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Star Wars has a Baby Yoda problem

The Mandalorian was the answer to all of Star Wars’ problems — until it embodied them.

A shot from the TV show The Mandalorian shows three Mandalorian fighters in their distinctive helmets and armor, with a variety of weapons.
The Mandalorian’s third season has been rocky.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

One could argue that season three of The Mandalorian went off the rails before it ever debuted. Prior to the season’s release, another Disney+ series, The Book of Boba Fett, featured an entire stealth plot arc of The Mandalorian that served to connect the timeline of the show’s previous season with the one about to be released. Without watching it, the first episode of season three felt like a jarring reset. And even with it, the episode glossed over continuity and gave rise to what has become the series’ biggest question: What is this show even about?

It’s a query that reflects a larger one within the Star Wars universe. On the back of this year’s Celebration, Star Wars’ annual fan/industry convention, and the confirmation of three new Star Wars films, the franchise’s flagship TV show stands at something of a crossroads. It seems to be caught between Lucasfilm’s attempts to learn from the mistakes of its controversial latest trilogy and avoid succumbing to the “MCU-ification” of its own IP.

The Mandalorian has burned through a lot of goodwill as it meanders its way through season three, and with next week’s finale approaching, it could take a lot more than a cute green baby puppet to convince fans the franchise as a whole isn’t still spinning its wheels.

The Mandalorian seemed like the solution to Star Wars’ problems. Instead, it’s perpetuating them.

It’s no secret that Lucasfilm has struggled ever since the tremendous backlash to, well, everything about its recent cinema revival. First, 2015’s The Force Awakens drew an endless barrage of criticism from right-wing fans angry at the film’s trio of diverse main characters. This clamor paved the way for a philosophical bait-and-switch between Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi — which was, despite being critically beloved, even more controversial than its predecessor — and the subsequent Rise of Skywalker.

J.J. Abrams’ trilogy close-out jettisoned so much of Johnson’s more subversive ethos that it arguably drew more outrage than any of the other films — and a walloping profit drop at the box office. The angry right-wing fans were joined by many left-wing fans, who were angry that the trilogy essentially used a Black male character, John Boyega’s Finn, as a fake-out for a white woman, Rey (Daisy Ridley), ultimately giving him little to do at all. The final film also courted backlash for the decision to write Finn’s intended love interest, Kelly Tran’s character Rose Tico, nearly out of the final film completely, after the actress endured endless harassment from fans. As a bonus, no one seemed to like the resolution to Rey’s storyline either. The movie even spawned an entire fandom conspiracy theory that there was another, better, purer film out there.

This complex squabbling over Star Wars identity politics effectively derailed the entire franchise, throwing numerous planned spinoff films into stasis, as they had promised the kind of fresh takes on Star Wars that came out of the first two films. The final film was an attempt to walk back everything that had made a certain type of fan mad, only to blunder into pleasing no one. As Emily St. James wrote for Vox, “The film’s ecology is destroyed early on, as it attempts to serve multiple masters — corporate, fan, and otherwise. It lurches from scene to scene without any finesse. It almost feels like a trip through several enclosed Star Wars habitats that offer a quick glimpse at some of your favorite characters and locations, while never finding a way to make those habitats share the same ecosystem.”

That criticism may sound awfully familiar to fans of The Mandalorian. For its first two seasons, The Mandalorian seemed to be the spark and the glue the franchise needed to revitalize itself — a fun, streamlined little show with an uncontroversial lead that drew general audiences in with a commitment to atmosphere, good CGI, and, of course, Baby Yoda. Soon, however, critics noticed that the show was not only thin on plot and characterization but that it increasingly relied on big, social-media-ready sequences to drive its momentum, with little connective tissue in or around such moments.

The complaint that Star Wars is trying to do too much at once has become especially prominent through The Mandalorian’s third season, which sees titular Mandalorian Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) abruptly reunited with his adopted son, Grogu (the frankly appalling real name of Baby Yoda). This, despite the fact that the narrative journey of the second season was for Grogu to leave Din’s care and train with other potential Jedi like himself.

Externally, the reason for this reunification is obvious: Baby Yoda is too much of a marketing coup to go without. Internally, the reason for this reunification gets explained, sort of, not in The Mandalorian, but over three episodes of The Book of Boba Fett, another breakout series meant to capitalize on the renewed energy provided by The Mandalorian. But despite the popularity of the character Boba Fett himself, The Book of Boba Fett drew widespread criticism for being less a coherent narrative than a collection of cool Star Wars action figures with no ideas. It turns out Boba Fett himself is a terrible character to build a whole story around; while he may be popular, there’s just not that much to him, which could be why the writers ultimately turned the show’s back half into a Mandalorian installment.

That Boba Fett got his own show at all speaks to the increased emphasis on commercialization and fan service that keeps getting in the way of the franchise’s attempts to move forward. The Mandalorian continually falls prey to this, and season three’s unsatisfied viewers have grown increasingly rowdy over it. Each episode has drawn ire for waylaying the main plot and getting fixated on side characters and quests that seem to have little meaning in the scheme of things. While season one was largely made up of such Trek-y one-offs, those felt fun and fresh because those missions served to build our understanding of the show’s main characters and establish the sociopolitical landscape of the show’s timeline.

Now, however, none of those early episodes seem to matter much. In season three, the Star Wars universe and the complex geopolitical dynamics between different worlds and politics are an excuse for flashy starship battles. Despite disconnecting from all that worldbuilding, season three keeps meandering its way around the galaxy at the expense of its own big plot. In only eight episodes, season three has had to: “redeem” Din Djarin as a Mandalorian (since he took his helmet off, long story), unite two mutually antagonistic Mandalorian factions, establish Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff) as their leader, organize a return to planet Mandalore, build up a confrontation between the Mandalorians and Empire loyalist Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito), and actually show that confrontation. It could also have bothered to show us Baby Yoda growing into an actual Jedi force to be reckoned with, especially since it stinted the show’s viewers on all his cool Jedi training.

Instead, season three keeps falling back on more made-for-TikTok set pieces. Multiple episodes seem to have had little narrative purpose other than to present cool cameos and viral moments for viewers. Episode six, for example, was an instant hit on social media due to cameos from Lizzo, Jack Black, and Christopher Lloyd. But it proved one of the most divisive episodes yet, probably because outside of ensuring that a limited edition Star Wars Lizzo Funko Pop will be coming soon to a Comic-Con near you, it’s unclear if there were any narrative stakes at all.

Mandalorian is Star Wars’ flagship streaming series. If its showrunners, the ever-inventive Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Star Wars master builder Dave Filoni, are flagging this much, do the studio’s other streaming series even stand a chance?

Lucasfilm jettisoned the Star Wars Extended Universe only to give us ... the Star Wars extended universe

Star Wars’ pivot to streaming has produced franchise installments that vary widely in quality. The Mandalorian is beloved, but Boba Fett and 2021’s offering, Obi-Wan Kenobi, each drew criticism for sidelining their titular characters. (Obi-Wan also predictably drew racist backlash for having a Black actor in a lead role, and then more backlash directed at Disney for remaining largely silent while yet another Star Wars actor of color endured harassment.) Andor, 2022’s critical coup de grace, seemed to contain all of the promise of the Star Wars universe in a drama that was both invigorating and unforgiving.

But Andor was a double-edged sword: by committing to a point of view and being unapologetic about its thesis that the Empire was an evil police state (a far more controversial take than it should be!), it highlighted how shallow most of Lucasfilm’s other offerings have been.

Some of the reasons for this variance may be about avoiding the fandom meltdowns that happened over the last film trilogy’s storytelling efforts. Fans already knew how Andor’s titular character, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) would end up (he’s also in 2016’s Rogue One). Since Andor himself was a relatively low-stakes character in the Star Wars universe, the show was able to take storytelling risks that it couldn’t with a new character like Mando to whom fans are increasingly attached, or to an OG like Obi-Wan or Boba Fett.

But part of the issue also seems to be structural. It’s not just that the studio keeps making lackluster franchise installments, but that, increasingly, it expects fans to consume all of that content and understand how it all fits together. For many fans, that’s an unfair expectation, an assumption of trust that the franchise hasn’t actually earned over the years. It’s also just logistically difficult; few people, for example, have the time to watch 100+ episodes of Clone Wars just to understand the backstory behind a three-minute scene in The Mandalorian. It’s unclear whether a critical mass of Star Wars fans even watched Boba Fett at all, let alone knew they were supposed to watch three episodes of Boba Fett to get the Mandalorian arc they needed.

When the highly anticipated Ahsoka appears later this year, it, too, will tie into both The Mandalorian and Boba Fett. So will the untitled film that Filoni is directing, which is intended to serve as a wrap-up on all three of these series. While that’s not inherently bad — spin-offs happen, they’re fine! — what has got viewers antsy is the way this structure has increasingly become built into the franchise. The Marvel formula of turning every show and film into an explicit set-up for the next show and film isn’t even working for Marvel anymore. And despite the hype around the upcoming films, Star Wars fans are openly uneasy about the promise of more overlapping tie-ins.

After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Star Wars not only tried to quash this kind of endlessly spiraling franchise expansion, but explicitly excluded it from the revamped Star Wars universe. In 2014, in order to make room for The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm announced that the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) — the decades of lore-filled Star Wars media from tie-in novels to comics to board games, a staggering compendium reportedly featuring over 20,000 characters — would no longer be considered part of the official Star Wars canon. Not only that, but no new stories in those worlds would be forthcoming; the studio instead transformed the EU into a giant archive called “Star Wars Legends.” Fans are still mad and sad about this decision to this day.

Rather than fully abandon the EU, however, the current franchise promptly began cherry-picking, or perhaps more accurately, flinging entire handfuls of the old EU back into the new canon universe. The most high-profile upcoming storylines, like that of Ahsoka Tano and popular villain Grand Admiral Thrawn, are straight out of the Expanded Universe, and there’s rampant speculation that more direct adaptations of EU stories are on the way. If the franchise reined in the EU because it was too unwieldy to begin with, it hasn’t exactly solved its own problem.

This also speaks to something of an overall franchise identity crisis. Most mainstream Star Wars fans — the kinds of casual fans whose interest you need to cultivate and keep — likely associate Star Wars with a handful of beloved legacy characters and a few new ones thrown in. They’re not tucked away in a forum somewhere opining the loss of, for example, Mara Jade and Ben Skywalker to the new Star Wars canon. Yet that’s also kind of a problem when the studio increasingly expects fans to not only know who EU characters are (for example, Ahsoka Tano) but care about them before their storylines are even underway.

Is the return on that investment worth it? This is a franchise, after all, where the worldbuilding vacillates between carefully crafted narratives built over years and haphazard whimsy — all of which could be tossed aside all over again. When you have the biggest series in the Star Wars oeuvre more or less phoning it in, as fans have accused Mandalorian of doing all season, there’s not much incentive to commit to learning the lore.

This is the ultimate problem Star Wars needs to solve: Will it commit to deepened characterization and worldbuilding, to making the Star Wars universe feel connected and lived-in, even for casual fans? Or will it instead continue to coast on the consumerist appeal of gimmicks like Baby Yoda?

When the Star Wars universe is Baby Yodas all the way down, then what?