This Star Wars: The Mandalorian article contains spoilers.
An Imperial Grand Admiral sits in a darkened room surrounded by his art collection. He’s plotting a massive comeback. He’s planning to rebuild the Empire and make this whole New Republic thing look like a massive joke. He’s got blue skin. Did I mention he loves art?
If you read Timothy Zahn’s groundbreaking 1991 Star Wars novel, Heir to the Empire, then you’re familiar with this description of Grand Admiral Thrawn. And now that Thrawn has been name-dropped on The Mandalorian, there’s every reason to believe that some version of his story from Heir to the Empire is being rebooted, and is not-so-secretly happening at the edges of the galaxy while Mando tries to find some more Jedi for Grogu to have telepathic chats with.
Because of the timing of The Mandalorian, Ahsoka mentioning Thrawn in “The Jedi” puts the character right back where he used to be in the infamously eradicated Legends timeline, which used to be known as the Expanded Universe before Disney took over. Yes, Thrawn has already been re-canonized, thanks to the Rebels animated series and the newer Zahn books that have come out in the past few years, but none of those retcons put Thrawn back in the era that first made him famous.
The most compelling reason to believe that the events of The Mandalorian could be low-key retconning the events of Heir to the Empire is simply that Ahsoka mentions she’s looking for Grand Admiral Thrawn. In the Disney canon timeline, the last time we saw Thrawn was in roughly 0 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin), in the Rebels series finale, in which Ezra and Thrawn jumped into deep hyperspace on the Star Destroyer Chimaera to parts unknown. Five years later, just after the Battle of Endor, Sabine and Ahsoka reunited on Ezra’s home planet of Lothal and decided to go look for their lost Jedi friend. While it’s unclear whether Ahsoka has already found Ezra by the time Mando meets her on Corvus in “The Jedi,” she does know that Thrawn is back and operating somewhere in the galaxy.
Here’s why this matters: the year in which The Mandalorian takes place, 9 ABY (After the Battle of Yavin), is the same year in which Heir to the Empire happened in Legends. It’s hard to imagine now, but back in 1991, Heir to the Empire was the first book that truly opened up the post-Return of the Jedi era. After Zahn’s trilogy of novels, that time period started to get crowded, and by the time The New Jedi Order books were happening in the early 2000s, we knew more about the three decades after Return of the Jedi than we did about the Clone Wars.
But when the Prequel Trilogy hit theaters, Lucasfilm began to invert that trend. Suddenly we knew way more about the pre-A New Hope era than we’d ever known before. And once the new Disney canon took hold in 2014, those three decades after ROTJ that had previously been filled in by the Expanded Universe were suddenly swept away, leaving, more or less, a series of question marks between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.
Sure, recent games, comics, and Star Wars Resistance fill in the gaps a little bit. But other than stand-out examples like sections of the book Last Shot, or the novel Bloodline, those lost years previously occupied by the bulk of the EU haven’t been “replaced” entirely in the new canon. We assume Mara Jade never existed, and all that stuff with Luke, Han, and Leia fighting a clone version of the Emperor in Dark Empire never happened. But are we sure?
The potential re-introduction of Thrawn in 9 ABY makes a revised version of the Heir to the Empire storyline and some of the EU books that followed possible. In fact, it might all still happen in a modified form under Disney canon. It would be like the Star Wars version of Star Trek’s “Kelvin Universe,” the timeline in which the reboot films exist. What would this look like? Maybe Thrawn is back, and Mara Jade is back, too, but this time around, there’s no Joruus C’baoth, and nobody is using the quaint designation of “Dark Jedi” and they’re just calling people “Sith.”
A rebooted Heir to the Empire wouldn’t even need to be explicitly remade or rewritten to still work in the new canon. Even if Disney doesn’t reboot this story, you could also just treat it as head-canon and it would still fit in nicely with the rest of the canon timeline. Here’s how: If stories set in The Mandalorian timeline continue to avoid Luke, Leia, and Han and the bulk of the New Republic, it’s easy to imagine everything that happened in the old books still happening up until the events of Vector Prime and the ensuing Yuuzhan Vong invasion that made up the bulk of The New Jedi Order book series.
Sure, some details are already different: Leia doesn’t give birth to twins in 9 ABY, she gives birth to Ben Solo in 5 ABY. (By the way, isn’t it weird to think Ben is 4-years-old during The Mandalorian!!?) But, the larger point stands. The broad strokes, including Thrawn seizing the Katana Fleet and Mara Jade trying to kill Luke Skywalker, can all still be happening out there, somewhere. Again, you might think this sounds nuts, but in a way, The Rise of Skywalker could be sideways proof that some version of Dark Empire occurred in this canon, too.
The most mocked line in all of Star Wars, “Somehow, Palpatine returned,” could suddenly make a lot more sense if this wasn’t the first time he returned. Leia wasn’t surprised. Nobody was surprised. And perhaps that’s because a rebooted Dark Empire happened around the time it did in the old EU, 10 ABY (or 6 years after Endor). Palpatine had somehow returned…before.
And if that’s true, then in Season 3 of The Mandalorian, Din Djarin and Grogu should watch out for those World Devastators. And maybe, now that Boba Fett has his armor back, he can have a moody showdown with Han and Leia on the Smuggler’s Moon of Nar Shaddaa…
Keep up with all of The Mandalorian season 2 news here.