There were many things about The Rise of Skywalker that sparked debate amongst fans, some of which were fair and others which weren’t.
And while there is certainly room to criticize the film, one line from the movie has become a common one to use in highlighting its issues… except I don’t think it’s a fair critique.
The line is one uttered by Poe Dameron early on, as he tells the Resistance that “somehow, Palpatine returned.” In the two years since the movie’s release, the line has become a common joke amongst people on social media. A large part of why is because the movie doesn’t really explain how Palpatine returned, so this line has thus been highlighted as an example of lazy writing. How did Palpatine return? “Somehow.”
So it is important for us to realize that the criticism and mocking of this line does come from a genuine area of critique: the movie didn’t explain anything about Palpatine’s return. In fact, we’re told about it in the opening crawl, thrusting us into the midst of the mystery. In the opening sequence, Palpatine acknowledges that “I have died before” but also adds that “the dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.” That’s the same line he used with Anakin in Revenge of the Sith to explain how the Sith possess the secret to keeping people from dying, so for most casual viewers, that line is probably enough to get you to suspend some of your doubts and believe that he’s really back. He was apparently right in what he said to Anakin; he did possess the secret. Later, after Poe’s line, Beaumont Kin responds to questions about how Palpatine returned by saying, “Dark science. Cloning. Secrets only the Sith knew.”
This is how the movie explains the return of the Emperor, and like I said, I actually think it’s probably enough for the average casual viewer. For the more hardcore Star Wars fans, Palpatine’s return isn’t a shock, given that it happened in Legends too. And just like has been the case for pretty much the entire history of Star Wars, a lot of these details aren’t ever given on-screen but instead added in other material. That’s been the case with Palpatine’s return, as the novelization explains how Palpatine transferred his life to a clone body – and how Luke thought Palpatine had just been lying about the secret to immortality. The movie doesn’t have to give all the answers, and the answers it does give are ok. But nonetheless, it’s a fair critique to suggest that the movie needed more elaboration about how Palpatine returned. The reason I think it would have been better to give more information, however, is NOT because I think we need all the answers given on-screen but because we need reason to believe that Rey’s victory over Palpatine this time is actually final. If we don’t know how he returned, then what’s to say he won’t just come back again after his latest death? That’s why I think the movie should have given more information earlier in the film, so that when Rey defeats Palpatine at the end we realize that this time it’s for good. (or, at least, we assume it’s for good…)
But do you know when that explanation didn’t need to be given? In Poe Dameron’s address to the Resistance. “Somehow, Palpatine returned” is actually a great line for that context. Before you laugh, let me explain.
The Resistance has heard the same broadcast as the rest of the galaxy – the broadcast mentioned in the opening crawl and heard in Fortnite, of all places. “At last the work of generations is complete,” Palpatine ominously says. “The great error is corrected. The day of victory is at hand. The day of revenge. The day of the Sith!” There’s no explanation in there for how he’s back, and it would be easy to assume that many people didn’t believe it was actually Palpatine. It sounded like him, sure, but it couldn’t be him! Nonetheless, the Resistance and the First Order alike both search for answers. Kylo Ren finds them, as he tracks down the Emperor on Exegol and confronts him. But the Resistance merely gets word from a reliable source – a spy in the First Order – that Palpatine is indeed back.
That’s all they know. They don’t know how he’s back. They don’t know where he is. They don’t know what’s going on. But they know enough to know that Palpatine has returned – somehow. Against all belief. Somehow, the great enemy of generations has returned. Somehow, the one Leia Organa fought against decades earlier is alive again. Given the context, of course the Resistance wouldn’t know what’s going on! Of course the Resistance wouldn’t have the answers about how he returned! It’s completely foolish of us to expect the characters in the story to be omniscient and understand everything that’s happening. Part of the intrigue of the film is the realization that the heroes don’t have all the answers either.
Any gripes with the line itself, then, isn’t actually about the line. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be, unless we’ve forgotten how to watch movies. The criticism of the line is a shorthand of expressing frustration that the movie didn’t provide more answers. But there is no way the movie should have provided the answers in that scene, because there is no way the Resistance would or should know them.
Considering all of this, I actually think the “somehow, Palpatine returned” line makes a lot of sense. It highlights the desperation of our heroes, who realize that their worst fears are confirmed yet have no idea how it happened.