Be advised, this essay contains spoilers for The Mandalorian.
I’m a Star Wars loyalist. Its universe has always entranced me. Unlike the Star Trek universe, which is comforting in its rationality, Star Wars presents not only a universe of technological advancement and dizzying diversity, but of belief. And Jedi aren’t the only ones we might call seriously religious. This is what has me interested in the Disney+ series, The Mandalorian. (And boy, is “Baby Yoda” Grogu cute.)
Mandalorians are an ancient martial people from the planet Mandalore whose life is strictly disciplined and submitted to ancestral tradition. The lived practice of this tradition is known as “the Way,” and its beliefs constitute the “creed.” The traditional call and response of Mandalorians goes like this:
Call: [A statement about something true or good, or an action that should be taken].
Response: This is the Way.
There is something Platonic, with more than a dash of something purely, stringently Stoic, about Mandalorians’ culture. But their philosophy is completely embodied. They don’t sit around talking or speculating about the Way like Jedi do with the Force. They just do it. They are it. This is the Way.
This embodiment requires being clothed with righteousness, their armor a tangible expression of their creed, which includes careful speech, ancestral piety, clan loyalty, and defending the weak, and takes outward shape in the permanent wearing of beskar, a light but nearly impenetrable armor. “Orthodox” Mandalorians must never remove their helmets.
Armor is not the only thing difficult to penetrate about Mandalorians. They are deeply secretive and elusive, hiding out on planets not their home, in permanent exile since Mandalore was made uninhabitable by poisonous gas. To take off the helmet is to remove one’s Mandalorian-ness. It is a rejection of the freedom of belonging for the false freedom of individualistic pursuit. It is a religious commitment, and a serious one. Mandalorians will be merciful to the widow and orphan; less merciful, perhaps, to one another when they stray. You showed your face? Be gone. This is the Way.
By the end of season two, we can understand the attitude: Mandalorians are scarce and vulnerable. To remove a helmet is, seen one way, breaking an old-fashioned rule. So what? Why are we still doing this anyway? Seen another way, it is betrayal on two levels: of the past — the treasure chest of a culture in peril — and of a present family with an uncertain future, who cohere, not always by blood or land (they’re big on adoption — also part of their creed: this is the Way), but by their common obedience.
In season three of The Mandalorian, we begin with a powerful picture of what we might call a religious community in exile, staking out the rules and boundaries of identity.
But we also begin with a conundrum:
At the end of season two, our protagonist, Din Djarin, a strict and pious Mandalorian, has removed his helmet, in a moment of extremity. In a life-or-death situation, a comrade begged to see his face, and he permitted it. Now he has confessed his breaking with the Way to the Mandalorian chieftain, the Armorer, and she has excommunicated him.
But, she adds, he might be absolved. Were he to immerse himself in the sacred waters under the mines of Mandalore, he would be “redeemed.” (What in the world is Disney doing with baptism? That’s another essay.) This redemption is impossible, of course, since Mandalore has been destroyed.
But there are rumors that it has not — not entirely. It’s been so long since anyone tried going home … and there are other rumors that a new leader is emerging. Maybe to bring them home? If Din Djarin can find the font, then there’s hope for his whole people.
For help, this very orthodox Mandalorian will enlist the help of Bo-Katan Kryze, former Mandalorian royalty now living isolated in a seaside castle — someone who knows the planet Mandalore well. But Kryze wears and removes her helmet freely, still considering herself faithful to the Way. She doesn’t put it in so many words, but it’s clear she thinks of Djarin’s bunch as a bit stiff, and maybe a bit behind the times. In fact, there are many different kinds of Mandalorians in exile, on two spectrums of orthodoxy: one of interest in ancestors, homeland, and fellow Mandalorians (x axis perhaps), and one of adherence to the traditional creed (y axis). In one quadrant of the spectrum, we have the Armorer; in the other corner are free agents and mercenaries who let their hair blow in the breeze.
Djarin and Kryze disagree; but they take on the adventure together. Their journey to Mandalore discovers the sacred waters. Djarin takes a holy dip. Kryze saves his life from a hungry Mythosaur. And they return to Djarin’s community to present him as redeemed. And Kryze puts on her helmet. She doesn’t remove it along the way. At first out of need; then out of respect; and then perhaps out of more than respect. Is the air of traditional piety getting to her?
Then at the end of episode three, we get a surprise. Kryze is called into the presence of the Armorer. She asks whether Kryze has removed her helmet since she was touched by the sacred water. Kryze admits she has not. The Armorer concludes that Kryze is redeemed as well, having bathed in the waters. But then, later:
“Remove your helmet.”
Kryze hesitates, removes her helmet.
“Our people have strayed from the Way, says the Armorer. “And it is not enough for a few to walk it.”
She presents Kryze to the others: “Bo-Katan Kryze is going off to bring other Mandalorians in exile to us so that we may join together once again.”
When another Mandalorian protests, “But she shows her face,” the Armorer answers, “Bo-Katan walks both worlds. She can bring all tribes together. It is time to retake Mandalore.”
Is the Mandalorian teaching us something about communion across difference? I think there at least are several lessons to draw.
“Our people have strayed from the Way.” This is an admission of the guilt of all Mandalorians — a Star Wars Romans 3:23. And it is a recognition that, though there may be other problems among other people not under her care, the Armorer understands the collective sin as an issue of broken bonds. They have strayed because they are not together. The Way requires adherence to the creed; it also requires unity: “It is not enough for a few to walk it.” Faithful enclaves do not constitute complete faithfulness.
Disagreement about what constitutes orthodoxy or faithfulness is a problem. But it may also present an opportunity: “Bo-Katan walks both worlds.” We might see Bo-Katan Kryze in several different ways: as someone who strayed, but then saw the light; as someone who gives the strict creed of her ancestors a gracious (pastoral?) application; as someone with diverse experience; as humbled; as interdenominational. Though I’m not sure how to apply the Armorer’s judgment about the helmet, I do find it interesting that, rather than circling the wagons or requiring Kryze to forget her past, the Armorer sees in her an ecumenical calling that will enlist her in bridge-building and leadership.
Of course, Kryze was already primed for this service. She’s been a renegade gun for hire, sure; everybody in the galaxy’s got to make a living. But she’s also proved herself a ready friend to Djarin and, by extension, to his clan, in common mission. She has even helped in his redemption. The four words, “I will help you,” don’t solve the ethical standoff about helmets, but they do turn attention elsewhere for a time — which develops empathy, strengthens their partnership for adventures ahead, and, arguably, begins to change Kryze’s mind, or at least her attitude toward her beskar-covered never-nude brethren.
In fact, by the end of Djarin’s and Kryze’s first life-threatening adventure (perhaps an endeavor has to be life-threatening to be really unitive?), calling each other “brother” and “sister” is no longer a formal gesture of respect, but a heartfelt instinct. I think it’s also significant that Kryze chooses to put herself in a position of submission to the Armorer at all, being royalty and an erstwhile leader herself, yet by her own free will no longer a free agent, but serving alongside Djarin under the same commander.
Finally, there is a recognition that all Mandalorians are in exile. There is a common failing, but there is also a common pain, a common homesickness. Bo-Katan Kryze in her lonely castle tower felt it. Din Djarin returning to his clan feels it. Those sects that claim to have never abandoned the creed feel it. Caves, hideouts, and starships are all well and good. But they’re not home. There is a collective belonging they have lost and might yet regain. Even their orthopraxy has paused in the light of this shared desire to consider what this shared desire might mean as a defining feature of their identity and mission.
I’m not sure how deep this theological or ecclesial parable will turn out to be. As I write, episode four of season three just came out. Episode five may ruin my whole essay. But season three of The Mandalorian may be worth paying attention to, if not for the answers it proposes, then for the questions it asks: How will Mandalorians, in varying states and perceptions of orthodoxy, engage with one another in this time of crisis? Is there room in the Way for discerning between unorthodoxy (or heresy), rebellion, and plain difference? What to do until all uncertainties in this realm become clear? And in this state, can there be any progress toward the dream of redeeming Mandalore?
We’ll see. May the Force be with you.