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Except for a few sleeper hits, the streaming era has offered little by way of family viewing. By that I mean shows complex enough to entertain both parents and older children, not just kids’ programming that adults have to suffer through. Judging by its tremendous popularity, The Mandalorian, a new Star Wars series streaming on Disney Plus, is filling that gap.
Any fan of Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns will instantly recognize the influences on the stand-alone story that takes place five years after events in Return of the Jedi. The fall of the Empire has inevitably left chaos in its wake. Out on the lawless frontiers of the New Republic, we meet a lone bounty hunter known only as Mando, a moniker taken from the name of his people, the Mandalorians.
Like any gunslinger worth his salt, Mando is the quickest draw in the galaxy. But we know little else about him. In fact, he’s so mysterious, four episodes in, we have yet to glimpse his face.
But in classic cowboy fashion, Mando’s tough exterior hides a deeper morality. In this case, it’s grounded in his Mandalorian faith. When Mando finds out the 50-year-old person he’s been hired to capture is actually a Yoda-like toddler, he honors the code of the Mandalorians over the code of the bounty hunter and risks his life to save the child.
The Force has always represented a vaguely Eastern grab bag of religious traditions, but it’s proven flexible enough to become more personal in the latest films. And the spiritual story arc of Star Wars is that of a largely secular world experiencing a religious awakening thanks to the fervent belief of a few. It seems Star Wars creator George Lucas understands that this faith element in his fantasy world has played an integral part in its success.
He said in a 1999 interview, “I put the Force into [Star Wars] in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people—more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system … so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, ‘Is there a God or is there not a God?’—that is for me the worst thing that can happen.”
That’s not to suggest Lucas intended for viewers to see Christian themes in Star Wars. But he understood that a story with a sense of God—a sense of something providential and eternal—is a powerful draw.
The Mandalorian explores the spiritual elements of Star Wars further. Similar to the Jedi, the Mandalorians practice martial arts not just as a way of life but as a way of belief. Mando makes it clear that not following the strict dress codes of his faith would mean abandoning it, and his conversations with other members of his tribe suggest his people are more of a religious minority than an ethnic one.
How will this fringe religion stack up against what has been depicted as the true faith of the galaxy far, far away? Will the miraculous displays of power by the character the internet has dubbed “Baby Yoda” challenge Mando’s belief system? Will it foster doubt in the hero about the rules-based religion in which he grew up? While it’s best to be cautious with the show’s treatment of faith (and parents should be aware the show includes some mildly bad language and a few scary monsters), it does offer a launching point to discuss weighty faith topics with older kids.
Two weeks ago, a research firm confirmed that The Mandalorian is now the most in-demand television series in the world. That’s across all platforms, including major broadcast and cable networks.
It seems Lucas’ family-friendly combination of high stakes in deep space with a strong sense of spiritual mystery is still a winning formula.