By Pranks Paul
—This article will analyze the usage of Grand Admiral Thrawn in the TV show Rebels, and will feature heavy spoilers from Rebels’ third season. Continue at your own risk. —
Last July, hundreds of Star Wars Celebration attendees around me erupted in cheers when they heard fan-favorite Grand Admiral Thrawn would be returning to new canon. I was happy for them, but I had a bad feeling about this. I had grown tired of Thrawn by the end of the Expanded Universe, and I wasn’t sure new canon would be able to rehabilitate the character for me. This past season of Rebels has led me to think more deeply about the character, but I am still disappointed by his usage in new canon so far. I’ll first explain who Thrawn is, then move on to how he has been utilized in Rebels.
I’ll start with an introduction to the character as he existed in the now-defunct Legends continuity. Thrawn was created by Timothy Zahn in the celebrated Heir to the Empire – part of what is known to fans as the “Thrawn” trilogy. In it, he was portrayed as a calculating aesthete who nearly destroyed the fledgling good guy government (the New Republic) five years after the events of Return of the Jedi. Thrawn was a member of the (then) mysterious Chiss species, and had ascended throughout the Imperial ranks by impressing Palpatine with his ruthlessness and cunning.
Thrawn comes from a proud tradition of icy, calculating geniuses, including Batman, Sherlock Holmes, and Spock. What sets Thrawn apart from the others in this category is that he’s on team Bad Guy and has an art history degree.
Thrawn’s gimmick is that he studies the art of various alien species in order to discover their weaknesses. In his first appearance, Thrawn exploits the Elomin inability to respond to unstructured attack tactics, a weakness he had discovered by studying Elomin art. This idea is, of course, absurd, but no more or less absurd than anything else in Star Wars. Additionally, alien species in Star Wars tend, mostly for worse, to be more culturally homogenous than analogous Earth cultures.
Something Borrowed, Something Blue
In Rebels’ season premiere “Steps into Shadow” Thrawn is brought in as a specialist by Governor Arinhda Pryce to deal with the group of rebels led by Hera Syndulla. Bringing in a new perspective makes sense, as the Rebels have at this point destroyed Tarkin’s personal Star Destroyer, killed the head of the Inquisitorius, and crippled the Interdictor cruiser, an Imperial superweapon that would have been invaluable in preventing Rebel hit-and-run tactics. Governor Tarkin acceded to Pryce’s request and brought Thrawn and the Seventh Fleet to deal with the problem.
Thrawn is introduced as someone who has recently ended a rebel uprising in the Batonn Sector. Agent Kallus points out that the operation resulted in massive civilian collateral damage. Thrawn sniffs at this criticism, pointing out that the purpose was to root out Rebel resistance, and he achieved that end. Thrawn is willing to go to any lengths to achieve his goal, and he is unconcerned with civilian body counts. It’s clear from the scene that this is a point of tension between Kallus and Thrawn, which will shade Kallus’ actions further on down the line.
In the same episode Hera’s gang steals a handful of Y-Wing bombers. Though Thrawn correctly deduces the facility which will be targeted by the Rebels and advises that it be placed on lockdown, the group manages to destroy the facility and escape with a few bombers regardless. When the facility manager calls for help, Thrawn arrives with a Star Destroyer and observes the Rebels fleeing, but allows them to escape with (as he puts it) their “meager reward.” We are told that these bombers will eventually be sent to Dodonna’s group, who fans may recognize as the strategist from A New Hope.
Thrawn’s logic in letting the Rebels escape is that he is after larger quarry – the location of the Rebel fleet. Here is where it begins to break down for me. Why didn’t Thrawn destroy most of the bombers and enable one to escape to tell the tale? He uses this strategy to great effect in his EU appearance against a group of smugglers. Some of the bombers were being remote-piloted by Chopper, and thus could have easily been destroyed to build up Thrawn as a competent threat. Instead, Thrawn simply lets the Rebels escape. This is hardly genius behavior.
In his next appearance on Rebels Thrawn comes into conflict with brilliant Twi’lek strategist Cham Syndulla, and proves more than a match for the freedom fighter. Cham notes that a new Imperial commander has arrived, and the Ryloth resistance has been taking heavy losses of late. I was excited to see what Thrawn was capable of up close, as the episode appeared to place Hera and Ezra on a collision course with the Grand Admiral. When Hera learns that a beloved family heirloom has fallen into Imperial hands, she and a disguised Ezra slip into her former family home to try and steal it back.
Hera and Ezra are caught by their opponent, who is too smart to be fooled by a too-short scout trooper. Inexplicably, Thrawn fails to notice anything amiss about Chopper, who is given free reign of the Imperial base even after Hera and Ezra are caught. I am coming around to the idea that Chopper is the MVP of the Ghost crew.
Thrawn also reveals that he knows who Hera is and that she is related to Cham, his current problem. Unfortunately, the big reveal of how Thrawn knows all of this is…kind of silly? Thrawn dramatically reveals a portrait of Hera’s family on the wall. This means Thrawn’s advantage in the episode is less an indication of artistic insight and more an ability to recognize faces when he sees them.
Thanks to help from Chop, the Rebels escape from Ryloth and elude Thrawn’s grasp yet again, killing several Imperial troops, disabling a handful of walkers, and blowing up the building the Imperials had been using as a base of operations. Thrawn watches all of this with a smile.
This pattern is beginning to be a problem. In Legends, Thrawn is also portrayed as an extremely patient master planner. However, one of the major differences between Thrawn and prior Imperial villians was that the Grand Admiral wasn’t cavalier about losing troops. Where Vader Force-choked with abandon, Legends Thrawn preferred to give his subordinates the chance to correct their mistakes before executing them for their failure. On Rebels, Thrawn doesn’t seem to care how many Imperial troops he loses to the wrecking ball that is the Ghost crew.
In the episode “Iron Squadron”, Thrawn sends one of his subordinates to deal with a band that is making trouble for the Empire near the Mykapo system. Admiral Konstantine wants to arrive in force, but Thrawn sends him with a single Arquitens-class cruiser. Thrawn has the resources of the entire Seventh Fleet at his command, but presumably has bigger plans than simply destroying the rebel task force.
Needless to say, Hera’s group shows up and manages to whisk away the Empire’s foes. Konstantine, outmatched, calls Thrawn. Thrawn then shows up in his personal Star Destroyer to assist. He allows the rebel cell to pass directly by his flagship and exchanges threats with Alliance Commander Jun Sato. He asks the Commander what could have motivated him to return to the Mykapo system (the source of a prior humiliating defeat). Thrawn has thus learned something about Sato in the process of losing yet more Imperial resources to dissidents.
After the Rebels flee, Thrawn asks if Konstantine had called him for help, and the Admiral blusters that he was merely informing Thrawn that the Rebels had been driven from the system. Thrawn, irritated, informs Konstantine that the point of the operation was to capture the dissidents who had been plaguing the Mykapo system, and that Konstantine clearly must be trying to cover up his mistakes.
Konstantine isn’t the only one. I was struck by how much easier this operation would have been if Thrawn had simply allowed Konstantine to arrive at Mykapo with his intended task force. The Ghost could plausibly outwit a single Arquitens-class cruiser, but a few Star Destroyers would have proven a more difficult challenge. Yes, Thrawn may have learned something about the Rebel commander, but with a retooling of his strategy he might have actually been able to kill or capture him. This one’s on Blue Boy.
After a string of disappointing appearances, Thrawn is finally built into a credible threat in his latest appearance, An Inside Man. A Lothal factory has had quality control issues of late, and Grand Admiral Thrawn is touring it to get to the bottom of things. (The audience knows from a prior scene that these exploding speeder bikes are the product of Rebel sympathizer sabotage.)
In an extremely effective moment for Rebels, Thrawn forces one of the workers (an old family friend of Ezra’s) to ride a sabotaged speeder bike, and watches impassively as the faulty vehicle explodes. Thrawn has finally killed a named character, and proven that he is no fool in the process.
Later, the Grand Admiral places the factory on lockdown after deducing that the Rebels spies are close by. By making smart choices that occur to very few Imperials (locking the doors, for example) Thrawn is almost able to capture Kanan and Ezra. The rebels are able to make good on their escape with the aid of Agent Kallus, who is revealed as the spy Fulcrum. Deducing that the rebels had help from the inside, Thrawn decides to exploit the idea that someone has been feeding the Rebels information. In the course of the episode, we also learn that Thrawn is developing a starfighter (the fan-favorite TIE Defender) in order to turn the tables on the Rebels. Hera notes that a shielded, powerful starfighter could create a heap of trouble for Alliance pilots, who are used to cheap, mass-produced TIE fighters.
I discussed above how Thrawn’s critical traits are that he is a tactical genius and that he has a high appreciation for art. So does Rebels succeed in its portrayal? Not really.
Let’s talk about tactics. Thrawn is a high-ranking Imperial official with command of an entire Imperial fleet (four to six Star Destroyers, associated light cruisers, and multiple fighter squadrons.) He is opposed by the band of Rebels that inhabit Atollon. So far, the much-smaller Rebel group is winning handily. We are now halfway into the season, and Thrawn has succeeded in killing exactly one minor character, who previously showed up in one episode of Season One.
I know that this is Star Wars, and the heroes must (generally) escape and live to fight another day. However, Clone Wars had a fairly high body count despite being a children’s show, and featured dangerous and violent villains. I also can’t get over the fact that a supposed genius consistently wastes huge numbers of troops and materiel to satisfy his curiosity. For such a ruthless villain, Thrawn has gone out of his way to avoid killing the Rebels at every turn. We can compare him to Vader, who was essentially toying with the Lothal cell, but still managed to destroy most of the Rebel fleet in about five minutes. Unlike Vader, in situations where the Grand Admiral could afford to deal a crippling blow to the Alliance and achieve his goals, Thrawn has avoided doing so.
Nor do I feel the art-critic aspect of his personality has been appropriately explored. When Thrawn joined Rebels, Kat Kuhl and I hoped the writers were sowing the seeds for a showdown between himself and Rebel aesthete Sabine Wren. Instead, Sabine’s involvement with Thrawn has been minimal. The only Rebels to come face to face with Thrawn thus far have been Hera and Ezra. There is a moment where Thrawn analyzes some of Sabine’s art and questions what Kallus knows about it, but it’s (once again) pattern recognition, not really analysis. Indeed, Thrawn hasn’t really used art tactically. He was aware that Hera would return for a cherished family heirloom, but that doesn’t really speak to any sort of deeper analysis of its meaning. We can tell he has an appreciation for art, but there’s no indication he’s using it in innovative or unexpected ways. Any reasonably smart person would be able to draw the conclusions Thrawn has by simple surface-level analysis.
Most damningly, a well-placed Imperial officer has been feeding information to his quarry right under his nose. I’d be surprised if Thrawn didn’t figure out what Kallus was up to eventually, but a lot of stormtroopers have died as a result of this betrayal. I’m finding it hard to take him seriously as the tactical wunderkind he is described as. Thankfully, the latest episode rehabilitates Thrawn a lot by showing him actually taking action, and I hope Rebels is on the upswing in this regard.
Rebels is now halfway into its third season, and it has a lot of ground to cover if it is going to make Thrawn a threat. I may not be his biggest fan, but I do think he deserves a better portrayal than what has been shown thus far. And if the story isn’t smart, I can at least hope it is…artistically done.
Pranks is the host of Never Tell Me the Pods, a weekly Corran Horn and Bigger Luke discussion podcast. Readers should be aware that like all Arcona, he is addicted to salt.