Article ID: JAR2101PH | By: Philip Tallon
Note: this review contains spoilers for Season 1 and 2.
Created by Jon Favreau
Executive producers: Jon Favreau, Dave Filoni, Kathleen Kennedy, Colin Wilson
Disney + Streaming Service
(Rated TV-14, 2019-)
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Some blockbusters invite philosophical reflection: Jurassic Park (1993), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), The Dark Knight (2008). It’s easy to find the themes in these movies: scientific hubris, utilitarian ethics, order and chaos. When my mind turns to Star Wars,1 however, I find it difficult to focus on what might be called ideas. Rather my mind slides quickly into thinking about the story or the metaphysics.2 How will the rebels win? How will the Republic/Empire fall? How does the Force work? What new Force power will we see this time?
If there is a main theme, of course, it’s right there in the title: war. George Lucas himself has said part of the inspiration for the original film was the Vietnam War, though siding with the freedom fighters against “a large technological empire.”3 All three trilogies center around the conflict between good and evil opposing sides.4 The prequels trace the undermining of a dysfunctional republic by the secretive Sith. The original trilogy pits valiant rebels against a clearly evil empire. The sequels drop the newly formed republic off a cliff and then repeat the rhythms of the original. The main interest in each trilogy is the narrative progress toward the eventual undoing of the powerful by the underdogs. Yet this underdog vs. empire element is rarely reflected on. It’s a narrative setup more than a philosophical theme.
Lucas’s perspective — personally and cinematically — is anti-institutional. A Hollywood maverick himself, he’s always operated outside the normal studio system. I can’t think of an instance in the first two trilogies where a complex institution is portrayed in a positive light. Lucas’s heroes are outsiders, rogues, hermits, and orphans. We see this in a more positive light in the original trilogy, as a ragtag group of adventurers come together to topple the galactic government. We see this filtered through the prequels’ less-effective cynicism, as well-meaning but dysfunctional institutions flounder in every way possible. The Jedi Order falters. The Senate crumbles. The rebellious Qui-Gon now dead, dutiful Obi-Won fails to train Anakin effectively. Part of the failure of the prequels, perhaps, is not just that Lucas doesn’t trust institutions, but that he doesn’t understand them either.
Woven through the political struggles are religious and personal conflicts. It’s possible that Star Wars is the most religiously interested of all major Hollywood franchises. While religion is almost completely absent in mainstream Hollywood cinema — except as an occasional bogeyman or mythological background — Star Wars is centered on the abstract and impersonal “Force” as a source of supernatural power and as a moral axis. The heroes’ journeys develop as they embrace and expand their connection to the Force. Anakin, Luke, and Rey grow in power through their training, though each must battle against the dark side. The villains’ journeys often conclude with an abandonment of the dark side (Anakin and Kylo). Redemption for Anakin and Kylo Ren highlights one of the main interpersonal occupations of Star Wars: the relationships between parents and children. Luke redeems his father. Kylo rejects, then embraces, his father’s influence. Likewise, Rey must wrestle with her lack of parentage and then her sinister genealogy.
The Mandalorian 5 takes up Star Wars’ interest in religion, though with much the same postmodern wrestling that we see play out in the trilogies. While the original trilogy presents the Jedi religion in a straightforward and positive light, the following films have complicated the faith in a way that fits with our questioning times. In the prequels, the Jedi council seems stuck in its old ways, its influence fading. The Jedi are always a step behind, often making the wrong call. In the sequels, the centrality of the Jedi teachings are questioned, doubted, and nearly abandoned. The Mandalorian continues this trend. In fact, it may be the series’ most central thematic conflict.
Part of the genius of Lucas’s setting is that it takes up many of the intellectual struggles of his generation (religious questioning, generational conflict, global conflict, and anti-institutionalism) and nestles them into old-fashioned science fiction and war movie tropes that obscure the modern cultural issues in the mind of the creator. One of the greatest twists in contemporary cinema is that the evil military commander of the Empire is Luke’s father. We are so accustomed to this revelation now, especially with the prequels, that the narrative shock is easy to forget. The action of A New Hope (1977) is informed by WW2 dogfighting scenes, but the personal and political themes are informed by Vietnam-era disillusionment. Recall the similarity between the name ‘Lucas’ and ‘Luke.’ Luke’s greatest fear in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is literally becoming his father. It’s hard to imagine this theme before the 20th century.
If the axis of political conflict in Star Wars runs between empires and underdogs, and the religious conflict is between light and dark, the personal conflict is oriented around older and younger generations. Because we’re so used to rapid cultural change, this feature of Star Wars might fly right by us, but it’s truly an innovation from sagas of old. Lucas is working on the scale of epic mythology with love-generation questions and problems. In this regard, The Mandalorian is more traditional than the films. Its hero has no father to war against. There are almost no institutions left to rebel against. There is only one major force in the main character’s life: his religious code.
The Mandalorian begins with a resolute gunfighter determined to honor his faith’s warrior code of perpetual helmeting. As the series progresses, our Mandalorian meets others who regard this tenet as an extreme practice. He discovers that his way is not the way (or, at least, not the only way). The series concludes with our Mandalorian (Din) removing his helmet to honor something greater than his religious beliefs. The reason? The Mandalorian has become a father to The Child. It is fatherhood, instead of sonship, that defines the hero’s journey for this series.
As opposed to the epic, galactic scope of the films, The Mandalorian series follows the smaller adventures of a cast of solitary warriors wandering around in the shattered remains of the Empire. Hearkening back to Samurai films that inspired Lucas’s original trilogy, the Mandalorian encounters many who, like him, are masterless Ronin with a code of honor. From Boba Fett’s insistence on fulfilling his vow, to Kuiil’s determined “I have spoken,” to Bo-Katan’s refusal to accept the Darksaber, the Mandalorian must navigate a series of relationships with characters driven by principle.
A bounty hunter, Din Djarin was rescued and raised by Mandalorians who trained him up in a “way.” His impressive work ethic is challenged by his second mission, when he delivers The Child, and then returns to rescue him from his cruel fate. No longer a trustworthy guild member, the series is driven by Din’s quest to deliver The Child to the Jedi. This change in his quest is echoed in the first season, as we see an IG droid reprogrammed. IG-11 changes from being a dedicated killing machine to eventually sacrificing his life for the sake of others.
The two most indelible images from The Mandalorian bookend the series. Beginning with The Child reaching to touch fingers with Din, and ending with Din standing helmetless, watching The Child (Grogu) being carried away to presumed safety. It’s hard not to think of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) in these moments, as Din is faced with the painful separation that comes at the successful conclusion of his quest that began with a touch from an alien species.
The voluntary removal of Din’s helmet also echoes other scenes in The Return of the Jedi (1983). After rescuing Han from the carbonite, Leia removes her helmet and says to Han that the person who saved him is “someone who loves you.” Darth Vader asks Luke to remove his mask so he can look on him with his “own eyes.” Father and son see each other face to face. As with most storytelling in Star Wars, the symbolism is universally clear without being trite. Lucas uses repeated images that are obvious and elemental. Din’s helmet, however, is invested with religious and personal meaning. Earlier in the final episode, a Dark Trooper hammers the helmet repeatedly with a metal fist. Though Din doesn’t like this treatment, only the wall behind him gives way. This helmet is the literal and symbolic instantiation of his toughness. It’s also part of his religion, as mentioned earlier. The personal, professional, and religious dimension of Din’s identity intersect on this iconic riff on the old, Spartan helmet.
In a key episode in season 2, Din encounters fellow Mandalorians who remove their helmets. Surprised, Din says, “You don’t cover your face. You are not Mandalorian.” One of the other Mandalorians, a character from The Clone Wars (2008–2020), tells Din that she was born on Mandalore, but that Din is “a Child of the Watch…a cult of religious zealots that broke away from the Mandalore society. Their goal was to re-establish the ancient way.” Din replies with cold certainty, “There is only one way. The Way of the Mandalore.”6
Here, again, the world Lucas made smuggles a very modern theme into an old-fashioned genre. Few Christians now can help but experience similar conflicts as we struggle to discern what is essential to the “Way” of following Jesus and what is dispensable. Traditionalists are often accused of being religious zealots for one reason or another. Anyone who holds to a single way of following the Christian tradition will face questions about their commitment to the faith, not just from outsiders, but from their fellow believers. Din’s journey in The Mandalorian takes him further from his professional trustworthiness, but also from his commitment to his “Way.” There’s no explicit theological wrestling on Din’s part (not that we would expect this taciturn man-with-no-face to voice it out loud), but we see Din remove his helmet to find the location of The Child out of narrative necessity. Then we see him remove it from personal empathy.
Is Din renouncing his allegiance to The Watch? We can’t know. Are the creators trying to say that personal commitments trump religious ones? Is Din’s de-helmeting a religious de-conversion? Or is it a fantastic example of Jesus’ reminder to the Pharisees that saving your child is a good reason to break Sabbath rules? It’s hard to say, as are many things about the themes in Star Wars. Again, my mind slides away from these questions. I want to know what happens with Grogu’s training. I want to know what the next adventure is for Boba Fett. I wonder if Bo-Katan and Din will duel for the Darksaber. These are the questions fans will wonder about. The themes recede into the background. This is the Star Wars way.
I have spoken.
Philip Tallon is Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of several books, including The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy (Oxford, 2012) and The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016). He’s on Twitter @philiptallon.
- Editor’s Note: For an evaluation of the Star Wars worldview, see Robert Velarde, “May the Force Bewitch You: Evaluating the Star Wars Worldview,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 38, no. 05 (2015), https://www.equip.org/PDF/JAF2385.pdf.
- The one film among the Star Wars movies that stands out as having a prominent ‘theme’ is Rian Johnson’s divisive 8th installment (Star Wars: The Last Jedi ): the Jedi tradition is questionable; the force is for everyone.
- Kyle Smith, “How ‘Star Wars’ Was Secretly George Lucas’ Vietnam Protest,” New York Post, September 21, 2014, https://nypost.com/2014/09/21/how-star-wars-was-secretly-george-lucas-protest-of-vietnam/amp/.
- In order of theatrical release, here are the nine major motion pictures that compose the three Star Wars trilogies (original trilogy, prequel trilogy, and sequel trilogy, respectively): Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope (1977), Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi (1983), Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999, Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones (2002), Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (2005), Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens (2015), Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi (2017), Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker (2019).
- The Mandalorian, created by Jon Favreau, Disney+ (2019-present). All episodes accessible via https://www.disneyplus.com/welcome/the-mandalorian.
- The Mandalorian, “Chapter 11: The Heiress,” Season 2, Episode 3, directed by Bryce Dallas Howard, written by Jon Favreau, Disney+, aired November 13, 2020.