The second-season finale of The Mandalorian was the best of Star Wars and the worst of Star Wars, a momentarily thrilling and moving episode that, once you stepped back and took a hard look at it, felt more like a victory for the dark side.
Created by Jon Favreau — Disney’s speed-dial answer to David O. Selznick, a producer-director-writer who has worked on Marvel, Star Wars, and Disney Animation projects simultaneously — The Mandalorian is earnest and lovingly crafted, easily the freshest thing Lucasfilm has given viewers since Genndy Tartakovsky’s 2003 Cartoon Network classic, Clone Wars. For two seasons, it has tapped into the light side of the franchise, represented by the humor, action, world-building details, and friendship narratives that have defined George Lucas’s science-fiction fantasies since 1977. But in the final moments of “Chapter 16: The Rescue,” the series succumbs to the dark side of parent company Disney’s quarterly-earnings statements, which keeps dragging Star Wars back toward nostalgia-sploitation and knee-jerk intellectual-property maintenance.
Where to begin lamenting this self-defeat? For one thing, the Luke cameo in the final moments of “The Rescue” continues the Disney-era Star Wars tradition of tying every supposedly new story back to the multigenerational adventures of the Skywalker family. Even universe-expanding takes like Rogue One (a clever retcon of the original Death Star’s structural flaw, with cameos by Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, Princess Leia, and other familiar characters) and Solo (an origin story for everyone’s favorite smuggler-general and the future daddy of Kylo Ren) fall prey to this tendency. It always feels like a sop to Disney stockholders and a way of hedging bets on any property that dares to take even a modest risk.
It’s hard to capture in words the galaxy-collapsing shortsightedness of requiring that every new Star Wars tale ultimately connect, however tangentially, with the same handful of genetically linked characters. Star Wars’ bizarre obsession with Force-amplifying, midi-chlorian-rich blood, and the proximity of “regular” characters to those with special blood, makes Lucas’s galaxy far, far away — a place so vast that you need hyperspace to cross it — feel as rinky-dink as a backwater American town, the kind of place where everybody is required to kiss the same local family’s butt for survival’s sake. Every time a Star Wars story genuflects to the Skywalker saga yet again, Lucas’s mythos shrinks further in the collective imagination. Sometimes it’s so small-minded that you’d think Disney’s mandate was to reimagine Mayberry with starships and laser swords.
Thus does the galactic rim in the post–Civil War era — thrillingly envisioned by Favreau and his Mandalorian writers as a science-fiction fusion of two related genres, the spaghetti Western and the samurai adventure — pivot without warning toward insularity. Thus does a great character like Pedro Pascal’s Din Djarin — an orphan who adopted a fundamentalist interpretation of Mandalorian self-identity and a genocide survivor who feels kinship with members of the Alderaan diaspora — become a mere extra upon the cosmic stage, fascinating not because of how he practices or compromises his beliefs but because he briefly met the dude who faced down Vader and the Emperor. And thus Grogu, a member of the same species as Yoda, becomes worthy of our attention not because he’s a case study in nature and nurture — possessing dark and light impulses and open to manipulation and corruption by vile tricksters like Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) — but because Luke deemed him important enough to rescue. He has a special purpose, you see. Not like all those other gifted kids throughout the galaxy who need a parent to guide them toward the light.
We should’ve known things would wrap up this way the instant that Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison) moseyed into The Mandalorian and pulled focus from Mando. Miraculously disgorged from the Sarlacc pit that devoured him in Return of the Jedi (a silly twist canonized in spinoff properties), Fett had come to reclaim the armor sported by one of The Mandalorian’s most charismatic new characters, a Tatooine marshal (Timothy Olyphant) who wore Fett’s gear like a knight riding into battle against a dragon (actually a sandworm/sand-shark monster). But Fett was really onscreen to reclaim The Mandalorian for that sector of the Star Wars fan base that refuses to accept anything that feels like a revision, subversion, or expansion of what they already know they like — particularly when the new iteration asks them to look beyond all the lovely, shiny things onscreen and think about whether their own relationship with the tried-and-true elements of Star Wars is healthy.
Speaking as a card-carrying OG Star Wars nerd — literally: I bought the first set of trading cards at my neighborhood comic shop in Kansas City, and to this day I can’t look at jpegs of those babies without hallucinating an olfactory Proustian bubblegum rush — I truly do understand the grateful tears that some viewers shed during the last ten minutes of “The Rescue,” particularly at the “surprise” revelation of Grogu’s savior. When that hood dropped, waterworks flowed around the world. And the saltwater level rose when episode director Peyton Reed held that anguished close-up of Mando watching his emerald child depart.
But only one of these two moments is rooted in something achingly real. And it’s not the one that smashes a Pavlovian fan-service button after spending several minutes pandering to the toxic “not my Luke” faction of the fandom, which would prefer to forego themes of regret, failure, bitterness, and other unpleasant but inevitable adult emotions and instead watch a character they spent a lifetime identifying with flip through the air while dicing up foes with a magic sword. Like an action figure — the kind I used to play with when I was 9.
Lending new pungency to the phrase zombie IP, The Mandalorian Frankensteined a Luke cameo, employing the same CGI that gave Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia their uncanny-valley vibes. A walking deus ex machina, Luke Rubberface arrived late yet just in time, like Han and Chewie at the battle of the first Death Star, then echoed (deliberately, one assumes) the most polarizing fan-service moment in the Disney-era films: Darth Vader’s slaughter of Rebel troops in Rogue One.
Mingling terror and exhilaration, but settling mainly for exhilaration, Vader’s hallway rampage in Rogue One underlined an area in which Lucas’s vision always needed bifocals: the tendency to let the spectacle of violent domination become an adrenaline-stimulating drug powerful enough to shatter any philosophical frame the storytellers try to put around it. Lucas envisioned the original trilogy and the prequels as anti-fascist tracts pitched at a level that a child could understand; despite sometimes getting lost in the weeds of merchandising, F/X innovations, and studio-building, the results consistently encouraged viewers to identify with the oppressed over the oppressors and tried to be clear about whom, in the real world, the oppressors were. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi brazenly drew a connecting line between imperial England, the Nazi war machine, and the postwar American military-industrial complex. The Galactic Rebellion conflated the American colonists, the World War II anti-fascist underground, and the Vietcong into basically “same mentality, different uniforms and gadgets.” The Death Star was Lucas’s equivalent of the atomic bomb, a weapon that the United States alone is guilty of dropping on civilian targets. A generation later, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith showed how democracies willingly let themselves slide into dictatorship: A complacent and out-of-touch Jedi Council lets young Senator Palpatine rise to power by solving crises that Palpatine himself secretly created, each time convincing the galactic legislature to surrender more authority to the chancellor and the military. By the end of his masterful campaign of manipulation, the Senate itself is dissolved, leaving power in the hands of a despot whose army pledges loyalty to him personally, rather than to any institution or creed.
Unfortunately, to a certain type of fan, good and evil, chaos and order, morality and treachery as laid out in Lucas’s cosmology are all mere pretexts for laser-sword fights, blaster battles, spaceship combat, and planets getting maimed or atomized by the bad guys’ doomsday weapon du jour. And here’s where things get really dark: The power-fantasy thing has been an inextricable part of Star Wars’ appeal from the beginning, even when Lucas and his collaborators were studiously warning viewers that the Force should only be used for defense, never for attack, that there are alternatives to fighting, that fear leads to hate, hate to anger, anger to suffering, etc. The mirroring of the Rogue One hallway massacre and Luke’s Cuisinarting of Moff Gideon’s death droids is charged with explosive storytelling potential, but it’s ideologically unstable. Any time Star Wars lets the mayhem genie out of the bottle, puffs of it stay out there in the world, where toxic fans can imbibe it, ignoring the context that Lucas and three generations of collaborators put around it.
Favreau, Mandalorian executive producer Dave Filoni & Co. need to keep a firm grip on possible fan takeaways moving forward and do all they can to make sure that any adrenaline rush that viewers may have gotten from watching Luke Skywalker make like a combo of the Terminator and Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil is properly called out for what it is: an invocation of the appeal of the dark side of the Force, which is powered by rage, insecurity, childishness, and other negative emotions. The scene is already being held up in some Star Wars forums as proof that the franchise is committed to eradicating any remaining self-aware and questioning elements that were raised by Rian Johnson’s brilliant The Last Jedi — an anti-nostalgia tract that rejects dogma and received wisdom, argues that “we are what we grow beyond,” makes one of its male heroes a hothead who endangers the good guys by not listening to a female superior, intimates that its fearless young heroine is a “nobody” who succeeded on talent and discipline alone, and ends with a shot of an anonymous slave boy fantasizing about being a Jedi — on the heels of J.J. Abrams’s The Rise of Skywalker. The ninth, and unfortunately probably not final, Star Wars feature was an ideological doomsday weapon, the Snyder Cut of Lucasfilm, meant to placate Star Wars obsessives who did not appreciate being made to feel uncomfortable about any of the problematic aspects of the series that they’d either approved of or failed to notice in the past. Shoehorning Palpatine into a trilogy that had been chugging along nicely without him, and chucking original trilogy characters (including Force ghosts and a CGI Leia) into a fan-service gumbo, the film wasn’t a do-over exactly, but it had that sour and dutiful spirit. It was the cinematic version of firing a wunderkind new employee who had dared to question the company’s mission statement, then throwing out any object he’d touched when he worked there.
That a good part of Star Wars fandom has enthusiastically embraced the dark side — demanding implied loyalty pledges to half-baked notions of childhood innocence and playground fantasies of dominance — confirms that even when Lucas worried that he was using a mallet as a tack hammer, his blunt instrument still wasn’t blunt enough. And, really, that’s on Lucas. Maybe all these problem areas are features rather than bugs, built into the essence of the dazzling, wildly popular thing that he willed into being. Maybe the phenomenon is adjacent to François Truffaut’s observation that there’s no such thing as a truly antiwar movie, because war is so exciting to watch that viewers can’t help getting lost in the reptilian brain rush, forgetting the misery that violence leaves in its wake.
The impulse of the power-fantasy-worshipping, Skywalker-centric, royalty-obsessed faction of Star Wars fandom, which treats any hint of maturity, humanism, and inclusiveness as a declaration of war against fun, is related to a movement in modern political discourse that conflates any questioning of reactionary sentiments as “censorship” or “cancel culture.” This impulse is forever implying, sometimes flat out saying, that things were better the way they used to be; that nothing needs to change; that there’s no better way of doing things, or even looking at things; and, therefore, everybody needs to just shut up and watch those lightsabers-go-brrrr.
The nostalgic/reactionary impulse is so intense that it retroactively obliterates The Mandalorian’s sincere attempts to add complexity and contradiction to Star Wars, in scenes like the Client’s season-one speech asking if the galaxy was really better off without the Empire in charge and the sequence in season two’s penultimate episode where ex-Imperial soldier Migs Mayfeld (Bill Burr) asks Mando whether there’s functionally any difference between the New Republic and the old Empire if you’re a peasant. Mayfeld, possibly the most philosophically conflicted character in 40-plus years of Star Wars stories, answers his own question in that same episode, purging his PTSD over participating in an Imperial act of genocide by shooting an officer who participated in it.
When Mayfeld’s long-suppressed guilt bomb detonates, Star Wars momentarily becomes as morally instructive and clearheaded as Lucas always wanted it to be. The episode asks viewers to think about the galaxy’s endless conflict from more than one point of view, and concede that, in the words of one of the greatest Onion headlines, the worst person you know might have a point — but that awareness of relativity doesn’t mean a person can throw their moral compass away and plead neutrality.
It’s a pity that this same compass goes out the window when fans treat any self-questioning impulse in Star Wars as a personal attack. Like power itself, power fantasies corrupt absolutely. That’s how you end up with essays and YouTube videos arguing that the Empire was misunderstood or somehow “right,” or that, perhaps, somehow, it “had a point.” It’s Walter Sobchak’s famous line from The Big Lebowski played straight: Say what you want about the tenets of intergalactic fascism enforced by planet-killers, Dude — at least it’s an ethos.
This is a dire development for a tale that Lucas first pitched to studios as a live-action Disney adventure like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: suitable for the whole family but with an edge that let viewers reassure themselves that they weren’t watching kid stuff. After all of the meticulous, thoughtful work that The Mandalorian’s writers, producers, and F/X team had done over the previous 15 episodes to expand and deepen Lucas’s universe and make it seem infinite in its storytelling potential — a vast mindspace, populated with kajillions of eccentric, fascinating beings with no genetic or political connection to the Skywalker clan — here comes the season-two finale, making like Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown. Now The Mandalorian, like Grogu, has the potential to go one way or the other: to embrace the light side or get swallowed up in the darkness. Cloudy the future is.