A review of this week’s The Book of Boba Fett, “The Return of the Mandalorian,” coming up just as soon as I open a petting zoo…
We have to start by acknowledging that calling this an episode of The Book of Boba Fett feels like a stretch. Yes, Fennec Shand pops up at the very end. But for nearly all of its running time, this is basically The Mandalorian Season Two and a Half — a chance to catch up with Mando, see how he’s doing without his adorable pal Grogu, and just enjoy him in action. It’s almost the inverse of how so many of Mandalorian Season Two’s episodes were devoted to seeding spinoffs like this series, with Mando seizing back control of his own mini-franchise for a week.
This proves a mixed bag, though more for The Book of Boba Fett as a whole than for this individual installment of it. This is by far the new show’s most entertaining episode, but what does it say that this happens when it’s not really a Boba episode at all? In general, when characters from the parent show turn up on their spinoffs, it’s to demonstrate how much the spinoff’s main character has evolved since heading off on their own. This was more sending an unintentional signal that Boba Fett’s adventures are just filler until we can get back to Mando and Grogu full-time(*).
(*) It’s disconcerting, by the way, that there’s been no news about exactly when we’ll be getting Mandalorian Season Three. At this rate, I unfortunately wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not back until 2023.
In actuality, it’s more likely that Jon Favreau (who wrote this episode and continues, uncredited, to provide the voice of Paz Vizsla) is looking at the Star Wars TV franchise as one big show operating under various titles. Certainly, Mandalorian Season Three is going to be confusing to anyone who is only watching that series and not the spinoffs(*). Some significant developments happen here for Mando, most notably that the Armorer kicks him out of the Children of the Watch for the sin of voluntarily removing his helmet in front of others. At this point, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mando or Fennec pop up in a major way on, say, Ahsoka’s upcoming series, in an attempt to make Star Wars fans feel like they have no choice but to watch all these shows, even the ones they otherwise aren’t enjoying.
(*) This isn’t a Star Wars-only issue. The CW’s various superhero shows cross over so often that at times major events in the life of one character will happen in an episode of someone else’s show, like Flash and Green Arrow getting married to their respective longtime love interests in what was technically an episode of Legends of Tomorrow. The producers of those shows have opted to not let the bingeing tail wag the original broadcasting dog, but good luck to anyone bingeing any of these series later without feeling lost.
And a lack of overall enjoyment has unfortunately been the case with Book. The show’s had moments without ever really justifying its existence, and its main story has lagged badly in dramatic tension and excitement behind a flashback tale that ended abruptly after the first two episodes. Mainly, though, the problem has been the title character. Mando is the franchise’s imitation Boba Fett, yet he’s turned out to be more compelling than the real thing. You can credit some of this to Pedro Pascal giving a strong performance despite being masked 98% of the time, some to the bond with Grogu making Mando inherently lovable despite his aloofness, and some to the fact that he gets to do cool action things on a regular basis, where Boba has spent most of his own series getting his butt kicked and then being saved by Fennec and others. For decades, Boba Fett was a character beloved more for his mystique than for anything he actually did, and that mystique has somehow transferred over to his knockoff, while attempts to explore Boba’s interior life have mostly fallen flat. Devoting a whole Book of Boba episode to Mando only makes the unflattering comparisons more palpable than when it had been over a year since we last saw our buddy Din Djarin.
But, again, this is a problem for Book of Boba overall, and not for “The Return of the Mandalorian.” Whatever series you consider it a part of, it moves and sings from beginning to end.
We get to see Mando back in action in a meat locker, as he collects a bounty on Kaba Baiz. He’s still a one-man army, but the Darksaber at the moment is doing him more harm than good. His difficulty wielding the legendary weapon results in it causing a nasty leg wound that leaves him limping for the next few scenes. (Mando’s relative difficulty in beating Kaba’s goons, and the pain of the wound, leaves him angrier than we’re used to seeing him.) Even though he’s in a more classically sci-fi setting than Tatooine for these early scenes(*), he still feels very much like the hero of a Western.
(*) Look, I enjoy Tatooine as much as the next Star Wars nerd, but it felt like such a breath of fresh air to see a location like the loop-the-loop city, which felt wholly new to the franchise, yet fit neatly within the aesthetic that dates back to the 1977 movie.
At first, it seems like Mando has gone back to bounty hunting full-time in the wake of letting Grogu leave to train with Luke Skywalker. But we quickly learn that Kaba’s head was a means to an end: reconnecting with the last remnants of the Watch from Navarro, which turns out to be just the Armorer and Paz Vizsla. They heal his wound, and the Armorer gives Mando a few lessons on wielding the Darksaber, but a stay with his people is not to be. Paz is eager to reclaim the weapon his ancestors once held, leading to a duel that Mando wins through guile (and through Paz having as much trouble wielding the Darksaber as Mando does). And the Armorer is disappointed to learn that Mando has taken off his helmet. (Just imagine how she would feel that he had done it multiple times in front of people!) The Season Two finale had already been setting us up for the idea of Mando pulling away from some of his people’s teachings. He seems regretful about this here, and the Armorer presents him with an opportunity to atone — albeit one that seems impossible, since it would involve going to a part of Mandalore that the Empire apparently destroyed — but it’s clear throughout that his primary concern is less with the Watch than in reconnecting with Grogu.
He agrees to let the Armorer melt his spear, but only if it can be turned into some kind of armor for the little guy. She wraps her new creation in a small cloth package that winds up resembling Grogu’s head and trademark ears. On the commercial ship to Tatooine, Mando gazes out at the stars, no doubt thinking about his surrogate son, and is thrown when a Rodian child — with eyes as big and expressive as Grogu’s — tries waving at him from the row in front of him. After a fun, A-Team-esque stretch where he and our old pal Peli Motto (Amy Sedaris riffing like always, particularly on the subject of dating Jawas) rebuild an N-1 Starfighter — the kind of ship Anakin Skywalker flew at the end of The Phantom Menace — Fennec turns to hire him as muscle for Boba’s war with the Pyke. Mando agrees, “But first, I got to pay a visit to a little friend.”
This creates two possibilities. One is that we continue to follow Mando as he tracks down Grogu and Luke, followed by them returning to help fight the Pykes in the Boba season finale. The other is that we’re now back with Boba full time, with Mando and his snazzy, color-coded new ship perhaps swooping in to save the day in the finale, with or without Grogu in tow. That the episode ends with the Book of Boba music — rather than the hint of The Mandalorian theme we heard as Boba and Fennec discussed hiring muscle last week — suggests the latter approach is more likely. But it’s hard not to hope that “The Return of the Mandalorian” is more of a full-time deal, rather than a one-shot appearance.
Some other thoughts:
* Bryce Dallas Howard returns to the director’s chair after helming an episode apiece in the first two Mandalorian seasons. Early on, she stages a sequence presented as a single take (or a “oner,” in filmmaker slang) where we see Mando enter an elevator, ascend to the club to collect his intel on the whereabouts of the Armorer, then get back in the elevator to go in search of her.
* Mando declines payment from both the client who wanted Kaba Baiz and from Fennec, yet he’s got plenty of funds to buy the new ship from Peli. How much cash does he have on reserve?
* While Peli has conveniently replaced the ship’s droid port with a second cockpit bubble — no doubt the place where Grogu will sit when he and Mando are reunited — the ship as a whole is much smaller than the Razor Crest, with no place for Mando to sleep or eat, much less to store any carbonite-encased prisoners. The latter’s not so much an issue if he’s out of the bounty hunting game, but on the whole it feels like Mando has replaced a Winnebago with a Ferrari without also finding a new place to live.
* The episode spends an oddly large amount of time on Mando having to remove all of his weapons and place them in a secured case before he can board the commercial flight to Tatooine. Ordinarily, this kind of scene would only exist as the setup for a story where someone on the ship’s crew steals the Darksaber or one of the other weapons, and Mando has to chase them down. Instead, all the gear is just waiting for him when he lands, seemingly untouched. Or maybe the idea is that one or more of the gadgets won’t work properly when next he needs to use them?
* Finally, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee from Kim’s Convenience reprises his role from The Mandalorian as friendly New Republic cop Carson Teva. This time, he’s partnered with Lieutenant Reed, played by Max Lloyd-Jones — aka the pre-Deepfaked body of Luke Skywalker in The Mandalorian Season Two finale.