There’s been a quiet but welcome trend in television in recent years, which is that the bar has got higher for writing about religion. I feel like I’m seeing fewer and fewer religious individuals or institutions being depicted as little more than evil or sanctimonious caricatures, with even the Catholic Church, which it would be safe to say has undergone some high-profile PR disasters in the last few decades, getting more well-rounded treatment.
Some great examples include Season 2 of ‘Fleabag’ (think Andrew Scott’s ‘hot priest’) and 2017’s excellent mini-series ‘Broken,’ which stars Sean Bean as a troubled but honourable cleric in a deprived parish in the north of England.
Then there’s ‘Daredevil,’ which boldly made Catholicism a major theme throughout the whole show, in a way that somehow managed not to put off non-believing members of its sizeable fan base.
Yet despite Marvel having waded into the river Jordan, religion in the Star Wars universe has received less attention - possibly because in the original trilogy, the spirituality in the films adhered to something like a nebulous eastern mysticism, the origins of which are hard to pin down. If there are any real-world comparisons, then Jedi Knights seem a cross between Buddhist monks and the Samurai, while the Force could be anything from chakras, to the i-ching, to the Dao.
The religious and spiritual themes conveyed in the Disney Plus series ‘The Mandalorian’ are easier to discern than in the films, but still subtle, which is a large part of why they work. Remember that the first-among-equals rule in any kind of creative writing is ‘show, don’t tell.’
On the surface, ‘The Mandalorian’ is a space western, thoroughly rooted in the Star Wars universe in the years after the events of Return of the Jedi, but having more in common with shows like Joss Whedon’s cult early 2000s series ‘Firefly.’
The titular Mandalorian, real name Din Djarin, is a bounty hunter with a badge, a mercenary who is a member of a fanatical warrior caste originating from the planet Mandalore. The Mandalorians are a creed rather than a race, exiled from their home, and, in some cases, are literally wondering the desert. The Old Testament allusions are obvious.
More overt, however, are New Testament themes of rebirth, redemption and personal sacrifice, although they are still done with a light touch. Mando’s discovery of the Child in the first episode (whom we later discover to be called Grogu) causes him to literally and emotionally reach out, his silhouette a clear echo of Michelangelo’s iconic depictions of God and Adam touching fingers on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
This is a key moment on multiple levels. After rescuing the Child from the yet-to-be-specified evils that the Empire has planned for him, Mando changes. His life becomes one defined by fatherhood and self-surrender, with his every action led by the needs of the Child, rather than by pure economic gain.
In turn, the Child inspires religious levels of devotion in almost everyone he encounters, both on and off screen (try typing ‘Baby Yoda’ into Twitter and seeing what happens. The fact that Yoda is long dead by this point continues to be stubbornly ignored by the show’s fans).
Even a vicious droid who is initially loathed by Mando for trying to kill the Child is re-wired into becoming Grogu’s nurse rather than his assassin, eventually walking through lava at the end of Season 1 to bring his precious cargo to safety. It demonstrates one of the most uplifting messages in the series - that any of us can change for the best if we prioritise the needs of others.
Yet Season 2 shows us the darker side of creeds, castes and cults, although again, the writers don’t over-do it. In an intriguing twist, it turns out that the Mandalorian’s rigid adherence to never uncovering his face, a much-debated tenet of parts of Islam, does not mean he will be shunned by all other Mandalorians, as is implied in Season 1.
Instead, we are shown that he lives by an especially austere brand of the creed, one which, in a clever reversal of real-world events, the female members he encounters do not follow. He is engaged with by his peers but branded a zealot, which forces the audience to question why the desire to keep his face covered is so dear to him - and how he would adapt if he no longer could. His new-found identity as an adoptive father to the Child therefore becomes an even more crucial aspect of his character arc.
The final episode of Season 2 is traumatic for a number of reasons, not least because the Child is finally taken away for Jedi training by Luke Skywalker (courtesy of a digitally re-generated, Return of the Jedi-era Mark Hamill), in a manner so clinical and detached it makes you re-think your childhood longing to wield a lightsaber.
The fact that Skywalker manages to keep a dry eye when everyone in his universe, and beyond, is bawling their eyes out over the Child and the Mandalorian being wrenched apart perhaps attests to how the monastic sense of distance from all worldly attachments is an essential, and for must of us, unobtainable, part of being a Jedi. Indeed, it seems a requirement for any kind of life devoted to other-worldly transcendence, whether through reaching Nirvana or mastering the Force.
It makes for a moving contrast that Mando finally chooses of his own volition to remove his mask as he says farewell to the Child - a sign, in a small way, that love has triumphed over lore.
For the first time since the age of ten, I was glad that no-one had taken me away to the Jedi temple before I reached my teenage years.
Ultimately, much like the hit Netflix series ‘The Good Place,’ the writers of ‘The Mandalorian’ perhaps succeed in this area because instead of anchoring the story in a specific tradition (such as the clear allegories in the worlds of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien), they focus on themes that all religions and philosophical traditions seem to wrestle with - the implications of edicts, traditions and schisms on the one hand, and the importance of courage, the meaning of family, and adherence to a higher purpose on the other.
Watch, and learn.