This week, the penultimate episode of The Mandalorian’s second season answered a question absolutely no one was asking: What if Grogu took an episode off?
For the first time in the series, The Mandalorian’s breakout character received zero screen time. And unlike the landmark two episodes that preceded it, Chapter 15 didn’t reveal any pivotal plot points, relate any long-awaited origin stories, or introduce any iconic crossover characters. But even though “The Believer” was less sensational than “The Jedi” or “The Tragedy”—or, for that matter, than Disney’s spotlight-stealing preview of multiple Mandalorian spinoffs and other upcoming Star Wars projects—the series still supplied a contemplative, touching, and explosive installment that functioned as a mostly satisfying setup for next week’s finale.
On The Mandalorian, even the comparative calm before the storm makes for a turbulent time. “The Believer” begins with the Dirty Third-of-a-Dozen (Din, Cara Dune, Boba Fett, and Fennec Shand) visiting the Karthon Chop Fields to spring prisoner Migs Mayfeld (Bill Burr), the ex-Imperial sharpshooter Mando delivered into a New Republic prison cell back in Chapter 6. (I guess Greef Karga is too busy being a magistrate to help rescue the kid who saved his life.) That’s the easy part: Cara, the newly appointed New Republic marshal, immediately abuses her authority by bending some rules to take custody of Mayfeld and walking him straight to Slave 1, where he’s dismayed to meet not only Fett—glowed up with a fresh coat of green paint, a patched-up helmet, and a trusty EE-3 rifle—but also his old frenemy Mando.
Din and Dune explain that they need Mayfeld to get them Moff Gideon’s coordinates. Like any self-respecting mercenary, Mayfeld wonders what’s in it for him. “You get a better view,” Cara says. Unsightly as the TIE fighter graveyard where Mayfeld is serving his sentence may be, a change of scenery doesn’t seem like sufficient incentive to accept a hazardous mission—unless, perhaps, Mayfeld has his own reasons for opposing the Empire. (More on that in a moment.) He agrees to go along, but in time-honored Mandalorian tradition, he hands our heroes a side quest: He can’t acquire the coordinates unless he has access to an internal Imperial terminal. Too bad Mando & Co. blew up the base on Nevarro! Fortunately, Mayfeld knows of a secret mining hub on Morak where he can hack to his heart’s content.
Once on Morak—a verdant world making its first appearance in Star Wars—the crew concocts a plan to hijack an armored Imperial Juggernaut, impersonate its pilots, and slip into the base, where they can plunder the database for Gideon’s whereabouts and head to the roof to await pickup. As always, there’s a catch: Imperial Remnant bases are set up by former members of the Imperial Security Bureau, whose scanners could identify fugitives Fennec and Cara as imposters. Fett is out, too: “Let’s just say they might recognize my face,” he says, referring to the features he shared with every Jango clone who once wore white armor (and/or to his history of accepting Imperial bounties). The only member of the quartet who can accompany Mayfeld is Din—who hasn’t shown his face to a soul since childhood—but to blend in at the base, he’ll have to trade in his beskar for drab Imperial armor.
That means removing his helmet, which Mando doesn’t want to do. For Grogu’s sake, he acquiesces, although this step doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice. Mayfeld seems to think Mando may be breaking his vows, but a discrete helmet swap seems kosher even according to Din’s sect’s strict rules. It’s true that in Chapter 3, the Armorer asks, “Have you ever removed your helmet?” and Mando says “no.” In Chapters 4 and 8, though, Mando makes it clear that the thing he can’t do is take his helmet off in front of others, even when they’re comely widows who want to make out. In private, he’s free to flash some skin. After all, he has to eat and (hopefully) bathe from time to time, lest he smell like the stinky stormtrooper whose armor Mayfeld borrows. (Granted, removing one’s helmet to swap suits of armor is slightly different from doing so because it’s time to brush your teeth.)
After commandeering the Juggernaut, Mayfeld monologues while Mando mostly listens and laments the loss of a cockpit companion who doesn’t speak. Feeling philosophical, Mayfeld suggests that to Morak’s inhabitants, the Empire and New Republic are two sides of the same coin: invaders on their land. In Mayfeld’s mind, “Somewhere someone in this galaxy is ruling, and others are being ruled.” Who’s doing the ruling doesn’t make much difference. Knowing what we know, bothsidesing the battle between the Empire and the Rebellion/Republic is sort of a false equivalence: Only one combatant in this conflict is controlled by a Sith Lord who builds world-destroying superweapons. But Mayfeld makes some sense from a certain point of view. For the casualties of a war that’s much bigger than any one world, dead is dead, whether the murder weapon was fired by the old Republic or the Separatists or the New Republic or the Empire. Or, for that matter, by the Mandalorians.
Mayfeld’s reverie/Vietnam allegory (not a new theme for Star Wars) is interrupted by another obstacle erected in the path of our protagonist: a pirate raid. Strangely, these pirates aren’t trying to steal the Juggernaut or the volatile rhydonium the Empire is mining on Morak. They just want to blow up some stormtroopers. (Maybe they’re trying to drive the Remnant off the planet so they can pirate in peace.) They succeed in destroying every other transport, but a beskar-less Mando and Mayfeld hold them off until two TIE fighters fly to the rescue, an expectation-subverting inversion of the enemy X-wing pilots from Chapter 10. Meanwhile, Mayfeld limits his speed to avoid detonating the rhydonium, reminding me of many video game missions in which a meter measures the damage to a vehicle’s fragile cargo—and the requisite assortment of movie homages.
Another classic films influenced the new episode mandalorian:— Bel (@bel_oww) December 11, 2020
Wages of Fear + Mad Max + Inglourious Basterds pic.twitter.com/DTQruGgmiM
In this case, the cavalry are the troopers and pilots we’re used to seeing as enemies. “Never thought you’d be happy to see stormtroopers,” Mayfeld says. Inside the base, Imperial troops celebrate the transport’s survival. The cognitive dissonance of seeing Imperials save the day and then let loose like the Rebels after Yavin or Endor—albeit with the odd “Glory of the Empire!” shouted from the crowd—drives home Mayfeld’s moral relativist stance: “If you’re born on Mandalore you believe one thing, if you’re born on Alderaan, you believe somethin’ else.” But Mayfeld doesn’t maintain his detached, self-interested, realist/survivor persona for long.
Mayfeld finds the terminal he needs in the officers’ mess, the Morak equivalent to Eddie Izzard’s Death Star canteen. But before he can access it, he’s spooked by the sight of his former commanding officer, Valin Hess (played by former Night King Richard Brake). He wants to bail, but Mando won’t abort. However, he can’t clear the terminal’s facial scan while wearing his mask, so he does the unthinkable: he embraces full frontal facial nudity. This is the emotional moment The Mandalorian has been building up to, and it’s sad that Grogu isn’t there for the adult Din’s first time; it’s one thing to forget the face of your father, and another never to know it. If you had Migs Mayfeld, of all people, in the “first person to see Mando’s face” pool, congrats—you lead a charmed life.
After Mando passed up a perfect opportunity to unmask himself earlier in the episode, it would have been a letdown if he hadn’t done the deed this week. Some combination of devotion to his tiny, captive clanmate and Bo-Katan’s truth bomb in Chapter 11 convinced him to abandon a lifelong belief and to put his friend and fellow foundling before the Way. (As Mayfeld says, “Everybody’s got their lines they don’t cross until things get messy.”) Mando, who understandably looks like he’s forgotten how to use his face, does put a bucket back on his head when his business at the base is done, but by then, Mayfeld has seen everything. I took the over on five minutes of facetime for Pedro Pascal in our Season 2 entrance survey, and I’m feeling better about that bet after clocking his unhelmeted head at slightly more than three minutes of total time on screen. Still, he’s not surrendering his habits easily, although even replacing his helmet is a concession of sorts; so much for Mando’s comment to Cara last season that after taking off one’s helmet in polite company, “you just can’t ever put it back on again.”
Let me pause here to offer some free feedback for the Imperial Remnant’s network security crew. This attack was a test of the Empire’s preparedness for cyber warfare, and the defenses failed so spectacularly that the entire IT department should stop filling out TPS reports and start chomping on the suicide pills Gideon gives his officers. For one thing, it’s way past time to change the passwords. Mayfeld mustered out less than five years ago, but probably not a lot less. That’s certainly long enough that his “clearances and protocols” should be far from current. Second: Update your personnel files! I’ve been locked out of a work account on the day I left a job, and my work wasn’t as sensitive as Mayfeld’s. Are you telling me he has indefinite access to the database because he served as a sniper a long time ago? He doesn’t even bother to put on his helmet when he enters the base! (Side note: Maybe make helmets with better visibility.) And then there’s the face scanner, a piece of sophisticated tech that…doesn’t do anything except make sure you remembered to take your helmet off and confirm that you have a face? Why does Din pass the scan? I get that the Empire isn’t at its height here, but if this week was emblematic of the Remnant’s security standards, getting Grogu back should be easy.
Hess, the rare Imperial officer who lacks a clipped Coruscanti (read: British) accent, is initially suspicious of Mando’s inability to answer basic questions, but Mayfeld manages to allay his concerns so thoroughly that Hess offers them a drink to celebrate their rhydonium delivery. Hess reveals himself to be a true believer along the lines of Werner Herzog’s Client and Titus Welliver’s captain. “The New Republic is in complete disarray, and we grow stronger,” he brags. Recalling the Client’s last words in Chapter 7 (also delivered over drinks), he asserts that order, not freedom, is what the galaxy craves, and insists that the masses will welcome the Empire’s second ascendance. (Judging by the sequel trilogy, he’s not necessarily wrong.)
Mayfeld isn’t drinking the Kool-Aid (or the free round). He proposes a toast to Operation: Cinder (see below) and goads Hess by bringing up an atrocity the officer oversaw at Burnin Konn, in which an entire city was sacrificed, supposedly for the “greater good.” Hess—who shares a surname with a well-known Nazi convicted of crimes against peace—doubles down on his callousness, promising to use the rhydonium to “create havoc that’s gonna make Burnin Konn just pale by comparison.” Unable to keep his cool, Mayfeld blasts the unrepentant Hess, touching off a firefight and a frantic escape aided by Fett’s flying and Fennec and Cara’s sniper support. (It’s kind of incredible how quickly I’ve adjusted to Boba being alive and just sort of tagging along as an assistant to the regional Mandalorian.)
“The Believer” is an action-packed chapter filled with fireballs, fisticuffs, and chases, but the tense, understated scene in the officers’ mess is the episode’s most memorable confrontation. That’s a testament to the writing of Rick Famuyiwa and the acting of Bill Burr. Famuyiwa joins Dave Filoni as the only director to be behind the camera for three episodes, and he’s the only non-Favreau/Filoni writer to receive sole credit for a script. Famuyiwa co-wrote the teleplay for Chapter 6 (Burr’s debut), but his one-man effort in Chapter 15 is well stocked with subtle, perceptive dialogue that develops characters and ranges in tone from funny to chilling. I wasn’t especially sorry when Burr said in June that he wouldn’t be back for the second season, but in his reprise appearance, he brings more emotional depth to Mayfeld while also nailing laugh lines like “You know, for a second I thought you were this other guy” (to Fett) or, “What would they say on Mandalore?” (after eyeing Mando’s Imperial armor).
The conversation in the mess reframes Mayfeld’s motivations. Maybe the prospect of sticking it to the Empire—which he ended up doing by blowing up the base—was why he really agreed to go to Morak, and why he didn’t turn on Mando at the base when he easily could have done so. And maybe all that blather about bad people on both sides was a way of rationalizing his Imperial past. When he’s riding in the Juggernaut, Mayfeld says, “As far as I’m concerned, if you can make it through your day and still sleep at night, you’re doin’ better than most.” He seems like a sound sleeper unbothered by his past, but his haunted face in the mess exposes the pain lurking below the laid-back façade. “We all need to sleep at night,” he explains after offing Hess. When Mayfeld insists “we’re all the same,” Mando retorts that he and the mercenary are “nothing alike.” But unlike Lang from Chapter 13 or The Last Jedi’s DJ, they both have consciences and care about others more than they initially let on.
Thanks to his model behavior as an anti-Empire operative, Mayfeld gets to go free after all; Cara commutes his half-century sentence and looks the other way as he wanders off, not quite incensed enough about the Empire to team up long-term. But “The Believer”—an appellation that could describe almost every character this week, however twisted and evil—ends with a Mando mic drop. Like Rambo radioing Murdock to tell him he’s coming, Mando sends a holo to Gideon to put him on notice. And he does it in the most badass fashion imaginable: by reciting Gideon’s Chapter 7 speech on Nevarro right back to him, almost word for word. Gideon isn’t amused.
Gideon knows much more about Grogu than Din did last season, but he doesn’t know Grogu nearly as well. The difference in their relationships to the Child is reflected in their words: Where Gideon says “In a few moments, it will be mine,” Mando says “Soon, he will be back with me.” And where Gideon says “It means more to me than you will ever know,” Mando says, “He means more to me than you will ever know.” To Gideon, Grogu is a means to an end, a factory for midi-chlorians. To Din, he’s family.
Mando’s main man was missed this week. But the bond between the baby and his adoptive dad was always evident in Din’s actions, and Grogu’s unprecedented absence only amplified the anticipation for the finale. The “iconic battle” between Mando and Gideon that Giancarlo Esposito foreshadowed in September could be coming as soon as next week. Din wants his baby back (baby back baby back baby back baby back baby back), and he’s about to start seeking his Taken/Ransom-style revenge. And while he won’t vanquish Gideon in Chapter 16—in November, Esposito said “I have a feeling you’ll see more of me next season”—he may rescue Grogu with help from a Magnificent Seven-ish group of Fett, Fennec, Cara, and other allies (Karga? Bo-Katan? Ahsoka? Cobb?). Or maybe the second season, like the second Star Wars movie, will end with the clan still splintered, setting up an excruciating wait for the third act.
Fan service of the week
This week gave us glimpses of the “shoretroopers” from Rogue One, AA gunners sporting the elongated helmets of Death Star troopers, more OI-CT-style cranes made out of scavenged AT-ATs, and Juggernauts that resembled the variants used by the Old Republic, the Rebel Alliance, and the Empire in previous Star Wars movies and animated series. The Karthon Chop Fields setting smacked of Bracca from Jedi Fallen Order but seemed most inspired by concept art from The Force Awakens, a film that featured ample Imperial scrap on Jakku.
Rhydonium is a dangerous starship fuel featured in The Clone Wars and Rebels and described by munitions specialist Sabine Wren as “one of my oldest and most explosive friends.” Although Fett’s EE-3 original trilogy rifle returned in “The Believer,” the cycler rifle from Tatooine fired the fateful shot that took out the Empire’s base. Mayfeld covers for Mando by explaining that “his vessel lost pressure in Taanab.” That’s the planet Lando referenced in Return of the Jedi, although the Battle of Taanab that he credited for his hasty promotion to general didn’t involve the Empire. An earlier engagement between the Empire and Rebels took place on Taanab after the Battle of Yavin, which might be the skirmish Mayfeld meant.
Oddly, Poe Dameron makes a cameo in Chapter 15’s episode-ending concept art:
But the best callback of all wasn’t verbal or visual, but auditory. As Slave 1 lifted off from Morak, Boba took a cue from Jango’s tactics against Obi-Wan over Geonosis in Attack of the Clones and dropped a seismic charge, which beautifully bisected the two TIE Fighters in pursuit. To paraphrase Fett the elder, we won’t be seeing them again. That silent explosion, followed by a BRAAAAAAOHHHMM, remains some of Star Wars sound god Ben Burtt’s finest work.
Expanded universe deep dive
So wait, what was this “Operation: Cinder” that’s costing Mayfeld sleep? Before Emperor Palpatine perished—or, you know, went away for a while—he created a plan called the Contingency, which would go into effect if he died unexpectedly. The crux of the Contingency was that the Empire didn’t deserve to outlive its emperor. Thus, the death of Darth Sidious would set in motion a sequence of events that would destroy the Empire but also ensure the survival of a select group of handpicked Imperials, who would congregate in the Unknown Regions and help a stronger Empire arise out of the ashes. It’s kind of a convoluted plan, if you ask me, but Sheev was nothing if not spiteful.
Operation: Cinder was one of the Contingency’s core components. The concept called for satellites to be stationed in the orbits of selected planets, where they would spark electrical storms that would destroy their surfaces—real Sith stuff. The devastation would demonstrate the Empire’s power and, in theory, fear would keep the local systems in line. After Sidious “died” during the Battle of Endor, messenger droids relayed his last orders to Imperial officers, who were instructed to put the plan into motion. The waves of attempted scourings kept coming for many months on many worlds, although the New Republic thwarted attacks on some targets, including Naboo. Ultimately, the Contingency came up short of Sheev’s vision, although some ex-Imperials (including Gideon, perhaps) did decamp for the Unknown Regions and begin to lay the groundwork for the First Order.
Sparsely populated mining colony Burnin Konn was one of the worlds on the Operation: Cinder to-do list, and Mayfeld must have played a part in carrying out its sentence. Operation: Cinder was first mentioned in a 2015 issue of the Shattered Empire comics, but the best depiction came in the campaign of the 2017 shooter Battlefront II, which did not make the bombardment look like a good time.
Previously unseen in Star Wars
Slave I is an oddly shaped ship. When the attack craft is parked on the ground, the pilot lies horizontal, as Boba did on Kamino in Episode II. Although de-canonized Legends materials (and some Slave I toys) suggested that the younger Fett had installed a rotating cockpit that would keep him upright regardless of Slave I’s orientation, Chapter 15 suggests that Fett is still supine at least some of the time when the ship isn’t in flight.
But until Chapter 15, we hadn’t seen Slave I’s internal rotation in the passenger section as the ship takes flight. Which, well, check it out.
This is so wizard.