At Star Wars Celebration’s Ahsoka panel last weekend, fans were finally given a glimpse of Grand Admiral Thrawn in live action – as Lars Mikkelsen was announced to be reprising the role he voiced in Star Wars: Rebels (2014-2018) for the Disney+ series in August. Those who may not be familiar with animated Star Wars or the character’s significance in wider franchise lore might need a little primer.
Who or What is Grand Admiral Thrawn?
Thrawn (a pronounceable shortening of his given name in his mother tongue: Mitth’raw’nuruodo) comes from a species from beyond the Outer Rim of the known Star Wars galaxy (which is as far as space-worthy craft can travel) in what is called the Unknown Regions of Space. Thrawn is a member of the Chiss and their culture – the Chiss Ascendency – is seemingly far more militarily advanced than the Empire or the Republic managed at their heights. Thrawn himself is a wunderkind even among the Chiss for his tactical ability. The Chiss have – currently – no interest in invading the Galaxy Far, Far Away but have continually had spies enter the ‘known’ galaxy in case they (the Republic or the Empire) become a threat to the Ascendency. Thrawn was one but later made himself known as an agent of the Chiss to join the Imperial navy where he very quickly proved himself to become a Grand Admiral, and a potent threat to any declared as his enemy.
Created by Timothy Zahn, the character Grand Admiral Thrawn first debuted in a 1990s series of novels known as the Heir to the Empire trilogy. In them a mysterious new Grand Admiral gathered the remnants of the Imperial fleet together and with his extraordinary tactical abilities became a genuine threat to the nascent New Republic – including heroes Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca – in the years following the fall of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader (as seen in 1983’s Return of the Jedi). It was planned by publisher Bantam Books to be as ambitious as the original Star Wars films and it paid off with the first book hitting number one on the New York Times Bestseller list in summer 1991, selling in the tens of millions of copies since and remaining a highwater mark for the (now-former) Expanded Universe of stories. That said, the Thrawn in the Heir to the Empire trilogy was dropped out of official canon following the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012. Anything published prior to 2012 was rebranded Legends and rendered non-canon.
However you can’t keep a great character down – Rebels co-creator, writer and executive producer Dave Filoni was clearly a fan and made Thrawn the surprise villain at the end of Rebels season 3 (2017) and the main antagonist in season 4 (2017-2018). And that isn’t the only place that has Thrawn brought back into new continuity – his original creator Timothy Zahn revisited Thrawn in two additional novel trilogies since that time – and interestingly made them flexible enough to fit into the old and new canon since they both act as prequels to his appearance in Rebels.
The first, simply titled the Thrawn trilogy (2017-2019), explores Thrawn’s arrival in the Galaxy Far, Far Away from beyond the Outer Rim, and his rapid rise through the ranks of the Imperial naval hierarchy – under the watchful eye of Emperor Palpatine, who perceives Thrawn with a mix of curiosity, amusement, and as a potential resource. We also see his rivalry and history with Darth Vader. The Thrawn trilogy ends with his promotion to Grand Admiral and departure to Lothal for the events that take place in Rebels seasons 3 and 4. The second Thrawn trilogy, Thrawn Ascendency (2020-2021) acts as a prequel of the prequel, exploring the Chiss culture that Thrawn comes from and his reason for leaving the Chiss Ascendency.
In Star Wars: Rebels, newly promoted Grand Admiral Thrawn enters the picture as the ragtag cell of nascent rebels on the planet Lothal start to become more of a potential threat than a nuisance to the Empire outpost stationed there and is sent to deal with them. In the series finale, Jedi Padawan Ezra Bridger uses the Force to get the aid of the purrgil, large migratory space-dwelling creatures that can naturally access and travel through hyperspace, and has them pull himself and Thrawn’s fleet to parts unknown to save the planet Lothal from the Empire. The end scenes of Rebels see the cast post-Return of the Jedi but Ezra is still missing, with Mandalorian Sabine Wren and Ahsoka going out to search for him. With Ahsoka showing up in The Mandalorian season 2 demanding to know the whereabouts of Thrawn, the Grand Admiral probably didn’t return in time to assist the Empire before the fall of the Emperor. But where is he? Where has he been? What has he been doing? And what happened to Ezra? Those questions will likely be at the core of the Ahsoka TV show in August.
At the Ahsoka panel Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau brought up that Timothy Zahn – Thrawn’s original creator was involved in the planning of the series and the manner of his depiction in the story to be told onscreen – Filoni even describing the character as being like “Moriarty and Rommel all in one”. If you add in the just-announced Filoni-directed movie that will bring the Imperial Remnant into open conflict with the New Republic, it seems like the non-canon classic Heir to the Empire trilogy might be getting a whole new spin and Grand Admiral Thrawn is going to be a significant threat for Star Wars fans to enjoy in live-action for the first time since his creation over thirty years ago.