The Luke Skywalker Problem
The glorious end of Season 2 of ‘The Mandalorian’ brings a new hope, and an old dilemma
Warning: this piece contains massive Star Wars spoilers that will ruin your life forever.
A long seven weeks ago, in a publication that’s exactly this one, I wrote that Disney+’s Star Wars spinoff series, The Mandalorian, was off to a feeble and unimaginative start. I also wrote that I hope Season 2 would prove me wrong.
Well, I’m critic enough to admit that it did…but with one galaxy-sized creative problem.
Season 2 quickly transcended the limitations of its premiere episode–leaving tired old Tatooine for many other worlds, escalating the Hunt-for-the-Child plot, delivering even more breathless action, and eschewing underwhelming stunt casting for ingenious turns like Bill Burr as the morally complex smartass Migs Mayfield.
And of course, what can I say that the entire Internet hasn’t orgasmed about the Season 2 finale? In the 48 hours since its release, the fan world has already digested The Mandalorian: Chapter 16 as comparable to one of the movies, and, frankly, better than most.
The finale to the finale, with its jawdropping surprise, topped it all: a CGI-youthened, post–Return of the Jedi Luke Skywalker, sliced through Dark Troopers like a hot knife through Bantha butter. He saved the galaxy, and even more importantly, Baby Yoda (aka Grogu, aka “The Child.”)
“Young Luke Skywalker Saves The Day” is, one-sabered-off-hand down, the most exciting thing that can happen to a Star Wars fan. It certainly was for me.
But, unfortunately, it’s also become one of the franchise’s biggest creative dilemmas.
The Resets of Skywalker
As a rough measure, you can track the wildly volatile reception to the various Star Wars trilogies by measuring their “Luke-ocity.” The original trilogy was, of course, 100% heroic Luke, and is considered all-but-untouchable perfection (a few Ewoks notwithstanding). The prequels, by contrast, were Luke-free and instead followed the long devolution of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader–a potentially interesting character journey but… uh…not Luke.
Then came The Force Awakens, which all but reenacted the Luke story, only now with estrogen and weird hair-tumors. Nonetheless, this did the trick for the fans, wiped the foul taste of the prequels from their mouths, and effectively “reset” the series.
Things got problematic with The Last Jedi. It was easily the most polarizing film of the nine, and–despite gripes about red-herring plotlines and “new rules for the Force”–the vitriol stems mostly from how it handles Luke.
In this installment, Luke is utterly disillusioned after his nephew/apprentice Ben Solo has pulled an Anakin 2.0, turned to the Dark Side, and become this trilogy’s new villain, Kylo Ren. So like a bearded Rick Blaine, Older Luke runs away and hides, claiming to be out of the hero game. And when Rey herself seeks him out, he disdains her and his own life-path with acidic cynicism and snark.
Eventually Snarky Luke does come around and saves the good guys, but by dying. This one-two punch of Luke Skywalker anti-heroism and Luke Skywalker mortality proved equally lethal to the movie, and the franchise, in the eyes of many. And despite the workmanlike efforts of The Rise of Skywalker to tie all that up and point to Rey as the new (literal) Skywalker, the sequel trilogy had done its damage.
That was, until Friday, when the hardcore Lukinistas got to have all this annulled by seeing young Luke once again heroing it up and being good. The Mandalorian restored old-school original trilogy Luke. Reset #2. And it worked! Spend 10 seconds on Twitter and you’ll find consensus as hasn’t been seen in the Star Wars fandom since the hatred of Jar-Jar Binks.
The irony of all this being that The Mandalorian didn’t need to play this sabacc card. Intriguingly, while fans have punished almost all the post-original trilogy Star Wars movies for their lukewarm Lukeness, the franchise’s completely Luke-free offshoots (the multiple animated series, Rogue One, Solo) are beloved fan favorites.
It’s a weird conclusion for those contemplating any of the 900 new Star Wars projects just announced: Do exactly original trilogy Hero Luke, or don’t do him at all.
The Return of The Playtime
For me, this all goes back to an episode of the Netflix documentary series, “The Toys That Made Us.” In their look at Star Wars toys, they show an early-80s commercial where you see two boys with those impossible early-80s bowl cuts playing with toy Luke in an X-wing fighter, trumpeting, “Luke Skywalker wins again!”
It’s a pretty direct line from that to all the online chatter over the weekend along the lines “the end of Mandalorian Chapter 16 made me feel 6 years old again!”
But more broadly, this is a primal reason for the unprecedented love that we’ve lavished on the whole Mandalorian series.
Beyond its crackerjack action, tonal mastery, and adorable green-babyness, The Mandalorian embodies what toy manufacturers call “play patterns.” Today’s entertainment-industrial complex shapes characters, scenarios, and sometimes entire TV and movie scripts with an eye towards how kids might most eagerly bring them into play with toys.
The Mandalorian–with its weekly world-hopping, endless side-missions, and grab-bag assortment of old familiar Star Wars faces and objects–fits perfectly with the vibe of two bowl-cut boys messing around with a Mandalorian action figure playset. “Watch out, there are Tie Fighters! Hey, I know, let’s go visit Ahsoka Tano on her planet! What in the world? Saved by Boba Fett? AWESOME!”
Speaking of Boba, it’s also not surprising that the most exciting Star Wars project in literally a decade now is the one based around the most sought-after action figure of my time.
And funnily enough, this might well be “the way” forward creatively, and one I hope the next Star Wars creators will follow. As epic and indelible as Lucas’ dynastic saga of cosmic heel-turns and secret parentages has been, I think its strain on the franchise now outweighs its benefits.
The Star Wars universe (even after Disney force-choked its Expanded Universe canon of novels) is teeming with an endless range of characters, worlds, and stories. There’s a hell of a lot more in a galaxy than just two families.
The Mandalorian Season 2 gave the fans exactly what they’d been hungering for for decades. But the series as a whole contains a stronger formula for eliminating those hunger pangs completely. Let’s hope future Wars-makers follow its overall spirit of freedom from Luke, Skywalkers and Palpatines–and any more endless House-of-Atreides-like sagas like those–and instead jump, like an anchorless bounty hunter, from world to world, wherever the play takes us.