The problem of explaining "Somehow, Palpatine returned..."

So THAT'S how Palpatine returned...

Palpatine image courtesy of
Palpatine image courtesy of /

The phrase "Somehow, Palpatine returned" has become a running joke among Star Wars fans ever since The Rise of Skywalker premiered in December 2019. The line spoken by an exasperated Poe Dameron was one of the only explanations for the Emperor's sudden return in the final film of the saga, despite being killed nearly 40 years before in Return of the Jedi.

Admittedly, the idea of bringing the character back in some capacity wasn't inherently terrible; as the overarching villain of the first six films in the franchise, it makes sense that the long-awaited sequel trilogy would make his presence felt to some degree. Despite not appearing in Episodes VII or VIII, fans were shocked to hear the dastardly Emperor's laugh in the first trailer for Episode IX. Was this simply nostalgia bait, or would he be literally returning in some way? Perhaps he was some sort of dark side spirit or even a clone? We ultimately had to wait for the film to be released to find out the real answer.

As it turned out, we kept waiting even after, as the movie wasn't overly concerned with actually explaining one of the most shocking plot points in the sequel trilogy. The franchise has since course-corrected this strategy, often going out of its own way to lay the groundwork for Palpatine's resurrection. However, it's all starting to feel like confusing homework.

Has the course been overly corrected?

Star Wars: The Bad Batch Season 3 "Shadows of Tantiss." Royce Hemlock and Emperor Palpatine. Image Credit: /

Fans were fairly vocal about the lack of explanation for the return of such a prominent character (an offhand comment about cloning is about as deep as it gets), and it seems that Lucasilm realized that.

In the four-plus years since The Rise of Skywalker's debut, plenty of recent Star Wars TV series have gone to great lengths to suggest how this could be possible. The most prominent examples are shows like The Mandalorian and The Bad Batch, which contain major plot beats involving Force-sensitive children sought after by the Empire because of their mysterious "M-counts." Thus far, the two series haven't explicitly stated what that means, but many knowledgeable fans recognize that the term seemingly alludes to "midi-chlorian count," a controversial method of identifying one's Force-sensitivity in the prequels. With the Empire's attempts to harvest these M-counts being so closely tied to cloning, it becomes fairly obvious that this is all setting up Palpatine's return.

The emperor even appeared in the Season 3 episode of The Bad Batch, titled "Shadows of Tantiss," to oversee the study of clone blood, referred to as Project Necromancer. Clearly, the Emperor had contingency plans well before his eventual death, seemingly attempting to engineer Force-sensitive clone bodies that could either do his bidding or take on his consciousness.

At this point, it would also be unsurprising if Thrawn and his mystical nightsister allies will somehow pave the way for the events of Episode IX in future seasons of Ahsoka, given Thrawn's close ties with the Empire and the nightsisters' ability to raise the dead. While much of this does warrant explanation, it starts to feel as though every other piece of Star Wars media is being burdened by having to also set up a different movie, set 30-50 years in the future, depending on the timeline.

Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker. Sith Star Destroyers. Image Credit: /

On-screen content isn't the only aspect of Star Wars carrying the weight of The Rise of Skywalker's rushed story. Comic books and novels have been a franchise staple for as long as they have existed and are often targeted at die-hard fans who want to go out of their way to enjoy more of the galaxy far, far away. This gives them more freedom to expand on the films' ideas, often filling in plot holes and giving context to the wider lore.

However, they have always simply added that context to things that don't necessarily require it. Fans don't need to know what happened with the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell to understand The Empire Strikes Back, but a comic or novel that wants to expand on that simple line can add fun context to dedicated fans who want more.

The sudden return of the main villain of six entire films is not a throwaway line of exposition, however. Books like Shadow of the Sith and even The Rise of Skywalker novelization have spent much of their page real estate delving into Palpatine's wider plan, expanding on Ochi of Bestoon's involvement, and even revealing that Rey's father was, himself, a failed clone of Palpatine who was not Force-sensitive. Even Greg Pak's long-running Darth Vader comics have taken the Sith lord to Exegol, revealing the fleet of planet-killing star destroyers seen in Episode IX, which was in production over 30 years before the film's event. This all adds up to a lot of homework, meaning fans will have to seek out more obscure aspects of Star Wars storytelling if they want to understand the main plot of one of the films.

Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker. Emperor Palpatine fights Rey. Image Credit: /

While Star Wars is no stranger to using its extended universe to expand on its wider story, there is a difference between enriching the films and becoming required reading or viewing even to understand what's happening. The climax of the entire saga hinges so deeply on Palpatine's resurrection that it absolutely requires explanation, but there just isn't any to be found within the films themselves. The reveal would feel much less forced if even The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi had alluded to this plot point. Unfortunately, the unplanned nature of the sequel trilogy meant that Palpatine was a late-minute addition to the final chapter, and all of the legwork to expand on such a reveal was left to someone else to deal with.

The hand-wavy "Somehow, Palpatine returned" given in Episode IX has left the franchise trying to turn that "somehow" into "here's how" for over four years, and it's getting old. Perhaps one dedicated novel or Disney+ special detailing the intricacies of Palpatine's grand plan and return from the grave could have been sufficient. That still wouldn't excuse leaving all of that out of the film itself, where it absolutely should have been. This has left far too many of the ancillary materials to pick up the pieces, with comics, novels, and even hugely popular TV shows throwing their hats into the ring. Not to mention the fact that the "mysterious broadcast, a threat of revenge in the sinister voice of the late Emperor Palpatine" mentioned in the very first paragraph of Episode IX's title crawl has only ever been expanded on in a limited-time Fortnite event, leaving many scratching their heads before the film even truly begins.

Leaving all of this for the shows and literature to expand on makes it all feel like convoluted homework and only distracts viewers from the story being told to remind them of a film that many have since moved on from. It was already glaringly obvious that Palpatine's return was a heel turn, and Star Wars has been burdened ever since by having to now course-correct their course-correction.

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