Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker references Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, providing a major clue surrounding the mysterious and largely unexplained return of the late Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) more than 30 years after his death in Episode VI - Return of the Jedi. In Rise of Skywalker, one year after murdering master Snoke (Andy Serkis), Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) traces a mysterious broadcast from the phantom Emperor that brings him to a Sith temple on Exogol: there Ren discovers acolytes attending to the hooded Palpatine, who appears as a living corpse puppeteered by an arm-like apparatus.
“The Dark Side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural,” Palpatine tells Ren, mimicking a line he told Ren’s grandfather, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), in Revenge of the Sith. There Palpatine told Anakin of the tragedy of Sith Lord Darth Plagueis, who was so powerful he was capable of manipulating midichlorians to create life.
Plagueis’ knowledge of the Dark Side also allowed him to prevent the ones he cared about from dying, said Palpatine, an ability that ultimately seduced Anakin to renounce the Jedi as he sought to spare love Padmé (Natalie Portman) from haunting visions of a future Anakin hoped to prevent.
When Anakin asked what happened to Plagueis, Palpatine said he was killed by his apprentice — but not before he taught that apprentice all he had learned.
In Rise of Skywalker, answers surrounding Palpatine’s return largely go unanswered: audiences familiar with creator George Lucas’ prequel trilogy are left to infer Palpatine used the “unnatural” abilities unlocked by Plagueis — and then his apprentice, Darth Sidious, a.k.a. the eventual Emperor — to cheat death at a redeemed Anakin’s hands aboard the Death Star II in Return of the Jedi.
Ahead of The Rise of Skywalker, Chris Terrio, who co-wrote Episode IX with director J.J. Abrams, hinted Lucas’ prequel trilogy explained Palpatine’s return at the end of the saga:
“Of course, the sacrifice of Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi and bringing balance to the Force, we still had to honor that and I think we do honor that in the film,” Terrio previously told Uproxx. “We don’t take the end of Return of the Jedi lightly at all, because it is one of the most beautiful moments in any film, really — in seeing what Vader does for his son … That moment when Vader lifts Palpatine was a genuine shock to me and it’s full of truth and beauty.”
He continued, “We had to be careful about that, but if you look at some of the lore of Palpatine and the Sith and the way that George has embedded ideas about the Sith into the mythology of Star Wars, there are ways the presence of that character can still cast its shadow in the future. I guess I’ll leave it at that.”