Perspectives, Star Wars, TV, writing

The Mandalorian and Identity in Exile

The Mandalorian appears to be doing something fascinating in its second season as its threads begin to unravel themselves: Exploring the question of what it means to be “Mandalorian.”

The set up for this exploration seems to have been established near the end of season 1, where Cara Dune explains to Greef Karga that the Mandalorians aren’t a “race,” but rather “a creed.” To be a Mandalorian, as our laconic lead Din Djarin understands it, is to follow this creed to the letter, live in “The Way.” It is a Way of tradition, ritual, and visual signifiers. The helmet becomes the true face, providing a visual identity that binds a disparate people together into one community, regardless of what features might lie beneath the helmet.

Star Wars die-hards, of course, have had questions about this since early in season 1– Having played a major part in both canon animated series, The Clone Wars and Rebels, such rituals and signifiers played no part in the culture of Mandalore. The mystery of this society then, was present from the start.

After deftly establishing the look and feel of the galaxy post-Return of the Jedi in season 1, The Mandalorian season 2 is now utilizing the pieces they established to challenge Din Djarin’s sense of self and the elements core to his understanding of his own identity.

The first challenge comes at the close of the first season, with Moff Gideon rising from the wreckage of his TIE Fighter wielding the Darksaber–the traditional weapon signifying the leader of the Mandalorian people. As his taunts make clear, Gideon was integral to the destruction of the Mandalorian people as Star Wars fans understood it. More importantly, his wielding of the Darksaber positions him as the rightful ruler of the Mandalorian people.

Legend tells that it was created over a thousand years ago by Tarre Vizsla, the first Mandalorian ever inducted into the Jedi Order. After his passing, the Jedi kept the saber in their temple. That was until members of House Vizsla snuck in and liberated it. They used the saber to unify the people and strike down those who would oppose them. At one time, they ruled all of Mandalore wielding this blade. This saber is an important symbol to that house and respected by the other clans.

Kanan Jarrus, Star Wars: Rebels, Trials of the Darksaber

Liberated from the Jedi Order, the saber was passed down through House Viszla, and the wielding of the darksaber represented the highest level of leadership in Mandalorian society. Eventually, the legendary warrior culture of the Mandalorian people fell out of favor, and the line of Viszlas lost their influence, and a new era of leadership devoted to promoting peace in the galaxy took over the rulership of Mandalore. Still there were many among the people who held fast to the proud warrior tradition, and amidst the backdrop of the Clone Wars, civil war erupted. Pre Viszla, inheritor of the saber and leader of the terrorist cell Death Watch, staged a coup against the democratic leadership who were working to bring forward galactic peace.

Mandalorian warrior tradition held that whomever wielded the saber was to rule the people, and when challenged to ritual combat by former Sith Lord Maul, Pre Viszla was killed, granting Maul the saber and rulership over Death Watch. For the first time, the people of Mandalorian became subservient to a non-Mandalorian.

Eventually, the Saber fell to Sabine Wren, who conferred it to Bo-Katan Kryze, sister of the duchess Satine, the democratically elected Mandalorian leader who was murdered b Maul to punish his enemy Obi-Wan Kenobi. Bo-Katan wielded the saber and thus was deemed as the leader of the Mandalorian people. (Recounted in Rebels)

However, sometime after that, the Galactic Empire embarked upon what in Star Wars lore is known as the Great Purge, a total destruction of the people of Mandalore, decimating their home planet and scattering its people across the galaxy. Somewhere perhaps during or after this purge, imperial warlord Moff Gideon took possession, marking the second time a non-Mandalorian wielded the saber.

The symbolic and ritualistic power the Darksaber represents raises significant philosophical questions about the culture of the Mandalorians. When taken by Maul, the warrior cult Death Watch accepted him as their rightful ruler, even modifying their armor to resemble Maul’s tattoos and horns. Still others never even accepted Viszla’s claim to rulership before Maul’s takeover. Moff Gideon’s possession of the saber leaves an open question about rulership and power and how it might impact our hero–does a devotion to The Way indicate a devotion to the wielder of the Darksaber? Or does its particular set of beliefs, as established in isolation and exile, even recognize this particular ancient tradition? “The Children of the Watch,” as Din Djarin’s nomadic tribe is referred to by Bo-Katan, is coded as deeply religious, and there are certainly theological overtones to the Mandalorian culture in the post-Galactic Empire era.

Particularly, the Children of the Watch echo the nomadic tribes of the Ancient Israelites, particularly amid the Babylonian Exile.

Jon Favreau, creator and executive producer of the show, had a Jewish mother and Catholic father, but attended Hebrew School and was bar mitzvahed. It is not a stretch to say that this Jewish heritage has had an impact on Favreau’s identity, considering his production company, which is credited for development of The Mandalorian, is called Golem Productions. The Golem is an ancient Jewish myth.

The Mandalorians are a people in exile, whose home was destroyed and taken over by an invading force, spreading their people into a fragmented set of communities. This diaspora, a fundamental image within both ancient and modern Judaism, is a reoccurring motif in Jewish theology, repeating itself over and over in traditions of exile and return. Removed from their home and left only with their stories and ritual traditions, the Jewish people had to survive in hiding among inhospitable cultures.

Taken in by and isolated in their deeply held beliefs, Din Djarin’s understanding of his own identity and the identity of the Mandalorian people is fully aligned to the Children of the Watch, a group seemingly even more devoted to the ancient warrior tradition of the Mandalorian people than the Night Watch we saw in Clone Wars.

Immediately in season 2 Din Djarin must face an imposter in Cobb Vanth, a small-town sheriff who wears the stolen armor of Boba Fett, himself a clone of a man who wore the Mandalorian armor but was deemed a “pretender” by Mandalorians in his time. Does the wearing of the armor make one worthy of the title? Or is it an affront? Our hero looks at a familiar helmet and sees the absence of his people. Separated from his tribe and unsure of where to find others, Vanth’s presence represents how far away from home Din is, and how isolated.

The Mandalorian’s biggest challenge to his understanding of himself and his own identity comes in episode 3 of season 2, “The Heiress.” Rescued by a group of three Mandalorians, Din Djarin is shocked to see them remove their helmets, something that he considers deeply sacrilegious and so insulting to his sense of identity that to remove his own helmet would mean to be removed from his heritage forever. Disgusted by their dismissal of his beliefs, and disappointed to discover that he did not find more of his kind, he leaves them.

There is a beautiful and quiet moment as he holds The Child, watching the trio fly off in the distance, contemplating his isolation–Is he the last of his kind, or are these newcomers, similar but so deeply different, also his people?

Boba Fett’s appearance at the end of the season 2 premiere and the presence of Ahsoka Tano bringing with it rumors of Captain Rex, another clone of Jango Fett inspired by Mandalorian culture, tease even more challenges to Din Djarin’s sense of identity as the series continues.

The questions facing our protagonist’s understanding of his cultural identity are very timely in the America of 2020. Divided by our media and our politicians, America is broken into its own individual cultures–a single people isolated by their different beliefs.

Only a couple weeks out from the 2020 election, with the president undermining tenants once considered fundamental to our collective identity, we are faced with our own crisis of identity. What does it mean to be American? What binds us together? In isolation from a deadly pandemic, we also face questions of what unites us as a single people, if there is anything at all left.

Perhaps these questions being raised in this galaxy far, far away can shed a light on the difficult questions we ourselves face here and now.

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