Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens' most mysterious characters is Supreme Leader Snoke, the enigmatic Dark Side being. Towering above Kylo Ren and General Hux, Andy Serkis' Snoke is certainly imposing. But who is he, really?
Many fans have theorized that Snoke is actually one of the Sith lords, although all the evidence we have suggests Snoke is a totally new character. Or at least, fairly new. The book Star Wars: Aftermath was published shortly before Star Wars 7 came out, and it might have actually introduced Snoke in the guise of the Operator.
Aftermath is a really interesting story which serves to set up the situation we see in The Force Awakens. In the book, we are shown how the Empire actually wasn't totally defeated at the Battle of Endor, as they plan counter-attacks against the Rebellion and slowly regroup beyond the galaxy. Author Chuck Wendig described the situation to EW as the real war after the Rebellion...
"Now they’re a New Republic going toe-to-toe with the Empire in a somewhat more proper war. That’s where we begin, that hot conflict between these two massive galactic forces."
Of course, this gives us a vital clue as to how the First Order came to rise from the ashes of the Empire, and one character in particular is responsible for this...
The Operator Pulls The Strings
The Operator is an as-yet unnamed Imperial admiral. Although the main antagonist of Aftermath is Admiral Rae Sloane, she reports directly to the Operator. In fact, the conflict in Aftermath (the Battle of Akiva) is orchestrated by the Operator just to test Rae Sloane's abilities.
Although he's radically dedicated to the Empire, the Operator has some pretty scathing opinions about Imperial rule. In his view, defeat gives the Empire the opportunity to rise again, more powerful than before.
"The Empire became this...ugly, inelegant machine. Crude and inefficient. We needed to be broken into pieces. We needed to get rid of those who want to see that old machine churning ineluctably forward. It's time for something better. Something new. An Empire worthy of the galaxy it will rule."
He's already sounding a lot like Snoke, who holds very similar views about the Empire.
Update [08.29.16]: The next book in the series, Life Debt, seems to have placed even more hints that the Operator might be Snoke. His name is Gallius Rax, and he indeed formed the First Order, with help from General Hux's father.
Update [04.10.17]: The final book in the trilogy, Empire's End, hints that Rax may not be Snoke after all, instead implying that Snoke comes from beyond the galaxy. Leia, pregnant with her son Ben (later Kylo Ren) has a nightmarish vision in which she senses a malicious dark force from beyond the galaxy reaching out to her child — and baby Ben kicks in response.
Snoke Believes The Empire Failed
There's a lot which was cut from the final Star Wars 7 film, but the official novelization fills in the gaps. And in one scene, Supreme Leader Snoke tells Kylo Ren exactly what he thinks of the Empire.
"It was neither poor strategy nor arrogance that brought down the Empire. You know too well what did."
Ren nodded once. "Sentiment."
"Yes. Had Lord Vader not succumbed to emotion at the crucial moment—had the father killed the son—the Empire would have prevailed. And there would be no threat of Skywalker’s return today."
Clearly, both Snoke and the Operator saw the Empire as being brought down by its own failings, rather than the Rebellion. So why do we think Snoke might actually be the Operator?
Connections To The EU
Let's just make this clear: unlike the Expanded Universe, Aftermath is actually part of the new Star Wars canon. The book was intended to set the scene for The Force Awakens, and dropped many other hints about the origins of groups like the Knights of Ren.
The Operator is kept unnamed for a reason, and it could be that Lucasfilm intended Aftermath to subtly position Snoke as the person who formed the First Order from the debris of the Empire.
Forget the Sith lords — this actually makes Snoke have more in common with the Expanded Universe character Admiral Thrawn, who started building a new empire in the Unknown Regions of the galaxy. Which, incidentally, is kinda EXACTLY what the Operator/Snoke does in Aftermath...
"Palpatine felt that the universe beyond the edges of our maps was where his power came from. Over the many years he, with our aid, sent men and woman beyond known space. They built labs and communication stations on distant moons, asteroids, out there in the wilds. We must follow them."
We know that Lucasfilm wants to borrow elements from the Expanded Universe as they build their new canon: after all, Kylo Ren is essentially a reboot of Jacen Solo. Instead of bringing back a Sith lord, which would require a lot of exposition, it makes more sense to create Snoke as a new character (which mirrors Thrawn). And what better way to build up mystery around your new character than by dropping subtle hints in Aftermath?
The Mystery Continues...
Honestly, as we look into this, it's easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of clues, plot parallels, and mysteries. In my mind, it makes a lot of sense for Snoke to actually be the Operator, a cruel and radical admiral who wanted the Empire to rise again, as the First Order.
Or maybe this is all misdirection! But with Star Wars Episode 8 only 16 months away, at least we don't have too long too wait before we find out.