One of the most fascinating, enduring and frankly, great characters of Star Wars (indeed, of science fiction) is Palpatine – Senator and later, Chancellor of the Republic, and then Emperor of the First Galactic Empire. His past is shrouded in mystery, and his powers are tremendous.
Not a great deal is known about Palpatine’s origins (unless you treat the novel Darth Plagueis as part of Palpatine’s official backstory, which does nothing to make you think sympathetically toward him), beyond that he was a senator from the world of Naboo, and that the Sith Lord Plagueis was once his mentor (we also learn that Palpatine killed him in his sleep). What we do know is that Palpatine is calm, patient and charismatic.
It’s not entirely clear how long Palpatine served as a Sith Apprentice, but if the Sith follow a model similar to the Jedi, he would have been in training as a child (of course, the Sith do a lot of things very differently to the Jedi, so who knows?). During this time he would become one of the potent Force users the galaxy had ever known, but perhaps more importantly, he would learn when not to wield his powers – which I personally consider to be his greatest strength.
At some point prior to the events of The Phantom Menace Palpatine contacted the Trade Federation in his guise as Darth Sidious, and made arrangements to have his home world blockaded. As the film progressed, we saw Palpatine adapt his plan as and when he needed to (he was smart enough to be prepared for variables). It would seem likely his original plan was for Queen Amidala to be a martyr for his cause; her death would be the catalyst for his bid to become Chancellor of the Republic. The interference of the Jedi meant he couldn’t take advantage of this, but when Amidala was brought to Coruscant, Palpatine used her directly to call for a vote of no confidence in the existing Chancellor. This may have even been more effective than doing so himself.
So, as Sidious, he had maneuvered the Trade Federation into forming the beginning of an enemy of the Republic, and generated a huge groundswell of sympathy for himself in the Senate – that carried him straight to the top – and it would seem that he never used the Force to carry out his plans! Using his apprentice Darth Maul, Sidious revealed the Sith to the Jedi, but there was nothing tying him to the events on Naboo, and the Jedi had no idea what to expect from a modern Sith.
During the ten or so years between the events of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Palpatine would quietly stir up anxiety and tension within the Republic, via his proxy and new apprentice Count Dooku (a former Jedi of much experience and charisma himself). Palpatine charged Dooku with using the Trade Federation (and other parties) to act as a Separatist organisation – once again, Palpatine ensured he could not be traced back to these actions – secret communications to Dooku and clever planning yet again meant he was one step ahead of everyone else.
We also saw more of Palpatine’s adaptability in Attack of the Clones. Once again, he wanted Amidala dead, and yet again, this was to generate sympathy for his wishes. Amidala was dead set against the formation of a Republic army – her death, supposedly at the hands of Separatists – would have served to boost support for an army greatly. When Amidala defied attempts to kill her, Palpatine saw an opportunity to use her in a different way – by having Anakin Skywalker become one of her bodyguards, Palpatine opened up a new means of manipulating and controlling Anakin.
As already alluded to, Palpatine did not tend to wield the Force all that often. He would often be in the presence of Jedi Masters (including the powerful and experienced Master Yoda), and they would be none the wiser to his true identity or power. His tendency to operate via proxy would continue as the Clone Wars began – he would use Jar Jar Binks to convince the Senate to grant him emergency powers and would use General Grievous to commit war crimes in the name of the Separatists. All the while, he would continue to gently chip away at Anakin’s Jedi training, creating divisions between the young man and the Jedi Council.
As the Clone Wars drew toward their conclusion, Palpatine had steadily absorbed more and more executive powers from the Senate, becoming an emperor in all but name, but his plan was not finished. To destroy the Jedi, he would need to complete Anakin’s conversion to the dark side, and thus he would once again use Amidala, by filling (or at least being aware) Anakin’s head with the fear of losing her. Combined with convincing him the Jedi were in fact conspiring against the Senate, Palpatine successfully turned Anakin, though not before displaying just how powerful a Sith Lord he was.
Undoubtedly the riskiest part of his plan was revealing his true identity to Anakin. At this point, despite all the encouragement and attempts at creating mistrust between Anakin and the Jedi, there was still the possibility that Anakin would choose to side with the Jedi. Palpatine (correctly) gambled that Anakin’s love for Amidala would overcome his Jedi indoctrination, and thus, Anakin would confront (and help kill) Jedi Master Mace Windu, in an act that confirmed his loyalty to Palpatine and helped usher in the destruction of the Jedi. The rest, as they say, is history.
Whilst Palpatine had spent much of his time in the prequel films using his cunning and charm to persuade others to fight and die for him (and all as part of an elaborate and clever trap for the Jedi), in the original trilogy he would allow the Dark Side to shine more (after all, there were no Jedi to oppose him and the Empire was loyal to him). The powers of the Senate would continue to wane until, with the completion of the Death Star, Palpatine would disband the Senate completely, ruling through fear. The Empire became a tyrannical regime, and Palpatine, once beloved by the Republic, would become reviled, but such was his grip on the ruling mechanisms of the Empire that no one dared oppose him, save for the Rebellion. What he failed to remember about his right hand man (Darth Vader, aka Anakin Skywalker), was that Vader was loyal to people rather than ideals, and that family was extremely important to Anakin.
So Palpatine, who had turned himself into something of a father figure to Anakin, would expect him to turn against his own son, and expect Luke to turn against his father. Having not truly had such a relationship himself, Palpatine underestimated the bond that would exist (and that Vader would see an opportunity for redemption through Luke).
Having used political skill and clever planning throughout his life to become Chancellor, then Emperor, whilst wiping out his enemies, Palpatine would be undone by something he never truly understood – love.