Warning! SPOILERS for Star Wars Rebels season 4 ahead!
Star Wars Rebels returned this evening for the first of its final batch of episodes. The two-episode premiere saw the Ghost crew rescue Hera from the Empire, but suffer a great loss in the process. They also, as an indirect result of freeing Hera, destroy the Empire's entire fuel supply on Lothal, forcing them to shut down the factory producing the TIE Defenders. In one fell swoop, the rebels' mission on Lothal was accomplished.
It may be a victory for the rebels, but it's a major defeat for Grand Admiral Thrawn. The TIE Defender program was his initiative and would have been a major contribution to the war effort. Granted, it was a foregone conclusion that his TIE Defender program would somehow fail because no such vehicle is present during the events of the original Star Wars trilogy, but now we know the reason why. It is also revealed that the end of Thrawn's TIE Defender project had another unexpected effect - it ensured that the Empire would continue to support Director Orson Krennic's plan to build the Death Star.
In a scene early on in the first episode of tonight's premiere, 'Jedi Night', Grand Moff Tarkin is discussing the funding of the TIE Defender project with Thrawn via holovid. He explains that Krennic has been successful in diverting funding from Thrawn's project to his own, Stardust. Thrawn is surprised since he's been assured the Emperor is more supportive of his project, to which Tarkin suggests that if Thrawn were to make his case directly to the Emperor, then he may avoid losing his funding - Tarkin's even gone ahead and arranged the meeting.
From their interactions in Rogue One, we already know Tarkin and Krennic despise one another, and even at this early stage, Tarkin thinks very little Krennic's work, calling it nothing but "expenses and excuses." Of course, once Tarkin witnesses what project Stardust is all about, he changes his tune, eventually assuming control of the Death Star himself. But for right now, Tarkin is still working to sabotage Krennic, and at the moment, the best way to do that is to ensure Thrawn's TIE Defender project succeeds. Perhaps, if things had turned out differently, Tarkin would have tried to take credit for it as well?
But the TIE Defender program is shut down (if for entirely unrelated reasons), which leads to the Empire throwing all its support behind Krennic's project instead. Still, it's hard not to wonder what might have been had Thrawn's project been able to continue. The Death Star is a mighty weapon, of that there's little doubt, but it's such massive battle station, the Empire can only afford to build one of them. Plus, though it has incredible firepower, it must be in range of its target to be effective and it moves very slowly. Compare that to the Thrawn's TIE Defenders which are each equipped with a hyperdrive and deflector shields, and imagine thousands of them stationed all across the galaxy. Had Thrawn's project been a success, the Rebellion wouldn't have stood a chance.
Star Wars Rebels season 4 continues next Monday with 'Wolves and a Door' and 'A World Between Worlds' at 9pm ET on Disney XD.