The Case For a Reconstructed Thrawn

resistancethrawn

Ages and ages ago, I wrote a really long “Top 20 Expanded Universe Moments” piece for my personal blog at StarWars.com, which was a thing they let you have once.1 Most of it was the kind of thing your typical EU fan would gush over, but two entries were devoted to stories totally outside Legends continuity—what was then called Infinities.

One, actually my third most memorable moment, was a standalone Darth-Vader-versus-Darth-Maul story from Star Wars Tales, which sounds like the fanwankiest thing ever (and I mean, it was) but also happened to be a very interesting examination of Vader through the lens of a much more straightforward, dogmatic Sith Lord—who nevertheless proved to be the weaker of the two. The other was from the Infinites retelling of A New Hope, in which Han ends up accompanying Luke to Dagobah and, being a con man himself, immediately sees through the hermit routine—“this guy’s Yoda!”

What these two stories had in common was that they offered really interesting insights and character moments that couldn’t have happened in continuity as it was then.2 Ideally, that was the entire point of Infinities as a branding—not only can “what if” tales be great stories in their own right, but they can enhance our understanding of characters’ “true selves”, by showing how they might comport themselves in far-fetched circumstances.

With that in mind, consider for a moment the new Star Wars canon as a “what if” story—or more precisely, consider the new Grand Admiral Thrawn, small-screen celebrity, as “Infinities Thrawn”. Very soon now we’ll be finding out exactly how close this guy is to the OG Mitth’raw’nuruodo, but in terms of his backstory and standard operating procedures he seems very much the same. That’s as it should be; as Dave Filoni and numerous fans have said, if they’re going to reinvent him from the ground up, why not just use a new character?

But at the same time—why import a familiar character into a new canon and not do something new with him?

youngthrawnAs the EU got on in years, and the original incarnation of Thrawn remained stubbornly dead, Timothy Zahn slowly filled in the surrounding details of his life, and of the world he came from. We learned about his home, the Chiss Ascendancy, how he ended up with the Empire, and what his larger goals had been—and as is often the case, context led to understanding, and understanding led to a degree of sympathy. Thrawn may have done terrible things in service of the Empire, but like many within the late Republic, he acted more out of a desire for security for his people than a malevolent desire to dominate. He had encountered various terrors at the edges of Chiss territory in the Unknown Regions, and came to the conclusion that the Galactic Empire stood the best chance of keeping those terrors at bay. As Zahn showed us more and more of Thrawn’s earlier years, he began to come across as more of a simple pragmatist than a tyrant—someone who chose the wrong team for the right reasons, but lost the game nevertheless.

Many saw this apparent attempt to humanize Thrawn (for lack of a better word) as distasteful, as a way of whitewashing a character better left as a terrible villain. But seeing different sides of him didn’t nullify his villainous portrayal, in my opinion, it just made him a more complex character. After all, who among the major characters of the Star Wars saga couldn’t have turned out differently if they’d made just one or two different choices? That razor’s edge between the dark and light paths is what makes this franchise so interesting.

Now, we get a chance to start over with Thrawn. In Star Wars Rebels, he’s undoubtedly a monster; hints have been given as to how he became a Grand Admiral that suggest he cares little for civilian casualties, and he certainly exhibits no concern for Rebel lives in “Zero Hour”. But this time we’re at the opposite end of the original trilogy from the Thrawn books, and if he survives the show, who’s to say what might happen?

rr-thrawnprobes

It’s well established in the Aftermath trilogy that many Imperials saw which way the wind was blowing after Endor and hitched their wagons to the New Republic; a generation later they and their descendants went so far as to secede and “establish” the First Order shortly after Bloodline. How Thrawn, should he have lived that long, would have viewed the latter group is a subject for another article, but I think if we discard our remaining Legends preconceptions it’s very, very logical that he would have been part of the former. The Empire of the Thrawn trilogy still had a chance, but in the new canon, their grasp on the galaxy has turned out to be much more tenuous—if Thrawn’s overriding goal was to keep the Chiss safe, would he have gone down with the Empire out of stubbornness, or loyalty to Palpatine? Absolutely not.

Now, I don’t mean to say that he’d have truly reformed, or become a good (even better) person. Frankly, a Republic with no “bad” people isn’t much of a Republic, and there’s simply too much galaxy to govern to not utilize any number of people who did awful things under the Empire. Thrawn’s road to, if not respectability, at least utility, under the NR would be a difficult one, but it would make for an excellent story, and I think the character is worthy of it (see also: Ree, Ciena). Imagine him working with Luke to pinpoint potential Jedi Temple locations in the Unknown Regions, or later, alongside Ransolm Casterfo and the Centrist Party.

You might prefer a more idealistic version of the New Republic, where senators and the military all have virtuous and compatible aims, but what we’ve seen thus far suggests they’re not very interested in giving us that version, and I’d argue it would do a disservice to the complex political history of the galaxy to sweep under the rug all the entirely valid perspectives and experiences that led people to join not just the Empire but the Separatists as well, all in the name of making the NR “good guys”. The terms of the fight may evolve, but on a macro level Star Wars is about one giant community of beings disagreeing with one another over and over, and one group losing a particular fight doesn’t mean they just go away.

I don’t think it was a mistake for Zahn to kill Thrawn at the end of The Last Command; in fact, looking at the many years of storytelling that followed I think denying us an older, defeated Thrawn only strengthened the character as originally conceived—even if he did turn out to be less “evil” than we thought. But that story is over, and I’m ready for a new one.

  1. If you’re interested, I ported it over to ETE when we got started here—it’s a pretty good snapshot of my tastes and priorities back when the EU was the only game in town. []
  2. Maul ended up coming back for real, of course, but that’s neither here nor there. []

8 comments

  1. John says:

    I love the idea of complicating the new New Republic with former Imperials or former Separatists who exist in uneasy tension with the Rebels. I think this is unlikely, given recent stories.

    Star Wars does not have a good track record of portraying complex political drama. Casterfo is the exception that proves the rule: Bloodlines reveals that most of his neo-Imperial brethren are in fact complicit in a conspiracy to overthrow the very Republic they claim to serve. One of my biggest gripes with Empire’s End is the portrayal of Tolwar Wartol. I had some hope that Wartol might represent a reasonable (if not necessarily correct) foil to Mothma’s policies, but nope: anyone who disagrees with the heroes must be some kind of horrible, violent terrorist in the end. I can’t see the current crop of authors working Thrawn into a story as anything other than a villain.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      I guess I don’t necessarily see “villain” and “NR member” as antonyms. He could remain a piece of shit, and even function as an antagonist in a given story, but still do what I’m advocating for, what you say you would love—complicate the NR through his mere presence.

      • John says:

        I think it depends on what sort of story and complexity you’re looking for. To my mind, really complicating the NR, would require portraying actual political pluralism, in a way that Star Wars has been hesitant to do. With the important exception of Casterfo, the major political antagonists in the New Canon have been revealed as violent monsters, which in turn provides an obvious “out” for the heroes’ own violent resolution to their problems. Neither Mon Mothma nor Leia are ever really challenged to understand and compromise with their political opponents.

        I don’t think this complicates the NR – it simplifies it, by reducing all political problems to straightforward violent solutions. Opposition to Mon Mothma’s war resolution can only be explained by a criminal hostage conspiracy. Wartol’s opposition candidacy is concluded by Sinjir beating the crap out of him (of course, Wartol shot first, so it’s all good?). Leia’s formation of an extrajudicial hit squad (the Resistance) is simplified by her discovery that the political opposition are literally a secret cabal of genocidal monsters (the First Order). Seeding the NR with violent bad guys *does* provide some story space within the NR, and on the face of it none of these stories is actively bad. But I don’t think that any of these stories actually *complicate* the NR as a political project, in the way that, say, Borsk Fey’lya and the Bothans did in Legends. (I have my own problems with Fey’lya, but at the very least he provided some depth to the Legends NR by adding conflict that couldn’t be easily resolved by violence).

        Which leads me back to your original title, calling for a “reconstructed” Thrawn. I, too, agree that “NR member” and “antagonist” are not mutually exclusive (i.e., Fey’lya). Sure, there could be a story about Thrawn worming his way into the NR military by promising to help and then trying to use his position to violently overthrow the NR, which would end in the good guys ganging up and beating the ever-living blue stuffing out of him. That could be an okay story, I guess, but I’m not sure that would count as a “reconstructed” Thrawn, nor do I think it would add much complexity to the NR as an institution – it would just provide a greater diversity of bad guys for the good guys to punch. Real reconstruction of Imperials would require a more serious examination of the terms on which they agree to participate in the new pluralist political project, how those terms are negotiated with the existing Rebel leadership, and what sorts of compromises and moral hazards ensue in the new partnership. To my mind, *that* would complicate the NR, but the recent novels have not convinced me that Lucasfilm is interested in telling this sort of story.

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        I’m definitely not saying “reconstructed” in the sense that he joins the NR to secretly overthrow them; I’m thinking much more of the Fey’lya model (or maybe it’d be more accurate to say postwar Pellaeon, who ostensibly functioned as an NR ally even if he wasn’t technically a member). I want former Imperials to have a voice in the NR—some of those people could well go on to join/found the FO, but some would mellow with age or just resign in frustration over their increasing ineffectiveness.

        I agree completely about the Bothans and I’m still hoping they come back so the NR can have political antagonists who can’t just be painted as bad guys and swept aside, but honestly, I don’t entirely see Wartol’s plot that way. You can criticize the way it actually unfolded, but think of it this way—what if Saw Gerrera had lived long enough to join the NR? He’d have been right by Wartol’s side, if not even worse. Extremists were part of the fight, and they wouldn’t go away just because the fight was won any more than the ex-Imperials would.

        We’re looking at this from two different directions, I think—in terms of storytelling devices, you’re very, very right that SW tends to oversimplify politics “by reducing all political problems to straightforward violent solutions”, and I lament that, and I lament Wartol’s use in that way. But I don’t think it’s implausible, nor do I think the neo-FO’s actions in Bloodline are implausible, so as long as my suspension of disbelief is intact I can’t judge SW too much for choosing to tell stories that allow for zap-pow-pew-pew solutions. But a complicated, Thrawn- and Bothan-inclusive NR can and should exist alongside characters like Wartol and Carise Sindian, and I don’t think the use of the latter means they’re incapable of the former, or at least shouldn’t keep trying for it.

        One last point—I think you’re completely missing one absolutely excellent example of healthy, realistic political pluralism in the NR. Leia finally, twenty-some years out, feels compelled to form her “extrajudicial hit squad” due to what started as a disagreement between her and Mon Mothma. Leia never really supports Mon’s desire for disarmament in the first place, does she? Her decision to go rogue and liberate Kashyyyk is portrayed more or less heroically in Life Debt, but its consequences for Mon in Empire’s End are portrayed fairly and seriously. The books don’t play their disagreement up as much as they do Wartol but again, that’s a storytelling decision because Leia’s not there to be an antagonist. Her and Mon don’t see eye to eye on this, and they have problems throughout the story because of that, but they’re still friends, and they still support each other as much as possible in the face of those disagreements—as do Leia and Casterfo a generation later. Isn’t that exactly what we’re both saying we want?

      • John says:

        Fair points all around. You’re absolutely right that the Leia-Mon Mothma divide provides a model for reasonable pluralism in the NR leadership, a point that I overlooked. I still wish that the Wartol arc didn’t have such a tidy finish, but I agree in principle that more former Imperials and Separatists would be an interesting touch.

        Thought provoking as always – thanks!

  2. chriswerms says:

    It seems to me that, had Thrawn seen the defeat of the Empire in Endor and watched the way that it fell apart in Aftermath, he wouldn’t want to be a part of that Empire anymore. There is no Empire, there is no security. And, having seen a losing strategy unfold in the Empire, the First Order’s simple rehashing of their ways wouldn’t do much to entice him, either.

    But then again, if we want to imagine he’s looking for security (either for or not for the Chiss), the New Republic may not be a better option for him.

    Either way, I think this article is a great justification for why this Thrawn should survive into the NR timeline.

  3. chriswerms says:

    Coop – are you reading Thrawn? Would be cool to see this article updated already with some of the info in the novel.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      You’re not the first to say so! I am reading it but slowly. Guess we’ll see if I have to issue either a redaction or an “I told you so!”

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