While Ahsoka Tano got top billing, Ahsoka was essentially a live-action vehicle for two exiled characters: Grand Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelsen), Star Wars’ newest Big Bad, and Ezra Bridger (Eman Esfandi), the Rebel-shaped thorn in Thrawn’s side. From the moment Thrawn and Ezra were announced as players, their return felt like the show’s whole purpose.
It’d been four years since the pair disappeared into the unknown regions in the Rebels finale, and by the time Ahsoka takes place, they haven’t been seen in-universe in nearly a decade. Fans had cooked up plenty of theories regarding their whereabouts, speculating on reluctant partnerships and cat-and-mouse games in unfamiliar territory. Unfortunately, their ideas were miles more interesting than anything Ahsoka had in mind.
It took weeks of lukewarm build-up to reintroduce Thrawn and Ezra, but even after catching up with them on Peridea, Ahsoka still didn’t know what to do with them. The pair basically ignored each other for nine years, a boring choice that added no depth to Ezra’s sacrifice in Rebels. It was a surprising choice from showrunner Dave Filoni, who had a hand in shaping both Thrawn and Ezra’s depiction in Rebels. Ahsoka makes it all feel like a failed experiment, especially when weighed against the ideas Thrawn author Timothy Zahn had for this chapter of the saga.
In Star Wars circles, Zahn is synonymous with Thrawn. He first introduced the character in the now non-canonical novel Heir to the Empire — a book Filoni’s Mandoverse is borrowing heavily from — before ushering him into modern canon with a new series of novels. He’s put a great deal of thought into Thrawn’s overarching role, even if his ideas don’t end up making the cut for TV. He even had his own plan for Ezra and Thrawn’s exile.
At a Star Wars panel in 2021, Zahn detailed his idea for bringing Thrawn back into the narrative. It involved creating “some kind of reluctant buddy thing” between Thrawn and Ezra:
“The way I see it is that Thrawn persuades Ezra that there are worse things out there even than the Empire ... One of my favorite examples of this is the TV show White Collar: they don’t really trust each other, but they work well together. I think it would be something of that same flavor. Ezra would never be quite trusting Thrawn, looking for ‘What angle is he playing, what he is trying to get me to do that I shouldn't be doing?’ At the same time, Thrawn is, ‘I need your assistance; how do I get this from you without making you bolt?’”
Zahn’s pitch might have involved the Yuuzhan Vong or the Grysk, both near-unstoppable empires from other galaxies. Thrawn’s run-in with the latter enemy forced him to reevaluate his allegiance to the Empire, as the Grysk could only really be defeated with the help of other forces, like the New Republic.
A reluctant partnership between Imperial remnants and the New Republic sounds controversial on paper, but it’s certainly more interesting than the rinse-and-repeat conflict plaguing the Star Wars saga today. Ahsoka is in a tough spot in the timeline: it has some freedom to expand a chapter of Star Wars history that Legends previously occupied, but it’s still beholden to the events of the sequel trilogy, which means it has to somehow set up the rise of the First Order while still keeping its own drama interesting. But even with characters like Thrawn, it’s not exactly succeeding. It seems determined to depict him as a one-note baddie, when Zahn has already painted him in a much more sympathetic light.
If the Mando-verse wants to establish its own identity, it’ll have to find a way to break the cyclical struggle between Empire and Rebellion. The franchise will always revolve around conflict — it’s not called Star Peace — but exploring conflict through different villains and a few tenuous partnerships is the only way to keep things interesting. Ahsoka almost had something when Sabine (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) briefly teamed up with mercenary Baylan Skoll (Ray Stevenson); if only future Star Wars projects could use Thrawn to explore similar avenues.