When the Star Wars Rebels Season Three trailer played at Celebration London, you could feel the energy in the room. The slow build of teasing images leading up to Thrawn’s ultimate reveal left the crowd exhilarated. Of course, other things excited fans in the room; one asked Dave Filoni about a ship that looked remarkably like Dash Rendar’s. The take-away is that these Easter Eggs mean a lot to many fans, and rightfully so. Last week, B.J. Priester posted a lengthy article on the way call-backs to Expanded Universe lore has been gendered. You can see the fallout of his observations in “Through Imperial Eyes,” an episode in which only one female character, Governor Pryce, participates among a large cast of men*. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it is an excellent episode, co-written by Henry Gilroy and Nicole Dubuc, the only female writer for this season.
Back when Thrawn was introduced, showrunner Dave Filoni made a point of noting that this iteration of the character would have some differences from Legends’ Thrawn. The ysalamiri, a Force-negating creature used as a plot device to counter Jedi abilities in author Timothy Zahn’s novels, don’t exist in this canon because they run counter to the Force lore laid out by George Lucas. If you look in Thrawn’s office, you can see a nod to the creatures in the lizard-looking statues that often frame the Grand Admiral. Over the season, and most importantly in “Through Imperial Eyes,” we see that the things that originally attracted fans to the character shine through.
Thrawn has been playing a long con with the Rebels to ferret them out. Agent Kallus, now also the Rebel agent known as Fulcrum, takes an opportunity to outfox Thrawn and retain his position in the Imperial fleet. Kallus believes this is the best way he can serve. It is also a sign that Kallus has woefully underestimated the non-human Thrawn. That is why the Chiss admiral worked so beautifully in the Expanded Universe. He was an outsider, who everyone else knew little about, and was therefore underestimated by his foes. All the while Thrawn was determining through art, psychology, and history precisely what his opponents were capable of.
Over the course of Season Three, Nicole Dubuc has been handed the writing duties on three episodes that revealed the new continuity’s version of Thrawn. The character may be part of a different storyline than his original iteration, but she has captured the essence of what made him special and a truly terrifying villain. At the same time, his story includes some fun nods to Thrawn’s Expanded Universe lore, like the failsafe on the assassin droids: Ruhk, the name of the Noghri bodyguard who turns on Thrawn and assassinates him in Zahn’s novel The Last Command.
Back in London, Thrawn opened a door of hope to fans of the Expanded Universe. One fan took to the microphone to ask about another character from the Thrawn Trilogy, Mara Jade. Filoni cautioned the fandom – as he did again in an interview with ComicBook.com last week – but hopefully Thrawn’s successful integration will pave the way for other Expanded Universe characters to crossover. Wedge and Hobbie may be movie characters, but most of their fandom exists around the roles they played in the X-Wing series. So far we haven’t seen any overt nods to the way they were portrayed in the books that made them special.
When “Legacy of Mandalore” aired last week, fans expressed concern upon hearing the term Emperor’s Hand used in relation to Gar Saxon. It’s a title associated with Mara, and this use came across as another way male characters get prioritized. One of the strengths of the Expanded Universe was the extensive slate of great female characters it created, and it does not do right by those characters and their fans to repurpose their iconic aspects onto male characters. Similarly, although Mara has a lengthy storytelling arc in relation to Luke, that is far from the only compelling part of her character. Mara is her own distinct person, and too often female characters are reduced to their relationship with a man. Just like Thrawn can exist without his ysalamiri, so too Mara can exist in the new era without Luke. Although this fangirl wouldn’t complain if she ran across the Farmboy while on an adventure.
How popular is she? In 2011 Mara Jade Skywalker won the Hasbro Fan’s Choice for a Black Series action figure; at 2012’s Star Wars Celebration VI two Mara Jade collectibles, a maquette and t-shirt by Her Universe, sold out almost immediately. Wookieepedia compiles her popularity even farther back and within areas of fandom that are necessarily regarded as female-centric:
In a 1997 poll by Star Wars Insider magazine about the fans’ favorite Star Wars characters, Mara Jade placed 20th, the highest-ranked character who did not appear in a Star Wars movie. She was described as the character of Zahn’s to whom fans connected the most. Jade Skywalker was also the winner of a Wizards of the Coast trading card game “You Make The Card Contest”, where users voted over which Expanded Universe Character to make into a trading card for the Star Wars Miniatures game. In a Wizards.com poll in 2003, Mara Jade Skywalker was overwhelmingly chosen by users to have a card created for an expansion set, edging out her nearest competitor by over six to one in votes.
As I emphasized in the Wookieepedia entry, Mara is widely regarded as the most relatable Zahn character, exceeding Thrawn, and that appeal started in the initial Thrawn Trilogy novels, years before she became romantically involved with Luke Skywalker.
In 2000, Zahn told Star Wars Insider #47 that he chose the name “Mara” from the Hebrew word meaning bitterness. Her last name “Jade” has the meaning “discarded woman.” Mara Jade was a woman who had been brainwashed and used. Her Force powers served the Emperor’s evil machinations, and she killed for him. It was her capabilities and her intelligence that made her a target to be victimized, but nevertheless she persisted. In Star Wars we see many characters reject oppressive regimes – Tycho and Face in the Expanded Universe; Sabine, Kallus and Wedge in Star Wars Rebels; and more recently Finn in The Force Awakens. The types of characters are important, especially right now and especially for women.
It has been exciting to see Thrawn used to such success this season in Star Wars Rebels, and perhaps it has opened the door for more Expanded Universe fan-favorites like Mara Jade to come through, too.
Tricia Barr's novel, Wynde, won the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Ebook. She was also part of Silence in the Library's successful all-female creator science fiction and fantasy anthology Athena's Daughters, which is available now. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.