"The Spies" is easily the best episode so far of The Mandalorian's rocky third season. It tackles a meaty story and pursues it with focus and momentum, a decent amount of world building, some solid action, appropriately heightened stakes, reasonable comic relief, and a decent cliffhanger that sets up next week's season finale. I don't understand why they chose the title they did, seeing as the episode has no spies, but that goes for many of this series' laconic and often vaguely puzzling titles.
The episode opens with Elia Kane contacting Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito makes his first appearance of the season, after some whispers in previous episodes) to inform him that the pirates who tried to seize Nevarro (which Gideon was behind) were defeated by Mandalorians, who are now the biggest obstacle in his plans to undermine the New Republic. Gideon contacts the others in the Shadow Council and asks for reinforcements to crush the resurgent Mandalorians. The council also talks of their plans to quietly rebuild the Empire, without calling too much attention to themselves. They speak of the general dissatisfaction ordinary people have with the bureaucratic New Republic and their rules, and how there are supporters of the fallen Empire on every world. (This rings true; every fascist movement has a certain amount of public support, or it wouldn't gain traction.)
There are even mentions of something called "Project Necromancer," which I can only assume is the plan to raise Emperor Palpatine from the dead. (A character in the Shadow Council named Brendol Hux — father of General Hux in the sequels — apparently has a long history in ancillary Star Wars materials that lie far outside the scope of this review. Another council member alleges the imminent return of Grand Admiral Thrawn, which is greeted with skepticism. The Star Wars Extended Universe continues to sprawl.) This is all clearly paving the road for the rise of the First Order — and, if anything, it might be paving it too quickly, since we still have decades to go until The Force Awakens.
Back on Nevarro, Bo-Katan's fleet arrives to reunite the two clans (which are basically the helmets versus the non-helmets) in her effort to resettle on Mandalore. She makes a speech about this plan which might be called "rousing" in another universe, but notably lacks punch in this one, and feels like something that would be at home in the arid prequels. Both Katee Sackhoff and Giancarlo Esposito deliver far less than their best work here, with wooden, overly formal line readings and weird, halting deliveries. If the creators want us to believe this stuff, it might help if their actors tried to believe it, too.
On the comic relief front, Greef Karga offers up IG-12, a hollowed-out shell built from IG-11, which has no brain and isn't a droid so much as a vehicular body, which Grogu sits in and pilots with joysticks and buttons. It's brilliant. IGrogu-12 is by far the most inspired use of Grogu all season, who presses the controls that make the droid say "Yes" or "No" repeatedly to express his desires and opinions, like a kid who has found a new toy (which is exactly what this is). It's cute and hilarious without being cloying and relying on the same Force-jump move over and over.
Bo-Katan takes the fleet to Mandalore, where she leads a scout team to the surface to ensure it's safe and seek out the legendary Great Forge. (I was a little confused, given their tactical posture, what exactly they expected to find down here. Resistance?) What they find is yet another clan of surviving Mandalorians, who have been here since before the Imperial bombing devastated the planet.
All the clans board the native clan's sailing ship to cross the sea to the Great Forge. Here, we get some backstory that fills in some blanks about Bo-Katan and how she lost the Darksaber to Gideon. She actually had made a deal with Gideon in order to spare the lives of the survivors of the bombings, but Gideon betrayed her and killed everyone anyway in the Purge. Bo and Din reach a level of understanding they previously hadn't, and it feels like the progress of building something larger.
On the other hand, we also get the inevitable in-fighting between clans, as Paz Vizsla and Axe Woves have a battle on the deck of the ship over a board game, which provides the excuse for distrust to boil over. (I guess non-helmeted Mandalorians are just as dogmatic as helmeted ones; Axe doesn't put on his helmet during the knife fight, which seems like a pointless disadvantage to place upon himself just to make a point. The helmet stuff continues to be lame, and that likely won't change.) Fortunately, we also have Baby Yoda, armed with his new robot suit and non-Mandalorian attitudes, to step in and say "NO!" Bo is also right: "Division will destroy us." Fortunately, the Mandalorians find more common ground here than division. Good thing, too, because right after the Mandos have patched things up, a huge sea creature destroys their ship. (There's always a huge creature that does something terrible.)
Once they reach the buried city at the Great Forge, they discover a newly built hangar of Imperial ships — and in the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar, IT'S A TRAP! Gideon's new and improved stormtroopers, clad in suits of beskar, ambush the Mandalorians and give us our requisite Big Action Sequence. It's a good one, although nothing groundbreaking. Lots of blasters and chaos. Gideon definitely has the upper hand. He's able to capture Din Djarin, repel the Mandalorian forces, and announce his intention to wipe out Bo-Katan's entire fleet. Paz Vizsla, holding the line, goes out in a blaze of selfless glory. Perhaps most surprising here is Joseph Shirley's uninspired score. (Shirley has scored all of season three as well as The Book of Boba Fett — aside from its main themes, which Ludwig Göransson wrote prior to his departure.)
This episode has a little bit of everything a good episode of The Mandalorian should have. It's a refreshing return to form, although it feels like it's rushing all the meaty stuff through after a season with so much meandering. And while the Mandalorians' solidarity is nice, I wish this series would've explored what it is that actually makes these people substantially different — stupid helmet-wearing aside — in walking the Way versus not doing so. Both sides seem to believe they are so different from each other, but there's very little that's defined about any of them, which is the real thematic problem here. Hopefully, they can send this lackluster season out on a high note next week.
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