The Alexandrian

PalpatineI have a theory when it comes to the Star Wars prequels: I think that they are, fundamentally, stories and theatrical experiences with the same depth, scope, grandeur, and quality of the original trilogy. This fundamental strength, however, is masked by the peculiar foibles that have, unfortunately, become emblematic of George Lucas’ recent work: The fart jokes. The anachronistic comedy. The self-indulgent special effects sequences.

But I would further hold that these foibles are, in fact, only cosmetic in nature. In fact, I think an analogy can be drawn to the Special Editions of the original trilogy. Here, too, we see the same foibles: The sinister rendered comical. Droids performing Three Stooges routines. Scenes reinstated which should have (and did) hit the cutting room floor because they lessened the films.

But if you take away all the foibles and sweep them away, you still have the fundamentally great movies we all remember and love.

I think the same thing is true of the prequels. The only difference is that we were never given the chance to see the great version of these films. Instead, all we’ve ever seen are the “special edition” edits — complete with all the foibles and flaws that turn greatness into heartbreaking mediocrity.

This is why, I think, there is a particular fascination with the “phantom edits” of these films (particularly The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones). I don’t think any of these “phantom edits” have, in fact, managed to be entirely successful — either due to lack of talent; insufficient technical facility; or the excesses of fanboy agendas — but that’s a subject for another time.

Instead, I want to talk about one of the things that I think Lucas does particularly well in the original trilogy: The scheming of Palpatine.

A common misunderstanding is that “everything goes just like Palpatine wants it to”. The reality is actually a lot subtler and more powerful than that.


Let’s begin at the beginning. Before The Phantom Menace opens, what is Palpatine’s plan? Well, to some degree, we need to interpolate (since Palpatine never deigns to monologue like a Bond villain). But the best answer would seem to be this:

As Senator Palpatine, arrange for the Senate to pass exorbitant tax laws targeting the trade guilds. Then, as Darth Sidious, use the outrage over these new tax laws to forge an alliance with the Trade Federation. Use the Trade Federation to trigger a crisis by having them invade his own home planet of Naboo. Use this crisis to trigger a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Velorum and then use his own political connections plus the sizable sympathy vote to be elected the new Supreme Chancellor.

Once that’s been achieved, he would force Queen Amidala to sign a treaty with the Trade Federation, creating a home base for the Separatist movement. He could then gradually increase the scale and scope of the crisis until the Senate was forced to vote him emergency powers. Once he had those, he could tighten his grip on the universe.


In The Phantom Menace we see these plans get disrupted — at least to some extent. With the help of Qui-Gonn and Obi-Wan, Queen Amidala escapes. Palpatine tries to cope with this situation by sending Darth Maul to recapture Amidala.

In fact, recapturing Amidala is absolutely crucial for the success of Palpatine’s original plan. But Amidala escapes again, finally reaching Coruscant. This forces Palpatine to adjust his scheme: He uses Amidala’s presence on Coruscant to trigger the no confidence vote.

But no sooner is that done than Amidala throws a new wrench into his plans by announcing her intention to return to Naboo. Palpatine tries to have Amidala killed (“Wipe them out, all of them.) — probably in the hopes of creating a martyr — but she thwarts him again, this time by winning the war and defeating the Trade Federation’s droid army.

Ironically, however, this helps Palpatine, too: He was elected Chancellor on a promise to clear up this Trade Federation problem and, within a matter of weeks, the problem has apparently been cleared up. Palpatine can undoubtedly use this huge success to solidify his political support and his position as Chancellor.

The brilliance of The Phantom Menace, masked by Lucas’ foibles, is a story in which the heroes win every single battle… and end up losing the war. And they don’t even know it.


To be fair, the heroes in The Phantom Menace probably delayed Palpatine’s plans — forcing him to re-trench and re-establish his plans for a Separatist movement.

But over the next ten years, Palpatine secretly uses his political connections to prevent any lasting repercussions from reaching the Trade Federation; somehow arranges for the creation of a Clone Army; and gets his plans for the Separatist movement back on track. In Attack of the Clones we see the Separatist movement create a crisis great enough for the Senate to vote Palpatine emergency powers (essentially giving him complete control of the government). Palpatine can then activate his clone army and create a conflagration across the galaxy.

The brilliance of Attack of the Clones, masked to a somewhat lesser extent by Lucas’ foibles, is a villain playing both sides of the game while making the heroes do all the work for him. For Palpatine it doesn’t actually matter which side wins the Clone Wars: He controls them both.

Attack of the Clones also features the type of rapid readjustment we saw Palpatine perform in The Phantom Menace. At the very beginning of the movie, there is an attempted assassination attempt on Senator Amidala. One reason for this assassination is explicitly given in the film: The Trade Federation wants her assassinated before they’ll agree to sign on with Count Dooku.

But there’s also a deeper level at work here: Amidala is the leader of the Loyalists, who are opposed to the Military Creation Act. Palpatine is publicly her ally in this, but privately he knows the time is fast-approaching when he’s going to be making a political about-face on this one (all the while talking about the “sad necessity” of his actions). Amidala, however, is an idealist and might prove troublesome. As a martyr, however, she’s not only out of the way — her death could be used as his reason for performing the about-face.

When the assassination attempt fails, however, Palpatine manipulates events again to achieve his desired results: He gets her to return home to Naboo. Meanwhile, on Coruscant, he manipulates the junior senator from Naboo (Jar-Jar) into proposing the very measure Amidala would have probably fought with her last breath.

On top of all that, I suspect an even deeper level of machination: Palpatine knows of Anakin’s feelings for Amidala. And not only does he manipulate the situation to get Amidala off Coruscant, he manipulates it so that she’s sent off of Coruscant with Anakin. Palpatine must suspect that this will create a love that he can then use as a lever to help turn Anakin to the dark side.


Finally, in Revenge of the Sith, we see the end-game which allows Palpatine to simultaneously become Emperor and destroy the Jedi.

The war he has created and orchestrated from both sides has served not only to create a military state that he rigidly controls, it has also thinned the ranks of the Jedi. Both of these are necessary for the successful execution of Order 66, which paves the way for the dissolution of the Jedi Council and the extermination of the Jedi.

Once those goals have been accomplished, Palpatine quickly brings the civil war to an end. (Easily accomplished, since he controls both sides.) Like an antique Roman, Palpatine refuses to relinquish his emergency powers and becomes Emperor.


Between the end of Revenge of the Sith and the beginning of A New Hope, Palpatine has continued to “tighten his grip” (as Princess Leia puts it). In terms of the Jedi, this means Darth Vader’s hunting down and destroying the last of that “ancient order”. In the case of the Empire, it means steadily strengthening the regional governors and weakening the Senate.

As A New Hope begins, Palpatine is actually laying down the finishing touches of his Imperial dreams: The Senate has been dissolved and he will rule directly through the governors. All of this is possible, however, only because the Death Star gives him an absolute threat of tyrannical force with which to enforce his will.

When the Death Star is destroyed, Palpatine is dealt a serious blow. What we see in The Empire Strikes Back is the Empire trying to maintain its absolute power using the Imperial Navy. But Palpatine knew that would never be sufficient (that’s why he built the Death Star in the first place) — and, just as Princess Leia predicted, more and more systems are slipping through his fingers. The Rebel Alliance is growing in strength, although it’s still on the run.

In Return of the Jedi we see it all fall apart: The new Death Star is Palpatine’s attempt to restore the control he tried to grasp in A New Hope. And, of course, it fails rather dramatically.


This little essay has dealt primarily with Palpatine’s political machinations. But one of the things that makes Star Wars particularly powerful is that there are actually three meta-stories being woven throughout the saga:

First, there are Palpatine’s political machinations — the story of the rise and fall of the Empire.

Second, there is Palpatine’s war against the Jedi — the story of the rise and fall of the Sith (and, conversely, the fall and rebirth of the Jedi).

Third, there is the saga of the Skywalkers — the corruption of Anakin and the pure hero quest of Luke. (Particularly notable here is that a strong argument can be made that Palpatine actually fights a battle against prophecy and, for a limited time, wins. As Obi-Wan tearfully cries out in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin was the Chosen One… and Palpatine took that away from him.)

And although I’m not going to go into it here, there is as much depth and complexity in the second and third tales, in my opinion, as there is in the first.

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12 Responses to “Star Wars: The Plan of Palpatine”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    William Wimmer
    I’ve always found it fascinating that people don’t understand how Anakin fulfilled the prophecy. As undoubtedly one of the most powerful force users (even though we never see his full badassery) by joining with Palpatine we see the equal of 2 Sith balancing the entire Jedi Counsel. It was only when Order 66 was issued that the Sith gained the upper hand – destroying the balance which was later restored again by the birth and ascendancy of Luke. Had Luke allowed his father to live (Palpatine had to die of necessity), the force would have remained balanced until the death of either. I think they should have trained someone together and brought about a new order of Sedi that practice both sides of the force with equal skill. Sith are not inherently evil, they just follow a the philosophy of hedonism versus the jedi asceticism. If you could “force power’ someone who had moderation of both philosophies the force would remain balanced for all time.
    Saturday, October 23, 2010, 1:44:03 PM

    Thomas D
    Which brings us up to the films 4, 5, and 6, in which Anakin’s offspring redeem him and allow him to fulfill the prophecy where he brings balance to the Force by doing away with the Sith and getting rid of evil in the universe…”

    Apparantly, balance means destroying the evil sith. If luke had allowed his father to live, the force would have remained unbalanced, as Sith are evil. Sith are, according to George Lucas, inherently evil. The idea that sith are evil has been repeated throughout the films, books, and tv series based on Star Wars. It’s banged into you repeatedly and overtly.

    It’s not a well thought out idea, but it’s the idea that everything is based on.
    Saturday, October 23, 2010, 3:32:55 PM

    Of course, Anakin Skywalker has to be, as a friend put, “dumb as a box of hammers” to advance the plot.
    Friday, March 26, 2010, 6:16:32 PM

    I was searching for exactly this, an explanation of what exactly Palpatine was doing and why. Now I know. Many thanks for that. Your intellect and insight is indeed magnificent. I appreciate your work.
    Friday, November 20, 2009, 5:19:50 PM

    Excellent article. Readers might find the following essay on Palpatine also interesting:
    “The Ultimate Con” –
    Friday, May 22, 2009, 1:43:57 PM

    Justin Alexander
    What were you looking for an expansion on? Palpatine’s character arc or the Phantom Editing essay?
    Sunday, February 22, 2009, 12:53:41 AM

    “John Lee”
    Would this, in any way, be feasible to expand upon? 😀
    Saturday, February 21, 2009, 8:29:34 AM

    Excellently written and reasoned article. This is what i’ve always believed of Star Wars and why i continue to defend Phantom Menance to my friends. For me the first movie is very much all about Palpatine moving from senator to chancellor and not only does he win, but he even tricks the heroes into believing that it is they who have won.
    This is one of the reasons that Palpatine is my all time favourite villain. Not only does he succeed more often than he fails, but he only really gets defeated by a random plot twist of teddy bears killing well armed, well trained and armoured soldiers.
    In fact, thats probably my big beef with Star Wars. The teddy bear rebellion.
    Thursday, February 12, 2009, 10:05:39 AM

    Justin Alexander
    My problem with most phantom edits, including the original one, is that they usually don’t stand up very well as films.

    The original Phantom Edit, for example, is a pretty decent “Best Of” highlight reel for the film — but it’s pretty poorly paced and, judged by artistic merits, awkwardly edited.

    Other phantom edits try to impose a completely new story onto the films or just revamp things to match the editor’s personal vision. But then you end up with two visions fighting with each other, and the result — while potentially interesting — doesn’t really feel like Star Wars to me.

    I think the correct way to approach a phantom edit is to try to find the film George Lucas was trying to make. It’s kinda like trying to find the 1977 version of Star Wars if the only thing you’ve got is the 2004 Special Edition.

    At some point my thoughts on this should probably a complete blog essay thing in its own right.
    Friday, May 09, 2008, 5:02:33 AM

    I’ve not seen the edits of the other ones but I thought the phantom edit of the first film was quite powerful… removing alot of jar-jar’s emotion breaking and adding a bit of intention to Annikin’s performance really pushed the film into new territory for me. To be fair, I always loved the pod-race and defended the film when it came out.
    Saturday, April 12, 2008, 5:44:55 PM

    I always found it interesting that from both sides’ perspective, Anakin does indeed “restore balance to the Force.” He is the catalyst who allows order 66 to be executed, bringing both numbers to 2, and later eliminates the last two Sith (Palpatine and himself), fulfulling the Jedi version.
    Tuesday, January 29, 2008, 7:37:04 AM

  2. Spike says:

    Well, I won’t feel guilty about resurrecting this since you did just link to it elsewhere…

    I do find it amusing that you claim Palpatine fought prophesy and won, however briefly.

    I find it a math error starting from Lucas. Balance, according to Lucas (only?!) apparently means ‘Good’.

    In math terms it does not. In science terms it can be ‘equilibrium’ as well as anything else.

    There are hundreds of Jedi, they have a massive temple, political power (regardless of their stance on it, they do have power), etc etc etc.

    Good, essentially, is winning. Jedi = over 9000!!!!!

    The Sith have, in the ENTIRE GALAXY (stupid writers with scale fail), TWO GUYS. One of which is useful and powerful, and the other is a patsy until he figures it out and murders the first dude and gets his own patsy. THey have 0 political power, 0 social power, just two dudes.

    Evil = 1, maybe 2 if we’re generous.

    OVER 9000 =/= 2. In fact, you gotta minus that OVER 9000 pretty fucking hard to balance that equation.

    In walks Anakin Skywalker, prophesied to bring Balance to the force.

    Meaning that when he’s done Over 9000 will, in fact, equal 2. Maybe he’s bad ass enough to count as 8998 for evil. Maybe he’ll gut Over 9000 down to 2 (which, ironically, he apparently does. Yoda and Obi-Wan…).

    So, 800 year old Jedi Masters apparently don’t understand basic math.

    George Lucas, not actually intending to send that message, obviously does not understand the simple concept of balance.

    Commenter yakob, back in 2008 obviously gets this, but I find that surprisingly rare when I mention it myself.

  3. Spike says:


    Totally forgot to close my point: The Emperor didn’t fight anything about the prophesy. HE wasn’t really the target. The Jedi were the victims all along.

  4. Justin Alexander says:

    Resurrection is good for the soul.

    I talk more about the prophesy over here. The short version is that Lucas’ interpretation of balance in the Force is a little more complicated than “= good”.

    The Jedi never though that the Balance talked about in the prophecy had anything to do with Sith vs. Jedi. They were in the middle of a long, schisming debate between the Unified Force and the Living Force. (Qui Gonn talks about this in TPM and it crops up in a couple other places, but it’s certainly one of the failings of the prequel trilogy that it doesn’t actually establish any of this very well.) The Sith are thought to disrupt the balance between the Unified Force and the Living Force and the Chosen One is supposed to restore that order and eliminate the Sith (and/or vice versa depending on how you’re interpreting the prophecy).

    I get the simplistic appeal of “# of Jedi – # of Sith = 0 = Balance”, but Anakin Skywalker notably never achieves that. It’s Order 66, mostly independent from Anakin, that wipes out the Jedi Order and reduces their number to 2. And, later, Anakin wipes out both surviving Sith (while leaving one Jedi alive). So if the Balance that the prophecy is talking about is Sith vs. Jedi, the prophecy would be referring to Palpatine.

  5. Ace says:

    (Qui Gonn talks about this in TPM and it crops up in a couple other places, but it’s certainly one of the failings of the prequel trilogy that it doesn’t actually establish any of this very well.)

    Actually this is addressed in the Yoda arc of the last season of Clone Wars… it explains other stuff too…. neat.

  6. Ace says:

    This is a fantastic article and I’m glad to see someone knows the SW prequels aren’t trash as some nerds with agendas, (Plinkett) want to push. Well done all the way around.

  7. Universeguy says:

    So why did Palpatine wait 3 years before order 66? Considering he had control over the droids and clones isn’t he just weakening himself by letting them fight each other and giving some sort of rebellion, such as the Alliance, a greater chance to destroy the empire? It just doesn’t make sense to me. One theory that I had was maybe Sidious wanted to kill as many Jedi as possible thus making it more likely for the empire to succeed, but still it sounds a little fishy because of the fact that “Jedi cannot fight an entire war”.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    Palpatine uses the war to:

    (1) Weed out the Jedi (every Jedi killed fighting a droid is one fewer Jedi he needs to deal with)

    (2) Solidify his power (Palpatine at the beginning of the Clone Wars doesn’t have the political power necessary to get himself declared Emperor, he barely has the political clout to get the Republic to declare war on the Separatists)

  9. Universeguy says:

    Alright I can see how more political power could’ve been possible during the clone wars. Also, in case you would like to know, another theory that I have encountered is that a lot of actions that the Empire took would not have been possible without a powerful apprentice. I have read some of Darth Vader’s missions on wookipedia and I had no idea how much damage he did to the Jedi order and Alliance such as killing multiple Jedi and leading many Imperial battles. So in conclusion I think Palpatine was waiting to take the help of Anakin before beginning the Jedi Purge.

  10. Elijah says:

    This is a great article and have been looking specifically to see something like this if anyone was curious about Palpatine’s masterplan, and backup plans which he certainly seems to resort to. Pretty much agree on every point but here’s a few thoughts:

    1) TPM, the Jedi succesfully rescuing the Queen throws a wrench in his plans in other ways. For one it is imperative that Cancellor Valourum look inneffective in this fiasco, and he stands to recuperate what would have been a very crippled reputation with the Jedi actually succeeding in bringing the Queen out of that hell hole. Basically, Valoroum must not be permitted to save face.

    2) TPM, Though it didn’t occur to me that Palpatine wants to use Naboo as a launching pad for a Seperatist Homeworld, the more face value conclusion would be that the simply outrage that would occur in the senate if poor Amidala is forced to sign the treaty would put Valoroum in the hot seat come RE-ELECTION time. Perhaps Palpatine was playing a slightly more patient game. Not thinking in a million years that the unexpected meddling of Obi-Wan and Amidala (and Anakin to some degree) would force him into improvising back up plans that actually work more expediantly than the initial plan. IE Amidala amazingly makes it back to Coruscant to issue a No Confidence vote. You can almost see the wheels turning in Palpatine’s head during those scenes. He’s annoyed she is alive… and there… but see a new opportunity.

    2) AOTC, again it seems like Palpatine is racing agains the clock and desperately needs to plunge the galaxy into a “crisis” or emergency via war. Once again Amidala is gumming up the works in the senate as you pointed out. And Obi-Wan once again gums up the works nearly by prematurely discovering and reporting back to the council about BOTH ARMIES he has discovered before the show is ready to begin. But in the end it provokes war faster than planned so thanks Obi-Wan. Also the fact that they press into service this shadily created Clone Army seems to be more of a plothole or whatever but…

    3) ROTS, In this one it seems like most everything Palpatine wanted went according to plan save for Obi-Wan once again gumming up the works by defeating Vader and surviving the whole affair. Though again it seems to have worked out in the long run as now Vader’s injuries have capped off and put a limit on perhaps the power he could have achieved. Which Palpatine seemed to be well aware was a problem but one he’d have to just figure it out later. Now Vader has no choice but to be a relatively unambitious bulldog. Also Palpatine shows a little fear in the early stages of his Yoda fight (trying to flea the scene) so clearly he had been knowing this day was coming and was a little afraid of it.

    4) OT. AND SELECTION OF SITH LORDS: Sidious changes apprentices based on who will be most practical. In their secret covert days, he needs good old he was the brains, and he needs a little unambitious brawn to go about assassinating people and hiding their trail. Though Maul’s death was unplanned, I do think Sidious clearly intended to replace him anyway with a new apprentice more politically connected and ambitious. Someone who could be the FACE of the Seperatist Movement which Maul simply would have been unqualified to do. Luring Dooku to the dark side would have been easy enough if you arrange to have him come face to face with the man who killed his apprentice. But Qui-Gon’s death and his general qualms with the Jedi and the Republic seemed to do the trick. Again, as the Clone Wars ends, the greatest threat are the Jedi and Sidious needs an insider, not an outsider like Dooku to eradicate them. Anakin is far more strategically placed to destroy them from within. And he does. I think the same applies towards the OT when the biggest threat are the Rebels and as an outsider Vader is just not as qualified to dismantle this threat than a high ranking poster-boy like Luke would be.

    Great article. It would be interesting to do one about the Plan of Dooku as clearly he is someone of great ambition and seriously tries to rat out Palpatine right away in Episode 2 only Obi-Wan is too stupid to listen. What was he after? What was HIS plan seriously in doing this? Is Dooku a disingenuous Sith? Does he think he is just using Palpatine and his teachings to get to a higher position of power (and doesnt really care for Sith history/agenda), just as much as Palpatine thinks hes using Dooku ?

  11. Marky Mark says:

    It’s actually more complicated than that. Palpatine never intended for the Trade Federation to come out on top. Years before the start of Episode I, Palpatine and his mentor, Darth Plagueis, manipulated a Jedi by the name of Sifo Dyas into going to Kamino and having the Kaminoans start to create clones. Plagueis, outside of being a Sith, was the leader of a very wealthy corporation, I believe, and that’s where the money came from. He and his apprentice wanted to conceal the fact that they had done this, which is why they had a Jedi do it. It was years later that Kamino was erased from the Jedi archives, by the former Jedi Count Dooku. That is why Obi Wan Kenobi had difficulty finding it in the archives after talking to his friend, Dex.

    The clone army was on standby for quite some time, and then that’s where the above explanation comes into play. Palpatine manipulates the Separatist movement, and though it is correct about a few wrenches being thrown into his plan, it didn’t hurt him overall. The night before his acceptance speech for Chancellor, he killed Darth Plagueis in his sleep after Palpatine got him intoxicated. He no longer needed his master. Most people don’t know about Plagueis being a factor during the course of the first movie, but yes, there were three Sith members at this time, which breaks the rule of two that Yoda had mentioned late in Episode I.

    So Palpatine successfully played both sides, the Separatists, and the Republic (the soon-to-be Empire), and his end goal was to be in complete control of a very loyal clone army, one he could use to wipe out the Jedi, and take control of the Republic, and create the First Galactic Empire. The Separatist movement was simply a pawn.

  12. Justin Alexander says:

    Your timeline is off. AOTC established the order for the Clone Army as having taken place 10 years ago, basically immediately before or immediately after Palpatine became Chancellor. (The clones mature rapidly due to some sort of fast growth process.)

    As far as Sifo-Dyas is concerned, my personal canon prefers Lucas’ original intentions for the character (as opposed to what got developed in the CGI Clone Wars series): It was a false identity for Sidious himself.

    (Although I also like to take it one step further: In my personal canon, Palpatine was trained was trained as a Jedi. When he turned to the dark side of the Force, he was able to literally wipe the minds of the other Jedi who knew him so that no one would recognize him.)

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