On December 4, immediately after Chapter 14 of the deeply satisfying Star Wars-themed The Mandalorian was released online, my three sons and I settled in to watch the new episode of our favourite show. This one – it was directed by Quentin Tarantino’s close friend and regular collaborator Robert Rodriguez – was all action and special effects. But then the unexpected: fiendish, robotic Dark Troopers descended to kidnap “Baby Yoda” whose adorably burbling presence is the emotional centre of gravity in this series. Looking over at my shocked 12-year-old, I saw him burst into tears. My eyes were spilling over too, but not exactly for the same reason.
Television has never been a big part of our family life. When the boys were younger, I enforced strict blackout on “the idiot box” and resolutely steered them towards our library shelves, or, alternatively, downstairs to play. Even after they grew older and acquired screens of their own, I sternly resisted any satellite, cable or digital subscriptions for the family.
This year, however, the pandemic has rearranged our lives so thoroughly that I was compelled to relent. Now we have a couple of streaming services and assemble ensemble to watch something in the evenings for an hour or so. Every Friday for the past two months, that has meant The Mandalorian.
In today’s fractured era, the experience of coming together as a family to watch something together has a decidedly retro feel. But that perfectly suits The Mandalorian, which is glorious futuristic kitsch of the old school but taken to the zenith of 21st century technological possibilities: fantastically weird creatures, gleaming weaponry, really bad baddies, and endless platoons of gleaming stormtroopers to be mowed down by our heroes (it has been over 40 years since the movies began, and the Empire’s armour still crumples fatally with the slightest blow, even from a rock). The new series gleams with expense, but the actors are every bit as deliciously hammy as in the original trilogy.
Comic book fare
Back in 1977, when the world first became acquainted with Luke Skywalker and “the Force.” the great critic Pauline Kael delivered crisp judgement that it was comic book fare:
“Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes…it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus.
An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts – it has no emotional grip. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.”
But by the time Empire Strikes Back sequel came out, just three years later, she had been converted. “I can hardly wait for the next one,” she wrote.
By then, of course, Star Wars had made a world record $323 million, and kickstarted movie merchandising as we know it today. Much of our commercial cinematic landscape, all those superhero movies crowding our screens each year, the incredible advances in special effects, the franchise films that the world has come to love: they all started then.
But the cultural impact was even more profound: by 1985 Ronald Reagan – consummate actor that he was – was saying “The Force is with us” and comparing the Soviet Union to the Galactic Empire. Much later, of course, our own prime minister Narendra Modi baffled his audience in New York’s Central Park with the message, “May the force be with you!”
In the early years, no one understood the scale of George Lucas’s ambition. The creator of Star Wars once explained, “I studied anthopology…myths, stories from other cultures. It seemed to me that there was no longer a lot of mythology in our society, the kind of stories we tell ourselves and our children, which is the way our heritage is passed down. Westerns used to provide that, but there weren’t Westerns anymore. I wanted to find a new form. So I looked around, and tried to figure out where myths came from. It comes from the borders of society, from out there, from places of mystery.” Then, “I thought space.”
Lucas was profoundly influenced by The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell’s classic book about the archetypical hero, which argues that common narrative patterns underlie most great myths. The two men grew close together after Campbell became the first person to ever binge-watch the trilogy, at the director’s invitation, and the latter’s work started to become much denser with classical allusions and implications.
The composer John Williams – whose stirring, unforgettable music is another crucial ingredient in the series’ staying power – went on to say, “Until Joe told us what Star Wars meant, we regarded it [as pretty much] a Saturday morning space movie.”
Timeless story traditions
Thus, if you linger just below the surface of the high-tech hijinks in Lucas’s oeuvre, you will find many connections to timeless story traditions. There are Arthurian elements: orphan children who discover they are born for greatness, and are nurtured by magical mentors. Another distinct influence is Richard Wagner’s four-part operatic masterpiece, Der Ring des Nibelungen. But what has always struck me the hardest is the omnipresent imprint of Oedipus Rex, the Athenian masterpiece written by Sophocles in the 5th century BC, and this is where we start looping back to my couch in Goa in December quarantine.
We all know the gist of Freud’s formulation of the oedipal complex: boy meets girl (she’s actually his mother) and beats off the competition (who happens to be his father), and it’s only when the boy manages to kill off Pops that he becomes a real man.
In the Star Wars chronological timeline, the two biggest inflection points turn on this theme. Luke learns he’s Darth Vader’s son, but then the monster redeems himself by calling on some inner reserve that has held out against “the dark side.” In The Force Awakens, it is Kylo Ren’s turn to face off against Dad – this time it’s no secret – and he kills Han Solo mercilessly, even thanking him for making it easy.
That parricide came to the screens in 2015, full 38 years after the original Star Wars, and was quickly followed by The Last Jedi (2017) and The Rise of Skywalker (2019). The initial trilogy has become nine movies, which are now called “The Skywalker Saga.” But while George Lucas’s unmistakable stamp lingered in the first six (he wrote the story for all of them), things went haywire with the last three. In my mind, they are blurred into an amorphous, bland, boring narrative soup. You perked up to pay attention when Mark Hamill showed up, but could easily just nap through the rest.
That deeply dubious recent legacy is precisely why The Mandalorian was such a surprise, from the moment my sons first insisted we log in to view it, just when lockdown was really geting us down. These are familiar Campbellian tropes, but rendered with considerable panache and an unexpected streak of comedy. The story line is simple enough; an essentially unscrupulous bounty hunter is hired by Empire remnants (the same good old bad guys) to capture and deliver a child – who turns out to be a minuscule, doll-like, Yoda-type semi-human – and does so, but then regrets his actions. He turns back, rescues “the kid” and then launches himself back across the galaxy to find the right place to leave him in safety.
One of the reasons this series is so fantastically enjoyable is casting. The grizzled, always-slightly-sinister Werner Herzog is the initial client. Carl Weathers shows up as head honcho of the bounty hunters. Nick Nolte is the hilarious voice of the mutton-chopped semi-human Kuiil, whose catchphrase is “I have spoken.” But despite these stellar actors, the strongest psychological interplay takes place – most fascinatingly – between the Mandalorian, who never takes off his mask, and the tiny animatronic urchin who never says an intelligible word.
How can this possibly be? It’s because the presence of “the kid” makes the Mandalorian into a father. By the last two episodes, those around him are casually referring to Grogu (that turns out to be his name) as “his kid”. In between, we see the literally expressionless bounty hunter nonetheless soften, warm up, nurture, play with, clean up after, chasten, and take pride in his charge. This is Daddy duty exactly as we all recognise it, except his space-age pram floats super-cool, whereas ours still have wheels.
When the drifting bounty hunter first picked up Grogu, it was evident his main bearings – the heart of his way of being – was the obscure Mandalorian code: maintain bargains, accept duels, and, above all, never remove your helmet in front of any living being. He keeps repeating, “This is the way.” But then, like all Dads everywhere, his life becomes utterly transformed by the unspoken commitments that tie you to your children, and which wind up radically remaking all the other ways of thinking that preceded them. Thus, when it counted (spoiler alert): the Mandalorian code got broken, and that was the way.
A couple of times after watching The Mandalorian with my sons, I woke up from my night’s sleep with the realisation that it had penetrated my dreams. It would appear that our pandemic predicament, with uncertainty its only constant, has some resonance with the setting of the series. Our lives have become disrupted, and – like the bounty hunter – I am having difficulty computing its new patterns.
My oldest son is home only temporarily because his college is closed. In a couple of months he will turn 21 and enter fully-fledged adulthood. How did that happen? His 17-year-old brother has somehow morphed himself into a competitive cyclist, and spends his days winging through far-flung villages in the hinterland. Where is he now? Your guess is as good as mine.
At this point, the only household fixture, besides his parents, is our youngest, and even he is growing up much too fast, visibly sprouting to an alarming extent. On December 4, when we were watching that dramatic episode of The Mandalorian, I was feeling great dread about his birthday a few days later, when the baby of the family would become just another teenager (another spoiler alert: it happened, there was no way to prevent it). Sweet boy that he is, my son cried because Grogu was nabbed by the bad guys. But my tears were for his Dad.
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.