Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Die-hard fans love him and many fans know of him, but there are others who wonder, “what’s the big deal about Thrawn?” In 2008, IGN ranked Thrawn as the second-best Star Wars villain, behind only Darth Vader. In a separate ranking, IGN listed Thrawn as the tenth-best Star Wars character period. Most people consider him among the very best – with many saying the best – character from the Star Wars Expanded Universe. In fact, Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy is largely credited with reviving interest in Star Wars and sparking the EU craze, with that trilogy still being among the most favorite and respected EU material. Thrawn has been the subject of numerous books, and he was the first EU character to be brought into the new canon universe, as he stars in Star Wars Rebels – the announcement of which was met by a roaring ovation from Star Wars fans at Celebration. He’s such a respected and feared character that Rebels executive producer Dave Filoni explained that they’re treating Thrawn as a Vader-level threat in the show. And when The Force Awakens went the direction it did, one of the bigger disappointments amongst EU fans was that Thrawn would not be the antagonist of these sequel-era stories like he previously was in the books. Personally, Thrawn easily makes the list of my top-ten favorite Star Wars characters, and is the second-ranked villain on the list behind only Vader.
So again, if you’re newer to Star Wars, or are a more casual fan who doesn’t know much about Thrawn but has encountered him in Rebels, you might be asking, “who the heck is this Thrawn guy, and why is he so popular?” I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a look at the legendary Mitth’raw’nuruodo, shall we?
The legend of Thrawn in the EU is expansive. He was promoted to Grand Admiral by the Emperor, who was quite fond of Thrawn, and was the only non-human to ever attain that rank in the Empire. He was later sent into the Unknown Regions to explore and expand the Empire’s reach, but while he was gone the Rebellion scored major victories, especially at Endor, where they destroyed the Second Death Star and where Palpatine and Darth Vader both died. The Rebellion mistakingly thought all the Grand Admirals were eventually accounted for, not knowing about Thrawn. He conquered vast territories in the Unknown Regions as he expanded the Empire under the rule of the Hand of Thrawn. With the remnants of the Empire in chaos and the Empire’s reach in the Unknown Regions expanded, Thrawn re-emerged around 8ABY and met up with the Chimaera and Captain Gilad Pellaeon, making the Chimaera his flagship and Pellaeon his second-in-command. Thrawn quickly assumed control of the Imperial remnants, with his rank essentially granting him the status of commander-in-chief and Supreme Commander (he was the highest-ranking Imperial left). Thrawn set out to rebuild the Empire, which was little more than a disorganized remnant when the Grand Admiral assumed command.
He set out to find the Emperor’s storehouse, which housed (among other things) cloaking devices and cloning cylinders, which Thrawn would put to use. He recruited Joruus C’baoth, a clone of an old Jedi Master, to assist in the efforts, but ensured that he always kept ysalamiri around (as those creatures could essentially block others from using the force around them). Though Thrawn’s efforts suffered a setback during a defeat at Sluis Van, he had incredible success in a short period of time. He put the cloning cylinders to use as he tried to grow the Imperial military very quickly with clones. He began attacks on New Republic transports to stretch their military thin. He took down the New Republic’s top military officer, Admiral Gial Ackbar, by transferring a mysteriously large amount of money into his account, getting Ackbar removed from his position. He eventually deduced the location of the legendary Katana fleet, recovering most of it for the Empire. He had Mara Jade, the former Hand of the Emperor turned smuggler, framed for working with the Imperials, diminishing the New Republic’s trust in her. He launched a successful siege of the capitol of Coruscant with just 22 asteroids and cloaking devices. And he surprised the New Republic fleet at Bilbringi and was on the brink of utterly destroying it – until he was betrayed by his assassin Rukh, who stabbed Thrawn in the chest from behind while the Grand Admiral sat in his chair. The impressive thing is that in a matter of months, Thrawn had revived the Empire from the ashes and had conquered a vast amount of territory while pushing the New Republic to the brink of destruction. If Rukh hadn’t betrayed him, Thrawn probably would have done it and resurrected the Empire.
Thrawn’s military prowess is unmatched in Star Wars. For example, at one point the New Republic tracked scout ships back to the Chimaera, but instead of calling for help Thrawn launched a small attack so that he could study his opponent’s reaction. Deducing who the commander was and what attack method that commander was familiar with, Thrawn launched a counter-attack he knew would be difficult to respond to based on the other’s military strategy. The commander’s method was very organized, so Thrawn’s attack was disorganized. It worked. Another time, Thrawn was attempting to conquer a planet with heavy defensive shields, so he snuck a Star Destroyer through the shield and ordered the Chimaera to fire. Though the Chimaera‘s attack was stopped by the shield, the other Destroyer (inside the shield) was able to fire in unison so as to make it look like the Chimaera could fire through shields, leading to a prompt surrender. Or perhaps the most ingenious was Thrawn’s siege of Coruscant, in which he cloaked 22 asteroids and launched them in the planet’s atmosphere, as well as several fake launches. One asteroid was uncloaked and then destroyed, leaving the New Republic to believe that there were hundreds of cloaked asteroids above the planet. Thrawn effectively laid siege to the New Republic’s capitol with just 22 asteroids.
The above is only a small summary largely about the Thrawn trilogy, though Thrawn appears in other EU material as well. For a much more thorough look at Grand Admiral Thrawn’s backstory and exploits in the EU, Wookieepedia is the place to go.
Though that EU material has been rendered non-canonical, it has still solidified his character as a fan favorite – and that includes those working at Lucasfilm, who brought back the beloved villain in season three of Star Wars Rebels. Aided by an absolute perfect voice-casting in Lars Mikkelsen and a chilling but beautiful theme song by Kevin Kiner, the character has truly come to life – this time, in the years leading up to the Battle of Yavin. Thrawn also received a new novel chronicling his backstory by Timothy Zahn, and there’s another novel on the way this year in which Thrawn teams up with Vader. Thrawn lives, and he’s still a threat to the Rebellion.
The thing that has made Thrawn so beloved is that he’s unlike any other villain in Star Wars. Darth Vader is great, but he utilizes this mystical force power and wields a lightsaber. Emperor Palpatine is a cunning mastermind, political leader, and Sith Lord, but his power comes primarily from the force and from political manipulation. Grand Moff Tarkin is a capable governor and powerful advisor, but he’s not exactly a military tactician. In Star Wars, most of the villains are force-using, lightsaber-wielding foes, and those who aren’t are often portrayed as bordering on incompetent – with the few exceptions, like Tarkin, being more politician than warrior. So in Thrawn, you have a character who is totally unique and refreshing: he doesn’t use the force, he doesn’t fight with a lightsaber, and he doesn’t play the political game. He’s a warrior and a military mastermind. I would argue he’s the best military strategist and leader the Star Wars universe has, whether good or bad (including Admiral Ackbar, etc.).
Thrawn’s genius comes from his mind and his study. He’s an avid collector and student of art, using the art of various cultures and planets to learn about their people, allowing him to use that knowledge against them in battle based on what he deduces and learns. He’s calm and collected, unlike the often brash and angry Darth Vader. He knows when to admit defeat so he can fight another day. He’s loyal to the Empire, and he’s not in it for his own ego or glory. In both canon and EU material, Thrawn’s strategies are nearly perfect when viewed in a vacuum, as almost all of his failures occur as a result of another’s incompetence or a completely unexpected development (like Rukh betraying him, for example).
There is a ton to love about Thrawn, but one of the things that sets him apart is just that: his otherness. He’s not your typical Star Wars villain, but that makes him all the better. He’s cool and calm; he has an incredible and innate ability to deduce and manipulate the moves of others; he’s an avid student of art, which helps him win battles; he’s a gifted leader and skilled strategist; and his success is exemplary. Thrawn is the best military mind in the Star Wars universe, and over the years he’s been embraced by fans as one of the universe’s greatest characters. The more you get to know Thrawn, the more obvious such distinctions become. And moving forward, you realize why he’s one of the biggest assets Lucasfilm currently has to work with in their Star Wars storytelling.