Why The Mandalorian is so good (even for non-Star Wars fans)

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Still from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo From japanesefilmarchive flickr.com/photos/89330362@N03/8140234131/in/photostream/

Star Wars devotees could be forgiven for not managing to stir up enthusiasm for The Mandalorian TV series. Non-initiates are more likely to dismiss another iteration of ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’, given the franchise fatigue generated by the final instalment of the film trilogy. Any possible narrative or cultural interest has surely been rung out of this universe long ago. Enough must, finally, be enough. Time to stop whipping a dead tauntaun.

Non-Star Wars fan is a category I can happily count myself in. I saw the prequel trilogy as a child when it came out and enjoyed it, although the only lasting memory is the iconic Darth Maul fight. I’ve seen the first two of the latest trilogy, but still haven’t got round to seeing the denouement. The latest films have all been fairly forgettable aside from the grittier bridging story of Rogue One. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the original trilogy and certainly not in its entirety or the right order. At best, my relationship with George Lucas’s cinematic universe was indifferent. I don’t have an investment in Star Was and was quite happy for it to fade from cultural memory, given the way it was mangled by JJ Abrams.

Then Disney Plus came to the UK.

The Mandalorian certainly stands out on the platform. It’s possibly the only serious drama amongst countless cartoons, Pixar, sitcoms and made for TV movies involving talking pets. The Mandalorian is more at company with other competitors tilting for the must-watch TV spot recently vacated by Game of Thrones. Things may be taking a science-fiction turn: The Expanse, Westworld and Star Trek are all fellow contenders. My money would be on the Mandalorian as it reaches something to which none of the others never quite manage.

The heart of the programme is the titular character himself. He is cut from the same cloth as perennial fan favourite Boba Fett from the original trilogy: A laconic bounty hunter with a code. Pedro Pascal gives a lesson in physicality and restraint, delivering terse dialogue from an anonymous helmet. The Mandalorian dispatches enemies with aplomb, but there are hints of the human being beneath the knightly armour. Flashbacks reveal his parents were killed in a raid, leading to our hero’s adoption by the Mandalorian order. This drives the central conflict of the story. The Mandalorian is pulled three ways: the need to make a living, the precepts of his guild, and his humanity. The conflict is resolved with him choosing the latter and becoming an itinerant warrior protecting his ward.

That ward is the worst kept secret in TV history: the infant dubbed as ‘Baby Yoda’, who has launched a thousand memes. Jokes aside, the relationship between the Mandalorian and his adoptive child is inspired. Unlike the prequel and sequel trilogies, it creates a simple narrative engine to drive the story: a parent looking after their child in a dangerous world. Nurturing is a major theme: the protagonist is taken care of by his sect, and mentored by porcine alien Kuii in episodes 2 and 3. The two lead characters as essentially mute (not to mention one concealed behind a visor and the other being a puppet) means their relationship is demonstrated through actions: walking side by side, playing with the ship’s controls, or even levitating an attacking mud horn.

Baby Yoda represents something else the recent films never managed to achieve: to literally reinvigorate Star Wars. The best prequels, sequels and spin offs take the best of their progenitor, remixing while telling a new story (the televised versions of Fargo being a good example). Echoes abound; even for a non-devotee such as me, a confrontation in a bar and someone losing a body part was enough to ring a bell — and could any Star Wars offshoot exist without the signature wipes? In Baby Yoda, the sage has become the child, upending viewer expectations. A similar trick was pulled with the arboriform creature Groot in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The 42 years of storytelling Star Wars has behind it gives this transformation more heft, rather than feeling gratuitous. Most importantly, Baby Yoda pulls the heartstrings: the show creates unbearable tension by momentarily showing the sprite in the crosshairs of an unknown assassin. Hopefully, even memes, merchandising and overexposure won’t pose a threat to this avatar of innocence.

The show also draws on other elements of the Star Wars universe. The franchise has always been high fantasy masquerading as science fiction. Ignoring the interstellar travel and light sabres, Star Wars is about the past (as the crawl text proclaims, ‘a long time ago’). The Mandalorian takes place in the ruins of a fallen empire, to which the battered suits of the Stormtroopers act as a reminder. This setting has more in common with pre-20th century, old world empires, than the sanitised, utilitarian future often depicted. This is a multicultural society with different alien species standing in for nationalities, religions and ethnic groups (Star Wars is open to accusations of essentialising the ‘alien’ other with species drawing from historical stereotypes). There is bartering in crowded markets, woven wicker baskets used to fish, the breaking in of unruly steeds, campsites, saloons… even the spaceships are soot stained.

The show revels in a more tactile, earthy textures. The effects don’t seem to over-rely on CGI (I’m sure in reality there are mountains of it, but the kind that enhances, rather than distracts). Gone are the overtly artificial, computer-generated creatures, much derided in the prequels and when retrospectively added to the original trilogy. Instead, the show breathes with the warp and weave of fur, skin and leather; of lush vegetations, smelted metals and showers of sparks. Aliens are generally actors with prosthetics or puppets, with all their rubbery tangibility. Aside from the bemasked A-lister, the rest of the cast is reassuringly unshowy. Werner Herzog stands out as The Client, bridling with inhumanity.

The programme draws from a range of sources to create an evocative patina. There are the Tarantino-esque chapter titles and accompanying sense of doomed inevitability. Episodes and characters are given sobriquets with the definite article (The Child, The Sin), creating a timeless, almost biblical atmosphere. The slow, deliberate pacing of watching an expert go about their task, whether repairing a ship or delivering a bounty is used to great effect (likewise Better Call Saul). It’s a TV show steeped in cinema with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio to match. It draws from the original inspirations for Star Wars: Spaghetti Westerns and Kurosawa’s samurai films. This is especially apparent in the episode 4 homage to The Seven Samurai. Yet, it’s not afraid to delight in its own silliness. The set up and punchline of the whistling birds weapon in episode 3 elicits the same glee as M’s latest gadget for Bond.

Perhaps what makes The Mandalorian such an antidote is its reduced scale. Our hero is not trying to save the world, or galaxy, or stop a Death Star, or defeat a marauding invader. He is simply trying to survive and protect his charge. There is an understated predictability: Kuii’s stoic ‘I have spoken’ and the Mandalorians’ disciplined refrain. These characters have a sense of meaning and purpose, and will live and die by their codes. After the premise is set in the first three episodes, it doesn’t matter how long the story goes on for. The best episodic series (for me, the likes of Cowboy Bebop or Adventure Time) allow their adventurers to set off on many self-contained quests, but always return to where they started. The Mandalorian shares more DNA with serials such as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or Xena: Warrior Princess than the recent batch high-concept, prestige TV drama. Whether it’s in five episodes time or 500, The Mandalorian will return to where he started, protecting The Child from The Client, even if it costs him the lucre of bounty hunting, the code of his order, and his life: ‘This is the way’.

Work in education & doing this geeky pop-culture writing for fun. From Sheffield, now in London via Spain and Australia. Expect games, comics, film and tv.

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