A New Saga
This week, Grand Admiral Thrawn returns to the Star Wars universe as a villain on Rebels. In case you haven’t been following the Star Wars universe for that long, or missed the days of the old continuity, it’s important that you know that this is a very big deal.
Imperial alien genius Thrawn was one of the most beloved characters in the original Expanded Universe of books, comics, and video games before it became the Legends timeline. You see, when Disney took over the Star Wars franchise in 2012, it erased all of the continuity outside of the six core films. That meant that works like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, the series of books responsible for continuing the Star Wars story after Return of the Jedi took its bow in 1983, were no longer canon. It was the end of the Empire’s Chiss admiral.
That is, until he returned in a surprise announcement at SDCC 2016, where it was revealed that, for the first time ever, a character from the Legends timeline would be retconned into the new canon. And who better than the original EU’s greatest villain?
For fans who came to Star Wars Rebels without any knowledge of the Legends timeline, the groundwork for the character has already been laid in the trailers. Thrawn is shown as an imposing strategist who seeks to defeat Kanan, Ezra, and the heroic crew of the Ghost once and for all. But who exactly is Thrawn, and what does his inclusion in Rebels season 3 mean for the show?
Thrawn comes straight from the non-canon Legends novels to the television screen. The book that introduced him, Heir to the Empire, was the first in the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn, published in 1991.
Star Wars books had been published before this trilogy came out, but it was the first series to take place chronologically after Return of the Jedi, as well as the first to be published by Bantam Spectra, which would hold the Star Wars license for eight years afterward. The series pitted Luke, Han, and Leia against Thrawn and the dark Jedi he enlisted to his cause. Thrawn’s plan? To return the Empire to power. It was a battle he ultimately lost to the New Republic, but his influence would be felt in the EU for years to come.
“You couldn’t have grown up a Star Wars fan without encountering Thrawn in Heir to the Empire,” Rebels executive producer Dave Filoni said at Celebration London this summer (via EW). “It was a dark time when there weren’t any more movies, and it blew our minds that there could be more.”
As one of the few high-ranking Imperials left alive after the Battle of Endor, Thrawn was poised to take charge. A Chiss from the distant Unknown Regions, Thrawn was an outsider among his own people, who exiled him to an uninhabited planet on the edge of the galaxy. Thrawn was recruited by Emperor Palpatine for the Empire, where he battled xenophobia on his way to the top. Thrawn’s full name is Mitth’raw’nuruodo, but it was shortened for both the Empire and, presumably, the reader.
Although he fell at the end of the Thrawn Trilogy, the Grand Admiral’s story was later fleshed out in other Legends novels, including the Hand of Thrawn Duology, Outbound Flight, and Survivor’s Quest, all written by Zahn himself. In fact, years after Thrawn’s demise in The Last Command – the third book in the Thrawn Trilogy – the writer sought to redeem the villain by revealing that the Grand Admiral had spent his life preparing for an alien invasion that he knew would arrive from beyond the Unknown Regions. The Yuuzhan Vong invasion, which was the subject of an entire series of books called The New Jedi Order, was the direct result of his demise. Plans he’d set in motion, such as establishing a secret empire in the Unknown Regions and ordering clones of himself, were ultimately thwarted by the New Republic, which meant the Yuuzhan Vong were able to decimate much of the galaxy in their invasion years later.
Some in the galaxy far, far away might call Thrawn a tragic war hero.
To Defeat Your Enemies You Must Know Them
In 1991, Thrawn was unlike any big bad encountered before in the Star Wars universe. For one, he wasn’t a Force user, unlike Darth Vader or the Emperor. On the contrary, he could repel the Force from being used against him. The Force-immune ysalamir he kept as a pet shielded him from the ancient energy, giving him the upperhand over Luke, rendering him pretty much powerless. Thrawn fought with his mind, not with a saber or a rifle, and he could easily outsmart his enemies. To create this intelligent and ruthless villain, Zahn based his character on a mix of historical and fictional people, such as Erwin Rommel, Robert E. Lee, Hannibal Barca, Alexander the Great, and Sherlock Holmes.
In the books, Thrawn could predict an enemy’s behavior by examining his/her culture’s art and analyzing its meaning. This critical trait has carried over into Rebels. It’s a hook that has grabbed fans since the Thrawn trilogy – how does a villain who is not Force-sensitive, who is not of the dynastic family Skywalker, fit into the series? By being smart.
Like in the Zahn books that came before, the Grand Admiral has big shoes to fill when it comes to the villains of Star Wars Rebels. While the first two seasons were haunted by dark side villains such as the Grand Inquisitor and Darth Vader himself, Thrawn is decidedly more grounded. One might expect a similar struggle between Thrawn and the Ghost crew as when Grand Moff Tarkin took the stage as the big bad at the end of the first season. But even Tarkin leans too heavily on brute strength, making him overconfident – which is what led to his eventual demise on the Death Star a few years later. Thrawn, on the other hand, prefers a good game of mental chess.
Thrawn’s brand of villainy is a logical obstacle for Ezra and Kanan, whose faith in the light side of the Force has been shaken. The season two finale saw Kanan blinded in a duel with Maul, who also planted the seed for Ezra’s fall to the dark side. That seed is going to grow into full-fledged aggressive use of the Force in season three. Ezra is in danger of succumbing to the dark side after the events on Malachor, and Kanan is both physically and spiritually weakened. The Jedi Knight even fears that he’s failed Ezra and will lose him. As Thrawn says in one trailer, his plan is to pit the Rebels against each other – at a moment when they’ve never been weaker.
Thrawn doesn’t present the moral and philosophical conflict Darth Vader and Darth Maul did, either. He isn’t beholden to the Force and doesn’t have an emotional connection to the heroes – he’s a being of his own destiny. Which makes him all the more ruthless. If he stays true to the books, Thrawn will be focused on military results, not the moral standing of his enemies. He won’t be able to be swayed by Jedi philosophy, and certainly won’t qualify as weak-minded. Thrawn will find no pleasure in changing Ezra’s mind about Force philosophy, as Maul did. And he has no ties to any of the characters, as Vader and Ahsoka do. The Rebels are simply in Thrawn’s way.
A crafty, entirely secular villain will test the Rebels in new ways. While it remains to be seen how much of Thrawn’s Expanded Universe story will carry over into Rebels, his recognizable face and his tactical brilliance could make him the series’ most exciting villain yet.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.
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