Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn't exist.
Ahsoka is here – premiering on August 23rd on Disney+. The character made her debut in the galaxy far, far away in 2008’s Clone Wars movie. At first, fans were skeptical of Anakin’s young apprentice. In the years since, creator Dave Filoni has shepherded the Togruta through ups and downs, from Clone Wars to Rebels to The Mandalorian. The upcoming series pits the beloved character against a fan-favorite antagonist, Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Spoilers: This piece is speculative and considers only the first teaser trailer for Ahsoka. It relies on no predictions or rumors. As such, any points raised here that, after the fact, prove to be spoilers are purely coincidental — or the will of the Force. There are, however, spoilers for Star Wars: Rebels.
Thrawn making his live-action debut is massively important to fans. He first debuted in Timothy Zahn’s wildly successful novel Heir to the Empire in 1991. He’s then starred in two more trilogies, one in the Empire, one in the Chiss Ascendency. He starred in seasons three and four of Star Wars: Rebels, a series that, in many ways, serves as a prequel to Ashoka. Therein, Thrawn and Jedi punk Ezra are whisked away by space whales into parts unknown. This turn of events sets up the quest hinted at in The Mandalorian when Ahsoka questions Magistrate Elsbeth, “Where is Grand Admiral Thrawn?”
Lars Mickelson portrays Thrawn in Ahsoka, the same actor who voiced the character in Rebels. We learned in the teaser that he has named himself “Heir to the Empire.” Where have we heard that before? Thrawn’s live-action debut has been over thirty years in the making. What role does Thrawn play in this upcoming series?
We’re looking forward to finding out.
Heir to the Empire Adaptation
This theory comes from the aforementioned line from the teaser: Thrawn has declared himself heir to the Empire. Admittedly, there isn’t much else to base this theory upon, at least in the teaser. However, Dave Filoni has gone on the record in confessing his love for Zahn’s groundbreaking novel. He even adapted Thrawn’s Noghri bodyguard, Rukh, for animation in Star Wars Rebels. Using the book’s title so blatantly in the teaser gives weight to the notion that Filoni and crew are intentionally invoking the name of the standout novel in developing the direction of the new Disney+ series.
The basic concept for the theory is this: Ahsoka, Hera, Sabine, and Chopper arrive in the Unknown Regions, sniff out some clues to Ezra and Thrawn’s whereabouts, get into some scuffles along the way, and discover that Thrawn has found a twisted method to manipulate Ezra into helping him reestablish his standing in this secluded part of space.
In Heir to the Empire, Thrawn uses ysalamiri, Force-repelling lizard-like creatures. He employs them to protect himself from Force users such as the deranged Jedi clone Joruus C’Baoth. Emperor Palpatine commissioned C’Baoth to guard the secret cloning facility on Mount Tantiss (which we’ve seen revealed in Bad Batch). Thrawn manipulates C’Baoth into using his goated Force ability, battle meditation, to strengthen his military forces’ might in battle. Could Thrawn do something similar with Ezra?
The strength of this theory relies heavily on the lynchpin of the use of “heir to the Empire” in the teaser, as well as the slow buildup regarding cloning and Mount Tantiss in previous Disney+ series Bad Batch and The Mandalorian. Clearly, cloning is a huge priority among Imperial remnants in the years after Return of the Jedi. Between the plots involving Omega and Grogu and the little hints along the way, Lucasfilm seems to be building to something.
It’s very possible that Thrawn could amass an army quickly using cloning technology as he does in Dark Force Rising. There, Thrawn staffs a fleet of warships with cloned soldiers, thus rapidly acquiring the capabilities to pose a serious threat to the New Republic from out of nowhere. Where, exactly, did he get the ships? That’s the “dark force” of Dark Force Rising – the Katana fleet, a secret flotilla of long-lost warships just drifting out in space, ripe for the taking. The tone of the Ahsoka trailer certainly has the feel of a treasure hunt, and plenty of Imperial ships seem to be involved… And let’s be honest, a race between our heroes and the antagonists to acquire a secret fleet of Imperial warships just sounds fun!
One of the biggest drawbacks in the Thrawn Trilogy adaptation theory is that very little of the Thrawn Trilogy is on the table for adaptation in the timeline in which Ahsoka takes place. The way Canon has evolved over the last decade has departed significantly from the near-blank canvas Timothy Zahn was painting on in 1991. Heir to the Empire is primarily about Luke, Han, and Leia. Those characters do not seem to be involved in Ahsoka. Instead, this story revolves around Sabine Wren, Hera Syndulla, and, of course, the titular not-a-Jedi with beautiful head tails, Ahsoka Tano.
Furthermore, the series of novels introduces the fan-favorite character, Mara Jade. Working for crimelord Talon Karrde, she at times teams up with, and at other times tries to kill, Luke Skywalker. Clearly, that is not the direction we’re going in this series. However, other broad strokes are available, from a certain point of view. Thrawn, clones, ships, manipulating Jedi. It’s possible!
Thrawn’s Redemption as an Antihero
Another possible direction for the series is to use Thrawn as a red herring. For informed readers, you’ll know that Thrawn has been developed tremendously since his original appearance in the nineties. In the more recent Canon Thrawn novels, he is portrayed as more of an antihero than a “villain.” Instead, he is morally-aloof at best. Rather than wishing ruin upon his enemies, he fights fiercely, and often unconventionally, for the best interests of his people, the Chiss Ascendency. Like a blue Batman, however, he often has to take drastic steps that alienate him from the very people he fights to protect, ending up an outcast for breaking the rules.
In a move similar to the character arc seen in Rebels’ Agent Kallus, wherein the Ghost crew won him over to their cause in a slow burn from ruthless Imperial to Rebel diehard, Ezra might be a good influence on Thrawn. Is it likely? Well, no. But hey, there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. It would be rewarding for readers who have followed Thrawn’s storyline to see his tenderhearted side shine through.
The teaser trailer shows two characters wielding red-orange lightsabers, Baylon Skoll and Shin Hati, portrayed by the late Ray Stevenson and Ivanna Sakhno, respectively. If they are not allied with Thrawn (which may very well be the case), they may represent an enemy interest at odds with both our red-eyed Chiss admiral and the Ghost crew. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all…
This theory honors Thrawn’s massive Canon backstory built up by his creator, Timothy Zahn, over the past decade of literature. With Thrawn, there’s more than meets the (red) eye. Many readers are hopeful that Thrawn will be more than a mustache-twirling Imperial hell-bent on galactic domination.
We also do not know the role that Baylon and Shin play. Are they with Thrawn or against him? We’ll find out. He could certainly wield them ala C’Baoth, but they may also be a third rogue element in the mix.
Perhaps at the end of the day, it’s a leap to suggest that one of the greatest antagonists in Star Wars history will have a redemptive arc in his live-action television debut. But it definitely would be interesting!
One final theory we’ll briefly explore in this piece is perhaps the most thrilling possibility, as much as we’d like to see nods to the original Thrawn Trilogy. It’s important, both for managing expectations and being open to the creators’ vision, to note that we might just be getting a story we simply don’t see coming. None of us expected the reveal at the end of the pilot to The Mandalorian, for instance. It’s a very real possibility that Filoni and crew have something cued up for us that we could never have anticipated. Who knows? Could the red-bladed pair be something akin to Imperial Knights from the Legacy comics? Are they Sith? Could we see some of the Chiss Ascendency? There could be heists, fierce lightsaber duels, or even shipjacking. That would be a surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one!
Yes, the breadcrumbs of Mount Tantiss and the “heir to the Empire” line point toward some sort of adaptation that honors Thrawn’s origins. And Thrawn’s more recent history might lead the literary viewer to hope for a nuanced presentation of our Chiss villain that pushes the boundaries of the definition of “antagonist.” But let’s face it — Star Wars has not traditionally adapted literary stories in a direct, 1-to-1 carbon copy before, and we don’t exactly expect it to in this case. And that’s OK! We love it when the creators dream big, shoot for the stars, and knock our space socks off with something spectacular.
When it’s all said and done, teasing viewers with the “heir to the Empire” line alongside Thrawn’s live-action debut sets the series up with some high expectations. Heir to the Empire is one of the most beloved Star Wars novels ever written. It’s even in the Youtini Essential Six. That’s a line, and a character, that carries weight with fans. To set the series up in that direction as a red herring for only a marginal payoff would be a surefire way to incite strife in the fandom. Nevertheless, this is Star Wars. When is there ever not strife in the fandom?
These are three possible different directions for the upcoming Ahsoka series set to debut on Disney+ on August 23rd, starring Rosario Dawson and Lars Mickelson. Well, two theories and a caveat/warning. But we’re not ashamed to say we could be wildly wrong here! If we are, don’t hesitate to let us know! Do you have a theory we haven’t considered? We’d love to hear it. Until then, stay tuned with all of the myriads of Ahsoka-related content yet to come from Youtini – check us out on social media, on Youtube, our podcasts in the Youtini Podcast Network, and of course our Discord server as well.