One of the most prominent Star Wars themes gets more nuanced in The Mandalorian. Part two of a series.
The battle between good and evil is not necessarily a new theme in Star Wars, and it is often framed from the perspective of the Jedi and terms of light side vs dark side. In all three trilogies, the antagonistic force (Separatists, the Empire, and the First Order) are all portrayed as flat and one-sided entities against a Jedi or Jedi and Republic/Rebellion/Resistance leadership support. The great thing about the animated shows and the novels, and why they are so beloved, is that they cover the complexity of both sides. The Clone Wars tackles the prequels and the overall battle between the Republic and the Separatists through the perspective of a handful of characters. And, while it covers the fall of Anakin Skywalker to the dark side and the manipulation by Chancellor Palpatine, it also highlights the flaws and corruption of the Jedi Order that also led to Anakin’s fall. Rebels present this through two non-Jedi characters, Zeb and Agent Kallus, and how their perspectives change after one episode where they have to rely on each other to survive. What gets little attention in the Star Wars films is the nuance in choosing good over evil, and how characters who occupy the space in between navigate those choices.
The Mandalorian explores this through the eyes of the people who were asked to do the groundwork: Imperial workers and captains, rebel soldiers and pilots, and everyone caught in the middle. It captures the importance of choosing good over evil by giving you access to the Imperial mindset while making it clear that both sides really are not the same. In the final episode of the season, Chapter 16: The Rescue, an Imperial pilot escorting Dr. Pershing has a blaster to the Doctor’s temple has words for Cara Dune when he notices her Alderaan tear tattoo…
Pilot: I was on the Death Star.
Dune: Which one?
Pilot: You think that’s funny? Do you know how many millions were killed on those bases? As the galaxy cheered? Destroying your planet was a small price to pay to ride the galaxy of terrorism.Chapter 16: The Rescue
At first, it might seem like this pilot is just taunting Dune and has a death wish (even though he states a few minutes earlier he doesn’t). But his words suggest that he was deeply troubled and angered by witnessing millions of his colleagues die and many more millions celebrating those deaths. And he’s had a lot of time to think about it. And he probably does think that destroying Alderaan was the right thing to do; however, the Empire destroyed Alderaan FIRST (well they really destroyed Jedha and Scarif before that, but still). They destroyed it to send a message to the galaxy of what happens to peaceful planets who choose the side of the Rebellion. And so, the Rebels responded the only way they could to make sure that didn’t happen to any more planets. As we have learned through novels and comics, the needless destruction of Alderaan forced a lot of people in the galaxy to choose a side, most often switching sides from the Empire to the Rebellion. And, while the pilot’s grievances may be justified from his point of view, he doesn’t do himself any favors by shooting his co-pilot in the back so casually when the latter tries to negotiate with Mando and Dune.
Still, it has become clear by this point that the Imperial remnants really do see themselves as heroes who are trying to bring “peace through order.” This is solidified in the previous episode, Chapter 15: The Believer with the character arc of Migs Mayfeld. Mayfeld fashions himself as a realist who compares the wars fought by the Mandalorians and by the Empire as the same in regards to the casualties. And while Mandalore and Alderaan might have believed different things, it doesn’t matter because neither one exists anymore. And the Empire and the New Republic are the same as well: a ruling party trying to force their will and beliefs on other worlds. This conversation sets up what is an “aha moment” for Mayfeld when he is sitting in front of his former commanding officer a few scenes later. Having safely delivered the rhydonium and being the only unit that did, Officer Valin Hess, implores Mando and Mayfeld to have a drink with him. Mayfeld brings up Operation: Cinder, a plan put in place by the Emperor to destroy key resource planets of the Empire should he be killed. It led to thousands of civilian and Imperial deaths, including men Mayfeld served with on Burnin Konn. Like that pilot in the finale, Mayfeld is clearly still dealing with this trauma and sees an opportunity to confront one of the officers who executed the order.
Mayfeld: We lost our whole division that day. Man, that was like 5-10,000 people.
Hess: Yep. All heroes of the Empire.
Mayfeld: Yeah. And all dead.
Hess: Well, it’s a small sacrifice for the greater good, son.
Mayfeld: Depends on who you ask, don’t you think?…All those people. The ones who died. Was it good for them? Their families? The guys I served with? Civilians, those poor mud scuffers, died defendin’ their homes, fighting for freedom. Was it good for em’?Chapter 15: The Believer
Hess responds that the New Republic is in disarray and with the rhydonium, Mayfeld and Mando have delivered, the Empire will “create havoc that’s gonna make Burnin Konn just pale by comparison.” This starts to break Mayfeld and he becomes increasingly upset with Hess’s casual disregard of human life as a necessity to create order. It is at this moment that Mayfeld realizes both sides are not the same. The New Republic is not trying to create mass acts of terrorism to gain control of the galaxy again and will always be willing to sacrifice its own people. He breaks and shoots Hess. He chooses a side. And to add an exclamation on that decision, he destroys the rhydonium and, consequentially, the base on the way out. No one forced him to do that, he made the decision to take that off the table for the Empire.
We are still some time away from the First Order but The Mandalorian has started to seed the basis of beliefs for that entity. Granted, there are more powerful forces and leaders in the unknown regions also rebuilding but there is still a stronger remnant left that the New Republic has to deal with. The ones who are left behind have to believe they are the heroes of their own story, but they are not the same as the New Republic. The Empire is evil because it believes in ruling by fear and cares so little for its soldiers as to equip them with poor armor and consistently put them in impossible situations. So much so that troopers and workers at the base cheer and applaud two colleagues who happen to make it through a route alive. Mayfeld chooses a side and, because of it, he is released from his sentence by Dune, whose hatred of Imperials understandably remains strong. Dune, who shoots an Imperial in the face an episode later. One might argue how that is any different but, unlike Imperials, individualism matters to her and within the New Republic. Therefore, an individual’s CHOICES also matter. She saw Mayfeld destroy the rhydonium and the Imperial base, so despite him being an Imperial in the past, she let him go for his actions. On the other hand, she witnessed the Imperial pilot shoot a cohort in the back and then try to justify the Empire’s destruction of her homeworld, so she shot him in the face. While Cara Dune’s individual choices might be called into question, the Imperials are operating on more certainty and absolutions. If the Rangers of the New Republic does star Dune and perhaps explore these grey areas in which she might operate, the show might rise in my interest level.
I also want to bring up an example that has less to do with Imperials and the New Republic and more with choosing to do the right thing when you have an advantage. In the first episode of the season, Chapter 9: The Marshal, we meet Cobb Vanth, who barters Boba Fett’s armor from a group of Jawas. Instead of taking that armor and selling it, he uses it to rid his town of the Mining Collective (a criminal organization that moved in after the Battle of Endor to establish power in the new power vacuum). There is a lot in Vanth’s backstory that defines his character and his decisions that I will not go into but encourage you to read The Aftermath Trilogy. There is also a direct parallel to Cobb wanting the armor versus a more nefarious opponent in the book that is not mentioned in The Mandalorian. Perhaps this is to maintain consistency within canon or perhaps it is because there is more Cobb Vanth to come and they want to leave that story for later.
It should also be stated that Mando himself operates in a grey space between good and evil. He often leans towards doing the “right” thing when given the chance; although I’m sure that Koresh, who dies a horrible death at the beginning of Chapter 9 because of Mando, would disagree. But the whole premise of these two seasons, reuniting Grogu with the Jedi, is because Mando chose not to walk away when he saw that pram in the trash in Chapter 3: The Sin. He chose to go back, kill a bunch of Stormtroopers, and rescue Grogu. And every decision he has made since has been in service to that goal, even if it comes with the price of saying goodbye. Grogu also struggles with the more traditional light vs. dark side as his attachment to Mando grows and, ultimately makes the decision to let go of him to follow the path of the Jedi.
There are many facets to the fight between good and evil, light and dark within the Star Wars universe. It would be amazing if more fans read the novels and watched the animated shows, but the reality is most only watch the films, which barely touch on these complexities (though The Last Jedi did try with a Mayfeld type realist in DJ). The Mandalorian can draw in many of those film-only fans because it is live-action and present this traditional Star Wars theme through a different lens.