When the dust settled on episode 7 of the Book of Boba Fett and one surveys the rubble, it's clear that both Mos Espa and the future of Star Wars need some serious rebuilding. A long, long time ago, in a country situated on top of the Mediterranean Sea a philosopher and scientist named Aristotle set his sights on what makes for good fiction. A couple thousand years later we can still get a good insight into how narratives glue us to characters and situations or how they can leave us scratching our heads staring at the pieces that don’t fit together.
Aristotle was the ultimate polymath. Whatever he surveyed he mastered and wrote about. When analyzing the blockbuster tragedy of his time Oedipus Rex, he saw that writers had hit upon a structure, or formula, for telling stories that could be studied and used again and again. He boiled it down to about six elements. Plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle, and song. Those are six check marks that the Book of Boba Fett definitely ticked off but why did its convoluted storytelling tick off so many fans?
I don't think it would be very controversial to say that the Book of Boba Fett did not hit the heights of human storytelling. It was a mishmash of structural elements that did not make sense, complete with puzzling character arcs.
The first element that I'm going to pick out of Aristotle's list is character because it's so critical to this story from the Star Wars universe. If you know anything of the mystique and backstory of Boba Fett, you will already know that as a character he played a terribly minor role in the original films but was a fan favorite because of his cool detachment and cooler costume. Once George Lucas et al set about expanding the Star Wars universe he also gave Boba Fett a history that would retroactively fit him into an important part of the story. And as is the case with many Star Wars characters, Boba Fett had miraculously survived his on-screen death.
It’s a common trope in story telling to find a hero in the belly of the beast figuratively but in some cases quite literally. Here, Boba Fett struggles to survive his mortal fate to symbolize some sort of rebirthing. The character that goes in is not the same one that comes out. In this case, it’s not actually clear why he changes or what he then wants. In the first episode of his series he is stripped of his armor and clothes and identity. He is essentially a blank slate. The problem with this is fandom wanted more of what they had. But, the writers of the series decided to give him an arc into a completely different mindset.
Aristotle wrote about character and generally speaking, advised writers to make characters act and react based on their circumstances, past and their thoughts. I believe the writers thought it would be visually obvious why he became someone completely different. Fett is imprisoned by the Tusken Raiders and this somehow fundamentally changes his character. His motivations become very diffused and he can't even articulate them on screen. Boba Fett escapes his captivity, exacts very minor revenge on low level characters from his past life and then decides, seemingly out of nowhere, to take over the deceased Jabba the Hutt’s territory on the desolate desert planet of Tatooine so he can run drugs (or not). It seems like the greatest motivation for Boba Fett to become a crime Lord was simply because he had nothing better to do. I half expected him to have a conversation similar to Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane declaring he “…Thought it would be fun to run a newspaper.”
Aristotle's first point is plot. Plot is everything to Aristotle. If you don't build a sound story then the audience can only be dazzled by spectacle. This frustrated Aristotle and he felt that spectacle and song were last on the list for good reason. He thought they should not be used in place of good storytelling. And as is often the case in modern movie making, spectacle and song come first.
Let's look at another example for a second and talk about how character was established in one of my favorite series Breaking Bad.
Walter White's character in Breaking Bad was a man who had tremendous external pressures put upon him through fate. As a chemistry teacher dying of cancer he was forced into a new situation to provide for his family. It was, in the end, an erroneous decision that did far more harm than good but over the course of several seasons we saw Walter White's moral compass change its direction to an extreme. His initial call-to-action is noble but he becomes corrupted by power and money. Walter comes to love the excitement and thrill of it all. We see time and time again his decision-making process and at every fork he decides to go deeper into the belly of the beast. Boba Fett was thrust into his predicament- Walter White is active in creating his future however short it may be. Walter goes from trying to shield his family from his criminal endeavors to eventually folding them all in and corrupting everyone he knows.
Aristotle wrote of the “unity” of Oedipus Rex and how it took place in a very constrained amount of time. Much later, during the Renaissance and after, writers devoted themselves too slavishly to these ideas. Well-made-plays as they were called tend to be too predictable. Much like watching an episode of Law and Order or any variety. You can watch any episode of Law & Order with a stopwatch and predict the exact second of the hour where the crime is committed, the police get their evidence and the lawyers will take over. It is, however, a comforting and successful formula. Analysts now feel Aristotle was merely saying what was happening in fictional tragedy of his day, not prescribing that everything needed to be this way. And in that way Breaking Bad succeeded at every turn because it established character and plot as its most important features and then constantly kept surprising the audience with new twists and turns.
To touch on every one of Aristotle's six points, I just have to say that in terms of diction he was talking about writers choosing words for characters, not their acting styles. In Boba Fett and the Mandalorian series the writers have leaned so hard into westerns and mob-movies that there are several quotes directly lifted from the Godfather and musical themes from films like The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Audiences may or may not be familiar with those films but there is a long history in Star Wars films of this kind of cut and paste technique. The postmodern style of grabbing elements from other works has served Star Wars well as space fantasy. In both of these new series the thematic tropes from spaghetti westerns and mob movies bring that galaxy far far away a little too too close to home for my tastes but opinions will, of course, vary.
Aside from the two episodes in which Boba Fett barely makes an appearance and the series becomes a cross-over Mandalorian 2.5 season, the storytelling in Book of Boba Fett is erratic and filled with unmotivated flashbacks. Aristotle looks at the narrative structure of Oedipus Rex and shows that it starts with an action and proceeds to create a conflict that is irreversible. George Lucas hits upon this in the first Star Wars film with the death of Luke's aunt and uncle. This inciting incident or point-of-no-return engages Luke Skywalker in an all or nothing conflict with the Empire.
Walter White's inciting incidents lock him into his new life with no real way to escape. Every time he thinks of leaving it, more tragedy awaits. In the Book of Boba Fett, the titular character could very well hop in a spaceship and leave the planet unscathed at any point. He has no family and no attachments and has created no lasting impact on his community. In fact most in the community don't even feel the need to ask him for help. He simply insinuated himself and would not be missed if he simply disappeared. This weakness of plot makes the entire series feel like I was watching someone simply moving action figures around on a playset. Without a real plan, without high stakes for the characters, and without repercussions for their actions, there is really no story here.
One of the things Aristotle seemed to really despise about Greek tragedy of his day was that authors would often create narratives that were so convoluted and characters that were unmotivated by their circumstances there could be no good resolution to the plot.
To solve this problem many writers would simply fly in a god on a crane to sort matters out in act 3. In the final episode of The Book of Boba Fett every dire situation is met with what Aristotle called the “deus ex machina” or the god from the machine. If you're pinned down in an overwhelming firefight just keep shooting until the reinforcements arrive. If you are battling indestructible robots just wait for your dungeon monster to arrive. And if your dungeon monster breaks his chains and turns against you just wait for well ... That one you should see cuz it's really cute.
In the final episode of Breaking Bad Walter faces absolutely insurmountable odds and also devises his own mechanical deus ex machina. It was probably the weakest moment in the series because it was so improbable- a Rube Goldberg-style machine gun that only kills bad guys.
But, as Aristotle might have said…. télos kaló óla kalá… all’s well that ends well.