Massive SPOILERS for The Rise of Skywalker contained herein. This is your only warning!
The Dark Lords of the Sith have been an enigmatic evil threatening the galaxy since the Star Wars saga began over four decades ago. And although The Rise of Skywalker brought on their end (at least for now), it also revealed the truth behind one part of the Sith doctrine that never made sense: The so-called “Rule of Two.”
This all comes to a head in the scene in which Palpatine confronts Rey in final battle, telling her, “I am every Sith!” And as it turns out, he means that quite literally. With that statement, he explains that one weird aspect of Star Wars lore, and furthermore totally changes what the Sith even are, going back a millennium.
But before we get into all that, here’s a primer on the Dark Lords of the Sith and their lore, going back to the beginning.
The word “Sith” was never spoken in the original trilogy of Star Warsfilms. It did appear in Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the first film, which described Darth Vader as “a Dark Lord of the Sith.” You could also find it in some ancillary material at the time, like the Marvel Comics series. So when the Emperor finally took the screen in Return of the Jedi, the assumption was that he too was a Sith Lord.
When The Phantom Menace came out some 16 years later, the whole lore and tradition of the Sith was greatly expanded upon. We finally heard the word soken aloud on screen. We learned that the term “Darth” is a title, and that Senator Palpatine was in fact Darth Sidious. We also learned that his right hand man was Darth Maul. “Always two, there are. No more, no less. A master an an apprentice.” This is how Yoda described these red lightsaber-wielding Dark Side warriors. When Maul was killed (sorta/kinda), he was replaced with Count Dooku, a.k.a. Darth Tyranus. And of course, he was then ultimately replaced by Darth Vader.
But why just two? The official canon lore in The Phantom Menace novelization explained that there were once thousands of Sith, who spent millennia in conflict with the Jedi Order. Eventually, between Sith Lords killing one another and the Jedi killing off the rest, only one Sith Lord remained: Darth Bane. It was he who instituted the “Rule of Two,” and assured that only one Sith Master would exist at a time. The Master would always inevitably take an apprentice, who would eventually usurp him. This cycle continued for a thousand years.
However, for the power-hungry and totally self-motivated Sith, it was totally illogical. Why would any Sith Lord take on a student if the student’s destiny was always to kill him? When Palpatine consolidated all that power, why share it with anyone at all? Why obsess over getting an acolyte who is more powerful than yourself, who will no doubt end you? This actually has a pretty good explanation in The Rise of Skywalker. There aren’t two “true” Sith Lords—there has always been just one.
Although it is all spelled out in The Rise of Skywalker, the roots of this reveal actually go back to Revenge of the Sith. One key piece of Star Wars lore introduced in Episode III was the legend of Darth Plagueis the Wise. Palpatine told this story to Anakin Skywalker as a way to lure him to the Dark Side. Palpatine mentioned how Plageuis was a master of the Dark Side so powerful that he had the power to survive death. But then his apprentice, presumably Darth Sidious, “killed him in his sleep.” This of course left Darth Sidious as the true Lord of the Sith. But then why ever teach Maul or Vader, if their destiny is to always have that student turn on them? For beings whose core value is selfishness, it’s baffling.
But one climactic scene in The Rise of Skywalker answers these questions. Palpatine reveals to Rey that he wishes to send his spirit into Rey’s younger, Force-strong physical form. It’s what he wanted with Anakin before Anakin became mangled and broken in the mechanical body of Vader. So he tried desperately to have Luke strike him down in anger, in the hopes that a Dark Side Luke could become his new body. Now he wants the same of Rey, as his Frankensith body is barely held together with spit and tin foil. When he says Rey could become Empress Palpatine, he really just means that he’d live on in her body as Emperor.
So Darth Sidious was then always the spirit of Darth Plagueis, now housed in the body of his former apprentice. And Plagueis was presumably always Darth Bane. The Sith master always informs their apprentice that their betrayal is inevitable, so that when they do eventually turn on him in anger, they can jump into their new body, extending life indefinitely. When a Sith apprentice murders their master, they become stronger in the Dark Side than at any other moment, brimming with hate. This is what makes them the perfect vessel. One can assume that the Sith apprentice is never really aware of this fact. It’s one long con played out over centuries.
This of course raises another question, one that The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t answer. What is the difference between Rey striking down Palpatine with her saber, as he tries to coax her into doing, and the way she actually ends up destroying him? Why couldn’t he possess her then?
I have a theory for that too. To outright murder in anger, you are giving yourself to the Dark Side. In that act, you open yourself up to the Sith spirit to overtake you. But when Rey ends Palpatine in the film, she is merely deflecting his own power against him.
Rey doesn’t give in to hate, and uses Luke and Leia’s saber’s only in defense. It’s also why Palps needed Luke to “go dark” in Return of the Jedi. It’s a process. Of course, this is just my educated guess. We never hear it out loud in the final film. But one thing is certain: J.J. Abrams just pulled off the biggest ret-con in all of Star Wars. And for the most part, I think this added wrinkle makes the entire nine-part story that much more interesting.
Featured Image: Lucasfilm