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?
As 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?
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.