Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Despite not being the title character in Disney+’s highly anticipated Star Wars original show The Mandalorian, “Baby Yoda” has hijacked the internet. Creator Jon Favreau could have set his entire marketing scheme around the adorable puppet character everyone has named after the old Jedi Master from the original Star Wars trilogy, and he would have had success. But he didn’t. Baby Yoda was a carefully held secret until he made his screen debut because the tiny green alien has an important role to play in the story: that of moral challenge, and catalyst, for the title character of the Mandalorian.Stories that follow patterns like this show us that no one is really nonessential—they give us a sense that although the world is big, every person is important, no matter their birth, status, role, or function.
In many ways, the moment Baby Yoda comes on the screen, we want the show to be about him. He’s cute, he’s familiar (even though he’s not, in fact, Yoda), he’s uncomplicated, and—most importantly—he’s innocent. The Mandalorian (played by Pedro Pascal), by contrast, is a shadow-character. Interesting, yes, but he makes his living by unjust gains. He’s a bounty hunter, a murderer, and aside from armor that gives him a likeness to a known character in the original trilogy, he’s unfamiliar. We never even get to see his face. Enigmatic, but villainous. At best, the first two episodes of The Mandalorian set him up to be an antihero by circumstance, and it is the circumstances that explain why this story is about him and why it is the sort of story that is bound to appeal to a broad viewership.
Taking place in the years following the events of Return of the Jedi and the collapse of the Empire, The Mandalorian turns the camera into the shadows and onto the “everyman” and “everywoman” of the former Empire—what is the burgeoning New Republic. Great victories are great, but they often leave deficits for those on the very fringes of society. For these people, the victory celebrated by the rebels doesn’t mean so much other than a changing of the guard. We get the idea that the struggle to survive has just shifted to a new struggle in a world where crime syndicates rule and bounty hunters roam. What seemed clearly right and wrong and of imminent and dire importance in the story told prior to the events of The Mandalorian (for those familiar with the original trilogy) is cast into a moral gray in this story. If you only watch this show, one could even question what was so urgent about unseating the emperor.
The Mandalorian seeks to probe the gaps where most people actually reside. Rather than centering a hero of the Rebellion or an epic and urgent quest, it plucks someone out of the shadows who is living a morally gray life, apathetic to everything aside from his own survival and the Mandalorian religion he has adopted as his own. When we first meet him, his ultimate morality, if he has one, is pragmatism. As another character says of bounty hunters in episode five: “You want to be a bounty hunter? Make the best deal for yourself, and survive.” He is not important to any big picture events. There are no death star plans to be delivered, no rebel droids that need looking after, no secret Jedi lineage—absolutely nothing essential about him at all. He is a Mandalorian bounty hunter looking for his next paycheck, and that’s it.
When stories center traditionally nonessential characters in situations like this, they allow us to see how life on the edges can place regular people in danger of a moral slide. The temptation to slip into moral apathy—or even villainy—is strong when you feel that you are a nonessential person to the greater “picture”—whether that’s the Empire or the Republic in Star Wars, or whether you’re just a regular man or woman working a 9–5 in America and wondering how anything you do impacts anything greater than yourself. The Mandalorian addresses this by shifting the camera into the shadows, and it shows the moral “graying” and the apathy that can grow and fester.
But the idea of non-essentiality is a lie, as no one is ever nonessential. If we view ourselves this way, it can be easy to believe that our actions don’t impact anything or anyone outside our immediate sphere. Right and wrong become a matter of daily survival—choices that would have great impact if we were anyone of “importance” feel truly subjective. There is a futility to life on the edges and the graying of morality that accompanies it. Those of us regular folk feel this futility in our supposed inability to impact major, national, or world events. It feels futile to watch things like a Kurdish genocide play out on TV—or even a national election. When we believe the lie that we don’t matter, then we may be tempted into morally gray areas, too. We may seek only our good, preserve and protect only our own, act in ways, pray in ways, think in ways apathetic to the world around us. What will, or can, snap us out of this apathy?
For the Mandalorian, it comes in the form of a baby.
The Mandalorian follows a traditional formula. Once upon a time there was a Mandalorian bounty hunter. Every day he collected bounties and turned them in for profit. One day, his bounty was a child, and when he saw the child, everything changed…
When Baby Yoda drops into his lap as a bounty, we get the idea that this child is more traditionally “essential,” but we are not told why any more than the Mandalorian is. In this regard, what becomes the most important thing about our title character’s life is very unlike any of the other Star Wars stories in that we don’t know what it is that makes the catalyst or the story that surrounds it special. Our non-traditional, non-essential antihero must decide to move from moral apathy to moral integrity without any special knowledge of the child-catalyst to propel him to do so, and this is so important for the sort of story they are telling. In episode three, at the formulaic turn, we see a heart change, a conviction. The Mandalorian has his conscience pricked by some innate sense that it is not right to give over a child to death, and it is because of this that he moves out of moral apathy into sacrificial action, betraying himself for the sake of another for (we’re given to believe) the first time ever.
By his actions, he acknowledges that right and wrong are not subjective to his personal needs and his Mandalorian religion, but that they transcend both. He places another life ahead of his own for no real reason we know of other than a sense of moral compulsion.
And taking this step out of moral apathy has a compounding effect. Protecting one life in episode three leads to the protection of a community in episode four. We see how, as C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.” An active decision to acknowledge the transcendence of right and wrong moves the Mandalorian into community, into relationship with others. His obedience to a new moral standard will be tested again and again, as we see not only in episode four, but also in episode five where—when he steps back into the moral gray to earn some money—he suffers betrayal, enmity, isolation, and nearly loses the child he has chosen to protect.
Stories that follow patterns like this show us that no one is really nonessential—they give us a sense that although the world is big, every person is important, no matter their birth, status, role, or function. They communicate the objective nature of right and wrong, that right is always right and wrong is always wrong no matter (in Star Wars) what power is ruling the galaxy or (in real life) who sits in the Oval Office. This is why The Mandalorian works so well as a story and why he is the title character and Baby Yoda is the catalyst for change. We are none of us as innocent as that child, but most of us feel the daily temptation to moral apathy. When we come to realize that the transcendence of morality has daily application, then it can’t help but prick our conscience and turn our actions outward. Maybe that’s something valuable to think of the next time we see a Baby Yoda meme.