The decision to return Palpatine to the front of a Star Wars episode has been met with both enthusiasm as well as criticism. Is J.J. Abrams desperately trying to reach out to OT fans? Is it a cheap ploy to attract people into the cinema’s? Or was it inevitable from the moment a Sequel Trilogy was announced?
The End of the Original Trilogy
Let us first go back to the end of the Original Trilogy. In the Return of the Jedi, Episode VI, the culmination of the story of that trilogy is Darth Vader’s redemption, Luke’s victory over Palpatine’s temptation and the Rebellion’s victory over the Empire. Especially the extended celebration sequence from the Special Editions seems to make clear that the story is over and this is typically also how it was perceived by most fans. The Expanded Universe of post-ROTJ stories mostly consisted of endless variations om the theme of “Luke discovers/causes/becomes a new threat to the Galaxy and defeats it in the end”. Such stories are entertaining but they are in now meaningful way a sequel to the Original Trilogy storyline. At best these stories were enjoyable stories set in the same universe but without any actual impact on the Skywalker Saga. But let us look a little more closely at that end of Return of the Jedi and wonder whether it really was the end of the story?
An Empire defeated?
Was the Empire truly defeated? Palpatine exploded into a sea of blue lightning but was he dead? According to the post-ROTJ lore of the EU he was, and sometimes he wasn’t, or he was cloned. Whatever the particular story needed determined what had or had not happened to Palpatine. Many stories, especially the most famous ones involving Grand Admiral Thrawn revolved around versions of the Imperial Remnant still being around and the new Republic either battling or negotiating or compromising with it. All the Battle of Endor yielded was a significant imperial defeat, but not the destruction of the Empire as such. So was there a story to be told in this thread of stories for a Sequel Trilogy? Not really! Although the Rebellion vs Empire conflict was central to the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, with Episode V it became the family saga of the Skywalkers and Episode VI continued this line.
Did Luke defeat Palpatine’s temptation?
Luke’s conflict with Palpatine was never fought between them. Rather it was Palpatine’s temptation of Luke to take Anakin’s place that was the conflict here. Return of the Jedi introduces the temptation of Luke tot he dark side, the conflict within Luke that is mirroring Anakin’s conflict within himself in Episode III. The ending of Episode VI illustrates that further by Luke’s gesture of throwing away his lightsabre. A gesture of which The Last Jedi sought to remind us and interpret it. The meaning of this was left utterly ignored by the EU post-ROTJ stories.
In Episode VI Luke’s moment of victory comes exactly when he throws away the lightsabre, i.e. rejecting the weapon of choice of the Jedi, and assumes the Jedi heritage, like his father before him, in one simple and single act. He seemingly decides his conflict with the dark side by renouncing the violence he would need to use to kill Palpatine and at the same time defiantly reaffirming his position as an enemy of the Sith. The triumphant look in Luke’s eyes seems to imply that this should be enough while the mix of sarcasm and empathy in Palpatine’s voice seems to indicate he recognizes the error of judgement and naivete on Luke’s side.
Luke had not found a way of defeating Palpatine, instead he was now reliant on an act of defiance, sacrifice and mercy by his criminal father in order to survive. So was there another story to be told about Luke facing his dark side once again? The clear answer is: yes! Intentionally or not, this is what Episode VIII did. Anchoring itself to Luke’s act of throwing away his lightsabre The Last Jedi makes unambiguously clear that this is the thread it seeks to continue. In a way Episode VIII was the first film in the Sequel Trilogy that was an actual Sequel. It also implied that Palpatine had not been defeated by Luke, as Luke had shied away from exploring the true depth of the dark side within himself. Episode VIII tells the story of how and when he could not longer shy away and what transpired to him once he did.
Was Anakin Skywalker redeemed?
Rey’s storyline in The Last Jedi mirrors Luke’s from Return of the Jedi. We always assume that Luke’s story of Episode VI was a success and hence it appears strange he would warn Rey against the assumption that her’s in Episode VIII will be too. She assumes Ben Skywalker is redeemable as his grandfather once was. Oddly, the person who was so instrumental in Anakin’s redemption warns against this. Why? Perhaps because he knew it wasn’t going to go the way she thought, because in Anakin’s case it never happened the way we think it did.
But wait … Anakin was redeemed, right? He killed the Emperor and freed the Galaxy from oppression! We saw it on screen! Anakin’s redemption, as far as we saw it, happened with only three people in the room. Anakin, Luke and Palpatine. Why would anyone, in a galaxy that had suffered so much at the hands of Palpatine and Vader, believe Vader’s son when he tells this story being the only survivor of the alleged redemption. No one would. Anakin’s redemption in Episode VI is deeply ‘intimate’ between father and son. By casting Palpatine down the reactor shaft, Anakin casts away that outside source of the dark side that has corrupted him. The fact that he does so despite it being his own death sentence is what redeems him in Luke’s eyes. Because we see the Original Trilogy through Luke’s eyes, that is how we see it. But by Episode VIII we see that Luke’s view of things has evolved in the decades after Return of the Jedi. How could it not have … when Luke left the second Death Star in Episode VI he re-entered a galaxy in which Darth Vader was and remained irredeemable, a galaxy all to eager to point out to Luke what a villain his father had been. The temptation of the dark side was well alive.
What is the point of the Sequel Trilogy?
When George Lucas returned to telling Star Wars stories in 1996 he picked the Prequel Trilogy as the vehicle to tell a story of how the corruption of Anakin by the dark side had come about. The tale is far more nuanced than people give it credit for. Of course there is the fear of loss that drives him, as there is the need for control. But both are deeply rooted in trauma, be it the trauma of losing his home in Episode I and losing his mother in Episode II, or the trauma of being enslaved as a child-slave in The Phantom Menace or the moral chains of a prescriptive Jedi Order denying him to love in Attack of the Clones. What Revenge of the Sith adds to that is the third trauma of experiencing how, being at the side of Palpatine, leads both Obi Wan as well as Padme to attempt to manipulate him only for him to find out that when he resists this, he is being manipulated by Palpatine. So in the end Anakin becomes Vader, a creature who seeks his freedom by total surrender, who seeks to bring life by bringing death and who finds he can only trust himself if he resorts to not trusting anyone ever again.
In the Original Trilogy it are Vader’s interactions with Luke, the realization that his love with Padme did bring after all two lives that he can preserve if he is willing to die for it, a freedom of pain if he is willing to let go of it, two children he can trust if he is willing to let go of his need to rely on just himself. The original trilogy allows Anakin to walk this path alongside Luke and Leia starting their path through life. The events of the Original Trilogy however must have left Luke and Leia traumatised and damaged with many questions of their own they needed to sort out. The Battle of Endor was just that, a battle but it didn’t end the war. Palpatine’s disappearance down the reactor shaft was just that, his disappearance from sight but his presence and the consequences of his actions were still all around. Anakin Skywalker’s redemption has occurred but only in the eye of his children … and no one else … while his legacy of death and destruction still persisted.
If there was ever going to be “a point to sequels” of the Original Trilogy then it would have to deal with these legacy effects. Was Palpatine just ‘another evil maniac overthrown’ like they come 13 in a dozen in stories in our, and probably also that Star Wars, galaxy? How could Anakin’s redemption reach relevance beyond the narrow confines of just his own children? How did Empire actually end? Note, not The Empire, but Empire. A daring Sequel Trilogy would find here its ‘point’ or ‘points’ that it could make.
To do so, a Sequel Trilogy would need to introduce a new generation of characters for whom the legacy weighs down on them, but in ways different from their parental generation of Luke, Leia and Han. Ben Solo’s storyline clearly fits this bill. From his obsession with being a new Vader in The Force Awakens to his outright rejection and the need of letting it all die in The Last Jedi, Kylo struggles with the Skywalker legacy. But the nexus of all these Skywalker troubles was Palpatine’s dark influence on Anakin.
Rey comes out off the Original Trilogy time-line as an orphan of unknown parentage. In The Last Jedi her main inner-conflict is her apparent lack of legacy and her main character development is her acceptance of that lack and her determination not to let it determine her life choices. Rey and Ben are on almost mirror-opposite trajectories. But such trajectories have the tendency to, visually, intersect at the point where the mirror is. Where in the Prequel Trilogy Anakin’s fall is mirrored by Palpatine’s rise, and in the Original Trilogy Luke’s gain of influence on Anakin mirrors Palpatine’s loss of influence on Anakin, the Sequel Trilogy places Ben Solo’s struggle with legacy in opposition to Rey’s struggle for a legacy. If the Sequel Trilogy wanted to resolve the outstanding issues in the Skywalker Saga, the questions that can be raised about Vader’s redemption and Palpatine’s destruction then I would find it hard to see how it could do so without bringing both Palpatine as well as Anakin back for a role in The Rise of Skywalker. It seems to me this is exactly what is going to happen.