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.
6 thoughts on “The Palpatine Problem”
Cool blog entry! I like the way you’re tackling the Star Wars lore in a more academic style. It’s an issue that I too thought about while watching the show.
Unlike a lot of fans, who watched it broadcast on TV, I got into it from a box-set a little while after it had been cancelled. And as I’d count all the episodes and marvel at how long Filloni had been allowed to run the series, it occurred to me that this was all taking place within a – relatively narrow – three year window between Episodes II and III, and a lot was happening. Anakin was growing up quickly to meet the more mature person we see RotS, while Palpatine was encountering all sorts of dilemmas we had no idea about. Yet it never really seemed like he was being properly challenged, like his true identity could be outed. Or at least that’s how I recall it – it’s been a while since my previous viewing.
That is why I adored the Revenge of the Sith novelization, and if you haven’t yet read it, I’d like to encourage you. Mace and Yoda were so, so close to unearthing the Sith Lord. In the animated series, and maybe it’s just an issue with the tight 22 minute format, you never had the believe that the Jedi could escape their inevitable doom. Palpatine is simply always 2 steps ahead.
I don’t mean to be critical here. I actually highly enjoy our front row seat in observing the slow motion train-wreck that is the undoing of the Galactic Republic. There are many wonderful things to say about a narration of decadency and decay, and I’ve written much about this extensively in the past, but you know, wouldn’t it have been great if Palpatine didn’t have so much control over Dooku? Dooku did spill the beans on Geonosis to Obi-Wan, and I’d have liked that thread to be developed more.
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Hey there, I appreciate your comment a lot. Definitely tackling a lot of issues at once, I’ll try to see on which I have something to add:
I would agree that The Clone Wars as a show did little to challenge Palpatine’s authority. After all, a large part of my thesis statement hinges on that fact. Of course, had they come much closer to catching him, the plot could have been in danger of feeling comical, an extended Scooby Doo chase without the eventual unmasking. I remember a Legends book that was set just before RotS, and committed to that bit a little too much: how did Mace and Yoda not realize the danger that was lurking right in front of their eyes? Clouded visions, I suppose, but that writing device only gets one so far.
I also agree that the Republic’s decay makes for a fascinating narrative, though once again I feel that Palpatine is not always a benefit to this story. His grand scheming can sort of detract from the more systemic political issues that are playing out in the prequels. If Palpatine’s rise to power is symbolic of a strongman like Napoleon or Hitler (as Lucas alleges), then one should also explore the foundational cracks that allow such a figure to assume absolute power. In other words, what lies beyond the scheming of the Sith? My answer would be separatism, but we never really get a clear grip on why this movement is so popular as to cause an entire galactic war.
This brings me to the Sidious Solution in fact, my own fanfic-y narrative where I try to posit a prequel universe without the Sith, and without Palpatine. One of the core ideas here is that conflict would have arisen without a specific Dark Sider pulling the strings; it would just have emerged in a different form, or for a different cause. But this is a real deep dive into fictional/allegorical space politics.
In any case, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, and I hope some of my other Star Wars related content will interest you!
I admire your argument, but I do feel its coming from an objection, or at least a skepticism, of the core of the Star Wars mythology: the supernatural.
When you interpret the prequel trilogy without Palpatine you are simply looking at a very different animal, because the Sith Lord, as its made clear from the early stages of TPM, is instrumental to the Republic’s decline. His ability to orchestrate subterfuge is aided by by his command of the “Dark Side of the Force”, which is a fancy way of saying magic has granted him a phenomenal political brain.
Palpatine’s opposition are fellow magic users whose sum total just doesn’t come close to his. This is the main dilemma running thorough the films, and the members of the Jedi High Council are more than aware, describing it as a “clouding” of their judgements or ability to “use the Force”. While we the audience can revel in the constant feed of dramatic irony, it is important to understand that no character ever has this luxury; nor should they.
I will, however, agree with you in so far as Palpatine – or indeed any other character – having “unlimited power” is an awful literary device, even in the realm of space fantasy. But here’s the thing – I don’t think he does. Yes, he is the most powerful Force-wielding creature we see in any of the saga, but no, he did not mastermind every event we see on screen. Or to use a chess analogy: he was able to position his pieces into an attack, capturing the queen with his two rooks, but all of these pieces were already on the board before he started playing. The pieces are systemic problems like Senate corruption and bad governance, and their existence disproves the notion that all was well in the Republic before Sen. Palpatine set the Trade Federation and Darth Maul in motion.
It is clear that Lucas was taking his main inspiration from Hitler and the Wiemar Republic. The title of the Republic’s leader, “Chancellor”, and the fact that people willingly hand over their democracy to a tyrant – as apposed to a coup – make this obvious to any student of history. Napoleon is a different kettle of fish, a person who produced many good things for the world like his legal code (still used to this day) and the metric system, and far from the despot British historiography traditionally ascribes to him.
Star Wars is fiction and though it is nice to have parallels with real history, one cannot ignore that it is, like any good film, a character study. Nonetheless, the prequels are filled with exposition, and for many years they were hammered by critics for their focus on this. To suggest Lucas should have gone even further on exposition would not have been workable in the snapshot confines of film – that is what novels are for.
A decline of the Galactic Republic without any involvement of the Sith just isn’t Star Wars for me. The age old rivalry between the Jedi and Sith orders is one of my favourite things about the mythology, and a large part of its winning formula. If I want to take the supernatural out of it, I can look to the equally fascinating story of the Roman Empire’s fall from grace.
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I think you make some very good observations here regarding the narrative purpose of the Sith, yet I wouldn’t say that my suggestion of taking them out amounts to a removal of the supernatural.This is because like you, I see Palpatine as a particularly clever player, but not the inventor of the game itself.
However, this leads me to believe that even the Dark Side of the Force is not the exclusive property of the Sith, but a result from the system issues you mentioned. Indeed, if there is a more specific thematic element that I aim to object to with this essay, it is the identification of evil with the personal, rather than the systemic. In the absence of the literal Sith, the corruption of the Dark Side was still going to be around.
While I get that Star Wars likes to turn individual characters into the archetypical representations of larger forces, sometime the person can still distract from its own meaning. And I just find that the power and charisma of Palpatine (though it makes for an awesome character) is a little too great at times.
So my later thought experiment, if it could be called that, is not so much a call to eliminate the supernatural, but to diffuse its presence among a larger group of people. The Clone Wars and the Fall of the Republic should be decided by all of its participants, instead of a few clever chessmasters. The latter makes for a better prequel trilogy, of course, but that’s why my problem applies mostly to the animated show and other expanded materials.
You seem to have a fundamental issue with the concept of the Sith. There can only be two at any one time – this is the famous “Rule of Two” established by Darth Bane in order to bring stability to the Sith, which had previously been in chaos. And why were they in chaos? Their Order is essentially Social Darwinism meets The Force; a recipe for infighting, betrayal, revenge and is intrinsically volatile.
Bane asserted that it was preferable to restrict membership to two members, and risk extinction, than to continue with unending anarchy. A highly skilled master with an apprentice in training was declared sufficient to undertake a quest for absolute power. Of course that arrangement is not without its own form of instability, as the apprentice must eventually defeat (more likely: betray) his master, but it is a mechanism that keeps the Sith on their toes and allows them to grow more powerful (replacing a weak master with a stronger one).
This is brilliant structure to grant the villains of Star Wars. It is both highly original and highly personalised.
I see no issue with the identification of evil with the personal. Palpatine is essentially evil incarnate, “Chancellor Palpatine is evil!” as Obi-Wan once yelled, and while that may not be the most original idea, it does serve the story and the message that Lucas was trying to get across. It informs why a creature would want to commit so many callous and murderous acts.
As to the Dark Side not being the sole domain of the Sith, I don’t see evidence for this. The get access to the Force one needs to be Force-sensitive, and as far as we know, only members of the Jedi or Sith are capable of this. In other words, you can be a terrible person and not have any control of the Force. The combination of force-sensitivity and Sith-characteristics is paramount, and is, to dive into the real world, like a nuclear bomb in the hands of a totalitarian leader.
A war being decided by a few clever chessmasters sounds reasonable to me. Palpatine is one, yet he is also an architect, and an architect cannot realise his designs without builders, expensive materials and land. A debate can certainly be had as to how successful the animated series was at fleshing out the latter three.
The Clone Wars is not as complex as it could be, I’ll grant you that. It is a children’s show after all, although its hardcore fans would dispute that. If I were to write it I would keep some of the events, but there would be a lot to be changed. I would feature so much more of the senators, I felt really disappointed that the series even dropped Padmé in later seasons (She’s shoehorned into Ashokas’s trial, is she not?). I think there are so many colourful and influential characters that could be found here. This is on my list of things I’d like to see happening in the revived new season, but I remain pessimistic.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to bring a comrade from Naboo News know as “Cryogenic” into this discussion. He’s an even better scribe than myself, and I think he could add a lot.
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Sure, I’m happy to welcome more people to this discussion!
As for the Sith though, I agree that their particular structure is interesting and unique. However, it seems to me that there is plenty of evidence for the Dark Side transcending the Sith. I suppose there’s not as much if we restrict ourselves to the Force as practiced. In that case, we just have the Imperial Inquisitors, Dathomirian witches, and a stable of apprentices and rogue agents like Maul and Ventress.
But what I really mean to talk about here, is the Force as a spiritual presence. It seems to me that in Star Wars, the Will of the Force influences galactic events, and vice-versa. It is a clever way of bypassing more complex talk about politics and society. Instead of saying ‘the Republic is unstable because of economic inequality’ or whatever, you can just say ‘the Dark Side has put the Force out of balance’. There is something karmic about it, in that bad deeds and intentions beget bad outcomes. This is why the Jedi don’t just fight for the light physically, but also present a calming influence at the heart of galactic politics. When the Jedi go to war, they lose something pure about them. As it is said in the Clone Wars show itself, they were not supposed to be generals.
So this is why I perhaps don’t mind the Palpatine Problem as much as it may seem. In the end, I see him as just another agent in the struggle of larger Forces (pun intended), and even he loses his grip on the situation by the time of Episode VI.