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For several years now, the Star Wars saga has been continuing in the animated Star Wars: Rebels series — and, as the character of Saw Gerrera has proved, Lucasfilm has carefully integrated that series into the main Star Wars story.
The latest episode, "Legacy of Mandalore," has just given fans a tantalizing hint — one that could lead to Lucasfilm bringing a classic Expanded Universe character back into the canon. Excitingly, it may even set up an answer to the greatest mystery of the next Star Wars film, The Last Jedi.
It's all to do with three words: the Emperor's Hand.
What, or who, is the Emperor's hand?
Back in 1991, legendary Star Wars author Timothy Zahn breathed new life into the franchise with 'The Thrawn Trilogy,' a trilogy of novels that were set after the events of Return of the Jedi, and that added new details to the rich tapestry of our beloved Galaxy Far, Far Away. One of these was Mara Jade, a sarcastic Force-using warrior who had abandoned the world after the Emperor's death. We gradually learned that Mara had been discovered as a child by Palpatine, and had been indoctrinated to be his servant; after years of training she took on the unique position of the Emperor's Hand.
As the Emperor's Hand, Mara Jade's role was to hear her Master's voice and serve his will. She specialized in espionage and assassination, but had failed just once; she had taken too long to track down Luke Skywalker, and her Master had died as a result. Devastated, Mara had abandoned the Empire, and eventually found her way to a team of smugglers — only to get drawn into galactic events once again, when she crossed paths with Luke himself.
As the years passed, the old Expanded Universe developed this idea further. We learned that Mara wasn't as unique as she'd thought, and that the Emperor had other Hands. Meanwhile, Mara found herself allying with Luke time and again. As the years passed, the two fell in love, and eventually married.
What about in the New Star Wars Canon?
#StarWarsRebels Season 3 has already been carefully absorbing elements of Zahn's "Thrawn Trilogy" into the new Star Wars canon. The most notable example is Grand Admiral Thrawn himself, the Chiss warlord who has been campaigning relentlessly against the Rebels. But the latest episode just dropped another wonderful tie, establishing that the character of Gar Saxon is in fact an Emperor's Hand.
Gar Saxon is already an established figure in the new canon, introduced in the Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir comics. He's a Mandalorian warrior, and has been one of the recurring villains in Rebels — but until now we'd never been told his Imperial title. That finally changed in "Legacy of Mandalore," when he was revealed to be the Emperor's Hand, Acting Governor and Lord Protector of Mandalore.
To be sure, this is a very different role to any we saw employed by Emperor's Hands in the old Expanded Universe; they were typically covert operatives and assassins. That said, Mandalore is a particularly thorny trouble-spot, and it makes perfect sense that the Emperor would want a key operative to be overseeing that warlike world.
Could Mara Jade yet return?
The reinvigorated Star Wars franchise is a pretty unique one in that it transcends media; as the character of Saw Gerrera has proven, Lucasfilm carefully charts characters arcs across everything from novels to animated series to the movies themselves. So the reference to the "Emperor's Hand" should be taken as a clue to Lucasfilm's direction of travel — but we shouldn't just be looking to future episodes of Rebels for more clues.
Take, for example, Timothy Zahn's imminent return to Star Wars fiction. April 6th will see the release of his novel Thrawn, which promises to dive deep into the new-canon backstory of his much-loved villain. But could it also feature the return of Mara Jade? Zahn has real affection for the character — sometimes too much so, with his portrayal of Mara in the "Hand of Thrawn" duology irritating a lot of fans.
If Lucasfilm did intend to bring Mara Jade back into the Star Wars canon, a novel by Timothy Zahn would be the perfect place to do it. Nobody understands Mara Jade better than the writer who created her!
It's worth noting that, back when Disney announced his old novels to no longer be canon, Zahn didn't exactly seem threatened by it. As he observed on one Reddit thread:
"I’m guessing that EU stories that aren’t referenced (or contradicted) by the sequel movies will still be considered sort-of alive, in the same way that most Clone Wars-era stories (like Outbound Flight) were mostly unaffected, with the exception being all of the previous material on Boba Fett’s backstory.
Alternatively, if the new movies do contradict my books in some way, I can probably come up with some hand-waving story that will explain the apparent discrepancy. If there’s one thing we authors are good at, it’s hand-waving."
In a later interview with Inverse, Zahn explained that we should view anything from the old Expanded Universe as "frozen in carbonite at the moment" — preserved, but with the possibility that it could be brought back to life. Fans are already expecting Thrawn to "defrost" Zahn's novel Outbound Flight, so is it possible that he'll do the same with Mara Jade too?
A Key Moment
If Lucasfilm does choose to bring Mara Jade back into the Star Wars canon, then the timing is very curious indeed. The Force Awakens introduced us to the orphaned would-be Jedi called Rey, and we know that #TheLastJedi will reveal just who Rey's parents are. Given Lucasfilm has been describing their current trilogy as the ongoing "Skywalker Saga," most fans are expecting Rey to be a Skywalker. Which raises a simple question: Who is Rey's mother?
In the old Expanded Universe, Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade were married, and had a child: Ben Skywalker. Is it possible that the new canon will follow a similar route, with Luke and Mara marrying, but instead having a daughter? Consider the timing; we've just gotten our first nod to Mara Jade, there's a book due out by Timothy Zahn that may restore the character to the canon, and later this year we may well be unravelling the mystery of Luke Skywalker's love life.
As fans learned with Rogue One, where a single narrative flows through animated series, novels, and even a spinoff movie, Lucasfilm plays the long game. I don't believe in coincidences when it comes to Lucasfilm.
Of course, if I'm right, this does raise another tantalizing question: what happened to Mara? In the old Expanded Universe, she died at the hands of the son of Han and Leia, who had fallen to the Dark Side; did Mara suffer the same fate in the new canon? Was she killed by Kylo Ren? Sadly, we know there's a grave on Ahch-To; if Lucasfilm does introduce Mara, it's likely that Ahch-To was Mara's final resting place.
Lucasfilm knew how fans would react when they dropped the title "Emperor's Hand." They've stirred the pot, and generated a lot of excitement from old Star Wars fans; it's entirely possible that a classic character is about to make her explosive return to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. But will Mara's potential be fulfilled? We'll just have to wait and see what Lucasfilm has in store...