(SPOILERS) A few weeks back, I mooted the unlikelihood that I would succumb to Disney+ – I mean to say, nothing good can come from all those tunnels under Disneyland, can it? Since then, I reconsidered, on the basis that a month’s subscription amounts to little more than a rental (remember, back in the old days?) I know, I know, that’s how they suck you in. But there really is very little I’m hankering to see in their wonderful world. This mainly, since it will probably be the crack of doom – definitely, since that’s looking sooner rather than later – before they release it on Blu-ray. Was The Mandalorian worth it? Well, most of what I’d heard said is undoubtedly the case. It’s nothing especially special, but it has two crucial things going for it. Even if it’s playing things very safe, it very much feels like it’s Star Wars made by people who know the universe and actually love it. And, baby Yoda is sooooo cute.
Mando: I can bring you in warm, or I can bring you in cold.
If you’re reading this and have seen it, neither of those responses will come as a blinding surprise. Besides, I’m not sure anyone’s saying The Mandalorian is the second coming of Luke Skywalker – well, until Season 2 anyway – but it navigates the limited pocket of the Star Wars universe it has grooved out for itself exceptionally well. It boasts excellent production values – even if the direction is frequently not really all that – and it knows the sorts of stories it wants to tell. Even if those stories, a little too often for an eight-episode run, tend towards the typical weekly reset button of 1980s fare (something others have also noted). The positive difference here being there that there’s no onus to stretch an episode to fifty minutes when thirty will do.
I’m generally most impressed by the manner in which Jon Favreau – and as creator and executive producer he, with Dave Filoni, deserves the lion’s share of the credit – has succeeded in establishing a milieu, and a mood. Much more than the stories he’s telling, which are invariably pretty basic and chock full of threadbare logic and motivation. Indeed, that you want to spend time in this universe, stuffed as it is with the iconography of nigh-on forty-fifty years ago (and a smattering from a mere twenty past), is surely the key to its appeal.
Mythrol: Is it true that you guys never take off your helmets?
That, and a reliably minimalist protagonist. I mean, once one gets past the de rigueur and really very unpersuasive concession to traumatic back story/formative influences on Mando, it’s astonishing – to nobody more than Pedro Pascal by the sound of some of his onset contretemps – that they stick with “He always keeps his mask on” so consistently. And that when Pascal does take it off, you’re itching for him to put it back on again (he really is much more likeable with his lid on).
Qin: Aren’t you a man of honour?
Like any right-minded fan of the original movies at the time – as opposed to the revisionists who claimed Boba Fett was always shit – I thought the Mandalorian lore, the little there was of it, was highly evocative. That the armour was way cool. And that Jeremy Bulloch and Jason Wingreen were collectively the ultimate incarnation of the character. None of your Daniel Logan and Temeura Morrison retconsense. Of course, Lucas did Fett the dirty with his perfunctory fate in Return of the Jedi, but who did fare well in that one? Luke, I’ll grant you. But not Han. Not Leia. Not Lando.
During this period, there were also fascinating glimpses via the Marvel comic strips and their pre-Return of the Jedi hunt for Han Solo. This gave us the two-parter The Search Begins and Death in the City of Bone, featuring some bona fide Mandalorians. And then there was Jawas of Doom. The first post-Jedi strip, it featured Han returning to Tatooine to access his bank account – as it turns out, frozen because he was frozen – and an early resurrection for Boba from the Sarlacc pit, finishing with a reset of his returning there, complete with additional accompanying sandcrawler. I wasn’t overly impressed that prequel-guy Lucas saw fit to give Boba a tortured backstory – yes, it’s a thing with those wearing the armour, it seems – particularly after throwing the character away so rudely in Jedi. Even more sacrilegious was dispensing with Wingreen’s voice on the now “official” The Empire Strikes Back. Still, at least he was still a solo character. One thing I did learn from the Marvel strip was that Mandalorians were less way cool in numbers…
Stormtrooper: He just killed an officer for interrupting him, so this might take a while.
Someone less sure of the ship they were steering than Favreau and Filoni – I don’t know, say a Kathleen Kennedy – would have veered off in directions that pandered towards the wrong kind of impulses (such as copious wokeness – the all-wise armourer may be the one concession to that kind of character in Season 1). Instead, the basics here are very traditional. At times too much so, sure. But it’s also the case that, for all the fan pandering – much of which passes me by as one mostly unseasoned in the extended universe – there’s very little that actually gets in the way. And much that feels like natural mythos building (repeated phrases like “This is the way” and “I have spoken”, whether or not they’ve been used elsewhere, quickly make their own space in the universe, rather than having been propped up on the work of decades past).
The baby Yoda character, by rights, ought to have been a massive error. I mean, he’s enormously, Mogwai-levels cute – although, it’s curious how he’s been given big black grey alien eyes, unlike Yoda Yoda – and steals every moment he’s on screen (so much so, it’s hard to believe Disney was caught on the hop with regard to merchandising, but then just look at what they did to the sequel trilogy. So this could easily have descended into Caravan of Schmaltz type larks. Somehow, though, what with Mando – a name very similar to Eastwood’s Manco in For a Few Dollars More – being polite but steely, reserved but compassionate, the balance is always about right.
Mando: I don’t know how to ride Blurrg.
Director wise, Deborah Chow, Rick Famuyiwa and Dave Filoni all deliver serviceable if unspectacular work, while star names like Bryce Dallas Howard and Taika Waititi avoided shitting the bed. However, I suspect the most credit is due to cinematographers Greig Fraser and Baz Idione for establishing the visual temperature that allows these worlds – often familiar desert ones, to be fair – to breathe. That, and Ludwig Göransson’s superb score.
The Client: Compare Imperial rule to what is happening now. Look outside. Is the world more peaceful since the revolution? I see nothing but death and chaos.
A key to this breathing is the supporting characters populating them. This is a show that isn’t going to offer any surprises in its array of stock types, but it can occasionally strike gold in the way they’re presented. Straight off the bat, Werner Herzog is striking in exactly the way an otherwise standard-issue villain needs to be (crucially, he’s much more interesting, by virtue of being Werner Herzog, than Giancarlo Esposito is as the garlanded Moff Gideon. Which may be partly because Esposito has already essayed other, more textured villains much more memorably). As such, killing off Herzog so wastefully was a very, very silly thing to do.
Carl Weathers, a very sprightly septuagenarian, is allowed another very familiar type, the untrustworthy employer/agent. But by dint of being Carl Weathers, you want to see more of Greef Karga. Waititi doesn’t overpower IG-11 in an overly Waititi way (the character remains in-character), and IG-11 succeeds in being both kickass and affecting (and funny) as a result. I also appreciated the consciously retro, stop-motion quality to his movement.
Then there’s Gina Carano, perhaps not the best actress ever (yes, I’ve seen Haywire), but refreshingly forthright offscreen in her non-mainstream opinions (up to the point where she’ll doubtless be forced to backtrack on pain of losing work). Cara Dune first appears in the crappiest episode of the season, but Carano’s been cast to her strengths here, and as long as the writers don’t make the mistake of attempting to get her to show an emotional range, she should continue to be fine.
IG-11: That was unpleasant. I’m sorry you had to see it.
The period setting of The Mandalorian is also crucial to its success. It doesn’t actually need to head anywhere “new” while going forward (if you ignore the sequel trilogy, as now most, understandably, would like to). Indeed, its particular niche is built on the idea that freedom only opens us up to a whole new world of problems – lawlessness, worse threats to fill the vacuum. Five years after the celebrations on Endor, the brave new utopia is far from coming to pass. One might, if one were the sort who believed Hollywood was host to a plethora of predictive programming, cast a suspicious eye over The Mandalorian’s roster of features; of the old system crumbling and questions over how its space will be filled. Of sentient, sympathetic robots and figures with concealed features bringing up the young. Even the Star Wars logo is replete with masks. Almost as if they knew. Ranking follows below.
Season 1: Worst to Best
Obviously, I didn’t have to wait a week for these, so I wasn’t afflicted with impatience to see where the central arc was going, or particularly ecstatic when I find out. As such, and because I may not be responding to the same things as the most dedicated followers of Mando, my views may not reflect any kind of consensus.
8. Chapter 4: Sanctuary
The influences on this one are as plain as day, most particularly the already derivative Pale Rider (which in turn was surely aped by every other 80s TV show at some point). Carano makes an impression as Cara Dune. Baby Yoda eats a frog. Julia Jones has the hots for Mando, even though he might be hideous under there. There’s a training montage. It’s all faintly tedious. Well done, Bryce. You really do take after dad.
7. Chapter 2: The Child
Most notable for the Jawa-centric sequences in the first part of the episode (only thirty minutes in length), who laugh in a manner very similar to Gremlins. The Mud Horn battle is makes an impression, if only for the effects and first sight of baby Yoda’s powers.
6. Chapter 5: The Gunslinger
Oh look, Tatooine. Wait, where were we before? Oh right, just somewhere else that looked exactly like Tatooine. Some decent material here, particularly with the Tusken Raiders and touches like Stormtrooper helmets on spikes and the EV-9D9 torture droid from Jedi who says “You’re a feisty little one”, now serving at the bar. All the plot beats with Calican (Jake Cannavale) are pretty obvious, up to the point where he shoots Fennec Shand (Ming-Wa-Wen). So that was something, but even knowing that was Boba at the end can’t help this one escape over-familiarity.
5. Chapter 8: Redemption
The opening, with Jason Sudeikis and Adam Pally as bored scout troopers alternately taking target practice (badly) and punching baby Yoda (Boo!), is great, as is the arrival of IG-11 to save them. The rest, though, is fairly rote, packed with the kind of unmotivated nonsense Favreau seems to favour (fearsome Moff Gideon allows them until nightfall… so they can escape. If Pascal weren’t such a blubbing girl – sorry, that isn’t’ very Kathleen Kennedy of me – he’d have insisted no one saw his face in that scene. The jet pack bit is cool. The Darksaber means very little to me.
Redemption is pretty much what you expect of a season finale. An immediately satisfying but empty sugar rush. Then there’s all the stuff about Jedi. Or not having heard of them. Like the carbonite thing, it seems studiously tone-deaf to the figureheads of both the Empire and the Old Republic. But whatever, I’m sure Favs and Filoni have thought it all through...
4. Chapter 7: The Reckoning
Into the final two episodes, and I appreciate they’re giving fans what they want, and there are some good scenes in The Reckoning, but also some very sloppy plotting (at times like this, one perhaps needs to look to Favreau’s fairly light pre-Mandalorian writing credits). The IG-11 payoff is set up well, but the plan of action is desperately wobbly; you can almost hear Favreau thinking “Just as long as I keep it moving, it won’t matter that the characters are only doing things because I tell them to”.
Mando is also a bit of an idiot. His using the communicator leads directly to Kuiil getting killed (a well-staged sequence from Chow). I liked the use of a toy troop transporter (I used to have one! “R2-D2 where are you?”) I do think it would have been nice if Mando had retained his distrust of droids, though. Smoothing off all his rough edges is exactly what the series shouldn’t be doing.
3. Chapter 1: The Mandalorian
An effective opener. Herzog rocks. Omid Abati is memorable as stooge scientist Dr Pershing. There are Blurggs (as opposed to G’Gugvuntts). IG-11 (“Do not self-destruct”). Kuiil starts out as if he’s going perilously close to a Nelix type, but Nolte saves him. There are various things in this series that make you go: “Are the makers really the fans they say they are?”. Like Mando using cryogenic freezing as a matter of course (are we supposed to believe it caught on in the bounty-hunting community the way, say, legwarmers did in the 80s?) But this is a strong scene setter and wastes no time in establishing how the show is going to be. Also, loved the Salacious Crumb on a spit.
2. Chapter 6: The Prisoner
No coincidence having that chapter number with that title. This one doesn’t seem to have been universally adored, perhaps because viewers wanted to cut to the chase by this point, but I found much to enjoy in the heist scenario. Clancy Brown perhaps isn’t as well used as he might have been as Burg, and Mando terminally dispatching his fellow crew members might have been more satisfyingly ruthless (leaving them all alive is very The A-Team). There are, after all, some decent have-it-coming antagonists are in the mix, from Bill Burr’s Migs to Natalia Tena and Ismael Cruz Cordova as Xi’an and Qin. Meanwhile, Richard Ayoade steals droid of the season award as Q9-0. Also some decent fights, as Mando takes out a company of droids and fails to take out Burg. I liked the short work Mando made of being locked up too.
1. Chapter 3: The Sin
I should be clear that I don’t think anything in this first scene is outright great, but I particularly appreciated The Sin’s plot trajectory and the demonstrative kickass moves the Mandalorian pursues once he decides to forsake the guild’s code and save the child. And the action is not undiscerning – there’s a great cut mid-toasting of a stormtrooper to baby Yoda’s unconvinced face. For reasons mentioned above, I’m less convinced by an army of Mandalorians arriving to save the day, but Chow and Favreau make this the first season’s standout.