Hey, have you heard about Thrawn? He’s coming back! He’s going to be a threat to the entire galaxy! The New Republic needs to take him seriously! It’s Thrawn, you guys! Thrawn!
The New Republic’s stuffy politicians may be sick of hearing General Hera tell them all about what a danger Thrawn is, but that’s nothing compared to the Star Wars fans who’ve been hearing it since 1991, when Timothy Zahn’s first Thrawn novel was published. Thrawn has haunted the periphery of the Star Wars canon for 32 years, popping up in novels, cartoons, and video games to offer a far greater threat than the typical Imperial officer, who can barely put his hat on without getting a squad of stormtroopers shot dead.
But to casual fans who only catch the live-action movies and TV shows, Ahsoka is Thrawn’s debut. And so far, he’s a paunchy mumbler who’s looked at some charts and told his doubtful underling, “Actually, this was a win for me” after his crack troopers lost a fight to a couple Jedi and some pacifist crab people. He’s Moff Gideon, Now in Blue.
In Ahsoka’s defense, the show tried to show us Thrawn’s tactical side by walking us through his decision-making process. But “set a trap” and “track the enemy” aren’t exactly groundbreaking military concepts, even by the Empire’s low standards. His plan to off Ezra Bridger goes awry when his ace in the hole, Baylan Skoll, just wanders off to do his own thing. It wasn’t exactly a feat worthy of Napoleon.
Thrawn is supposed to be a brilliant tactician. That’s the one trait even casual Star Wars fans associate with him. He’s checkmating you while you’re still setting up the checkers board. But the small, intimate scale of Ahsoka is all wrong for him. A grand strategist needs a grand stage. Thrawn’s threat could be demonstrated by crushing a Republic fleet with the kind of clever tricks the rebels used to use against the Empire; he’s not going to scare anyone by talking about the nuances of crate management. He needs to be Hannibal at the gates, shaking the nascent Republic to its very core. That’s probably not going to happen on a show focused on hashing out the lingering emotions of cartoon characters.
There’s only one episode of Ahsoka left. It’s possible Thrawn’s return will come to an abrupt end in the finale, which would be a huge waste of a legendary character. It’s much more likely he’ll be the villain of Dave Filloni’s upcoming Star Wars movie, which is meant to tie the Mando-verse shows together. A movie’s scope and budget are more appropriate for showing off Thrawn’s prowess, but that also means Ahsoka would have been one long and ultimately optional prequel that continues the unfortunate MCU-ification of Star Wars, where middling shows are watched solely to understand the next big project.
Star Wars and Marvel properties have a bad habit of telling you how tough the latest villain is right before our heroes wipe the floor with them anyway, presumably because no one watches Star Wars to see the plucky rebels get the crud kicked out of them. But for all the viewers who lack the context of The Clone Wars and Rebels — and that’s the vast majority of viewers — Thrawn is just another interchangeable Imperial villain. After decades of hype, that’s underwhelming. Ahsoka has one episode left to do the character better, and tease a Mando-verse movie that will actually be worth watching.