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The Problem and the Solution: Why Palpatine from Star Wars is One of the Great Movie Villains

George Lucas gets a lot of flak for his screenwriting, but credit must be given when due: Sheev Palpatine, the humble senator from Naboo who becomes a galactic despot in the "Star Wars" movies, is one of the great screen villains. 

The narrative architecture of his rise is ingenious. It's thorough, too: the first few bricks of his foundation are already in place before the first "Star Wars" prequel, "The Phantom Menace," officially begins with the opening crawl. By the time the prequel trilogy wraps up, the secret Sith Lord has built a vast network of influence guarded by a clone army, fleets of starships, a government that has dismantled democracy and handed all of its decision-making power to him personally, and a right-hand man, Darth Vader, who's almost as formidable as he is. (There's also a Death Star under construction.) By the time the events of the original trilogy roll around, Palpatine has become a bit complacent, probably because he's ruled for over two decades without serious challenge. However, he's still not someone to be trifled with, and it takes the combined efforts of the second and third most powerful Force users alive, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader (aka Anakin Skywalker, aka Dad), to defeat him. 

What's most remarkable about Palpatine's arc is that, unlike many supervillain plots, little of it is dependent on coincidence or inherently ridiculous on its face. Instead, it's based on understanding human (humanoid? This is "Star Wars," after all) nature, then setting up situations where politicians and the general populace will respond as they usually do when told that if they don't make a momentous decision immediately, all will be lost. 

Ian McDiarmid, the veteran London stage actor who played Palpatine in three "Star Wars" trilogies, was the perfect actor for the role. It all seems fated in retrospect: McDiarmid has said in interviews that he lucked out in the timing of the series. He was 38 when he first played Palpatine under heavy makeup in 1983's "Return of the Jedi," much younger than the character on the page. By the time he was called in to perform the role again, he was the perfect age to play the character at that moment in his life (mid-to-late '50s). 

McDiarmid has likened the character to Iago in William Shakespeare's "Othello." It's a perfect comparison point: Iago's plan is based on understanding the psychology of his nemesis, Othello, and everyone orbiting around him. Then, he sets up a situation where Othello will do the thing he's quite likely to do, given who he is and what his weaknesses are (insecurity, jealousy, and a lethal temper). Similarly, Palpatine's rise depends on understanding the political apparatus of the Old Republic and getting its key players to do what they're most likely to do. 

There's some political analogy-making here, too, though it's necessarily inexact because the story is a space fantasy. The politics are fundamentally left-wing and antifascist. Lucas has said that the duo of Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader in "A New Hope" was inspired by President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during the later years of the Vietnam War, and that the rebels seeking a restoration of the old Republic were inspired by the Vietcong waging guerrilla war against the technologically superior American occupiers. It all got mixed in with mythology and elements from other parts of history, including World War II (the empire are basically space Nazis with retro-1940s German-style officer uniforms and ground infantry called "Stormtroopers") and the American revolutionaries' struggle against the British Empire (nearly all of the bad guys in the original "Star Wars" trilogy are played by actors from the United Kingdom, and with the sole exception of Obi-Wan, all the main actors are Americans). 

By the time the prequel trilogy went into production, Lucas was already worried about the incremental expansion of presidential powers since the 1970s (Ronald Reagan called his proposed orbital missile defense program "Star Wars," to Lucas's disgust) and became more concerned after 2000, when George W. Bush took the presidency via a partisan-split Supreme Court decision after losing the popular vote to Al Gore. Then 9/11 happened and the country embarked on a global "War on Terror" that included two ground wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, with a simultaneous, unprecedented expansion of executive branch powers, justified by the invocation of a "national emergency." 

Jingoism, xenophobia and belligerence defined the early aughts in the United States when the second and third prequels were being made and released. National and state legislators were pressured to rubber-stamp whatever the Bush administration wanted without debate or hesitation, or be vilified as terrorism enablers, traitors, and/or wimps. In "Revenge of the Sith," when Mace Windu tries to arrest Palpatine for trial in the senate, the chancellor boasts, "I am the senate!" A phrase in Bush's inaugural address, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," was even refashioned and placed in the mouth of the corrupted Anakin in "Sith," who waves off Obi-Wan's attempt to talk sense into him by shouting, "Either you're with me, or you're my enemy." 

Lucas reflected the world outside his soundstages by tailoring the prequels to show how authoritarian forces turn democracies into dictatorships. According to a CBS News story from 2005, Lucas got into the prequels by "researching how democracies can turn into dictatorships with full consent of the electorate. "Why [in Ancient Rome] did the senate after killing Caesar turn around and give the government to his nephew?' Lucas said. 'It's the same thing with Germany and Hitler...You sort of see these recurring themes, where a democracy turns itself into a dictatorship, and it always seems to happen kind of in the same way, with the same kinds of issues, and threats from the outside, [and leaders] needing more control." 

It takes a master manipulator to pull off that kind of long-term transition. Palpatine is the "Star Wars" version of it. One of the franchise's most quotable lines occurs the scene where Palpatine, disfigured after getting cooked by his own Force lightning, presides over the Senate vote that guts the Republic's last vestiges of democracy and replaces it with "the first Galactic Empire," headed by Palpatine himself. "So this is how liberty dies," Padme says quietly. "With thunderous applause." 

Many of Palpatine's most devious plans stem from him planting an idea or emotion in someone's head and letting them do the rest of their own volition. He activates or amplifies some characteristic that amounts to an Achilles heel (fear of being unable to save a loved one for Anakin; arrogant complacency for the Jedi council; eagerness to end an occupation for Palpatine's boss Padme, the Queen of Naboo). Then he stands back and watches as somebody else delivers the result he hoped (and planned) for. 

The opening crawl of "The Phantom Menace" tells us that the trouble all began with a dispute over, of all things, taxes. The Trade Federation, which controlled commerce in outlying territories, didn't have to pay taxes to the Galactic Federation. Now, suddenly, they do. (The 2005 companion book "Star Wars: The Essential Chronology" explains that the law was meant to raise money for the galactic government by taxing commerce along hyperspace trade routes.) To protest the taxation, the Trade Federation blockades Naboo. We later learn that they only blockaded Naboo because Darth Sidious -- alter ego of Palpatine, the secret Sith Lord -- encouraged them to.

This is the first example of Palpatine's basic strategy: he gets into character as Darth Sidious. He helps create a crisis, and then Palpatine steps forward and "generously" offers to end it with a scenario dependent on giving him more political power. It's the "Star Wars" version of the archetype of the firefighter who's secretly an arsonist. He sets blazes so he can put them out and become a hero. 

The chief executive of the galaxy, Chancellor Valorum, sends a couple of Jedi Knights to Naboo "to settle the dispute." Palpatine had to know this is what would happen: it appears to be standard procedure in these types of situations, and the film tells us that Valorum has a reputation as a weak chancellor who would rather appoint commissions to study problems than make decisions. Then, Palpatine, in character as Sidious, urges the Viceroy of the Trade Federation to kill the Jedi and invade Naboo, which escalates the situation to the brink of galactic war. 

By the end of the film, what legislator has saved the day? Why, Palpatine, of course! He knew long before the story started that the Chancellor was weak. He realized that if he created a scenario that resulted in Naboo being invaded, the Chancellor would be useless in addressing it and that Amidala would be easy to persuade to introduce a vote of "no confidence" to remove him from power (what else is she going to do, let her people die?). No matter which senators stepped forward to replace him (even Bail Organa of Alderaan, future adoptive father of Leia), the odds were excellent that Palpatine would end up as the new Chancellor by virtue of the fact that his planet was the one invaded. Even if Palpatine had lost the vote, he probably had a Plan B and Plan C for eventually ending up in the big chair. He's that kind of bad guy.

Palpatine successfully uses the arsonist-firefighter strategy more times as the saga unfolds. In "Attack of the Clones," all the stuff involving the separatist movement (led by former Jedi Count Dooku) is an elaborate long con. It's intended to confront the Galactic Senate with a threat so immense that they'll vote to give Chancellor "emergency powers" to create a clone army which, unbeknownst to anyone but Palpatine, is not loyal to the republic, but only to Palpatine personally. (There continues to be confusion about the Palpatine-Dooku connection–understandable, given how densely plotted the prequels are—but it's settled at the end of "Attack of the Clones" when Dooku lands on Coruscant and meets with Palpatine-as-Sidious and tells him "war has begun," to which Palpatine replies, "Excellent. Everything is going as planned.") 

There's wonderful political and thematic continuity in the scene where the Galactic Senate grants Palpatine emergency powers. The senator introducing the resolution is again from Naboo: Jar-Jar Binks, who's dumb as a box of rocks and surely thinks highly of Palpatine, a fellow Naboo native. Binks is just a temp, filling in for Padme because she's off trying to rescue Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is being held captive by Dooku, Palpatine's partner in conspiracy. Everything going as planned, indeed.

"Revenge of the Sith" escalates Palpatine's scheming even further. It begins with Palpatine being held captive by Dooku and General Grievous, the cyborg leader of a separatist droid army allied with Dooku's rebellious star systems. Anakin and Obi-Wan are sent to rescue the chancellor, and after Obi-Wan is knocked unconscious, Anakin defeats Dooku. Then, at the urgings of Palpatine, Anakin gives into the dark side and cuts his head off (something Palpatine must've known Anakin would do, having followed his career with great interest). 

Palpatine is relaxed, confident, patient. Like a spider. His scheme has multiple stages and layers. It doesn't have a sell-by date, nor is it dependent on every single thing going exactly as he'd envisioned back when he was gaming things out. For instance, he didn't plan for the sudden appearance of a possible "Chosen One," Anakin Skywalker, brought to Coruscant via Tatooine and Naboo by a Jedi who has trouble following protocol. Still, he barely misses a step, telling the boy hero at the end of "The Phantom Menace" that "we will watch your career with great interest." 

Anakin is instrumental in helping him dissolve the Senate, end democracy, and proclaim himself supreme ruler of the galaxy. It takes a truly formidable villain to see his incipient scheme to rule the galaxy being complicated early in the process by the arrival of a possible messiah figure who's under the tutelage of his mortal enemies, the Jedi Council, and fold the kid into the plan, not immediately, but over the course of about ten years.

Palpatine draws Anakin into his fold by playing on his fears that, despite his Jedi powers, he's unable to prevent loved ones from dying. Anakin is specifically worried about Padme, whom he pictured dying in childbirth during one of his nightmares. But he's also traumatized by the death of his mother at the hands of Tusken raiders in the previous movie. Palpatine promises Anakin that he'll teach him a secret Sith power that can defeat death itself and that only one Sith, Plagueis the Wise, knew how to use it. 

Some have argued the main plot of "The Rise of Skywalker," wherein "somehow Palpatine has returned," was planted in, and is justified by, the scene in "Sith" where Palpatine tells the story of Plagueis the Wise. I don't want to get into all the reasons why I don't accept "Rise of Skywalker" as a legitimate "Star Wars" film (the short version: it's the only one of the big nine that seems to have been manufactured entirely from negative, petty impulses). So let's just say that Palpatine is so brilliant and diabolical that I wouldn't rule out the possibility that he'd gamed out, "What would I do if somebody killed me?" Palpatine seems quite smug as he tells Anakin, "to cheat death is a power only one has achieved"; he likely wasn't talking about the master, but the apprentice, who killed the master in his sleep after learning everything he knew.

Back to "Sith," though: in a relatively early scene between Anakin and Obi-Wan (his master, at least in theory), we can tell Palpatine has sunk his talons in deep already by the way Anakin responds when Obi-Wan mentions that there's about to be another senate meeting to vote on whether to give Palpatine even more emergency powers. He sounds like he's repeating someone else’s talking points. "Well, that can only mean less deliberating and more action...It'll make it easier for us to end this war," Anakin says, referring to the separatists and making it sound as if deliberation is inherently opposed to good governance. 

Palpatine appoints Anakin to the Jedi Council as his personal stooge and informant, and the Jedi try to turn him into a double agent. Anakin is torn but ultimately chooses the correct path after figuring out that Palpatine is secretly a Sith Lord and reports the information to Mace Windu, who confronts him. But the promise of being able to save Padme is stronger than his loyalty to Windu, Yoda, and the rest of the Jedi. When Mace tries to arrest Palpatine, Palpatine resists, kills three other Jedi, then tries to electrocute Mace with Force lightning rather than surrender. When Mace announces that he's going to "end this" by killing the chancellor, Anakin intervenes -- not because a Jedi is about to commit murder, but because "I need him" to save Padme from death -- and cuts off Mace's lightsaber hand, allowing Palpatine to blast him again with lightning and send him falling to his death. 

After that, for Anakin, it's in for a penny, in for a pound, as characters in old novels used to say. 

Palpatine's psychological seduction of Anakin is one of the great ironic tragedies in science fiction. Anakin is born into slavery and escapes it through induction into the Jedi order, only to end up in permanent servitude to a far more diabolical and powerful master. The cocky, gifted teenager has such a huge ego that he can't handle having to remain an apprentice until the Jedi tell him he's ready to become a knight. In his peevish immaturity, he opens himself to corruption by a man who plays him like a ragtime piano and is sentenced to a permanent apprenticeship. You’d have to visit the Twilight Zone to find a more ironically perfect fate.

Even though bringing Palpatine back for "Rise" was a misstep and conceptually half-baked, you can see why LucasFilm and Disney couldn't resist doing it. He's so devious that he seems like the sort of guy who'd have a backup scheme in the event of physical death. And he makes such a powerful impression that even when he isn't onscreen, you wonder what he's up to, when he's going to show up again, and what fresh havoc he'll unleash when he does. It's a special villain who becomes an absent presence. McDiarmid agreed in a 2021 interview with The Guardian. "What’s fascinating is that he never went away from those movies," he said. "His ghastly presence ran them. I get a strange satisfaction from that."

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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