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The ‘Mandalorian’ Finale Recap: “Chapter 24: The Return” Puts a Tidy but Underwhelming Bow on Season 3

A largely lackluster third season concluded with a finale that, while refreshingly self-contained and feel-good, was also a fittingly uneven ending to an off year for the flagship ‘Star Wars’ show

Disney Plus / Getty / Ringer illustration

Does surprising straightforwardness count as a twist? If so, The Mandalorian’s Season 3 finale was as shocking as they come. The 24th chapter of the Star Wars franchise’s flagship series subverted audience expectations at every turn, not because of what did happen, but because of what didn’t. Its twist was its lack of twists.

The shortest of the series’ season finales—and the third-shortest episode of Season 3—methodically precluded or postponed several suspected and anticipated developments. After all the speculation about spies in the Mandalorians’ ranks—Lies! Deceptions!—nobody betrayed Bo or Mando. No one rode the Mythosaur, which could barely be bothered to stir from its nap. Moff Gideon wasn’t done in by the Darksaber or a fatal flaw in the forging of his beskar. Grogu didn’t dabble in the dark side or say his first word, Bo and Mando didn’t smooch, and Mando didn’t take off his helmet, leaving us to wonder whether Pedro Pascal ever visited the set this season. (He did make a cameo in the cast’s phone-camera montage.) Grand Admiral Thrawn didn’t debut, no other Mandoverse characters crossed over, and no post-credits scene set up a spinoff. The most astonishing revelation was that “Din” is evidently Mando’s last name.

There was probably no way for The Mandalorian’s latest finale to match last season’s sensational Luke Skywalker cameo, which coupled with Grogu and Mando’s first face-to-face gaze and subsequent, poignant parting. Jon Favreau didn’t try to top “The Rescue.” Instead, he tied a tidy but underwhelming bow on the overarching arc of a largely lackluster Season 3: The Mandalorians retook their planet and got their revenge against Gideon without Favreau working in any mind-blowing moments, linking the show more tightly to its shared universe, or laying a lot of groundwork for the fourth season. The result was a refreshingly self-contained, unexpectedly uncomplicated, and occasionally rushed climax. “The Return” is a feel-good finale that didn’t make me feel much pathos, suspense, or excitement. It’s less a season saver than a fittingly uneven ending to an off year.

“The Return,” which was written by Favreau and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, begins with two scenes that set the tone for a high-stakes but somewhat low-adrenaline finale. First, Bo orders Axe Woves to evacuate the Mandalorian fleet, use Gideon’s former flagship as a decoy to distract the TIEs, and take the fight to the planet’s surface. Axe copies, seems to accept her instructions, and gives no indication that he’s about to turn heel. Then, less than two minutes into the episode, Mando escapes. Gideon, we glean, sent his prisoner off with an escort of two troopers whose beskar doesn’t make them much more formidable than standard stormtroopers. (Overconfidence is Gideon’s weakness—and faith in friends is the Mandalorians’ strength.) Mando, who’s been playing unconscious en route to detention, turns the tables by just sorta shoving his captors, then knocks one of them out with his wrists still tied together. The other eventually regains the upper hand, but Grogu appears just in time to crumple the trooper’s weapon and hold him in place while Din—or is it Djarin?—delivers a roundhouse-kick KO.

Without much muss or fuss, Mando is free and no worse off from the flames and blaster bolts that the troopers aimed his way. Although the rescue seems abrupt, the good news is that Mando and Grogu are together again, reunited as they were when Mando saved Grogu from Gideon in “The Rescue.” This isn’t the last time they’ll form a tag team in this episode—and it isn’t the last time a weapon will get crumpled, either. The quick confrontation foreshadows the fights against Gideon and the Praetorian Guards, and it also salutes the scene in the Season 1 finale when IG-11 sprayed bacta on Mando’s wounds. This won’t be the last time that “The Rescue” calls back to “Redemption.”

“Grogu, I’m going to need you to be brave for me, OK?” Mando asks. “We can’t keep running. If we don’t take out Moff Gideon, this will never end.” On many occasions, Mando has dropped Grogu off at day care with the likes of Kuiil, Peli Motto, or Lizzo and set off to complete a quest on his own. There’s no safe harbor here, however, and after bailing out Mando more than once on Mandalore alone (not to mention his saves in previous seasons), Grogu has earned a permanent place by his dad’s side. Djarin—OK, that’s throwing me more than learning the name of “Baby Yoda”—asks whether Grogu is with him, which should go without saying: When the going gets tough, Grogu gets going.

Gideon knows that his prisoner has escaped: He’s standing at a Metroid-map-looking diagram of the underground facility, monitoring the movements of Mando and Grogu much as Mando used to track his bounties. He stalks off to deal with them himself, Darth Vader style, though he seems to take an indirect route. The next action sequence hinges on R5-D4, whom we’ve barely seen since the droid told Captain Teva the covert’s location in Chapter 21. Like Grogu, R5 kinda comes out of nowhere to solve Mando’s problems, but this is the finale, and the gang’s all here. (Including the decidedly loyal Axe, who takes on the TIEs single-handedly in the upper atmosphere after sending the rest of the cruiser’s crew and accompaniment to Bo’s aid.)

Mando can’t seem to decide whether he hates droids or loves them—R5 is his buddy now?—but if R5’s assistance isn’t as dramatic or emotional as IG-11’s sacrifice in Season 1, it still helps father and son out of a tight spot. First, the droid determines the location of Gideon’s command center; then, like R2-D2 bailing out Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie by shutting down all the garbage mashers on the detention level, R5 shuts down all the Phantom Menace–esque laser gates barring the boys of Clan Mudhorn from their destination. Mando is unarmed, but the combination of plot armor and beskar allows him to take out the troopers one by one, incapacitating some and dropping others down the vintage open chasms prized by Imperial architects. It’s a fun enough fight, though it won’t make anyone forget the Duel of the Fates.

In the hall of cloning tanks beyond the hall of laser gates, Mando and Grogu confirm one of the few fan theories vindicated by “The Return”: Gideon has been trying to clone himself. Back in Chapter 19, Dr. Pershing complained that his “research was twisted into something cruel and inhumane, at the behest of a desperate individual intent on using cloning technology to secure more power for himself.” Back in Season 1, it seemed likely that Gideon sought Grogu’s high-M-count blood to advance what we now know as Project Necromancer: the Shadow Council’s ongoing effort to develop a viable clone host for Emperor Palpatine. Perhaps he was, at first; Gideon’s base on Nevarro housed clones that resembled strandcasts like Snoke.

As his lie last week about his own interest in cloning suggested, though, Gideon is freelancing as a self-serving clone creator, a project he tasked Elia Kane with wiping from Pershing’s mind. His research isn’t intended to resurrect or curry favor with Palpatine, or to support Captain Pellaeon and Brendol Hux, but to establish himself as the Force-sensitive leader the Imperials lack. And he would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling Mandalorians who let all the liquid out of the clones’ tanks. For the third straight finale, Gideon’s scheme is thwarted, though the reveal of his latest special weapon lacks weight because the unattended, undefended clones are so quickly and easily dispatched. (Which isn’t to say that they can’t come into play down the road: Perhaps Project Necromancer will find some other way to repurpose whatever breakthroughs he and Pershing may have made.)

Before the inevitable big bad monologue and duel, we watch as Bo and the skiff crew—no, they’re not spies either—visit an underground garden where Mandalore’s native flora, like its armored inhabitants, have returned. The planet is repairing itself after eons of civil war, just as the splintered Mandalorian factions are. “Life persists,” says the skiff captain, channeling Ian Malcolm. And just as he adds that all the plants—like the people—need is “room to grow,” the Armorer (also still loyal!) reports that Bo’s reinforcements have arrived. Pumped by this display of unity and rebirth, Bo declares, “Let’s take back our planet” and jets off at the head of a flock of Mandalorians, Darksaber extended, to meet Gideon’s commandos in midair. It’s one of the episode’s most stirring shots, and a last hurrah for the soon-to-be-borked blade.

Back at the base, Mando and Grogu go from asphyxiating clones (which seems ethically thorny) to confronting Gideon right next to his map room. (Somehow, he still seems to be standing in almost the same place despite having stalked off in his previous scene, which makes me wonder where he was going and why he didn’t intercept Mando before he killed the clones.) The two commence pummeling each other, which continues for some time and grows progressively less compelling once it becomes clear that, encased in beskar, they’re both basically invulnerable. (It’s a little like watching superheroes and supervillains punch each other at the end of a Marvel movie.) Mercifully, Bo flies down to join the melee and break up the monotony, assuring Din, “I’ve got this. Go save your kid.” After she taps in, Gideon taunts her: “What’s it gonna be this time? Surrender or fight?” It’s a rhetorical question.

The kid in question is in an adjacent room, where he has his hands full with the Praetorian trio. In classic Star Wars fashion, the guards have amputated one of IG-12’s arms and forced Grogu out of his Krang-esque conveyance. He evades them for a time via acrobatic leaps à la Luke, but he’s eventually pinned as Anakin and Obi-Wan almost were after their showdown with Dooku. Just as Yoda saved Anakin and Obi-Wan, Din—first name or surname, you decide—saves Grogu, returning the favor from earlier in the episode. Then the two fight as a true team, with Grogu’s timely Force pushes and pulls allowing Mando to outmaneuver and defeat the daunting enemies. “You did good, kid,” go the gruff congratulations.

Back in the hangar, the duel between Gideon and Bo is going Gideon’s way: The Moff brings more fruitless slashing to an end by grabbing Bo’s hand and crushing the Darksaber. Why the hilt is crushable, I can’t say: In The Book of Boba Fett, Mando says, “The hilt is of a quality of beskar I have never seen before.” (Um, maybe it’s really low quality?) One way or another, the weapon fizzles out, prompting Gideon to gloat, “Mandalorians are weak once they lose their trinkets.” But Bo retorts with one more reprisal of her season-long refrain, “Mandalorians are stronger together,” just as Mando and Grogu return to the fray. Gideon still seems invulnerable, but unbeknownst to him, the cruiser of Damocles is hanging over his head: Woves, another Mandalorian Bo is stronger with than without, has aimed the plummeting, flaming cruiser at the base and abandoned ship.

As the cruiser makes cave-fall, Gideon is consumed by an even bigger fireball than the one that killed Gus Fring. Even if the flames don’t melt his beskar, he’ll be baked inside. It’s poetic justice: The perpetrator of the Night of a Thousand Tears is killed on Mandalore’s surface by a bombardment from the sky (and his former flagship). But our heroes, who’ve been fighting him to a standstill with their powers combined, are spared the same superheating by Grogu, who constructs an inflammable Force bubble around his adoptive parents. It’s a supersized version of his protective display against the flame trooper in the Season 1 finale.

It’s also not unlike the devastating death of Kanan Jarrus in Rebels Season 4, though this time the outcome is a lot less tragic.

With Gideon vanquished, it’s time for the “Yub Nub” portion of the program: Peace is in place, for the moment, and the Mandalorians are savoring their hard-fought victory. Beside the Living Waters, Ragnar finishes taking the oath that was interrupted by an alligator, and though we know no monster can resist him, his appetizing presence doesn’t summon the Mythosaur (though Grogu soon touches the beast’s mind and makes it open its eyes). With Ragnar’s ceremony complete, Mando announces that Grogu is no longer a foundling: He’s an apprentice, too. “He is too young to speak, so he is too young to take the Creed,” the Armorer objects, which seems like a setup for Grogu’s long-awaited first words.

Instead, it’s a prelude to adoption: If Mando becomes Grogu’s legal guardian, in the eyes of the cult, he can give parental consent. “Let it be written in Song that Din Djarin is accepting this foundling as his son,” the Armorer intones, telling Grogu, “You are now Din Grogu, Mandalorian apprentice.” (Thank goodness Grogu evidently doesn’t have to have a helmet yet, though that’s still on the table if the Children don’t eventually relax their still-rigid internal rules.) Early in the episode, Mando asked Grogu, “Will you cut me loose?” Now they’re forever bound together. Last season, Djarin gave Grogu up for adoption by Luke; here he makes his own fatherhood official.

After the baptism, Bo lights the Great Forge, and her quest is all over but the shouting: “For Mandalore!” Then it’s time to tie up a couple of loose ends. Din Djarin and Din Grogu fly to Adelphi Base, where (as Dave Filoni’s Trapper Wolf looks on) Djarin offers to become an independent contractor working for Captain Teva. (It turns out that Mando is the ranger of the New Republic that Cara Dune was once supposed to be.) Djarin and Grogu also spot an IG head behind the bar that they take to their next stop, Nevarro. There, a rebuilt IG-11 is installed as marshal and takes up pirate patrol, and Greef gives Djarin and Grogu the keys to the city a cozy cabin outside town. That’s where we leave them: Mando, with his legs up, lazes outside his homestead, while Grogu blissfully levitates a frog. I want to go to there.

There’s a lot to like about this resolution. Though the season strayed too often from its dynamic duo, the denouement is all about them, as the iris out emphasizes.

In Westerns, gunslingers so rarely get to go inside and enjoy the spoils of civilization. As Mando notes in his pep talk to Grogu, the two have been on the run since Season 1. Frankly, I love this quiet life for them: They deserve domestic bliss and a place with more space than the starfighter they’ve been living out of all season.

I also appreciate that “The Return” steered clear of the most obvious paths to victory: Gideon being felled by a beskar defect and the Mythosaur riding to the rescue seemed like such locks that the TV bookmakers probably weren’t taking action on either, yet neither came to pass. I still have some questions—if the Imperials’ armor isn’t shoddy, what was with the beskar fragment embedded in the prison transport’s wall?—but ultimately, it’s satisfying that the Mandalorians’ triumph didn’t rely on objects, symbols, or wildlife. The Mythosaur that rose up to herald a new age of Mandalore wasn’t the actual Mythosaur (which didn’t really rise up at all); it was, perhaps, the painted Mythosaur skull on Gideon’s commandeered flagship. Bo hadn’t “lost everything” when the Darksaber was destroyed; she had gained much more through comradery. The Darksaber suffered an ignominious end for something with so much buildup and lore, but the weapon was never that important to Mando, who followed Bo out of loyalty to her, not to her sword. Those icons and legends were merely means to an end, keys to unlock the combined clans’ strength. And when Gideon went down, it wasn’t in single combat; it was a true team effort. Maybe the governance of Mandalore can be, too.

There were disappointments, too. Not because “The Return” deflated fan theories—I respect red herrings, and it’s never wise to let the show you think you’ll see interfere with the one you’re watching—but because catharsis was in short supply. Although the focus was once more on Mando and Grogu by the end, the adoption didn’t deliver as much emotion as their previous unions or separations. I wasn’t wondering when Mando would formally adopt Grogu. As far as I was concerned, he’d adopted him already: There hasn’t been any doubt about those characters’ commitment to each other since Grogu left Luke. Meanwhile, Mando’s attitude toward the Creed and his helmet wearing didn’t evolve at all, even though the Armorer embraced a more ecumenical stance. (It’s hard not to wonder whether Pascal’s availability drove that decision.) Nor did Grogu seem to struggle with his growing power, or require his dad’s guidance to synthesize nonviolent Jedi teachings with more martial Mandalorian traditions. (Grogu successfully strikes that balance on his own.)

And while it was nice to be back with the boys, it would’ve been nice to see a post-battle confab (not to mention a make-out sesh) between Bo and Djarin, given Bo’s centrality to the season. After all they survived and accomplished together, some closing conversation, heartfelt goodbye, or indication of a future together was warranted. Last, I didn’t care for the comeback of IG-11, which undercut the droid’s sacrifice in Season 1. At least dub the new marshal IG-13 to show that this is a different droid! (Couldn’t the Dins have served as part-time marshals when not on New Republic business?)

In delivering an unreserved victory for the Mandalorians and a resounding demise for Gideon—unless he has clones stashed elsewhere and somehow returns—Chapter 24 left so few prominent plot threads dangling that it felt more like a series finale than a season ender. However, there’s more Mandalorian on the way. So what’s in store for Season 4, which is already written, though not yet announced or filmed?

That idyllic last scene could prefigure a fourth season that’s more like the first, which wouldn’t be unwelcome: another “return,” this time to a more episodic structure. “You and the little one, you can settle down, you can hang up your blaster,” Greef said in the season premiere. “Live off the fat of the land.” Sounds sweet! It also sounds unlikely, though, considering the ever-expanding scope of this series and the Mandoverse at large: There are spinoffs to support and a movie to set the stage for. As the Armorer said, “You must leave Mandalore and take your apprentice on his journeys, just as your teacher did for you.” (Wait, who was Mando’s teacher? Is she talking about herself? Is Din her name?)

In light of this low-key ending—and the Book of Boba Fett precedent—it wouldn’t be surprising to see The Mandalorian’s stars show up in Ahsoka and/or Skeleton Crew later this year. Grogu’s purrgil sighting in the premiere and Mando’s loose affiliation with the New Republic provide plenty of ways for them to tangle with Thrawn now that Gideon has ceded his seat on the Shadow Council. Plus, what about Bo? Is there much more of Mandalore’s story to tell in The Mandalorian, or will she show up on other spinoffs or get her own show like Fett?

A few years ago, I used this GIF of Ahsoka gracefully touching down on Mandalore to illustrate how The Clone Wars stuck the landing in its series finale.

All in all, “The Return” landed more like this:

I described “The Return” as a feel-good finale, but I don’t feel that good about it. It was more of a safe chip and putt to stay out of a sand trap or pond and avoid a double bogey than a risky but brilliant birdie to get back to even par. That’s not solely the finale’s fault; it’s also a reflection of the failings of the first six episodes. This was a strange season, one that clearly paid a price for The Book of Boba Fett fast-forwarding through Grogu’s training and reunion with Mando, some distracting detours and spinoff and sequel service, and, perhaps, the demands on Favreau as Filoni—who, in a departure from past seasons, didn’t direct or get sole screenwriting credit on any episodes—helmed or helped oversee The Mandalorian, The Bad Batch, Tales of the Jedi, and Ahsoka almost simultaneously. (Favs, please proofread and revise those Season 4 scripts carefully.)

Because fans and industry analysts tend to track the rising and falling fortunes of IP the way they obsess over sports, perceptions of franchise well-being seem to swing wildly with each release. Recency bias is built into the constant temperature checks and trend pieces. Consider how the conversations surrounding the critical acclaim and popular appeal of Star Wars shifted from Book of Boba and Obi-Wan Kenobi to Andor to the first several installments of The Mandalorian Season 3. Even with a wobbly slate of episodes from Favreau and Co., though, the state of Star Wars feels fairly strong.

The franchise is nothing if not prolific: Jedi: Survivor, the much-hyped sequel to Jedi: Fallen Order, comes out later this month, followed by the animated Visions and Young Jedi Adventures in early May. After ceding the summer spotlight on Disney+ to the MCU’s Secret Invasion, Star Wars will strike back later in 2023 with Ahsoka and Skeleton Crew (which will likely sandwich the second season of Loki). Next year will bring the premiere of The Acolyte, the return of Tales of the Jedi, the conclusions of Andor and The Bad Batch, and potentially more Mandalorian or Ahsoka. And there are, at last, more timeline-stretching movies in the making, though they’re years away. The Mandalorian’s success made much of this small-screen proliferation possible. And now that the first live-action Star Wars series has stumbled—temporarily, at least—it’s on the projects it spawned to pick up some of the slack.