When Star Wars Rebels returns to Disney XD for season three on September 24, the rebels will be facing a new villain: Grand Admiral Thrawn. When supervising director Dave Filoni announced the arrival of Thrawn at Celebration Europe, fans lost it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Star Wars enthusiasts ask about Thrawn coming to the animated series in recent years during Q&As with Filoni. The character has a long history, and as of right now, Thrawn is the most significant, beloved character that has made the leap from Legends to canon. Let’s look at his background and what to expect from the blue-skinned antagonist in Rebels.
New Heir to the Empire cover art by Rick Kelly
Grand Admiral Thrawn, a Chiss, first appeared in Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn. The author created the character as the primary foe for a trilogy of books known as The Thrawn Trilogy. Released in 1991, the trilogy set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi sparked a new era of Star Wars publishing. It wasn’t the first book to be published within the Star Wars universe, but The Thrawn Trilogy, along with Dark Horse’s Dark Empire comics series, kicked off a domino effect. The Star Wars Expanded Universe rapidly, well, expanded with an increasing number of Star Wars novels arriving in bookstores. In some ways, Heir to the Empire and its characters reinvigorated fandom.
Luke, Han, and Leia all featured prominently in The Thrawn Trilogy, but what I remember most about those books is Thrawn and other new faces like Mara Jade and Talon Karrde. Zahn painted intriguing portraits of them, and with Thrawn in particular, he introduced a character unlike anyone else I’d encountered in the Star Wars universe.
After that initial trilogy, Thrawn appeared in The Hand of Thrawn Duology and Outbound Flight by Zahn and featured in short stories in the Star Wars Adventure Journal.
What Makes Thrawn Tick
Creating memorable villains in Star Wars can’t be an easy task, seeing as how they’re all going to be measured against Darth Vader. The Sith Lord’s power casts a long shadow over the entire galaxy, so to make an impression, villains have to possess distinct traits. They shouldn’t be poor Vader facsimiles, and Thrawn is not. He’s a formidable beast.
We’ve seen a considerable amount of Thrawn’s personality, but keep in mind, it was all revealed in Legends novels—in other words, it’s not canon, unlike the version we’ll meet in Star Wars Rebels. But let’s discuss what Thrawn was like in the old novels. Zahn has said Thrawn’s personality was influenced by the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Alexander the Great, and Robert E. Lee. The Grand Admiral was manipulative like Palpatine, but cleverer and more calculating. He always looked at the long game and wasn’t afraid to take a hit if it ultimately furthered his goals. Thrawn didn’t use the Force to outmaneuver heroes like Luke; he used a precise combination of intelligence, ruthlessness, and patience.
Thrawn in Rebels
Will the Rebels Thrawn inherit the traits of his counterpart from the page? Based on what I’ve seen, yes. Filoni has appreciation and respect for Legends. My guess is, whatever characteristics best serve the story will stick. The time period for Rebels is different than Heir to the Empire by several years, so even if they wanted to cut and paste in Thrawn, they couldn’t do so without some alterations. And if you’re worried about Thrawn not being like the Thrawn you know, relax, because Filoni ran his ideas past Zahn. He told Coming Soon, “Once we had some stuff, we wanted to do what we thought was right and make the character. Then we brought [Zahn] in. We had the production fully prepared. I said, ‘Look, if there’s something that Tim says that I think is really valuable, even if it changes something dynamically, we need to be ready for that and see what we can do.'”
I talked to Taylor Gray, the voice of Ezra Bridge, about Thrawn; what he told me lines up with the Thrawn we know. He said, “Thrawn’s incredibly smart. Without getting into spoiler territory, he’s super insane because he plays on the rebels’ weaknesses better than most other villains. He learns about each one of them and figures out how to really pick them apart. He even lets them have little successes here and there because it helps the bigger picture for the Empire for his tactics against us.”
We’ll find out what Thrawn’s like in the Star Wars Rebels premiere, and we’ll learn even more about the Grand Admiral in Zahn’s upcoming novel Thrawn; it’s slated to hit shelves in April 2017.
Why Thrawn on Rebels Matters
Tidbits from the Expanded Universe and Legends have been trickling into Star Wars for years. For example, the Jedi Aayla Secura initially appeared in a comic book before making the jump to canon in Attack of the Clones. More recently, ships and tidbits from West End Games’ Star Wars roleplaying sourcebooks have made their way into Star Wars Rebels. But Grand Admiral Thrawn? He’s one of the most popular characters in Legends. Lucasfilm likely didn’t bring him to Rebels to score a big win with fans, but they were surely acting on an awareness of Thrawn’s status. It’s just a reminder anything’s possible in Star Wars.
And while we’re on the subject of reminders, it’s important for me to point out the true meaning of “canon.” Does a given story element affect other story elements in the Star Wars universe? Something being canon doesn’t make it better or more real. I know that, but I still can’t help but feel satisfied about Thrawn coming to Rebels.
What are your hopes for Thrawn in Star Wars Rebels? Tell me in the comments.
Images: Lucasfilm/Disney, Del Rey