With the exception of Darth Vader’s mask and a shout-out or two for the Empire, Star Wars: The Force Awakens largely ignores the events of the dreaded prequel trilogy and all the midi-chlorians and Jar Jars that came with it.
But there are other elements from Episodes I through III that could still play a role in the fate of the galaxy: Anakin Skywalker, as portrayed by Hayden Christensen, was once slated to appear in Force Awakens, according to Star Wars concept artist Ian McCaig—and may still appear in Episode VIII, if rumors are to be believed.
McCaig’s early vision of an Anakin Force ghost appears in conversation with Luke Skywalker in the book Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Unlike the Anakin Force ghost that George Lucas tacked onto the ending of the 2004 special edition Return of the Jedi, McCaig’s otherworldly specter has a more fluid appearance that incorporates both Vader’s infamous black mask and Anakin’s disfigured face.
“When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow,’” McCaig says in the book, quoting Ursula K. Le Guin. “That inspired me to propose, for the first time, that Anakin’s ghost could come back […] If we see Anakin Skywalker, because he does flow back and forth between Darth Vader and Anakin, let’s see him as a character with a dark and light side. The reason Luke is this whole new entity is because he was the first to acknowledge his own dark side—that it was not separate from him.”
The ex-Chosen One’s grand return was ultimately scrapped in favor of a fleeting glimpse of Vader’s charred mask. Emo villain Kylo Ren addresses a Hamlet-like soliloquy to the mask in a key Force Awakens scene. “Forgive me. I feel it again…the call from the light,” Kylo says. “Supreme Leader senses it. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I’ll let nothing stand in our way. Show me, grandfather, and I will finish what you started.”
Could that “show” of power from Vader that Kylo yearns to see “again” have been a personal appearance as a Force ghost? Probably not, but it’s fun to imagine a Skywalker-Solo reunion, especially in the place Vader once called home: Force Awakens concept art reveals that Vader’s castle—which was developed as a possible locale to include in Empire Strikes Back—was also in the running as a location for Force Awakens as late as February 2013. It looks exactly as you’d imagine, TIE-interceptors and boiling lava included.
In lieu of Vader, however, we are left with the villainous Snoke, the “Supreme Leader” Kylo mentions in his speech—a character some fans speculate is another revived figure from the prequels. Many have linked Snoke’s mangled face and mysterious aura with the story of Darth Plagueis, the Sith Lord who, according to legend, almost learned to master death.
In Revenge of the Sith, a pivotal moment in Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side comes when Palpatine (Darth Sidious) tells him the story of Plagueis: “Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith so powerful and so wise, he could use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create life,” Palpatine says. “He had such a knowledge of the dark side, he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying.” This story strikes such a chord with Anakin, who has been plagued with visions of his wife Padmé dying in childbirth, that he basically ignores the part where Plagueis is killed in his sleep by his own apprentice. Palpatine ultimately convinces Anakin to leave the Jedi Order with the promise that, together, they would learn to save Padmé’s life.
What Palpatine doesn’t tell Anakin is that he was that murderous apprentice who killed the powerful Sith Lord in his sleep, convinced that Plagueis had already taught him “everything he knew.” Fans speculate that Plagueis knew better than to teach a power-hungry apprentice the secrets to staving off death, and that he had in fact unlocked the secrets to his own immortality. In this theory, the Sith Lord secretly survived his apprentice’s assassination attempt and has been slowly gathering his strength ever since, biding his time before swooping in to take control of the remnants of the Empire.
This theory mostly works, save for J.J. Abrams’ flat-out denial earlier this year at Comic-Con (then again, Abrams has a history of misdirection when it comes to his films' plot points) and motion capture actor Andy Serkis’s insistence that Snoke is “very much a newly-introduced character.” Still, there are similarities: Plagueis was a member of the Munn, a race of tall, slender beings who do resemble Snoke. A few eager fans have also pointed to the theme music that plays during Snoke’s scenes, which sounds a bit like what plays while Palpatine tells Anakin his story.
There isn’t any solid proof, but the desire to see some elements of the prequels validated in upcoming films is understandable. George Lucas once said Star Wars functions like poetry, repeating the same beats and themes in different, “echoing” ways: “You see the echo of where it all is gonna go…It’s like poetry, sort of. They rhyme.” The return of either Plagueis or Anakin would fit into the new Star Wars universe like a new line in a long-running poem—but don’t get your hopes up just yet.