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The Star Wars Expanded Universe is dead, but Grand Admiral Thrawn lives on

Star Wars’ best villain owns the Rebels cartoon this season

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

In the years since Disney has had control of the Star Wars franchise, the canon has been dramatically streamlined, so much so that the entire timeline now fits behind the cover page of a paperback book. But when cutting ties with the many great novelizations, comics and video games that came out in the 1990s, Disney managed to save one of the greatest villains in the history of the franchise.

Grand Admiral Thrawn lives. If you haven’t been watching Star Wars Rebels, then now is a good time to start, because he’s up to something, and I have a feeling it’s going to be fantastic.

Back in 2014, when word began to spread about the death of the Expanded Universe, I became somewhat... unreasonable about the whole affair.

Charlie Hall/Polygon

George Lucas had ceded control of the Star Wars universe post-Return of the Jedi, and by the gods that was just something Disney was going to have to live with.

Turns out that when you’re a multi-billion dollar entertainment company you get to do what you want. So I mourned for the gunslinging smuggler Talon Karrde, I poured one out for the Emperor’s Hand, Mara Jade, and I made peace with the idea of letting J.J. Abrams run wild. Eventually.

But Thrawn was a different story. First introduced in the 1991 best-seller Heir To The Empire, written by prolific science fiction author Timothy Zahn, the blue-skinned alien officer brought something to Star Wars that had never existed before. He was a well-rounded, influential and fascinating villain that didn’t rely on the Force to get ahead. He was as brilliant as he was brutal, and he gave life to the bridge of an Imperial starship.

Think about it. How many Imperials, aside from Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, do we really get to know in the movies? There’s Grand Moff Tarkin, of course. He’s a major antagonist in A New Hope. But after that they’re all pretty much disposable.

How many officers did Vader chastise, Force-choke or otherwise kill off in the original trilogy? In The Empire Strikes Back Vader can’t even be troubled to show up in person to strangle Admiral Ozzel. He does it via conference call, and then promotes Piett before the body’s cold.


This scene right here is about as much character development as our newly-minted Admiral Piett gets.

But Zahn elevates Thrawn in his books, lavishing him with attention. When we first meet him, on page six of Heir to the Empire, he’s sitting in his command room aboard his flagship, Chimera. He is alone in the universe, the highest ranking officer leading a tiny remnant of the Imperial fleet, broken by the Rebellion and desperate to consolidate what little power it has left.

But he is utterly calm, cold, almost meditative and surrounded by his art collection.

“All holographic, of course,” Thrawn said, and Pellaeon thought he could hear a note of regret in the other’s voice. “The sculptures and the flats both. Some of them are lost; many of the others are on planets now occupied by the Rebellion. ...

“Tell me, Captain, do you know anything about art?”

“Ah ... not very much,” Pellaeon managed, thrown a little by the sudden change of subject. “I’ve never really had much time to devote to it.”

“You should make the time. ... Learn about art, Captain,” Thrawn said, his voice almost dreamy. “When you understand a species’ art, you understand that species.”

He’s an aesthete, but he is also a warrior. We’re never really allowed inside the mind of Thrawn in Zahn’s books. Nearly always we’re left to observe him through his subordinate’s eyes. He’s also one of the only aliens to serve in the Imperial Navy, further othering him. He remains a mystery, an ominous threat lingering behind every page.

Zahn’s narrative bounces from scene to scene, from Luke and Leia to Lando and other fan favorites. But spending time with Thrawn is always a treat to be savored. It always ratchets up the tension, and moves the story — Thrawn’s story — forward.

So I was excited when, late this year, Disney announced that Thrawn had been pushed into a lifepod and jettisoned back into the canonical timeline. That he was relegated to a cartoon, however, was not good news to me. So I’ve been keeping tabs on Star Wars: Rebels. I wanted to make sure that they didn’t misuse him or otherwise abuse his legacy.

Quite to my surprise, Rebels’ isn’t putting Thrawn in the background as another Imperial stooge. The third season of the cartoon is actually setting Thrawn up to be the focal point of its narrative arc.

The exploration of Thrawn in this season’s first 10 episodes has been all about restraint. He’s not even in every show, but when he turns up it’s always to probe the crew of the Ghost. He is testing the rebels, looking for weakness and biding his time.

In “Hera's Heroes,” he gets his most screentime and, true to form, he’s focused on alien art. Watching him interrogate Hera Syndulla, the Twi’lek captain of the rebel crew, is classic Thrawn. It feels ripped from the pages of Zahn’s books, as does his complete ease when she escapes. Thrawn got what he needed from their short, tense conversation and now he’s brooding, like a red-eyed spider, waiting to strike.

Making it all the better is the voice actor playing the role of Thrawn, Lars Mikkelsen. Fans may not recognize him without his Russian accent, but he played the Putin-esque president Viktor Petrov in Netflix’s House of Cards. While I’ve never heard Thrawn speak before, Mikkelsen’s measured and modulated tone feels spot on.

We’re right around the half-way point in this season of Rebels, and I won’t spoil it for you here. But if you miss Thrawn, like I do, know that his best episodes are ahead of him.