This Christmas season, The Rise of Skywalker was the final chapter in the Star Wars nonology known as the “Skywalker Saga”. In over nine films titled and presented as “episodes,” three generations of the Skywalker and Palpatine lines fought with power while galactic wars were fought in the background. For eight of these films, the antagonistic Sith followed a rule of two in which only two Sith Lords exist at the same time. (“There are always two,” says Yoda in The Phantom Menace, “a master and an apprentice.”) With Rise of Skywalker, all Star Wars fans thought they knew something about the changes in the order of the dark side and were doing it themselves the most vicious enemies worse than what they seem.
(Ed. Note: The rest of this post contains important spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.
At the beginning of Episode IX, viewers are witness to a Sith fleet of star destroyers on the Sith planet Exogol, where an undead Palpatine holds the “Sith Eternal” court. Don’t worry if you hear this term for the first time “Sith Eternal:” Skywalker’s rise doesn’t use the term, but The Rise of Skywalker’s visual dictionary clearly shows who we see on Exogol. Also exclusive to the book – and not included in the film – is more information on how the end of the Sith in Return of the Jedi in Rise of Skywalker became a stadium full of singing, dressed altar servers.
Contrary to the long-standing rule of the two, the canon has now been expanded to include the ancient Sith, a group of people who ruled the galaxy at some point before the Old Republic. Described in the Visual Dictionary as an “offshoot” of the Jedi order, the Sith hid for the entire events of both the prequel and the original film trilogies. Although Darth Vader, Darth Maul, Darth Sidious, and Count Dooku were the two legitimate Sith Lords by rule, they were not, as far as we know, the Sith Eternal who apparently hid in the unknown regions, including Exogol.
Chuck Windig’s Star Wars: Aftermath novel trilogy features a character named Yupe Tashu, who served as advisor to Emperor Palpatin’s in the original trilogy era (though we never see him on the big screen). Tashu was not a Force user, but a “Sith cultist” and a student of the old dark side. Think of him as a counterpoint to Max von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka from The Force Awakens, a man who is aware of the power and who helped Luke find Jedi artifacts. Yupe Tashu directs the “Acolytes of the Hereafter”, which are listed in the picture dictionary as a group that keeps the Sith Eternal alive after the Emperor’s death. Yupe Tashu apparently gave Ochi of Bestoon (the guy who killed Rey’s parents with the MacGuffin dagger) access to old Sith texts that made him a believer. Not necessarily in Palpatine, but in the Sith Eternal as a belief system. In the film he is referred to as a “Jedi hunter”, but in the Visual Dictionary Ochi is referred to as a “Sith assassin”, which is more of a post-return of the Jedi galaxy in which very few Jedi were left to hunt would.
When we first saw the Sith Eternal on screen in The Rise of Skywalker, it was a couple of hooded figures taking care of the tub with snoke clones and the hanging palpatine. The next time we see them, they’ll fill an underground Colosseum, sing, and wait for Rey Palpatine to hit. It was set up in the first installment of the film to make us believe Palpatine held the strings, but based on the expanded reading material, it’s the Sith Eternal that have been running shipyards for generations. It is you who have been waiting for Exogol all these years. More importantly, when Palpatine threatens Rey, he says he’s “all-of-the-sith.” This happens after he has made his arguments about him as her family, after Rey decided not to put him down angrily.
All of this raises a key question: what if Palpatine wasn’t the big evil of The Rise of Skywalker at all? What if the villain wore only a palpatine mask? There is reason to believe that J.J. Abrams and co-author Chris Terrio left open in their trilogy capper.
Picture: Lucasfilm Ltd.
After dealing with the unanswered question of how Emperor Palpatine landed on Exogol in his old body, Matt Martin, the editor of the Lucasfilm story group, downplayed a fan-theoretical moment in Marvel’s Star Wars comics. Palpatine, it seems, probably can’t just make life out of Midi-Chlorians, even if he alludes to it in Revenge of the Sith (which was a subtle shadow “I am your father”, but I think it was just a reconnected one Mistakes like when Kylo Ren told Rey that her parents were nobody). This throws an interesting wrinkle into the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, which positioned the Sith idea of ”overcoming death” as an alternative to light side force ghosting. Perhaps the best thing a power user can hope to do is keep his consciousness beyond death. The “unnatural” part of the Sith forces would manifest a body and then push Palpatin’s soul into it. This questions the motives of the Sith Eternal: why should the Eternal suddenly swear allegiance to a Sith Lord who lived and died while hiding on Exogol?
At the beginning of the film, Palpatine reveals to Kylo Ren that he “changes every voice he has ever heard in his head” as he switches from Palpatine voice to Snoke voice to Darth Vader. This corresponds more to the concept that New Palpatine is the literal embodiment of “All the Sith” than that he is the actual resurrected Emperor Palpatine. The being we see on the mechanical arm instructs Kylo Ren to kill Rey, which makes little sense when Palpatine needs Rey, but makes sense when the All Sith need a ruler to kill out of anger transfer into a meat body. Rey would want to kill the evil, empire-leading grandfather who had her parents murdered. If Rey had to face a completely new character who doesn’t clear up their worst fears about their identity, it wouldn’t have been a moment of tension. Given who Rey is, it makes the most sense that Palpatine tempts her to kill him right now.
Whatever New Palpatine really is, he doesn’t really use his powers in his physical form until he sucks life out of the juicy Force Dyad, which is Rey and Ben Solo. He instigates Rey to knock him down so the All Sith can live in her. The Force Eternal chant behind him, and the whole thing feels like a ritual as it reflects what the Emperor wanted from Luke on Death Star II in return for the Jedi. Regardless of what Sith magic is in the scene and was in Return of the Jedi, it seems necessary for the All Sith to literally take root. When Palpatine Sith-Vampires retires in a recognizable red robe with bright yellow irises, everything there has become a physical being that can be killed just as before.
The son of Mortis from Clone WarsImage: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Anyone who has seen the animation series “The Clone Wars” is not surprised that Force Gods are involved in the Star Wars canon. There are three beings on Mortis, a powerful planet: the Father, who is powerful but is a third way for the power that is both light and dark; The daughter who is the living embodiment of the light side of power; and the son who is the living embodiment of the dark side of the Force. In season 3, Anakin Skywalker, Ahsoka, and Obi-Wan visit the planet and interact with these gods of power while playing with Anakin, the chosen one, who is said to balance the power. Mortis’ son is a shapeshifter and can appear as anyone or anything, often tempting people on Mortis with visions of people from their past. But he can also play with them by showing possible futures. The father says the son can appear as he wishes. This is the best representation we have of a single being that spans the entire Sith / Dark Side to New Palpatine, and it is a version that chooses its shape based on what suits its subject.
If the Sith Eternals have been hiding in the background of Star Wars all the time, it doesn’t make more sense that they have found their way back to something like Mortis’ son than putting their hopes on a name – only Sith Lord who was defeated when his cyborg apprentice threw him down a shaft? A man who staged the overthrow and mass murder of the Jedi Order, but then no longer has any new ideas for “building another large cannon moon station”?
The Rise of Skywalker adopts the rule of two, so the prequels were obsessed with serving the Sith culture as a foundation, and throws them out the window. What we have instead is a new background of cultists who serve something that appears to be Emperor Palpatine, but actually has nothing to do with being Sheev Palpatine. The All Sith want a body, a real one that has inhabited some snoke clones in its day, and they want the most powerful Force user they can inhabit to trigger the Soul Jump option when killed out of hatred or fear ,
This means that Kylo Ren and Rey play equally, which makes Palpatin’s first order in Rise (to kill Rey) a little more sensible. It makes sense why the All Sith’s face looks like Palpatine at that moment. Or it makes a lot more sense that Sheev died on Death Star II and a power god used him like an imperial suit to traumatize a galaxy and granddaughter when the old man “building a Death Star” suddenly reappeared 30 years later. The rise of Skywalker has no answer to that, but throughout the galaxy, that’s what comes closest to meaning.