NOTE: The following post contains potential SPOILERS for Star Wars: Rebels season 3.
The announcement of Disney purchasing the Star Wars brand, with the intention of making new live-action films, was met with excitement among fans - and proved to be a smart move, given that The Force Awakens racked-up critical acclaim and is on the way to hitting $2 billion at the global box office. Still, the revival was not without casualties - as the Mouse House shuttered Lucasfilm's electronic entertainment division, LucasArts, and recalled canonization of the cross-medium Expanded Universe. During the wilderness years between the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy, and the modern series, writers and visual artists collaborated on a massive, and intersecting, collection of stories set in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. Through the years, novels, comic books, audio dramas, and video games kept fans immersed in the Star Wars franchise - despite a lack of new material from the flagship film medium.
As a result, Disney's acquisition was bittersweet for some fans - since, in exchange for a franchise revival, a number of beloved stories and characters were purged from the canon (sidelined as "Legends") in order for a new generation of feature film writers to plot a fresh course - rather than be limited by the Expanded Universe. Still, the relationship between Star Wars canon and the Expanded Universe remains fluid - as Star Wars producers have, on multiple occasions, suggested they could pluck EU ideas for the various Star Wars properties in development (future movie Episodes, spin-offs, and TV shows, among others). Now, just as Princess Leia is about to enter the Star Wars: Rebels fray, we're getting word that a beloved villain may be returning to the canon in season 3.
According to Making Star Wars, the Rebels team is preparing to re-introduce Grand Admiral Thrawn - the main antagonist of Timothy Zahn's "Thrawn Trilogy" (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command). Though currently unconfirmed, the new rumor suggests that Disney is going to double-down on the idea that some events in the Expanded Universe could be cherry-picked for inclusion in the Star Wars canon - since, after all, they are billed as "Legends":
I have heard that in Season 3 of Star Wars Rebels we will be introduced to none other than the original blue guy himself, Grand Admiral Thrawn from Heir to the Empire. From the sound of things, we’re going to see Thrawn as the tactical genius of capital starship warfare he was to Expanded Universe readers in the ’90s. However, this time he will be using his evil brand of genius against the the heroes of the starship Ghost.
Like Grand Moff Tarkin before him, Grand Admiral Thrawn was a brilliant tactician - who, following the Emperor's defeat in Return of the Jedi, took command of the Empire, managing to out-think and out-maneuver the Rebel Alliance on numerous occasions. Under Thrawn's rule, Imperial forces regained a foothold in their war with the Rebellion - reacquiring resources, establishing a new chain of command, and striking critical blows against key Rebel installations.
Despite his blue skin and glowing red eyes (signatures of the Chiss race), Thrawn is not a Force-user, manipulating his enemies through ruthless guile and cunning, often sacrificing his own ships and soldiers in the interest of achieving long-term gains, rather than harnessing the dark Force directly. Thrawn's plotting even extended beyond his death. Prior to his assassination, the Grand Admiral commissioned the creation of personal clones that, in the event of Thrawn's death, could carry-on his life's work.
Given that Disney has been reluctant to introduce any specific EU elements into the streamlined canon, though The Force Awakens certainly borrowed ideas and motifs from the "Legends," it's interesting to hear the studio may be more open to adapting key stories and characters than fans might have originally believed. Without question, should the news turn out to be true, Thrawn opens the door for Expanded Universe readers to hope that other beloved heroes and villains could also be re-canonized in Rebels (along with other mediums).
Either way, Thrawn is a smart addition for Rebels - especially since the CG animated series is, thematically, an origin story for the Rebellion. Just as returning faces have begun to flesh-out the over-arching cast of Rebels (as everyone from Lando Calrissian. Ahsoka Tano, and Princess Leia have already appeared in the series), there's room to depict malevolent Imperial commanders too. Grand Moff Tarkin, Emperor Palpatine, and Darth Vader have already cameoed, with Agent Kallus serving as the primary face of Galactic Empire military command, but an appearance by Thrawn would definitely provide a two-fold return: a chilling villain to challenge the Lothal Rebels in new ways as well as a welcome acknowledgment to fans of the Expanded Universe's value (and potential place in the future of Star Wars mythology).
That all said, the inclusion of Thrawn remains unconfirmed for now - and there's no way of knowing how much Making Star Wars might be inferring from their sources. Like the Expanded Universe "legends," sometimes insider reports turn out to be true; whereas other times, only fractions of a rumor turn out to be accurate. Making Star Wars (or their source) might have just heard a blue-skinned, red-eyed Chiss Imperial will be featured in Rebels season 3 - and assumed the character would be Thrawn himself. After all, The Force Awakens features another Expanded Universe-like character Ben Solo (whose story is reminiscent of Jacen Solo). For that reason, even if a Thrawn-like villain is introduced, the new canon might make some significant revisions to the tactician.
As for when fans will actually see this Thrawn character, Disney recently reclassified how season 2 and season 3 of Rebels are organized in online marketplaces (essentially splitting the current slate of episodes into two parts: "Season 2" and "Season 3"); however, even if Disney continues to refer to Star Wars: Rebels season 2.5 as 3, it sounds as though Making Star Wars fashioned their report based on the original (annual) season break - indicating a fall 2016 timeframe for their rumored character to debut.
We'll keep you updated as further confirmation (or official denial) drops.
Star Wars: Rebels season 2 is currently airing on Disney XD.
Source: Making Star Wars