If left unchecked, there’s no limit to how many times I’ll bring up Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn (the 2016 novel and its titular character) in a conversation about Star Wars.
Thrawn is hands down my favorite villain in the Star Wars universe and I think he’s an incredibly well-written villain that’s the straight up star of his own set of books. Like I literally wish I could write a villain as good as Thrawn, a character who is interesting and compelling while also frustrating enough to make you want to beat the holy heck out of him.
I’d like to blame my friend Justen for my whole Thrawn… thing. He’s encouraged my Thrawn obsession for the longest time now and he’d be the easiest person to pin my Thrawn-obsession on. Except, that wouldn’t be fair or entirely true.
Heck, I can’t even blame Timothy Zahn for the fact that I found myself creating a Star Wars self-insert for the cringiest of fanfic-writing reasons. No, I blame the narrator for basically all of the Thrawn-centric books we’ve gotten so far, Marc Thompson. Dude has one hell of a voice.
That voice, that “growl-purr” (h/t to Justen for coming up with the term) that he uses for Thrawn, is so ridiculously perfect for the character that I can’t imagine anyone else voicing him. I have become that kind of snob.
So yeah, Marc Thompson’s voice got me firmly on the Thrawn train. (I mean, firmly enough that I was having to stop myself from even fantasizing about writing the kind of “villain apologist”-lite tweets I tear to shreds on a regular basis when they’re about Kylo Ren.) However, I do know that I wouldn’t give two darns about the character’s voice if he wasn’t the kind of villain I crave in media.
Part of what makes Thrawn a complex villain is the same thing that makes Killmonger in Black Panther one. He’s simultaneously in this space between oppressed and oppressor – and we’ll get to Killmonger in a future mini-essay.
As I’ve talked and tweeted about before, the Empire and First Order are essentially “human supremacist” organizations. Even a “near human” alien like Thrawn, a Chiss, is subject to oppression and literal xenophobia (which reads more like real world racism) from the people he’s working with. The cogs of the Empire literally see Thrawn as lesser than them and that informs how they (mis)treat him.
I found myself wanting to sympathize with Thrawn whenever he dealt with prejudice – particularly in the early parts of the Thrawn novel where he and Eli Vanto are subject to bigotry and bullying while at the Imperial Navy academy on Coruscant and as they start to move forward in their joint naval careers.
The thing about Thrawn though, is that even though he has these continuous experiences with systemic oppression (primarily in the form of retribution against the people he’s relatively close to because they can’t get to him directly as he’s one of the emperor’s favorites, but in the form of public xenophobia and explicit prejudice against him because he’s not human), he’s also actively working with the Empire to oppress other people.
I mean, the most obvious aspect of that is how he works for the Empire. As Thrawn rises up the ranks, he’s working towards the Empire and Emperor’s goals of galaxy domination and whatever his personal goals are, they’re muddied by that connection.
Then there’s the wookie thing.
It’s a fact of the Empire that Wookies were frequently enslaved and used as labor or entertainment for humans (and some near-humans with power). In Thrawn, there’s a whole moment where Thrawn straight up makes excuses for the Empire’s use of Wookie slaves that literally did more to shock me out of my fog of Thrawn-thirst than anything else could.
Vanto came up beside him. “Commodore?” he asked, his voice quiet and disturbed. “What are we going to do about the Wookiees?”
“We will leave them here.”
Vanto is silent a moment. “I’m not completely comfortable with the idea that the Empire is using slaves, sir.”
“Terms are not always as they seem, Commander,” Thrawn said. “They are called slaves, but they may in fact be indentured servants. They may be prisoners working off their sentence. They may have sold themselves into slavery as a means of repaying debts to others on their world. I have seen all those situations at times.”
“You really think any of those are likely?”
“No,” Thrawn said, his tone hardening. “But it does not matter. However these beings were pressed into service, they are now Imperial assets. They will be treated as such.”
I’ve got very strong feelings about the way slavery is used in science fiction and fantasy media. I’ve written about it a whole bunch and I’ll probably write about it again in the future. I’ve also got intense Wookie feelings stemming from basically imprinting on Chewbacca the first time I saw Star Wars. So Thrawn hits two of my sore spots in the same chunk of like 140 words.
It’s not that I’m surprised or disappointed in Thrawn because what he’s doing in that quoted chunk? Is what a lot of marginalized people do when they get any significant power at all. He’s running on a “Got mine, fuck yours” mentality where all that matters are his goals and successes and fuck everyone else who isn’t on his level.
While this moment made me annoyed (dare I say, angry) with Thrawn, it’s not like it was even remotely out of character for him. Because that’s the kind of villain he is. I remember the first time I (metaphorically, because I own the audiobook) cracked open Heir to the Empire and we got smacked with that image of Thawn’s little art museum, essentially an ode to imperialism.
He’s clearly terrible on some super specific levels, but like some the newer incarnations of my favorite villains from superhero comics (like Deathstroke or Lex Luthor from DC Comics), he’s got a clear code that he follows and a sense of right and wrong that is… weirdly rigid.
I’ve only read one of the original Zahn Thrawn novels from back in the day because they’re basically always on hold at the library, but a constant of the series and character are the lengths Zahn went to in order to try and make Thrawn make sense. You’re in his head constantly, and that means getting up close and personal with his ideology. I know that folks keep trying to make Kylo Ren into a sympathetic and interesting villain, but maybe Thrawn ruined me for that villainous archetype? Because Thrawn is it for me.
I think that Thrawn is a fascinating villain because in his own trilogy, he’s not a villain. He’s a hero. He’s doing his best for the Empire and working towards building up and protecting the Chiss Ascendancy and in his head, he’s making all of the right decisions.
In the current series, at least, Thrawn doesn’t seem to have any doubts about his path. He’s single-minded in his goals and now, after reading the first book in the new series, I can understand where he’s coming from. Even if I seriously don’t approve.
Thrawn is my favorite type of villain because he’s a character who’s battling against other people’s perceptions of him/his people and the prejudice that causes even as he makes a career out of subjugating other people. He’s also a villain that I find myself liking despite myself and my own beliefs and I love a villain like that – one that I’d love to write and fight.
Half the time I listen to Thrawn or Heir to the Empire, I find myself torn between straight up wanting to bask in Thrawn’s brand of frustrating brilliance and wanting to kick him in the shins for being too good a villain.
I hate that I enjoy reading his point of view as much as I do – because he’s this brilliant, collected, tall, and blue badass of a character (on top of the growl-purr). I love that Thrawn is a villain that leaves me feeling conflicted about the end I want for him and why.
I want the Empire to fall (even though the First Order follows in its wake almost immediately so it’s not like I’m winning anything here) and I don’t want Thrawn to succeed in any of his imperialist dreams, but I also want… an eternal game of cat-and-mouse between Thrawn and my favorite heroes in the Star Wars universe.
I’d strangle Kylo Ren with my bare hands if I could, but, weirdly enough? I wouldn’t do that to Thrawn.
How ‘bout that?
I’d give him a different death.