A long time ago (well, 2012) George Lucas sold off his film and content division to Disney. At the time there was a TV show in development, promising to expand the storylines from a galaxy far, far away beyond the Skywalker saga. With The Mandalorian, the promise of that journey is finally reaching (small) screens around the world with today’s launch on the Disney+ streaming platform.
While animated series like Clone Wars filled in some back story, and with great panache, they often times lacked the same sense of connection to the films. The medium allowing for sweeps of physics and logic that simply didn’t always feel like we were really in the setting we were used to, akin to addenda rather than core parts of the story. Obviously Star Wars isn’t the first franchise to milk characters in multimedia, and those Marvel movies that even septuagenarian Italian-American directorial legends have been ruminating about recently have had their share of crossover.
With Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni’s The Mandalorian we’re treated to something that feels more fundamental, mining the core elements that birthed A New Hope in the first place. It’s hard not to escape even from the first episode the grit and grime that populated Leone and Kurosawa’s dusty worlds. While Luke’s poncho in the first film was relegated mostly to deleted scenes in Anchorhead it’s easy to see even the costume department drawing from Clint Eastwood’s wardrobe in the Man With No Name trilogy. And with his similar swagger in his first appearance in The Holiday Special, Boba Fett’s Mandalore character always felt like he needed a mission of his own.
Now he’s got one, kinda. And, wisely, they made up a whole new person for us to actually care about, without the nonsense involved in SUS (“small universe syndrome”) where in this entire swath we can’t find new stories to tell.
As of the first episode there’s not much to parse about the taciturn Mandalorian. We know he’s voiced by Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones, Narcos), and that he doesn’t like to take off his helmet. Much of the introduction is purposely set to keep him and his motivations at bay, yet we learn some key elements. He’s desperate for money in a post-Empire era (the show is set following the events of Return of the Jedi), and it’s clear he’s searching for a kind of meaning at a time when even past currency from the dominant powers has lost its value.
We see in a series of flashbacks his own troubled childhood, and are learning a bit more about his own culture and their connection to differing rituals. It’s just enough backstory to keep things interesting, and, more importantly, different vectors to explore as the storyline expands episodically.
There are plenty of callbacks to the original film series, but most are secondary at best, from a roasted Kowakian monkey-lizard (aka, that cackling thing from Jabba’s palace), the squirting dialogue of a Kubaz (that long-snooted guy dubbed Garindan in A New Hope), or even the century droid that once taunted in phallic fashion two droids wandering the wastes of Tatooine. Even the first lines of dialogue are spoken in Huttese, a welcome reminder of the polyglot nature of a wider universe.
Yet how extraordinary that we’ve not once bothered to hear or see any specific characters that we’re already expected to care about, or situations that we know pretty much how it’s got to end (ie. Rogue One). Yes, Rebels did this in ways suitable for younger viewers, but with The Mandalorian we at least get an adolescent if not downright adult take on this storyline, evocative not only of the classic tropes of Western cinema but the episodic TV shows of the 50s and 60s that as indelibly left a mark on Lucas’ imagination.
Werner Herzog shows up in a deliciously scene-chewing moment, dripping with charismatic menace. Nick Nolte voices an Ugnaught who leads our protagonist on a journey and speaking to a larger culture that the Mandalorian comes from. And there’s the arrival of an IG bounty recovery unit that proves that droids can sometime handle their business, even if they’re too quick to give up when things go awry.
With the specific scene with IG and the Mandalorian it was amusing to see Peckinpah added to the many allusions to classic Westerns that Favreau, Filoni and team are mining. All this is welcome, as it’s exactly the kind of cultural recycling that when done well fuels this saga, providing an access to deep and universal myths that truly do flourish on retelling. They’re not hiding behind the motifs they’re pulling from, instead proudly waving flags of what came before while very much making the project their own.
Any first episode is always meant as a kind of tease, setting things up and building the world quickly to invite one in. As it’ll be spread out week by week (unlike the gorging of most VOD services) it’s easy to see Mandalorian becoming as close to the level of collective shared engagement as broadcast has traditionally occupied, a new twist in the world of streaming.
Speaking of twists, the reveal at the end is a clever one, and immediately both gives us greater insight into the central character and ramps up the stakes of what is the central tenet of his occupation. From the get go we’re asking questions more than providing simple answers, already a level far beyond anything the likes of Solo attempted with its pat reminders of the past.
In short, The Mandalorian looks to be the foundation of something quite exceptional in this world of Star Wars, a locale where respectful fans of what came before have the liberty to go where they wish without the restrictions of cinematic fan service to hold them back. No one is going to kvetch about their childhood being ruined here, all while they throw in explicit references to “Life Day” and the forked weapon used by Boba in his first (animated) appearance. The nerdiness is there, but it’s a different level, one more conversational with the fans, where the showrunners are well aware of what they’re doing at all times and drawing us along with sprinkles of the past and promises of what’s to come.
In other words, we’ve been teased with a pilot that looks and sounds great, has some blackly comic moments thrown in with the somber wandering, gives a sense of scope while remaining intimate. I’m left wondering about the character’s motivations as much as how the monocular spyglass works when pointed at the center of a mask. It’s mixing this kind of serious and silly, and doesn’t forget to have fun while it’s world-building. In other words, It’s a terrific launch, and while time will tell about just how fulfilling the path The Mandalorian will take, this is clearly a journey that looks to have some promise.