In one of the Last Jedi scenes that sets Rian Johnson’s divisive entry apart from other Star Wars films, DJ, a codebreaker of dubious character, gives Finn a crash course in moral relativism by delving into the history of the ship they’ve stolen. It formerly belonged, he reveals, to an arms dealer who made his fortune selling arms to the Empire — and to the Rebellion. “Good guys, bad guys,” DJ says. “Made-up words.” There’s only so much room for moral ambiguity in the Star Wars universe, and even within The Last Jedi, which ultimately doesn’t endorse DJ’s point of view. But that world becomes a richer, more compelling place to tell stories when Star Wars acknowledges that not everything can be categorized into Light and Dark.
In “The Believer,” DJ’s sentiments find expression again, this time via Migs Mayfeld (Bill Burr), the ex-Imperial sharpshooter who double-crossed Mando in the first season’s “The Prisoner” and ended up a New Republic prisoner as a result of his deceit. As the episode opens, we see that it has landed him in a grim, gray scrapyard doing hard labor salvaging old Imperial vessels alongside other dubious characters under the watchful eyes of some tough-looking droids. It looks like it’s no fun at all, thus it’s a relief even when New Republic Marshal Cara Dune shows up with an inexplicable reprieve. Mayfeld’s nervous when he then encounters Fennec Shand and Boba Fett, fearing the latter is Mando thanks to his beskar armor. Then Mando shows up and Mayfeld gets even more concerned.
Mando’s not here for revenge, however. He needs Mayfeld’s skills as an Imperial veteran to infiltrate the nearest place they can travel to to access Grogu’s location: a remote Imperial Remnant base being used to refine super-volatile rhydonium on the jungle planet Morak. Getting there is no problem. It’s what happens next that gets complicated.
The Grogu Gang will need to take over a transport vehicle then disguise themselves as Imperial Troopers to sneak inside. But who should do the sneaking? Mayfeld needs to get inside to work the terminal. That’s not optional. But he’ll need someone with him who the Imperials won’t recognize. That rules out Dune and Shand. And it certainly rules out Fett, who says, “Let’s just say they might recognize my face,” a nod to the weirdness of the Clone Troopers that share his Fett DNA. That just leaves Mando, who decides he can bend the Mandalorian code to get inside so long as he wears a helmet and doesn’t reveal his face. It’s not the last blow his commitment to the code takes this episode, nor the last opportunity for Mayfeld to opine on how the lines between good guys and bad guys can be a bit blurry.
After they commandeer the transport, Mando gets an earful of Mayfeld’s thoughts, including his view of wearing helmets (he’s opposed) and his assessment of what their efforts mean to the impoverished Morak people they pass along the way. “Empire, New Republic,” he observes. “It’s all the same to these people. Invaders on their land is all we are.” He keeps going: “If you were born on Mandalore you believe one thing. If you were born on Alderaan you believe something else.” And now they’re both gone, whether those beliefs were right or wrong (if those words have any meaning). Hey, even Mando’s commitment to the Mandalorian belief system is getting a little wobbly. Just look at what he’s wearing. Or, as Mayfeld sums it up, “Everybody’s got their lines they don’t cross until things get messy.”
Their journey presents perils beyond Imperial discovery (and shaken beliefs). Their cargo requires them to maintain a controlled speed even as they travel through bumpy terrain, lest the rhydonium explode. And, if that weren’t bad enough, bands of pirates seem pretty committed it to blowing them up anyway.
After an exciting, explosive chase scene they’re greeted like heroes at the Imperial base and it’s weird to see expressions of gratitude and other tender feelings radiating from behind Stormtrooper helmets, but we’re already deep into morally murky waters, so it makes a certain amount of sense. Inside the refinery, the cheers continue, but Mando and Mayfeld remain too committed to their task to soak it up. Mayfeld spots the terminal they need inside the Officers’ Mess, but this presents further complications in the form of a familiar face: his old commanding officer Valin Hess (Richard Brake). Someone will need to scan their face to access the info and Mando recognizes there’s only one way out of this if they ever want to see Grogu again: he has to take off his helmet.
Mando does so with great distaste, and just when he thinks he’s gotten away with it without anyone really seeing his face, Valin Hess sidles up for a chat. Mando’s unable to provide even basic information about himself but he’s rescued, at least for the moment, by Mayfeld, who explains his buddy’s just a little hard of hearing. Before they can disappear with the excuse of filling out TPS reports (nice homage), Hess decides he needs to treat the days’ heroes to a drink and a conversation.
For Mayfeld it doubles as a moral awakening. Seeing Hess again reminds him of a battle in which Hess callously sacrificed soldiers’ lives, so Mayfeld decides to toast to it. Hearing Hess talk about it as one of his great accomplishments and sacrificing for the “greater good” short-circuits something in Mayfeld, so he kills the arrogant officer, starting a firefight from which he and Mando barely escape. Fortunately, Fett arrives just in time, and flies off at an angle that allows Mayfeld to detonate the rhydonium and destroy the refinery. Maybe there are definite bad guys after all (even if he’s right about the freedom-loving New Republic’s eventual doom). For his troubles, he’s allowed to go free, with Dune covering for him with an official report saying he died in the incident. And, despite getting a good look at Mando, he assures him he never saw his face. Maybe some codes are worth preserving, even if they have to be a bit flexible at times.
Elsewhere, Moff Gideon gets a message sent by Mando promising revenge for taking Grogu. “Soon,” he promises, “he will be back with me.” So much for subtlety and subterfuge. It looks like we’re headed for a showdown.
• The first half of this episode pays direct homage to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic The Wages of Fear, the story of desperate characters transporting nitroglycerin through the South American mountains. It was remade by William Friedkin as Sorcerer in 1977. When The Mandalorian borrows, it borrows in such a way that invites viewers to check out the source material. You won’t be disappointed.
• This episode marks the return of Rick Famuyiwa, who directed two first-season episodes including “The Prisoner,” the episode that introduced Mayfeld. Famuyiwa serves as the writer, too. He seems to be developing a specialty in episodes that require Mando to team up with shady characters and here delivers another highlight in a strong season.
• Whatever Fett’s relationship to the Mandalorian belief system, he’s helmet-optional. Is The Mandalorian setting up a situation in which Mando drifts away from the stricter interpretation of the code as well? This is the first time we’ve seen star Pedro Pascal’s face this season. Could future seasons feature it more often? It’s nice to see him looking more put together than the sweaty mess he was when we saw him at the end of the first season, but it’s also kind of strange to hear Mando’s voice coming out of a human face rather than a helmet.
• Neat moment: the way the score drops out as Mando runs out of ammo.
• This was also a great week for Stormtrooper screams. We got a lot of variations as they fell to their death in the climax.
• Brake’s face looks familiar to Mayfeld. It might look familiar to others as well. He’s a prolific character actor whose career includes appearances as Joe Chill in Batman Begins, a couple of years serving as the Night King on Game of Thrones, and a memorable turn as the chemist in the great Nicolas Cage film Mandy.
• Fett’s looking pretty shiny this week. Beskar appears to be as resistant to stains as it is to laserblasts.
• Is it clear what the pirates want? They don’t want to steal the rhydonium, just blow it — and the Imperials — up.
• What are the odds that, when next we see him, Mayfeld will have turned full-on revolutionary after hanging out with the oppressed Morakians for a while?
• Next week: the season finale, already. Will we find out what Moff Gideon’s been up to with his experiments? Will Mando and Grogu be reunited? Will any of Mando’s new allies turn heel? Tune in and find out.