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Mask Up

Reflections on the Mandalorian Helmet

 

This essay contains spoilers.

Early-ish in The Mandalorian, the camera pans over a grisly display of shattered, blood-stained Imperial stormtrooper helmets on pikes. But these are not the most important helmets here. This is in the city of Nevarro where, in the sewers below, a loose community of Mandalorians survive. When our hero, the titlular Mandalorian Din Djarin, first enters “the covert,” an underground labyrinth, helmets are how we know he has found what stands in for him as home: we recognize his compatriots by their T-shaped opaque visors.

In The Mandalorian’s straightforward plot, a bounty hunter — Din Djarin — is charged with hunting an unknown mark. But when this mark turns out to be a magical creature, Din finds himself on a rescue mission. His ward is a child, or “The Child,” as he’s called, or more affectionately by Din, “the Kid.” Fans immediately identified this creature as “Baby Yoda” — an act of recognition that was possible because, once out of his metal orb of his scifi babystroller, Baby Yoda never wore a mask. His doe-eyed sweet face signaled his need for protection, and his protection came in the form of the inscrutably helmeted Mandalorian. This is really taking a familiar story — the one in which caring for someone really vulnerable “opens up” a damaged and overly-guarded man — to an extremely literal level.

As for the helmets themselves, audiences had seen them before. They had appeared on earlier Star Wars characters: Boba Fett and Jango Fett, in the original trilogy and the prequels; Sabine Wren in Rebels; and the dizzyingly warring populations on the planet Mandalore in The Clone Wars. Then, in 2019, some new shadowy Mandalorians appeared on Disney+, uncanny in their masked personae.

Tuning in to watch The Mandalorian, we are here to watch masked Mandalorians, apparently the “good guys.” But as the foil of beheaded stormtrooper helmets insinuated, face coverings would be no simple matter in this show.

Season 2 of The Mandalorian is now completed. Throughout its course, the show generated its most sustained tensions around the fact of Din Djarin’s omnipresent helmet: Would he ever take it off? Would he remove it in front of other people? Just in the company of trusted friends? Alone with Grogu née Baby Yoda? So many conundrums, eerily reminiscent of some of our own contemporary quagmires. How can we, as viewers, and as people right now, recognize a hero if we cannot see their face? But too much face—that’s not good, either! (Unless it’s a baby.)

Din can’t take his helmet off, as part of his creed. The opening scene of the show’s first episode visually establishes Din’s commitment, as he enters a seedy bar on an icy planet and is the only one whose face is covered. A few minutes later a minor character asks Din directly: “Is it true that you guys never take off your helmets?”

The creed of the Mandalorian was so ingrained by 2020 that when Din Djarin made his first appearance as a Lego minifigure, the headpiece beneath his helmet was pitch black — and entirely blank. Even on this miniature toy we were not allowed to see the Mandalorian’s face. It was akin to the ubiquitous black boxes we were becoming accustomed to on Zoom — boxes that signaled a person “there”, but maybe not — rendered as a Lego minifigure head.

“The dark saber doesn’t have power; the story does.” So pontificates the show’s villain, Mof Gideon, at the end of the second season. We might adapt this aphorism slightly to keep it true for the show, but also for our own times: Masks have power; but so do their stories.

As situations and circumstances shift and evolve through The Mandalorian, so too do the roles of helmets, masks, and faces. We get to see certain visages after suspenseful waiting (Din, Cobb Vanth, Luke Skywalker)…while other characters remain hidden from view (slaughtered stormtroopers everywhere, gas-masked gunmen on the forest planet Corvus). Whether audiences need to see faces revealed would seem to hinge on the value of the characters: who counts, and for how much. And who can be sacrificed.

Din is tested throughout the show: heckled to show his face, mocked, and even threatened that his helmet will be forcibly removed. At the end of the first season, his mask does come off briefly, but only when no other humans are around, when no one but a droid—and the audience beyond the screen—can see his face.

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When the character of Boba Fett originally appeared in an animated 10-minute film nestled within the comedic Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978, his face remains concealed. In that brief story, Fett is a mysterious figure who helps procure a serum for a “sleeping virus” that has overcome Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Fett refers to everyone as “friend” throughout the cartoon. But it sounds slimy, more like fiend, thus conjuring a Frankensteinian undertone all the more resonant in our current moment, when a different virus runs rampant around the planet. Who made this monster? It’s never a simple answer.

Boba Fett’s face also remains concealed throughout the character’s taciturn live-action performance in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Then, 40 years later in the second season of The Mandalorian, we suddenly see Fett unmasked as actor Tumuera Morrison—the same actor we’d seen (unmasked) playing the father figure Jango Fett in the Star Wars prequel Attack of the Clones (2002).

Now Boba Fett was back, in a Dionysian return as Din’s latest f(r)iend. The helmet was part of the original mystery and allure of Boba Fett, and his boutique grunge aesthetic would later inform the look and feel of Din Djarin. Their armor and helmets improbably connect these two characters across space and time.

Mandalorians’ tense exchanges with both friends and foes (or just business associates; bounty hunters are like the ur-MBAs) were always mediated by a mask. Sometimes these moments are awkward, like when a Mandalorian is the only one in the room with a mask on. Other times these moments are vaguely hilarious, such as when Fennec Shand reappears in the second season and says to Din, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Audiences guffawed, as Din’s facial expression could precisely not be read beneath the inscrutable helmet.

This essential kernel of unknowing is baked into the intrigue of Mandalorian characters. Without a face, we can’t be certain what is going on. We always have to wait for the next beat: a nod of the head, a subtle hand motion, a secret weapon hidden in an armored wrist plate. We see this lingering doubt persist throughout The Mandalorian, as helmets and masks are by turns a sign of camaraderie or a sign of antagonism. It might mean the character is special; or it might mean they can be cast aside or killed without a second thought.

For instance, in chapter 11, on the oceanic planet Trask, Din falls into a trap. He is on the brink of drowning when three other masked Mandolorians swoop in and save his life. When the dust settles, these three new sub-heroes greet Din—and immediately take off their helmets. Din is not having it. How could they be true Mandalorians if they do not follow his code? Later on in the episode, however, the four reunite and carry out a mission together—all wearing their helmets. Their allegiance is tentative yet firm, but the aporia remains: when masks may be removed, when they should stay on, and what the stakes are in either case.

Chapter 12 in the second season begins with the heavily damaged Razor Crest floating through space, barely able to fly. Din Djarin and Baby Yoda are biding their time—trying to fix the ship, taking stock of their situation, and at one point having a snack. Almost taking a page from Goodnight Moon, Din cradles a bowl of mush, and we see him gingerly lifting his mask just enough so he can slurp the sustenance, little Grogu peering up at his almost-face. We can just barely see his chin; his creed is loosening a little. But the helmet stays on, even in this quaintly Crusoe-esque survival scene. Din was still on mission, or really a double mission at this point: to save The Child, and to preserve his creed. But something was going to have to give. Uncomfortable decisions were in the offing, concerning whose life was most important to protect.

*

And then things change for real. In  the penultimate episode of season two, Din removes his helmet for what feels like an incredibly protracted several minutes; the whole time, he is in full view of many other people. Din, posing as a transport trooper, has snuck into an Imperial base to access a crucial data terminal, whose sign-in protocol requires a facial scan. After the successful scan, a superior officer buttonholes Din and makes small chat over drinks. The Mandalorian is visibly uncomfortable as this would-be commanding officer speaks directly to Din’s exposed face. In a bizarre twist for audiences in late 2020, Din unmasks in order to save a life.

This doesn’t mean that, once Din unmasks, masks are over. Boba Fett, for example,  has his helmet securely in place during the entire last episode. As he swoops off for good in his odd-shaped spacecraft, he remains masked.

Quite the opposite for Din Djarin. When, in the final minutes of the episode, Din stands sans helmet, grinning goofily at Grogu and choking back tears, he stays unmasked as the screen goes black and the credits roll. Around Din his team is arrayed, socially distanced and variously masked (Bo Katan, Koska Reeves) and unmasked (Fennec Shand, Cara Dune). Luke Skywalker unshrouds so we can see his visage—yet he too remains over six feet away as the final scene plays out. It was a family portrait for our times.

The Mandalorian is haunted by characters returning from the dead: IG-11, Greef Karga, Fennec Shand (“You were dead!”), Mof Gideon (“Mof Gideon is dead.”)…and perhaps most notably, if also solving a decades-long enigma of sorts, Boba Fett. All of these figures are either indebted to someone or newly fixated on a task in their second lives. As for Fett, all he wants is his beskar armor back—we’d never before seen him unmasked, remember. What is this obsession with resurrection, with a chance at a second life, and, for Fett at least, unmasked at that? It can only be the looming truth of mortality—our awareness of which was thrown into stark relief in 2020. This was the year of masks and face shields, a year of exorbitant death. It turns out that made it a fitting year for the second season of The Mandalorian.

 

Andres Castro is a student of writing and film at Loyola University New Orleans.

Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans and author of six books. His most recent is Grounded: Perpetual Flight . . . and Then the Pandemic.

 

 

 

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