A review of “The Believer,” this week’s The Mandalorian, coming up just as soon as I fill out those TPS reports…
Jango Fett appeared without his helmet multiple times in Attack of the Clones. On Clone Wars, Mandalorians repeatedly showed their faces to others. The Mandalorian creative team didn’t inherit from George Lucas the idea that their leading man had to be masked at all times; it’s a choice they consciously made. Why, you might wonder, would they choose to limit themselves and their main character that way? Well, for starters, the armor looks very cool; as we’ve discussed, before last week, Boba Fett was a beloved Star Wars character almost entirely because people loved his armor, rather than for anything interesting he did or said. Second, perhaps: This is a show aimed primarily at a young audience, and a perpetually helmeted Mando will look a lot like the action figure. Third, it allowed production of Season One to happen even though the busy Pedro Pascal wasn’t around very much, since his stuntmen could wear the suit, while he could record his dialogue when convenient.
Really, though, it seemed as if the reason to give Din Djarin’s particular sect of Mandalorian warriors this rule is for a fourth reason: because the moment when our hero finally decided to go against the code and take off his helmet would feel so big, and so emotional, that its impact would be worth whatever handicaps the show had to operate under until then.
Mando briefly revealed himself in the Season One finale, but under life-threatening circumstances where he wasn’t technically violating the rules, since his only witness was a droid. That scene felt mainly like a way to assure the audience that yes, Pascal was (sometimes) wearing the suit, and also a tease of the moment we knew would eventually come, where Mando would have to choose between his creed and his individual needs or desires.
That moment comes in “The Believer” — kind of. Maybe. But no matter how the series frames Mando’s choice and its aftermath, the reveal here didn’t really justify what went on to this point.
Mando actually takes his helmet off twice in “The Believer.” The first time is just off-camera, and out of view of Cara and our old friend Mayfeld (Bill Burr, again bringing some welcome Han Solo-style, cynical energy to the proceedings), as he swaps out his Beskar armor for that of the stormtrooper he’ll be impersonating so Mayfeld can find Moff Gideon’s location. Like the bit with IG-11, it’s meant to be Mando bending the code without breaking it. But Mayfeld will soon argue that his partner is just getting cute with the rules, and that there’s a significant difference between Mando not showing his face and Mando actually appearing Beskar-less in font of others. “Everybody’s got their lines they don’t cross until things get messy,” Mayfeld suggests.
Things get messy immediately afterwards, when a group of “pirates” attack the hijacked Imperial transport that Mayfeld is driving. It’s another well-executed Mandalorian action sequence (written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa) that amusingly demonstrates how much Mando leans on the weapons built into his suit, and how much he struggles when having to use inferior Imperial gear. But it also doesn’t make a lot of sense, since why would pirates be suicidally hellbent not on stealing the cargo, but simply blowing it up? (It could be that their goal was to drive the Empire off the planet, but that’s not how anyone talks about them, and they’re of a different race than the seemingly indigenous people whom Mayfeld observes en route.)
In that way, the chase sequence is setting us up for the episode’s similarly puzzling big moment at the Imperial base. Mayfeld needs to access a terminal to get Gideon’s whereabouts, and for some reason the only one is in the officer’s mess. But Mayfeld can’t go in because one of his former commanding officers, Valin Hess, happens to be dining there. And because the terminal for some reason requires a facial recognition scan — but not proof that the face being scanned actually, you know, works for the Empire — Mando enters instead, reveals his beautiful, mustachioed mug, and gets the information he needs.
On the one hand, it is indeed a very big deal that Mando is so desperate to find and rescue Baby Yoda Grogu that he would break the most crucial of the rules he was taught as a foundling. But two elements work against it living up to the hype.
The first is that the only people who really get a good look at his face are Mayfeld and Hess, the latter of whom dies a few minutes later. And while Mayfeld is a fun guy to have at parties and/or heists, he’s simply not important enough in the larger scheme of the series to be the one who should get to see it before the kid, or Cara, or Greef, or perhaps another Mandalorian. The second revolves around what Mando told Cara back in Season One’s “Sanctuary.” When she asked what happens if he takes the helmet off in front of others, he replied, “You just can’t ever put it back on again.” Yet as soon as our motley group has escaped the base in Slave I, Mando puts on the whole Beskar kit and caboodle — helmet included.
Before that, the mission goes pear-shaped when Mayfeld turns out to have some well-hidden ideals. Face to face with Hess, who has offered celebratory drinks to what he thinks are two valiant stormtroopers, Mayfeld brings up a campaign that ended with Hess murdering thousands of civilians and Imperial troopers alike, including most of Mayfeld’s former colleagues. He can’t let it go, gunning down Hess and most of the witnesses in the room. As he and Mando are on their way out the window, Mayfeld hands Mando the borrowed Imperial helmet and promises, “I never saw your face.”
For the moment, at least, this seems like the way The Mandalorian will be having its cake and eating it, too. Mando shows his face, but nobody knows about it except for Mayfeld, and he’s not talking. (Especially not after an impressed Cara agrees to fake Mayfeld’s death and set him free, as a reward for him going beyond the call of duty in blowing up the base.) But Mando knows what he did, and has been presented to this point as someone who believes deeply in The Way of the Mandalore. Remember how offended he was to meet Bo-Katan and find out that other Mandalorians adhere to a much less stringent code? At minimum, this episode needed some kind of post-mission scene where Mando and Mayfeld talk about his decision to keep going as before, and how he has learned that some things are more important than his code, or perhaps about how meeting Bo-Katan actually taught him that there’s more than one way to be Mandalorian. Instead, Mando going helmet-less is treated more as a minor inconvenience than a moral earthquake that shatters his previous worldview.
Perhaps next week’s finale will expound on this idea some more. (Maybe, for instance, Moff Gideon will now have a recording of Mando’s face, what with it having been the last one scanned before an important base started to blow up real good?) Though it feels like mostly what we’ll have room for is lots of action, especially after Mando cuts one hell of a wrestling promo to warn Gideon that he’s coming for his young charge.
The helmet looks cool, no doubt about that. But is it really worth all this trouble? And if it can be taken off and put back on with relative ease, why has our man been sweating over it for so long?
Some other thoughts:
* This is the first episode of the series to not feature Grogu at all. Perhaps he was too busy with his appearance at yesterday’s announcement-packed Disney investor call — which included plans for multiple Mandalorian spin-offs, one about Ahsoka, and one called Rangers of the New Republic?
* Rangers of the New Republic could in theory star Cara Dune, but it feels like Disney would have said as much during the call. So maybe this season’s backdoor pilot episode about Cara didn’t go over as well as expected — or maybe Gina Carano’s antimask rhetoric was more than Disney would tolerate for the lead of a future show.
* Surely, I can’t be the only one who looked at Mando and Mayfeld on the window ledge overlooking the dam and figured they would make like another Harrison Ford character and jump into the water?
* Did Bill Burr improvise the TPS reports joke? Star Wars doesn’t usually wink at contemporary American pop culture (unless it’s within the family, like a Clone Wars episode with an in-joke about George Lucas’ film THX 1138), but when you have a chance to mention one of the most famous jokes from Office Space, why not?
* Boba has given his armor a fresh coat of paint, and also patched the hole in the helmet. Meanwhile, he takes out the TIE fighters using a seismic charge like the one his dad used against Obi-Wan Kenobi in Attack of the Clones.
* Finally, speaking of the TIE fighters, one thing this show does well is play on our expectations for what’s good and bad in the Star Wars universe. This season’s second episode briefly presented a couple of X-Wing fighter pilots as antagonists to our hero, while here the TIE fighters swoop in to save the day when Mando is on the verge of being overrun by the pirates.