It’s been quite the season for The Mandalorian, and, according to yesterday’s massive amount of LucasFilm announcements, this is just the start in the next chapter of Star Wars. While this week’s episode, titled “The Believer” and written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (Dope, Confirmation), doesn’t have the internet-destroying reveals present in the last few episodes of the series, it has some of the most intense action sequences featured in the show so far and dives deep down into the dark heart of those who served the Galactic Empire.
Needing specific coordinates in order to locate Moff Gideon and have any hope of rescuing the abducted Grogu, Mando and Cara Dune end up enlisting the expertise of current New Republic prisoner and former Imperial sharpshooter Migs Mayfeld (played, once again, by actor Bill Burr) from last season’s “double-cross” episode. With Boba Fett and Fennec Shand still in his service, Mando heads with his team to Morak under the recommendation of Mayfeld. Located on the planet is a secret Imperial mining hub, where Mayfeld will be able to access the internal Imperial network and locate Gideon’s coordinates. Of course, if it was that easy, there wouldn’t be an entire episode devoted to the mission.
“I don’t know how you people wear those things. And by “you people,” I do mean Mandalorians.”
As he did previously in Season 1, Mayfeld give Mando a hard time regarding his oath to never remove his mask in front of another living soul, and it brought to mind conversations I’ve had regarding what representation the character of Din Djarin offers Star Wars audiences. While fellow fans I respect have suggested that keeping Mando masked and not showing actor Pedro Pascal’s face dilutes his representation for Latinx viewers (and there may be validity to this assessment), I find myself wondering if those audiences who have their own strict cultural creeds and trappings find some sort of kinship with Djarin, especially when he’s under fire by Mayfeld’s crass prodding and mockery of his beliefs, culture, and practices.
Burr’s Mayfeld is an interesting personality and reminds me of schoolmates from when I was young who seemed to have an uncanny ability to sniff out your hidden weak spot – not exactly a bully, but not someone you can never really call a friend either. A cynical individual who needs to cut everyone down before there’s a chance for it to happen to them. While he may be willing to speak certain harsh truths, Mayfeld believes in nothing, so he can’t stand anyone who believes in anything. And why would that be? Well, it’s a protective measure, just like the cynical cut downs. The ardent beliefs of others highlight Mayfeld’s own lack of belief in anything, so he must dismantle and destroy the beliefs of others or be threatened by the possibility that their successful existence represents ardent proof that his cynical worldview is utterly flawed.
Hence, when Mayfeld tries to claim he’s a survivor like Mando and paint the both of them as two different faces of the same coin, Djarin will have none of it and replies that they are “nothing alike.
“Empire and New Republic. It’s all the same to these people. Invaders on their land is all we are.”
The idea of both sides being the same – “meet the old boss, same as the old boss” – is a theme we’ve seen explored all season on the series. Even more specifically, this episode seems to be taking a look at what The Mandalorian has specifically to say about Imperials or ex-Imperials. What kind of person serves in the Galactic Empire, how did they end up there, and how are they different from those who signed on for the Rebel Alliance? Or are they all just pawns to those in power?
As Mayfeld points out, Djarin may say they are “nothing alike,” but the Mandalorian culture does not have a bloodless history. Many Mandalorian “foot soldiers” have died in a similar fashion to the scores of deceased Imperial stormtroopers – in the service to a great empire and without much of a choice in the matter. In Mayfeld’s point of view, “If you’re born on Mandalore, you believe one thing, and if you’re born on Alderaan, you believe in something else.” Mayfeld’s worldview is that people are all the same and that everyone’s got their lines they won’t cross, until it gets messy and then those rules and standards go out the window. The former sharpshooter sums it up by stating, “If you can sleep at night, you’re doing better than most.”
It’s an interesting, yet common, rationalization that individuals seem to use to justify unseemly actions, histories, or relationships they are connected with. We see it very often in today’s politics in America, where voters justify supporting a “win at any cost” mentality based simply on the belief (whether truthful or not) that the other side would do the exact same or worse to them. The problem with this sort of rationalization is that it really can be used to justify any action, even the most horrific. For, if everyone on the “other side” would do the same or worse to you, how can you ever feel wrong about doing it first to them?
“How about a toast to Operation Cinder?”
One of the highlights of this episode is the scene featuring character actor Richard Brake (You might recognize him as Joe Chill from Batman Begins or the Night King from Game of Thrones.) as Imperial Officer Valin Hess. While undercover in the Imperial mining operation, Mayfeld and Djarin are engaged by Hess, whom Mayfeld served under during Operation Cinder. Those who wish to learn more about Operation Cinder can check out the Wookieepedia entry, but, in summation, it was part of a plan “devised by Emperor Palpatine to ensure that the Empire and its enemies did not outlive him should he ever perish. The plan was put into action following the Emperor’s death during the Battle of Endor” in Return of the Jedi. The events of Operation Cinder clearly are connected to some deep and unacknowledged trauma within Mayfeld. The conversation that follows implies that there may have been a time when Mayfeld was a “true believer” in the glory of the Empire, but those allegiances were whittled away by what he witnessed in the Empire’s final days, if not before. On the planet Burnin Konn, not only did an entire division perish under Hess’ leadership, but an entire city was lost, as well. In Mayfeld’s estimate, he watched 5,000 to 10,000 lives snuffed out that day. It clearly had a deep effect on the former sharpshooter, but to Hess, those who lost their lives are simply “heroes of the Empire” to be toasted by those who remain alive to do so. The true ugliness of their “sacrifice” is washed away with Hess’ justification that it was all for “the greater good.” In Hess’ mind, any actions is justifiable in the pursuit of restoring Imperial control of the galaxy – a logic not that far from what Mayfeld stated to Djarin earlier in the episode. As he shares with Mayfeld and Djarin: ”You see, boys, everyone thinks they want freedom, but what they really want is order. And when they realize that, they’re going to welcome us back with open arms.” This might be one of the creepiest and evil moments so far in Star Wars, because of how tangible it is in regards to our own reality. While it’s not hard to imagine the destruction of an entire planet by a battle station or the fury of a lightsaber battle, they are not events we expect to ever come close to encountering in our own world when not in the form of metaphor. But when it comes to the idea that the masses can be manipulated to look past horrific events in order to embrace order over freedom, we know all too well that there are both individuals in our world who believe as such and seek to provide that “order” in exchange for raw power, and those open to the manipulation.
The interesting element here is watching Mayfeld process his trauma and feelings regarding Hess (and, ultimately, his own history with the Empire). He’s spent so much time previously in the episode trying to convince Djarin that there’s no difference between those who serve the Empire and those who serve other masters, but when confronted with Hess’ claims that the scores of people who died on Burnin Konn did so for the “greater good,” he instinctively spits it back in the officer’s face, inquiring how exactly it was good for the troopers and citizens who died by the thousands. The scene ends with an incredibly satisfying blaster bolt to Hess’ chest, but the real stunner is seeing a former Imperial who’s not only disillusioned, but disturbed by what he saw during his service. One who feels regret for not only those he served with whose lives were tossed away, but also for the civilians who were crushed under the foot of the Empire.
Nerdcore rapper MC Chris is a huge Star Wars fan and had some interesting thoughts regarding this episode that he shared via Facebook earlier today, stating that “the main story is why am in a cult? what do i believe in?” It’s an interesting way to look at an episode where both Mayfeld and Djarin are forced to confront the contradictions in their own ideologies and find “their lines they won’t cross, until it gets messy.” Clearly, if Djarin is willing break Mandalorian creed to remove his mask in front of others if it’s what it takes to save Grogu and Mayfeld is willing to turn on the Imperials, killing Hess and destroying their hidden base if it’s what it takes to “sleep at night,” maybe they’re both more alike then they wish to admit. Mayfeld realizes there is a distinct difference between Imperials and New Republic, but then, when looked at from a certain point of view, this is also an example of how the two men are similar. For is a former Imperial sharpshooter who finds his humanity that much different from a bounty hunter employed by Imperials who does the same?
It’s a complex and somewhat uncomfortable concept, but one that must not be buried and ignored. If interpreted wrongly, this is the sort of story element that gets accused of trying to build redemption for the irredeemable or humanize the “space Nazis,” but in reality, it’s a confrontation of the mature and layered concept the each human possesses the potential for true evil and true goodness. While de-humanizing the Imperial forces makes sense in the context of Star Wars when it comes to its action serial roots, as we advance into more complex storytelling and examinations, it must be admitted that it’s still de-humanization. For example, it’s easier to accept that all present on the Death Star during its destruction by Luke Skywalker deserved their fates than deal with the truth that the decision was made by the Rebellion that the forfeit of those lives was a strategic action taken to save many others. No one ever wins a war with clean hands. No matter the side, the blood stays on the blade.
So, where does this leave us? The older that I get, the more I believe that it’s easy to draw clear and definitive lines when it comes to groups or institutions, but individuals must be dealt with on a case-to-case basis. Human beings are far too complex to be easily summed up and evaluated by pre-crafted standards or rules in my own experience. Family history, education, privilege, race, class structure, and more go into making a person who they are and informing the decisions they make in their life – and this goes both for those being judged and those doing the judging. While this isn’t a pass to tolerate the intolerant or argue that the Imperials are the same as the New Republic, it is a call to acknowledge they are more than faceless canon fodder, as is truly any enemy on the battlefield.
Finally, I’d offer it’s worth pondering the title of this episode; “The Believer.” Who is the believer in question? Is it Djarin and his loyalty to the Mandalorian creed? Is it Mayfeld’s nihilistic worldview adopted for self-preservation after his actions with the Empire? Is it Hess’ fanatical belief in the “greater good” and the glory of Imperial rule? Or is it referencing the new understanding present at the end of the episode by both Mayfeld and Djarin? The suggestion that, as Star Wars’ Dave Filioni put it in the second episode of Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, “We fundamentally want to be good people, that we can all be driven to do terrible things, but that we can persevere through selfless action.”
– It never gets old for me seeing the Slave I parked in some new locale. And kudos for putting those charges (that shook the theater during Episode II) to good use.
– Did Fett repaint his armor in between episodes? And, if so, how long has he been waiting to do that? Personally, I prefer the battle-scarred looks. This “clean” version comes off a bit like a new action figure. Maybe we can call him #FreshOuttaTheBox Fett.
– There’s a perfect moment right after Mayfeld shoots Hess dead where everyone in the room is flabbergasted… even the Stormtroopers. Sometimes, it’s the little things.
– I also enjoyed that Mando places his own version of the “I have a certain set of skills” call to Gideon at the end of the episode. Somebody’s looking for a fight.
– In an interesting way, it’s Mando and Mayfeld’s weaknesses that cause them to see each other in a different light. Mando is forced to reveal his face because of Mayfeld’s reaction to Hess’ presence, and Mayfeld denies having seen it in order to not negate Mando’s creed in front of others, almost as a repayment for Mando completing the mission when Mayfeld couldn’t.
Final Verdict: It seems like we can always count of Rick Famuyiwa to expand and enrich the Star Wars mythos in intriguing and worthwhile ways. This is another fantastic episode that offers intense action while focusing on what the character and themes of the series have to offer.
Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa
Written by: Rick Famuyiwa
You can find my reviews of the previous episodes of The Mandalorian: Season 2 at the following links: