With the very first words of the opening crawl of The Rise of Skywalker – “the dead speak!” – we are told that Palpatine has returned.
The film doesn’t explain how, beyond the line “the dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural,” but ultimately we know the main thing: somehow, through some dark means, Palpatine returned from the dead (he says that he has died before). And timeline-wise, it seems this had to have happened at least by 13 years before The Force Awakens, since that was when Rey was left behind on Jakku, and since it was Palpatine who ordered Ochi to bring her to him on Exegol.
So here’s my question: was Palpatine’s return detected, or did no one have an idea? In particular, did Jedi Master Luke Skywalker have any idea that Palpatine may have returned? We don’t have all the answers, but we get a significant hint in The Rise of Skywalker Visual Dictionary, written by Pablo Hidalgo: Luke sensed something was up.
Here’s what we read:
- [13 years before the Starkiller Incident] “Sensing the continued presence of the dark side, Luke starts investigating leads that mention Exegol” (9)
- “Six years after the tragedy that befell this family, Calrissian served as a partner and guide to Luke Skywalker as the Jedi Master searched for clues to a growing darkness he detected in the Force. Whispers spoke of a resurgent enemy from the past, and Skywalker was determined to find some answers. Had some remnant of the Sith survived? Calrissian’s underworld contacts passed along rumors of ahunter of Sith relics on Pasaana, and while Luke and Lando investigated the world’s deserts they did not find their quarry.” (115)
- “Luke Skywalker and Lando Calrissian had investigated rumors of a hunter of Sith relics named Ochi of Bestoon years earlier. Having kept his ears on the underworld, Calrissian had heard of an inebriated Ochi bragging at some distant bar that he had been on the hunt for a wayfinder, and had found it in one of the Emperor’s vaults. Luke and Lando sought Ochi, but the trail ran cold in the scorched sands of Pasaana.” (126)
Very clearly, 13 years before the events of the sequel trilogy, Luke sensed that something was up. Something was moving in the Force in a dark way. It is described in the Visual Dictionary as Luke sensing “the continued presence of the dark side” and a “growing darkness”, but there’s also a line that “whispers spoke of a resurgent enemy from the past.” All of this is what led Luke to search for Exegol, including his mission with Lando Calrissian to Pasaana that the movie picks up on. Rey says in the film that Luke almost found Exegol, but the trail went cold in the deserts of Pasaana.
So did Luke actually know that Palpatine had returned? I doubt it. At most, he might have suspected it, but I don’t think he knew for sure. But what he did know for sure is that some remnant of the darkness, and of the Sith, had apparently returned. He was attuned to the moving of the Force, and he sensed it happening. This led him to explore and try to find Exegol, but he couldn’t finish the trail. I really hope we hear more in the coming years of Luke’s search for Exegol, however, as I think it could be really cool and significant. In many ways, Luke was the last line of defense against Palpatine – at least until a new generation of Jedi could be trained – and it’s no coincidence that the First Order didn’t fully emerge until after Skywalker had been taken out of the game.
Jedi Master Luke Skywalker did indeed sense the rising darkness, one that was rumored to be the return of an old enemy, and this caused him to search for answers. He didn’t find any, but years later two of Luke’s apprentices – Ben Solo and Rey – did.