Dear friends of the unreal —
Well, reality continues to imitate art doesn’t it? If I did polls (which I don’t) I’d ask you to pick whether you think things resemble the Day After Tomorrow (the fire version), Outbreak, or one of the many Zombie movies that are out and about. Or, which Star Wars movie do our lives resemble?
If I were doing a poll, I’d ask you to consider voting for The Mandalorian.
I just rewatched this Disney + series, and if you loved it, I think you will love it even more the second time around. Then, right after I finished the last episode of season 2, my husband Larry joined me for dinner and we watched Sergio Leone’s A Few Dollars More.
I had not realized the extent to which the directors of the Mandalorian are directly riffing on the Sergio Leone westerns, including the use of the recorder for the hero’s entrance music. But more important, I think, is the sense in both the Mandalorian and in the Leone films, of what I call — for lack of a better expression — the fallen world in which the characters navigate. Leone’s films show us a wild west that is a space of shattered ideals, and a very precarious social order, a heck of alot of bullets, and alot of men behaving badly in despotic, power-mad, and intensely greedy ways. While I watched the movie I thought about how these Italian films were made when World War 2 had ended only 20 years before. I wondered what Italian viewers saw — how they must have recognized something about this frayed-to- the-breaking-point civil order, where good was just barely hanging on. Did Italian viewers remember the rise of fascism as they watched or did they recognize their current situation: the ways in which the defeat of fascism was precarious, leaving behind a wrecked society, that barely functioned?
But I don’t want to talk about Italy. I want to talk about us.
The Mandalorian — more than any other pop culture work around right now — allegorizes for me our situation, in the –hopefully — post-Trump present. We are living in a time where hope for the future seems very hard to summon up (at least it is for me, and alot of people I know), because of the pandemic, the ongoing attempted coup against our democracy, the ongoing oppressive structures directed against Black people, poor people, immigrants, folx of color and LGBTQIA persons, as well as disabled people, and the continuing worsening climate emergency. As I write Afghanistan is being overrun by the Taliban as the surprised American government forces try to extract remaining personnel as well as our Afghan allies and their families.
Talk about a fallen world.
If you don’t know the Mandalorian, I’ll try to tell you a bit about it quickly:
This is a Star Wars story that takes place in the years immediately following the victory in the Return of the Jedi. The series explores the “well, now what?” question that many viewers posed (or at least I did) when the ewoks dance for joy at the fall of the Empire. The answer to that question is not encouraging: reestablishing democracy is scarily difficult. It turns out that the Empire has not so much been destroyed as it has been scattered. There’s a real sense of the precariousness of the Republic victory over the Empire throughout season 1 and 2 of the Mandalorian. As one Republic officer notes, “these are trying times” — an understatement if ever there was one.
The hero of this tale is also far from perfect. He is a masked bounty hunter (played by Pedro Pascal) with a troubled past. Like the nameless character in the Sergio Leone films (played by Clint Eastwood), the Mandalorian is a crack shot (armed with guns, a personal missile launcher and jet pack), who travels an extremely troubled galaxy. His saving graces are: he belongs to a religious order that stresses loyalty and certain codes of honor; he becomes the protector of the incredibly cute pop culture sensation known as “Baby Yoda.”
There’s alot to this series, but I think the political and moral issues of the unfolding story are particularly striking in the penultimate episode of season 2, directed by Rick Famuyiwa.
In this episode, the Mandalorian enlists the help of a criminal who is also an Imperial Forces vet. As they roll in a tank through the local landscape, on the way to fulfilling their mission, Mayfeld (the criminal) and Mando notice some destitute kids sitting by the road and watching them pass. Mayfeld says.
“I’M JUST SAYIN’ SOMEWHERE SOMEONE IN THIS GALAXY IS RULING AND OTHER ARE BEING RULED. I MEAN, LOOK AT YOUR RACE. DO YOU THINK ALL THOSE PEOPLE THAT DIED IN WARS FOUGHT BY MANDALORIANS ACTUALLY HAD A CHOICE? SO HOW ARE THEY ANY DIFFERENT THAN THE EMPIRE? IF YOU WERE BORN ON MANDALORE, YOU BELIEVE ONE THING, IF YOU WERE BORN ON ALDERAAN, YOU BELIEVE SOMETHIN’ ELSE. BUT GUESS WHAT? NEITHER ONE OF ’EM EXIST ANYMORE.” — MAYFELD TO THE MANDALORIAN
Mayfeld articulates a point of view that I hear alot from people. A combination of cynicism, bothsideism, and despair concealed as “realism.” My father used to talk this way. It’s the “there always going to be haves and have nots,” argument, so why worry about anyone else, because you can’t change anything? (Interestingly, Mayfield is white, unlike many characters in the show, and there’s something about the emotionality of his delivery that makes his “take on things” particularly recognizable).
But, nonetheless, something gets planted in Mayfeld’s psyche after he sees those kids by the road.
Mando and Mayfeld eventually meet up with one of the generals who commanded a horrorific battle in which thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed. Mayfeld was there, and so was the general, who says “yeah, that was a tough one,,” and then goes on to outline the plan for the Empire to take over again.
The plan, the general, explains is to sow dissension and chaos in the Republic, and then to use that vulnerability to — among other things — sway public opinion:
“THE NEW REPUBLIC IS IN COMPLETE DISARRAY, AND WE GROW STRONGER . . . EVERYBODY THINKS THEY WANT FREEDOM, BUT WHAT THEY REALLY WANT IS ORDER. AND WHEN THEY REALIZE THAT, THEY’RE GONNA WELCOME US BACK WITH OPEN ARMS.” — VALIN HESS
I was struck by this discussion when I saw it the first time, and now, watching it in the wake of the January 6th insurrection and the (to me) seemingly crazy vaccine refusal by more than 1/3 of the US population, it feels even more on point. General Valin Hess (nice Nazi last name, writers!) seems to be right on the money in his description of what is happening — not in the galaxy far far away — here, in the US. Create chaos and make people long for order at all costs. We know this playbook.
Mayfeld has something of a PTSD response to the general’s speech, but it’s fully in keeping with his character, and at the end of the episode, he is a changed person. He has taken steps towards redeeming himself. His adventure ends, but the Mandolorian’s continues. He and others continue to struggle to prevent the Imperial Remnant from reasserting dominion.
This episode of the Mandalorian expresses something very powerful. Things are a mess. But both sides are not the same. One is better than the other. There is hope. During the course of two seasons we’ve seen the protagonist’s own evolution from bounty hunter to child advocate, and — albeit unwillingly — freedom fighter. Mayfeld’s past as an Empire supporter, who turns against the Empire, suggests that change is possible. It’s just really really hard.
Like the man says, “these are trying times.”