Were you to ignore your survival instinct and browse opinions about a Star Wars production, you’d have a hard time finding any kind of consensus on The Mandalorian. The shortened third season has had some genuine highs while finding plenty of chances to trip up. Put together, the phrase “mixed bag” comes to mind, which actually makes trying to predict how the finale was going to go difficult. As it turns out, “The Return” had something truly unexpected: something resembling an ending.
“The Return,” more like “The Wrap Up”
“The Return” drops right back into where “The Spies” left off–with the Mandalorians discovery of Moff Gideon’s hidden Mandalore base, Din’s capture, and a fleet of TIEs headed for the scrapped together Mando fleet. Two of these conflicts are quickly resolved as Axe Woves managed to break away and get a warning out and Mecha Grogu doubles back to free a hauled off Din. This does allow Din to decide that the best chance at victory would be to hunt and put down Gideon. He and Grogu proceed, leaving Bo-Katan to rally the troops.
While a lot of how everything plays out is anti-climatic, the trade off is some of the best action out of The Mandalorian, period. Din was completely disarmed, so we’re treated to a genuinely well done hallway fight as he takes on multiple commandos and upgrades his weapons as he goes. Outside, the other Mandalorians double back on the stronghold, kicking off an aerial brawl that does not look half as bad as a mess of jetpack brawlers sound like on paper.
Less a Gondor-calls-for-aid moment as much as an evolution of the Mandalorian escape from Nevarro in Season 1, seeing other Mandos fight their way–notably The Armorer straight up skull cracking with her forge equipment–is pretty damn cool. What else is damn cool is the scoring from Joseph Shirley. The Mandalorian’s music has been powerful from the start, but the score in “The Return” helps elevate these action scenes.
The Gideon Disappointment
Smashing the action figures together only goes so far–there’s still a whole lot of plot in “The Return” to put together. Din discovers that Gideon has been cloning someone, but where I thought it would have been Din instead Gideon was cloning himself, and doing so has been his goal the entire time. As the man himself explains, the objective was to make an even more perfect version of himself–one with Force Sensitivity. That’s an interesting angle to take, because it finally reveals something deeper about Gideon.
Gideon is not actually the calculated strategist he thinks he is but a man made of stolen identity. Standing in his augmented armor made of Mandalorian Beskar, bemoaning Din’s flushing of his gestating cloves made from Kamoinan technology, he laments that he was so close to fixing his only flaw,something that required stealing Grogu’s blood. Gideon’s a textbook case of a weak man leveraging a facist platform to make himself feel strong, leading genocide after genocide, taking those people’s characteristics for himself, and convininghimself that he deserves what he’s taken.
Had The Mandalorian been a story about a man devoted to the ways of the people who adopted him drawn into conflict with this colonizer Gideon, that could have been special. That’s not what The Mandalorian is, though. “The Return” will be the end of Gideon–for real this time probably–and all of this is relegated to the box labeled “Things we keep bringing up to try to make Rise of Skywalker make sense.”
Grogu is no longer a mascot
Speaking of what could have been, “The Return” finally loops The Mandalorian back to Grogu during the latter half. When Din gets pinned down by Gideon’s on-lend Praetorian Guard, Grogu steps in to try to help. This only complicates the issue as they have no qualms about cutting down a puppet. IG-12 goes down quickly, but now that he both has something to protect and has begun working through his past, Grogu is able to more reliably manipulate the Force and run a pretty goofy defense.
Grogu’s agency is nice to see even if its payoff requires you to have watched the requisite Book of Boba Fett episodes. Less so is the final fate of the Darksaber. As Bo-Katan tags out Din so he can save Grogu, she too struggles against Gideon’s enhancements. This results in what is likely the death of the Darksaber as Gideon crushes it in her hands. As noted last week, the Darksaber has been worn out for a while and at this point I’m glad to see it in pieces. While this serves something resembling a purpose to the story as it leads to Din, Grogu, and Bo-Katan triple teaming Gideon because “Mandalorians are stronger together,” it’s also a good show of just how much a waste it was of the viewer’s time to care about the Darksaber. There’s plenty of ways to make “it didn’t matter anyway” work as a theme, it just doesn’t satisfy here.
“The Return” attempts to reset the status quo
The gang does manage to pin Gideon long enough for Axe to drop the fleet’s battlecruiser on him and his fortress, with Grogu displaying a significant upgrade to his Force control by protecting Din and Bo-Katan from the explosion. This leads to the wrap-up portion of “The Spies.” Mandalore is properly re-established with Bo-Katan as the proper leader and the Great Forge reignited. The clans seem to have formed a truce and celebrate their success by promoting Foundlings to Apprentices. Grogu gets his first real pay off as Din officially adopts him to allow for Din to take the Creed on Grogu’s behalf, even as it’s been clear Grogu is learning speech throughout the season.
“Din Grogu,” because apparently “Din” has been his last name this whole time, is now tasked with adventuring and growing with his mentor and now legal father. Compared to what a traditional Jedi Padawan would have done, this is effectively the same thing, but at least it seems like Grogu consents in this case. To create opportunities for the kid, Din meets up again with Carson Teva and sets up an arrangement to take on jobs for the New Republic in the area–off the record–or a reasonable fee. The two then take Greef Karga on his homestead offer from “The Apostate” and settle down on the planet where it all started, waiting for the next job to come in. That, somehow, is it. Roll credits.
While it likely will continue, The Mandalorian has at least set itself up a new status quo, and it begs the question: what are we to make of all this? There’s bits and pieces still lingering, of course. Despite the constant teasing fans will indeed be waiting for fall’s Ahsoka to see Thrawn, and more than likely this little gun for hire work is how Din will re-enter the larger story either when Ahsoka runs out of steam halfway like Boba Fett did or when movie time comes. In the meantime, will the story of the series be allowed to be about the Dins and their various jobs? Somehow, that seems unlikely.
What to make of “The Mandalorian?”
That’s the real issue at hand. In “The Return,” The Mandalorian tried to tell everyone watching to not worry about all the things brewing in the margins for spin offs or to connect to existing content. The episode says that it’s time to return to form, to the show that everyone was very excited about in the first season as a grounded, less connected, and unique take on a corner of the Star Wars universe. However, that’s not the show we’ve been getting.That isn’t a bad thing. It was a genuine joy for me to see Ahmed Best this season and my favorite episode personally had very little to do with anything that happens in the season.
Yet, this method of storytelling is almost exclusively setup. Set up that’s not even focused on the show in question, and it has gone on to rob The Mandalorian of its ability to pay off. Grogu becoming more confident in his abilities and taking agency should have been a bigger moment than it ultimately was, because The Mandalorian didn’t prioritize making it worth getting to. The ending of Din Dargin finding a quiet moment isn’t as rewarding as it could be, because until it happened we were effectively told things were only going to escalate. Giancarlo Esposito was typecast as Moff Gideon for a reason, but Gideon is no Gus Fring. There’s no layers here, just an attempt to add them at the last second.
What The Mandalorian does have, though, is a lot of continuity. Long time fans (especially those once furious that Heir to the Empire wasn’t Episode VII) have plenty of meat to chew on, but that meat might be all fat. None of this extra stuff adds to the experience the same way previous Star Wars series do. The reason why is likely the same reason for criticism back at the beginning of the season–the need to treat this all like the MCU.
In an interview with Empire leading up to this season, co-creator Jon Favreau advised Mandalorian watchers that didn’t finish Boba Fett to watch the recap videos on Disney+ or, notably, content creator recaps, saying “I learned through my experiences with Marvel how sophisticated the audiences are, and [they] inform one another and are paying close attention.” It makes plenty of sense for one of the originators of the MCU to want to try to replicate the success of that brand and it’d be really weird to decry recaps as a concept when this review had to effectively recap the entirety of “The Return” just to get to this point. That said, what Favreau is talking about here is not just reminding folks what might have happened that they forgot––he’s’s telling people that major developments in what should be the core relationship– if not the driving force–of The Mandalorian is thin enough to be covered by a quick Wookiepedia browse.
Even putting aside the implications that has for The Book of Boba Fett, reducing the series down to beats and trivia defeats the point of tuning in every week. Why watch at all if recaps will cover the basic story beats and Easter eggs? This also fundamentally is at odds with the series that came before The Mandalorian, extra ironic given this series has made those attendant viewing.
The Mortis arc of The Clone Wars doesn’t hit hard because it tries to add more lore to Anakin’s eventual fall or over explain the balance of the Force, it hits like a truck because it makes it highlights just how vulnerable Anakin is even before Palpatine gets his hands around him and how important the connections he had were to keeping him balanced. Those episodes end hauntingly because of the thematic implication that Anakin’s faults were always going to get the best of him rather than being a bunch of new lore for fans to dissect–that part is just a bonus. Due to the animated series not needing to hold up an entire corner of the franchise, they’re allowed to breathe more and become more interesting as a result.
The Mandalorian could easily have been like The Clone Wars and Rebels, smaller stories weaving inside the larger continuity that expanded things organically and gave us characters who grew with the narrative. Instead, we have characters with that potential, but given only a fraction of time to do the growing because we’ve got to get to the next Heir to the Empire reference or Sequel trilogy continuity fix. “The Return” doesn’t help that perception, it only enforces it. This doesn’t make The Mandalorian bad, but it does mean that at this point, there’s not a lot of reason for casual fans to come back for Season 4.
‘The Mandalorian’ 3x08 - 6/10