The Mandalorian Knows Why Heroes Wear Masks
Like all Star Wars stories, the show’s first season humanized robots. But it also showed why humans try to make themselves into machines.
This post contains spoilers for The Mandalorian’s Season 1 finale and for The Rise of Skywalker.
It took eight episodes, but the hero of The Mandalorian finally showed his face. In the finale of the first season of Disney+’s Star Wars spinoff, a robot named IG-11 told the titular chrome-domed bounty hunter that he would need to remove his mask to be saved from mortal wounds. The Mandalorian protested, saying, “No living thing has seen me without my helmet since I swore the creed,” referring to the oath taken by his clan of elite warriors. IG-11 countered that it is not a living thing, and with a hydraulic squeak, the droid removed the Mandalorian’s bullet-shaped headpiece.
It was a climax in the action-packed finale of an action-packed series, but it was also a deflation and a demystification. Earlier in the episode, the evil Moff Gideon had announced that the Mandalorian’s real name is Din Djarin. When he revealed his face, the Mandalorian star Pedro Pascal—famous as the valiant Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones—looked horrible: sweaty, blood-streaked, with a disturbing case of hat hair. There was no grand aha to learning who the Mandalorian actually was. There was only a reminder that this laconic space cowboy/knight is just some guy.
With this development, though, The Mandalorian deepened its take on a defining trope of the broader Star Wars franchise—and of the larger fantasy genre that drives so much modern entertainment. If it’s a pulpy thriller involving superpowers and Manichaean conflict, it’s going to feature characters in disguises. Elsewhere in Lucas-land this past week, viewers of The Rise of Skywalker, the final installment of Disney’s movie trilogy, squinted to discern whether Keri Russell was indeed the actor playing the headpieced badass Zorii Bliss. They also watched Kylo Ren repair, rewear, and then re-remove the helmet he manufactured in tribute to the ultimate face-obscured villain of his galaxy: Darth Vader. Earlier in 2019, Marvel concluded its costumed-superhero epic. Joaquin Phoenix caked himself in the makeup of the Joker. HBO’s Watchmen unspooled scary meta-commentary on, really, all of the above ornately dressed vigilantes.
Watchmen in particular tried to address the why of our cultural fascination with masks, and ended up spinning a deep fable about loss, identity, and savior complexes. The Mandalorian uncannily chimes with that show’s insights: The flashbacks of Djarin’s parents trying to hide him as their village was terrorized by battle droids is, cinematographically, similar to Watchmen’s scenes of the Tulsa massacre that inspired generations of black Americans to put on masks and fight evil. But thus far, The Mandalorian has less been a pondering of trauma than a pondering of humanity and nonhumanity. The point of the scene in which Djarin removes his helmet lies in the interaction between him and the IG-11, which hints at Star Wars’ insight on masks and armor: They’re the means by which people try to attain the perfection, and indifference, of machines.
Really, are the metal-masked man Djarin and the metal-made droid IG-11 so unalike? The Mandalorian would, in that moment, say yes. All series long, he has made clear that he distrusts droids. It’s obvious that his distrust stems in part from what happened to his family, but it also stems from what he’s seen as a galaxy-trotting mercenary. In the series premiere, IG-11 arrived as a fearsome bot chasing the adorable creature viewers now call Baby Yoda. Djarin destroyed IG-11 then, but in the seventh episode, the droid returned with a different mission: to protect and nurture. When the Mandalorian’s ally Kuiil, who had reprogrammed the robot, insisted on using IG-11 to safeguard Baby Yoda, the Mandalorian pointed out that it had previously tried to kill The Child. “It was programmed to do so,” Kuiil replied. “Droids are not good or bad. They are neutral reflections of those who imprint them.” The Mandalorian’s reply: “I have seen otherwise.”
The finale served as one long, spectacular vindication of Kuiil’s point of view. IG-11—who looks like a person-shaped antennae and moves with the stop-motion creepiness of a Tool music video—saves the day for the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda multiple times, in stylish action sequences. It blasts; it heals; it sacrifices itself by wading into a lava river and then triggering its self-destruct protocol in front of a squad of Storm Troopers. It even plays therapist, telling the Mandalorian that it senses sadness in his voice. In many relevant ways, the droid, not the human the show is named after, is the hero of The Mandalorian’s finale.
Star Wars fans likely weren’t surprised by the valorization of a bot. The original trilogy’s droid duo, R2-D2 and C-3PO, are just as smart and personality-packed as any human character. But they’ve been programmed to serve, and serve they do—although in idiosyncratic, willful-seeming ways that involve lots of comedy. Rather than encroach on the primacy of the living, as dystopian fables like Terminator and The Matrix fret that sentient computers might someday do, Star Wars’s super-smart robots are extensions of humankind. Episode 7 of The Mandalorian featured a flashback showing how Kuiil reprogrammed IG-11 to be a nurse rather than a murderer, and the sequence made the process sound an awful lot like raising a child. “I spent day after day reinforcing its development with patience and affirmation,” Kuiil says. “It developed a personality as its experiences grew.”
At the same time, Star Wars often obsesses over the way technology gets deployed to make living things seem less human. Darth Vader is the signal example: a villain who is “more machine now than man,” as Obi Wan Kenobi puts it in A New Hope. In The Rise of Skywalker, the entire nine-movie main saga is revealed to have been puppeteered all along by the nefarious Emperor Palpatine. He used the Force to achieve “abilities some might consider to be unnatural,” as he puts it in Revenge of the Sith. He repeats that line when he shows up in the newest movie, in which he has somehow defied death and is hooked up to a giant crane-like machine—a development that makes explicit how the Dark Side treats the Force as a form of technology to ensure dominance.
The Mandalorian is a protagonist rather than an antagonist, of course. But the truth is that he began the series as an amoral antihero who used gadgets to capture fugitives and then, from behind his mask, ignored their pleas for mercy. It’s only when he encounters Baby Yoda—a child who, like Djarin once was, is hunted and terrorized by the Empire—that he begins to deprogram his rigid, efficient, no-cares-given self. He’s now not only a liberator against tyranny, but also a father figure. It’s fitting that his literal unmasking came courtesy of a machine trained to nurture.
Notably, the most hilarious moment of the finale is when the Force-wielding Baby Yoda is treated as a piece of technology: A character asks him to “do the magic hand thing.” Baby Yoda raises his little paw, but no magic results. He’s a living thing, not a machine, and thus he can’t perform wonders on demand. It’s exactly this faultiness—the vagaries of being alive—that someone like the Mandalorian is trying to circumvent when he straps on gizmos and encases himself in shiny materials. But that’s always somewhat of a losing game. Djarin attains a spiffy new jetpack in the finale, but the armorer who gives it to him warns, “Until you know it, it will not listen to your commands.”
To understand how very Star Wars this thematic riffing is, queue up the opening of George Lucas’s 1977 film. The first act of the movie is mind-blowing in that there are almost no real, recognizable people in it. Rebel soldiers are mowed down; Princess Leia is only glimpsed; otherwise, the frame fills with the masks of Storm Troopers and Darth Vader, and with the metallic visages of R2-D2 and C-3PO. I remember as a kid being unsure who was a robot and who was not. That, definitely, was the point: to dream of a future in which humanity itself is in question, and to circumvent the way that fantastical heroism and villainy cannot quite comport with the bodies we all exist in.