- Who Is Grand Admiral Thrawn?
- Grand Admiral Thrawn’s Origin
- Grand Admiral Thrawn’s Powers and Abilities
- Thrawn’s Story So Far
- Grand Admiral Thrawn in the Expanded Universe
- Where Is Thrawn Now?
How Grand Admiral Thrawn Became an Iconic Star Wars Villain
Who Is Grand Admiral Thrawn?
Emperor Palpatine may be an all-powerful Sith Lord, but his Empire only functions if he has a few good commanders to whom he can delegate the responsibility of keeping the galaxy in line. No Imperial commander has done a better job of enforcing Palpatine’s will than Grand Admiral Thrawn. He’s a ruthless military leader with an almost superhuman gift for understanding and outwitting his foes. If Thrawn didn’t have the misfortune of going MIA just before the events of A New Hope, the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance might have turned out very differently. But that doesn’t mean Thrawn won’t still be a threat to the New Republic when he does return.
Grand Admiral Thrawn’s Origin
Grand Admiral Thrawn originally debuted in the 1991 novel Star Wars: Heir to the Empire, one of the progenitors of what quickly became known as the Expanded Universe. In this period without new Star Wars movies, stories like Heir to the Empire and Dark Empire helped keep the franchise alive. Even now, Thrawn remains among the most popular and enduring Star Wars characters who hasn’t appeared in a movie.
Thrawn’s distinctive blue skin and glowing red eyes mark him as a Chiss, a mysterious race who lurk in the Unknown Regions of the galaxy. Thrawn’s people have formed the Chiss Ascendancy, an oligarchy ruled by a handful of powerful families. Thrawn himself was born to a low class family. His birth name is actually Kivu’raw’nuru. But after showing early signs of military genius, Thrawn is adopted into the powerful Mitth family and renamed Mitth’raw’nuru (later Mitth’raw’nuruodo). But because Chiss is a very difficult language to pronounce, he usually goes by “Thrawn.”
Thrawn distinguishes himself in the Chiss Defense Fleet through a number of military victories, even though his arrogance and tendency to ignore the chain of command make him plenty of enemies. That pattern of bad behavior eventually catches up with him, and Thrawn is apparently exiled by his own people. However, he finds a new home among Palpatine’s Empire, quickly rising through the ranks to become a Grand Admiral and becoming perhaps the single greatest threat to the young Rebel Alliance. Even so, that meteoric rise comes with the same personal conflicts as before, and more than once Thrawn has been forced to choose between his loyalty to his own people and his newfound Empire.
Grand Admiral Thrawn’s Powers and Abilities
Like all Chiss, Thrawn has the benefit of enhanced senses. His hearing is far more acute than that of ordinary humans, and his glowing red eyes allow him to see infrared light. However, Thrawn’s mind is his true super-power. Thrawn is among the most gifted military commanders in the entire galaxy, with a knack for taking on seemingly insurmountable opponents and handily defeating them through clever strategy alone.
Oddly enough, Thrawn credits his appreciation for art with his ability to outthink his enemies. He spends much of his free time contemplating the art and culture of his enemies, which he claims allows him to understand how their people think, feel and react in life-or-death situations. His track record basically speaks for itself.
You might assume Thrawn is Force-sensitive given his ability to outthink and outsmart everyone around him, but that’s actually not the case. Only young, female Chiss ever manifest Force powers, and even those that do tend to lose those powers in adulthood. Those Chiss are often employed as “sky-walkers,” using their gifts to help ships navigate the deadly hyperspace routes of the Unknown Regions. Thrawn himself has actually been known to take advantage of creatures called the Ysalamiri, which generate a bio-energy field that repels the Force and cancels out Jedi abilities.
Thrawn’s Story So Far
With Thrawn’s various Expanded Universe appearances being rendered non-canon in the Disney era, most of his story has been told in one of two forms – in the animated series Star Wars Rebels and through a new series of books by author Timothy Zahn.
Zahn has devoted his time to fleshing out Thrawn’s early years in this revamped Star Wars timeline. 2017’s Star Wars: Thrawn kicked off a full trilogy of books shedding light on Thrawn’s early years in the Empire and his relationships with characters like Anakin Skywalker, Governor Arihnda Pryce and fellow Imperial cadet Eli Vanto. The first book has also been adapted by Marvel Comics as a limited series.
Having wrapped that trilogy, Zahn is now focused on the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, which delves back even further in the timeline and explores Thrawn’s rise through the ranks of the Chiss Defense Force.
Perhaps the biggest revelation to come out of Zahn’s recent Thrawn books is the twist that Thrawn wasn’t actually exiled by the Chiss. In fact, Thrawn is basically a spy for his people, one tasked with infiltrating the Empire and determining whether Palpatine’s military is a threat or a potential ally to the Chiss Ascendancy. Thrawn was unimpressed with the Republic during his brief alliance with Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars, but he sees something far greater in Palpatine’s vision for the galaxy.
Thrawn plays a key role in the latter two seasons of Rebels (voiced by Lars Mikkelsen), as Governor Pryce turns to the ruthless Grand Admiral to quell the increasingly dangerous Rebel cell on Lothal. Thrawn scores a number of victories for the Empire over the course of the series, thanks in no small part to his ability to study the art of Mandalore and extrapolate the best way to defeat its warriors. But in the end, even Thrawn proves unable to stop Jedi hero Ezra Bridger and his allies. The series ends with both Thrawn and Ezra being dragged across the galaxy aboard a runaway Star Destroyer.
While it’s generally assumed both characters survived and are still alive in the time period of The Mandalorian, this disappearance means Thrawn was missing all throughout the events of the original Star Wars trilogy. The loss of his greatest commander may well have cost Palpatine the entire war. That said, Thrawn’s intelligence on the Unknown Regions is also what allows the remnants of the Empire to retreat and begin consolidating power far from the prying eyes of the New Republic. Without Thrawn, there may never have been a First Order.
Grand Admiral Thrawn in the Expanded Universe
Thrawn is among many characters and elements originally created for the Star Wars Expanded Universe and later adapted and overhauled to become a part of Disney’s official series canon. Thrawn is more or less the same character in both versions of the Star Wars timeline. Zahn has even told IGN he’s made a point of not contradicting his older EU stories whenever possible. And while the original Thrawn trilogy and other books like Outbound Flight no longer “happened,” they may still offer important clues as to what role Thrawn will serve in the Disney era.
Heir to the Empire introduces Thrawn as a veteran Imperial officer who takes control of the scattered Imperial Remnant five years after the events of Return of the Jedi. Thrawn scores several major victories against the New Republic before revealing the full scope of his plan. Thrawn wants to bolster the Empire’s numbers by recovering a lost fleet of Old Republic-era ships called the Katana Fleet and staffing them using a new army of clone soldiers. Thrawn also recruits an insane, cloned Jedi Master named Joruus C’baoth. Thrawn alone seems to realize that Palpatine used a Dark Side ability known as “battle meditation” to make his forces fight more efficiently, which explains why the Battle of Endor was lost the moment Darth Vader killed his master. C’baoth agrees to serve the same role for Thrawn, provided the Grand Admiral allow him to turn the Skywalker siblings to the Dark Side.
With a greatly bolstered fleet and a new Dark Jedi to make his soldiers fight as one, Thrawn comes perilously close to destroying the larger but weak and divided New Republic. However, just as with his defeat in Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn proves to have one fatal weakness. He’s a man who prides himself on considering every angle, except being outwitted by those he considers beneath his notice. Thrawn is assassinated by his own bodyguard. That, combined with the death of Joruus C’baoth, proves to be the end of Thrawn’s grand plan.
Thrawn continued to play a role in the larger EU after the end of the Thrawn trilogy, with the Clone Wars-era novel Outbound Flight fleshing out his pre-Empire days and Zahn’s Hand of Thrawn duology teasing a potential return for the villain via cloning (a plot point that ultimately never panned out).
The EU also took a slightly different approach to the complicated dynamic between Thrawn and Palpatine. As much as Palpatine respected Thrawn’s tactical brilliance, his xenophobic nature made him loath to embrace an alien outsider. Thrawn was relegated to patrolling the far edge of the galaxy, which explains why he didn’t play a more active role during the events of the original trilogy. However, later stories established that Thrawn and Palpatine were united in their concern about an inevitable invasion by the Yuuzhan Vong, a fearsome warrior race from a galaxy where the Force doesn’t exist. Thrawn’s motivation for rebuilding the Empire was to strengthen the galaxy against the Yuuzhan Vong, whose war against the New Republic is chronicled in the lengthy New Jedi Order series. Ironically, by defeating Thrawn, the New Republic left itself vulnerable to an even greater threat.
Where Is Thrawn Now?
Thrawn’s current status quo is a bit of a mystery. As we touched on before, Thrawn and Ezra Bridger both vanished in the series finale of Rebels, and neither character has appeared after that point in the official Disney timeline. However, the finale also shows Ahsoka Tano resurfacing to lead the hunt for Ezra immediately following the events of Return of the Jedi. And with The Mandalorian making it clear Ahsoka is hunting Thrawn five years later, it’s probably safe to assume Lucasfilm has major plans for Grand Admiral Thrawn.
As shown in The Mandalorian, the Empire is a shadow of its former self by this period, even as warlords like Moff Gideon are hellbent on clinging to power and trying to restore Palpatine to life. Thrawn may serve a similar purpose as he did in the EU. He could resurface in this post-RotJ era, ready and willing to rally the scattered remnants of the Empire into an effective fighting force. This isn’t to say Lucasfilm will necessarily adapt Heir to the Empire and its sequels in live-action form, but elements of those stories could inform what happens next. In either timeline, Thrawn may prove to be the Empire’s last, best chance at reclaiming its lost power, even if the sequel trilogy makes it clear that won’t ultimately be what happens.Thrawn’s return could also give fans further insight into how exactly the dying Empire transforms into the First Order. For all we know, Thrawn becomes a key player in the First Order. As The Rise of Skywalker and The Mandalorian have shown, at least a handful of characters like Allegiant General Pryde and Moff Gideon are aware of Palpatine’s endgame, so it stands to reason Thrawn would also be a member of that exclusive club.
The real question is when and where Thrawn will appear next. It’s not clear if he’s being set up as a villain in The Mandalorian itself or a future Ahsoka or New Republic-focused series. At this point, Disney has a number of live-action series and movies in the works we know almost nothing about, so there are many places Thrawn could appear in the years to come. With any luck, the Season 2 finale of The Mandalorian will give us a better idea of what the future holds for this iconic Star Wars villain.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.