One of the most fascinating characters in the whole Star Wars saga is, undoubtedly, Sheev Palpatine, also known as Darth Sidious, as played by Ian McDiarmid. In the Original trilogy he was the undoubted villain, the character who had no remorse about his evil intentions and enjoyed the misery of others. Compared to him, Darth Vader was warm and cuddly. Ok, that might be an exaggeration, but you get my point. He was a decidedly bad figure in a movie-verse that mainly consisted of characters who were both good and bad and therefore morally conflicted. Palpatine was one of the many characters who really profited from the Prequel Trilogy. His character was immensely expanded upon and he became one of the most fascinating villains in all of cinema. But how did he develop? What do the Originals and Prequels say about him? And is there a future for Palpatine?
The Emperor and the Originals
In the Original trilogy, the Emperor seems all-knowing, always aware of what Darth Vader is feeling and what the Rebellion is planning. He is the perfect villain in a Galaxy that seems so determinedly split between good and evil. However, in A New Hope he is very much a background character and the same goes for The Empire Strikes Back. It is not until The Return of the Jedi that we truly see him interact with others and get a sense of his character. It was a surprising move on George Lucas’ side to keep his main bad guy in the background for so long. Rather than this being a consequence of focusing on Darth Vader, I believe this was very much on purpose. The Emperor works in the shadows, pulling strings in the background and overseeing all the happenings in the Galaxy. The Emperor represents the unseen entity that has been in control from the very beginning. Every despicable character we have seen, from Tarkin to Darth Vader, has feared and bowed to the Emperor and Luke’s willingness to confront this unknown danger marks a progression in maturity for him. The Emperor is a force to be reckoned with, especially once he reveals his powers.
However, RotJ also hows him as an old man, with all the faults that come with old age. ‘Your over-confidence is your weakness’, Luke tells him. Rather than deny it, Sidious responds to him with a barbed retort. It confirms Luke’s assessment of him and foreshadows what will be Sidious’ demise: his over-confidence in Darth Vader’s dedication to him. Here there is an interesting link to Lord Voldemort, one which was probably not intended by J.K. Rowling. The comparison lies in the villain’s inability to feel love, or, one could ague, any kind of positive emotion. It is something that is strange to them, something they can only manipulate rather than experience themselves and as such it is also something that can defeat them. They consider it a weakness when actually it becomes the protagonist’s strength. The Emperor in the Originals seems invincible until suddenly he isn’t. The humanity of Darth Vader is what he never saw coming and as such the Emperor of the Original Trilogy seems like a man who actually does not understand human beings.
Chancellor Palpatine and the Prequels
I recently had the privilege of watching The Phantom Menace with a friend who’d never seen the Prequels before. It wasn’t until the meaningful pan to Palpatine in one of the final scenes that she turned to me and said ‘That’s the Emperor!’. We had gone straight from RotJ into TPM and yet she had missed the connection. Now, this might be a reflection on her inability to pay attention, but it also made clear to me how different Chancellor Palpatine is to the Emperor we see in RotJ.
The Prequels introduced us to a completely different side of Darth Sidious, that of the politician and manipulator. After the almost unlimited power that we saw Darth Sidious have as the Emperor it was an incredibly interesting choice on Lucas’ side to show us a younger Palpatine who was still actively working on achieving Galaxy-domination. In that sense, his backwards development-arc mirrors that of Anakin Skywalker who is re-introduced to the audience in a completely different way than they expected. The Palpatine of TPM still very much relies on manipulating others into achieving what he wants but he seemingly does so effortlessly. in TPM this is mainly Padme Amidala yet he underestimates her, something which hearkens back to his response to her son Luke. However, by the end of TPM he has manipulated his way into technically being the most powerful man in the Galaxy. As he says in the beginning:
‘I will make it legal.’
This is pretty much Palpatine’s motto throughout the Prequels. Obstacles in his way are only there until he has legalizes his way around, over or through them. This becomes especially clear in The Attack of the Clones, where the introduction of Count Dooku and the start of the Clone Wars show us exactly how involved Palpatine is with everything that is happening in the Galaxy. Whereas in the Original trilogy the Emperor was the presence in the shadows, in the Prequels Palpatine is the frontman of a political institution who publicly has his hand in one pie while secretly having a hand in the other as well. The Prequels show the younger Palpatine in the middle of his schemes, actively manoeuvring himself into the best position and never being close to being stopped. He plays people against each other, especially Anakin against everyone else, and holds an incredible amount of power. Arguably the most interesting film for Palpatine is The Revenge of the Sith where he turns from Chancellor to Emperor and from Palpatine to Darth Sidious.
Some people have accused Ian McDiarmid of over-acting in The Revenge of the Sith, but his acting is actually beautifully in character. In the Original trilogy Darth Sidious is at the top of his power and very comfortable there. In TPM and AotC he is a man hiding behind the mask of a concerned politician. The second half of RotS is his personal victory and release, and he is, quite rightly, drunk on power and the Force. He is exuberant but this is also potentially where he truly stops understanding the people around him. For example, Anakin’s change to the Dark Side is never completely voluntary. He does so not out of a desire for more power but out of love, the one thing we’ve established Palpatine can’t really work with. A crucial moment here is when Darth Vader’s mask is lowered on Anakin’s face. His eyes are a fearful blue, not a determined red. Palpatine believes he has him in his grasp but again underestimates those he aims to control. Rather than this being a simple flaw in the plot of RotJ, this is, through the Prequels, shown to be a consistent flaw of Palpatine’s character.
What the Prequels added to the Emperor as he was shown in the Original trilogy is a sense that, ironically, he falls into the same trap as the Jedi did. He becomes too complacent in his own power and position, too convinced there is no way anyone could depose him. The backwards way in which his character is revealed and developed is actually fascinating because it allows the audience to come to their own conclusions about him. He is a terrifying villain to start of with, seemingly purely evil and dark, but Lucas never lets us down in his characterizations because the Prequels show us there is much more to Palpatine than just “evil”.
This character is known by three names, Chancellor, Darth Sidious and the Emperor. These three personalities, although all coming together into one complex and fascinating character, are very much different sides of Palpatine. He is a politician, cleverly manipulating everything around him with a big smile on his face. He is a Sith, completely swept up in his passions and grand plans, blind for the feelings of others. He is the ruler of a Galaxy, who worked his way to the top and is in control of thousands, millions of lives. These three aspects of Palpatine were developed throughout six films, constantly interlinking and referencing. In Legends books such as Darth Plagueis, which, I remind you, isn’t canon, more work is done on investigating this character.
The Sequels and Palpatine’s Memory
How will Palpatine feature in the Sequels? Will he feature at all? There have been strong hints that someone is collecting Sith artifacts such as Darth Vader’s helmet and lightsaber.To what extent was it common knowledge that Darth Vader and the Emperor were Sith lords? There are a lot of questions here, but that is what will happen when you’re given a fascinating character. Palpatine is a perfect example of how the Original and Prequel trilogy came together in fashioning a complex character. Palpatine’s character profited from his appearance in each film he was in, shedding more light on what goes into creating an interesting villain. By being discussed over an extended period of time he also reflects the social and political climate contemporary to the trilogies very well.
How the Sequels will address Palpatine and if they will at all is a question that will keep me going until December. The two existing trilogies are inextricably tied to each other, visually and narratively, as Palpatine’s development shows. Although the Sequels will rightfully focus on the end of the Original trilogy, Palpatine had an undeniable influence on at least Luke but also on Leia and Han. Although perhaps not explicitly, I am confident we will see something of his influence in how these characters have developed over time. The strength of Star Wars lies in how stories are told over time. Stories and characters are allowed to grow and develop, change or even stay the same, and as such they make for fascinating viewing and discussing material.