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The Grand Admiral’s Return: Thrawn in the New Star Wars Canon

Star Wars is a series that is blessed with both great heroes and villains. Many of the villains from the films are just as iconic, if not more so, than its heroes. The soon to be nine films in the Skywalker Saga have blessed us nerds with hours of villainous onscreen entertainment.

That’s why the popularity of Grand Admiral Thrawn is so surprising. Thrawn is a character that has not, as of yet, actually appeared on the big screen, and until recently he had not even been featured on the small screen. Thrawn has almost exclusively been a character tied to the written word. 

First appearing in Timothy Zahn’s celebrated Heir to The Empire /Thrawn Trilogy (1991-1993), the tactically gifted Chiss was (and still is) widely regarded as one of the most beloved Star Wars characters outside of the films in the Star Wars saga.

The Thrawn Trilogy and its lead character did much to rejuvenate new life into a property that by the 1990s, with no new movies in sight and competition from newer science fiction properties developing, Star Wars had the stench of death hanging heavily around its neck. The Thrawn Trilogy, along with the Dark Horse comic book Dark Empire, presented a thrilling story that was just as compelling as the original trilogy. 

Star Wars was no longer on death watch, and instead flourished in a dormant period until the prequel trilogy was kicked off in 1999. It’s not too far-fetched to think that fans may never had gotten a prequel or sequel trilogy had the Thrawn series not succeeded. Despite meeting his demise at the end of the trilogy, Thrawn managed to appear in several more books, ending with the publication of Outbound Flight in 2006, a prequel to the original Thrawn trilogy. 

And then… nothing. Thrawn languished, widely regarded, but little used, in the years following the Prequels. Then, like so many other Expanded Universe characters, he was Thanos-snapped into the void two years after the Star Wars purchase by Disney.

Fortunately for us all, that wasn’t the end of Grand Admiral Thrawn. 

Fair warning: full spoilers ahead for Rebels and mild spoilers for the recent new Thrawn trilogy! 

The Day Thrawn Died Again

April 25, 2014… a day that will live in infamy for many Star Wars fans. It was on this day that Lucasfilm announced that it was officially de-canonizing almost everything from the Expanded Universe. Now labeled as Legends, the many novels, comic books, roleplaying game supplements, and video games that fans had ravenously consumed for the better part of two decades now, at least officially, “didn’t count.” 

With a new sequel trilogy on the way, Disney wanted to clean the slate for any future projects by mothballing content that came before that was always somewhat suspect with regards to official canon anyway. Despite the content still being there and widely available to fans to enjoy, many Star Wars fans were understandably crestfallen. Beloved characters and stories that meant so much to them had now been given the label of being unofficial, a first (but not last) taste of disappointment for the Disney Era.

One character that was immediately and universally mourned was Grand Admiral Thrawn. Fans feared that Mitth’raw’nuruodo would be the most unfortunate victim of Disney’s move to cleanse the palate for the EU/Legends-less future. Fans bemoaned the seemingly second death of Thrawn for over two years after that fateful April day in 2014. The beloved character had become a historical asterisk and token trivia question on Star Wars night at a local bar. He was seemingly lost forever. 

No One’s Ever Really Gone – A Rebel(s) Reborn 

As the Rise of Skywalker trailer has so aptly reminded us, no one’s ever truly gone in Star Wars. In 2016, it was announced that the Grand Admiral would return to the Star Wars continuity in a big way by premiering on the small screen series Star Wars Rebels. Thrawn is presented as the primary villain for the final two seasons of the highly regarded animated series. It was a welcome rebirth for such a popular character.  

But how to make a villain of Thrawn’s caliber work within the new canon established by Disney?

How could the Empire have lost to the Rebel Alliance if Grand Admiral Thrawn was around during the original trilogy? This was one of the primary questions Thrawn fans had asked all along. Thrawn is shown as being a tactical genius on every level. Surely someone as smart and as dedicated as the Thrawn we all knew and loved from Legends could have devised numerous plans to handle the Rebel Alliance before breakfast on any given Tuesday. Bringing Thrawn into the Disney era naturally required a bit of a reconfiguration. 

What remained from the Legends continuity? A considerable amount. Thrawn is still the great tactician we know and love from the Legends character. He still uses the Chimera as his main ship. Thrawn still maintains a tenuous, Faustian deal with Emperor Palpatine. Their deal involves Thrawn sharing intelligence about the Unknown Regions with the Emperor, while Palpatine gives the Chiss Grand Admiral a position of honor within the notoriously human-friendly Empire. This leads to the all too familiar “who’s using whom” interplay between the two. 

What changed in the new continuity? More known as a character operating in the post-Return of the Jedi era, the new canon biggest change asks Thrawn to actively shift his involvement to the years just prior to A New Hope. With the sequel trilogy, Disney has been exceedingly careful about revealing too much about the time period between the original and sequel trilogies. With just a handful of comics and a few novels, fans haven’t really gotten a total glimpse of what happened in those years. Even after two movies, we’re still not exactly sure what events shaped the First Order era. 

There’s also a change in scope. Gone are the sweeping plots of galactic control that defined Thrawn during the Legends material. Thrawn’s goals had to be simplified and scaled down considerably. While still an imposing character, Thrawn is primarily tasked with cracking down on the small, rebellious planet of Lothal.

Disney has been more comfortable dabbling in the space between the prequel and original trilogies. With both Rogue One and Rebels, Disney has shown a willingness to lay the groundwork for how the Rebel Alliance became an established threat to the Empire.

Thrawn was the perfect foil for the young Jedi Ezra Bridger and crew, the tactical genius versus a ragtag bunch of resource-starved Rebels trying to do their best to free the planet Lothal. It’s not as grand of a scale as Thrawn tackling a whole New Republic, but it showcased his skill.

Like Thrawn, Bridger was an x-factor that had to be accounted for before A New Hope. After all, if Ezra had been around, wouldn’t the Rebels have gladly introduced him to Luke? Ultimately, Rebels was used to introduce and remove Thrawn from the equation. By the end of the Rebels series, both Thrawn and Ezra are thrown into the Unknown Regions by a group of space whales. That’s right: space whales. 

Removed from the great chessboard of Star Wars quite literally before Rogue One and A New Hope, Thrawn’s absence for the original trilogy is neatly explained away. In a post-Rebels interview, showrunner Dave Filoni explicitly stated that both Thrawn and Ezra survived their joyride with the whales, but we fans have as of yet seen any exploration of that reveal.

So Grand Admiral Thrawn is still out there somewhere plotting, planning, and most certainly studying art. 

A Reconfigured Thrawn Trilogy

What fans have been treated to is a new Thrawn Trilogy: Thrawn, Thrawn: Alliances, and Thrawn: Treason. The story may not progress beyond the final scenes of Rebels, but it does work to establish a background for the character as redefined in the television series.

Published from 2017-2019, Disney wisely went back to the source to create this new Thrawn Trilogy by tapping Timothy Zahn to once again reestablish Thrawn as a Star Wars villain. Though not as cohesive as a singular story as the older trilogy, the new Thrawn Trilogy gives the reader a chance to understand the character in the context of the new continuity. 

The first novel in the series, simply titled Thrawn, gives us a rags to riches origin for the Chiss officer. It follows Thrawn through his discovery by the Empire and his difficult, but persistent rise through the Imperial ranks. The reader is introduced to fellow Imperial cadet Eli Vanto, who becomes Thrawn’s attaché and trusted ally. Both Thrawn and Vanto follow the trail of an early insurgent named Nightswan. By the end of the novel, we see Thrawn rise to his position as Grand Admiral in the Imperial Navy and, with the Emperor’s blessing, he sends his attaché Vanto into Chiss space to learn more of his people’s ways. 

The second novel, Thrawn: Alliances, is really two books in one that intertwine based on its two main characters: Thrawn and Darth Vader. In the present, the tyrannical duo go off on a mission together to investigate disturbances in the Force felt from the Unknown Regions. However, Thrawn deduces Vader’s identity as Anakin Skywalker, which causes Thrawn to recall his actually meeting Anakin during the Clone Wars as a Chiss officer before he was exiled to Imperial Space. Both stories are compelling, but the back and forth between the Clone Wars and the Galactic Civil War could have been handled better, or have been told in two different novels. Fans looking for juicy scenes featuring arguably Star Wars’s two best baddies will eat this novel up. 

The third novel in the trilogy is Treason, my personal favorite of the lot. At its core, Treason grapples with who Thrawn is truly faithful towards: the Chiss or the Empire. Gone are the time hopping or time accelerated adventures of the first two novels. Everything in Treason takes place within a single week. The novel brings the Sherlock Holmes investigative prowess of Thrawn to the forefront. The novel is a meticulous investigation of something quite innocuous: why are a cousin of the mynocks eating Director Krennic’s supply ships for his Death Star Project? What follows are encounters with the Chiss, the mysterious Grysks, and Imperial saboteurs. Featuring appearances from Tarkin, Krennic, and the Emperor, Treason was fantastic

While the new Thrawn trilogy does not shine any light on Thrawn’s post-Rebels fate or activities, nerds can only hope that we haven’t seen the last of the Grand Admiral. Thrawn’s reappearance in the Disney continuity mirrors his own tenacity as a character. It’s clear that Star Wars is not done with Grand Admiral Thrawn just yet. Fortunately, nor are his fans.   

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