Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Star Wars book Aftermath: Empire's End
After the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, many people thought the Star Wars fad would fade away. Sure, the movies would always be appreciated, but with more than a decade to go before anyone was even whispering about Special Edition theatrical re-releases, much less prequels. There didn’t seem to be any fuel to keep the franchise’s flame burning as bright as it was when the films were in theaters - until Thrawn.
In June 1991, Timothy Zahn released Heir to the Empire, the first book in what’s now known as the Thrawn Trilogy. Heir to the Empire is largely credited as the spark that started the phenomenon that was the Expanded Universe, proving that Star Wars was still popular, and possibly even partially encouraging Lucas to consider his eventual return to the franchise.
At the center of Zahn’s books was a new villain: Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn was a blue-skinned alien that hailed from the planet Csilla in the Unknown Regions. Thrawn explored the Unknown Regions, quelling any resistance he encountered, including early scouting missions sent by the Yuuzhan Vong, an extra-galactic force that would way day wreak havoc on the New Republic.
He would eventually be recruited into the Imperial Navy by Emperor Palpatine where he would quickly climb the ranks, ultimately becoming a Grand Admiral. He continued his focus in the Unknown Regions since he was one of the few familiar with navigating the territory, setting up a secret Empire “The Empire of the Hand” to deal with threats and potentially prepare for the arrival of the Yuuzhan Vong. Since he was in the Unknown Regions during the Battle of Endor, his forces survived beyond the death of the Empire until he re-emerged to face the New Republic as depicted in Heir to the Empire.
Some people were upset to learn that the new Star Wars sequels would treat the Timothy Zahn Thrawn Trilogy as an alternate history, designating the stories from the expanded universe as Star Wars Legends, but as has been said many times in recent Star Wars media, “There’s always a bit of truth in Legends.”
This quote really rang true when it was announced at Star Wars Celebration 2016 that Grand Admiral Thrawn would be returning to canon on Star Wars Rebels, generating more hype than most other announcements from the convention.
The Thrawn that appears in Rebels season 3 is the Thrawn everyone knows and loves. He’s cold, calculating, ruthless, unstoppable, and has a great appreciation for the arts. While some of the other Legends influences on newer canon stories are more loose interpretations, Thrawn is, in many ways, is right off of the pages of Zahn’s books.
Now, thanks to a major reveal in the third book in the Aftermath trilogy, Empire’s End, we know that Thrawn in new canon shares some even bigger similarities to his Legends incarnation than previously revealed.
It's long been known that the Battle of Jakku ended with the Empire destroying a research station of sorts on the planet’s surface before jumping into hyperspace, disappearing into the Unknown Regions. The purpose of that base wasn’t previously understood, but as revealed in Empire’s End, it was an observatory with special equipment used to chart a path out of the galaxy through the Unknown Regions, which were believed to be impossible to navigate. That navigational equipment has a special link to Thrawn:
“...Palpatine had one in the navy who knew something of the Unknown Regions: Admiral Thrawn, an alien with ice-blue skin who came from beyond the borders of the known galaxy. Palpatine only kept that one around because of what he knew of traversing those deadly interstices. Much of what Thrawn knew went into the computations of this machine.”
This passage confirms that Thrawn’s story continues to align with his Legends incarnation, giving him a strong connection to the Unknown Regions. Considering the Empire flees the galaxy to transform into the First Order in the Unknown Regions, is it possible Thrawn is involved there as well, as he was with the Empire of the Hand in Legends?
Another interesting passage in Empire’s End has the Empire’s new leader, Gallius Rax, explain that the Emperor’s Super Star Destroyer, the Eclipse (another Legends reference) has traveled ahead of them into the Unknown Regions and is waiting for their arrival. It’s never specified who’s in command of that ship, but Super Star Destroyers are typically commanded by Grand Admirals.
We’re obviously well into the realm of speculation at this point, but when Thrawn’s canon and Legends stories line up in so many areas already, it only makes sense that he would be one of the Imperials to go to the Unknown Regions to form a new Empire just like he did in the books.
Taking it a step further, the next obvious question is: “when will we see Thrawn next?” A new book about the blue-skinned grand admiral’s rise through the Imperial ranks has been written by Timothy Zahn himself and is slated for release April 11th of this year, but his fate past the end of Rebels is the real mystery. While we don’t know exactly what becomes of him, we do know that the Rebel Alliance doesn't score any major victories before the Battle of Scarif, meaning his defeat seems unlikely, but we also know that Thrawn hasn’t made an appearance in any Star Wars stories past the end of this season of Rebels.
If Thrawn continues to follow a path similar to his Legends version, his next step may be to head off into the Unknown Regions, which would preserve the character through the remainder of the original trilogy, meaning there’s a high likelihood he’s still out there. Is he in command of the Eclipse? If he’s one of the chief architects of The First Order, then it seems to follow that he’ll make an appearance in The Last Jedi.
Star Wars fans might not be able to withstand a surprise of that magnitude, but it’s important to point out that we’re still without an Episode VIII trailer, and there’s very little information of any kind released about the movie, especially when it comes to new characters. There are all sorts of mysteries hidden in this movie still.
Of course, Thrawn wouldn’t have to show up in a movie. Lucasfilm has a new animated project on the way, and books and comics can always be used to continue his story, but it’s hard to deny that his character arc puts Grand Admiral Thrawn on a path right into the middle of the First Order, and the First Order is obviously heavily featured in Episode VIII. Besides, the idea of a surprise live-action Thrawn reveal is too enticing to ignore.
Source: Aftermath - Empire's End