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.