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Star Wars has dealt a lot with its space wars, but at its core there has always been a sense that all its conflict starts from past transgressions. From the opening of the 1977 film, where we see the immediate aftermath of a (then) unseen battle, to the wastes filled with the wreckage of endless war on Jakku in “The Force Awakens”, all the way to “Episode I: The Phantom Menace”, which instead of starting from the beginning truly, is already layered in unforgiven history. Darth Maul perhaps sums up the way Star Wars reaches into the cultural histories of its characters with the line:
“At last we shall reveal ourselves to the Jedi, and last we will have revenge.”
And so it starts, and so it continues. But we have a new take on this onscreen now, a new way of looking at the effects of war in Star War. In the new series the Mandalorian, our titular hero is a man who is struggling to reclaim his cultural history. He is constantly driven by the loss of his own heritage, and doing all he can to reclaim it for himself, and his people. He lives in exile, far from the cultural home of his people, the Mandalorians.
But it’s the way this is framed that really is interesting, because we have seen reclamation stories before in Star Wars: indeed much of Star Wars following the prequel trilogy is about characters trying to regain their religious Jedi heritage. But this is different, because the Mandalorian culture wasn’t just lost:
It was stolen.
* * *
Throughout our own modern (not in that Galaxy Far Far Away) history, empires have stolen the culture of people they have subjugated. This theft of culture is often defended by the people who stole it in hindsight: the things stolen are safer and protected in our cities and museums—it’s too backwards or unstable there where we took it from! An argument that ignores the fact that the instability is often completely caused by their own incursions into that culture. Marching in, stealing resources, stealing the wealth of a place, and then taking it’s culture along with it. And ages after, when their descendants are forced to deal with the fact that their ancestors might have done some bad things, they close ranks. They make excuses. The theft has to be justified, in the name of civilization, or the ideals that your society is based around might be pulled back to be less golden than you thought.
I say they, because it is so many cultures who have done this, but I could also say “we”. After all, it’s not like I still don’t see racist caricatures of First Nations people used in public, not like I don’t still hear people try to argue that slavery wasn’t so bad. It’s not like those things didn’t happen. It’s not like it didn’t happen here.
And it happens in the Mandalorian. In what is a rather clever move, Jon Favreau has tied the theft of wealth and culture together into one item: Beskar. A metal that has cultural relevance to the Mandalorians, being used for their ritual armor, it’s also extremely durable and highly valuable. Which makes the way it’s integrated into the plot practically perverse.
Because Beskar is held as a reward for the Mandalorian to retrieve a bounty by an Imperial Official who has survived the fall of the Empire in hiding. He doles out a taste of the Mandalorian’s cultural heritage to him, one piece of Beskar, which has been melted into an ingot that is desecrated with an Imperial Icon stamped into it. There’s more, if he can deliver. And wouldn’t it be nice if it all went back to his people?
It’s a grotesque move: the return of stolen culture as payment, but practically as blackmail. Failing to get the bounty for the Imperial doesn’t only mean he won’t get paid, it means he will forever lose part of his own heritage.
And that heritage haunts this story: when the Mandalorian fails to master riding a beast, he is motivated into trying again by being told how his ancestors used to ride far mightier creatures. People tell stories about his people, they laugh at cultural stereotypes about him, true or not. The Mandalorian is a character, he is an individual (thankfully) not totally defined by the other characters from his culture we’ve seen before (notably Boba and Jango Fett), instead he is defined by the same culture those other character were in, creating a much richer tapestry to play from. We get a taste of that culture here, as our hero returns to a forge-master who holds a place of power in their cultural hierarchy, when he returns that piece of Beskar, she forges him a new piece of his armor in ritual as a reward. She hopes that the Beskar will help Mandalorian foundlings, who we can make a fair assumption are orphans. A culture, far from their homeland, struggling to reclaim small pieces of their legacy. I’d ask you to think of a comparison, but you have many to choose from.
Our hero is also an orphan, losing his parents in the Clone Wars to an invading army of droids, and giving him a deep seated prejudice against them.
Which of course builds to our finale. We have followed our hero to get his bounty, and reclaim his culture, and he gets there only to find that it is a child. A stolen child.
Taken from their people, their culture, their legacy. One that, despite being an alien, has so much in common with the Mandalorian.
Now, we can only wait to see where the show goes from here, but I’m very intrigued that this show is taking on these topics, and I look forward to seeing where the Mandalorian’s search for his own legacy goes.
Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.