‘The Mandalorian’: A Star Wars Spaghetti Space Western (With a Baby Yoda!)
As a lifelong Star Wars fan, it’s been no easy feat containing my excitement about The Mandalorian. The franchise has burned us before, with the myriad indignities of the Star Wars Holiday Special and with the heartbreaking terribleness of The Phantom Menace. So I knew the very real possibility of the first ever live-action Star Wars TV series being pure bantha poodoo. But each new teaser and nugget of information about the show seemed to put a crack in my protective helmet.
Jon Favreau would be running the show for Disney Plus, which was good news. He’d essentially created the timbre of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man, and he breathed fresh life into digital animal adventures with The Jungle Book. He was a good get. And though money doesn’t necessarily make a TV series or movie great, it was nice to know that Disney was investing upwards of $150 million to ensure their new entry into the galaxy didn’t reek of chintziness. Then there was the cast, which would include Game of Thrones and Narcos favorite Pedro Pascal as the title character, as well as Werner Herzog, Nick Nolte, Taika Waititi, Carl Weathers, Giancarlo Esposito, and more. I hated to get too psyched about this one, but as the Magic Eight Ball says, all signs pointed to yes.
So what did we get for all this money and talent and, on our end, endless anticipation and hours of geeked-out speculation? After its first two episodes, it’s fair to say that The Mandalorian is pretty much exactly what we were told it would be: A spaghetti Western on the outskirts of space, at turns both violent and humorous, packed with interesting characters and 50’s serial-style adventure, twinged with just enough dirt and darkness to keep it from being totally Disneyfied.
The Spaceman With No Name
If you weren’t aware of the connection between this show and the films of Sergio Leone, it will beat you over the head with it in the series’ opening. At a seedy bar on a frozen planet, some roughs begin sizing up a scared and helpless blue frogman for his organs. Through the saloon door strides a mysterious stranger in the shiny armor of a Mandalorian, the proud race of fearsome warriors with distinctive masks we recognize from Boba Fett’s. If there were such a thing as space tumbleweed, it surely would have blown by.
The toughs make the poor life choice of screwing with the spaceman with no name, and the Mandalorian makes quick work of them, managing to slice one in half using the robotic, aperture-shaped saloon door. He deserved it; he shot first. When the dust settles, we learn that our man is a bounty hunter, and the blue frogman, portrayed with proper comic relief by SNL vet Horatio Sans, is his quarry. “I can bring you in warm…or I can bring you in cold,” is Mando’s first line of dialogue. It’s a fitting introduction to our anti-hero, and to the series as a whole. Even the score pays homage to the music of Enrico Morricone, whose music will forever be indicative of the genre.
A delicate balancing act by Favreau and his team follows. It creates a new story, with new characters, while providing ample service to fans with call-backs, Easter eggs, and design choices, some so deep that only the most senior members of the Jedi fan council will actually get them. To a large degree, it works.
We learn that the Mandalorian was an orphan who eventually becomes a bounty hunter to make his bones with his clan. His new mission, given to him under strict confidentiality protocols by the wonderful Werner Herzog, aka “the client,” is to find a bounty with very little information other than its planet and age, and to bring it in dead or alive, but preferably alive. His prize? More beskar steel than he can shake a stick at, a massive boon for a Mandalorian, whose people fashion their signature armor from the rare, expensive stuff. It’s essentially Star Wars vibranium.
But a big bounty means a dangerous journey, and we get it as we see Mando venture to a desert planet, where he meets Kuill, the ugnaught farmer voiced by Nick Nolte who kindly agrees to help our guy out. After an amusing process of alien bronco-wrangling showing us that Mando isn’t super-humanoid, our guy tracks his bounty to a heavily fortified compound, where he teams up with a bounty droid (Waititi) to go full Rambo with their blasters, a fantastic action set piece punctuated by a recurring humorous bit as IG-11, the droid, keeps offering to blow himself up with a thermal detonator. When they’ve dutifully mowed down the remaining enemies with a mounted laser cannon, the time comes to claim their prize. And it is…
A baby Yoda! And oh my Life Day, isn’t it just the most adorable thing ever?! Cuter than porgs, more snuggable than an Ewok, the tiny green infant immediately stole the show, and with it our hearts. Knowing that he couldn’t destroy a thing of such incalculable cuteness, Mando instead kills IG-11 and takes the baby for himself.
Oooh Baby Baby Yoda
The introduction of baby Yoda, which is what everyone seems to be calling the lil’ guy since nobody knows Yoda’s species, serves a number of purposes: It gives our character a heart under that cold beskar steel armor; it ups the stakes for Mando’s character arc, as he’ll undoubtedly be bound to protect something of untold power that everyone wants to either use or destroy (my precious!); it gives us a compelling warrior-and-child narrative taken straight out of Lone Wolf and Cub; and, finally, it will make Disney untold trillions in baby Yoda merchandise this holiday season. Everyone wins here.
Episode two proves less satisfying than the premiere, mostly due to a paltry thirty minute run-time, not nearly enough to please worshippers of the wee baby Yoda. (Seriously, I had to pause the DVR several times so my wife could finish cooing over the thing, and honestly, I don’t blame her. I mean, those eyes! Those ears! Mom, can I have one for Hanukkah?!)
Mando deftly fights off a few Trandoshan thugs on his way back to his ship, only to find his beloved Razor Crest stripped by tricky Jawas. Favreau treats us to another action piece reminiscent of the tank chase in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Mando tries to scale the Jawas’ sand-crawler, ending in the his defeat at the end of a dozen Jawa ion blasters.
Fortunately, Kuill manages to broker a deal with the little stinkers: the stolen Razor Crest parts for something called “the egg.” Seemingly out of options, Mando winds up in a boss battle with a giant space rhino, which handily pummels and nearly kills him, until deus ex Yoda baby saves the day with a jaw-dropping amount of force power, even for a child. No wonder this kid is worth a cruiser-full of beskar. The plot thickens, the Jawas get their hairy, gooey egg to snack on, and Mando rebuilds his ship and sets off into space with a tuckered-out infant of untold power snoozing in his passenger seat.
If you’re willing to split Wookiee hairs, there’s plenty of nits to pick with The Mandalorian. So far, though, you’d have to a pretty calloused and jaded a Star Wars fan to do so. Sure, we still haven’t seen the hero’s face. And yes, it might be a little too on the nose with its homage to Leone’s films. But simply put, it’s about as good as fans could possibly expect out of a live action Star Wars series from Disney.
My only misgiving is that one of the best aspects of the show might be its first weakness: The Mandalorian seems completely lacking in context and exposition. If you’re coming into this without having proved your entry level Star Wars bona fides, you’ll likely have no idea what’s going on, and it might result in a lackluster viewing experience. Should you be a fan, though, expect to be readily serviced and thoroughly entertained, with seemingly endless nuggets of plot, character and Star Wars lore to discuss with your friends at the comic book shop for ages, not to mention beautiful sets, great music, and a seamless return to a galaxy far, far away.
Oh, and my second biggest problem with the show? Having to wait a week between episodes, which seems like an eternity for fanboys like myself. “But that’s a whole ‘nother week!” we’ll whine to Uncle Owen over our blue milk. Something tells me, though, that The Mandalorian will be worth the wait. For the first time in what seems like ages, Star Wars fans disappointed too many times finally have the one thing we’ve been yearning for:
A new hope.