Over the past 20 years, television has evolved more than any other entertainment medium. Everyone is in a big hurry to release their own TV series with cinematic storytelling. Online streaming services like Netflix and Amazon release whole seasons of shows at one time to encourage binge watching. While this is satisfying, it’s taken away the anticipation you feel week to week. Heading to work the next day to discuss last night’s episode not knowing what to expect was part of the fun. Networks like HBO still maintain traditional distribution structure, but streaming services have forgotten its power. With that in mind, it’s rather shocking the Disney Plus is the streaming service who figured this out and has kept us hooked with their Star Wars spin-off series, The Mandalorian (2019).
Set between Return of the Jedi (1983) and Force Awakens (2015), we follow the adventures of a bounty hunter named ‘Mando’ (played by Pedro Pascal), a member of the legendary tribe of warriors known as the Mandalorian’s. Mando is a respected and feared, often given high value targets by bounty hunting guild leader, Greef Karga (played by Carl Weathers). Mando’s latest target is a creature of mysterious origin, which the villainous client (played by Werner Herzog) wants in his possession a little too desperately. Mando begins to question the client’s intentions and rescues the creature, resulting in the entire bounty hunting guild violently chasing after them both. Throughout the ensuing adventure, Mando and the creature cross paths with a diverse cast of characters, some trustworthy and some not.
It goes without saying that there’s a heap of fan service. Happily, it’s well integrated and is rarely obnoxious. Show creator Jon Favreau makes sure that fresh viewers can follow the story without feeling left out. Most nods and winks to the larger franchise are treated as unremarkable features of this self-contained story, allowing the audience to figure out their meaning. The most satisfying use of fan service is how certain elements are secretly weaved into the narrative to be discovered by the characters. Fan service is usually a dirty term, but is mostly used here as a tool to enhance the story. The only time it becomes slightly obnoxious is when the references are designed to explain an issue or problem that fans have with the main Star Wars universe. Many of these fixes are also kept self-contained and treated as comedy, but could still be distracting since they have no meaning here.
Favreau keeps the plot wonderfully simple and allows the viewer to glean whatever depth they find. Much like a classic western, we are given threatening villains who are easy to hate and badass heroes who are easy to love. These characters are thrust into many schemes, plots and double-crosses, all with clear goals and clear stakes. This isn’t an adventure with a planet destroying super-weapon. The dangers are ground level, which makes things feel refreshingly gritty and tense for a Star Wars story. This franchise has always struggled with telling stories separate from the ‘Rebels versus Empire’ conflict. For a long time, Star Wars has just felt like there’s one dysfunctional family screwing things up for everyone else. The Mandalorian focuses on elements only hinted at in prior films, allowing it to be its own streamlined narrative. Even though the story is laser focused, Star Wars hasn’t felt this expansive for a while.
The key to an engaging adventure is engaging characters, which The Mandalorian has in spades. Mando, Carasynthia “Cara” Dune (Gina Carano), Kuiil (Nick Nolte) and IG-11 (Taika Waititi) each have unique traits, skills and motivations. You’d think that this would take away from the main focus, but all the characters complement the singular drama of the story. This trick is pulled off by allowing the characters actions to speak louder than their words. Every action or inaction tells us a little more about them, even going as far to show what every deed means to each character. Just like a true western, a hero taking on a task for financial reasons could be perceived as noble selflessness to everyone else. This array of colourful characters all have their moment to shine, even though some of them are away from the action longer than you’d like.
Strong characters aside, Star Wars has never been considered a pinnacle of strong acting. However, there are many different styles of acting which are all equally important. Dramatic acting needs natural performances and comedic acting needs broad performances. For a fantasy adventure, you need mythic gravitas while still remaining relatable. Across the board, every performer achieves this task. Even though these characters comfortably exist in this alien world, they are still performed with charm, wit and humanity which feels real. Pedro Pascal has the toughest job, as his face is covered the whole time. Despite this, he still manages to emote due to impressive command of body language and hypnotic voice work. Similarly, the classic puppetry of monsters, creatures and even some main players is a joy.
Mercifully, each episode is quick and breezy, clocking in anywhere between 30-40 minutes. This quick pace mostly complements the narrative’s forward momentum. However, even with its compelling characters and propulsive action, not all of the episodes contribute as much new information as others. Sure, Star Wars is usually allowed to get lost in subplots, as it’s part of the fun. Even so, The Mandalorian occasionally gets lost hitting the same story notes over and over. There’s only so many times a conflict can resolve with a repeated point before it gets old. Even with only eight episodes, it struggles to come up with fresh scenarios every now and then. It’s not a huge issue though, as it leaves you wanting more after leading to a spectacular finish.
Not so long ago, Star Wars spinoffs sounded like a terrible idea (in most cases they have been). Putting it on TV seemed like an even worse idea. How many times can we see blaster fights, storm troopers, bounty hunters, desert planets and weird creatures before it gets old? What’s the point if there’s no Jedi or Rebels? Against all odds, Disney saw what serialised storytelling could do for this franchise. Disney, Lucasfilm and Jon Favreau have delivered a fun, thrilling and engaging adventure. It’s not perfect, but The Mandalorian will delight old fans and new fans for years to come.
Best way to watch it: One episode a week. Savour the experience over 8 weeks, not 1 afternoon.