‘The Book of Boba Fett’ and the limits of mercy
A moment near the end of “The Book of Boba Fett” perfectly captures the show’s aspirations. Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) waddles forward to confront a Rancor. The two are a study in contrasts: Grogu small and childlike, the Rancor 30 feet high and a horror show of teeth and claws.
Grogu raises a little three-fingered hand, but instead of launching an attack of some kind, he communes with the Rancor. There is no sense of mind control trick at work; it’s all about openness and vulnerability. And slowly the beast calms down. As it falls asleep, Grogu walks up and brushes its face with clear affection, before quite literally falling asleep beside it, a beautiful “Star Wars” version of the peaceable kingdom.
On one level, “The Book of Boba Fett” has been about that effort to move beyond the fear experienced in the presence of seeming monsters and build a connection, even a community. It’s one of the foundational themes of the “Star Wars” universe. And to see it explored through the lens of one of the “Star Wars” universe’s most famed and notorious criminals is a fascinating twist.
If only it had worked.
The elements were all there in Boba Fett’s story. He had to fight to survive, he had a father he pined for and he found a family of his own.
“Book” showed tremendous potential in the early going, as I wrote after the third episode. The flashback story of Fett’s interactions with the Tusken Raiders is a master class in the idea of humanizing a monster. What makes it particularly awe-inspiring is the way it positions the Raiders: Rather than animals who need to be humanized, they are the subjects learning to see Fett (a.k.a. humans) as potentially more than a threat. The result is one of the truly great “Star Wars” stories, as well as a tremendous rebirth narrative for Boba Fett (complete with an introductory womb-like exit from the body of the Sarlaac that leaves Fett weak as a child and acid-scarred).
Over the course of the series, Fett seems to be living out of what the Raiders taught him (though weirdly he never mentions them). Over and over he offers both monstrous or animalistic-seeming creatures like Black Krrsantan the (awesome) Wookie bounty hunter and straight-up villains like the Hutts and the drug-dealing Pyke Syndicate a fresh start. At times his attitude has approached the evangelical, as he calls for patience or negotiation even over the warnings of his friend and partner Fennec Shand. In the abstract, the entire series is very much in the style of the classic Western story of the old gunslinger who had taken a vow to change his ways (and who will no doubt be put to the test).
But in practice, Fett’s attitude only leaves him looking foolish, as again and again he is caught completely flatfooted by the lies and machinations of others. He never seems to have any real plan or response. In the finale, as he sits in the ruins of the bar he vowed to protect in the first episode, he receives almost “Monty Python”-eque levels of further bad news; all the episode needs is the townspeople to start shouting “We don’t like you either!” In that moment, the entirety of his plan seems to be to die with honor.
Of course, he doesn’t die. The show is called “The Book of Boba Fett,” after all. But even his success comes off like a failure; he doesn’t win through any talent of his own, the allies he’s made or because of his commitment to be a better man—or better yet, because he finally realizes that in a broken world you sometimes don’t have the luxury of your ideals. (I believe with every dormant midichlorian of my being that there was a great cifi version of “Unforgiven” waiting in the DNA of this series.) No, Fett succeeds because back in the third episode, Jabba the Hutt’s kids randomly and for no reason gave him a Rancor, and it turns out it’s really hard to defeat a guy who has his own lizard King Kong.
Nothing comes easy in the “Star Wars” universe. There’s always a good reason they have a bad feeling about this.
Here’s the strange thing: Despite its many failures, which include not only turning one of the most beloved “Star Wars” characters into a patsy, butfridging a whole tribe of indigenous people and murdering Jennifer Beals (her bar owner character was one of the show’s great new characters), “Book” also boasts three of the best episodes in the “Mandalorian” franchise. In addition to the episode showing Fett’s life with the Tusken Raiders, episodes five and six, which follow the ongoing adventures of Mando and Grogu, are riveting. Even after we got a moment with Luke Skywalker at the end of the second season of “The Mandalorian,” who could have expected we would then spend most of an episode with him? And yet we got not only that, but him interacting with “Clone Wars” former-Jedi superstar Ahsoka Tano, the implications of which are truly mind-blowing.
Mando’s reunion with what is left of his people is similarly satisfying. In many ways those episodes highlight what has been missing from “Book,” and also what makes “Star Wars” so great: stakes and family. Nothing comes easy in the “Star Wars” universe. There’s always a good reason they have a bad feeling about this; there’s always too many of them. But what motivates them to go on is always ultimately one’s family, found and otherwise. The Jedi episode alone is a dizzying hall of mirrors of fathers and sons and sibling relationships, each of them unique and all of them precious.
The elements were all there in Boba Fett’s story. He had to fight to survive, he had a father he pined for and in the Sand People (aka the Tusken Raiders) he found a family of his own. For some reason the writers of the series eliminated all of those elements in the show’s early episodes. Maybe they hated the implications of where their story was headed, the fact that there are villains out there who cannot be won over, and times when protecting oneself and others actually means releasing the monster within. If so, I can appreciate their hesitation; it is a challenge that strikes at the heart of the idealism of “Star Wars.”
But the solution offered by “Book,” a win with no sacrifice, leaves both Boba Fett and us in much the same place he keeps remembering in the series: alone and with nothing to hold onto but an empty helmet.