The Mandalorian and Baby Grogu step aside for “The Convert”

Welcome to the latest instalment of my episode by episode reviews of season of The Mandalorian. Previous installments may be found here.

Warning! Spoilers behind the cut!

When we last met our favourite Clan of Two, Din Djarin had just managed to bathe in the sacred waters of Mandalore and thus redeemed himself in the eyes of his people. However, while taking a dip in the sacred waters, Din was pulled under by something and needed to be rescued by Bo-Katan. Furthermore, Bo-Katan saw some kind of giant creature in the depths. Could it be…. a mythosaur?

When we next see Din and Bo-Katan, she is sitting on the steps leading down into the sacred waters, keeping a wary eye on the waters, just in case the mythosaur – if it indeed was one – decides to put in an appearance. Din is lying on his back, still passed out, while Grogu anxiously hovers around Daddy.

When Din finally comes to, Bo-Katan tells him that since he has now taken his redeeming bath, they should leave. Din agrees and takes a sample of the living waters. Bo-Katan also asks Din if he saw anything down there. Din replies that all he saw was the chasm he fell into and that he had no idea that the living waters were that deep. Bo-Katan tells him that the waters are not supposed to be that deep and that the Imperial bombing must have caused the chasm to open. She does not mention the mythosaur.

In Bo-Katan’s ship on the way back to Kalavela, Grogu suddenly gets visibly upset. A second later, Din and Bo-Katan are attacked by TIE Interceptors. Bo-Katan assumes that one of the many Imperial war lords she pissed off (remember that she was hijacking and stealing Imperial transports when we first met her) is out for revenge. Din man the guns and manages to shoot down one of them, then executes a daring jetpack jump from Bo-Katan’s ship to launch his own and help her take out the TIE fighters. After some fancy manoeuvering and flying, Din and Bo-Katan take out the TIE fighters between the two of them.

However, just as they think they have dealt with the threat, there is an explosion on the horizon. Turns out that the TIE fighters were only a distraction to keep Bo-Katan busy, while a bunch of TIE bomber bomb Bo-Katan’s Brutalist castle to smithereens. Bo-Katan is understandably pissed off – nobody destroys her home and gets away with it – and goes after the bombers. She manages to shoot down one of them, but then an even larger squadron of TIE fighters shows up, way too many for Bo-Katan and Din to deal with on their own. So Din sends Bo-Katan some jump coordinates to a safe place.

The big question is where did the TIE fighters, bombers and interceptors come from? We know that they don’t normally operate on their own alone deep space, but must have a Star Destroyer or other mothership nearby. And that’s a lot of hardware for a run-of-the-mill ex-Imperial general turned warlord.

However, this question will have to wait until later, because first Din, Grogu and Bo-Katan touch down on the unnamed planet where the Armourer and her sect are hiding out. Din tells Bo-Katan that she will be safe here, because his people are living underground, but that she should keep her helmet on. They are met by Paz Vizla, the portly Mandalorian in the blue armour who really does not like Din and tells him to leave, because he’s an apostate. As for Bo-Katan, she may be the heir to the throne of Mandalore, but this splinter group of fundamentalist Mandalorians don’t approve of her and view her as an apostate, too.

Din insists that he has bathed in the living waters and redeemed himself and that he can prove it. Bo-Katan backs him up – after all, she was there. She also points out that she personally pulled Din from the waters, after he fell into a chasm. She dooes not mention the mythosaur, which is probably wise. More and more Mandalorians appear and escort Din, Grogu and Bo-Katan to the Armourer. Bo-Katan is clearly impressed by the size of the Armourer’s group, especially considering that she only ever had two followers and a droid – at least as far as we’ve seen.

Din hands his vial of magical water to the Armourer, who pours it into her cooling basin. The water in the basin glows blue upon contact with the water from Mandalore – probably some kind of chemical reaction. At any rate, the Armourer is satisfied and declares Din redeemed and one of the tribe again.

To everybody’s surprise, the Armourer now turns to Bo-Katan and asks her if she bathed in the living waters as well. Bo-Katan nods, because she did drag Din from the water after all. The Armourer then asks Bo-Katan, if she removed her helmet since bathing in the waters. Bo-Katan says “no”, which is perfectly true – largely because she was way too busy since returning from Mandalore to remove her helmet.

The Armourer then declares that this means that Bo-Katan has redeemed herself as well in the eyes of the Armourer and may stay with her people. Bo-Katan is surprised, but not displeased. After all, she has just lost her home and her followers and someone clearly wants to kill her, so she needs a place to lie low. The fact that the Armourer has a ready-made army probably hasn’t escaped her either.

Talking of which, once the Armourer has declared Din and Bo-Katan redeemed, the other Mandalorians gather around and start awkwardly patting Din and Bo-Katan onto the back, which is apparently the Mandalorian way of expressing affection.

And that’s it for the adventures of Din Djarin, Grogu and Bo-Katan for this week. Because similar to what The Book of Boba Fett did last year, the bulk of this episode is given over to another character, while our heroes only appear in two book end segments at the beginning and the end.

This is a risky venture, because giving over more than half of one episode to a completely different character and their story only works if that story is compelling enough. It worked in The Book of Boba Fett, because viewers were already invested in Din and wanted to see his story continue. However, this episode of The Mandalorian decides to focus on Doctor Pershing, the cloning and gene-splicing specialist who worked for Werner Herzog’s unnamed Imperial leftover and ultimately for Moff Gideon. Is Doctor Pershing compelling and interesting enough that we want to spend an episode with him?

Amazingly enough, the answer is yes. For while I was never all that excited about Doctor Pershing – a supporting character, if there ever was one – and certainly never wondered about what happened to him after he was captured in “The Rescue”, I also never once thought, “What the hell is this stuff? Gimme Din and Grogu” while watching his story unfold.

When we last saw Doctor Pershing, he barely escaped death at the hand of one of Moff Gideon’s men and was saved and arrested by Cara Dune of all people. Cara probably handed the good Doctor over the the New Republic, because the next time we see him, he is on Coruscant, giving the Star Wars universe equivalent of a TED talk. It’s interesting that TED talks are such an integral part of our culture by now that we now get Star Wars versions thereof.

Doctor Pershing talks about how the premature death of his mother of a preventable disease caused him to embark on his cloning research, how he progressed from pure cloning to gene splicing and how he only wanted to help people, until the Empire perverted his research. However, Doctor Pershing is very, very sorry about everything he did in the name of the Empire and he is so very, very grateful that the New Republic is willing to give him a second chance as part of their amnesty program.

Doctor Pershing’s extensive apologising was the first moment in this capsule story that made me feel that something was very off here. Because in many ways, the very public and subservient apology for past misdeeds, combined with the effusive gratitude towards the New Republic reminded me a lot of public confessions of guilt and subsequent apologies in China during the Cultural Revolution or in other Communist regimes.

After the intergalactic TED talk cum public apology, the glitterati of Coruscant chat with Doctor Pershing, express their interest in his research and their horror at Doctor Pershing having to live in the Outer Rim. A particularly obnoxious couple of wealthy jerks remark that they personally find it hard to keep track of the changing regimes – Old Republic, Empire, New Republic – because it’s all the same to them, proving once again that the worst people in the Star Wars universe are not the Sith or the various ex-Imperial warlords, but the idle rich whose wealth insulates them from the effects of whichever regime is in power. Nor do they much care, because profit can made under any regime. It’s a point that Star Wars has repeatedly made before, in the Canto Bight sequence of The Last Jedi, in the Alderaan scenes in Obi-Wan Kenobi and in the Coruscant scenes in Andor and to a lesser degree the prequel trilogy. Of course, there are exceptions – the Organa family, Mon Mothma, Padme Armidala – but rich people are usually the worst in the Star Wars universe.

After the talk, Doctor Pershing gets into a taxi with an annoying droid driver who asks him intrusive questions about the amnesty program and returns to a place called amnesty housing, where the former Imperials awaiting redemption are forced to live. Amnesty housing looks like a rundown 1970s Brutalist housing estate, a kind of Thamesmead in outer space, showing that Doctor Pershing is occasionally allowed to visit the superficial glitter of the new liberated Coruscant, but that his day to day life is a lot more drab.

To drive the point home, Pershing meets a bunch of other “redeemed” former Imperial personnel hanging out in the courtyard of their Brutalist housing estate. Everybody is forced to wear uniforms and badges that mark them as an ex-Imperials in the amnesty program and they are also only referred to as numbers, their names having been stripped from them. In short, the amnesty program looks damned dystopian and the fact that the various ex-Imperials keep assuring each other how lucky they are and how much worse the other place where they were held was and how much worse the Empire was (and to be fair, amnesty housing is not nearly as bad as the prison from Andor) makes the whole thing even more disturbing.

To his shock, Doctor Pershing recognises one of the ex-Imperials at amnesty housing as a young woman who used to serve as communications officer aboard Moff Gideon’s ship. He even asks her about it, but she brushes off the question with, “It was a terrible time. I don’t want to talk about it.” There’s a brief discussion about rumours that Moff Gideon has escaped from custody and from standing trial for his myriad crimes again and then the conversation turns to a more wholesome topic about what the various ex-Imperials miss from the days of the Empire. Nothing bad or incriminating, just harmless stuff like the lights of hyperspace. Doctor Pershing finally admits that he misses the yellow ration travel biscuits, whereupon the young woman – we later learn that her name is Elia Kane – admits her fondness for the red travel biscuits. Later that night, Doctor Pershing is in his flat/cell, when the doorbell rings. He opens the door and finds a metal box filled with yellow travel biscuits on his doorstep.

We next see Doctor Pershing sitting on a desk in some kind of huge office, filing some kind of data cards. His supervisor – who looks incredibly familiar and I’m sure I know that actor from somewhere – tells him that he saw his TED talk and was very impressed. Though it is also telling that Doctor Pershing, who was after all a top tier scientist, is being given busy work of filing data cards.

Doctor Pershing also has to report to a kind of parole officer cum therapist droid who always asks the same question about whether he is happy and whether he feels any negative or aggressive feelings towards his co-workers or the New Republic. We don’t learn until much later, what the penalty for a wrong answer is, but it’s obvious that it can’t be good.

Encouraged by the other inmates of amnesty housing, Doctor Pershing goes on a date with Elia Kane to take in some of the sights of Coruscant. They take a stroll around a public park – or what passes for a public park on Coruscant – eat glowing popsicles and watch some jugglers and stilt-walkers. The centerpiece of the park is a rock jutting out of the ground, a rock that’s the top of Coruscant’s highest mountain and the only part of the surface that is visible. The top of the buried mountain is not just another bit of the beautiful weirdness that the Star Wars universe excels in, but also a reminder how horrifying city planets like Coruscant and Trantor, the granddaddy of them all, really are.

Of course, my teen self immediately wanted to move to Trantor, when I first read the Foundation novels. Because my teen self loved cities and wanted nothing more than to live in a city, the bigger the better. Cause for a kid from slowly suburbanising rural area, where the bus to the next city only went five times per day, cities were where all the cool stuff was – the shops, the restaurants, the cinemas, the theatres, the museums, the clubs. So of course I wanted to live in a city. And Trantor sounded perfect, because it was the city of cities, of whole planet with just city and none of all the other boring stuff. Of course, as an adult, city planets like Trantor or Coruscant are not just horrifying, but also implausible. Where does the food for all the people come from, if there is no hinterland? If the entire surface has been paved over, where does rain and excess water go? For that matter, if there is hardly any vegetation, how does the atmosphere maintain enough oxygen for humans and other oxygen breathers? These questions are never really answered, but city planets still persist in science fiction, because they are cool. And I would still love to visit Trantor or Coruscant, though I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there.

Encouraged by Elia, Doctor Pershing tries to touch the mountain top only to be warned off by a tsk-tsking drone droid. Elia laughs and tells Pershing was a joke, but it’s also a warning that it’s probably wise not to trust Elia. Doctor Pershing, however, may be smart, but he’s far from wise. And so he confesses to Elia that he’d love to continue his research, since he believes he could do so much good for the New Republic, that he could really help. Elia encourages him to go for it and maybe pursue his research as a private side project.

During his next visit with the parole/therapist droid, Doctor Pershing casually asks if he might continue his research as a private project. The droid is horrified – after all, Doctor Pershing engaged in cloning research and cloning is strictly forbidden by the New Republic.

When Doctor Pershing tells Elia about this, she asks him what he would need to continue his research. “Not much”, he says, “Just a mobile lab station to begin with.” Elia then tells him that she knows where to get a mobile lab station, but that it’s not exactly legal and also requires leaving their designated area – since it turns out people in the amnesty program are not free to move around as they wish. Doctor Pershing is hesitant and Elia tells him to sleep on it.

The next day at work, Doctor Pershing talks to his supervisor and says that he’s noticed that all the data cards he’s supposed to file are for Imperial equipment that’s all set to be destroyed. Doctor Pershing finds this a massive waste of resources – after all, a lot of the equipment could be repurposed for the good of the Republic. The supervisor, however, won’t have any of that. In order to repurpose some of the Imperial equipment, Doctor Pershing would have to file a petition with some higher up authority and no one from the amnesty program has ever done that and the supervisor isn’t even sure if that’s allowed at all. Besides, they have so much to do decommissioning the entire Rebel fleet that they really don’t have time to bother about the Imperial equipment.

Now considering that the New Republic has been shown to be severely underhanded throughout the The Mandalorian and that the Outer Rim is basically the lawless Wild West, decommissioning perfectly good space ships, whether Rebel or Imperial, seems like an idiotic idea. And historically, the victors of a war or a revolution usually had no problems appropriating and reusing the enemy’s equipment and vehicles.

However, we are also living in an era when sensible proposals and ideas are rejected, when they come from the wrong side. For example, a parliamentary proposal to give all residents of German nursing homes vitamin D supplements free of charge was voted down, because the proposal came from the far right AfD, even though it was a sensible and potentially beneficial proposal. And a lot of Americans and Brits are horrified that there are still several laws dating back to the Third Reich in force in Germany today, even though those laws regulate things like “number of parking places per house or apartment block” or “who provides the electricity meter and who pays for it”, i.e. perfectly useful laws, even though terrible politicians passed them.

His experience at his busywork job have so jaded and disappointed Doctor Pershing that he tells Elia that he’s in. And so we get to the centerpiece of the episode, namely Doctor Pershing and Elia on an illicit mission.

We see them heading to a public transport station in civilian clothes and Doctor Pershing looks about as inconspicuous as Obi-Wan did when rescuing little Leia from an Imperial outpost, namely not at all. Elia, on the other hand, looks a lot more comfortable. Clearly, this isn’t her first time breaking the rules of the amnesty program. She even admits to Doctor Pershing that she’s done this before. After all, where does he think she got the biscuits?

Elia and Doctor Pershing jump the turnstiles and sneak aboard an aerial train. It seems they got away with it, too – clearly the New Republic hasn’t installed facial recognition systems in their trains and public transport station. But then two ticket controller droids arrive. And since Elia and Doctor Pershing have no tickets, because they’re not even supposed to be on this train at all, they’re in trouble. But luckily, Elia has experience with trouble and so she and Doctor Pershing move on to the next car, which requires jumping over a chasm and the electric coupling, because trains on Coruscant have fewer safety features than modern day trains. But maybe that bug is a feature, because the ticket inspector droids can lower a handy bridge of the gap to move from car to car. So Elia and Doctor Pershing have to move on to the next car. And the next, until they run out of train. Luckily, they’ve almost arrived at their destination, so Elia tells the Doctor to jump. It’s certainly interesting that the tensest action scene in this episode involves two people trying to escape ticket inspector droids on a moving train.

As for their destination, it’s a wrecking yard, where disabled Star Destroyer upon Star Destroyer has been parked, waiting to be stripped down and destroyed. Why the New Republic felt the need to do this dirty and space consuming work (and Star Destroyers are huge) on densely populated Coruscant, where space is at a premium, remains an unresolved question?

The wrecking yard is barely guarded, because – so Elia tells Doctor Pershing – the Star Destroyers will all be wrecked anyway and have already been disabled, so who would break in? Of course, I can think of a lot of people who would break in – thieves, scavengers, peddlers, since this is the Star Wars universe, after all. But I guess there are no Jawas or Ugnaughts on Coruscant.

Elia and Doctor Pershing sneak through the darkened corridors of the disabled Star Destroyer and this is the moment where Elia finally introduces herself to Doctor Pershing, telling him that she wanted to do that a hundred on Moff Gideon’s ship, but didn’t dare to.

When they finally find the laboratories, Doctor Pershing geeks out and tells Elia about how thrilled he was the first time he found himself in an Imperial lab with all the equipment he could want. They pack up, when they hear sounds outside. Elia says it’s just the ship settling, but then there are more sounds and it’s obvious that someone else is out there.

Elia and Doctor Pershing make it out of the Star Destroyer, but not out of the wrecking yard. A chopper appears, searchlights hit them and they are surrounded by New Republic cops. Doctor Pershing raises his hands and Elia calmly takes the case with the equipment and carries it away. “It’s a trap. She set me up”, Doctor Pershing cries, but no one is listening.

The next time we see Doctor Pershing, he is strapped to a table in some New Republic facility with sinister looking machinery above his head. Doctor Pershing panics, because he knows what this machinery does. It’s a mind-flayer and it’s used to erase memories. However, the officer in charge, a Mon Calamari who sounds (and later turns out to be) brainwashed tells Doctor Pershing that no, this is a rehabilitation machine, it is used to heal and the experience will be quite relaxing and comforting. Mind-flayers are what the Empire used and the New Republic is not the Empire, even though they apparently did scavenge some Imperial technology after all.

Doctor Pershing’s pleas are for naught, an officer takes his glasses – Doctor Pershing is apparently the only person in the Star Wars universe who wears glasses – and the machine is switched on. In the observation booth, a New Republic officer tells Elia that she did the right thing in turning Doctor Pershing in and that she is a true credit to the amnesty program. Elia asks, if she may watch the procedure. After all, Doctor Pershing was her friend, even if he suffered a relapse. Then, once the officer has left, Elia reaches for the dial of the rehabilitation/mind-flayer machine and cranks it up to the max. Doctor Pershing screams, while Elia casually bites into one of the biscuits he liked so much.

What is Elia’s game here? Is she still working for Moff Gideon? Is she working against him and mindwipes Doctor Pershing to make sure that Gideon can never use his research again? Does Elia even have a choice, especially since she tells Doctor Pershing at one point that she never had a choice? Those are questions for another day.

I have to admit that I expected this episode to focus on Din and Bo-Katan fighting the mythosaur – which apparently is something they’ll do some other time. However, I certainly did not expect to get a thirty-minute 1970s dystopian science fiction film of the type so delightfully parodied in Family Guy embedded into an episode of The Mandalorian. And that’s exactly what “The Convert” is. A depressing 1970s dystopian science fiction film, though there are no turtlenecks.

Now The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett both not only draw on the sources that inspired Star Wars in the first place, but also on movies and genres that were popular before or around the time A New Hope came out. And since the original trilogy not only took a lot of visual cues from 1970s dystopian science fiction films – only that in Star Wars, the rebellion against the system is actually successful – no, George Lucas also made his debut helming a classic dystopian science fiction film in THX 1138 (the 1967 short film version thereof I will review for Galactic Journey next month). So The Mandalorian giving us a depressing 1970s dystopian science fiction film is utterly appropriate. Even the visuals – the drab uniforms and Brutalist concrete – fit perfectly.

I have to admit that when I learned that “The Convert” would be a detour into a largely unrelated story, I didn’t expect to like it very much, especially since “Whatever happened to Doctor Pershing?” was not exactly a burning question in my mind. In many ways, this is the Star Wars equivalent of a Star Trek “Lower Decks” episode, where we focus on supporting characters who also happen to live in this world and whose paths intersect with those of our heroes. Such episodes can work or they can fail, depending on how compelling the characters and actors are. And though I wasn’t particularly invested in Doctor Pershing and the previously unnamed female Imperial officer, Omid Abtahi and Katy O’Brian gave excellent performances as Doctor Pershing and Elia Kane. In fact, I was surprised how much I enjoyed this episode, even though it was not exactly a happy story. But then 1970s dystopian science fiction films are many things, but happy they’re not.

Interestingly, most reviewers like‘s Emmet Asher-Perrin, The AV-Club‘s Sam Barsanti and io9’s James Whitbrook were uncomfortable with the story, even if they liked the episode overall. Which is perfectly understandable – after all, “The Convert” is explicitly intended to make you uncomfortable. io9‘s Rob Bricken probably puts it best: “Luke Skywalker [and Leia Organa and Han Solo and Chewbacca and everybody else in the Rebellion] defeated the Empire for this?”

A lot of reviewers draw comparisons to Andor, which leant hard into the political side of Star Wars (though Star Wars has always been political) and find that “The Convert” falls short by comparison. Personally, I think this is wrong, because “The Convert” tells a different story.

Andor is extremely political – and note that I liked Andor a lot, even if I didn’t review it here – but its politics are also straightforward: Those guys over there are the bad guys, they’re the fascists, the Empire, so grab a brick and throw it at the nearest cop. “The Convert” is a lot more complicated – and a lot more unpleasant – because it shows us how good guys can become bad guys.

One thing that The Mandalorian has occasionally done – most notably in the season 2 episode “The Believer” – is give us the point-of-view of the Empire. What makes this even more notable is that Star Wars almost never gives us the POV of the Empire and indeed goes out of its way to assure us that mowing down Stormtroopers by the score is okay – they’re just clones, after all. Up to now, The Mandalorian had mostly protrayed the New Republic as well-meaning, but incompetent. “The Convert”, however, shows us the New Republic being fucking terrible.

Now portraying the Star Wars universe as a place that’s always terrible, no matter who is in charge, is a thing that only came in during the Disney era of Star Wars. During the George Lucas era, it was always implied that the Star Wars universe was better once and would be better once again. The perennial cycle of weakening democracy, rising authoritarianism, tyranne and rebellion, rinse and repeat, is a legacy of the Disney era and not one I particularly like.

However, “The Convert” nonetheless remains true to George Lucas’ vision of Star Wars. Because the Empire in Star Wars was never a stand-in for the Nazis (in spite of certain visual cues) or – as Brian J. Morra claims in this very clueless article at CrimeReads – the Soviet Union. It was always us. It was always a western style democracy like the USA or Germany gone bad. The Endor scenes in Return of the Jedi, the movie Brian J. Morra claims is somehow about the Soviet Union, are not only an analogue of the Vietnam War, but they are an analogue of the Vietnam War where the Viet Cong – pardon, the Ewoks – are the good guys. The parallels are not just very obvious, but have been noted in contemporary reviews. And note that Return of the Jedi is nigh contemporary with “If only we’d had Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris, we would have won” films like Rambo 2 and Missing in Action, which is utterly remarkable. Honestly, would Lucas have gotten away with what he did there, if the Ewoks hadn’t been cute teddy-bear-like critters?

The original Star Wars trilogy was born out of the frustrations of the Vietnam and Watergate era. The prequel trilogy was a response to George W. Bush and the war on terror and the sequel trilogy was a child of the Trump era. The Empire was never the Soviet Union or the Third Reich, it has always been us. It has always been a western style democracy with checks and balances going bad.

Andor was about the mechanisms of fascism. “The Convert”, meanwhile, shows us how well-intentioned democratic regimes can go bad. The public apologies are reminiscent of Communist systems, particularly the Cultural Revolution in China. But personally, I think that the New Republic as portrayed in “The Convert” is an example of the supposedly well-intentioned, but petty and restrictive left-green streak of authoritarism. It is intrusive policies such as mandating what a garden is supposed to look like, what heating system people are allowed to install into their houses, that every radiator in the house, even in very personal spaces like bathrooms and bedrooms, has to be checked for efficiency, and that people have to renovate or sell their houses, if they don’t meet certain arbitrary standards. And yes, these are all actual policies under discussion in Germany and the EU.

“The Convert” is not a pleasant episode to watch, but it is an important one and one that hammers home a core Star Wars principle: The Empire is us. It has always been us.

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One Response to The Mandalorian and Baby Grogu step aside for “The Convert”

  1. Pingback: The Mandalorian and Baby Grogu delve into the backstory of “The Foundling” | Cora Buhlert

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