The Mandalorian and its spin-offs on Disney+ have an exciting opportunity to focus on Grand Admiral Thrawn as a potential rival to Palpatine himself. The popular Star Wars series will return on March 1 and is expected to delve even deeper into the rich lore of Mandalore and Grogu’s history before the fall of the Jedi Order. Other related series coming out this year, Ahsoka and Skeleton Crew, will continue the expansion of this era in galactic history between the end of the Empire and the rise of the First Order. Importantly, this exploration is heavily theorized to involve Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Grand Admiral Thrawn hailed originally from the Legends’ continuity but was brought back into the official canon and is one of the few non-humans to ascend to his prestigious rank in the Empire. Thrawn – his name shortened from “Mitth’raw’nuruodo,” which cannot be pronounced by humans – hails from the Chiss Ascendancy in the Unknown Regions. He became a major villain in Star Wars Rebels as the show’s main antagonist until he was banished into hyperspace thanks to Ezra Bridger. The Mandalorian season 2 teased Thrawn’s return in the post-Return of the Jedi era, with Ahsoka Tano searching for him – presumably to find out what happened to Ezra, who’s confirmed to appear in the Ahsoka show. Thrawn’s live-action return really does seem imminent.
Grand Admiral Thrawn Was Never Loyal To The Emperor
There’s actually intense debate about whether Thrawn is an actual Star Wars villain, despite his actions in Star Wars Rebels. This is because, although he was introduced as an Imperial officer, he was never loyal to Palpatine. He was created by author Timothy Zahn as the heir to the Empire, but Zahn’s portrayal over the years gradually made him more sympathetic. Zahn has now written several canon novels starring Thrawn, revealingThrawn’s motivations were not to help aid the Emperor in his tyrannical conquest of the Galaxy, but rather to use Palpatine for his own means. To Thrawn, Palpatine was a mere pawn in his own game.
Zahn’s novels (and comic book adaptations of his books) have explored Thrawn’s origins in the Chiss Ascendency, including why and how he joined the Empire, rising to the impressive rank of Grand Admiral. The Chiss Ascendency is characteristically isolationist and non-expansionary, yet they were beset by dangerous enemies called the Grysk Hegemony. Thrawn was assigned a mission to infiltrate the Empire and determine their usefulness to the Chiss – whether they could be a helpful ally or if not, better prey for the Grysk after Thrawn weakened them from the inside.
His motivations, therefore, never aligned with Palpatine’s. However, he still served his purpose for the Empire. Intriguingly, this mission was never supposed to last so long for Thrawn, yet he seems to have seen the opportunity to get what the Ascendency would never grant him – true power and authority. That makes it particularly interesting to see him return alongside the Empire, as teased in a synopsis of The Mandalorian season 3; the show could help expand on this aspect of the character.
Thrawn’s Returning Empire Doesn’t Fit With Palpatine’s Contingency
Palpatine had actually intended to use Thrawn to conquer the Chiss. The Grand Admiral’s disappearance before the original trilogy era prevented that, but he still served a purpose in the Emperor’s schemes. His knowledge of the Unknown Regions was paramount to the Emperor’s Contingency plan, which would eventually restructure the Empire into the First Order. Despite his characteristic hubris, the Emperor prepared for his demise, with orders for selected loyalists to retreat to the far reaches of the Unknown Regions while the rest of the Empire burned due to Emperor Palpatine’s “Operation Cinder.“
Andor teased Palpatine’s Contingency was already being prepared at the time Thrawn served as a Grand Admiral, with nods to Jakku – a planet that played a significant role in said Contingency. Thrawn’s return after Return of the Jedi would go against Palpatine’s plan because the Emperor wanted the Republic to believe the Empire was truly defeated. Thrawn, however, probably wasn’t even cognizant of these plans. The Mandalorian takes place only 5 years after Return of the Jedi, decades before the First Order was ready to strike at the New Republic. Moff Gideon’s forces, and the stormtroopers Din Djarin and Grogu have faced, are still remnants of the Empire left behind.
The Mandalorian has been setting up Thrawn’s return since season 1 as someone acting of his own accord, seizing power in the vacuum left by the deaths of the Emperor and Darth Vader. This does, however, call into question Thrawn’s interest in Grogu; that story element presumably connects to Palpatine’s cloning interests, and thus his own plans to create a new resurrected body. Therefore, there may be some overlap between Thrawn and Palpatine, but their motivations might be different. If so, it seems likely Thrawn is stepping out of Palpatine’s shadow, meaning he can really excel as an antagonist on his own.
The Mandalorian Era Could Be About The Defeat Of The Emperor’s Rival
Thrawn is a perfect antagonist for this era of Star Wars, whether he returns in The Mandalorian season 3 or in a later Disney+ TV show. The Grand Admiral could draw together the different storylines as an overarching big bad, essentially meaning Thrawn becomes Star Wars‘ Thanos figure. Each series can help define his role in the galaxy in a different way, showcasing key aspects of his story – from his return from the great unknown to his shadowy influence over the vestiges of the Empire, the bourgeoning New Republic, and even the Mandalorians. Each Disney+ series can build him up as a villain, so his subsequent defeat is all the more satisfying.
Thrawn is not beholden to the classic Jedi-Sith binary and he can act outside the Empire’s norms, so he is quite a unique villain in the Star Wars landscape. Centering on his distinct rise and demise can make this era stand out from the Skywalker saga – but there would still be a strong enough connection, simply because the tale would be bridging the gap between the Empire’s true defeat and the origin of the First Order. Thrawn really is the right character to fill the villainous void left by Palpatine in The Mandalorian and its spinoffs.