If there’s one thing the Sequel Trilogy has proven, it’s that it’s not easy to tell a Star Wars story – let alone one that has anything new to say. Luckily, The Mandalorian – the first live-action Star Wars series, and the flagship show of the new Disney+ streaming service – has the swagger and ambition to venture off the beaten path and into the uncharted regions of the Star Wars galaxy, delivering a freshman season that – while uneven – still manages to be one of the most surprising and satisfying Star Wars projects in decades.Charting the adventures of a stoic bounty hunter operating in the Outer Rim after the fall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi, The Mandalorian draws heavily from the classic Western and samurai movie tropes that inspired George Lucas when he created the original films (allowing the show to evoke the best of A New Hope’s desolate desert aesthetics and the atmosphere of unknown danger lurking around every corner), while also incorporating many of Lucas’ other influences – the rollicking, planet-hopping energy of Flash Gordon and other sci-fi serials, and the mythic archetypes popularized by Joseph Campbell. That probably explains why the series feels quintessentially Star Wars right from the jump – it’s a world that seems weathered and lived-in, thanks to creator Jon Favreau’s canny decision to utilize practical effects wherever possible, pairing them with subtle CGI that helps the show avoid the sterile qualities of the prequels. Star Wars has always been a pastiche of various genres and influences, but the franchise (at least since Disney acquired it) tends to come unstuck when it leans too heavily on the story beats and iconography of what’s come before without offering anything fresh, and that’s true of The Mandalorian too. The episodes in the middle of the season where the show leans too hard into Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone homages are arguably the weakest, while the episodes that bookend the season and advance the overarching plot have a clear-eyed focus and palpable momentum as “Mando” deals with one challenging, ever-evolving mission that pulls him in far deeper than he bargained for. Aside from needing the introduction of Gina Carano’s Cara Dune (a welcome addition who offers a bone-shaking authenticity to her fight sequences) in episode 4, you could easily watch episodes 1-3 and 7-8 as a self-contained and perfectly engaging Star Wars movie without missing anything important.
You almost get the sense that The Mandalorian was designed to be binge-watched in one sitting rather than released weekly, and in truth, that model would probably have served the season well – it would’ve made the narrative detours of episodes 4-6 more palatable, allowing viewers to breeze through those weaker, more derivative installments without having to think about them too hard. If anything, the season could’ve benefited from having 10 or 13 episodes rather than 8, especially if The Mandalorian was able to strike a better balance between standalone episodes and those that furthered the mythology. (Still, story shortcomings aside, it was admittedly refreshing to digest The Mandalorian weekly, since it encouraged the kind of nationwide watercooler conversation and breathless theorizing that some worried would die with Game of Thrones.)
As I wrote in my review of the season finale, there’s nothing wrong with a “mission of the week” formula when it’s offering something original and engaging (Western shows like Wanted: Dead or Alive or Have Gun, Will Travel got plenty of mileage out of that set-up, let alone more recent genre series like The X-Files and Supernatural) but Favreau, Dave Filoni, and Christopher Yost and Rick Famuyiwa, who penned episodes 4-6, respectively, fail to bring anything new to the table in those installments, relying on underwritten caricatures and predictable story beats that feel at odds with the steely focus of the rest of the season.
Still, even those episodes aren’t without their saving graces – in addition to Carano’s debut, episode 4 also offers a satisfying new twist on a classic Star Wars weapon that recontextualizes its past appearances; episode 5 features a thrilling dogfight (and plenty of Original Trilogy easter eggs); and episode 6 allows the show to dabble in two less familiar genres – heist and horror – to great effect, undermined only by the clunky performances of its guest stars.
In fact, many of the season’s shortcomings can be attributed to its guest cast (and some heavy-handed dialogue, which is, arguably, a Star Wars staple in itself). Recurring players like Carano, Carl Weathers, Nick Nolte, Taika Waititi, and the pitch-perfect Werner Herzog and Giancarlo Esposito all add depth and texture to their roles, even in comparatively brief appearances – but day players like Amy Sedaris, Bill Burr, Natalia Tena, Horatio Sanz, and Jake Cannavale are all cartoonishly broad and often distracting, especially when acting against the understated reserve of Pedro Pascal in the titular role. (The show’s best cameos, like Jason Sudeikis, Adam Pally, and Richard Ayoade, follow the movies’ strategy and rely on voiceover rather than on-screen appearances, which prevents the celebrities from pulling focus from the plot.)
Every Actor and Character Confirmed for The Mandalorian
Pascal’s central performance is a particular feat, given that he’s robbed of basically all of an actor’s most expressive tools. The Game of Thrones and Narcos alum manages to bring humanity and surprising heart to the lone gunslinger – and while there are some clumsy choices made when it comes to fleshing out his backstory, his trajectory over the first season is a believable progression that opens up intriguing possibilities for Season 2.
Arguably The Mandalorian’s biggest accomplishment is its narrative sleight of hand. Fans have plenty of preconceived notions about bounty hunters thanks to decades of stories in both the Star Wars canon and EU/Legends, and due to the secrecy that surrounded the season (some of it necessary, some of it just typical marketing smoke and mirrors) we entered into this show with no real idea what it was about or the shape it would take – a rarity in today’s pop culture landscape that paid dividends as the season unfolded, constantly keeping us guessing about where it might end up.
Naturally, the secrecy surrounding the creature the internet has dubbed “Baby Yoda” was an early ace in the hole, and without venturing into spoiler territory, it’s safe to say that it’s hard to imagine the series would’ve had the cultural impact that it did without the inclusion of “The Child” – whose species has been a closely guarded secret since George Lucas first introduced us to the scene-stealing Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. (As a mostly practical effect, brought to life primarily through puppetry just as Yoda was, The Child is an absolute marvel that truly feels like a living, breathing, utterly transfixing creature, and I would die for him.) The Mandalorian’s first season doesn’t provide too many easy answers, but the finale does offer a much clearer sense of what Favreau and fellow executive producer Dave Filoni have in mind for Season 2, leaving us with a sense that now the scene is set and all the pieces are in place, the show is ready to make the jump to lightspeed.
An Adorable Gallery of Baby Yoda