It’s a time-honored tradition for familiar TV characters to cross over into the spinoffs they spawned. Often, these cameos occur in the spinoff’s first season, to establish its bona fides or boost ratings for sweeps week. Lilith considers rekindling her relationship with Frasier. Mary, Lou, Murray, Georgette, and Phyllis attend Rhoda’s wedding. Hercules and Iolaus team up with Xena and Gabrielle. Philip Drummond asks Mrs. Garrett if she’s sure she wants to leave. Admiral McCoy tours the Enterprise-D, and Commander Sisko takes orders from Captain Picard.
Thus, though the Disney+ preview blurb for the fifth chapter of The Book of Boba Fett may have said “An unexpected ally emerges,” TV convention—and last week’s episode-ending musical cue—made it clear who’d be coming to Fett’s and Fennec Shand’s aid. What’s semi-surprising about Din Djarin’s appearance in the spinoff’s latest installment is that it isn’t a crossover; it’s a takeover. “They call it The Mandalorian 2.5,” Ming-Na Wen once said of Book of Boba, and the spinoff’s liminal, subordinate nature has never been more apparent than in “Return of the Mandalorian,” an episode that doesn’t feature Fett at all. Din doesn’t just upstage the Star Wars franchise’s first Mandalorian; he boots him from the stage entirely.
At 52 minutes (counting recap and credits), “Return of the Mandalorian” is longer than all but one episode of The Mandalorian proper, and between Pedro Pascal’s starring role, the supporting parts for multiple Mandalorian characters, and the direction by two-time Mandalorian helmer Bryce Dallas Howard, it might as well be the flagship show’s Season 3 premiere. Mando isn’t sitting in on someone else’s recording session; he’s booking the studio, singing lead, and playing all the solos. Consequently, “Return of the Mandalorian” does little to advance a Book of Boba season that has only two episodes left, and instead of enhancing the series’ regular offerings—as Fett and Fennec did for the Mando mothership—Din’s appearance highlights what the not-so-stand-alone spinoff lacks. Book of Boba’s first season, it seems, more accurately consists of six episodes plus a Mando detour. But as “Return of the Mandalorian” illustrates, there’s almost no point in drawing distinctions between the two: In Disney’s small-screen Star Wars universe, all things serve the dream of Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni. Whether we’re watching The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, Ahsoka, or any other possible spinoffs (spoilers!) that could come down the Pyke pike, we’re dipping into pieces of a Marvel-style unified story. And whatever purpose Din serves in Fett’s portion of that plot, it’s a genuine joy to catch up with Boba’s brother in beskar. This is the best episode of The Book of Boba Fett, because it almost entirely isn’t one.
Even before Mando’s silhouette looms behind the door flaps of the butchery where he hunts his Klatooinian quarry in the episode’s opening scene, one thing is obvious: We’re not on Tatooine anymore. No offense to Peli Motto, who’s happily spent her whole life on Tatooine, but the spinoff’s first trip offworld feels as restorative as a bacta bath. Book of Boba has helped enrich and rehabilitate the reputation of the planet farthest from the bright center to the universe, but there’s only so much Tatooine one can take, and with Obi-Wan Kenobi slated to deliver more suns and sand soon enough, it’s great to get a temporary reprieve. One of The Mandalorian’s many strengths is its tendency to planet-hop, and Mando’s visit to an as-yet-unspecified ringworld—a sci-fi staple with scant precedent in Star Wars—is as visually inventive as any setting on his home TV turf.
It’s a testament to The Mandalorian’s status as some of the best Star Wars ever made that the sight of one of Din’s trusty tracking fobs made me feel almost the same swell of nostalgia as I did for some of the episode’s subsequent original trilogy and prequel callbacks. With Grogu off at Force school, Din is back to bounty hunting, at least temporarily (in contrast to Tatooine’s Daimyo). No sooner does he deliver his “I can bring you in warm, or I can bring you in cold” catchphrase than he’s set upon by butcher Kaba Baiz and his henchmen, which prompts him to whip out the Darksaber he claimed from Moff Gideon in the Season 2 finale. When he left us, he was but the learner; now, Mando is the master.
Actually, scratch that. And by that, I mean Mando’s leg, which he wounds while he’s wildly swinging the saber. Clad nearly head to toe in impenetrable armor, all Mando has to fear is the Darksaber itself; he may be the blade’s rightful owner, but he’s barely licensed to wield it. Although his swordplay leaves a lot to be desired, he hacks and slashes through his foes like a lucky button-masher at the local arcade before butchering the butcher on top of his desk, which the Darksaber cleaves like a Spanish announce table. Then he talks his way past the surviving Klatooinians and delivers Baiz’s skull to the client, refusing to stay for a meal. If you forget to bring wine for a dinner party, you can always get a head instead.
Din isn’t here just to make credits. The bounty was a box to check (and a way to gain intel) en route to his real destination: the remnants of the covert from Nevarro. The Children of the Watch weren’t ended when the Empire cracked down on the covert, but they seem to be down to two members: the Armorer, who last appeared in The Mandalorian’s Season 1 finale, and Paz Vizsla, last seen escorting Din out of town after the Mandalorians backed him up against the Guild in Chapter 3. Mando makes three, but he’s staying conspicuously silent about the small matter of having removed his helmet, which conflicts with the first rule of following the Way.
The Armorer, who remains a walking Wookieepedia, dispenses some Darksaber exposition. Mandalorian lore holds that if the Darksaber is won in battle, “one warrior will defeat 20, and the multitudes will fall before it.” But if it falls into the hands of the undeserving, “Mandalore will be laid to waste, and its people scattered to the four winds.” Yes, I’d say that prophecy was pretty on point. In case anyone forgot what modern Mandalore looks like, the Armorer’s reverie is accompanied by a flashback to the Great Purge’s Night of a Thousand Tears, when TIEs saturation bombed the planet’s surface (destroying Sundari, Mandalore’s domed capital) and KX and Viper droids stalked and floated through the flames like nightmares straight out of Terminator 2. Small wonder that the Armorer and Vizsla don’t seem thrilled that Moff Gideon was sent to the New Republic for interrogation rather than slain on the spot. Mando assures them that he’ll be executed for his crimes, but the Armorer says “We shall see,” which sounds promising for fans of Giancarlo Esposito.
The Empire may have manufactured the ordnance, but the Armorer blames Bo-Katan for bringing the bombs upon them. Bo-Katan reluctantly accepted the Darksaber as a gift from Sabine Wren, who convinced her that the blade—and Bo-Katan’s ties to her late sister Duchess Satine, the former ruler of Mandalore—would entitle her to lead her people. But Bo-Katan failed to read the retconned fine print about paying the iron price, and the only multitudes that fell were Mandalorians. The Children lived to tell the tale because they were on Mandalore’s moon, Concordia, the hideout of the Death Watch (the warrior order from which the more dogmatic Children seem to have sprung). Their survival has convinced them of the righteousness of their rituals, as if their strict policy re: removing their hard hats saved them from the fate suffered by the brazen helmet-optional tribes.
After portentiously sharing another prophecy about a new age of Mandalore being heralded by a mythosaur—which supposedly exist only in legends (and Legends)—the Armorer melts down Morgan Elsbeth’s spear, noting that beskar is meant for armor, not weapons (Darksaber aside), and that the spear could pose a threat to the tribe. Mando requests that the beskar be used for a foundling. And not just any foundling: Mando’s main man from Clan Mudhorn, Grogu the Great and Powerful. The Armorer tries to tell Din that he’s no longer Grogu’s guardian, but he’s not ready to cut the cord: “I want to see him. Make sure he’s safe.” Din, buddy: Don’t we all. Whenever I wake up, I wonder: Is he safe? Is he all right? Seeing him alive would bring warm feelings to my heart.
The Armorer observes that attachments are taboo for Jedi, but everyone knows that Luke Skywalker isn’t Grogu’s real dad. As long as Mando has visitation rights, he’ll instill the core values of his side of the family—namely, loyalty and solidarity (of a very rigid sort). After all, it’s not as if forgoing attachments saved the Jedi from suffering the same fate of being laid to waste and scattered to the winds. The question, of course, is what Mando has in mind for his former (and future?) sidekick. For a moment, I fantasized that the spear might be big enough to produce a set of armor for Grogu, and the thought of Din and Baby Y wearing matching sets of beskar almost made me black out. Sadly, the Armorer molds the beskar into a handful of curious rings that Din puts in a pouch (which is shaped like Grogu’s head). Could they be chainmail links? Lightsaber parts? Krrsantan-style knuckle dusters? Little shiny baubles to replace the Razor Crest’s control knob, which the kid can use to practice telekinesis? This mystery fascinates me more than almost anything that’s happened previously on The Book of Boba Fett.
After forging Grogu’s beskar bling, the Armorer gives Mando a sorely needed Darksaber lesson (complete with spoken Mando’a), in which we learn that he’s still trying to overpower the weapon, which seems almost sentient. “Your body is strong, but your mind is distracted,” the Armorer says, in a scene that echoes Sabine and Kanan’s sparring session from Rebels. No kidding: My man(do) misses Grogu! Predictably, Paz chooses this moment to challenge Mando to a no-jetpacks duel. What, you thought the fact that he shares a surname with the Darksaber’s builder (and former Death Watch leader Pre Vizsla) wasn’t presaging something?
Given that the Children are a little light on enrollment, single combat between two of the remaining members doesn’t seem like the best use of the tribe’s time. But you can’t blame Paz for thinking he has as much right to the weapon as Mando does, and if he’s going to take him on, he might as well do it before Din gits gud. Paz brings a vibroblade to a Darksaber fight, but he manages to disarm Mando, only to end up with the knife at his throat when the weapon proves equally unwieldy for him. (Vizslas haven’t had the best luck in recent Darksaber duels.) Thus far, the saber seems like more trouble than it’s worth—how many more challengers (besides Bo-Katan) will Din have to fight off?—but I don’t doubt it will come in handy in this spinoff or the next.
Unfortunately for Mando, the battle brings a ritualistic end to the Armorer’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about helmet habits. When she asks him if he’s gone bareheaded, he cannot tell a lie—but unlike George Washington in the cherry tree myth, Mando isn’t rewarded for his honesty. Instead, he’s labeled an apostate and instantly excommunicated: He’s “a Mandalorian no more.” Just like that, the covert is back to two, and Din, after a fashion, is orphaned again (though he still leads Clan Mudhorn and could always ally with the more permissive Nite Owls). If he wants to be absolved of his sins in the eyes of the Children, he’ll have to complete a new quest: According to the Creed, he can be redeemed only in the living waters below the mines of Mandalore. The mines have all been destroyed, but pursuing purification seems like it could be toward the top of Din’s to-do list in Season 3. (Either that, or giving us much more face time; the Children don’t deserve Din.)
Cast out of the covert, Mando buys a ticket to Tatooine. Like the Pykes, he’s flying commercial, which—in addition to serving up some sponcon for Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser—means he has to relinquish an armory’s worth of weapons. He requests a religious exemption to the “no explosive projectiles” rule, but the security droid shuts him down like a TSA agent talking to an anti-masker. The trip gets worse when he boards and finds himself face-to-helmet with a Rodian who reminds him of Grogu. This is why it’s way better to fly private, which is what Mando is traveling to Tatooine to do.
Mando arrives in Mos Eisley just in time to bullseye a womp rat that’s menacing Peli Motto and—get this—a lovable BD droid. No, it’s not BD-1, companion of Cal Kestis, but it’s the same make and model as the Jedi: Fallen Order NPC, one of the best Star Wars video game characters (and droids) of all time. (In a nifty piece of Star Wars synergy, Lucasfilm Games and Electronic Arts officially confirmed a sequel to the game on Tuesday.) Between the BD, an R5, a gonk droid, and her pit droids, Motto has assembled quite a collection of some of the franchise’s most endearing droids. (I hope Grogu’s back by Din’s side soon, but if Mando’s in the market for another smol sidekick, he could do a lot worse than BD.)
Mando isn’t as anti-droid as he once was, but he’s still mostly immune to their charms, which makes Motto’s starfighter fixer-upper a perfect fit. As a leak last week foretold, it’s a handmade Naboo N-1, neither built by droids nor operated by one. Sure, it’s infested with scurriers, and there’s some assembly required. But the vintage ride is restored with parts sourced from Jawas, and once completed—after considerable technobabble about a turbonic venturi power assimilator and a cryogenic density combustion booster (which looks like what Han Solo uses to try to slow the Death Star’s trash compactor)—it will “track like a railspeeder” and fly “faster than a fathier.” Much, much faster.
(In the midst of bartering for “Jawa-new” ship parts, Motto drops a bombshell: Jawas are furry—very furry—which she knows because she dated one. This revelation seems likely to be big news in certain subcultures. Have Jawas looked like red-eyed Ewoks all along? If Tuskens and Jawas have a common ancestor, are Tuskens furry too? Is fur adaptive on a desert planet? I have many more questions along these lines.)
When it’s all spruced up, the ship is a beauty, sporting the same swooping, clean lines as it did on Naboo. As an empty nester, Mando doesn’t need much passenger room: The old astromech bubble is just the right size for Grogu, though there’s no place to keep captive bounties (which suggests that Mando’s hunting days may be behind him). And because the ship is stripped down to the souped-up essentials—even the paint’s gotta go—it must be among the fastest hunks of junk in the galaxy. Mando takes it for a joyride through Annie’s old podracing route and an oddly adjacent Beggar’s Canyon—sadly, he doesn’t thread the Stone Needle like Luke—and then guns it into orbit, where he gives a belated nod to the outbound Rodian and gleefully buzzes the transport. (He even tries spinning, which is a good trick.) Only one word will do to describe how the N-1 handles: wizard. It’s almost enough to forgive Peli’s suggestion that Mando charge admission to a Grogu petting zoo.
Tatooine is no longer lawless enough to get away with this stunt. Amusingly, Mando gets pulled over for speeding by two New Republic pilots, one of whom is none other than Captain Carson Teva, who helped Mando escape the ice spiders in The Mandalorian Chapter 10 and then popped up two episodes later to recruit Cara Dune (before Gina Carano was canceled). (The other pilot is played by Max Lloyd-Jones, Mark Hamill’s body double in The Mandalorian.) In space, officers can’t ask starfighter pilots to step out of their vehicles, but when the pilots threaten to seize his controls and pose some uncomfortable questions, Mando engages his afterburner and leaves the X-wings way behind. This scene, like quite a few others in this episode, is funny in a way that Book of Boba has trouble pulling off with its two stoic leads. When Boba quipped, “Next time, don’t touch my buttons” after Shand dropped the seismic charge last week, it felt like a sporting but too-late attempt to loosen up protagonists who aren’t really built for banter (with each other, at least). “Return of the Mandalorian” also marked the return of greater range and nimbleness in setting and tone, thanks in no small part to Amy Sedaris’s zany, un-Fett-like energy.
When Mando returns to the ground, he finds Fennec waiting for him. She’s hoping to hire the most expected ally to aid Fett’s offensive, but Mando won’t take her credits. “Tell him it’s on the house,” he says. “But first, I got to pay a visit to a little friend.” Which suggests one of two things: Either we’re getting Grogu in one of the next two weeks—which would burn a big hook for Season 3—or this was just a teaser for a December reunion, in which case Fett may not make much more progress in shoring up his power before the finale.
After Mando’s triumphant return relegated the series’ ostensible star to Easter egg status, it’s hard to summon much excitement about Fett’s designs on the spice trade, or even his personal growth from ruthless bounty hunter to crime-family man who rules with respect. (Remember, many Tuskens died to bring us this transformation.) The Book of Boba Fett hasn’t been a bad show, but it’s struggled to establish its own identity separate from the flagship, and Mando swooping in to steal the show only reinforces the feeling that Fett’s journey could have been a movie (which was the original plan) or a more compressed and better-paced arc on The Mandalorian. As I wrote last week, the hierarchy of characters is clear: “In a sign of these Star Wars times, Boba Fett, a legend for 40-plus years, may be Mando’s opening act, the man who warms up the crowd for his spiritual progenitor. … If you can’t overshadow Mando, you might as well have him join you.” That’s what happened here. It’s as if Lucasfilm, sensing that enthusiasm for Fett might be flagging by this stage, decided to bolster interest in the spinoff by echoing everyone’s favorite fighter-refurbishing Tatooine townie: “Hey, look, everyone, it’s Mando!” (Or maybe production complications spurred a reshuffling of episodes and series.)
All of that said: I missed Mando, so I can’t complain about The Book of Boba Fett doubling as a backdoor Mandalorian delivery system. Fett and Fennec debuted in Dinn’s series in its fifth chapter, and in the fifth chapter of the spinoff, Din repaid the debt. (As George Lucas would say, “It’s like poetry; they rhyme.”) Maybe the next two episodes—the first of which was reportedly directed and cowritten by Filoni—will triple down on Mando; maybe Fett will finally face Qi’ra and Crimson Dawn, or (could it be?) Cad Bane. But between its tugs at our heartstrings, its judicious, diverse callbacks, its visceral combat, and its implications for the future of the Disney+ shared universe, “Return of the Mandalorian” represents a top-flight salvo from the Star Wars streaming varsity squad, and a tough act to follow for The Book of Boba Fett’s big finish.