The Mandalorian Pays the Wages of Fear in “The Believer”

It’s time for my episode by episode reviews of season 2 of The Mandalorian again. Previous installments may be found here.

Also, since Star Wars is a Disney property now, may I remind you once again that Disney is not paying the royalties due to Alan Dean Foster and others as well. For more on the #DisneyMustPay issue, also watch this interview with Alan Dean Foster and SFWA president Mary Robinette Kowal.

Warning: Spoilers under the cut!

When we last saw our favourite clan of two, they were in deep shit, for Baby Grogu has been captured by Moff Gideon. Din Djarin is rushing to the rescue with some friends, but first he needs to locate Moff Gideon and his cruiser. And in order to do that, he needs the help of ex-Imperial sharpshooter turned mercenary Migs Mayfeld. There’s only one problem. Migs Mayfeld is currently in prison and Din Djarin helped to put him there.

Luckily, Din Djarin has a good friend (though she’d like to be more) in Cara Dune, who also happens to be a marshal of the New Republic. And so Cara uses her badge and her newfound authority to have Migs Mayfeld a.k.a. inmate 34667 remanded to her custody. I have to admit that I expected this episode to be a big prison break, but instead Cara just flashes her badge to the guard droid and walks off with a very confused Mayfeld. But then, this episode’s big mission is another caper.

Though only seen for a few minutes, the depiction of the New Republic prison is another interesting example of cultural assumptions, specifically US cultural assumptions around prisons and prisoners, seeping into science fiction. For of course, the prisoners are used for forced labour, though it makes more sense here than in Star Trek Discovery (or Voyager, for that matter), because unlike the Federation in its prime, the Star Wars universe is not and has never been a post-scarcity society. And so the work the prisoners are forced to do is to scavenge a huge pile of spaceship wrecks and other assorted trash that covers the prison planet in question. Which begets the questios: “Just why every second world in the Star Wars universe covered in wrecked spaceships and other assorted trash?” and “Why is everybody scavenging rather than manufacturing new stuff?” Is the Star Wars universe poor in natural resources and therefore has to scavenge and recycle almost everything? And while wars, particularly when lost, tend to generate a lot of trash and military equipment simply left lying around (leftover ammunition and military equipment from WWII is still causing problems in many parts of Europe), the wreck strewn worlds of the Star Wars universe are still an extreme example.

As in Star Trek Discovery and Guardians of the Galaxy, the prisoners on the unnamed prison planet wear brightly coloured overalls (well, brightly coloured by Star Wars standards, where all colours are kind of muted) in mustard yellow with theie prisoner numbers printed on the overall. Even though prisoners wearing brightly coloured overalls is not just a very American convention (cause in other countries, prisoners wear different clothes), but also one that only came in in the past twenty-five years or so, cause if you look at pre-1990s prison movies or documentaries, inmates wear denim shirts and pants or even the traditional striped prisoner garb.

For that matter, while Mayfeld is undoubtedly not a very good person, a fifty-year sentence does strike me as extreme, considering that he did not actually kill the New Republic officer – Mando’s crazy Twilek ex-girlfriend did. But then, very long prison sentences are another US convention that keeps popping up in SFF, regardless whether it makes sense in the context or not. And in fact, overly long prison sentences make more sense in the Star Wars universe than in the Star Trek universe, because the Star Wars universe never pretended to be a progressive utopia, unlike Star Trek.

Mayfeld is eager to get out of prison, but also has no idea what Cara wants with him. He gets even more nervous when he sees Fennec Shand and Boba Fett in his newly repainted armour. “For a moment, I thought you were this other guy”, he says to Boba, before Din Djarin comes strolling down the ramp of Slave-1. Now Mayfeld comes close to peeing his mustard yellow overall, for he and Din Djarin didn’t exactly part amicably the last time around. “You’ve come a long way to kill me”, Mayfeld says, though if Mando had really wanted to kill him, he could have done so aboard the prison ship back in season 1.

Din Djarin tells Mayfeld that unfortunately they need him, because he’s Imperial. “That was a long time ago”, Mayfeld says, but Din Djarin insists that he still knows the relevant codes and procedures. Mayfeld starts to hedge, but then Cara says, “They’ve got his kid.” You can all but see the wheels turning in Mayfeld’s head, as he realises for the first time just what the relationship between Grogu and Din Djarin is.

Now Mayfeld is willing to help. However, he insists that he can’t locate Moff Gideon’s cruiser without accessing a physical Imperial terminal. Luckily, there should be such a terminal on the planet of Morak, where the Empire is operating a secret rhydonium refinery. So everybody sets off to Morak aboard Slave-1. To the joy of every Star Wars geek in the audience, we also finally get to see the interior of Slave-1 beyond the cockpit and what exactly happens, when the ship swivels (it swivels around a fixed core, it turns out). Tor.com reviewer Emmet Asher-Perrin and io9 reviewer Germain Lussier are as thrilled as I am to see Slave 1 in action, by the way.

Once our heroes make it to Morak, the next question is how to get into the refinery and access the terminal. The most obvious solution would be to hijack one of the armoured transporters transporting the rhydonium to the refinery. However, there’s a problem, because the Empire will be doing a routine DNA scan of everybody entering the refinery and that scan would immediately flag everybody who’s a known enemy of the Empire (This begets the question why they’re not using the DNA scan to only let verified personnel enter the refinery. On the other hand, the turnover is probably quite high). That leaves out former rebel shocktrooper Cara Dune as well as Fennec Shand, since she was apparently wanted by the Empire (odd, since I thought she was a former Imperial assassin). Boba Fett can’t go in either, because – as he says – they might recognise his face (which begets the question of what became of the clone troopers after the rise of the Empire? Were they phased out or even killed off?). And since no one trusts Mayfeld to go in alone, that leaves Din Djarin as the only person who can go with him.

However, there’s another dilemma, because Mayfeld and Din Djarin obviously can’t go in as they are. In good old Star Wars tradition, they need to appropriate Stormtrooper uniforms along with the armoured transport. And this required Din Djarin to take off his armour, which we know he is extremely reluctant. And it’s a testament to how much he cares about Grogu that he is immediately willing to put on the Stormtrooper armour to get the information, though he does change out of sight of everybody else and hands his armour to Cara for safekeeping.

“Can you not take off your helmet or can you just not show your face to anybody?” Mayfeld asks en route, “Because there is a difference.” Not that I know what “the way” actually is, but Din Djarin clearly interprets it as “As long as no one sees my face, I’ll be fine”, though he’s clearly uncomfortable throughout. That Mayfeld keeps poking him doesn’t help either, especially considering that Mayfeld and his comrades were eager to violate Din Djarin’s privacy in their first appearance as well. Indeed, it’s interesting who in the series respects that Din Djarin simply won’t take off his helmet and armour, because “this is the way” and who won’t stop harrassing him about it.

On their trip to the refinery, Mayfeld and Mando pass through a village with human and not very friendly inhabitants. At this moment, Mayfeld offers us the clearest in-universe assessment of the Star Wars universe I’ve ever seen, when he points out that to the people in the village, it doesn’t matter whether the Empire or the New Republic is in charge, because to them either regime are just invaders on their lands. Now I’ve said before that the Star Wars universe is a terrible place for the vast majority of its inhabitants regardless of which regime is in charge. If anything, The Mandalorian is clearer about what a crapsack place the Star Wars universe is, because it focusses more on the ordinary people that rarely appear in the Star Wars movies. However, while the viewer can see that the Star Wars universe is a crappy place and that the regime changes don’t actually improve life for the people on the ground, I never expected to hear it from the mouth of a character living in that universe.

However, Mayfeld isn’t finished yet. “If you’re born on Mandalore, you believe one thing; if you’re born on Alderaan, you believe something else. But guess what? Neither one of them exist any more,” he says and continues, “We’re all the same. Imperials, Rebels, the New Republic, Mandalorians—does it really matter to their families what they died for? They’re dead.”

Now Star Wars has always been just as political as Star Trek. However, while Star Trek wears its progressive politics on its sleeve and is not afraid to let the characters express them openly, maybe even a little too bluntly at times (“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, anyone?), Star Wars camouflages its politics between the lightsaber duels, space dog fights and explosions and only rarely has its characters speak them out loud (Padme’s “So this is how liberty dies… with thundrous applause” is one of the rare exceptions). As a result, a lot of people miss the politics behind Star Wars and deny that it has any at all (but then, certain people even manage to miss the politics of Star Trek, even though they’re delivered with all the subtlety of a hammer to the head). And so, I was both surprised and very pleased to hear Mayfeld of all people, a character I didn’t even particularly like, to deliver the most clear-eyed political assessment of the Star Wars universe ever.

Talking of Star Wars and Star Trek, it’s fascinating that even though Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas are/were very much on the same page politically, namely progressive and left of center by US standards, they both used the medium of science fiction to express their political views in very different ways. Roddenberry created a (flawed) utopia, the world he thought it should be. George Lucas created a dystopia to have its character fight it.

The underlying emotion that vibrates through all of Star Wars is anger. Anger at a world that’s not as it should be and was advertised to be. Anger at everything that’s wrong with the world and the desire to do something about it, even if you are just a farmboy/scavenger/outlaw/street kid/droid. It’s this anger that always made Star Wars resonate more with me than Star Trek (though I love both of them). Because it was an anger I understood and shared.

However, even though that anger at the state of the world permeates all of Star Wars, we almost never hear it expressed out loud by the characters. However, you can hear that anger in Migs Mayfeld’s words and can see it in his face, which gave me a new appreciation both for the not very likeable character of Migs Mayfeld as well as for Bill Burr, the actor and comedian, who plays him.

But unlike Star Trek, Star Wars doesn’t do grand political statements without action and so the trip through the jungle in a stolen Imperial transport turns out to be a lot more eventful than it initially seems. For starters, the rhydonium is highly volatile. Then, the local population is hostile and finally, two other transports following the same route suddenly explode. The deadly trip through the jungle in a truck full of explosive cargo is very much an homage to the 1953 classic adventure movie Le Salaire de la Peur a.k.a. The Wages of Fear as well as William Friedkin’s 1977 remake Sorcerer, which debuted shortly after the original Star Wars and was trounced by it at the box office. Guardian reviewer Paul MacInnes also draws the Wages of Fear comparison, while Germain Lussier points out the influence of Sorcerer and the Fast and Furious movies and AV-Club reviewer Katie Rife also detects an Indiana Jones influence. Though the truck scenes of the various Indiana Jones movies may well have been influenced by Wages of Fear, considering that it is very much the kind of arthouse adventure classic a young George Lucas probably watched during his film school days.

For Mando and Mayfeld soon learn just what caused the other two transporters to explode, when they are attacked by what Mayfeld calls “pirates”, aliens on floating skiffs armed with spears and detonators. It’s pretty clear that those aliens are not pirates, because they don’t want to steal the rhydonium, they want to blow it up. Most likely, they’re local freedom fighters trying to get the Empire off their planet. The attack gives Din Djarin the chance to show off his mad fighting skills as he fights off the attackers to keep them from blowing the transport to Kingdom Come, but – as Emmet Asher-Perrin points out – Mando is essentially fighting and killing the good guys here. And what saves Mando and Mayfeld is the timely appearance of the cavalry in the form of two TIE-fighters.

I do think that the fact that the attackers are the sort of freedom fighters we would normally sympathise with in Star Wars and that the ones who save our heroes are the Empire is deliberate and intended to mess with our heads a little and demonstrate that good and evil is also a matter of persepctive. The scenes of indigenous people fighting and nearly overcoming a high tech opponent with their comparatively primitive weapons in a jungle is of course a callback to the Vietnam War and the original trilogy is full of Vietnam war analogies, most notably the battle of Endor. However, the basic idea of aliens fighting against humans who exploit their worlds goes back much further and indeed shows up in several of Leigh Brackett’s classic space operas of the 1940s. And Leigh Brackett of course wrote the first draft of the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back.

When Mando and Mayfeld finally make it to the refinery, they are hailed as heroes by the assembled Stormtroopers, tech personnel and miners, driving the point home once again that the various Imperials are people, too, and the good guys in their own minds. Not to mention that at least the miners and many of the Stormtroopers may well have been coerced into service.

Mando and Mayfeld are clearly uncomfortable with all the backslapping and congratulations, so they decide to seek out the terminal, get the necessary information and escape as soon as possible. However, there are yet more obstacles waiting for them. For starters, the terminal is in the officers’ mess and Mayfeld can’t go in, because one of the officers lounging there is none other than his old commander Valin Hess, who might recognise him. Mando offers to go in, but unfortunately the terminal requires a facial scan in order to work. Of course, this makes no real sense, since the terminal doesn’t scan faces to determine whether the person using the terminal is authorised to do so, it just scans faces to determine whether the person using the terminal is human. Is the Empire afraid of infiltration by droids, Wookies or three Ewoks stuffed into a Stormtrooper uniform? We never learn and indeed, the tech level of the Star Wars universe makes less sense the longer the franchise last. And besides, the facial scan only serves one purpose, to get Din Djarin to remove his helmet. That he is willing to do this at all once again demonstrates how much Grogu means to him. After all, he was still willing to die rather than take off his helmet in season 1.

The scenes with the helmet-less Din Djarin show how good an actor Pedro Pascal really is. Because you can see how painful baring his face is to Din Djarin. He’s literally hurting. Furthermore, as Emmet Asher-Perrin points out, after spending most of his life wearing a helmet and living around other people wearing helmets, Din Djarin clearly is no longer fully aware how facial expressions work or how to control them. As a result, he looks shellshocked the entire time he isn’t wearing his helmet, which becomes a problem when none other than Valin Hess, Mayfeld’s former commanding officer, decides to question him.

Since Din Djarin is clearly unable to answer or react appropriately, Mayfeld does come to his aid and tells Hess (who thankfully doesn’t recognise him) that the reason Din Djarin doesn’t answer is because he lost his hearing during an explosion. Mayfeld tries to quickly extricate both of them, but once Hess realises that they are the drivers of the only transport to reach the refinery, he insists on buying them a drink and displaying his slimy villainy.

For starters, Hess is certain that the Empire will soon be back in charge, because – as he puts it – “the people only think they want freedom, but what they really want is order.” Those words are chillingly prescient in a time of resurgent authoritarianism from the right, but also the left, since even otherwise leftwing politicians are calling for curfews, the curtailing of civil liberties and police brutality against protesters they don’t like now. Not to mention that the sequel trilogy will prove Hess right with the rise of the First Order.

But things get worse. For when Hess asks what to toast to, Mayfeld suggests toasting to “Operation Cinder”. According to Emmet Asher-Perrin, “Operation Cinder” was Palpatine’s posthumous final order to basically turn the Star Wars galaxy into scorched Earth and killing millions of civilians and Imperial soldiers in futile doomed operations, just so those worlds, bases, etc… won’t fall into Rebel hands. Mayfeld mentions one world in particular affected by Operation Cinder, namely Burnin Konn. From the tone of his voice and the look on his face, it’s amply clear that Mayfeld was there and only narrowly escaped.

The Operation Cinder approach to warfare is chillingly familiar from what happened in the last days of World War II, where many Nazi generals were still insisting on winning a war that was already lost, needlessly sacrificing the lives of their own soldiers and the civilians caught in the crossfire and blowing up what infrastructure allied bombers had not yet managed to destroy. Most German bridges destroyed in WWII were actually destroyed by retreating Nazi forces, so the Allies could not use them. It’s certainly no accident that Hess shares a surname with Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy and the longest serving Nazi prisoner, until he died of alleged suicide at the age of 93 in 1987.

Throughout the mess hall scene, it’s obvious how deeply uncomfortable Din Djarin is, so uncomfortable that he can barely speak. But in the end, Mayfeld is the one who loses control and shoots Hess in the middle of the mess hall, literally shooting the Empire in the face. It’s a moment that’s both shocking – because I honestly didn’t expect Mayfeld to do it – and cheerworthy, because Hess was just that awful.

Of course, even by the standards of the Empire, shooting a superior officer in the mess hall is just not done and so Mayfeld and Mando are forced to shoot their way out of there. Mayfeld tosses Din Djarin his helmet and tells him he’ll simply pretend he never saw his face and that everybody else who saw it is dead anyway.

They escape through a window via a narrow ridge high above a damm. The Stormtroopers are hot in pursuit, but luckily Cara Dune and Fennec Shand use their impressive sniper skills to pick them off. Cara and Fennec are both awesome, though I wish this episode would have given them (and Boba Fett) more to do. Though we do get a nice Bechdel-test passing conversation between the two. I also like it that pop culture increasingly portrays snipers as female, because snipers in fully integrated militaries or guerilla forces are often women.

Mando and Mayfeld make it to the roof of the refinery, where Boba Fett picks them up with Slave 1. While in retreat, Mayfeld fires at the rhydonium filled transporters, blowing the entire refinery to smithereens. We know that the Empire will rise again as the First Order, but not courtesy of rhydonium mined on Morak. The moment is ambiguous – after all, the episode had previously done its best to humanise the Imperial forces a little. However, Hess only too clearly shows how awful the Empire was and is and always will be, so my sympathies for the miners, Stormtroopers and maintenance staff blown up along with the refinery are limited. But unlike with the two Death Stars we see blowing up on screen, “The Believer” at least reminds us that Stormtroopers are human, too.

There is some more trouble, when Slave 1 finds itself pursued by two TIE-fighters. However, Boba Fett repeats the manoeuvre his Dad used back in Attack of the Clones and blows them up via a sonic charge and our heroes are home free. Cara is impressed by Mayfeld’s shooting skills and his taking out an Imperial refinery and Din Djarin knows that Mayfeld saved his arse and that he hates the Empire as much as everybody else. Therefore, Din and Cara decide to just let Mayfeld go and pretend he died in the explosion.

In the final scene, Moff Gideon gets a message from Din Djarin. “You have something that I want,” Din tells Moff Gideon, pretty much throwing his own words from the season 1 finale back at him, “You may think you have some idea what you are in possession of, but you do not. Soon he will be back with me. He means more to me than you will ever know.”

But even though the words Din uses are the exact same words Moff Gideon used in the season 1 finale, the context is completely different. Because to Moff Gideon, Grogu is nothing but an asset, a living and toddling supply of supersoldier serum. To Din Djarin, Grogu is his child whom he loves. And you don’t want to deal with an angry Mandalorian Dad, as Moff Gideon will undoubtedly learn next week.

Season 2 of The Mandalorian has been going from strength to strength and every week I think, “Okay, this is the episode that will go on my Hugo ballot. No, this one.” But while “The Believer” may not be as mythology heavy as “The Jedi” or “The Tragedy”, what made “The Believer” special to me was its clear-eyed look at the state of the Star Wars universe and the way the episode managed to put the anger at a world that’s not as it should be that lies at the heart of Star Wars into words and puts them in the mouth of a character we don’t even particularly like, nor are we supposed to like him. And it manages to be entertaining as hell, while doing it, too.

The Mandalorian is probably the best Star Wars has been since the original trilogy (and I like the prequels and the sequel trilogy, too). The series is clearly made by people who love and understand Star Wars and it shows in every moment and every scene.

What makes the fact that The Mandalorian is so good even more remarkable is that it’s very much a side story, which only occasionally intersects the main storyline of the battle between the Empire and the Rebellion, the Jedi and the Sith, the dark and the light side. However, I do think that Din Djarin and Baby Grogu have a better shot at happiness than most other Star Wars characters, if only because these two seem determined to make as good a life as possible for themselves in a shitty universe.

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4 Responses to The Mandalorian Pays the Wages of Fear in “The Believer”

  1. That was a really solid episode with more plot and character than usual.

    //(which begets the question of what became of the clone troopers after the rise of the Empire? Were they phased out or even killed off?)//

    There’s an episode of the Star Wars Rebels cartoon where the main characters meet retired clone troopers from the Clone Wars cartoon

    • Cora says:

      Well, it’s nice to know that the Clone Troopers got the chance to retire, especially since Order 66 was not really their fault.

      And I obviously agree that this episode had a solid plot, more depth than is usual for The Mandalorian and some nice character moments.

  2. Juan Sanmiguel says:

    I think Wookiepedia says that Kamino was closed and the original clone trooper started to age out. Part of the reason is that Troopers in the original trilogy had different heights.

    I just watched the last season of The Clone Wars. It explains how Commander Rex did not comply with Order 66. They set it up the previous season when the had story were a Clone Trooper kills a Jedi and another Clone discovers an organic chip in their head.

  3. Pingback: The Mandalorian Comes to “The Rescue” of Baby Grogu | Cora Buhlert

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