The Latest Episode Of The Mandalorian Is An Homage To George Lucas' First Feature

This article contains spoilers for "The Mandalorian" episode, "The Convert."

As "The Mandalorian" embarks on its third season, it faces tougher challenges than Pedro Pascal's beskar armor-clad Din Djarin does on a daily basis. For one thing, the return of Grogu neé Baby Yoda in the other Disney+ series, "The Book of Boba Fett," may have confused some of "The Mandalorian" viewers who skipped that show, as well as people who had tuned in for more Boba action and not "Mandalorian 2.5." For another, like most series entering their third season, the show faces many questions about its future: how long is it going to run, is there an endgame in play, and where else can the show (and Din and Grogu) go exploring?

That last question began to be answered with the show's latest episode, "The Convert." Although the beginning and end of the episode followed the further adventures of Din, Grogu, and Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff), the middle section was a nearly standalone side story following Dr. Pershing (Omid Abtahi) in his new, post-Empire life on the planet Coruscant. His plight, being part of the New Republic's Amnesty program for former Imperial officers, makes for quite possibly the most unique episode of "The Mandalorian" yet. Although the episode features a lot of parallels — from "Brazil" to "Star Trek" to "Andor" — its look at the New Republic's approach to revamping Imperial rule also doubles as a sly, knowing homage to "Star Wars" creator George Lucas' very first feature film: 1971's "THX 1138."

The future is the present

Emerging from USC film school at the height of the political and social turmoil of the 1960s, Lucas teamed up with buddy Francis Ford Coppola's nascent American Zoetrope project to make his first feature film, which was to be an extension of his 1967 short "Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB." Lucas' goals were far less pointed than the short or the feature version of "THX 1138" would seem: "I wanted to do something extremely visual that had no dialogue and no character and that sort of thing," Lucas explained in the 2004 documentary, "A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope." "I wanted to do something that was abstract."

Even though Lucas' goal with "THX 1138" was not to make an overt statement, the present era he and co-writer Walter Murch made the film in was so saturated with political and sociological thought that it couldn't help but invade the movie. To wit: the film follows a man, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) who is a drone-like employee helping to build robotic police officers on a daily basis. In the movie's uniform, antiseptic future (primarily shot in numerous real-life locations in San Francisco), sex and love are prohibited, and sure enough, THX falls for another dehumanized worker, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). When their liaison is discovered, the oppressive, conformist society seeks to torture and/or eliminate the pair as undesirables, causing THX to escape this world which is revealed to be totally underground.

In the same way Lucas' original 1977 "Star Wars" contains latent political commentary (the presence of stormtroopers, etc.), "THX 1138" is a chillingly effective look at how humanity allows oppression to happen to itself: the society is ultimately seen to be fully automated, all responsibility is wilfully given over by humans to a series of programs and machines.

'It all happened so slowly'

In "THX 1138," THX watches a hologram device that plays approved programming for the film's "new environment." In one of these programs, a character asks "How shall the new environment be programmed? It all happened so slowly that most men failed to realize that anything had happened at all."

That sentiment seems to permeate the "Star Wars" galaxy around the time of "The Convert." While the Empire and its ilk were responsible for unequivocally ghastly acts during its reign, writers Noah Kloor and Jon Favreau along with director Lee Isaac Chung make it uncomfortably easy to sympathize with the people in the Amnesty program.

The program is essentially a riff on America's Project Paperclip, a post-WWII initiative that saw former Axis scientists like Wernher Von Braun brought into the US fold ostensibly so as not to let their talents go to waste. Yet, as Dr. Pershing soon discovers, the program is far more restrictive than what it promises to be, only allowing its members to work drone-like on menial tasks. Like THX, Pershing's name is professionally removed and replaced with a designation (Amnesty Scientist L52), and where THX seeks comfort erroneously in the OMM 2000 program (a pseudo-religious representative dispassionately spouting propaganda), Pershing must confide in a droid (who itself is like a parole officer, and also dispassionately spouts propaganda).

It's no wonder that Pershing is manipulated by Elia Kane (Katy M. O'Brian), who convinces him to continue to pursue his old work under Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) against Republic orders. Yet unlike poor, doomed LUH, Kane is more akin to Donald Pleasence's SEN 5241 in "THX 1138," a fellow oppressed member of society who is manipulating events for their own ends.

The seeds of the First Order

"The Mandalorian" showrunners Favreau and Dave Filoni are well aware of the show's place in the larger "Star Wars" narrative, and "The Convert" is a brilliant illustration of the way events within the galaxy shift from the Original Trilogy to the Sequel Trilogy. By the end of the episode, when Pershing is hooked up to a device he remembers from the Empire known as a "mind flayer" which the New Republic is using as a so-called rehabilitation tool, it conjures up memories of THX's torture at the unwitting hands of bored technicians, as well as the Ludovico Technique from "A Clockwork Orange" (released the same year).

If the "Star Wars" saga as a whole has an overarching theme, it's that of the denizens of the galaxy learning to change their cyclical behavior and break the rules of long-running and rigid systems of thought — or not, as the case may be. The New Republic of "The Mandalorian" is clearly sowing the seeds of the First Order that will start a new round of tragic, destructive wars in the stars come the time of "The Force Awakens," the government's actions and attitudes unwittingly lay the groundwork for such violent rebellion. In our world, one still reeling from turmoil due to the pandemic as well as oppressive and hateful acts by authority figures on a daily basis, it's almost comforting to see "Star Wars" continue to honor its sci-fi roots of social commentary in this fashion, showing us our greatest hopes as well as our continuing mistakes. To paraphrase the mantra frequently intoned by the show's Mandalorian factions, "this is not the way."