If anyone still doubted the world of Star Wars was large enough for completely non-Skywalker storytelling, The Mandalorian should put those doubts down as effectively as the title character puts down the bounty droid at the first episode’s end.
Rogue One proved the franchise could make audiences care about main characters completely outside the Skywalker Saga—heck, Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor already has his own prequel series in production—even though Jyn Erso and her squad proved crucial to the Rebel Alliance we’ve always known and rooted for.
And Solo, while squarely focused on one of the franchise’s most enduring heroes and his celebrated spaceship, gave viewers an almost completely lightsaber- and Force-free romp through the Star Wars universe (Darth Maul’s nearly throwaway cameo the sole exception), proving a Star Wars story didn’t need to lean on the mythos’ more mystical, mythical aspects.
But the debut episode of The Mandalorian is arguably the first live-action Star Wars project that manages to “feel like Star Wars” without “feeling like Star Wars.”
Familiar Armor for a New Man of Action
Understand, there’s no denying The Mandalorian takes place anywhere but the Galaxy Far, Far Away.
If nothing else, its mere existence attests to the power of Star Wars’ iconography. The first episode makes clear this show will be as much about Mandolorian armor as it is about those who wear it. The camera takes several long, loving looks at the suit and the bars of Beskar steel from which it’s forged.
It’s understandable. This armor is the only sci-fi armor cooler than Iron Man’s: the costume Joe Johnston designed for Boba Fett four decades ago, the look that immediately launched an intensely fierce sub-fandom.
No, Pedro Pascal’s character isn’t Boba Fett. The show is set some years after Return of the Jedi, when Fett is still in the belly of the Sarlacc (though I wouldn’t put it past this series to grant canonical status to Boba’s currently apocryphal escape from those digestive depths). And Fett himself wasn’t even Mandalorian, as Attack of the Clones and The Clone Wars made clear.
But Pascal’s as-yet unnamed Mandalorian is the man of action Star Wars fans always imagined Boba Fett to be—because only a man of action like that would wear awesome armor like that! Were the Mandalorian wearing anything else, it’s hard to imagine we’d have much interest.
The series also revels in established Star Wars details at the granular level. Speeders. Gonk droids. One of those funky “eye stalk” door-guarding droids we saw at the front gate of Jabba’s palace. A cargo hold full of “assets” frozen in carbonite. Annotating the show’s overt references and hidden Easter eggs would take hours. The creative team knows how the Star Wars universe looks and sounds and isn’t afraid to show it.
A Spaghetti Western in the Stars
But despite the layers and layers of familiar details, the show feels like a new mode of Star Wars storytelling.
Not entirely novel: As so many elements announce—the saloon-like bar (albeit with irising instead of a swinging door), the John Ford-like vistas, composer Ludwig Göransson’s score that appropriately evokes Ennio Morricone more often than it does John Williams—The Mandalorian is a space western.
Horse opera has been in the DNA of the Star Wars brand of space opera since the beginning, but The Mandolorian looks as though it will embrace that part of the franchise’s heritage to the near-exclusion of all else.
This Mandalorian is literally (at least so far) “the man with no name.” As he tells the Armorer, his signet—his seal, an identifying and authenticating symbol—has not yet been revealed. Given that he is an orphan, he may not even know it himself. Until he does, he is a gun (and electric prod) for hire, a “lone ranger” trying to make his way on the chaotic, post-Imperial frontier.
Judging from some of his actions in this first episode, our nameless Mandalorian is not necessarily a nice man. He can take down his foes pretty viciously (that aforementioned irising saloon door makes a mean guillotine), and he seems to take some sadistic delight in sneaking up on his Mythrol “asset” to freeze him in carbonite, ensuring the Mythrol won’t be home in time for Life Day. These moments, along with others we are sure to see over the course of the series, confirm the character is a “tough guy” in the classic Wild West mold.
Forging an Identity
But other actions hint our Mandalorian may yet have a hero’s journey ahead of him.
At Kuiil’s urging, he “breaks” the blurgg with tenderness.
He—initially—teams up with bounty droid IG-11 instead of blasting him, and insists that the droid not self-destruct.
And, most significantly, the Mandalorian only destroys IG-11 when the droid, acting on a commission very different than the one The Client and Dr. Pershing gave our protagonist, threatens to eliminate the most surprising “asset” ever. (More on that in a moment.)
Does the Mandalorian take down the droid only because he’s been ordered to bring this “baby Yoda” back alive? Or is he moved by compassion for this fellow foundling (albeit one who’s 50 years old and looks a lot like Gizmo from Gremlins)?
I hope The Mandalorian won’t end up telling us too much about this alien infant. Part of Yoda’s appeal is his sui generis status. We don’t need to know anything about his species (any more than we needed the distracting sight of Yaddle sitting on the Jedi Council in The Phantom Menace). All we need to know is whether this five-decade old “kid” is a refugee from Emperor Palpatine’s creepy nursery on Mustafar for Force-sensitive children, as see in “Children of the Force,” a second-season episode of The Clone Wars.
But I am looking forward to learning more about the Mandalorian. Discovering yourself is a tried-and-tested theme in Star Wars. Inventing yourself is slightly different, and could be the theme that sets this already fresh-feeling series apart. As surely as the Armorer forges the Mandalorian’s pauldron, the Mandalorian is forging his identity, piece by piece.