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Grand Admiral Thrawn is a Star Wars rarity: a Big Villain who isn't boring

The character isn’t just evil for the sake of being evil, so here's hoping his upcoming spotlight in Ahsoka delivers

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Lars Mikkelsen as Grand Admiral Thrawn in Ahsoka. 
Lars Mikkelsen as Grand Admiral Thrawn in Ahsoka. 
Photo: Disney/LucasFilm

Star Wars has always been a franchise that deals with archetypes. Classical Good Guys going on a classical hero’s journey, facing off against classical Bad Guys with no greater aspirations than Being Bad and Doing Evil. That’s why the ultimate villain of the original trilogy is just a mean old man in a black robe who spends most of his time sitting on a throne and snarling. Darth Vader is an important character with a personality and motivations, but the real main bad guy is just a plot device—he’s just there to stand in the way of Luke Skywalker redeeming his father.

Every big Star Wars villain is like this, even Vader to an extent, and Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi made it explicit with the way Supreme Leader Snoke was quickly and somewhat unceremoniously cut in half. But that’s what makes Grand Admiral Thrawn, the Big Villain of Disney+’s Ahsoka, so thrilling. He’s the exception that proves the rule, the Star Wars villain who isn’t just evil for the sake of evil; and that’s why it’s a big deal that Lucasfilm is finally pulling him out of the relative obscurity of tie-in novels and cartoons and putting him into the big spotlight in Ahsoka.


Thrawn originally appeared in writer Timothy Zahn’s Heir To The Empire, the first in a now-non-canonical trilogy about the aftermath of the Galactic Civil War and the death of Emperor Palpatine. He’s a member of a species called the Chiss, who have blue skin and bright red eyes, and the fact that Thrawn is so clearly non-human is meant to be a clear indicator of just how much of a badass he is. (Disney has moved away from this somewhat, but in the old days the Empire was almost exclusively staffed by white men with British accents.)

Unlike Darth Vader, who gets things done by killing everyone who disagrees with him or by charging into a situation with brute force, Thrawn is an actual master tactician who is always a few steps ahead of his opponents. That’s an oddly rare trait in the Star Wars universe, even for a military leader, since these are stories where major political policy decisions tend to be made with face-to-face swordfights.

Star Wars Rebels Season Three Trailer (Official)

The modern, canonical version of Thrawn made his first appearance in the animated series Star Wars Rebels (played by Lars Mikkelsen), which (unlike Heir To The Empire) takes place right before the Galactic Civil War formally kicks off—meaning this is a younger Thrawn than previously seen, and one who is a firm believer in the Empire’s supremacy. The Rebels version of Thrawn is cool and calculating, willing to take a loss if it means being in a better position for a future win, but the most frustrating thing about him to the ragtag group of insurrectionists at the center of the show might be that he seems to have a genuine fondness and appreciation for the culture of the societies that are being steamrolled by the Empire.


He’s not someone they can outsmart with kid-friendly hijinks, or gradually wear down with their positive attitudes (which is basically what happens to David Oyelowo’s Agent Kallus, one of the show’s original big villains until he defects to the Rebels). In fact, Thrawn is only “defeated” in Rebels when young Jedi Ezra Bridger makes a sacrifice to send himself and Thrawn to some random unknown corner of the galaxy—simply removing Thrawn from the game and leaving the Empire without his brilliant military mind.

But Thrawn and Ezra aren’t dead. The epilogue to Rebels in its series finale teased this, and Rosario Dawson’s Ahsoka Tano confirmed it when she made her debut on The Mandalorian, seeking information from an Imperial named Morgan Elsbeth about his whereabouts. Finding Thrawn’s exact location—apparently some distant corner of another galaxy—and figuring out how to get there also seem to be the main things driving the plot in Disney+’s Ahsoka, which has yet to introduce live-action Thrawn (with Mikkelsen reprising his role) but certainly talked about him a lot in its first two episodes.

Ahsoka | Teaser Trailer | Disney+

That’s a dangerous game for Star Wars to play, because when Thrawn eventually does show up, he can’t be a disappointment. He can’t be another guy in a robe who bosses people around from afar. He also can’t be someone like General Grievous in the prequels, who seems really cool—with his robot body, extra limbs, and collection of stolen lightsabers—but has a debilitating cough. Or, rather, Thrawn hopefully won’t be like that. Or, if he is, there’s hopefully some narratively interesting reason for it. There’s always the chance Star Wars will fall into old habits, as it did when The Rise Of Skywalker decided to undo The Last Jedi’s clever deconstruction of the trope by offering the most boring explanation for Snoke it possibly could and bringing in Palpatine again to snarl and be evil with no greater motives or plans in his wrinkly little head.

Ahsoka is already close to making a mistake like that, with ostensible Big Villain (for now) Morgan Elsbeth being little more than an Evil Person who wants to Do Evil, but that’s why it matters that Thrawn is coming to Ahsoka. This is the chance to not be boring and not do the same things Star Wars always does, and it should be very, very easy. They just have to do Thrawn again and make him do Thrawn stuff. It’ll be great.