I Come to Bury Palpatine, Not to Praise Him
Why Palpatine Was The Greatest Sith of All Time
Star Wars films and television have focused exclusively, and to their detriment, on the machinations of one Sheev Palpatine. Every live-action film, television series, and cartoon series focuses on Palpatine specifically or the galaxy he created. Some of the books and comics, especially the ones pre-Disney, focus on a wide range of galactic affairs. Disney, however, has remained myopically focused on Palps until the release of The High Republic.
You Don’t Know Sheev
Palpatine was first introduced in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). He didn’t get a name until the brilliant Thrawn trilogy from Timothy Zahn in 1993. He didn’t get a first name and a (Disney) back story until Tarkin by James Luceno in 2014.
Palpatine, born in 84 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin) was a young sociopath with fairly normal parents. His Force powers seem to have been a fluke; despite what the films might imply, this isn’t’ very rare. Palpatine killed his parents using his nascent Force powers. He was then found by Darth Plagueis who was operating under the alias of Hego Damask. The Sith at the time operated on a strict Rule of Two: one apprentice and one master. There were only ever supposed to be two Sith at a time. Eventually, the apprentice was to kill the master, become the new master, and select a new apprentice.
At the time of The Phantom Menace, Palpatine was still the apprentice to Darth Plagueis. Darth Plagueis and Darth Sidious (Palpatine’s super not-evil-sounding alias) were working together to twist the power of the Force using the dark side. Plagueis believed that he could force midichlorians (the microscopic organisms that grant Force powers) to create life. If he could achieve this, he could create super powerful darksiders and, more importantly, live forever. Around 42 BBY, Darth Plagueis attempted to use the dark side to create life; the attempt was unsuccessful. However, the severe dark side warping of the Force created a light side reaction. In an apparent attempt to balance itself, the Force responded by creating an unprompted life in the womb of Shmi Skywalker (Anakin’s mom). So, in this way, Anakin was born of a virgin. Or, at least, born of a woman who wasn’t impregnated by a man. Side Note: That’s why the Skywalkers are so powerful — they’re half-human, half-Force.
Palpatine later killed Darth Plagueis in his sleep. By Attack of the Clones, Palpatine was the master. Count Dooku was his apprentice, but he had designs on Anakin Skywalker. He set into motion a complex scheme involving separatists and clones and yada yada. We’ve seen all of that.
Why Palpatine Was The Greatest Sith Ever
The Sith were originally a race of red-skinned aliens proficient with the dark side. A group of disaffected Jedi fled to their planet, learned from them how to use the dark side, and subsequently took over. Because most evil people are also racist, the human darksiders eventually murdered most of the Sith species. They then took the Sith name as their own. They probably named some of their states after Sith tribes or some of their fighter ships but that’s neither here nor there.
The dark side inevitably drives users insane and power hungry. For thousands of years, the Sith attempted to take over the galaxy and ultimately failed because they just ended up killing each other. After a series of devastating defeats at the hands of the Jedi one thousand years prior to Star Wars: Episode IV, Darth Bane instituted the Rule of Two. He harnessed and redirected the power-mad nature of the Sith.
One thousand years later, Palpatine grew to be the Sith who finally destroyed the Republic because of the simple fact he was able to stay sane. In the films, we only see three newly-minted Sith — Count Dooku, Anakin Skywalker, and Ben Solo. (I’m counting Kylo Ren as a Sith, no matter what foolishness he espouses in Episode VIII.) They are all consumed by their geed, ambition, and neuroses. In Star Wars: Rebels, we see the Inquisitors. They’re also consumed by ambition and madness. The dark side always drives practitioners insane.
Palpatine manages to stay relatively sane until The Return of the Jedi. In Episode VI, his hubris leads him to be aboard the Death Star in the midst of a rebel attack, and he meets his apparent death. Before that, he managed to work his way through the senatorial ranks, attain the rank of supreme chancellor, and completely consolidate his power as emperor. Palpatine resists the alluring insanity of the dark side for 80 years. That’s his superpower.
Fortunately for the galaxy, every other evildoer is completely bonkers.