SPOILERS for Season 2 of The Mandalorian. LOTS of SPOILERS.
So the second season of The Mandalorian has started dropping on Disney+, and I love the Season 2 premiere (a.k.a. Chapter 9, The Marshal) SO MUCH. I’ve rewatched it 3 1/2 times, and it was my show and episode of choice on Election Night 2020. Because a bunch of people from different racial and ethnic groups coming together to defeat a dangerous monster just feels so relatable right now. But we’re not here to talk about the Krayt Dragon, or even Mando and Baby Yoda. We’re here to talk about that suave silver fox Marshal of Mos Pelgo, Cobb Vanth.
I love Cobb Vanth so much. And no, not just because he’s easy on the eyes. A lot of people talk about how The Mandalorian is a modern western, but they don’t really get into how it undoes some of the more toxic tropes present in the Western genre and in a lot of male action hero characters. Cobb Vanth’s presence in The Mandalorian undoes these tropes in a way that isn’t in-your-face and actually gets a lot of fans to like him without realizing that they’re rooting for a less-toxic version of masculinity than they’re used to seeing in action movies and TV shows. His arc in the story and his interaction with Mando also further the shows postcolonialism themes, which deal with natives, settlers, and refugees trying to make their way in a galaxy far, far away. In the process, Cobb Vanth becomes the anti-Anakin Skywalker, as well as the opposite of another character played by Cobb’s actor, Timothy Olyphant: Raylan Givens, the protagonist of the FX show, Justified.
Okay, I want to get the Justified comparisons out of the way because that show is the worst, and I prefer talking about the Star Wars universe. I watched Season 3 of Justified all the way back in 2012, and I was kind of into it at the time, but after watching the first four episodes of Season 1 over the past three days, I realized Justified is an awful show. The performances are great, but the writing is terrible. Justified premiered in 2010, and it really shows. Everything about the show is designed to reinforce the white, straight, male fantasy of the cowboy cop. All women and minorities are sidelined and serve more powerful white, straight, male characters. Every criminal Raylan has to catch in the first four episodes has an accomplice girlfriend, and Raylan always talks about he was taught to shoot to kill. Oh, and he’s from Kentucky and doesn’t want to go back to Kentucky. Then once he’s in Kentucky, he just wants to get out of Kentucky. Because real men don’t want to live in Flyover Country.
Thankfully, Cobb Vanth is not like that, which is strange, because Cobb first showed up in a few chapters of these Star Wars novels called the Aftermath trilogy, and that trilogy’s author claims Cobb was based on Raylan Givens. Well, whoops, in The Mandalorian, Cobb is the exact opposite of Raylan. For example, where Raylan wants to avoid living in Kentucky, Cobb seems perfectly happy to lead a life as a lawman on Tatooine. Where Raylan avoids emotional intimacy and vulnerability with everyone except women he wants to sleep with, Cobb opens up to Mando about what he and the town of Mos Pelgo have been through twice during their time together. Where Raylan’s always looking for a fight, Cobb wants to avoid violence that could hurt his community.
Okay, I’m done talking about Justified. TL;DR: it hasn’t aged well. At all. If you want to watch Timothy Olyphant in a Western, watch Deadwood. Cobb Vanth is much more like Seth Bullock than Raylan Givens.
Anyway, back to Star Wars. It’s true that The Mandalorian and the larger Star Wars franchise owe a lot to older Westerns and samurai films. However, it doesn’t just bring back the old Western and samurai tropes just for nostalgia’s sake. It takes them and fashions them into something new. With Cobb Vanth, the show engages in commentary on masculine vulnerability as well as colonialism, cultural appropriation, and living on the Outer Rim/in Flyover Country.
When Mando first arrives in Mos Pelgo looking for a Mandalorian, Cobb Vanth puts up a tough guy front and refuses to hand over Boba Fett’s armor when Mando tells him to do so. Mando wants to fight him for the armor, since the Mandalorian Creed gives him the right to take it, but Cobb seems reluctant to resort to violence. “You wanna do this in front of the kid?”, Cobb asks. Then the Krayt Dragon shows up before things can escalate any further. That’s when we learn about Cobb’s vulnerabilities: his devotion to Mos Pelgo and his inability to defeat the monster that threatens his town.
Cobb talks about the vulnerabilities freely to Mando after the Krayt Dragon zooms through Mos Pelgo. This is notable because action hero types like Cobb often only reveal a little bit about their feelings or vulnerabilities, and it often occurs at least halfway through the story to show that the hero is human, even as he shows a disregard for human life. In this case, however, Cobb reveals all this early in the story, and that humanizes him more quickly so the audience develops a genuine emotional attachment to him. It also reveals the main motivating factor in everything he does: Mos Pelgo and the people in it. His flashback to Mos Pelgo’s recent past expands upon his motivations and why he needs Boba Fett’s armor. He needs the armor not to prove himself as a badass or subjugate anyone, but to liberate Mos Pelgo from the Mining Collective, which enslaved the town’s citizens as soon as the Second Death Star explodes.
In fact, when Cobb uses Boba Fett’s armor to shoot up the Mining Collective, he looks a lot like Tony Stark did when he donned his first suit of armor in the first Iron Man film, with a few key differences. In Iron Man, Tony Stark uses his armor to blast his away out of a cave and kill the terrorists who kidnapped him. The only person Tony saves is himself. Cobb Vanth, on the other hand, uses the Mandalorian armor to return home to a hostile environment and liberate his fellow citizens. They both wander in the desert during their backstory, but of these two heroes, Cobb is the one who puts other people first from the very beginning. Tony Stark is selfish and narcissistic, and only takes action against bad guys after they kidnap him. Cobb Vanth, on the other hand, has other people’s interests at heart from the moment he’s introduced. We see this in the way that he helps the town bartender get out of the bar when the Mining Collective starts attacking everyone. And we see it again when he motions for the bartender to move out of the way when he attacks the Mining Collective’s members in the bar. The people that Cobb Vanth wants to help aren’t just vague ciphers; they’re the people he lives alongside, and that’s honestly rather refreshing.
Side Note: Those parallels between Cobb Vanth and Tony Stark may be intentional because this episode was written and directed by Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man films. Also, did you know that Timothy Olyphant auditioned for the role of Tony Stark way back in the day?
Anyway, Cobb isn’t just a foil to more traditional heroes like Raylan Givens and Tony Stark, who are both very selfish and emotionally closed off. He’s also a foil to Anakin and Luke Skywalker, who view Tatooine as a place you get away from and despise, not a place where you make a life. But Cobb Vanth proves that you can make a life on Tatooine and contribute to a community you care about. I come from Flyover Country (that massive chunk of the U.S. that doesn’t have a coast), and I find that weirdly inspiring.
Also, I realized something about Cobb Vanth and Anakin Skywalker: they’re probably close in age. I’ve heard that Anakin died at age 45 in Return of the Jedi, and The Mandalorian takes place five years after the events of that film. Cobb’s age is never stated, but Timothy Olyphant is 52 at the time of this writing, so I’m betting Cobb probably isn’t too much older or younger than that. So if Anakin had lived to this point in the timeline, he’d be 50, and Cobb is probably also about 50. I just think it’s interesting that two members of the same generation of Tatooine’s human inhabitants ended up in very different places by the time they reach middle age, and their different paths show that you can define success in different ways.
For example, Anakin’s journey looks more successful on paper: he rose up from literal slavery on one of the most backwater planets to become a powerful Jedi and Force user. Everything about him screams “Chosen One”: he was immaculately conceived, raised by a loving single mother in poverty, won a race no human had ever entered, got plucked from obscurity to travel to the center of the galaxy to fulfill a prophecy. But since he got zero emotional support from the Jedi, which led Anakin to become an angry, petulant whiner. (George Lucas’s terrible writing in the prequels didn’t help, either.) Then he ended up trapped in a metal suit for half his life. And you know, helped Emperor Palpatine enact his plans throughout the galaxy. He was second fiddle to a tyrant for two decades, and he was separated from his children until the end of his life. Is that success or tragedy?
On the other hand, Cobb never got off Tatooine. If there’s a bright light at the center of the universe and Tatooine is the point farthest from it, that’s a pretty big failure, right? Only from a certain point of view. He’s become the marshal of a town, and he’s used Mandalorian armor to keep it safe. He may not have Force powers like Anakin, but he’s a proficient combatant. Also, he admits that he grabbed those silicax crystals that the Jawas wanted by pure chance. Maybe that was the Force working in a mundane way to help him save Mos Pelgo? Also, Cobb takes things that are associated with evil in the main Star Wars trilogies and uses them to do good. For example, Star Wars Explained points out in their videos on Cobb that he takes Boba Fett’s armor, which has only been used in ruthless ways before, to protect innocent people. And that’s true. But there’s more. Cobb also rides a speeder with an engine that comes from Anakin’s old pod racer.
Why is that engine important? Well, that pod racer allowed Anakin to win the Boonta Eve Classic, and when he won, Qui-Gon Jinn won his bet with Watto (Anakin’s owner) and Anakin’s freedom in the process. Then Qui-Gon took Anakin to Coruscant to meet with the Jedi Council and… Anakin started down his path to becoming Darth Vader. That engine belonged to the Boy Who Would Be Vader, who would go on to do terrible things. But now it’s in the hands of a man who tries to do right by his community, no matter what it takes. A man who can admit when he’s vulnerable and needs help. A man who has raised his blaster against Tuskens to protect his town, but who can strike a truce with them when both communities are threatened. Anakin could never make a truce with Tuskens; he just mows them down with his lightsaber. Anakin sees Tuskens as animals and says as much in Attack of the Clones. Cobb is able to overcome his prejudice against Tuskens and work with them by the end of his story.
TL;DR: Cobb Vanth is the kind of man Anakin Skywalker was too emotionally stunted to become.
Okay, why am I comparing Cobb Vanth to all these other white male heroes? Why do any of those comparisons matter? I’m making comparisons because I see parallels between Cobb and these other heroes, but he’s also the opposite of those heroes in many ways. Overall, I think he’s a step forward for how white-dude heroes are portrayed onscreen. Cobb Vanth shows that male characters can admit to vulnerability, overcome prejudice, respect other cultures, and STILL be a badass. That’s why I was glad that Cobb gave Boba Fett’s armor at the end of the episode.
Apparently, some fans wanted Cobb to keep Boba Fett’s armor, just because Cobb is an awesome character. However, if Mando let Cobb keep the armor, that would negate the entire point of the episode and why Mando wanted to reclaim the armor in the first place. Mando reclaimed the armor because Cobb is not a Mandalorian, and thus cannot wear it. Cobb had never met a Mandalorian before, let alone sworn their creed, and Mando and his tribe consider that sort of behavior offensive. Wearing Mandalorian armor when you’re not a Mandalorian is cultural appropriation in a galaxy far, far away. That’s why Mando helps Cobb reach a truce with the Tuskens and destroy the Krayt Dragon: once Mando and Cobb remove those threats, Cobb doesn’t need Boba Fett’s armor to protect Mos Pelgo anymore. And when he gives it back, he’s respecting Mandalorian culture. Letting him keep the armor would just be rewarding a white male character for insulting another culture just because he acted bravely on behalf of his own people. I think some of us (myself included) initially wanted Cobb to keep the armor, though, because he’s a good leader who did what was best for his people. But that’s the thing: we want to reward white, male characters for basic decency, and we have to expect more than just the bare minimum from them. And Mando does that by expecting Cobb to hand the armor over. And Cobb hands it over, as he agreed to do. He does the right thing, culturally speaking, showing that white men can respect other while being badasses. Guess what, white fanboys? You don’t have to sign your masculinity away when you respect other cultures! It’s great!
So that’s my treatise on why I love Cobb Vanth. I hope he comes back because he’s fun and awesome, and he’s an example of what white male heroes can become when they’re not written to appease the white male ego.