The Mandalorian is a whole lot of fun. It also seems to be afraid of any lasting stakes.

The Mandalorian season three has wrapped up, and I really enjoyed it.

I found the individual episodes of the season to be fun and entertaining, and I found the overall storyline of the efforts to reclaim Mandalore, alongside the exploration of the fledgling New Republic and the emerging threat of the Empire, to be fantastic. I loved the direction the story moved. Yet the season nonetheless still felt disjointed at parts. Why is that? I’ve spent time wondering about that, and I think some of the answers people have postulated are overblown (as I’ll get into a bit). So what was it?

I’m convinced that the reason it feels a bit disjointed is because the series has an increasingly obvious fear of any lasting stakes. It sets up some radical developments, only to revert back from them before long. Consider just a few of the larger examples of this:

  • In the season one finale, IG-11 sacrifices himself to save the others. In season three, he’s brought back.
  • In the season two finale, Grogu is taken to be with Luke Skywalker. In The Book of Boba Fett, he returns to Din Djarin.
  • In the season two finale, Din removes his helmet to say goodbye to Grogu. In season three, his thoughts on the helmet rule haven’t seemed to change whatsoever.
  • In the season two finale, Moff Gideon is captured by the New Republic. By the season three premiere, it’s said that he’s already escaped.
  • In the penultimate episode of season three, Din is taken captive. Within the very opening minutes of the season finale, he’s already escaped.

To be clear, my point is not to suggest that all of those decisions were bad. But the point is that almost every time this show introduces some legitimate stakes into the equation, it very quickly undoes them. This is a series that is unafraid to take us to the edge of some major stakes, yet that’s hesitant to actually embrace any of them. It’s ok if that’s the direction the series wants to go, because there are plenty of serialized stories (including Flash Gordon) that follow these similar methods.

And I do mean that truly: I’m fine if that’s what this series wants to be. There is absolutely a place for the adventure-of-the week show that’s just a bunch of fun and shows our heroes on an epic adventure, and sometimes Star Wars fans treat everything like it needs to be galaxy-altering worldbuilding. That’s simply not the case. Not everything has to be as deep and thought-provoking as Andor. Not everything has to be as galaxy-defining as the Skywalker films. And I’m thrilled that we’re getting this kind of variety in Star Wars. I really look forward to The Mandalorian each week, and I truly enjoy the adventures of Din Djarin and Grogu. So this really isn’t as much of a criticism… except for the fact that this series seems to want to be those other things too. The Mandoverse is standing all alone in a hugely significant, yet virtually unexplored, era of the universe, with iconic characters to pull from – both those created by this series and those not. It’s trying to tell that galaxy-defining story in this period, and while the major plot points are indeed being established, I think it’s possible to do it in a way that doesn’t feel so obvious in deflating the stakes from a pivotal season two finale so quickly.

Think about what happened in the season two finale. Moff Gideon was taken captive, Grogu was taken away by Luke Skywalker, and Din Djarin finally removed his helmet in the presence of others. By the season three premiere of The Mandalorian, Moff Gideon had escaped captivity, Grogu was hanging with Mando again, and Din was trying to atone for removing his helmet. The stakes that were set up seem relatively insignificant, when viewed that way.

Stakes like that being undone are perfectly fine at times, because not all stakes are about changing the world – often they’re about changing the character. (As a side note, character development is the often-overlooked aspect by many Star Wars fans online, who assume that the only growth is galactic. But truly great storytelling is far more concerned with growing their characters in compelling ways than growing a universe in interesting ways. Both are needed, but the story that focuses on the characters can get both, while the story that focuses on the world rarely gets either.) And that’s why the stakes fall flat, because the stakes are undone in ways to avoid confronting Din Djarin in any serious way.

Bo-Katan’s character arc is actually quite satisfying. She gets another chance to lead Mandalore, gets another chance to wield the darksaber, gets another chance to defeat Gideon – but along the way she comes to realize that the darksaber isn’t where her strength really lies, and that the problem for the Mandalorians has been how they can’t stop fighting each other. So she’s the one to lead them back to the promised land, having learned the lessons herself from her period in the wilderness. It’s a great arc. Grogu, too, gets some significant development this season, as he’s growing in his Force abilities and in his Mandalorian skills, officially becoming a foundling and, then, an apprentice. This show isn’t afraid to progress these characters, but it feels like every time we approach some development for Din, an easier route is taken.

The complaint amongst some fans this season about how Din Djarin was sidelined in his own show are hollow criticisms, for there’s nothing that says a series can’t focus on more than one character. But fans complained that Rey was stealing Luke’s story, and that Fennec was stealing Boba Fett’s story, and that Reva was stealing Obi-Wan’s story, and now that Bo-Katan was stealing Din’s story, and, well, you get the point. Stories can include more than one protagonist. The problem with this season was never its focus on Bo-Katan; it’s that whenever it did focus on Din, it didn’t really know what to do with him. He was still the focal point, but the story they were telling with him was too bland.

The most notable example of this is the whole deal with his helmet. He removed his helmet in the season two finale, and I’m sure he doesn’t regret it, but he continues to cling to the rigidity of their ways. Even though the Armorer begins to accept it, and so too does Din, we don’t get even a hint of him wondering about the way. The storyline is so obvious to viewers, but we never get to see Din even acknowledge it. I suppose it’s because the show is telling a different story than many fans wanted. Many fans wanted them to say outright that this cultish way of thinking was bad, but the show actually seems to be saying that it’s good – but it can’t be used to downplay others who disagree. Maybe that will change in later seasons, but it felt like such a key thread that was dropped completely.

I’m not meaning to be overly critical of this series, for it’s truly a lot of fun and I truly love it. But this is the only real way that I can reconcile these three things: (1) each individual episode of season three was a fun adventure; (2) the overall story that the season was telling, of the reuniting of Mandalorians, was fantastic; (3) the narrative of season three felt disjointed and out of sync at times. What do I attribute the latter element to? I think it stems from the very thing I’ve been discussing in this article. The missing piece for this series is to allow the main character to truly be tested and tried, and to not be afraid of letting those stakes linger and last.

The Mandalorian is a great Star Wars series, is a lot of fun, and is telling a good story. I’m glad it exists, and I enjoyed season three. But it’s biggest weakness is that, for as good as it is at setting up some interesting and story-altering stakes, it’s just a bit too afraid to commit to any of them.

One thought on “The Mandalorian is a whole lot of fun. It also seems to be afraid of any lasting stakes.

  1. Great points, and I agree with you on them. I, too, felt Din’s character arc this season fell flat. It’s not a deal-breaker for me, I just hope the next season gets more interesting for him personally.

    Liked by 1 person

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