Forty minutes into the original Star Wars movie, viewers receive the first whispers that there is perhaps someone more powerful then Darth Vader when it came to the hierarchy of the Empire. The opening credit crawl already establishes that Vader is leading the sinister agents of the Empire in pursuit of the Rebels, and it is during a conference meeting held by several high ranking Imperial officers on board the Death Star that we learn who is pulling all of their strings. They are discussing the current situation and how the Rebellion would continue to gain support in the Imperial Senate as the Empire had attacked and taken hostage a ship heading on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan, a peaceful planet in the Empire.
This is the kind of behavior that will not sit well with the Senate, and Princess Leia even says as much when Vader has her arrested for treason. One of them officers, Admiral Tagge realizes that the Station is not fully ready, and that the Rebellion is too well equipped. There is concern that this act will cause many senators to develop sympathy towards the Rebellion. At that moment Grand Moff Tarkin enters the room and makes a stunning announcement, one that leaves many wondering just how the Emperor will maintain control of the galaxy,
“The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away… The Regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”
We haven’t even seen this Emperor, but we already know he is a ruthless tyrant who rules by fear and can successfully dissolve an entire senate. We even learn through the Expanded Universe novels that, like Stalin or Hitler, the Emperor saw to it that any senators who were voices of opposition to his regime were never seen again. On top of that, this Emperor is the one who ordered the creation of the Death Star, a battle station with the capacity to destroy an entire planet. The likes of Vader and Tarkin are merely the face for The Empire, while Palpatine is the man behind the scenes.
We get our first physical glimpse of just who is behind the curtain through a shadowy, grainy and demonic looking hologram in The Empire Strikes Back, as Vader kneels before him. Whoever, this evil emperor is, he is powerful enough to bring Vader himself to his knees in sublimation. Vader even addresses him as his “Master” denoting a servile relationship. Leia may mock Tarkin as the one holding Vader’s leash, but the Emperor is really the one in charge of the Dark Lord of the Sith.
When we finally meet him, he is a wrinkled old man, draped in a black hooded cloak. He doesn’t seem like much of a threat, as he looks like a strong gust could blow him away. In the Star Wars Legends novel Shadows of the Empire, crime boss Prince Xizor describes the Emperor,
“He looks like a walking corpse…like a mummified body dead for a thousand years. Amazing he is still alive, much less the most powerful man in the galaxy. He isn’t even that old; it is more as if someone is slowly eating him.”
He is a living personification of evil. In his review for the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi the late film critic Roger Ebert likened Palpatine’s appearance to Death in the classic film the Seventh Seal. In fact, along with the Bergman influenced look for Palpatine, all other Dark Side users bare a resemblance to iconic images of death and evil including the devil (Darth Maul), Count Dracula ( Count Dooku), Banshees ( Ventress and the Nightsisters in The Clone Wars), Nosferatu (The Inqusitor in Star Wars: Rebels), The Grim Reaper ( Darth Vader), and the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come in Dickens’s Christmas Carol ( newcomer Kylo Ren with his void like mask). These aren’t just bad guys, these are walking, talking nightmares from the deepest darkest nether regions of our shared collective consciousness.
While Darth Vader and Darth Maul may be more popular and Count Dooku may be more refined, Palpatine is ultimately the gold standard by which all evil in the Star Wars universe is measured. If Vader is the opposite number for Obi-Wan and Luke, then the Emperor is Yoda and Qui-Gon’s. Palpatine is as ruthless a Qui-Gon is compassionate, and as sinister as Yoda is good.
Dave Filoni, noted,
“When you look into those evil characters, you find that, not to say that they’re not evil, but how evil are they compared to Sidious? …A lot of other characters, Darth Vader, for example, have redeeming qualities about them, but not Sidious. There’s always that separation.”
The idea of the Sith, especially being Palpatine being such an archetypal evil is so prevalent in the Star Wars mythology that at one point in the script for The Return of the Jedi the Imperial homeworld had been named Had Abadon, a name derived from the Hebrew word meaning “Destroyer”. In the biblical book of Revelation, Abaddon was the name of the demonic king of the bottomless pit who was prophesied during the Last Days to lead a horde of demons to attack those who were not sealed by God. This early script also featured Vader hurling the Emperor into a lake of fire, a similar fate that awaits the devil in the book of Revelation, only to end up casting him into a bottomless pit due to budget cuts, both versions of his demise rife with Apocalyptic imagery. A volcanic world did finally make it into the Star Wars films in Revenge of the Sith, only this time it was Mustafar, and it was the location of Obi-Wan and Anakin’s final duel and it greatly resembled the biblical image of Hell. George Lucas even called Revenge of the Sith, “Star Wars goes to Hell” for this among other reasons.
This idea of him being a destroy is reflected in his first name which was revealed in the novel Tarkin as being “Sheev”. Now, many fans made jokes about the choice saying it “sounded like “Steve” and expecting his name to be “Frank” due to a throwaway line in Phantom Menace where he says to Padmé, that, “he must be frank.” However, as Chris Lough noted in an article on Tor.com, that was written in response to the revelation of Palpatine’s first name in the new novel Tarkin,
“While it would be nice to have given the ultimate bad guy in Star Wars a more fearsome name… Sheev at least fits within what we know of Palpatine’s origins. The humans on Naboo, or at least the ones notable in the story, have names that originate from Sanskrit words and terminology. Padmé is a hair away from padma, the sacred lotus that is a symbol of divine beauty and purity in Hinduism and Buddhism…Sheev fits that style, as well, being an obvious reference to the godly aspect Shiva, the destroyer and transformer in Hinduism. Ol’ Palps certainly fits that bill. Really, he does nothing but that in the movie saga, always pushing and goading from within and without, dismantling old orders and replacing them with new ones.”
But just who was Palpatine before he became the cackling over lord that ruled the galaxy with an iron fist? Like Yoda, very little is known about Palpatine’s past. However, while Yoda’s mystery makes him more alluring, Palpatine’s makes him more ominous. We do know, that he began his career as a Senator from Naboo, the homeworld of Padmé. He had even been a trusted friend and ally to her and Anakin.
In The Phantom Menace we see him giving Queen Amidala advice on how to address the Senate and even urging her to call for a vote of no confidence in the Chancellor. We even see Palpatine, like the devil tempting Eve, whisper lies into her ear during the senate hearings. Palpatine claims to have her best interest as well as that of the rest of the galaxy at heart. The vote is cast and the former chancellor is removed as he tells her,
“The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates who are only looking out for themselves and their home systems. There is no interest in the common good…no civility, only politics…it’s disgusting. I must be frank, Your Majesty, there is little chance the Senate will act on the invasion… If I may say so, Your Majesty, the Chancellor has little real power…he is mired down by baseless accusations of corruption. A manufactured scandal surrounds him. The bureaucrats are in charge now…Our best choice would be to push for the election of a stronger Supreme Chancellor. One who will take control of the bureaucrats, enforces the laws, and give us justice. You could call for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum.”
Ever the politician, upon receiving the nomination to succeed the demised chancellor Velorum, Palpatine begins making his campaign promises.
“A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one. I promise, Your Majesty, if I am elected, I will bring democracy back to the Republic. I will put an end to corruption. The Trade Federation will lose its influence over the bureaucrats, and our people will be freed. I feel confident…our “situation” will create a strong sympathy vote for us… I will be Chancellor, I promise you.”
Palpatine wins the election and once Naboo’s free, he returns to his homeworld to congratulate the queen and to meet the young boy Anakin who managed to destroy the Trade Federation’s control ship. Smiling at the boy, he place as a hand on his shoulder and tells him he will be watching his career with great interest, namely his own.
As Actor Ian McDiramid noted in an interview with The Star Wars Insider,
“Palpatine appears to be a hard-working politician — and when you say the word politician, immediately you think about equivocation, which is the nature of the job. But at the same time, I know that underneath all that is an evil soul. The undercurrents are always there in his mind and in his gut….Everything he does is an act of pure hypocrisy, and that’s interesting to play. I suppose it’s rather like playing Iago. All the characters in the play — including Othello until the end — think that “Honest Iago” is a decent guy doing his job, and he’s quite liked. But at the same time there’s a tremendous evil subconscious in operation.”
Unknown to any of them, Palpatine was actually a Sith Lord named Darth Sideous, and he had orchestrated the whole thing. He was such a skilled chess master, and so thirsty for power, that he actually helped create the blockade of the Trade Federation on his own home world of Naboo. This prompted Queen Amidala to leave the planet and the Jedi to investigate. Through his coaching, a vote of no confidence was cast in the then seating Chancellor Velorum. After securing a nomination, it was the sympathy for the world of Naboo that helped gain him the votes needed to become chancellor.
Later, in Attack of the Clones, he has his new apprentice, the fallen Jedi, Count Dooku stage and assassination attempt on Padmé’s life by hiring bounty hunters. This leads to the discovery of a separatist movement and him being granted emergency powers. With Padmé in hiding there-by removing her efforts to block the military creation act out of the picture, he uses his powers to order the creation of a Clone Army for the Republic. Then throughout The Clone Wars series we see how his manipulations of the war make the Jedi look power hungry, and senators like Padmé and Bail Organa look like naïve idealists.
He drags the war on, burning the candle at both ends in order to bankrupt the Republic to a point where they will eagerly accept his leadership. Even the Jedi begin to doubt themselves as their abilities to sense the Dark Side grow murky and they begin to question their role as peace keepers. This came to a tipping point in the episode “The Wrong Jedi” from Season Five of The Clone Wars when former Jedi Barris Offee staged a bombing on the temple and famed her friend Ahsoka for the crimes, causing the people to grow even more suspicious of the Jedi and their motives.
However despite her methods, Barris had a point. As she was brought before Palpatine by Anakin, Barris then made her case, saying,
“I did it because I’ve come to realize what many of people in the Republic have come to realize, that the Jedi are the ones responsible for this war, that we’ve so lost our way that we have become villains in this conflict, that we are the ones that should be put on trial, all of us! And my attack on the Temple was an attack on what the Jedi have become, an army fighting for the dark side, fallen from the light that we once held so dear. This Republic is failing! It’s only a matter of time.”
Not long after that in a four part story-arc from the Clone Wars Lost Missions, one of the Clones, Tup, went haywire and tried to kill his Jedi commander. This led one of his old friends, a Clone named “Fives” to uncovering the chip inside them had the protocol implanted to kill the Jedi. The Chip had malfunctioned and Tup followed his orders as expected. However Palpatine didn’t want his plan unraveling so he staged it to look like Fives attacked him, nullifying any concerns Fives may have voiced. Finally, when the Jedi attempt to arrest him upon learning of his true nature as a Sith in Revenge of the Sith, he claims it was an attack on his life and vows to bring the Jedi to justice by forming a Galactic Empire.
To this end, he is the embodiment of what CS Lewis wrote in the preface of Screwtape Letters,
“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”
Every action Palpatine takes not only carefully calculated, but voted upon by politicians. However, nothing rivals his careful machinations of young Anakin Skywalker. He often calls Anakin to his office to speak with him privately, often times inflating his ego. Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Mace Windu will let Anakin move up in ranks only when he is ready. When he makes mistakes they let him know. Contrast this with Palpatine who will tell him how great he is all the time.
Ever the cunning tempter he plays to Anakin’s pride and vanity. Moreover he plays to his need for a father. Anakin may say that Obi-Wan is like one to him, but in actuality their bond is more like that of brothers. If anything Qui-Gon was more of Anakin’s father-figure.
As Paul F. McDonald notes in The Star Wars Heresies,
“Had Qui-Gon been around it is fair to speculate he would have allowed Anakin to visit his mother Shmi every now and again. Given his own seeming affinity for her, he may have even facilitated it. Likewise, he would have been a confidant for Anakin when it came to his relationship to Padmé Amidala…not to mention he would have provided an older mentor that helped limit Palpatine’s influence on Anakin, who clearly sets his sights on the young protégé hours after Qui-Gon dies on Naboo.”
Anakin even comes to view Palpatine as a friend and mentor and notes that he the Chancellor had always looked out for him since he arrived on Coruscant. Palpatine’s lies make him desire more power and prestige before he is ready. Because of this, he feels Palpatine is the only person he can trust, even to the point that he is the only person outside of Padmé who knows what transpired on Tatooine with the Sand People.
Later in Revenge of the Sith, it is Palpatine who orders Anakin kill Dooku even though he is unarmed, going against the Jedi Code. However, there is a glimmer of hope. When Palpatine urges Anakin to leave Obi-Wan to die on the ship, Anakin refuses carrying his unconscious friend on his back, showing that he doesn’t have full sway over the young Jedi. For Anakin’s valiance and the trust he has in him he makes him his personal representative on the Jedi council, while the Jedi want the young man to spy on the Chancellor. This only deepens Anakin’s mistrust in the Jedi and their motives
The machinations of the war also lead Obi-Wan and Yoda away from Coruscant, meaning the only Jedi Anakin can speak to is Mace Windu. With every available support network out of the way, Palpatine is free to lure Anakin into his web of lies. Starting by telling him about a secret Sith Legend that no Jedi would ever tell him. As Palpatine says in Revenge of the Sith,
“Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis “the wise”? …I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you. It’s a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith who lived many years ago. He was so powerful and so wise that he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life… He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying…The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural….He became so powerful… the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, and then one night, his apprentice killed him in his sleep. It’s ironic that he could save others from death, but not himself.”
Now Palaptine as a seed of doubt in Anakin’s mind and a foothold to play with. The boy knows there are powers that go outside that of what the Jedi know. Anakin soon discovers just how Palpatine knows this. Upon taking news to the chancellor about the death of General Grievous, Anakin learns that Palpatine was the apprentice of Darth Plagueis. It is implied that either his master or Palpatine was the one who used the Force to lead to Anakin’s conception and even planted Anakin’s nightmares in his mind.
Anakin admits he’d like to kill him and that he wants to do the right thing and turn him over to the Jedi, but as Palpatine tells him,
“I know what’s been troubling you. Listen to me. Don’t continue to a be a pawn of the Jedi Council! Ever since I’ve known you, you have been seeking a life of great significance, far more than any Jedi…Are you going to kill me?…I know you would. I can feel your anger. It give you focus… makes you stronger… You have much wisdom, Anakin. But if I were to die, all the knowledge you seek about the true nature of the Force will be lost with me. Learn the power of the Dark Side, Anakin. The power to save Padmé.”
When Mace Windu goes to arrest him Anakin is filled with doubt. He can’t bear to lose Padmé but he wasn’t to do the right thing. He hurries to Palpatine’s office, only after Palpatine has killed three Jedi and seems to be losing to Windu. Palpatine plays possum, making Anakin believe he is weak and helpless, as the affect of his force lightning bouncing back off of Windu’s lightsaber causes his face to melt, giving him his scared visage. Anakin is indecisive until Palpatine appeals to his desire to save Padmé. With a swing of his lightsaber, Anakin disarms Windu, allowing Palpatine to send him to his death.
With Anakin’s roll in the death of Windu, Palpatine plays to his fears that the Jedi will kill them both for this and urges him to become his apprentice. With nothing left but his desire to save Padmé, he pledges himself to his training, becoming Darth Vader, and carrying out his first heinous order, killing the Jedi at the temple, including the Younglings.
The only remote hint we get at Palpatine having any level of compassion comes after Vader’s duel with Kenobi, and Palpatine’s own with Yoda. Sensing Vader is in trouble he heads to Mustafar where he finds the burnt remains of his new apprentice, barely hanging on for life. Ordering for a medical pod and taking him back to Coruscant he reconstructs Vader in his iconic armor that serves as a life-support system. He delights in Vader’s reaction at the news that Vader killed Padmé, knowing now that Vader will be his servant. With no Padmé, no Jedi order, and no Kenobi or Yoda in his way, Palpatine feels with his new apprentice he can rule the galaxy unchallenged. Or so he thinks.
Unknown to him, Padmé gave birth to her children and those children are now hidden away. As Obi-Wan later admits to Luke in Return of the Jedi,
“To protect you both from the Emperor, you were hidden from your father when you were born. The Emperor knew, as I did, if Anakin were to have any offspring, they would be a threat to him. That is the reason why your sister remained safely anonymous.”
Like the biblical Pharaoh in the book of Exodus with the Hebrew male children, Herod with the Christ child in Bethlehem, or Jadis with the four Pevensie children in the Narnia books Palpatine would love nothing more than to kill the children of Anakin and Padmé as they could overthrow his regime. Palpatine even reminds Anakin that the one thing those who have power fear is losing it. On top of that the children could have the potential to awaken the good man that was Anakin Skywalker from within Darth Vader. Because the twins are kept safe, Luke is able to become a Jedi while Leia works to fight the Empire, both children carrying on the legacy of Anakin and Padmé.
It’s not until Luke destroys the Death Star that Palpatine begins to take notice. As he tells Vader in Empire Strikes Back in the DVD release of Empire Strikes Back,
“There is a great disturbance in the Force…. We have a new enemy. The Young Rebel who destroyed the Death Star. I have no doubt this boy is the offspring of Skywalker…Search your feelings, Lord Vader. You will know it to be true. He could destroy us…The Force is Strong with him. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.”
Initially he wants Luke dead, but when Vader suggests turning him to the Dark Side he is very interested, knowing it could bring him a newer and younger apprentice. It is part of the reason Palpatine is present on the Death Star in Return of the Jedi, as he wants to see Luke’s skill for himself and place him through the same temptations as his father. In fact Palpatine event wanted the Rebellion to retrieve the plans for the new Death Star in order to bring them to him so he could destroy them all and do to Luke what he did to Anakin and get rid of his “family.” Further, he saw the compassion Luke inherited from Padmé as a weakness to be easily exploited.
As he told Luke in Return of the Jedi,
“The alliance… will die. As will your friends. Good, I can feel your anger. I am defenseless. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete!… Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design. Your friends, up there on the sanctuary moon, are walking into a trap, as is your Rebel fleet. It was *I* who allowed the Alliance to know the location of the shield generator. It is quite safe from your pitiful little band. An entire legion of my best troops awaits them. Oh, I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive.”
Soon, Palpatine managed to get Luke’s goat and he tried to kill him Vader engaged Luke and back and forth the duel went until Luke disarmed Vader. He was now in the same position as Dooku. Palpatine urged Luke to kill him but Luke refused. For this, Palpatine began to torture and tried to kill him with Force Lighting.
However, as Luke would point out to Palpatine his over confidence would be his weakness. Palpatine figured Vader was down for the count and was no threat. As Luke cried out to Vader for help, his worst fears were realized as the good man inside Vader was woken up and sacrificed himself to save Luke, casting Palpatine into the bottomless pit where he belonged. For all the strength he boasted in the Dark Side and his confidence he placed in Vader, Palpatine was done in by love, not the desire for power as his own master had been. As Yoda told him in Revenge of the Sith,
“Faith in your new apprentice, misplaced may be. As is your faith in the Dark Side.”
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