Thrawn with Cocktail Sauce
Star Wars: Rebels, Season 3
As a show grows it has to expand its scope. To do anything less would make it feel like the show isn't progressing, simply reusing the same plot lines over and over again without moving anything forward. One could argue that this was a flaw of the Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. Sequel Trilogy, that we want from seeing a Rebellion fighting against a Nazi-like Dark Army (the Empire) while Palpatine pulling the strings behind the scene to the same thing all over again, just with the First order instead of the Empire. 40 years on nothing had changed in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, at least not as far as the Sequel Trilogy was concerned. For the shows viewers wanted and needed something different.
As an answer to that need to push forward, to raise stakes and really show how far the show could go, Rebels brought out a big gun: Thrawn. For those unfamiliar, Grand Admiral Thrawn was original created by Timothy Zahn for the first set of novels to take place after the Original Trilogy, way back when it seemed like the only franchise extension the series would gets was via books. Thrawn was a master strategist for the Empire before the government fell and then went on to continue doing evil things for various factions. Here, with Rebels taking place at the start of the Rebellion, in the years (and then months) leading up to the events of the Original Trilogy, we get to see a version of Thrawn at the height of his power.
Using Thrawn here is a smart call, in no small part because he is a recognizable face that wasn't already tied up in continuity. Remember that Disney threw out all the old Expanded Universe continuity when they bought Lucasfilm and started development on the Sequel Trilogy. That meant all those old Thrawn stories were gone, freeing up the character to be used in a new way. With Vader and the Emperor tied up in plot lines in the Original Trilogy they couldn't really show up in this third season (not like Vader had in the second season). Thrawn acts as a fantastic substitute that could also lead to new stories and adventure.
The series does a great job with Thrawn, using him to constantly act as a foil to the heroes. One flaw with the previous villains, all the Inquisitors that we saw in the previous seasons, was that while they were interesting to look at they didn't really challenge the characters. Yes, they all proved to be difficult fights but the heroes, time and again, were able to out-think the villains. Vader was a powerful force but he couldn't be on the show all the time because he had plot machinations pulling him elsewhere. To really challenge the heroes they needed a villain that could out-think them in turn, and that was what Thrawn brought to the table.
In seasons past it would have been hard to expect an Inquisitor, or even three, would have been able to take out the whole Rebellion. Not only were they not that smart, frankly, but three Sith Lords against a whole armada is a losing prospect even for powerful dark Force users. But Thrawn, with the full backing of the Empire and his own armada at his command, could match the Rebels (and overpower them) when it came to might. And then he's use strategies against them that they'd never seen before. It's easy to watch Thrawn in action and think the whole Rebellion was done for (even though we know, from the movies, that it wasn't). That's the power of the character.
Having a villain this good forces the characters to grow, change, and expand their own duties. The show wisely pushes the timeline forward a few months, letting Ezra and Sabine be just a little older and take on more responsibility. Ezra, growing as a padawan, takes on a role as an active commander in the Rebellion, leading missions on his own. Sabine, meanwhile, forced to look at the all the things the Empire is doing and how its stretching the Rebellion to breaking points, first takes up the Dark Saber and then goes to Mandalore to enlist the aid of her family and her people. These are moves these characters wouldn't have done two seasons prior but the threat of Thrawn makes them want to do more.
The evolution for the Rebellion itself is interesting to watch. At this stage the Rebellion still doesn't resemble what we think of from the movies. While some of the characters are there, like Mon Mothma, and the ships, too, but not all the pieces have come together. We learn that the Rebellion is a collection of different cells, not aligned with each other but simply aligned against the Empire. They're a collection of uneasy bedfellows not yet ready to join together as a unified front. What it takes to bring them together is, again, Thrawn.
If there's a flaw with the season its that Thrawn is frankly too good of a villain for the rest of the Empire. What we've seen of the Empire, here and in all the other media for the franchise, is hat it's a group of ineffectual middle managers that easily get out-played by the heroes. That's actually not to unrealistic, frankly, or a dictator state and each piece and each cog in the machine simply wants to keep its head down and not bring undue notice on their on fuck ups. The reason the heroes succeed is because so many don't want to be leaders in the Empire and those that do haven't been challenged before so they don't know how to think strategically.
Thrawn is something different and he's amazing. Too amazing, really, because you have to think that someone this good at his job would have already been cast aside (and likely killed) by the Emperor. Remember, the Emperor didn't like it when Maul became a "rival", even if Maul didn't really have nearly as big of a power base. Now, to see someone so good at what they do, who could probably command the Empire better than Palpatine himself, you have to wonder how he's still alive? Where did he come from and why can he be trusted? It doesn't make sense within the bounds of the Empire we've seen, but Thrawn works within this show because we need someone like Thrawn to make the series interesting.
I'd argue that the best parts of this show now are the sequences featuring Thrawn. His battles with the Rebels, their plotting against him, this drives the season and the series forward. When Thrawn isn't around this season the show actually flounders some, stuck trying to do episodes like it used to but not quite managing the same energy. When Thrawn arrives on the scene, though, the series lights up. This is what the season, and the series needed, and I'm glad the creators elected to add Thrawn into the mix.
I don't think this third season is quite as strong as the second, but it is close. It has a few really great storylines that dominate the season and give it the energy it needs going forward. While individual episodes may not always be as great here, the overall arc is fantastic. And it does setup the conflict to come for the fourth and final season, which we'll cover soon...