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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Lines get blurred as The Mandalorian goes deep undercover

Illustration for article titled Lines get blurred as The Mandalorian goes deep undercover
Photo: Lucasfilm
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Is a Mandalorian in any other helmet just as righteous? That’s the question posed in the penultimate episode of The Mandalorian’s second season, as Mando dons the armor of the enemy in order to go deep undercover at an Imperial rhydonium refinery on the jungle planet of Morak. He does so alongside Bill Burr’s Migs Mayfeld, a.k.a. Inmate 34667, who Mando put away at the end of “The Prisoner” back in season one. At the beginning of the episode, Mando and his crew arrive on a junkyard prison planet to draft Mayfeld into their mission to save The Child and thwart Moff Gideon’s evil plans. And where Mayfeld goes, moral relativism follows.

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The Mandalorian hasn’t been as ambiguous this season in terms of good guys and bad guys, a change I attribute to Mando giving up the bounty hunter game in order to be a full-time dad who also keeps getting pulled away to do violent favors for people. There’s also the revelation that his particular version of the Way is downright fundamentalist, which makes him seem a little less, let’s say, flexible every time it comes up. That makes Mando “The Believer” of the title, and he dons a Stormtrooper’s helmet rather than show his face as he accompanies Mayfeld on a mission to obtain the coordinates of Moff Gideon’s ship from an Imperial console inside the refinery. Mayfeld, you see, used to be an Imperial sharpshooter, and still remembers their protocols. He remembers a lot of other things, too, as he explains to the sullen Mandalorian behind the wheel of an Imperial Combat Assault Transport.

“We’re all the same,” Mayfeld tells Mando, as Burr’s signature squawk shifts from mocking to genuinely angry. Imperials, Rebels, the New Republic, Mandalorians—does it really matter to their families what they died for? They’re dead. It’s a very cynical way of looking at the conflicts that fuel Star Wars lore—it’s not called Star Peace, now is it?—and a point of view that episode writer and director Rick Famuyiwa subtly ties in to the real-life futility of the Vietnam War. There’s the visual element of massive explosions rocking a jungle landscape, of course, imagery Famuyiwa blends with some very Indiana Jones-type punch-outs atop the transport vehicle, which could also blow at any time.

But the scene that drove the parallel home for me is the one where Mayfeld confronts his former commanding officer Valin Hess (Richard Brake) in the officers’ mess hall inside of the refinery. When Mando and Mayfeld arrive at the base, they’re greeted by cheering Stormtroopers, which must have felt weird. And the compromises don’t stop there. (I’m going to skim over this next part, since it’s a spoiler whose implications are covered elsewhere in the recap; feel free to discuss in the comments.) Anyway, they end up at a table with Hess, who pours them what looks like Alka-Seltzer but is presumably one of the many kinds of Star Wars hooch that have been invented over the years.

Finally sure that his old boss doesn’t recognize him, Mayfeld mentions that he was part of Operation: Cinder, a scorched-earth campaign in the final days of the Galactic Civil War where entire planets were razed—like the mining planet of Burnin Konn, where Mayfeld narrowly escaped joining between five and 10,000 of his fellow soldiers and an untold number of civilians in death. As Famuyiwa lays out in Mayfeld’s and Hess’ dialogue about the mission, what happened on Burnin Konn was much like Vietnam-era atrocities like the My Lai massacre, but on a larger scale. The commander talks about “difficult decisions,” but it’s the foot soldier whose dreams are haunted by what they did that day.

But Mayfeld soon gets his revenge, because even when Star Wars is going dark and gritty (see also: Rogue One), it absolutely cannot resist a redemption arc (see also: IG-11 last season). Mayfeld is the one whose conscience is unburdened at the end, while Mando is compromised in a way he’s never been before. It’s a serious-minded theme for an episode that once again strays from the overarching mission, and the first episode in the series where Grogu doesn’t appear at all. This was really Bill Burr’s week to shine, as Cara Dune, Fennec Shand, and Boba Fett all got a minimum of screen time. I have no doubt that they’ll all get their hero moment next week, when—hopefully—The Mandalorian will finally get to where it’s going. As far as detours go, this was a thought-provoking one.

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Stray Observations

  • The existence of Bill Burr in the Star Wars universe implies the existence of a Star Wars equivalent of Boston, a hive of scum and villainy like nowhere else in the galaxy. (I kid! Please don’t yell at me.)
  • “The Believer” brings comic book and video-game lore into The Mandalorian universe: Operation: Cinder was first mentioned in Greg Rucka’s Star Wars: Shattered Empire and features prominently in Star Wars Battlefront II.
  • I never thought about Imperials having families before this episode.
  • This is Famuyiwa’s third spin around the Mandalorian track. He also directed the scene where Mando fights off Jawas while clinging to the side of a sandcrawler in episode 2—also a very Indiana Jones-esque sequence!
  • Richard Brake is one of those character actors who has been in pretty much everything, but perhaps his most famous role was under heavy layers of makeup: He also played the Night King on Game Of Thrones.
  • Star Wars also loves pairing up old frenemies: Mando and Mayfeld have a history, as I discussed at more length in the recap for “The Prisoner.”
  • Speaking of, did you hear the news that Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor will appear in an Obi-Wan Kenobi live action series? IDK about all that, if I’m being honest, but I am an Old who doesn’t care for the prequels.
  • In fact, there are 10 (!!) new Star Wars TV series in development at Disney+ right now, in case you were offline yesterday and missed the news tsunami.
  • Hell yes to the classic Star Wars wipe towards the end of the episode.
  • Along with its real-world parallels, this whole episode pays tribute to William Friendkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer, about four men with checkered pasts who reluctantly agree to drive a truck full of nitroglycerin through the jungle in exchange for their freedom. It’s a good one, check it out if you haven’t seen it (or maybe even watch it again).