David: What makes a good villain? Is it an easy-to-understand motivation? Is it a certain degree of likability? Is it intelligence, perhaps, or the ability to command respect? Or maybe a personal connection to the heroes? Or is it that hard-to-define but easy-to-recognize factor that we often call coolness? Darth Vader has all of these, and that’s the reason he is one of the best villains in modern culture. His screen time in Star Wars Rebels season two was short but definitely memorable, going from a really strong first appearance where he basically made our heroes run for their lives to one final showing where he (maybe) killed one of the most loved characters in the franchise and left the rest of the crew reeling from the impact. But how have the other Rebels villains lived up to this example? Especially: how good of a villain has Grand Admiral Thrawn been?
When the trailer showing the animated Thrawn was first shown at Star Wars Celebration London, the room went completely wild. There you had what was probably the most popular villain from Legends jumping to the small screen and becoming the main opponent for the season, a successor to the Grand Inquisitor and Darth Vader. There he was, looking at art (omigosh at Sabine’s graffiti) and talking cryptically about the imminent destruction of the Rebellion. But once the initial excitement wore off there was one question hanging in the air: would the series do justice to the Grand Admiral? Timothy Zahn seemed to think so, but how would Thrawn work through the whole season? Was this the same old Thrawn from 1991?
No, he definitely wasn’t the Thrawn we were used to.
The Rebels staff tried, no doubt about it, and they did really well. Even though Vader was perhaps a larger threat, his obsession seemed to be focused on the Jedi, and especially on Ahsoka, while Thrawn has been an existential threat to the whole Rebellion. He was appropriately menacing and he always seemed to be the smartest person in the room, but he wasn’t the character that Zahn basically conceived as a walking and talking superweapon. The main complaint we started hearing around the mid-season break, when people had had time to meditate on the previous half, was that this Thrawn lost a lot of battles. Series producer Dave Filoni admitted it in the fantastic interview that he gave IGN’s Eric Goldman, saying:
“If I had the scale and scope to do it, it’d be great to show side battles that Thrawn is probably winning against other Rebel threats and Rebel cells. Hopefully we can cover that in other material or comics or books somewhere so you’re getting a better view of the character now that he’s in play.”
Neither the short duration of a regular Rebels episode nor the very episodic nature of the series were very conductive to the kind of mastermind plotting that Thrawn had us accustomed to, and even less to the kind of military sci-fi that readers often expect from Zahn’s novels. Maybe if he had been the focus of a whole episode his Sherlock Holmes qualities could have had space to shine, but that would have also robbed him of the aura of cool distance that always envelops him. And there’s also another reason. There’s an argument that’s often used by the “haters” but it’s not any less true for it: Star Wars Rebels is a series for kids. Yes, the staff has defined it before as “a series for everyone”, but that by necessity means “a series for kids but with elements and layers that adults can enjoy.” The intricate—sometimes ludicrous—planning that Thrawn showed in his trilogy of novels was going to have to be distilled to a version that the younger audience could understand. Simply put, there was no way we were going to get the Thrawn from the novels, other than small hints that other sources were probably going to pick up and develop, and we should have expected this earlier.
Ben: Building off of what Dave said, I think Thrawn’s inclusion in Rebels was a grand experiment that wound up producing mixed results. Bringing Thrawn back to canon status, with his fate and exploits now an empty canvas for future storytelling, was absolutely the correct call to make. He was one of the most popular characters in the EU and, so long as the new portrayal was accurate to the old, that popularity would be nothing but a boon for the franchise in this new era. Think of it as a popularity magnet, fans of Thrawn might tune in to Rebels just out of curiosity and become hooked on the show to see where it took him.
The issue arises in that, while Thrawn does match the personality and quirks of the beloved character from Zahn’s books, his exploits have to be filtered through the storytelling tone and style that Rebels already had. In a similar way to characters like Count Dooku and General Grievous in The Clone Wars, the victories he has and accomplishments he achieves are almost all against his own side rather than Our Heroes. While the Rebels are far from unassailable, the finale of the show showed that the victories Thrawn could be granted were limited by the necessity of the show having to preserve its own cast. Thrawn got as far as holding Kanan, Hera and Co. at gunpoint, dead to rights, and they still managed to escape to fight another day.
That’s not to say his portrayal was bad, far from it. This was, to coin an adjective, the Thrawn-iest Thrawn we’ve gotten in years: cool, collected, patient, willing to study the enemy in both victory and defeat, hungry for information above all, devoted to order and serving the Empire well. The problem is that it was limited. Given a medium different from his usual, outside of the familiar prose of novels and in a show very much aimed at a younger audience, much of his plotting and pondering had to be inferred rather than simply explained. The writers did him no favors by removing his loyal Watson figure, not giving him anyone around to have to explain his thought process to, with all officers below his rank obeying (if begrudgingly in some cases) and his few peers nodding along without questioning his methods.
This would have worked better if this were not Thrawn’s first appearance in the new canon; he is capitalizing on his previous appearances and it is assumed that the audience already knows how he operates. Assuming familiarity where it might not exist, especially since they’re introducing a brand new villain, is not great for a show where their median audience has likely never read any of the old books that feature Thrawn. Like Vader, nothing about his methods or overall method of plotting is explained within the show itself, but unlike Vader, Thrawn is a character where those things have to be explained.
I’m glad that Thrawn is back; the amount of exposure that he is getting now is swiftly gaining on the amount of publicity he had in his time in the EU. And it’s very possible that Tim Zahn’s new book will help immensely by fleshing Thrawn out more in the era directly preceding his appearance in the show, and anything else on the horizon may also help in this regard. But we’re just judging his time in Rebels, where Thrawn had his shining moments, and his ignominious moments; he was never quite outsmarted but it also felt like he did not do enough to actually win until the very end of the season.
Mike: I would agree that Rebels‘ Thrawn has been a Thrawn adapted for a kids’ show, but not exactly in the way you guys mean it—or the way the show’s critics would mean it. As David says, a 22-minute episode couldn’t depict a strategy as convoluted as those that unfold in the novels and still leave room for the heroes to do more than say hi; besides which, the Ghost crew aren’t the Big Three and they’re not backed by the New Republic. If Thrawn is even moderately successful across the span of the entire season, our heroes either die or get captured by something like the seventh episode, and that’s just not an option. So how do you honor the character’s intelligence without having the heroes utterly defeated in short order? The answer they seem to have arrived at was, instead of an assortment of medium-sized Thrawn Gambits, he employs one giant Thrawn Gambit—one in which our crew plays only a small role, and which only bears fruit at the end of the season.
This allows something akin to a typical season of Rebels to unfold, where the characters rack up enough successes to keep things moving along and the tone relatively light, but only because Thrawn is allowing them to. Is this an artificial attempt to stretch out the story? Of course it is, but this is television; if Breaking Bad and Westworld have to spin their wheels from time to time, it’s silly to think Rebels is above that. The question is whether or not the ultimate payoff of Thrawn’s inaction is worth it, and I think the near-total destruction of the Phoenix Fleet (and a good chunk of Dodonna’s) more than fits that bill. Grumble if you must, and someone always will, about no one from the main cast being killed off, but think about how many stories on this show have revolved around obtaining ships, or guns, or fuel—the Rebellion isn’t an all-out war yet because it’s still a war for materiel, a war just to keep going, and “Zero Hour” is a giant, giant blow to that.
Furthermore, I think the exact way that Thrawn’s denouement came about was in some ways better than the kind of thing Zahn did with him. Zahn himself has described Thrawn’s art study as almost a superpower, and that’s often how he writes him; logical leaps are leapt that the human mind simply can’t grasp, which depending on who you ask is a sign of either Thrawn’s preternatural ability or Zahn’s sloppiness. To its credit, Rebels uses the art thing in a way that, yes, is more easily understood by young viewers, but also just makes more goddamn sense, period—Thrawn recognizes Hera from a childhood portrait, determines Ezra’s identity thanks to his disguise bearing a sketch by Sabine, and best of all, finds Atollon by studying ancient art of the local star systems. This is respectful of the character’s conception while still coming across like something a sufficiently thorough and intelligent military officer might actually do. What some might call oversimplification, I call clear writing, and shrewd adaptation. It leaves us with a harder question, though—how do they end up defeating the guy?
Jay: With a villain like Thrawn, merely surviving him is a victory. I don’t mean that in the sense that escaping him is the best that anyone can expect (as with Vader), but that Thrawn has made it eminently clear from the start that his goal was the utter destruction of the Rebellion. He wants total victory, and he’ll forego minor victories in order to achieve that goal. So — if the Rebels manage to reduce the effectiveness of his victories, if they’re hurt but survive to live another day, they make all of Thrawn’s earlier efforts into larger setbacks than they actually were. For someone like Thrawn, who plans out every step, that’s a big deal.
There’s another way that Thrawn can be defeated. He relies on intelligence, strategy, and knowledge: he studies his foes and uses his cultural and military expertise to make his conclusions. But there are things that are beyond his reach. We know that the Force is one of them — he’s not entirely sure what to make of it, though he’s not intimidated either. Are there other things that can evade Thrawn’s understanding?
I think so. One of the things we’ve been wondering this whole time is whether Thrawn would end up inadvertently creating the Rebel Alliance instead of destroying it. Like Tarkin, Thrawn has some sense of what sort of moral heroism drives the Rebellion and what separates their cause from a normal insurrection. But it’s entirely possible Thrawn underestimates what’s really being set in motion, and I think it’s possible the excessively cerebral Thrawn will — bear with me — entirely underestimate the emotive value of resistance and rebellion. It sounds cheesy and cliché, and I think that if the writers take this route they’ll have to do so carefully, but I think Thrawn may well push the Rebels too far and create the Rebellion.
The final thing is, the Rebels don’t have to win in terms of getting an unqualified victory against Thrawn. We know Scarif is sort of their first major victory as the Rebel Alliance. I’ve already said that merely frustrating Thrawn’s goals is enough — but if Thrawn’s goals are frustrated while at the same time the mortal danger he puts the Rebellion in helps the Alliance coalesce? Well — there we go.
One thing’s for sure — I hope Thrawn has some role to play with the Saw/Mothma divide that’s to come. Perhaps it’s Thrawn who sees the division and drives them apart (call it a reverse Bel Iblis), but it’s not enough to splinter the whole Rebellion — and takes us into Rogue One. That’d be interesting. At the end of the day, I think Thrawn is a villain that evades easy characterization and simple answers. The standard calculus of winning/losing doesn’t apply with him, nor should it. I like the idea of mixed victories and defeats with this character.