I do not envy the position George Lucas must have been in when he first started working on the Star Wars prequels. To him fell the task of creating a tragedy that could explain both the personal demise of Anakin Skywalker, and the greater downfall of the Old Republic. As with all tragedies, there was a danger here that events would feel arbitrary, forced, or contrived. And as with all prequels, these films faced the possibility of not standing on their own, of using the original story as a crutch. Given these inherent risks, the eventual result is commendable; the prequels have cultivated their own subculture within the fandom, and Star Wars simply wouldn’t be the same without them.
However, despite the many great stories that take place within the prequel era, I would argue that at least one part of it is thematically compromised, and effectively useless as a setting. I speak here of the Clone Wars, a galactic conflict that takes place in-between the second and third films of the prequel trilogy, and is best known through the multiple animated series that portray its events. Since the narrative defect that plagues the Clone Wars is intimately tied up with the actions of a single character within it, I have dubbed this issue ‘the Palpatine Problem’.
In this essay, I will attempt to explain the Palpatine Problem, starting with a short fictional biography of the character himself. Once the narrative role of Palpatine is clear, we can begin to understand how it conflicts with the potential meanings of the Clone Wars setting, which is what the second section is dedicated to. After that, I will try to tease out some of the important nuances of the Palpatine Problem, along with some anticipated objections. Finally, the elucidation of this problem will serve as the springboard for further narrative experimentation, as I will make clear in my conclusion. But first, let us speak of the man who calls himself ‘he Senate’.
The Story of Sheev
At the start of the Phantom Menace, the one we know as Sheev Palpatine is effectively playing two different characters. One is a helpful Republic senator, all too eager to help queen Amidala resolve the Trade Federation’s blockade of her home planet Naboo. His other persona is lord Sidious, the phantom menace who has orchestrated that very blockade by conspiring with the Trade Federation’s leaders. By the time this Naboo crisis is resolved, Palpatine has found himself propelled to the chancellorship; this is the first step on his path to complete galactic domination.
While the first decade of his tenure appears rather peaceful, his intermittent scheming comes to a head during the Separatist Crisis, where a coalition of Outer Rim worlds lead by the mysterious Count Dooku threaten to secede from the Republic. With Dooku being his new Sith apprentice, Palpatine effectively controls both sides of the conflict. Furthermore, he has arranged for the creation of a secret clone army, one that allows him to bypass the need for a controversial Military Creation Act. As for any opposition the chancellor might face from the Jedi Council, their own role in exciting the initial attack of the clones on Geonosis only further obscures his own involvement. Taken together, the political results of this second episode are an absolute win for Sidious, further cementing his ‘emergency’ powers through the creation of the Clone Wars. And on a more personal note, his influence on young Anakin Skywalker also appear to be bearing fruit…
Indeed, the manipulation of his prospective apprentice appears to be one of Palpatine’s primary projects by the time Revenge of the Sith comes around. The Clone Wars seem to be winding down, and he needs a young and powerful enforcer to protect him from any future opposition by the Jedi or the Senate. Luckily, by turning Anakin against the Jedi Council, he accomplishes both these ends at once. The Jedi are implicated in a coup against him, and this rallies the Senate around him to such an extent that he can declare himself Emperor, mostly merging the two personas of Sidious and Palpatine into one. Thus, within the short span of a two-hour movie, we find a Jedi Order purged, an Empire in charge, and for now at least, a galaxy at peace.
Based off the above, we can be sure that Palpatine’s role in the prequels is that of an evil mastermind. And given that almost all of the schemes I’ve listed seem to work out perfectly, we must consider him a character of great power and influence. Despite the best efforts of the Jedi Council, the Separatist Alliance, and the loyal opposition in the Republic Senate, he still manages to attain the supreme power of a Galactic Emperor, bringing all these opponents down in the process. While this career trajectory makes for a riveting political drama, it also creates a bit of a problem when it comes to the intermediary setting of the Clone Wars. In the continuing process of explaining that narrative friction, we will now focus on the latter. What is it about the Clone Wars that is so problematized by the powerful presence of Palpatine?
On the Meaning of the Clone Wars, as well as its Subsequent Corruption
If we wish to understand the meaning of the Clone Wars, we could hardly go wrong by taking its namesake animated series (the second one, to be precise) as our primary source, especially because this work is about as close to ‘pure canon’ as you can get. Taking its many seasons into account, our first impression might be that this show portrays a regular good-versus-evil narrative, a war between a noble Republic and a group of nasty secessionists. It’s like the American Civil War, but with aliens and spaceships instead of racists and horse carts.
Looking more closely, however, there is a significant amount of textual evidence that rejects this black-and-white interpretation. As the opening crawl to Revenge of the Sith states, ‘there are heroes on both sides [and] evil is everywhere’. And indeed, though their portrayal is generally less favorable, there are some compelling reasons for why we might favor the Separatists over the Republic. Let us not forget that it is the Republic which eventually turns to Empire, with many former Separatists coming to join the nascent Rebellion against it. This rapid role reversal suggests that the Clone Wars were themselves an ambiguous moral conflict, shades of grey that demand a great deal of wisdom about one’s allegiance. Many of my favorite stories within this setting, such as the Umbara arc or the ‘Heroes on Both Sides’/‘Pursuit of Peace’ duology, deal with exactly this theme. Thus, since it is both an obvious and a nuanced reading of the Clone Wars narrative, I will take this moral ambiguity to be its preferred meaning, if not the intended one.
Now that we have a grasp on what the Clone Wars ought to mean, it’s time to insert the role of Palpatine into this. At first, his control of both sides of this conflict might seem to amplify the theme of moral ambiguity. Who can tell what’s right from wrong, when the Sith are behind it all? Yet on further reflection, one realizes that this does not provide ambiguity so much as frustration. For if we know that the ultimate victory of the Sith is assured, then it doesn’t matter which of their puppets we would align ourselves with. A question like ‘who should win the battle for Cristophsis’ becomes immediately useless once we know that no matter who wins today, Sidious wins tomorrow. This sense of narrative impotence, then, is the Palpatine Problem.
Some Final Suggestions
Though I have now pointed to the core of the Palpatine Problem, there are still some specific issues we ought to clarify. First, I would like to emphasize that it is not the literal inevitability of the Empire’s rise that constitutes the Palpatine Problem. That is merely a byproduct of this setting being a prequel; since we know the Empire exists by the time of the original Star Wars, any works set before it must necessarily lead up to that. But this would be the case even if the Sith didn’t control both sides, if for example the Separatists were a legitimate proto-Rebellion. Instead, the narrative problem lies with the artificial nature of the Clone Wars, existing as a mere power play by Palpatine. That is why it doesn’t matter who wins, and why any imagined alternative would lead to a similar revenge of the Sith (though not necessarily a similar Revenge of the Sith).
Secondly, I wish to make note of the strict boundaries within which this problem applies. Since it is caused by the unchallenged influence of the Sith, it does not apply to any situation where this authority is actually challenged. This would include all three prequel films, as well as some ancillary materials set in the Clone Wars itself. We can check this ourselves by asking the following question: would a different course of action at point X meaningfully impact the rise of the Sith? If the answer is yes, and there are a lot of such yesses throughout the prequel trilogy, then the Palpatine Problem does not apply. But as we have gathered, the Clone Wars itself is filled with a lot of noes.
Finally, I wish to deal with a likely objection to the Palpatine Problem. This would be to bite the bullet and claim that the ultimate meaninglessness of the Clone Wars is its intended message. I believe this suggestion fails for a simple reason: it would make the Clone Wars into a grimdark narrative, one where even the slightest spark of hope is snuffed out by the power of the Dark Side. To me, this seems antithetical to the core message of Star Wars, namely that good can and will always win out over evil. If that message cannot be displayed within this setting, we might as well discard it.
I hope that the preceding paragraphs have given you some idea of what the Palpatine Problem is, of how the unlimited power of this character interferes with the meaning of the Clone Wars. If your awareness of it leaves you feeling worse about the Clone Wars, then I do apologize. Perhaps it would help to inform you that this is not the end of my writing on this topic. From the start of this project, I have not just been looking to explain this narrative problem, but also to address it properly through more speculative means. Using the Palpatine Problem as a catalyst for my imagination, it has now made way for a Sidious Solution. What this solution consists of, I will leave to a later piece. Until then, may the Force be with you.