REVIEW: “The Mandalorian” – Season 1

the mandalorian posterOne of the things I’ve most wanted from a Star Wars story was something that felt similar to Firefly. There’s just something I find endlessly fascinating about watching a group of loveable outlaws struggles against an oppressive government. That’s exactly what Firefly excelled at and it would seem that the Star Wars universe would be perfect for such a story. And for a long time, George Lucas was working on a show that explored the underworld of the Star Wars universe, but it was ultimately deemed too expensive to do in the latter half of the first decade of the 2000s and was completely shelved when Disney bought Lucasfilm. A glimpse of hope seemed to shine, though, when the first trailers for The Mandalorian hit the internet and it genuinely seemed as though The Mandalorian might be the show I was longing to see. You had the leader, Pedro Pascal’s unnamed Mandalorian, appearing to assemble some kind of crew to accomplish some kind of mission. Unfortunately, the actual show we got was less Firefly and more Saturday morning cartoon. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, but it probably shouldn’t have been advertised as anything more than that. Regardless, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in The Mandalorian, even if it is often poorly paced, seemingly aimless, and occasionally frustrating to watch. (Spoilers for all eight episodes of The Mandalorian’s first season.)

The Mandalorian (created by Jon Favreau)
After the fall of the Empire, a lone gunfighter (Pedro Pascal) makes his way through the lawless galaxy.

The Mandalorian is two very solid shows crammed into one very uneven one. It’s as though the creators could not decide what kind of show they wanted to make. On the one hand, it’s telling an ongoing story where a Mandalorian (revealed in the finale to be named Din Djarin; played by Pedro Pascal), who was tasked to capture a creature that turned out to be an infant of whatever species Yoda is, ends up defying the Bounty Hunter code and protecting said child from the malevolent forces that seem to want it. On the other hand, the show seems to want to be more episodic, with the Mandalorian going from planet to planet and doing a thing and never really changing throughout the story. Either one of these approaches would be a valid one for a show like this as both approaches have turned out some very enjoyable episodes. The problem, however, is that The Mandalorian tries to do both of these things and never quite manages to get the balance right.

About half of the season (four episodes) could be considered part of the serialized storyline while the other four episodes stand nearly entirely on their own. Within the constraints of those types, each half of the season is very good. The ongoing storyline with Baby Yoda (as the unnamed child of Yoda’s unnamed species shall henceforth be referred to) and the Mandalorian is filled with a lot of mystery and suspense as the audience waits on the edge of their seats to learn more about Baby Yoda’s origin, why these ex-Imperials want it so bad, and how the Mandalorian will continue to protect the child. It’s a very solid storyline to follow and one that constantly leaves you wanting more – a key to any and all serialized storytelling. Ignoring the long periods of time spent on the stand-alone episodes, this aspect of the show is very well put together, particularly in the final two episodes of the season where some of the mysteries start coming into sharper focus, propelling us into some interesting waters for season two. I really dig the idea of this hardened bounty hunter slowly softening over time in the company of this literal child. I am intrigued by the mystery of the child’s origins and why he is so important (though neither of these mysteries has come close to being answered yet) and it’s the thing that keeps me returning to the show week after week. I wish there was more focus on this storyline because I think it’s the heart and soul of the show.

Having said that, most of the more standalone episodes are also very good. Each of those episodes sends the Mandalorian (who usually leaves Baby Yoda in the care of some side character who only appears for that episode and then never reappears) on some self-contained quest that usually ends up at least a little interesting (though two of the episodes rely far too heavily on nostalgia instead of crafting a story that’s actually interesting in its own right). One of my favorite episodes of the whole season, episode four, falls into this camp of standalone episodes. That episode, featuring the Mandalorian teaming up with Cara Dune (Gina Carano), an ex-Rebellion soldier, to protect a small village from raiders who have obtained Imperial technology. It’s a really great set up with some nice character work for the Mandalorian – and also introduces a wonderful recurring character to the show. Unfortunately, not all of the standalone episodes are as good as this one, but they range in quality – much as any show featuring standalone episodes does. What it proves is that there are plenty of interesting things to explore in the Star Wars universe, more than enough to fill an episodic show, and it’s clear that The Mandalorian could do a lot with that format.

Both sets of episodes prove that The Mandalorian could be a successful show regardless of whether it was episodic or serialized. The problem is that the show tries to do both of these things at the same time and never truly succeeds when it tries to combine these elements together. The standalone episodes do nothing to further the ongoing storyline of Baby Yoda and the Mandalorian, outside of a cursory mention here or there to them being on the run or hiding from a bounty hunter that’s defeated way too easily. Nor do those episodes really do much to develop the Mandalorian’s character. What does he actually learn in any given episode? What actually changes? An argument could be made that he learns not to trust people, but I’d argue that was a lesson he knew going into this show, yet he keeps making the same mistake again and again and never learning from it or suffering much in the way of a consequence. And this lack of narrative or character progression clashes pretty hard with the serialized nature of the other episodes. The first episode of the show seems to promise a show that’s focused on developing the Mandalorian as a character and following his adventure with Baby Yoda. But then almost immediately, it shifts away from that and leaves you confused. Why make that promise if you’re not interested in following it? Why do a show with an ongoing plotline where half the episodes could almost be completely cut (or heavily trimmed down) without impact the story in any major way?

You can get away with that kind of storytelling if you’re not trying to do anything particularly long-form. You see it all the time on procedural TV shows. All these cop shows have very little in the way of character development and next to no ongoing storylines, so they focus on ensuring every individual episode is as well-crafted as possible, and it largely works for them. The same is true in reverse for shows that are serialized; they focus on ensuring the long-lasting story they are telling is well put together and satisfying. It’s hard to do both things because your attention is split down the middle and neither side gets enough attention. I feel like this uneven focus really hurts the show; either direction would be a good direction to go in, but the creators need to pick a direction and focus on it. If they want to tell a collection of really good stand-alone stories, then they should do that and focus all their energy on telling the best stories they can tell. If they want to tell a serialized show, they should focus on that and make sure that every episode is in service of the larger story being told. Perhaps the show really does want to be a hybrid of these two formats, but if that’s the case it needs to do a much better job at integrating the elements together into something that forms a more cohesive whole. As it is, The Mandalorian is a show with two really intriguing halves that never quite come together in a wholly satisfying way.

Having said all of that, what do I like about the show? As I’ve said, I think both halves of the show work really well on their own, featuring some pretty solid writing. But, aside from that, the show largely succeeds because of some very talented directors and a solid, if often underused, cast. It’s clear a lot of money has gone into The Mandalorian, and it often shows as every episode looks and feels very cinematic. From its more cinematic aspect ratio to the quality of its effects, everything about The Mandalorian screams that time and care went into its production. All of the episodes are very well directed, with each director bringing their own style to the show while still playing within the visual language of the show. Particular standouts are Deborah Chow (who directed episodes 3  and 7), Bryce Dallas Howard (who directed episode 4), and Taika Waititi (who directed episode 8). All three of them found great ways to bring their voices to the show and their episodes really benefitted from this.

Additionally, I really liked the cast of this show, though most of them are criminally underused. While the script never gives the Mandalorian much to do, Pedro Pascal does a great job in what is, reportedly, mainly a voice-over role as stunt doubles are usually inside the suit. Pascal imbues the Mandalorian with a lot of character and his performance is what draws the audience into the story of his character. He has a perfect balance between that loner-cowboy trope the show seems to be going for and someone with a bit more personality than that. Joining him was a cast of side characters, most of whom only appeared in an episode, though some of whom reappeared multiple times. My personal favorites were Nick Nolte as Kuiil, a performance that has already been spun off into eternal memedom; Gina Carano as Cara Dune, a wonderful foil for the Mandalorian who should really be promoted to full series regular; Werner Herzog as the Client, a performance that’s deliciously malicious; Giancarlo Esposito as Moff Gideon, a performance worthy of the best Star Wars villains; and Carl Weathers as Greef Karga, a performance that’s a perfect representation of that companion you know you shouldn’t trust, but you have to. Then, of course, I’d be remiss not to mention Taika Waititi’s voicework as IG-11, a droid who appears in a few episodes and frequently steals the scene. It’s nice seeing Taika a bit more restrained than usual, though his comedic timing still shines in the role. As for the rest of the cast, they frequently appear in roles too small to really stand out. I’m particularly miffed at how little Ming-Na Wen was used in her role, but that’s a complaint for another time. All in all, it’s a very solid cast whom I wish were used more frequently than they were.

All in all, The Mandalorian is a pretty solid piece of television. While I have frequently been frustrated with this show (particularly the uneven combination of its serialized and episodic elements and its tendency toward some extreme fan service without a suitably interesting story to justify it), I can’t say any of the episodes have been objectively bad. Most of the episodes, individually, are very good, but they often didn’t seem to coalesce into anything greater than the sum of their parts. The biggest problem seems to be the show’s inability to decide if it’s an episodic show, a serialized show, or something in between. If you’re telling a serialized story over eight episodes, with each episode being an average of 30ish minutes, you don’t have time for three+ filler episodes that don’t further the plot or develop the main characters. But if you’re just doing something episodic, you can get away with it. The show was pitched to audiences as a serialized show, so I think an annoyance at it turning out to be more of an episodic show is a justified grievance. But, I have to say, for an episodic show, it’s not half bad. I vastly prefer serialized shows (which is why I preferred the episodes that pushed the Mando/Baby Yoda plotline forward over the standalone ones), but if your thing is episodic TV, The Mandalorian is a pretty solid show to watch. Either way, I am still intrigued to see what the show does in its second season and I hope the creators find a way to balance these elements a bit better – because The Mandalorian truly has a lot of promise and it’d be a shame if it never fully coalesced into all that it could be.

3.5 out of 5 wands.

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