In so many ways, two seasons in, The Mandalorian is such a contradiction.
On the one hand, it represents precisely the kind of fan service that I have railed against the Star Trek franchise for wallowing in. On the other, it retains a sense of identity within the broader Star Wars framework, taking a strong cue from the Japanese samurai films of the 1950s and 1960s such as Yojimbo, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, not to mention American westerns of the overlapping period – some of which, such as The Magnificent Seven, took a cue from the pictures of Akira Kurosawa and such; indeed Seven Samurai heavily inspired George Lucas’ original 1977 space fantasy, to the point he even stole the stylistic scene swipe we still find Jon Favreau employing in The Mandalorian today.
Favreau’s show should not be as good as it is, quite frankly.
In one respect, it represents everything we should as a culture be railing against; the monocultural homogenisation of the franchise, in which every last drop is wrung out of a successful IP (something I wrote about fairly recently). In another, it has a confidence, durability, consistency and quality that raises it up beyond the kind of fan pleasing fiction the second season in particular stoops to. Because while the first season, set as it is in the shadow of the Galactic Empire’s fall at the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, plays with familiar elements and ideas from Star Wars, it primarily doubles down on the spaghetti western trappings of the galactic underworld the titular Mandalorian exists within. It works, as much as possible, to stand apart and craft a pocket universe within the broader recognisable framework of Star Wars.
Season Two does the exact opposite. It runs heart and soul toward both the Original and Prequel Star Wars trilogies and does a remarkable job in working to stitch together and unify them as never before.
There is a deceptively simple concept at the heart of The Mandalorian which helps the show no end.
Favreau managed to bring together elements that Disney—and LucasFilm before them—had wanted to explore for many years beyond the established Skywalker saga of the Star Wars films.
Firstly, a series focused on a bounty hunter character, perhaps the legendary Boba Fett from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, perhaps someone else, but recognisably a figure who embodied the enigmatic, silent outsider to the battle between good and evil wizards that embodied Lucas’ central narrative. Secondly, to dig into the copious underworld lurking beneath Star Wars, one which Lucas weaved in and around the Jedi and Sith conflict – figures like Greedo or Jabba the Hutt, even Han Solo & Lando Calrissian had more of their roots outside of Imperial dynasties and ancient orders. The movies suggested a far broader universe than the Skywalker saga was able to explore in detail and, ever since Revenge of the Sith, the final prequel film, LucasFilm have sought to try and expand to explore it.
The end of that saga arrived just at the point this was possible, with franchise entities working to unify across cinema, television, comics, books and beyond. One reason the long-mooted, long worked on Star Wars: Underworld never came to pass was because it was somewhat ahead of its time; a vast, expensive long form expansion of Star Wars that television simply wasn’t built to withstand before streaming, or series such as Game of Thrones displayed what was possible on the small screen in terms of scope and grandeur. The Clone Wars animated series kept the flame burning before the sequel trilogy came along in 2015, but The Mandalorian feels like the fulfilment of the Star Wars television prophecy – a means to explore this varied, vibrant universe outside of the archetypal fantasy trappings Lucas envisaged over the first three films, and then worked to add technical detail and backstory to in the second trilogy.
The fact that The Mandalorian is such a well constructed series is a testament to how it strips back the concept to a straightforward quest narrative.
Simply, the Mandalorian—aka Din Djarin—is a classic western gunslinger in the galaxy far far away, long long ago.
He is the noble warrior, who rarely removes his helmet as per a samurai-esque code of those from Mandalore, who appears as alien and unknowable as what Boba Fett incarnated in the original trilogy but, in truth, is a good man living by a creed whereby he says little and, across the first season, learns much. Djarin bonds with a baby alien creature coveted by the last vestiges of the Galactic Empire, now reduced to escaped war criminals operating beyond the purview of the New Republic, a creature we as audience recognise as identical to perhaps Star Wars’ most iconic alien character, Jedi Master Yoda. Djarin comes to protect it from gangsters and the Imperial aspirations of Grand Moff Gideon (a deliciously evil Giancarlo “Gus from Breaking Bad” Esposito), and bonds with the Force-imbued child, serving as first a reluctant ward and later a caring father figure.
It’s not hard – baby Yoda is unbearably cute, beating out the cuddly Ewoks from Return of the Jedi or the Porgs from The Last Jedi as creatures you could happily adopt. The first season establishes this central dichotomy, as the Mandalorian goes against his creed, his instincts and up against powerful enemies, to protect the child and ultimately work to return him to his people. It’s a simple, effective story that allows Favreau to tell adventure-serial tales with brevity, many episodes barely topping forty minutes.
Therein lies The Mandalorian’s strength.
The cast of supporting players expands across the second season, as you can imagine as any series develops, but the focus remains on Pedro Pascal’s Djarin and the child, who we this season learn is named Grogu, and the quest that binds these connected yet standalone tales together.
It is a tight format that allows Favreau and his team—including Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels maestro Dave Filoni, and well-known directorial talent including Peyton Reed, Rick Famiyuwa and Robert Rodriguez—to billow out and tell entertaining plots that vary, such as The Marshal, whereby Mando helps an isolated town on Tatooine defeat a gigantic Sarlacc monster (the same creature who memorably swallowed Boba Fett in Return of the Jedi, not quite to his doom as it turns out…), or The Passenger in which he ferries human cargo and ends up trapped in an ice cave filled with an army of spider creatures. Star Wars was always a space saga able to indulge fantasy aspects of memorable alien creatures and monsters, around space or fighting combat, and The Mandalorian enjoys such fancies while remaining tethered to the larger ongoing plot. Every side step into a different genre, or new location, takes Mando & Grogu closer to their ultimate journey.
One of the reasons The Mandalorian is, again, contradictory, is how it manages to evoke stand-alone storytelling akin to previous eras while always remaining a serialised entity. It does this with real craft and panache, managing to carve out episodes which feel definably their own construct while serving broader arcs. Filoni’s The Jedi, the best episode of the season for my money, is a good example of this. It will be remembered for bringing into the live-action world one of the saga’s best loved animated creations, Ahsoka Tano (played here by the versatile Rosario Dawson), but it’s a great episode in how it condenses Ahsoka’s appearance not just into providing key information about Grogu that we didn’t know, and about the Jedi that Mando didn’t know, but tells a great western-influenced story about a town under the control of a tyrant who they both help liberate.
The show manages to balance these elements often supremely well, and while inevitably the conclusion in The Rescue ends up bringing all of the characters together from across the season to lesser effect (before delivering the mother of all deus ex machina’s…), along the way the show constructs really entertaining singular narratives, filled with cinematic and television winks and nods. The Believer’s clear nod to The Wages of Fear/Sorcerer, for instance, just delighted me.
Another aspect of The Mandalorian that works, in a way that perhaps it shouldn’t, is how the audience often have broader context and information than many of its characters.
We know, for instance, that Grogu is the same race of Yoda and we understand how he could be connected to the Jedi. We too know the broader Jedi/Sith history and the true reasons why the Empire fell, facts Mando has no idea of; indeed the Jedi are essentially mythical by this point to anyone outside that circle, and through Ahsoka, Grogu (and one other character…), the series only enhances their mystique in a manner that puts the worst excesses of The Rise of Skywalker to shame. Fans of The Clone Wars will understand who Bo-Katan Kryse (Katee Sackhoff) or Ahsoka are, and they will appreciate a reference to Grand Admiral Thrawn.
The moment we see Temeura Morrison in The Marshal, we know some form of Boba Fett is coming, and we understand the broader context of his backstory (and his father’s Mandalore connection) in a way our protagonist doesn’t. In other quarters this could work against Din Djarin but it helps provide The Mandalorian with a broader scope and enigma, and further presents our main hero as an uncomplicated outsider. He doesn’t need to be laden down with detail because, as audiences, we already understand such context. It gives the show weight without suffocating it.
There is no question, however, a powerful amount of fan service in this second season as opposed to the first. It works because Djarin is never lost in the mix, and his character and arc remain central to the action, even when half a dozen Star Wars legends are returning and half a dozen future Disney spin-off series are being seeded. The show retains a cleanness and elegance in the manner a comparative franchise and series in, say, Star Trek: Discovery is not.
The third season of that show devotes a largely pointless two-part story to a character who is awkwardly being positioned into her own spin-off entity, and that’s a series that sometimes feels like it breaks its own continuity, internal canon and established tones and styles of the series’ before it in order to function as a modern show, and serve as part of a broader, expanding franchise framework. It feels dishonest to its own legacy in a manner The Mandalorian does not. The writing, production, plotting, structure – all are stronger. It feels true to Star Wars (The Rescue heavily evoked A New Hope & The Force Awakens at points) while being both derivative and innovative at the same time. It is just a beautiful contradiction from beginning to end.
Whether Star Wars can grow into a broad franchise entity with the breadth and depth of Marvel remains to be seen, but The Mandalorian is a joyous example of how to exist inside a well-worn world with panache. Long may the Force be with it.