’s also possible that Luke took the helmet with him as a keepsake, not knowing the danger he was placing himself in by doing so. Its presence in his future Jedi temple could have even been a dark influence on his nephew, Ben Solo, the young man who would eventually become the dreaded Kylo Ren.
The how is unclear, but the theory is pretty sound, and honestly, it just makes a lot of sense. Kylo Ren is not just talking to the mask as one would talk to the grave of a loved one. Ren talks to the mask because the mask talks back. Palpatine most likely has deceived the young man into thinking that he is communing with his long dead grandfather, when in fact, he is speaking with the spirit of Darth Sidious. I don’t think that Sidious will be ultimately satisfied with this scenario though, and The Rise of Skywalker will see his influence on Ren come full circle, tricking him into opening the same door that Momin had once used in Vader’s fortress to resurrect Palpatine’s own body.
I know that most of the comics and novels are pretty tame in relation to how they affect the films as it’s typically rather the films that have the influence over the books and comics. That being said, I think it’s no accident that comic writer, Charles Soule, has also been tasked with writing a four-issue mini-series titled The Rise of Kylo Ren that will come out just ahead of The Rise of Skywalker. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the series will reveal how Ren got his hands on Vader’s mask, dropping the bigger reveal that the mask actually speaks back to him. I don’t think the comic will reveal that the spirit is actually Palpatine, as I think that will be reserved for the movie, but I could easily see it going down this way and I would love it if that’s how it goes.
What do you think of this theory? Is it plausible? Is it probable? Do you have any other ideas about how Palpatine could make his return in The Rise of Skywalker? Share your thoughts in the comments below.