The Mandalorian (2020)
I was fairly disappointed in the first season of The Mandalorian, largely due to its lack of ambition and reliance on fan service. The thing is, if you’re going to go back to the well for another bucket of helmeted hijinks in the Outer Rim, one should probably understand that fan service and simple, archetypal storytelling are very much the name of the game, and not give old Mando too hard a time over what are deliberate (albeit sometimes still frustrating) choices. It is, as they say, what it is: an episodic space Western with a loose overarching storyline that nonetheless gets ignored on the reg to let Mando (Pedro Pascal) go fight space spiders or whatever. It’s not about telling good stories, but about doing cool things, and taken on that level, the series is pretty good.
Right out of the gate, Mando gets to play cowboy with Raylen Givens himself, Timothy Olyphant, who crops up in the first episode as the perfectly coiffed Marshall Cobb Vanth. He gets to pal around with Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), who is hovering in the background of the story until he gets to cut loose in a bravura action sequence directed by Robert Rodriguez, Sin City (2005). He gets to meet animated series favorites Bo-Katan Kryze (Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff) and Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) and in the final episode encounter … well, I’m sure you already know, but let’s not get too spoilery at this juncture, even if we must to some degree just to engage with the series meaningfully.
You get a lot of bang for your buck, but what is interesting to note is how much of the enjoyment of The Mandalorian comes from the introduction of fan-favorite characters and guest stars (personally, I had a sensible chuckle over Kim’s Convenience star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee appearing as a New Republic X-Wing pilot). People who are down with deep Star Wars lore are gonna get a thrill out of things like series villain Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) wielding the Darksaber that Bo-Katan needs to claim the throne of Mandalore, and guys like me are going to enjoy Michael Biehn, The Terminator (1984), pulling villain duties for an episode, which is good because if we were left with just Mando’s own story, we might feel a little short-changed.
Look, it’s clear that showrunner Jon Favreau is going for a stoic, laconic Man with No Name thing with Mando, and that’s why he doesn’t talk much and keeps his damn helmet on all the time, but we should still get a sense of who this guy is because, well, he’s our protagonist, dammit. We need to at least have a handle on what he wants, what his ethical code is, what he will and won’t do, what he learns along the way. We never get that.
Well, to be fair, we get the occasional stab at these things, but his bounty hunting code is pretty nebulous when you get down to it, and his relationship with Baby Yoda (who has a name now — all Hail Grogu the terminally cute) never gets beyond the broadest strokes when it should be the beating heart of the series. And by the end of the season, even that is gone, with little Grogu’s story seemingly concluded, and you have to wonder where Season 3 will take us and whether we’ll have any interest in that journey. After 16 episodes over two seasons, we should have some kind of handle on who our hero is and what his motives are, but so far, it’s all pretty scant. We do get a hint at one point that Mando may have been raised by an extremist sect of Mandalorians and more orthodox members of the culture, like Bo-Katan, aren’t as hardcore about, at the very least, the whole never-taking-off-your-helmet thing, but given how that was never raised again over the course of the season, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether that will play a major part going forward.
But that’s speculation about future seasons, and we should be thinking about this one, which is, as I said, pretty fun when it’s not treading water (I think it’s the show’s episodic nature not jibing with the story arc-focused style common to modern prestige T.V. that makes this the most noticeable bug — it feels like a throwback to shows like The A-Team (1983-87) and Magnum P.I. (1980-88) more than anything else). Indeed, taken as discrete elements, I defy anyone to say they can’t find something to enjoy here, even if it’s just a character, an episode, even a self-contained scene. Directed by The Clone Wars/ Rebels honcho Dave Filoni, ‘Chapter 13: The Jedi’ riffs hard on the samurai cinema of Akira Kurosawa to excellent effect, using that iconography to introduce apostate Jedi Ashoka. Season opener ‘Chapter 9: The Marshal,’ directed by Favreau himself, is a straight-up John Ford pastiche. But to my mind, the best episode is ‘Chapter 15: The Believer’ directed by Rick Famuyiwa, which puts the spotlight on former stormtrooper Migs Mayfeld (Bill Burr) and gives some insight into both him and Imperial culture as a whole.
Ultimately, I still feel The Mandalorian is less than the sum of its parts, but those parts are so appealing that it’s easy enough to forgive in the moment. The series desperately needs to figure out exactly who and what its central character is if it’s to have any hope of sustaining an audience in the long term, but for now, if what you want is to spend 40-odd minutes hanging out in the Star Wars galaxy watching iconic characters do cool stuff, this is the show for you.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson