In a bitterly divided nation, few things have the power to bring us together — and one of them seems to be a doe-eyed green puppet the internet has dubbed "Baby Yoda."
Baby Yoda, so named for his resemblance to the gnomic, anastrophe-spouting Jedi master of the "Star Wars" movies, is the breakout co-star of the new Disney Plus series "The Mandalorian." In the eight-episode serial, the titular intergalactic bounty hunter takes Baby Yoda under his wing.
But, as a cursory glance at Twitter suggests, Baby Yoda is no mere television character. In the days since the "Star Wars" spinoff show premiered, the pointy-eared tyke has become a generation-spanning meme, an all-purpose totem of cuteness and the subject of frenzied fan theories.
What are we to make of this creature? Here's a look at what Baby Yoda tells us about our cultural moment — and where he might fit into the sprawling, endlessly debated "Star Wars" mythology.
But be warned: Spoilers, this article will contain.
Disney Plus is making its digital mark
The debut of Disney's new streaming service was beset by technical glitches that frustrated consumers. But the cultural conversation around Disney Plus quickly shifted to "The Mandalorian," its marquee big-budget series, and especially Baby Yoda. The response suggests that the entertainment giant has managed to hook viewers — 10 million subscribers and counting — while also debuting a character that can be easily translated into the language of the internet: GIFs, a fan-made Twitter account ("Won the internet I have"), YouTube theory videos, TikTok musical riffs and fevered Reddit speculation.
The character has proven to be mightily adaptable, cropping up in memes involving Pope Francis, the "OK Boomer" catchphrase, the IKEA Monkey, the "Distracted Boyfriend" stock image, and Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman." The other virtues of "The Mandalorian" have arguably been overshadowed by the sheer volume of internet content about Baby Yoda, known on the show as "The Child."
Disney Plus, the company's much-hyped foray into the streaming wars, needs exactly this sort of buzzy cultural currency to differentiate itself in a crowded marketplace that already includes Netflix, Amazon, Apple and HBO. If the leaders of Disney hope to one day make Disney Plus the centerpiece of their media empire, as many analysts have suggested, zeitgeist-conquering characters like Baby Yoda will be key.
Lucasfilm is doubling down on kid-friendly critters
"Star Wars" has long dabbled in what is known in Japan as "kawaii," or the culture of cuteness, an aesthetic that helps explain the popularity of characters like Hello Kitty and Pikachu. The original Yoda, whom franchise creator George Lucas once called "the illegitimate child of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy," was one of several "Star Wars" characters evidently crafted to soften the edges of a sometimes gritty galaxy. In that sense, Baby Yoda is a successor to the R2-D2 and BB-8 droids, the furry Ewoks of "Return of the Jedi" (1983), and the shrieking Porgs of "The Last Jedi" (2017).
Baby Yoda spends much of the first two installments of "The Mandalorian" acting like a human infant: cooing, burping, waddling, taking long naps after using the Force. (The pilot suggests that the character is 50, just like Paul Rudd, but we must remember that the original Yoda lived for hundreds of years.) Lucasfilm, the Disney-owned production company behind "Star Wars," clearly has not lost its fondness for adorable creatures as the franchise navigates its fourth decade.
That's partly because Disney relies on ancillary revenues from toys — and Baby Yoda, with his saucer eyes and toddler-sized robe, will soon inspire a fleet of plush dolls, keychains and vinyl action figures. The merchandise will hit the shelves just in time for the holidays, according to CNBC, after Disney reportedly agreed to hold off on promotional ties-ins that might spoil the character's introduction.
'Star Wars' is expanding — and inviting theories
"The Mandalorian," set five years after the events of "Return of the Jedi" and 25 years before "The Force Awakens" (2015), is the first of several planned movies and TV shows that will branch off from the core nine movies known as the Skywalker saga. The proliferation of "Star Wars" projects means that the Wikipedia-sized franchise mythology will likely become even more dense — and the diminutive Baby Yoda hints at possible revelations to come.
In the days since "The Mandalorian" dropped, fans have run amok with theories.
What if Baby Yoda, a member of an unnamed and ancient species, is the offspring of the original Yoda and Yaddle, a female who sat on the Jedi Council in "The Phantom Menace" (1999), the first prequel film? Does that mean the original Yoda broke his Jedi vows of celibacy? (Yoda's marital advice to Anakin Skywalker: "Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.") What if Baby Yoda is a clone, like the bounty hunter Boba Fett? Is that why the remnants of the Empire want it captured? The list goes on.
Baby Yoda, belying his size and stature, could very well carry grand implications for the "Star Wars" universe — not to mention the army of Twitter users dissecting every minute of the frog-eating infant's newfound fame.