Mercedes Varnado, You Will Be Missed on The Mandalorian

Star Wars trains the eye to pick up on peripheral characters, when they aren’t already eye-catching. Maybe it’s that armored warrior who speaks little but strikes a mean figure. Now, is that Boba Fett or is it Koska Reeves? With an appearance in season two of The Mandalorian measured in minutes, Reeves managed to capture that essence of Star Wars with remarkable persuasion. She said cool stuff, did cool stuff, and she looked badass in blue armor. The good news that season three of The Mandalorian would not be shifting focus from Pedro Pascal’s Din Djarin, whose story appeared to be finished, was followed by the heart-breaker that Varnado wouldn’t be returning. In light of that, and barring the surprise cameo, it’s time I paid tribute to a particularly bright spark in the Star Wars universe.

Born in 1992, Mercedes Justine Kaestner-Varnado and her family moved from Fairfield, California all the way to Boston, Massachusetts. As with most pro wrestlers, she grew up watching the sport on television, though her tastes leaned more Japanese, specifically the All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling. What caught her eye about those matches was that the women were empowered. As she described in a 2023 interview with Yahoo News, “To see the crowd’s reactions to seeing those women wrestle, it was like ‘wow, I want that someday.’” She’d get her chance at a WWE tryout camp in 2012, after years of training and winning titles as “Mercedes KV.” She signed with World Wrestling Entertainment and became “Sasha Banks.”

Her pro wrestling career was filled with the expected dramas of betrayals and heel turns, but it also coincided with an industry reckoning. Since the 1990s, WWE had been referring to and marketing its female performers as “Divas” which is a term with connotations of difficult feminine behavior, and in 2016, it was traded for the genderless “Superstar.” This was the direct result of public pressure after years of frustration over the wage gap and limited screentime of female stars like Paige and the Bella Twins. While the wage gap appears unresolved even today, the renewed focus on female performers – and the female audience – felt like revolution for a show that once built rape into a storyline, with the crowd chanting “Slut!” at Stephanie McMahon in the ring.

Despite everything, Sasha Banks had an enviable career in the WWE. She won several championships, and in 2020, was named Wrestler of the Year by Sports Illustrated. However, around that time, Varnado was beginning to lose her sense of self to celebrity culture. As she told Steve Austin in a podcast interview, she never heard people call her by name, only “Sasha Banks.” She looked in the mirror and saw blue hair. It was a dissociation she recognized as depression, and went to WWE boss Vince McMahon to ask for a release from her contract. Her request was denied, which surprises Austin not at all. “That motherfucker always says no!” he shouts. She was put back on the lineup, which may have complicated her potential role in Star Wars.

The Mandalorian co-creator Jon Favreau saw Sasha Banks on an episode of Hot Ones and decided she’d be perfect for the warrior Koska Reeves. He got in touch via FaceTime, and Mercedes recalled to Variety that it was an offer she couldn’t refuse, to play in “one of the biggest universes you can ever be a part of.” Thankfully, she managed to work the schedule out and film for the third and final episodes of season two, putting her athleticism and well-toned screen presence to good use. As Favreau recounts in the Disney Gallery, “It’s really good for this show to have somebody playing a Mandalorian who had all of that fierceness and the energy, and also, physicality,” going on to note that since Reeves had no backstory like her partner Bo-Katan Kryze, she had to effectively exist in the moment, and awe with performance, not lore.

She certainly did, helping rescue Grogu in “Chapter 11: The Heiress” and again in “Chapter 16: The Rescue.” For the latter, she was part of an all-women strike team on an imperial ship, which kicked off with an amazing combo. She snags a Stormtrooper with the grappling line and pulls him forward while Bo-Katan jetpack-jumps forward to clothesline him in mid-air. It’s the kind of over-the-top stunt that captures the spirit of pro wrestling but also the nature of Mandalorian combat, as opposed to Jedi or rebel soldiers. Earlier in the episode, she also faced down Boba Fett, showcasing more gadgets and tactics for a fight that ended in a draw. While some fans were no doubt upset that a woman could stand up to a Star Wars legend in just such a way, once again, we find Varnado on shifting sands.

Star Wars throughout the Original and Prequel trilogies could be hostile to women and especially women of color. It’s part of what made Rey such a twist in The Force Awakens. In an earlier time, would a Star Wars filmmaker have looked at a character like Koska Reeves and thought first to a male pro wrestler? It seems likely, given how many actresses WWE Studios produced in the 2000s (Naomi featured in The Marine 5 in 2017, though she was not the titular Marine). Under new management or not, the 2010s and 2020s required that Star Wars evolve, and the braintrust behind The Mandalorian was already expanding the well-worn theme of fathers and sons beyond the Skywalker paradigm. It was a new environment for stars like Ming-Na Wen and Janina Gavankar to thrive as warrior women. In terms of representation, Reeves plays that crucial role as the super tough woman who isn’t the center of attention. It isn’t that all the tough women in the universe are here on this one spaceship; her understated presence suggests that there are others like her.

Of course, we’ll soon have to dip into those reserves. After season two of The Mandalorian, Sasha Banks reappeared in the ring, but two years later, Varnado and Naomi both cut ties with “that motherfucker Vince” for good. It wasn’t a full career shift from pro wrestling to Hollywood, however, as Varnado, having adopted the name Mercedes Moné, booked a flight to Japan and resurfaced in January as part of New Japan Pro-Wrestling. While Western eyes pop at the state of Japanese gender relations, a young Varnado identified the truth that Japanese women wrestlers simply hit different, so to speak. When men’s wrestling associations declined in the 1970s, women’s wrestling – “joshi puroresu” – took the spotlight, challenging the stereotype of submissive women otherwise reinforced by idols and anime. Finally, Varnado found an industry that didn’t need to change to accommodate her, and she’ll have a chance to fulfill her lifelong dream.

It’s true that, with Star Wars, sometimes the best characterization is absence. A relatively limited role exchanges arc for mystique, as with icons like Darth Maul, General Grievous, and arguably Captain Phasma. And while this design philosophy often makes for teases – and anticlimactic deaths – Koska Reeves gifted us a noble, open-ended exit. She’s still out there somewhere, blasting Imperial goons with a really big gun. She lives in that ultimate Star Wars zone now, of imagination unrestrained even by a Disney budget. Now we just wait for a Koska Reeves miniseries from Marvel Comics.

Further Reading
The Mandalorian: Sackhoff Congratulates Varnado on Wrestling Return
Mercedes Moné Looks Back At Her Run on The Mandalorian
Mercedes Moné Turns Heads at ‘The Mandalorian’ Red Carpet Event


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