I originally posted this essay on Medium, but decided to leave a copy here. Because the difference between an ‘enemy’ and an ‘antagonist’ is something that gets lost all too often when we talk about complicated characters in fiction. Because TV adaptations are tricky. And because Zahn’s books deserve recognition.
Spoilers ahead! (Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy, Ascendancy Trilogy, Star Wars: Rebels animated series and everything else you can think of!)
Grand Admiral Thrawn (both in canon and legends) is one of the most strategically capable, intellectually brilliant, and principled characters in the whole Star Wars Universe. While many expect him to become the primary villain in the Mandalorian, I argue that such a turn would contradict the character’s backstory and motivations. A decade ago, Thrawn was indeed the antagonist in the non-canon book trilogy (now considered Legends) that featured Luke, Leia, Han, and the New Republic. While the current Thrawn shares his predecessor’s intuitive intellect and appreciation of art, his backstory and motivations are different. With his internal conflict, mixed loyalties, and unwavering sense of honor, the Grand Admiral is many things, but a villain is not one of those.
Thrawn’s origins. Before becoming the brilliant military tactician we all know, Thrawn (Mitth’raw’nuruodo if we use his full name) spends years honing his analytical skills in the Chiss Ascendancy — a prosperous and technologically advanced Empire in the Unknown Regions of the galaxy. From his coming of age in Zahn’s novel Chaos Rising to his subsequent rise through the Imperial ranks, Thrawn strives to achieve his goals with minimal casualties. He is not a megalomaniac. He is not obsessed with power. He is merely efficient and has the means and will to do what must be done. Becoming a Commander of the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet, Thrawn does not seek to conquer or gain personal glory, but to protect and advance his people and their interests. He is a career officer and a man of his word above all else.
Thrawn first encounters the Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars, when both come to the distant world of Batuu to defend the interests of their respective governments. While for Anakin the mission is more personal due to Padmé’s involvement, it is his duty to the Chiss that motivates Thrawn. The mission becomes equally personal by the time he parts ways with Anakin. When given a chance to leave the Jedi and Padmé behind, he returns to help the two people he barely knows to sabotage the Separatists’ factory and escape. While Thrawn is by no means a paragon of kindness, he never acts out of spite or malice. Everything he does has a perfectly logical and understandable reason.
When Thrawn leaves the Ascendancy to infiltrate the Empire, he does so on purpose. He knows that his people do not have the resources to face the looming threat in the Unknown Regions. In the first book of the new Thrawn Trilogy, he outright tells his major opponent that he needed to see whether the Empire could be an ally or an enemy of the Chiss Ascendancy. Thrawn is unyieldingly loyal to his people. He does not shy away from telling Darth Vader how the future of the Chiss matters to him. He says it to Darth Vader’s face (ok, mask). Directly. Without hesitation. While Vader is standing ready to force choke him.
Beyond good and evil. Thrawn chooses the Empire because, according to him, it is the lesser evil. He is neither Sith nor Jedi. He views the Galactic Empire as an orderly state that can help his people withstand the threat coming from the Unknown Regions — the threat they don’t fully comprehend. While Thrawn doesn’t have a high opinion of the rebels and their military prowess, his view is justified. It’s easy to understand why someone as brilliant as Thrawn would think that they suck. They are not efficient. Thrawn is. His efficiency does not make him an evil overlord, though. Thrawn merely thinks that power is useful. It is not his goal. Neither is the advancement of the Empire’s xenophobic and outright oppressive policies.
Thrawn is the only alien to reach the rank of Grand Admiral in the xenophobic Imperial Fleet. On-screen (in Star Wars: Rebels), the only time the cool-headed Grand Admiral goes into a fit of rage is when an Imperial officer insults Twi’lek culture. Nearly strangling the unfortunate officer, Thrawn quickly gets a fresh grip on his emotions and points out that not everyone appreciates art as much as he does. It’s logical to assume that he simply cannot be the radical fascist to sow the seeds of the First Order.
A military intellectual. Thrawn’s obsession with art and his use of people’s culture as a means to understand their military potential and social structures is his most discerning feature. Thrawn will go to great lengths to preserve the culture of others. It is very uncharacteristic of him to strip planets bare, order people to enslave or destroy other species and their cultures as Moff Gideon and his minions are doing in the Mandalorian series. Thrawn despises the destruction of resources and regrets the loss of life caused by wars. He theoretically can sacrifice one planet to save a hundred, but he would never choose oppression and enslavement as his main strategy. It would simply be inefficient. Again, Thrawn may be ruthless, but he is very reasonable. Unlike the Grand Admiral, all the antagonists we see in the Mandalorian are needlessly cruel and often fanatical. Fanatism and blind cruelty are among the qualities that the Grand Admiral despises. It makes no sense for Thrawn to trust such allies.
Another argument against Thrawn’s villainous nature is his unique attitude to his enemies. He is not Vader, Tarkin, or Palpatine. He won’t simply kill a person because he/she doesn’t share his opinions. In the first book of the trilogy, Thrawn goes out of his way to save his archenemy — Nightswan. He risks everything to meet Nightswan and convince him not to sacrifice his mind and abilities for a lost cause. The Chiss even promises him a safe passage to the Ascendancy. Moreover, Thrawn confesses to him that he serves the Empire because it can unite the Galaxy against a greater threat that he and his people have already faced in the Unknown Regions.
A pragmatist and a man of honor. Another important thing about Thrawn is his lack of interest in vengeance. In the first book of the trilogy, he outright tells his aide that revenge is not the solution in most cases. After surviving an attack by xenophobic students at the Academy, Thrawn’s first action is not to plot revenge, but to make use of their gifts. In the end, he turns his bullies into starfighter pilots, who later assist him. Given the Grand Admiral’s attitude to revenge, it is unclear why he would want to resurrect the Empire after Palpatine’s fall. Why would he fight the Mandalorian or his allies? It is more in Thrawn’s character to bring both Ahsoka and Din to his side rather than to hunt them. He is someone, who would prefer to convert his enemies rather than kill them.
As it stands now, Thrawn’s only possible motivation for resurrecting the Empire would be to create a fleet that can face something enormous and terrifying in the Unknown Regions. The enigmatic Grysks, perhaps? But even this assumption is somewhat far-fetched. Thrawn’s last canon appearance was in the Rebels series, where he was ordered to take down the rebels by the Emperor. On the verge of victory, Thrawn is whisked away by space-whales together with Jedi Padawan Ezra Bridger.
We have no idea where (and when) Thrawn and Ezra disappeared. But given Thrawn’s highly rational mind, I doubt he’s been fighting Ezra after their departure. It’s more likely that the two have been cooperating in some way. After all, Thrawn is not evil per se. He is the opponent of the rebels because his aim is to pacify the Empire, while they seek to destroy it. Also, Thrawn cannot and will not renege on his vows. As an officer, he is bound by his oath. He will not break it no matter the cost. He may be an enemy to those, who oppose him, but to the soldiers under his command, he is a hero. Thrawn is not on the side of the protagonists because of his circumstances. But those circumstances do not make him a villain.
Thrawn’s conflict. For now, it does not make much sense for Thrawn to be the Mastermind, who pulls Moff Gideon’s strings. He may still work with Gideon in some way or supply him with information. However, it would be highly uncharacteristic of Thrawn to rely on people like Gideon or Morgan, who seem fanatical, incapable, and overly zealous. After all, his previous close associates were all competent and reliable people with an ability to think critically — Eli Vanto, Commodore Faro, Colonel Yularen, etc. He was never a supporter of Tarkin and, while he respected Vader for his courage and dedication, he never trusted the Sith Lord.
Another argument against Thrawn being the villain in the Mandalorian is his history with force-sensitives. For Thrawn, force sensitivity is a painful topic. In Chaos Rising it is revealed that his sister was recruited by the Ascendancy because of her force sensitivity and later discarded when she lost the gift. This event took a toll on Thrawn. Years later, he risks his life to convince Vader to save the force-sensitive children of the Chiss, whom his people use as navigators to travel in the precarious Unknown Regions. That is why it is highly unlikely that someone with such an attitude toward force-sensitive children will order his minions to torture Din’s little protégé Grogu. The only way he may do so is if he has no other choice. Thrawn may and will kill one to save a million. It is, certainly, a possibility in the Mandalorian, albeit unlikely.
The unsung hero of the Galaxy. Finally, there is one last fact that cannot be ignored. If indeed a greater threat is rising somewhere in the Unknown regions and Thrawn is doing the impossible to gather resources and stop the Apocalypse, how can he be a villain? We should, perhaps, ask a different question: why is nobody in the New Republic doing anything about the dangers looming in the Unknown Regions? Din spends his time gallivanting around the galaxy with his adopted son, Cara Dune loiters in front of a cantina with her roguish friends, all the New Republic Politicians bicker somewhere on Coruscant. In the end, Thrawn is the only one, who tries to act. The only logical reason for Thrawn to stay in the shadows collecting forces is to save his people and the rest of the Galaxy. And if that is indeed the case, then he is much more of a hero than any other character in Star Wars.