With the imminent finale of Star Wars Rebels, I thought it was a good time to take stock of the recurring villains of the show. Where did we start, and where did we end up? Are the villains satisfying? Are they evil, without seeming cartoonishly so? Or should they be cartoonish, because this show is actually a cartoon? When this show started, Grint and Aresko were among the first Imperials we saw – and they were spending their time stealing from jogan fruit vendors and threatening to lock them up for treason on ridiculous pretexts. Thankfully, those clownish villains weren’t typical of the villains we’d get in the show. The use of Thrawn in “Jedi Night” and “DUME” is what got me thinking about how villains have been portrayed throughout the show’s four seasons and it’s as good a time as any to take a villainous retrospective.
The end of the show isn’t the first time that it’s made sense to take stock of the villains of the show. There have been a lot of new villains introduced, and a lot of change. What’s the villainy of Maketh Tua (RIP) next to Vader and Tarkin? Was Kallus’s defection earned, or was he “honorable” all along? Would the return of fan-favorite Thrawn result in white-washing, or a nuanced portrayal? The villains’ competence reflects that of the heroes – every time the Ghost crew up the stakes, the Empire did so in turn. Tracking the arc of the major villains is another way to track the arc of the show and its main characters.
Ultimately, Rebels is a kids’ show that belongs to the Star Wars franchise: it’s clear to everyone who the villains are and who the heroes are. The complexity is never in terms of moral gray: the show will never make us ask “are the Imperials good?” or “are the Rebels bad?” Instead, the villains are given complexity in other ways: the petty evils of Grint and Aresko give way to the likes of Thrawn and even Darth Maul. They’re bad people but they’re evil in different ways. We might even forget for a second that they’re villains, until the show rightly reminds us that they are.
Thugs to Something More
At the start of the show, the villains are small and unimpressive. Grint and Aresko are small-time brutes who are happy that their position as Imperial officers lets them run roughshod over others, while Maketh Tua is a local bureaucrat who has put herself over her own people and acts as a colonial administrator herself. They’re using their Imperial trappings to justify grinding their fellow Lothal natives under their heels and they’ve been benefiting from that repression. Compared to the cosmic evil of the films, our initial Lothal villains seem positively petty. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s from such small injustices that revolutions grow: and these selfish acts are what get the Ghost crew involved on Lothal and what draws Ezra to rebel.
Kallus and the Grand Inquisitor are the real villains of the first season. They’re strictly hunters – Kallus is an ISB agent who’s a counter-insurgent and the Grand Inquisitor is summoned to eliminate Jedi. They’re not very complex as villains: Kallus practically cackles over committing genocide, and the Inquisitor is suave but a straightforward darksider. They represent the changed stakes, the larger evil of the Empire in microcosm: Kallus is the fascist totalitarian and the Inquisitor is the dark wizard. They serve a purpose in their straightforward evil, as did the sepoy officers and collaborationist minister.
But as the Rebels turn out to be heroes with principle rather than local insurgents, so too do the top tier villains show up at the end of the first season. Tarkin and Vader expose the banal evil of the other Imperials for what it is. Maketh Tua blanches at the sort of evil she’s asked to commit, explaining that she’s just a local government official. And even Kallus shows the first signs of moral qualms as Grand Moff Tarkin orders the incompetent Grint and Aresko executed for their failures. We all know what kind of villains Tarkin and Vader are, but their function in the show is more than just upping the ante: it’s turning us over to a more serious kind of evil. Tua, Grint, Aresko, and even Kallus had their failings played for laughs.
Larger Than Life
I said earlier that the villains reflected the heroes, but at the beginning of season two that’s true only to a certain extent. If Tarkin was a big deal, Darth Vader was the biggest of deals. He cut the heroes down to size, and then took a backseat: because if he hadn’t, he’d have had to either defeat them utterly and end the show or suffer serious damage as a character. The writers of the show were well aware of this, and said as much.
The show reverted to Kallus as an on-again-off-again villain, sometimes acting inspired by Darth Vader’s cruelty but other times acting like an honorable warrior rather than a mustache twirler. This season introduced us to two new Imperial military villains as recurring characters, Kassius Konstantine and Brom Titus. Both end up being played for laughs, but their ineptitude serves as characterization (and for a hot second, Titus did look like a sharp officer). Konstantine is an ambitious, career-minded officer. He’s almost more of a politician than a warrior. His failings let the heroes constantly escape, but Konstantine is that guy who always fails and never seems to face the consequences. We all know someone like that. As for Titus, well…poor guy. Ezra might be the butt of everyone’s jokes, but Titus is the butt of Ezra’s jokes. Ouch.
What about the Inquisitors? In a way, they’re the dark side version of Konstantine, jockeying for more power and favor while attempting to carry out Vader’s will. The Fifth Brother is a non-entity, interesting only in that he reflects a concept art design from The Force Awakens. The Seventh Sister, on the other hand, was fantastically portrayed from the start and is decidedly creepy. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of her, and discussions about her tended to be overshadowed by silly speculation that she was Barriss Offee.
Darth Vader was a shadow over everything, and he’s handled masterfully. I don’t need to provide any analysis here – we all know how excellent his episodes were, from “Siege of Lothal” to “Twilight of the Apprentice” and all the Anakin/Vader/Ahsoka flashback drama in between. Darth Maul gets briefly introduced, and while I still feel his resurrection was completely unnecessary and the addition of yet another villain to this season and the finale in particular verges on the absurd, Darth Maul does a better job showing the seduction of the dark side than the Empire’s dark warriors do: because Maul comes as a friend offering help. If it helps to think of Maul as nothing but a metaphor for Ezra’s journey towards (and then away from) the dark side that started at Fort Anaxes and ends during season three, then his addition was worth it. If anything, the prequel-era Maul does a better service to the main crew’s story than the originals-era Vader does — and isn’t that a strange thought?
(The discussion of Rebels serving as a coda for Clone Wars characters and plotlines is a larger one, one that I’m not terribly interested in wading into myself: suffice it to say that the Vader/Ahsoka plot was, in my view, both distracting but also tremendously satisfying. Please direct any hate mail to my editor.)
A Chiss for Two Seasons
After a lot of instability among the villains, the final two seasons have been pretty stable: Thrawn and Pryce are the new villains of season three and they continue to be the villains of season four. At time of writing, I don’t know how their story will end – but we’ve seen enough to talk about them. (I wish I had time to talk about minor characters like Commander Skerris and especially Minister Hydan, my favorite addition to the show, but we have to “stay on target.”)
Let’s start with Pryce. She’s a quasi-mythical figure whom we’d heard about several times but hadn’t seen until the third season trailer. From the start, she’s all business. She sees the threat, and presses Tarkin for more resources, including the reassignment of Thrawn himself. Leaving aside her character development in the Thrawn novel (where she steals the show, in my opinion), Pryce starts out as competent and dangerous. She’s on the same page as Thrawn, or at least intelligent enough to know to listen to him and follow his seemingly strange orders. At least, at first.
Konstantine is somehow still alive in the third season, but he meets his end when he proves to be what Thrawn and Pryce knew he was: a glory hound who prioritizes his personal aggrandizement over the Empire’s larger objectives. This is important, because Konstantine underscores why Thrawn is so different. The Empire has so many material advantages over the Rebellion, but it squanders them – and a large part of this is through the naked ambition of the Empire’s servants. We see it with the likes of Tarkin, Krennic, Motti, Ozzel, and so many others – and we see it with Konstantine.
Thrawn’s different though. We’ve seen a lot of Thrawn over the past two seasons – we’ve seen how he respects his enemies, how he stops to evaluate rather than striking, how he keeps his eye on larger goals, and how he is not interested in personal glory. Only Tarkin and Vader themselves have shown similar perspective and cleverness in their operations, and yet they still differ from Thrawn in key ways. I don’t want to compare Thrawn to the movie villains in terms of capability, but rather, function as a villain. Thrawn represents a civilized, cultivated villain — one who respects his opponents. That respect is a villain’s respect though, and the show is very clear to ensure that we know that Thrawn is still a bad guy.
In particular, I’m thinking of Thrawn’s scenes with Hera. “Hera’s Heroes” is my favorite episode of the third season because of his scenes with her, and “Jedi Night” is what prompted me to write this piece in particular. Thrawn is a wonderful villain, and one who rings very true to real life. Really, all of the Rebels villains do – from the local thugs to the political nest-featherers. Thrawn’s someone who in real life we might not think of as a villain – he comes across in his interactions with Hera as something of a Winston Churchill or a Cecil Rhodes. It’s usually heroes like Raddus or General Organa that get the Churchillian comparisons, but I’m thinking of the darker, colonial Churchill that sometimes escapes pop culture portrayals.
Thrawn doesn’t truly respect Hera and her culture, even though it might sound like he does. He is very interested in the kalikori, he acts like he sees Hera and Cham as worthy adversaries. He’s even very courtly and mannerly to them. But the way he treats them makes it clear that they are something to be mastered and dominated. He says he will not keep the kalikori as a trophy – but he will appreciate it the way a nineteenth-century museum might’ve appreciated an artifact looted by force. An artifact that means something to someone is now just a curiosity for him, its personal relevance discarded. It’s a colonial attitude.
So with seasons three and four, we get a good set of villains. We get the incompetent and venal, the capable and direct, and the politely evil. Best of all, they were all somewhat at loggerheads at some point: and I hope that the finale will give us a satisfying coda to this last set of villains, especially now that a rift has formed between the Thrawn/Pryce duo.
Rebels did a pretty good job with its villains. There were some missteps, some things were rushed, and some villains overshadowed others, but I think in retrospect they all served a point and a purpose: both in highlighting different types of evil (all working for the same Empire) and in developing the story of the main characters. I could’ve written a full article on each of these villains (perhaps not Grint and Aresko) and the functions they served on the show and their interactions with the crew (Kallus-Zeb, Inquisitor-Kanan/Ezra, Sabine-Saxon etc.) but there just wasn’t time. Heck, Hera-Thrawn might’ve warranted two pieces.
At the end of the day, I think Rebels did a pretty good job with its villains. Some were silly but they all served a purpose, and it was clear who the villains were without making it too cartoony (we’ll politely never talk about the saber copters again). The show didn’t give us compelling villains like the best-in-class Legend of Korra, but few shows could, and I honestly would not be sure that would be appropriate for Star Wars—at least, not this Star Wars.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go continue laughing forever about Baron Valen Rudor and his bar.