Mandalorians and cultural trauma in The Mandalorian

The horrors that made Mandalorians in The Mandalorian so hardcore reflect real-life cultural trauma

Spoilers through Chapter 3 of Star Wars: The Mandalorian with one spoiler from Chapter 4; also BIG spoilers for Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels

One of the things I loved about Chapter 3 of the The Mandalorian is what was conveyed indirectly.  Clearly, the title of the episode—The Sin—was in reference to the Mandalorian turning in The Child to the (former) Imperial leader played by Werner Herzog, now a warlord, for a very handsome bounty.

Our titular hero clearly felt guilty, as he mentioned to his matronly leader that his kill of a beast was not honorable since he received help from The Child (whom denizens of the internetswebs have dubbed Baby Yoda) and said the little green guy did not know the Mandalorian would be turning him into those who would do him harm: “The Sin” was his betrayal of The Child.

But “The Sin” could also refer to what is known, at least by Mandalorians, as the Great Purge.

After giving the Mandalorian his payment, the ex-Imperial notes that “unfortunately, finding a Mandalorian in these trying times is more difficult than finding the steel,” referring to the beskar metal with which he paid the Mandalorian. It is this metal, which apparently comes from Mandalore, which makes the very special, seemingly near-indestructible armor that helps make the Mandalorians (at least, in this era, those fortunate enough to have it) as formidable as they are and is a major part of their definitive appearance.

We first hear of the term beskar in Chapter 1, during the meeting between our lead Mandalorian and his imperial client. Then we hear an important detail in the next scene, when the apparent leader of the Mandalorian cell notes the beskar our hero was given as a down-payment, marked with an Imperial insignia, was “gathered” by the Empire during the Great Purge, also the first direct mention of that event.

Back to Chapter 3, in which we learn in scene following our titular hero’s exchange with the ex-Imperial honcho that things got really bad between The Empire and Mandalorians.

This is revealed when some of the other Mandalorians are so offended that our Mandalorian broke bread with former Imperials to earn that large amount of beskar (taken as “spoils” by the Empire) that they confront him and a fight breaks out. The lead instigator of the inter-Mandalorian fight noting it was the Empire that “shattered” their world. Thus, we learn the Empire is responsible for the Great Purge that nearly wiped out Mandalorians, driven them from their homeland, and forced them underground.

Given this new context, the warlord’s comment from Chapter 1 when he hired the Mandalorian—referring to a restoration of a “natural order of things” in returning beskar to a Mandalorian “after a period of such disarray”—seems to be a deliberate taunt and is far more chilling in retrospect.

As someone who was likely somewhat important in the Empire and who wielded authority, his deliberate and sly referencing of a traumatic event carried out by the Empire against the Mandalorians (perhaps even a genocide) only adds to sinister aspects of his exchanges with the Mandalorian in both Chapters 1 and 3: he knows fully well why Mandalorians are hard to find, why times are trying for Mandalorians, what they have been through and it is because of the Empire, the symbol of which the ex-officials still wears around his neck and is stamped into the beskar.

Both Clone Wars and Rebels are relevant here: history matters, a dark history that gets us to the Gret Purge.

Even years before the Clone Wars, when Obi-Wan Kenobi went on a mission to Mandalore with his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, the planet was in the midst of a massive civil war that wiped out many of the Mandalorian people. In reaction to and in the aftermath of the fighting, Mandalore instituted a pacifist government under Duchess Satine Kryze that was still in power when the Clone Wars broke out.

Mandalore itself also gets dragged into the Clone Wars when the Sith Lord Darth Maul teamed up with the Death Watch—Mandalorian terrorists dedicated to overthrowing Mandalore’s pacifist government and restoring the old warrior ways—and some of the biggest organized crime organizations—the Black Sun, the Pyke Syndicate, and the Hutts—in the galaxy.

Together, they take over Mandalore, with Maul even killing the pacifist duchess leader, but when Maul also kills the leader of Death Watch in single combat and, according to Mandalorian warrior tradition, rightfully claims leadership of Death Watch and, therefore, Mandalore as a result, this splits the Death Watch into pro-Maul and anti-Maul factions.

Previously, the Death Watch had all worn blue armor, but the Maul faction stylized themselves in red armor and some even added horns to their helmets in honor of Maul; it seems very much to be such horns that adorn the matriarchal blacksmith-leader of the Mandalorian cell in The Mandalorian, suggesting she was once part of the Maul faction back during the Clone Wars and is no stranger to conflict.

This new Mandalorian civil war during the Clone Wars culminated in the Siege of Mandalore, one of the final battles of the entire Clone Wars, in which the Republic intervened on the side of the anti-Maul Death Watch faction, led by Bo-Katan Kryze, sister of the previous pacifist ruler who had been murdered by Maul. The Republic won the day and left Bo-Katan in charge.

Yet when the Republic suddenly turned into the Empire, Bo-Katan refused to join the new regime and she and her supporters were driven out of power. In their place, new factions emerged that allied with or even worked directly for the Empire, but Mandalorians remained divided and in conflict throughout, and many Mandalorians perished in the fighting over the issue of Imperial control, with the Empire eventually dominating most Mandalorians through attrition and fear after so many losses.

Eventually, a young Mandalorian named Sabine Wren, who was part of a nascent group of rebels fighting against the Empire that would come to be known as the Rebel Alliance (the same one Luke Skywalker would join in the original Star Wars movies), would help inspire and unify Mandalorians in a new civil war that overthrew the Mandalorian factions supporting the Empire, drawing the help of Bo-Katan and seeing her once again become the leader of Mandalore (as depicted in Rebels).

It was not long after this, however, that the Empire struck back in what became known as the Great Purge. Little has yet been revealed about this brutal event, but one thing is clear: the Mandalorian people were decimated, most of them wiped out, their Beskar harvested by the Empire and the survivors scattered and hidden.

But the Empire itself did not last much longer, and just five years after then events of Return of the Jedi and the fall of the Empire, this is the state in which we find our Mandalorians of The Mandalorian: scattered as refugees, underground, and in secret cells after decades of on-and-off-again civil war that left only a tiny remnant their people still alive.

And herein we get to trauma: the Mandalorians we see in Clone Wars and Rebels regularly took their helmets off when not in combat or training situations.

But after they have been devastated to the point, it seems, of near extinction, it seems that once young Mandalorians comes of age in this new era, they never takes their helmets off in the presence of another person (even other Mandalorians!) unless they accept then can never wear those helmets again, essentially giving up their Mandalorian identity or, at least, going into some form of retirement (this information on the helmets comes in part from a conversation in Chapter 4).

This scarred people have become highly ritualistic, secretive, and cautious, choosing to remain private and hiding their faces even among their own. In just a period of a few years, Mandalorians have become more cult-like, more extreme in their practices and beliefs, and closer-knit even though they don’t take their helmets off in front of each other, let alone those not inducted into “the tribe.”

They are concerned with survival and regrowing their numbers, with Mandalorian mercenaries and bounty hunters donating much of their proceeds to finding, training, and equipping Foundlings, or new young inductees, into their tribe. It’s possible this is somehow an unrepresentative band of Mandalorians, but indications thus far—how regular people identify the series’ lead Mandalorian as a Mandalorian and how the rumors they hear about Mandalorians seem to be mainly true—are that they are not.

In fact, their mantra—“This is the way”—suggests that there really has been a new overall code set up in their time of exile and desperation. While this saying and those rules and rituals we see in The Mandalorian are just a few years old when we see them in the show, they still clearly hold powerful sway over the surviving Mandalorians.

It may seem like an extreme reaction, but history shows that such reactions to extreme, cataclysmic suffering are not uncommon.

Such cataclysms hardening the psychology of nearly a whole people are real in our own world: right now, such a thing has been happening, for example, for years in both Yemen and Syria, uprooting the collective nations so severely that few nations on earth can have a collective conscience resembling the people of those nations and others who have and are suffering similarly.

An obvious example going back thousands of years would the Jewish people and especially that first devastating rebellion against the Romans, from which Jews would not collectively recover mentally to any large degree until 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel.

Going back to the Romans we have quite an eerie parallel: for generations, Jews had centered their life and faith around a Judaism focused on a particular location: a massive temple in Jerusalem.  When the Romans destroyed that temple in the Great Revolt of 66-73 CE and slaughtered, enslaved, and scattered much of the Jewish population in the surrounding area, life changed drastically.

The old ways were simply no longer possible and a persecuted people had to find a different way.  After two more subsequent rebellions against Roman rule, by 135 CE most of the remaining Jews were expelled from their homeland, and Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina. Jews would not even return in force under the modern Zionist movement began in the late nineteenth century.

With no central temple, Judaism became decentralized, and new rituals and practices emerged, ones designed to keep a people scattered and in danger together in the face of great adversity.  Extremism was, in part, then, a way to survive, both physically and collectively as a people.  Temple Judaism gave way to Rabbinic Judaism, and the Talmud emerged as a prominent text, among others.

In that location today, the Holocaust in particular looms large over Israeli Jews, constantly seeping into Israeli political discourse. The shadow looms over not only Survivors, but over several generations of their descendants, contributing to a hard-edged mentality that both helps and hinders Israel’s people as they try to move forward in history. Just spend a few days in Israel talking to Israelis about their conflicts with the Palestinians, other Arab states, or Iran (as I have many times), and you’ll see what I mean: there’s no fully escaping the past.

But inherited trauma is hardly unique to the Jewish people: a recent study of group of Union U.S. Civil War prisoners who suffered greatly under rebel “Confederate” detention revealed that their sons died younger than those of Union soldiers who were not prisoners of war, even though they were born after the war.

This trauma is not simply taught: it can even become genetic.

The point is, from ancient Jews to Union soldiers being held prisoner to many other groups past and present, trauma is part of the human experience, and the way we can see it manifested in The Mandalorian is fairly unique in the canon Star Wars universe; it helps to make Star Wars even more human and relatable when one considers the circumstances that produced the unique Mandalorian behavior featured in the new flagship streaming series.

Whatever happened during the Great Purge, it was world-shattering, turning a people who had a homeland into one living in diaspora, pushing them to adopt strict rituals and secrecy to preserve their very identity as a people and prevent their infiltration and destruction.

To understand what may seem the strange and cultish behavior of the Mandalorians in this show, looking to how real traumatized, persecuted, and hunted peoples have behaved can help.  And if fans of Star Wars take this opportunity to consider more closely the trauma of real people, that should be celebrated along with the success of this unique new Star Wars show.

The Mandalorian is currently streaming on Disney+.