Which Way

I asked a religious studies professor about The Mandalorian — his answer surprised me

“Mando has found meaning through the creed, he cares a lot about it and carrying it out.”

Finding religious symbolism in movies is something I’ve done ever since I attended a lecture on Theological Symbolism in The Hunger Games at the age of 16. The lecture was given by a member of The Daughters of St. Paul, an order of nuns known as the “Media Nuns.” I was so intent on being one of these nuns, dreaming of a life spent creating novenas dwelling on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and myth-busting The Young Pope. Life had other plans, but the religious criticism stuck around.

And like a podracer on Tatooine, it all came rushing back to me in The Mandalorian "Chapter 12: The Siege" when Mando found himself face to face with Bo-Katan Kryze. This fellow Mandalorian (played by Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff) dismisses our hero as a member of the Children of the Watch, a “zealous cult that broke away from Mandalorian society” and “sought to restore the ancient Way of the Mandalore.”

Suddenly, everything we knew about Din Djarin was thrown into question. What we thought was the norm was actually revealed to be an extremist view. I instantly related. Until I graduated from Catholic high school, I thought at least the majority of my Christian peers had a similar upbringing to me. I thought they too had opinions on the latest translation of the Nicene creed. I thought they too weren’t allowed to watch the end of Revenge of the Sith until they were 18 because it was “too violent.”

I saw myself in Mando as we both realized our way of life was a lot more sheltered than we first thought. In order to find out more, I spoke to Dr. Russell Johnson, a Religious Studies professor at the University of Chicago who teaches an entire undergrad course on Star Wars and Religion. He had quite the different view of this big reveal.

“I don’t trust Bo-Katan any further than I can throw her.”

“I don't trust Bo-Katan any further than I can throw her,” Johnson says. “I keep reading ‘Oh, he's encountering secularism, look, he's learning that his belief system was narrow and fundamentalist.’ And it's just like, did you watch the episode? They're not to be trusted. They got him in on a deal and used the religious language of ‘This is the Way,’ distorting it to get him to do things that he wasn't able to do.”

This interpretation of Bo-Katan evoking religion to manipulate Mando hadn’t occurred to me, but instantly shed more light on their confrontation in the Season 2 finale. When Bo-Katan realizes Mando is suddenly the one standing between her and the Darksaber, a mythical weapon that grants its owner leadership over the Mandalorian people, she's visibly upset.

Bo-Katan’s use of strong religious language didn’t just work on Mando — it worked on me, too. Maybe Din Djarin’s religious practices make a lot more sense than we’ve been led to believe?

Mando and Bo-Katan meet, face to helmet.Lucasfilm

Bo-Katan and Din Djarin’s conflicting takes on Mandalorian culture exhibits a microcosm of diametrically opposed views of religion. When Mando looks for more of his kind, he asks if people have seen someone who “looks like” him, meaning someone who wears Mandalorian armor. Bo-Katan, however, introduces herself by saying “I am Bo-Katan of Clan Kryze. I was born on Mandalore and fought in the Purge. I am the last of my line."

To Djarin, a foundling, a Mandalorian is anyone who wears beskar armor. This is why Cobb Vanth wearing Boba Fett’s old armor in the Season 2 premiere is such a blasphemous move to him. Beskar is something earned, whether it’s through inheritance or upbringing. Wearing the armor as nothing more than practical battle protection is like bringing an Olympic medal to a Cash for Gold place — it’s worth so much more than just the precious metal.

To Bo-Katan, however, her entire life is defined by her heritage. Her one goal is to take her place as the rightful ruler of Mandalore, and her ties to the planet are deeply entrenched in her family and clan. She’s the “last of her line,” so it’s obvious she cares deeply about inheritance and legacy. This also explains why she responds with vitriol when she encounters Boba Fett, refuting his claim to his father’s Mandalorian armor by calling Jango his “donor” instead.

Cobb Vanth, in heretical armor, with Mando in Chapter 9, "The Marshal."Lucasfilm

Dr. Johnson draws a line between these two perspectives and the debates within Judaism, where theological differences are sometimes cast aside in the name of self-preservation.

“Especially in the wake of the Holocaust, the debates were, and I’m oversimplifying here, what does it mean to be Jewish?” he says. “Does that mean brotherhood with your fellow kinsmen, even if it means doing things or supporting political beliefs that might be opposed to your theological vision? Or is it about a way of life that anyone can take up?”

This struggle with how Djarin defines his own relationship to the Mandalorians was established through his anger at Cobb Vanth in the premiere. It was heightened with Bo-Katan’s reveal in “The Siege.” But it was truly brought to a head in “Chapter 15: The Believer,” where Mando was forced to confront just how important The Way of the Mandalore is to him.

After Migs Mayfeld (Bill Burr) questioned what exactly the Mandalorian “Way” is, Mando realized his only hope of being reunited with Grogu would be to break his own religious code and take off his helmet. He does it because his love for his adopted son takes precedence over his creed. I saw it as a turning point, but Dr. Johnson again convinced me otherwise.

“The two things we know about the Way of the Mandalore is that you don’t take off your helmet and you take care of foundlings,” Johnson says. “The one part of the value system he was raised with is more important to him than another part of the value system he was raised with.”

Din does what he has to do to locate Grogu.Lucasfilm

There’s plenty of religious precedent for this sort of dilemma. Johnson compares it to a story from the New Testament:

“It’s similar to Jesus healing on the Sabbath. It's not that he didn’t give up the Sabbath, he said, ‘You don't do work on Sabbath, but taking care of someone who's sick isn't work.’”

In the finale, Djarin did the same again, not for any pressing purpose, but just so Grogu could look into his eyes. Many, myself included, thought this would be the end of Mando wearing his helmet at all, but after thinking about it, this move was again putting Grogu’s life before his pride. Grogu’s scared, and his connection to Mando is so strong. In order to give Grogu the closure he needed to focus on his training, Din had to show his face and reassure him.

Mando says a teary-eyed goodbye to Grogu, without his helmet.Lucasfilm

So what’s next for The Mandalorian from a religious perspective? Will Mando experience his own Mandalorian Reformation and give up the apparently zealous creed he’s adopted? The answer is a little more complicated.

“Mando has found meaning through the creed, he cares a lot about it and carrying it out,” Dr. Johnson says. “While in the first season we saw him moving away progressively from the bounty hunter code while still sticking with the Mandalorian creed, in Season 2 he increasingly finds meaning in the relationship he has chiefly with Grogu, but also in learning to trust others.”

In Season 3, we’ll probably see Mando try to find more meaning outside of the Children of the Watch, while still keeping true to his creed.

Looking back, it's obvious I was just projecting my own complex relationship with religion onto Din Djarin. However, a new perspective on Mando also means a new perspective on my own life. I can still honor the religion I feel comfortable in, the religion that taught me how to analyze media, without sacrificing any of myself.

Like everything else in Star Wars, it’s all about the balance. The balance of light and dark, family and focus, and, in Mando’s case, religion and identity. After so many years of defining himself as a Mandalorian first and foremost, he must try to figure out where his role as an adopted father lies, as well as his role as protector of Mandalore against the Empire. Still, that’s no reason to give up his religion.

“That would just feel like self-congratulatory Western secularism.” Johnson quips. “Like, ‘maybe the real religion was the friends we made along the way!’”

The Mandalorian is streaming now on Disney+.