A review of this week’s The Book of Boba Fett, “From the Desert Comes a Stranger,” coming up just as soon as my big smile lets me get away with anything…
Return of the Jedi was perhaps the most memorable moviegoing experience of my childhood — the sequence in and around Jabba the Hutt’s palace in particular. Each time a familiar character appeared on screen for the first time in this film, the crowd erupted in applause. They didn’t have to be doing anything interesting — Lando Calrissian simply lowers his mask for a moment so we can be sure it’s Billy Dee Williams underneath — just reminding us of how much we loved them, and the Star Wars franchise as a whole. Their excitement got me excited, and made me feel part of something bigger than myself, as if some pop culture Force was flowing through all of us in that theater. I rode that wave of enthusiasm throughout the next two-plus hours, not even minding that the climax was largely a rehash of the first film, nor that even at nine, I was jaded enough to view the Ewoks as pandering to younger kids. It barely mattered whether the movie was good or not, because here were all our favorites, together again. (And, as far as any of us knew back then, for the last time.)
Had “From the Desert Comes a Stranger” been able to play in a theater in front of a packed audience, it very well might have elicited a similar response. Here were so many characters who had so memorably appeared elsewhere in the franchise, on either the big or small screens: Cobb Vanth! Mando! R2-D2! Grogu! Luke Skywalker! Clone troopers! Ahsoka Tano! Cad effing Bane!!! Clap early, clap often!
Unlike Lando’s introduction in Return of the Jedi, most of these characters were at least doing exciting things when they reappeared here. Cobb Vanth’s return leaned even more into the Raylan Givens of it all than his debut appearance on The Mandalorian, with Timothy Olyphant getting to deliver colorfully-phrased threats before showing off his quick draw. Luke and Grogu did an extended role reversal of the Yoda/Luke training segments from The Empire Strikes Back, and Luke even looked far more realistic than when he arrived in The Mandalorian Season Two finale (more on that in a bit). Cad Bane (a recurring villain on Dave Filoni’s Clone Wars animated series) got to convincingly threaten and out-draw Cobb. Etc, etc. Even Olyphant’s former Deadwood co-star W. Earl Brown got a few more nice moments under all that makeup as the skeptical bartender at Cobb’s favorite bar. All of this was quite fun.
It’s hard, though, not to shake two separate feelings about “From the Desert Comes a Stranger.” The first is that parts of this felt like shameless fan service, less about the needs of this particular story than about making the audience happy to see their old pals, and/or about reminding us that characters like Ahsoka will soon be getting their own spinoffs — where surely, she’ll somehow cross paths with some of the people we have enjoyed watching here.
The second — and much more troubling — is that once upon a time, Boba Fett would have been one of those familiar faces that made us all start clapping and cheering, but The Book of Boba Fett has so thoroughly neutered him that he now feels like a minor, forgettable character on his own show. He didn’t appear at all in last week’s Mando spotlight, while he’s on screen for less than a minute this week and doesn’t say a single word.
Even if we all decide to treat The Book of Boba Fett as the unofficial third Mandalorian season — like, say, when Law & Order: SVU went without Olivia Benson for a stretch while Mariska Hargitay was on maternity leave — this is still not a good thing. This series, whatever we have chosen to call it, devoted the first four episodes of its season to Boba, and in the process somehow made him less interesting and less exciting than when he was a mostly-silent background character in the original trilogy, or even when he was helping out Mando for a few episodes back in 2020. The level of excitement generated last week by Mando’s return, and Boba’s lack of screen time in either of these two latest episodes, makes those already bumpy early installments feel like a waste of time. Boba will almost certainly have a lot to do in the finale, but it shouldn’t be this easy for this many different people (including Peli last week) to so badly upstage the guy who started out as this volume’s main character.
But even if Boba has become a glaring afterthought, and even if some of the guest appearances all but turned on a neon applause sign, the episode as a whole (directed by Filoni, and written by him and Jon Favreau) was tons of fun. It’s another installment that really belongs to The Mandalorian — and one that, like last week’s, will confuse the heck out of future kids who try bingeing one series at a time(*) — but it’s a very good installment of that show.
(*) Disney+ already has a section where you can watch all the MCU movies in release order. I wonder if at some point they take the idea even further with these shows, making it so that Book of Boba Fett automatically starts playing for anyone who has just finished Mandalorian Season Two.
It felt inevitable that Cobb Vanth would return at some point on a show about the man whose armor Cobb once wore. He does not interact with Boba here, though — and may not, depending on whether that blaster shot from Cad Bane was fatal (which I do not believe). But Olyphant’s radiating charisma and ease at playing a Wild West gunslinger are on full display in both the cold open and the later showdown with Cad. Yes, he’s just playing Raylan Givens in a galaxy far, far away (and, as a result, getting back into quick-drawing shape for the upcoming Justified: City Primeval miniseries), but the man is so entertaining doing so that it’s hard to complain.
Cad Bane, by the way, is another interesting case of these shows incorporating stories and characters from the Star Wars animated universe as much as from the films. The Darksaber, for instance, was used in multiple episodes of Clone Wars before Moff Gideon used it to cut himself out of a wrecked TIE fighter at the end of Mandalorian Season One, and now it’s an important part of Mando’s arsenal and the larger plot of his series. With both that and Cad, you don’t really need to know anything from the cartoons. Bo Katan and others have explained what the Darksaber is about, and Cad is just a mercenary working for the Pykes. At the same time, the shot of him looking up so we can see his face is very much in the vein of Lando lowering his mask in Jabba’s palace. It’s all but screaming, “Hey, everyone! Look over here! It’s that guy you loved watching on an earlier show!” Is that sort of thing alienating to people who only know live-action Star Wars? Will they even notice, or just think that the character design looks cool?(*) It’s a tricky part of the juggling act all these shared universe shows have to do.
(*) In live action, the wide-brimmed hat and the cruel eyes very much evoke Lee Van Cleef in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The heart of the episode, though, is the return of our adorable little buddy Baby Yoda Grogu. While R2 oversees the droid construction of a new Jedi school building, Luke Skywalker is training Grogu in the ways of the Force. Luke inevitably speaks of Yoda, but his attempt to help Grogu remember his homeworld doesn’t quite work, instead only offering a glimpse of Grogu watching the clone troopers slaughter other Jedi as a result of Palpatine’s Order 66 during the events of Revenge of the Sith. (And even with that, we still don’t know exactly who helped Grogu hide and escape.) Because Grogu can’t remember where he originally came from, he feels even more bonded to Mando, which creates the hour’s primary tension. Mando very much wants to reunite with his surrogate son, and vice versa, while both Ahsoka and Luke talk about how the Jedi order does not allow for emotional attachments. The prequel trilogy, and to a lesser extent the sequels, makes the argument that this is in fact a terrible idea. If Luke’s father — whom Ahsoka recalls with some fondness while hanging with Anakin’s son — hadn’t been required to hide his feelings for Padme, he would have never been such an easy mark for Palpatine. The forced stoicism of the Jedi has always seemed to do more harm than good. Even though Ahsoka quit the Jedi altogether towards the end of Clone Wars, and even though Luke himself has a bunch of non-romantic attachments to people like Leia and Han, both act as sticklers for this rule, and try to keep Mando and Grogu from reuniting. But Grogu is distracted from his studies — first by his ongoing attempts at frog genocide, then by thoughts of Mando — on top of still coming across like a toddler who is not ready for any of what Luke is attempting to teach him.
“Sometimes,” Luke admits, “I wonder if his heart is in it.” He finally decides to bring things to a head by presenting the kid with a choice between two gifts: the little chainmail shirt that Mando had the Armorer make out of his melted spear, and Yoda’s old lightsaber. Grogu can only pick one — and the path it will lead to. Though the episode concludes with Grogu lost in thought, if anyone wants to bet on Grogu picking the lightsaber, I will gladly take your money wager. Whether Grogu rides to the rescue in the finale, or doesn’t reunite with Mando until the next season of whatever we’re calling the show, it’s obvious where his heart lies, as well as where the creative needs of the franchise are. Mando is the central character of this whole affair, even on a show that’s not in theory about him — whereas Luke is a digitally-generated ghost whose story has already been thoroughly told. Grogu + Mando 4Eva. This is the way.
Even beyond the incredible marginalization of Boba in these last two episodes, there have been a lot of sub-optimal narrative choices on this show that leaves far too much to be resolved in the finale. Of the things I care about, exactly none of them involve Boba himself. (Well, maybe I’d enjoy seeing him ride the rancor into battle.) This is an enormous problem for The Book of Boba Fett as its own entity. But as a piece of the larger Star-Wars-on-Disney+ endeavor, “From the Desert Comes a Stranger” offered a lot to cheer about.
Some other thoughts:
* Whereas Cobb’s survival — and potential rematch with Cad — seems likely, it’s hard to feel as hopeful about Garsa Fwip surviving the Pykes bombing her club while she was inside. If so, this season feels like a real waste of Jennifer Beals, who got the one good scene where Garsa tried to ease Black Krrsantan’s bloodlust, and almost nothing else of note to do.
* After Luke looked like a very primitive Deepfake of Mark Hamill on Mandalorian, the VFX work took a major leap forward here. It’s still not quite as seamless as when the MCU movies present a young Tony Stark or Hank Pym, but it actually looked like Hamill rather than a rough approximation. At the same time, you can sense some of the limitations of the idea. Luke’s face rarely changes expression — though, to be fair, that’s in line with how Hamill played some of his scenes in Return of the Jedi when Luke was acting more stoic and Jedi-like — and in one shot while Luke and Grogu are running through the woods, it looks like you can see the body double’s real face. The bigger issue, though, may be the voice, where trying to make the 70-year-old Mark Hamill sound like he did in his 30s smooths everything out in a way that doesn’t sound fully natural. As it stands, the technology still seems better suited for a cameo (like Leia in Rogue One) than as a real character. But since it seems likely we won’t be seeing much more of Luke going forward, at least he looked a lot better this time. (UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that it’s not really Hamill recording new dialogue, but an AI program using archival Hamill recordings to generate the new lines. This unfortunately makes sense in terms of how flat and lifeless the line readings seem. Ain’t nothing like an actual human being giving a performance, you know?)
* Where these shows have recast Ahsoka with Rosario Dawson instead of Ashley Eckstein, Corey Burton gets to reprise his voice work from the cartoons as Cad Bane. Meanwhile, J.J. Dashnaw, who played Cobb’s overeager new deputy, has also been credited this season with being Temuera Morrison’s stunt double.
* Last week, Mando didn’t object to working with Peli’s droids, and this week he refers to R2 as “friend.” He seems to have let go of his grudge against droid-kind.
* At the end of the cold open, Cobb orders the one surviving Pyke to leave behind his treasure, then kicks over the box and lets its contents drift off into the Tatooine desert. It looks as if the box itself contains nothing but sand, making the whole thing a bit confusing, but spice — the illicit Star Wars drug that the Pykes traffic in — is a bit sandlike in appearance.
* Finally, there were apparently plans for Cad to mentor the young Boba Fett in a later season of Clone Wars, but those were dropped when the show was prematurely canceled, and not incorporated when Disney+ revived it years later to allow Filoni to conclude the story. (Amusingly, given his new rivalry with a character played by Tim Olyphant, Bane in that arc was going to fly a ship called the Justifier.) Will Cad and Boba cross paths at all in the finale? And, if so, will their shared but deleted backstory be alluded to at all?