The Empire did not go down without a fight following the death of Sheev Palpatine. War continued to rock the galaxy far, far away for another year after Return of the Jedi’s Battle of Endor. And the New Republic never fully defeated the former Imperial forces, which eventually led to the formation of the First Order. But that dangerous time period after the destruction of the second Death Star has never been explored on screen, only in Star Wars games and books. So you might never have heard about Operation: Cinder until the most recent episode of The Mandalorian. It was the Emperor’s posthumous order to destroy planets, one of the darkest events in Star Wars history.
It could also explain another mystery from earlier this season—what exactly happened to Mandalore. But worse, it could be a harbinger of things to come from the remnants of the Empire.
In Chapter 15 of The Mandalorian, “The Believer,” former Imperial army sharpshooter Migs Mayfeld (Bill Burr) ran into his old commanding officer, Valin Hess (Richard Brake). During an unwanted sit-down with Hess, Mayfeld suggested a toast to Operation: Cinder. “Now there’s a man who knows his history,” said a pleased Hess. Cinder was an infamous plan executed by surviving Imperial officers following the death of the Emperor. It was Palpatine’s vile and spiteful contingency plan in case of his unexpected death.
Just a few weeks after Palpatine died, messenger droids went out around the galaxy carrying a message from the late dictator. Star Wars comics, games like Battlefront, and Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath novels have explored the contents and purpose of this directive. The Emperor believed that if he could not rule, no one should. The clandestine plan called for setting up satellites in a planet’s orbit that created unimaginable electrical storms that destroyed many worlds. And any ships trying to flee were shot down by Imperial forces. This went on for three months, with many planets laid to waste and countless lives lost.
The targets were not exclusively Rebel/Republic-supporting places. Operation: Cinder also went after planets that were loyal to Palpatine. As he said in his message, “If an Empire cannot protect its Emperor then that Empire must be deemed a failure. It collapses not only because its central figure is gone, but because it must not be allowed to remain!” However, Valin Hess explained to Mayfeld that the goals of Cinder were about more than just revenge. There was method to the bloodshed.
“You see, boys, everybody thinks they want freedom, but what they really want is order. And when they realize that, they’re gonna welcome us back with open arms,” Hess said. Cinder was another form of chaos. Just like Palpatine used the Clone Wars to accumulate power, then capitalized on peoples’ fears to be named Emperor, Cinder was designed to show the galaxy why an Empire was necessary. A new, deadly reminder of the need for a “safe and secure society.”
Hess destroyed the planet Burnin Konn as part of Cinder. And he was happy to do it, even though it meant sacrificing an entire division of his own men. Five to ten thousand “heroes” of the Empire, he called them. “A small sacrifice for the greater good.”
Mayfeld saw the truth about the Empire when he watched “an entire city gone in moments, along with everybody in it.” So, despite not seeming to care about anything beside himself, he shot Hess, both for vengeance and to stop Hess from using the even more dangerous rhydonium he and “Brown Eyes” had delivered. Mayfeld couldn’t sleep at night if he helped the Empire destroy another planet.
When he killed Hess, he may have also exacted revenge for the Mandalorian sitting next to him. Earlier this season, Din Djarin talked with his fellow Mandalorians about their peoples’ home world. “That planet is cursed. Anyone who goes there dies. Once the Empire knew they couldn’t control it, they made sure no one else could either,” he said.
That certainly sounds like Cinder. Mandalore might have been one of the victims of the Emperor’s posthumous destruction. We know something drove Mandalorians into hiding around the galaxy. And the show takes place only five years after Return of the Jedi, when the memory and terror of Operation: Cinder were still haunting the New Republic.
The Mandalorian won’t show us that terrible year after Palpatine’s death. But for the first time ever, Star Wars introduces the horror of that time to a viewing audience. Mandalore might have been a victim of those chaotic, dark days. But that’s not as important as another question this episode inevitably has us asking now. The real fear is that Operation: Cinder could be relit by the remnants of the Empire.
The First Order is coming. And Palpatine is still pulling the strings from the shadows.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.