The good, the bad, and the ugly space monster
Almost exactly one year ago, in the Before Times, our corporate overlords treated Star Wars fandom to the franchise’s first live-action TV series, and it turned out to be a doozy. With the deft helming of Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni and under the Great Mouse Aegis, The Mandalorian breathed fresh air into the property in a way nobody anticipated. So many once placed all their hopes for a galaxy far, far away on Rey, Finn and Poe, only to find a space spaghetti western featuring one impossibly adorable character sneaking up to steal our hearts and give us hope for the future of Star Wars.
The first season of The Mandalorian was a tightly-scripted, perfectly-cast, astonishingly immersive ride that threaded the needle between massive sci-fi epic and Saturday matinee serial with impressive acuity. Favreau and company essentially invented new technology, like George Lucas before them, to grab hold of our willing suspension of disbelief by the throat like a Sith force choke and pull us unhindered into their world. The result, using game engines and a uniquely immersive set surrounded by LED screens, produced a Star Wars more “believable” than the overdesigned, distracting CGI tapestries of the later films. Of course, none of this would have worked without decent scripts, and the series delivered on that one, too.
Throughout Season One, The Mandalorian treated viewers to a compelling main narrative with plenty of “side missions” thrown in to keep us rapt. We had the iconic introduction of our antihero, now known as Din Djarin, the titular Mandalorian bounty hunter, as he hunts down and eventually adopts “The Child.” By now nobody actually calls it “The Child,” but rather “Baby Yoda,” seeing as this kid is one of only about three in the entire franchise to share the famous Jedi master’s species. Lucasfilm and now Disney have, thus far, kept Yoda’s larger backstory and that of his kind locked in a beskar vault somewhere on Skywalker Ranch.
As the season progressed, we watched everything from saloon gunfights to a prison break, a lovely “help the innocent villagers defeat oppressing forces” story, battles with Stormtroopers and creatures galore, and, of course, the finest on-screen performance of Verner Herzog’s career. He would like to see the baby, by the way.
The secrecy of The Child’s background works well as a narrative device. We know as much about this little fella as the hardened warrior tasked to protect him does, which is close to nothing. And to be fair, all that we really need to know is that he’s just the most snuggable lil’ green bean in the whole galaxy, yes he is! By now we’ve all seen the countless Baby Yoda memes, the subreddit, the SNL parody, the ubiquitous merchandising. It wouldn’t be Star wars without merch! I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t watch the new season’s first episode wearing a Baby Yoda tee shirt, alongside my seven month-old son in his Baby Yoda onesie, nestled next to a Baby Yoda doll. This technological marvel Disney created seems insignificant compared to the power of capitalism.
Wherever I go, he goes
At the start of this season, we have green bean and Mando, our galactic Lone Wolf and Cub, traversing the galaxy together. “Wherever I go, he goes,” says Djarin, inadvertently echoing a television toy commercial from my youth. As he notes twice here, someone has “quested” him with returning The Child to its kind, though whether “its kind” is its species or the Jedi Order remains unanswered. Since there exist few of either remaining, that we know of, this will surely prove a daunting task. For the time being, Mando finds himself trying to locate other Mandos, who might know more details about these mysterious “Jedi,” the Mandalorians’ sworn enemy from a few thousand years prior.
The season premiere gives us most of what we’ve come to love about this show while simultaneously failing to advance the plot much. We get a double-cross, courtesy of a John Lequizamo-voiced cyclops, at a Gamorrean fight club, which naturally doesn’t work out very well for the cyclops, whose info leads our hero and his charge back to–where else?–Tatooine. Favreau et al treated us to a bit of Luke and Anakin Skywalker’s home world in season one, and the show is back to bestow upon us fanboys and fangirls a Wookie’s bounty of deep cuts and Easter Eggs on the desert planet.
In his qwest to find his kinfolk, Mando discovers a set of very familiar armor worn by Marshal Cobb Vanth, here perfectly typecast as a handsome, world-weary, incomparably charming Timothy Olyphant, known for playing charming marshals on Deadwood, Justified, and most recently on Fargo. With an episode titled “The Marshal,” who else could it possibly be? As we’d hope, he’s equally great here.
Fans, of course, know this to be the armor of ur-bounty hunter Boba Fett, who we last encountered on the live action screen knocked into the Sarlacc pit and unceremoniously swallowed with a sad belch in Return of the Jedi. It is, and always has been, a character death howlingly decried by fans since it happened in 1983, and in the ensuing years the greater Star Wars midrash conceded that, yes, Fett actually survived the Sarlacc’s guts. We know it to be true now, which is nice, but even just the glimpse of that iconic armor is enough to stir the passions of fans, a reaction the writers clearly wanted to use to their advantage.
Mando doesn’t like a non-Mandalorian wearing Mandalorian armor, though, and demands it back. Just short of a gunfight, in a scene ripped almost directly from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (with Baby Yoda hiding, appropriately, in a spitoon), the two strike a deal: Vanth with give Mando the armor in exchange for helping the town with their pest problem. And by “pest,” I mean a monstrous, whale-sized, acid-spewing Krayt Dragon with a habit of devouring elephant-sized Banthas like tea sandwiches. Thus, the episode shifts from Mando’s search for Mandos and Jedis to a good ole-fashioned monster hunt, in which the townspeople need to overcome their racism and team up with the native Tusken raiders.
The beast hunt isn’t exactly novel, but it does turn out to be good fun, incorporating plenty of zippy action, not a few deaths to keep the stakes high, impressive special effects, and a satisfying, if predictable conclusion. In the end, Mando gets his armor and continues his quest with The Child. The big reveal arrives at the end of the episode, when we see a scarred and desert-worn figure atop the sand dunes, which fans will recognize as actor Temuera Morrison, who played the role of Jango Fett in Attack of The Clones.
It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to puzzle out that, because Jango was both the genetic template for the clone army as well as Boba’s father, this is, in fact, the real Boba Fett. He’s alive! Say what you will about everyone involved in this series, they’re masterful when it comes to the art of the cliffhanger, which seems appropriate given the serial nature of the show.
Overall, the episode is an enjoyable, welcome diversion during anxious times, and a good start to a new season. It’s far from perfect, though. For starters, Mando doesn’t seem much further along on his new Campbellian journey at the end of the episode than he was at the beginning. The writers seemed way more interested in stuffing it with a mountain of geeky references and callbacks than with advancing the actual plot of the series.
There are entirely too many of those to list here, but if you got ‘em, you got ‘em, and like me you probably loved ‘em. (R5-D4 with the bad motivator! Obiwan’s dragon call! Familiar aliens! Cobb’s salvaged podracer engine! Memba!) But for fans of the show whose adoration of all things Star Wars might not go quite as deep, it was likely just a passable episode. Also, The Child did little more than act cute, which is wonderful, but part of me wanted him to show off a new trick or a new expression, at the very least for pure meme-fodder. That said, The Mandalorian will probably lose few fans here, not yet, not with our desperate need for escapism right now.
My only hope is that, when we next escape with the Mandalorian, we’ll do it someplace new, somewhere not as well-trodden as Tatooine. Perhaps the newly unveiled and not dead yet master bounty hunter Boba Fett could hunt another bounty hunter, pursuing Mando and baby throughout the galaxy? As The Armorer told our man last season, “When one chooses to walk the way of the Mandalore, you are both hunter and prey.”