The latest chapter of DisneyPlus’ The Mandalorian is now available for streaming on DisneyPlus. Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, “The Believer” is, superficially, an action adventure story, and it can be enjoyed on that level, but it also digs a bit deeper into the politics of the Star Wars universe, which were hinted at in “Rogue One” (2016), “The Last Jedi” (2017) and the underrated “Solo” (2018). It is also the first chapter of this series to not feature Grogu (aka “Baby Yoda”).
As we saw at the end of Chapter 14: “The Tragedy”, Mando (Pedro Pascal) went to newly-minted New Republic Marshall Cara Dune (Gina Carano) for help in springing convict Mayfeld (comic actor Bill Burr) who is currently doing hard time in a New Republic prison for his role in heist gone bad (Chapter 6: “The Prisoner”). It is hoped that ex-Imperial Mayfeld might help in hacking Imperial codes to locate Moff Gideon’s ship and find a kidnapped Grogu. With his old ship destroyed, Mando has made some strong alliances with Cara, former foe Ferrec (Ming-Na Wen), and the legendary Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), the fellow Mandalorian who’s offered the services of his famed ship, “Slave One” (a ship first seen in the original trilogy’s “The Empire Strikes Back” ).
Slave One’s first destination is the chop yards of the planet Karthan, where Mayfeld is serving a 50 year sentence. In the scrap heap, giant walker-like cranes sift through the heavy wreckage of old Imperial TIE fighters for recycling. The sky is gray, the misery seems unyielding. You can almost smell the rust…
It is here where Marshall Dune locates Mayfeld; she tells the sentry droid she is remanding him to her custody, and takes him to Slave One, where Boba Fett and Ferrec are waiting (Boba Fett has detailed his old green, gray and red armor to look nearly brand new). Once aboard, they lift off and Cara fills a confused Mayfeld in on their plan; they need to hack into the Imperial network and locate the coordinates of Moff Gideon’s ship. Wondering aloud if his sentence will be commuted, Marshall Dune tells him that the most he’ll get is a ‘better view’ at the prison. Left with no choice, Mayfeld tells the group to set a course for a rhydonium mining hub on the jungle world of Morak. The secret facility is being run by ex-Imperial officers who are mining the unstable substance for the future reclamation of their fallen Empire.
Note: The jungle world of Morak, along with the dress and appearance of the locals, seems deliberately evocative of the jungles of southeast Asia, which is fitting given that the politics of this episode are applicable to US and Soviet-Sino involvement in wars like Vietnam or Cambodia; where the native peoples became pawns in a sprawling conflict between two invading superpowers.
Scoping out a bay of Imperial Juggernaut-class ground transports, Mando and Mayfeld hope to steal one of the transports, which will be carrying loads of the highly unstable rhydonium back to the mining base. The bay is less guarded, making it easier to steal one of the fully loaded Juggernauts. One problem, however; with Cara and Ferrec covering their escape, and Boba Fett guarding their getaway ride, Mando will have to accompany Mayfeld, which means removing his armor–and his helmet, which goes against the creed of Mando’s fundamentalist sect. For Grogu’s sake however, Mando removes his beskar coverings, as he and Mayfeld don the stolen armor of a transport crew. Together they steal one of the Juggernauts, anonymously joining a fully loaded convoy for access into the base…
As Mando and Mayfeld drive out with the convoy, Mayfeld takes off his helmet and tries to engage Mando in some conversation. Mayfeld points to the locals on the side of the road…poor peasants just doing what they can to stay alive, as their world was just as poor under the New Republic as it is under the invading Imperial forces. To the civilians, the Empire and New Republic equal the same difference. As Mayfeld is forced to keep their speed low due to their unstable cargo, there is an explosion in the convoy directly ahead–one by one, the other Juggernauts begin to explode!
Note: Transporting unstable substances in a jungle is a twist right out of 1977’s “Sorcerer”, directed by William Friedkin, which was itself a remake of a 1953 French film called “The Wages of Fear” (“Le Salaire de la Peur”). In “The Sorcerer,” Roy Scheider had to transport old, decomposing dynamite through the jungles of South America; the decomposition meant the unstable dynamite was literally sweating nitroglycerin. While the rhydonium convoy sequence has some of that nail-biting suspense to it, the real fireworks of this chapter occur when they arrive at the base…
The convoy is being attacked by, as Mando mistakenly calls them, pirates. These ‘pirates’ are flying behind and in front of the convoy in hovering skiffs which they use to board the Juggernaut fleet. Mando goes topside of his Juggernaut, as a nervous Mayfeld does his best to keep the transport steady with their dangerous load. Mando pulls out his Imperial blaster, which of course, fails after one shot. Forced to fight the marauders hand-to-hand, Mando’s superior fighting skills are put to the test, but he picks them off one by one…
During the fighting, one of the raiders places a thermal detonator (grenade) into the vehicle’s topside cargo hold–right into a shipment of rhydonium. Avoiding blaster fire (Mando’s wearing cheap Imperial armor, not his blaster-proof beskar), Mando grabs the grenade mere seconds before detonation and hurls it back at the marauders, destroying their hover-skiff. With the other Juggernauts all destroyed, more of the bandits show up! Mando yells for Mayfeld to drive faster–putting their heat-sensitive rhydonium at risk. Soon, the pursuing marauders are picked off by Imperial TIE fighters who strafe their skiffs, leaving Mando’s sole surviving Juggernaut free to return to base…
In an unusual twist, Mando and Mayfeld are welcomed into the mining base as heroes for surviving their assault by the marauders. Still wearing their troop transport armor, they are indistinguishable from any other support crew at the base. After the awkward ‘hero’s welcome’, it’s time for their real mission, as Mando and Mayfeld locate a terminal to the Imperial database inside of a mess hall. Mayfeld has a data stick and is about to access the terminal until he looks inside and recognizes one of the officers, Valin Hess (Richard Brake), under whom he once served. Fearing he might be recognized, a nervous Mayfeld wants to abort the plan. Mando takes the data stick and decides to try it himself. Mayfeld reminds him that the terminal uses face-scanning software for access, and that he will have to remove his helmet, violating the Mandalorian creed. Entering the mess hall, Mando walks up to the terminal and tries to access it with his helmet on. Once the scanning process begins, a warning goes off, stating that failure to allow a facial scan will restrict access to the terminal. Mando, aka Din Djarin, takes off his helmet. More disoriented without a helmet than when wearing one, he allows the terminal to make a scan of his face…
Note: The terminal access scene was a bit puzzling for me. The point of face-recognition software, at least in modern smartphones and other devices, is to restrict access to authorized users only. In this story’s one serious weak spot, an un-helmeted Din Djarin is somehow allowed access into the Imperial terminal anyway. Djarin has never served in the Empire, unlike Mayfeld, so why did the system allow him access? If security is the reason for the facial scanning, why didn’t a warning go off, as it did when Djarin tried to use the terminal with his helmet on? This is one big logistical flaw in writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s otherwise taut and intriguing episode.
Obtaining the coordinates to Moff Gideon’s ship and transcribing them onto the data rod, Mando/Djarin is just about to leave when, of course, he is spotted by Valin Hess, who walks over to Mando, and asks him for his designation. Mando, appearing genuinely fazed, nervously answers he’s part of the transport crew. A suspicious Hess presses him for his “TK number” (the operating numbers used by Imperials).
Mando appears to be trapped, until Mayfeld walks in and saves him, giving Hess false TK-numbers for both of them, and telling Hess that ol’ “Brown Eyes” Mando is a little hard of hearing following a tour at Taanab. With Mayfeld’s lie working, Hess realizes the two men were the ones who drove the sole surviving Juggernaut successfully back to the base–Mando and Mayfeld are then forced to have a drink with Hess in the mess hall! After a tense few minutes, the conversation turns to politics, as Mayfeld mentions that he was part of ‘Operation Cinder’ at Burnin Konn, where 5,000 troops were needlessly slaughtered (the source of his bitterness against the Empire, I assume). Hess shrugs it off, but a bitter Mayfeld unwisely presses, reiterating that those deaths mattered.
Note: In “Return of the Jedi”, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) casually mentions a little maneuver of his at “the battle of Taanab.” The reference makes for both a brilliant lie and a nice callback to the original trilogy, one of many made in this series.
With arrogant dismissal, Hess casually lets slip that the rhydonium currently being mined will be used to carry out acts of terrorism, which will force the New Republic to come crawling back to the Imperial remnants for assistance. Hess tells Mayfeld that people “don’t want freedom, they want order.” That last comment triggers Mayfeld, and without warning he shoots the arrogant Valin Hess dead, right at the table! All of the surrounding Imperials are, at first, too stunned to act–giving Mayfeld and Mando a valuable second or two of lead time to kill as many of them as possible. Pinned in the mess hall in a firefight they can’t win, the two of them barely escape out of the nearest window, which overlooks a hydroelectric dam. Once out in the open, the two are immediately spotted by long-range snipers Cara and Ferrec, who begin efficiently eliminating as many of their surrounding troops as possible. Out on the ledge, they are picked up by Fett, flying in Slave One. He opens the vessel’s ramp and the two of them leap inside.
Note: Besides the politics of the episode, which I’ll discuss below, I really appreciated the moment immediately following Mayfeld’s killing of Hess: There was a second or two of indecision, where the other (well-armed) Imperials appeared momentarily dazed after the murder. We’ve never seen this very human reaction to unexpected violence in Star Wars before–that instant of indecision when people tend to freeze for a second; unsure of what is happening, or what to do next. It’s one of those little touches that make “The Believer” feel a bit more real than other segments of this sci-fi/fantasy series.
Before leaving, Mayfeld aims his blaster into the base’s stores of rhydonium, and the entire combustible facility is blown to hell. With the soon-to-be weaponized stockpile destroyed, Mayfeld quips, “We all need to sleep at night.” Once in the air, Slave One is pursued by TIE fighters, but Boba Fett drops one of Slave One’s infamous ‘seismic charges’ (last seen in “Attack of the Clones”) which creates a temporary sound vacuum, followed by a concussive shock wave that obliterates the pursuing TIE fighters.
Note: The seismic charges were a part of Slave One’s arsenal that I’d nearly forgotten about. While 2002’s “Attack of the Clones” is my least favorite movie of the entire Star Wars franchise, I do appreciate that all of Star Wars lore, unpopular or not, is well-used within this series.
Slave One lands a safe distance away, to pick up Ferrec and Cara Dune. Marshall Cara is now faced with the task of taking her prisoner back to the Karthan chop yards. Seeing how much he helped the group at great risk to his own life, Cara is going to doctor her action report to say that Mayfeld was “killed in the blast.” Since he is not obligated to go with the others to rendezvous with Gideon’s ship, Mayfeld is now a free man–unofficially, of course.
Note: I’ve been a fan of Burr’s comedy for some time, but this episode gave him a nice chance to flex some dramatic chops that I suspected he always possessed. Because of their gift for delivery and timing, I find that many comedians often make very solid dramatic actors as well (see: Bill Murray, Whoopi Goldberg and, of course, the late Robin Williams). I’m hoping we see another appearance by Burr someday in this series, perhaps in its third season. Burr’s somewhat minor role in “Breaking Bad” never afforded him much opportunity sadly, as his character was little more than a hired gun on that show.
Aboard Moff Gideon’s Imperial cruiser, Gideon’s second-in-command reports that there is an incoming message addressed to him. The holo-console activates, and Mando’s masked visage appears. The angry Mandalorian delivers an ominous (and gutsy) warming to Gideon that he is coming for the child, saying, “He means more to me than you’ll ever know!”
The transmission ends.
To Be Continued…
“From a certain point of view…”
One of the aspects I appreciated in “The Believer” was that it gave us another look into the somewhat murky politics of the Disney Star Wars universe, something hinted at in several of the movies (“Rogue One” “The Last Jedi” “Solo”). Mayfeld is a former Imperial who’s seen some gruesome stuff in his lifetime. During his revealing Juggernaut drive with Mando, Mayfeld points to the impoverished civilians who are forced to get out of the convoy’s way; to them, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the Empire or New Republic in charge of the galaxy… their lives are still miserable. This scene is a clear metaphor for those civilians who are killed in our own world’s ideological proxy wars such as Vietnam, or resource wars such as the oil-driven conflicts of the Middle East.
Even the mislabeled “pirates” who stalked and terrorized the Juggernaut convoy were not so clear cut as past Star Wars villainy. In fact, they aren’t trying to steal the convoy’s rhydonium; they were trying to destroy it, in order to prevent the deaths that the unstable, dangerous substance would’ve caused to untold numbers of innocents on other planets. Their attack on Mando and Mayfeld was merely a case of mistaken identity–they had no reason to suspect the two men were not imperial transport troopers. In fact, in other circumstances, we’d be cheering these marauders on, just as we once cheered on the cute, furry Ewoks for committing acts of deadly terrorism upon the Empire’s troopers on Endor. The Morak marauders’ story is very similar to that of Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman) and her cloud-flyer pirates in “Solo” (2018), who were stealing Imperial shipments of the hyperdrive fuel coaxium in order to finance their nascent rebellion against the Empire, which destroyed or overran their various home planets. One country’s terrorists are another’s freedom fighters, just as some see pirates where others see heroic Robin Hoods.
In the original Star Wars trilogy, the heroes and villains are extremely binary; the good guys looked like Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher, and the bad guys dressed like Nazis or white space-skeletons. There was no gray area. Even at 10 years old, I instantly knew Darth Vader was the ‘bad guy’ the moment I saw him, because he wore a black cape with a scary helmet which made ominous breathing noises. But life is never quite so clear cut. Vader’s breathing noises occurred because he was hooked up to a life-support system after being mutilated and left for dead by his best friend. Mayfeld’s story about serving at Burnin Konn (where 5,000 troops were needlessly killed in a reckless Imperial operation known as “Operation Cinder”) was obviously a turning point in his disaffection with the Empire. Mayfeld may no longer be an Imperial cheerleader, but he’s also realistic enough to understand that the New Republic aren’t all white horses and rose petals, either.
Despite their reputation for soft-pedaling history with their cartoons, Disney’s stewardship of Star Wars has yielded a morally grayer galaxy than we ever could’ve imagined back in 1977.
“The Mandalorian” Season 2 is available for streaming on DisneyPlus, as are most of the Star Wars movies and animated TV series. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are at over 292,000 people as of this writing. Meanwhile, there is no widely available treatment for COVID-19 as of yet, and available vaccines are months away from wide distribution. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. There will be many temptations to ease personal restrictions against COVID-19 for the holidays, but please be safe and smart this holiday season.
Wear a mask. It is the way.