Mando is Star War's first live-action helmet-mask hero. The Mandalorian creators risked giving their protagonist no face, and it's paying off because of how well they are using that helmet-mask's storytelling powers. It reminds me of how the early SW films hinged on Vader's mask -- how it gets removed (the originals) and how it was affixed in the first place (prequels). In season 1's climax, it's removed by a droid at the very end, a "not a living thing" character because of that very status, and we see the scared, wounded face beneath. In this last episode (S2 E7 -- near the story climax, but not there yet), the helmet-mask is removed again, but this time by degrees. Mando's helmet-mask is switched to anther mask, which gives him the identity of his enemy (an imperial trooper), then he's compelled to remove that helmet mask in front of several "living things" in attempt to save the "little green guy" he's committed to protect. The man (Din Djarin is Mando's real name, we learn) becomes vulnerable because of parenthood, and shows his face. The face's expression (Pedro Pascal) is all the more economic and important after the mask is removed. He says very little. Like a puppet, it's all in his eye focus and head turns for the next scene.
So as of yesterday "Baby Yoda" (aka The Child) has a name, and a concrete past! This little puppet was simply mysterious, now he’s getting some complex psychology…
So much of The Mandalorian rests on the power of that helmet. I call this, and what every Stormtrooper wears, a helmet-mask because it's a hybrid -- it has a dual purpose to protect and conceal (and to protect through concealment), and it's both separable from the character and essential to their identity. I love how Boba Fett is revealed, after such extreme fan anticipation, in the first episode of The Mandalorian's second season a few weeks ago. In the door of the saloon, we see a man standing in that iconic armor, last seen (live-action wise) getting swallowed into the lethal pit of Sarlaac in 1983. But it's so clearly NOT Boba Fett. How do we know, since his face is covered? We know because he's too skinny. There is something just too lanky in the outline, the armor doesn't fit. So the reveal is actually just a tease... the kind only material characters can make: that's Boba Fett's helmet-mask and armor for sure, but some other snail has crawled into his shell. It's a wonderful plot device because it makes us ask so many more compelling questions... did Boba Fett survive? Did the Sarlaac barf up his metal parts? Later in the episode, we get some answers in flashbacks, for the stuff of Star Wars has a life of its own, and often crosses paths with scavengers the Jawas. Another answer, but with yet more teasing: at the very very end of the episode, Boba Fett the flesh actually does appear. How do we know it's him? As he turns to the camera, we recognize the actor, appropriately aged, as the the clone original from the prequels. So here is a character in two parts, how did he become separated from the helmet-mask that defined him? I'm betting there will be a significant reunion between the man and his helmet-mask in an episode to come.
I collectively call puppets and masked figures "material characters," building on Dassia Posner's theories on material performance in the introduction to The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance (2014). I define them more specifically in my forthcoming book, and get into detail about what I believe distinguishes material characters from actors working alone: distance, distillation, and duality. In the coming weeks, I'll be logging notes here on The Mandalorian, since season 2 is being released episode-by-episode right now -- and it's full of them!
One year ago today, Disney+ was kind enough to premier The Mandalorian on my 50th birthday. 50 years (and two days) before that, Sesame Street premiered. A lot of GenX-ers like me have a special love for puppets because were were raised on Star Wars, Mr. Rogers, The Muppets and Sesame Street. There is something so personal but also so public and communal about our attachment and response to those puppets and masked characters.
With so much buzz about "easter eggs" in The Mandalorian, I was super delighted about the ACTUAL eggs in Episode 2 of this second season. I love how this baby Yoda puppet character is so mysterious... he has magical powers, which we associate with deep mythical gravitas and, of course the mystical Yoda himself. And there are so many unanswered questions about him. So when we see the child's fascination with the canister of glowing eggs, near the top of this episode, we think... oh.. this is a clue to his mysterious origin?... does his kind have eggs like this, perhaps?... maybe they are force-powerful eggs? or..... and then he just EATS them. Yes. Lunch. He spends the rest of the episode sneaking these eggs like grandma's stashed-away purse candy, thus confirming that it's WE who are silly for assuming they are meaningful, he's just a kid. Haha you oh so serious Star Wars fan. The puppet has the last laugh (see final frame of episode).
Here's an object-performance thought of the day. Han and Lando are in both love with the Millennium Falcon, and I do mean in love. It’s a genuine triangle, and an interesting plot point. I was talking with some students about this today – one of them said to me they were disturbed by the way the two men just handed “her” off in a card game in Solo, a Star Wars Story because… as they put it “I mean, it’s a PERSON now.” The M. Falcon had always been a “she” that Han adored in the original trilogy, but when the writers of Solo put the mind of a Lando’s amorous female droid into the ship’s brains, it got a bit ethically shaky… or did it? Was it a fusion of machine and machine, that made L-3 immortal? Or is she now permanently enslaved? Uncertain, I am!
Notes as I write my book, A Galaxy of Things: the Power of Puppets and Masks in Star Wars and Beyond (forthcoming Routledge Press, 2022).