It’s been a difficult time for Star Wars. The new movie, The Rise of the Skywalker (2019), is a critical failure and commercially less viable than The Last Jedi (2017). Meanwhile, The Mandalorian started slowly, with a promising first couple episodes that fizzled into what felt like favors to the friends of series creator Jon Favreau. What begins with faux-Western sensibilities — a lot of established Man with No Name archetypes and walking about in desert terrain — gives way to a sagging mid-section, where the show spins its wheels in the dirt, not amounting to very much. Then, something significant happens. Deborah Chow and Taika Waititi have shot the last two episodes as a block, creating the second best Star Wars film of the generation, hidden in the back-half of a fine-but-rarely-exceptional TV show. And then our rising affection for the new series changes from “thank god for Baby Yoda” to “this is an important new show of critical value for a franchise in dire need of a boost.”
The Mandalorian is a character rooted in childhood dreams. Our earliest imaginations were captivated by Bobba and Jango Fett, bounty hunters with great aesthetic purposes, who served as side characters, mysterious building blocks of a larger story. And now we get to explore the themes of the characters, as a kind of species, unfurling a well-detailed backstory for one particular Mandalorian, who grows into a formidable central character across the eight-episode stretch. His kinship with the ever-popular Baby Yoda supplants his character in formative ways. We’re delighted by their easy friendship: the gruff man of few words and the bubbly made-for-toys doll he must protect. As series star Werner Herzog puts it, “Baby Yoda is heartbreakingly beautiful.”
That we have Herzog on board tells us enough about the different tonality found in The Mandalorian. When the team planned to replace the Yoda figure with CG, he called them cowards and said to believe in the practical effect. When Mandalorian shines brightest, it believes in its practical effects, its characters, and their influence on the story. Unlike the new Star Wars feature, the stakes matter and are clearly set. Actions have consequences in this world and the diverse range of eight prominent directors rarely walk them back.
The influence of Westerns, especially the Italian kind, is tangibly felt. A jaunty Morricone-adjacent melody paces out over much of the significant action. It is a great Star Wars song, perhaps the best one of recent memory. It accomplishes a great theme that the show fits comfortably inside. Even when the show is down-tempo in its middle, it holds close to the hallowed ground of a Sergio Leone feeling. The character is certainly a prototypical Clint Eastwood stand-in. Voiced and often acted by Pedro Pascal, his double features another great lineage, as the man in the suit is often John Wayne’s grandson, Brendan Wayne. Either actor sells the swagger of the outcast future-cowboy. The Mandalorian is truly a Western caught in the Star Wars universe, grappling with the pre-installed themes that were already inherent in that storytelling.
While the first six episodes conjure up a middling at-least-we-have-this enthusiasm in the face of the bad new movie, the final two episodes muster up a much greater, effective enthusiasm. It is worth sticking the ride out to get there. Taiki Watiti’s episode, in particular, features some of the finest action found in modern Star Wars, as the Mandalorian takes to the air with his jetpack, grappling onto a tie fighter and trying to plant a bomb to its wings. This high-flying new energy captures a sequence that is totally fresh for Star Wars. The final episodes are also wonderfully blocked and framed with precision. It’s clear there’s an evident love, not just for the source, but like with The Last Jedi, for a new story that the creators are telling.
The Mandalorian is as uneven as they come. It may feature a dreary, dipping mid-section, but relieves its status with an explosive and fresh ending to the series. Jon Favreau has crafted a loving homage that functions as a sturdy companion piece that follows the events of Return of the Jedi (1983). When The Mandalorian is good, it exists in the fabric of those childhood dreams of the Star Wars bounty hunter. Because it is thematically consistent, it rewards the investment, even in its darker stretches, it’s worth sticking with the show. There is a new hope for Star Wars, it’s just not the movie we were looking for.