The Mandalorian, and when government fails
I’d like to talk a bit about the depicted role of the government in the most recent entry in the “Star Wars” franchise, the TV series “The Mandalorian.” On the surface, the show is a pretty basic samurai/western tale with a cute kid, good special effects, and middling dialogue. Underneath, however, it's telling us about what happens when governments fail, and the picture it paints isn't a pretty one.
Last year at Mischiefs, Amy Erica Smith wrote a piece about the profound weakness of the Empire as depicted in “Solo.” The Empire was still developing its capacities at that point; infrastructure was weak, Imperial authorities weren’t respected, and, importantly, the Empire did not possess monopoly control of the legitimate use of violence.
“The Mandalorian” takes us to several years after the Battle of Endor and the deaths of the Emperor and Vader. The Empire is in ruins, but its remnants are visible everywhere. There are references to a New Republic government that doesn’t quite seem to have its act together just yet.
As with many other entries in the “Star Wars” franchise, this one follows someone operating just at the edge of the law in places where the central government never had particularly effective police powers. The Mandalorian himself is a bounty hunter, and seems to follow three separate (and occasionally competing) incentive systems: profit, the rules of the Bounty Hunter Guild, and some sort of Mandalorian honor code.
Importantly, all of these incentive systems are under strain. The profit incentive is weak because, thanks to the demise of the Empire, it’s not exactly clear what money is. In the first episode, the Mandalorian has a meeting with Greef Karga (Carl Weathers) to discuss possible work. Karga offers him money, which the Madalorian rejects.
Mandalorian: “These are Imperial Credits.”
Greef Karga: “They still spend.”
Mandalorian: “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Empire is gone.”
Karga: “Fine, I can do Calamari flan, but I can only pay half.”
(Yes, I would eat a Calamari flan.)
We also hear the Mandalorian complaining about inflation, and how a price he’s offered “won’t even pay for fuel these days.” Inflationary pressure is fairly common after a governmental system’s collapse.
The Mandalorian ultimately takes a job for the underworld that pays not in coin, but in high-end steel for his armor. This is destabilizing -- different hunters would not find this of value, meaning that every negotiation has to ultimately find not only different prices for the same services, but different currencies.
We also see that guild rules are under strain. The Mandalorian complains that bounty hunting work seems slow, but Karga disagrees, saying there’s plenty of work, but no one wants to pay guild rates anymore. Because this is a right-to-work galaxy or something. If the guild doesn’t have the power to control access to its labor force, then it’s not much of a guild.
Finally, we see the Mandalorian violate his own honor code by rescuing (or kidnapping, depending on your point of view) the highly adorable Baby Yoda, after having delivered the child to the underworld client and receiving payment. This violation (the penalty for which appears to be death) only happened because the Mandalorian was thinking about his own experiences as an orphan, and because the child was cute. For someone who is so devoted to the honor code that he hasn’t taken off his helmet in public since he was a tween, this seems like a pretty serious deviation.
We see other consequences of Imperial decline, as well. In the fourth episode, a local warlord has found and learned to operate an AT-ST walker, giving him the ability to steal land and crops from surrounding farming communities. In other episodes, we see former Stormtroopers in tarnished armor serving as armed mercenaries for mob figures. The fierce weaponry that the Empire has spent untold fortunes building is being used to prop up unsavory figures and destabilize local power structures.
We don’t yet know what “The Rise of Skywalker” will bring to this story. But if it ends with the First Order’s destruction and no new infrastructure to replace it, we can expect further problems with currency, the proliferation of abandoned weaponry, weakening societal rules, and people abandoning longstanding codes of honor in defense of cute babies. Enjoy.