When the first teaser for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker debuted, fans were shocked to hear the signature laugh of Emperor Palpatine, igniting vast amounts of speculation about how he could be featured in the new film after his death in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Theories regarding the character's return have run a wide gamut, including ideas that Palpatine has inhabited objects and people, that he exists in other dimensions, or that the Force somehow resurrected him. Another possibility is that, despite falling to his potential doom, Palpatine never truly "died" in the first place, making his return much more feasible.
One of the first and more complicated points worth addressing is the nature of death in the galaxy far, far away. As seen with Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Luke Skywalker, "dying" is merely a transition from one state of being to another to those well-versed in the Force, as seen with their Force ghost appearances after their "deaths." All three of these characters' corporeal forms disappeared, a unique trait of those who were attuned to the Force. Even Qui-Gon Jinn, whose body was burned in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, existed in another form long after his death, as did Anakin Skywalker, whose body was burned by Luke in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.
In this regard, it's possible that, after Darth Vader tossed Palpatine down a reactor shaft in Return of the Jedi, rather than actually "dying," he knew how to transition into the same state of being that Obi-Wan and Yoda had already done, resulting in the disappearance of his physical form, only to live on as a Force ghost. The scene depicting his demise includes an explosive reaction in the chasm, which was clearly meant to convey Palpatine's death in some capacity when the film was first released. However, since we never actually see what causes this reaction, we don't entirely know what's happening in the reactor and what it is meant to represent, other than something explosive and dangerous.
As evidenced by Palpatine's conflict with Mace Windu in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and by Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi, the Sith can be the victim of massive amounts of electrical torment and still survive the encounter. At the time of making Return of the Jedi, it would seem as though there was no need to explicitly clarify that Palpatine died, as there were no substantial plans for the franchise's future where that point would need to be clarified. By not showing anything more than Palpatine falling down the reactor and ultimately disappearing, we don't entirely know what happened in that shaft, with it being possible that he used his final moments to create a lightning show to make Vader and Luke believe he "died," only to embrace a new form of existence, which would then allow him to manifest as a Force ghost to anyone he so pleases.
Another possibility is that, like Leia says to Luke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, "No one's ever really gone," Palpatine actually survived his plunge down the reactor shaft. Still not knowing what caused the impressive electrical display in the chasm, we don't exactly know what injuries he suffered in his plunge. If he suffered some injuries due to electricity, they wouldn't necessarily be fatal, as we've seen Jar Jar Binks, Anakin Skywalker, and Obi-Wan Kenobi suffer run-ins with reactors, resulting in brief paralysis that wasn't fatal. Additionally, let's not forget how much electricity he was subjected to in Revenge of the Sith in his conflict with Mace Windu. Whatever Palpatine suffered in that chasm, it likely wasn't enjoyable, but we don't know that it was actually fatal.
Some fans might think it would be an unearned reveal to claim that Palpatine never really died, but this wouldn't be the first time it happened. In Phantom Menace, Palpatine's apprentice Darth Maul was cut in half and fell down a chasm, only to learn in Star Wars: The Clone Wars that he survived that fall, allowing him to continue his reign of terror. As the Death Star II was being destroyed, no one looked twice at Luke Skywalker escaping with a crippled Darth Vader, so it wouldn't be unreasonable to think that Palpatine, though severely injured, managed to survive the fall and escape on a ship to a remote part of the galaxy, surviving through to the events of The Rise of Skywalker.
With the new film set to conclude the Skywalker Saga, we'll surely get all the answers about the character we require, which might be more straightforward than we realized. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker lands in theaters on December 20th.
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