Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Ahsoka Episode 7.
The Big Picture
- Thrawn’s debut in Ahsoka falls flat due to underutilization, overshadowing breakout characters like Baylan Skoll and Shin Hati.
- Thrawn remains unchanged from Star Wars Rebels, lacking evolution and complexity in his character development.
- Baylan Skoll is a standout character in Ahsoka, offering more depth and moral ambiguity compared to Thrawn’s one-dimensional portrayal.
Now that the dust has settled following Grand Admiral Thrawn’s (Lars Mikkelsen) debut in Ahsoka, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Or it would be in a series less concerned with glorifying lightsaber duels over character. Ahsoka‘s penultimate episode, “Dreams and Madness,” falls into the same trap of underutilizing its most interesting assets to the point of compromising them. Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, this includes Thrawn, the man behind all the hype. Not only does Thrawn not transpose into live-action with the veracity he warrants, his presence eclipses Ahsoka‘s breakout characters and initial antagonists, Baylan Skoll (Ray Stevenson) and Shin Hati (Ivanna Sakhno). Instead of another Machiavellian Imperial who just happens to be smarter than everyone, Baylan and Shin offer something new; a concept the Star Wars universe too often ignores, with Ahsoka a case in point. Another layer to this missed potential puzzle is how Ahsoka could’ve solved this problem by giving Thrawn the same depth it affords Baylan. For certain fans, that’s who the “real” Thrawn is — complex.
Thrawn Hasn’t Changed From ‘Star Wars Rebels’ and That’s a Problem for ‘Ahsoka’
For all that Thrawn is technically being his good ol’ self in Ahsoka, he’s stuck in a low-lit room issuing strategies that should be wildly intelligent but boil down to hide-and-seek with starships. It’s disputable what this iteration brings to the table, which isn’t a critique of Lars Mikkelsen. The Star Wars Rebels actor hasn’t missed a beat, skilled enough to make tedious dialogue pleasant-sounding and interjecting startling nuance into his silences. Yet the menace Mikkelsen flourished in Episode 6 can’t escape Ahsoka‘s wet blanket feeling. Not even the Grand Admiral can outsmart uninspired writing.
Of course, making decisions is Thrawn’s eminent skill set. Writer Timothy Zahn made Thrawn a tactician for his novel Heir to the Empire. Dave Filoni carried that mood into Thrawn’s Star Wars Rebels appearances, where his cool intellect was more fearsome than interchangeable stormtroopers or a dozen Inquisitors. Persona-wise, there’s little difference between the Thrawn of Rebels and the Thrawn of Ahsoka.
Thrawn staying the same, however, is one rung on the problem ladder. How have the years and his humbling defeat changed him? Not a whit, apparently, except for mishandled makeup and costuming. Dave Filoni intends for Thrawn to empower the Imperial Remnant into a big boss battle, yet Thrawn rings like Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) with more firepower — another Imperial filling a power vacuum. That’s low-hanging fruit. The intrigue of the cerebral Thrawn tapping into the Force amounts to the Great Mothers sniffing out Ahsoka Tano’s (Rosario Dawson) hidden ship.
His most promising moment in “Dreams and Nightmares” comes when he connects Ahsoka to Anakin Skywalker. You see, Thrawn and Anakin met in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn: Alliances novel. Anakin was a man Thrawn respected during the Clone Wars and later deduced was Darth Vader. He mourned Anakin’s loss. Yet Filoni abandons the chance to acknowledge Thrawn’s thorny complexity. Instead, the Grand Admiral changes tactics despite Mikkelsen’s unsettled stillness speaking to an emotional undercurrent. Thrawn’s lack of evolution in Ahsoka compounds an existing issue, that Filoni’s characterization of Thrawn conflicts with Timothy Zahn’s design. The Thrawn of the novels is a virtuous protagonist doing terrible things with altruistic intentions. And doesn’t that sound like Baylan Skoll?
Baylan Skoll Has Been a Highlight of ‘Ahsoka’ Despite the Lack of Development
Baylon Skoll, the deeply missed Ray Stevenson’s Force-mercenary-turned-galactic-savior, was Ahsoka‘s earliest highlight alongside Natasha Liu Bordizzo‘s Sabine Wren. Taking seven of eight episodes into consideration, Baylan’s no less than the troubled series’ finest part. He makes an ideal shadow figure for Ahsoka Tano, the woman who left the Jedi Order to forge a different path. Like all Order 66 survivors, a young Baylan lost everything in the massacre. He felt desolate and lost, presumably leading to his mercenary status. Morgan Elsbeth’s (Diana Lee Inosanto) contract evolves into something greater when the Path to Peridea fairy tale becomes a reality. Staring at the star map, Stevenson suggests what might be the first flicker of hope Baylan’s felt in decades.
Finding Thrawn, then, is a quest for power — the power he lost through Order 66, the power the Jedi squandered, and the power to remake the galaxy for the better. Baylan’s crusade hinges upon his belief that civilization can’t escape “this cycle of [death and destruction].” He’s the unlikely hero of his own story. Star Wars has always pushed the good vs. evil binary; it’s a story with clear delineations, and that has its place. Moral ambiguity is where your Baylans and your Luthen Raels (Stellan Skarsgård) come in, the individuals who live in the gray margins. Baylan believes achieving the “greater good” is worth “an unfortunate evil.” Like Ahsoka, he rejects the Jedi system but reveres their ideals. Where Ahsoka self-isolates, Baylan mentors; he took an apprentice, although Ahsoka still hasn’t divulged anything about Shin’s past and her motivations. He’s ruthless once crossed but avoids unnecessary collateral damage. Killing Ahsoka would be a shame; Baylan’s furious when she injures Shin and intends to keep his peaceful word to Sabine. When push comes to shove, however, his only objection to Thrawn ordering her death is a remorseful glance.
The character of Baylan Skoll wouldn’t exist without Dave Filoni. Some of Baylan’s dialogue implies pregnant meaning. But it’s Ray Stevenson’s phenomenal work that facilitates Baylan’s manifold interior life. He infused his scenes with gravitas, scaling from pensive solemnity to wearied regret. Every action carries tangibly weighted emotion. There’s a wistful longing in his voice when he speaks of saving the galaxy. In Stevenson’s hands, Baylan almost becomes a Greek tragedy. Instead of “bad blue guy comin’ in hot,” it makes sense to pit this character against Ahsoka for more than two brief duels. A layered antagonist yearning to save the galaxy and doing so through flawed means is refreshing compared to the repetitive Imperial officer factory line.
Baylan Is More Like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Than the Live-Action Thrawn Is
That’s the Thrawn of Timothy Zahn’s books: a man willing to bloody his hands with innocent lives if it accomplishes that “greater good.” (There’s a book titled Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good!) In Zahn’s world, Thrawn joined the Empire as a spy for his people, the Chiss. He maintained the ruse to consolidate the Empire’s power and transfer it over to the Chiss. Why? Because his people’s survival depended on it. Once Thrawn saw how power-hungry the Emperor was, he planned to keep the Empire’s strength but install a new figurehead. Not himself — he offered the job to an enemy freedom fighter he admired and whose unnecessary death he mourned. Thrawn’s loyalty to the Chiss verges on self-sacrificial, which puts him in a lethal bind when the Emperor questions Thrawn’s Imperial devotion.
Like Baylan, Thrawn wants to ensure a better future. He pursues his goal through morally gray means and rationalizes those actions through compartmentalization. Protection and mentorship are key components to his character; Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn is compassionate, generous, patient, and lonely in a crowded room. He can’t fathom why someone wouldn’t intervene to help those in danger. He reduced Imperial cruelty where he could. Defending the Chiss at all costs is his goal, but he’d prefer the entire galaxy. He has more in common with Ezra Bridger (Eman Esfandi) than either character realizes — or Dave Filoni realizes, given the direction he’s taken the story instead of exploring how those two might bond if forced to survive together.
With one episode of Ahsoka left, Dave Filoni giving Thrawn proper depth seems as unlikely as it is dispiriting to reconcile. The era between Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi and Star Wars: The Force Awakens is largely untapped, but we know Thrawn won’t win. The conflict Ahsoka‘s setting up is different than Star Wars Rebels, where the Empire’s defeat was assured. How the Rebels cast grew was of paramount importance, not whether they won the war. The same could’ve been said for Ahsoka if the series had prioritized the spectacular characters Filoni’s capable of creating, both established and new. When the journey to a known destination doesn’t matter, then nothing does.
Thrawn’s presence undercutting the already underutilized Baylan and Shin is a missed opportunity slicing both ways. Baylan Skoll’s potential might be underdeveloped, but he’s the type of villain Thrawn should be. It’s an odd move for Filoni to invent a character with Thrawn’s philosophies only to deny Thrawn his multidimensionality and overshadow Baylan’s potential. Ahsoka‘s two primary antagonists haven’t even played off one another for more than a minute. If Dave Filoni means to reveal more nuance later, then Ahsoka has wasted its potential wholesale. That’s an affront to every character — with the great Grand Admiral Thrawn taking the worst blow.