Say you’re a casual “movies only” Star Wars lover who watched Chapter 13 of The Mandalorian with a hardcore “reads all the books and comics” fan. Chances are you heard a loud gasp when a certain returning character mentioned the name Grand Admiral Thrawn. You might be wondering just who the heck that even is. We are here to explain just who Thrawn is, and also why he’s the franchise’s most resilient survivor.
From 1984 to 1990, there was almost no new Star Wars product. Lucasfilm essentially hit pause on the franchise while George Lucas focused on movies like Willow and Indiana Jones. There were no toys, no new video games, nada. Even Marvel Comics’ long-running Star Wars series ended in 1986. But absence makes the heart grow fonder. By the early ’90s, the kids and teens who had grown up with the trilogy began to demand more. Although the prequels were nearly a decade away, Lucasfilm obliged them with new stories in the form of novels, comic books, and video games. This lot eventually became known as “the Expanded Universe.”
In 1991, the first of these stories would arrive with the novel Heir to the Empire. Timothy Zahn’s novel picked up five years after the events of Return of the Jedi and focused on the original trilogy heroes, Luke, Leia, and Han. Vader and the Emperor were long dead, but a new threat emerged from the depths of the galaxy: Imperial warlord Grand Admiral Thrawn. A military genius, Thrawn reorganized the remaining Imperial fleet into a true threat to the New Republic. Fans became instantly intrigued by this blue-skinned, red-eyed alien on the book cover. Who was that imposing looking guy?
Zahn’s trilogy (continued in Dark Force Rising and The Last Command) described Thrawn as a member of the Chiss species. Because of his brilliant tactical mind, the Emperor allowed him to become one of the only non-human characters to serve in the Imperial Navy. Unlike Vader and other Imperials we saw in the films, Thrawn actually valued his officers and inspired loyalty among them. He believed that if his subordinates did their jobs well, they could expect to be rewarded… and not Force-choked. He was also a lover of art and culture, something the previous Imperials showed no interest in at all.
Thrawn died at the end of that extremely popular trilogy, but that wasn’t really the end of his legacy. The Hand of Thrawn duology of novels, also written by Zahn, teased his resurrection. The books, comic, and games of the era elevated the Grand Admiral to iconic Star Wars villain status. In fact, many fans didn’t view him as a villain at all, but more of a complicated antihero. It was really hard to totally hate Thrawn, even at his worst. And if you did hate him, you still kind of had to respect him.
From Legends to Canon
With Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012 came a whole new era for the Star Wars saga. The past 20 years of novels, comics, and video games known as the Expanded Universe became non-canonical, and were rebranded as “Legends.” Still, the folks at Lucasfilm said that some elements of those Legends stories could work their way into the new canon. The first of these was the introduction of the character of Thrawn as the primary antagonist of the animated series Star Wars: Rebels in 2016. The Grand Admiral would make life miserable for the crew of The Ghost in seasons three and four, set a few years prior to A New Hope.
Not only did Thrawn finally spring to life in animated form, voiced by the great Lars Mikkelsen, but Zahn returned to his creation during this time. He penned a new trilogy of in-canon novels focused on the character: Star Wars: Thrawn, Thrawn: Alliances, and Thrawn: Treason. There is more still to come from the character’s creator. Zahn’s fist chapter of his Thrawn: Ascendency trilogy was recently released under the title Chaos Rising. These books are essentially a detailed origin story for the character.
So why won’t Thrawn ever die? Hundreds of other characters from the Legends era have been jettisoned out of the airlock, but the big blue meanie just refuses to go down. Plenty other cool characters never made the transition, and many were combined into new characters altogether. Kylo Ren, for example, is a mix of Han and Leia’s son Jacen Solo and Luke’s son Ben Skywalker from Legends. But Thrawn has survived virtually intact. We think this is due to his being symbolic of so many years of great Star Wars storytelling. As arguably the best villain created post-Return of the Jedi, he has a special place in fans’ hearts. So we, along with the creators who grew up reading about him, just can’t let him go.
Thrawn doesn’t have any blood ties or romantic relations with any of the original movie characters. So it was easy enough to lift him whole cloth into the new canon without big changes to his character. It would be a lot more complicated to bring in a character like the Jedi warrior Mara Jade into canon for example, due to her romantic relationship with Luke Skywalker in the Legends novels. If you remove her marriage to Luke, is she really the same Mara? With Thrawn, there really isn’t much you have to change about him, as we saw from his Rebels appearances.
A Grand Future for the Grand Admiral
When we last saw Thrawn in continuity in the series finale of Rebels, the Jedi padawan Ezra Bridger takes him and his fleet into the depths of Unknown Space (where they’d sit out the events of the original trilogy). The Unknown Regions of the galaxy are not mapped; thus, they are very hard to navigate, much less find your way home from. But now thanks to Ahsoka’s name-drop of Thrawn in episode 13 of The Mandalorian, we know he survived the events of the Rebels finale. But what does this mean for the future? Once again, we just may need to look at the old Legends tales.
The Mandalorian takes place five years post-Return of the Jedi, just like the original Thrawn Trilogy of novels. In both stories, there is a fledgling New Republic fending off pesky Imperial remnants in the Outer Rim. In both cases, this is the perfect scenario for someone like Thrawn to remerge out of the Unknown Regions to whip this Imperial Remnant into shape, and become a true threat again. For all we know, Moff Gideon is taking order from Thrawn. Grand Admiral outranks Moff after all.
In the old Legends canon, Thrawn’s reemergence after the death of the Emperor was sort of a warm-up act for Palpatine’s eventual return in Dark Horse Comics’ Dark Empire saga. Those stories took place about a year after the Zahn trilogy, and saw Palpatine reemerge in a new clone body to take control of his Empire once more. He also wanted Leia and Han’s (still unborn) child as a new host for his Dark Side energy.
Could we being seeing something similar play out on in canon on The Mandalorian? Since Thrawn’s last known location was the Unknown Regions, it’s possible that he was let in on the Emperor’s eventual return we saw in The Rise of Skywalker, which we know happens 25 years later. It’s also quite possible that his return to known space involves laying the groundwork for the rise of the First Order.
Of course, this is all just speculation. But it would be fitting if Thrawn’s live-action introduction mirrored his original conception on the printed page, nearly 30 years ago. One thing is certain, however. You don’t have a character like Ahsoka Tano name-drop such a huge character from the lore without plans in the making. Thrawn is coming, folks. And the galaxy had best beware.
Featured Image: Lucasfilm