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The Mandalorian Season 2 has redefined our expectations for Star Wars storytelling, then constantly defied or extended them.
The Mandalorian combines a structure of a procedural, monster of the week show like the original Star Trek "Wagon Train" or "The Rifleman" in Space, with arc-based serial story telling, or Space Soap Opera. Watching the online speculation videos, it was clear that our structural expectations were anticipated and being gently played with and subverted. Though we could not anticipate all the plot developments, they seem right in retrospect. That's the genius storytelling and writing of Jon Favreau.
The plot is The Hero's Journey, as in all Star Wars and most science fiction in general. It's arguable, but I think the hero is Grogu. It is his origin story.
Din Djarin, the eponymous Mandalorian, is a classic anti-hero. Adopted into a fundamentalist cult, Din is at first an amoral bounty-hunter and ex-criminal gangster. His Lone Wolf and Cub adventures with Grogu lead him into contact with other Mandalorians and ways of thinking.
The kids in the sandbox and role playing nature of The Mandalorian mirrors how people themselves experience Star Wars and make it their own. So we get to see Mando level up, and get new gear and equipment as he does. There are a couple of hard-felt losses in season 1 which really add to the suspense of "anyone can die" except those with heavy plot armor such as Luke and Ahsoka.
The directing is uneven, with talented directors challenged by a new environment, The Volume, a circular set with an LED diorama wall which can be synced to give real-time parallax with camera motion in both the set and VR backdrop. The use of Unreal Engine for many of the sets and ambient lighting effects adds to the sense of this being a video game, or maybe high quality cutscene. The second season efforts of Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Rodriguez are notable for their mastery of their own visual languages. Howard lovingly borrows from her father, Ron Howard, who directed Apollo 11 and Solo. Their episodes are very tight and have real technical mastery and economy to them.
Except the iconic named figures brought in from other stories, many characters are introduced as ciphers without proper names, such as The Client, The Child, Frog Lady, and The Mandalorian himself. This adds to a sense of mythic dimension. It's fun to sit down with Tvtropes or Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale and deconstruct the role of each character.
The Mandalorian deserves high marks for writing, direction, visuals, music, editing, in most cases, and physical and special effects.
This is the Way.
Review written Dec 18, 2020 immediately at the end of Season 2.
Before I get into The Mandalorian, I want to moan about Disney. Back in the 90s, movies got a staggered release internationally. Disney was one of the few big studios to carry this practise way into the internet age, and I remember it taking two months just for them to release Princess and the Frog in the UK. Rather than see things improve, we're now in 2020 and The Mandalorian gets released on a new digital platform that won't even be made available in the UK until five months after it debuts in the US. Total pain in the arse. Luckily I know someone who worked around it, and so I finally get to understand what the hell all these Baby Yoda internet memes are about.
The Mandalorian is a spaghetti Space Western about a "Mandalorian" bounty hunter. He has no name, he's good with a gun, he hangs around dusty border towns, he has an uncertain moral stance. From the first episode onwards, he gets stuck with a Lone Wolf and Cub situation. None of it is groundbreaking stuff, but the addition of the Star Wars setting is enough to make The Mandalorian feel fresh, whilst also including just the right amount of references back to the old movies to tie it in, without cloying fan service. Also, its refreshing to see something Star Wars that's not being crushed under the burden of decades of continuity. In more ways than one, The Mandalorian is like experiencing A New Hope for the first time.
Whilst there is a thread tying everything together, The Mandalorian is very episodic in nature, with each episode recreating some classic old West yarn. One lovely little detail is how every episode ends with painterly style concept art, styled to look just like the covers of some tawdry Western pulp fiction. It's more proof that this isn't aiming at anything lofty or ambitious, and we don't always need ambitious story telling.
What we do need is good characters though, and that's also something The Mandalorian gets right. There's a nice mix of humans, aliens and droids who each have their own arcs and quirks, and somehow its always the Droids that manage to be cooler than everyone else. The only piece of characterisation that doesn't really work is the show's justification for having a protagonist look and sound exactly like Boba Fett. Boba Fett in the old movies was just a guy who a neat costume that fans liked, but this series has to invent an entire, goofy religion that dictates how these Mandolorians must all dress identically. It reminds me of the whole "Corellian Bloodstripe" nonsense to explain how Han Solo could possibly own two pairs of trousers. Unnecessary!
When you get the chance to, I recommend you watch the series. It's pleasant, and I hope it acts as a nice assurance to Disney that they can afford to make more live action shows with the franchise.
The Mandalorian, from writer and showrunner Jon Favreau and Lucas acolyte Dave Filoni, is probably the best expression of Star Wars roots since the original movie.
The Mandalorian is a Space Western or Space Samurai series, particularly calling back to Sergio Leone or John Ford's Westerns, and Akira Kurosawa's Samurai films as well as the Japanese manga and movie series, Lone Wolf and Cub.
The Mandalorian can be enjoyed as a bite sized serial adventure, like the old Republic thrillers. It doesn't take itself too seriously and it is nice to get the entertainment and fanservice without a lot of ponderous angst, ala Anakin Skywalker, or emo posturing and dysfunctional family drama, ala Kylo Ren.
On a more meta level, all the easter eggs and fan-servicy elements add very much to the world building. Filoni has been adept at welding different and sometimes disharmonious elements of Star Wars canons old and new and his episodes are filled with callbacks and possible call-forwards.
The writing, primarily by showrunner Jon Favreau, is funny and economical. "I have spoken."
The special effects are great, as good as the best in the 3rd movie trilogy. The integration of puppets, cgi, and live action is seamless.
The acting is something special, with talented character actors such as Gina Carano and Amy Sedaris having fun and giving scintillating performances. The music by Black Panther composer Ludwig Göransson, is evocative and catchy. Like the show itself, the score lacks the ponderous self-seriousness of the mainline movie sequels.
How do people experience Star Wars? They make it their own, through playing with toys in the sandbox, roleplaying, live action roleplay, online games, original art, tribute videos.
Favreau and Filoni use "How people experience Star Wars" in several ways.
Many of the episodes contain a "monster of the week" and a setpiece battle with space mooks like two kids might set up in a sandbox with their toys.
Mando and Child are walking along in the desert when, suddenly, two Trandoshans jump from above!
Mando has to retrieve an egg from a Giant, Wooly, egglaying? Space Rhino!
Mando is surrounded and under fire from the Bounty Hunters Guild when, suddenly, rocketing down from above, Mandalorians!
The Mandalorian works on the level of a stand-alone procedural "monster of the week" show which doesn't require any special knowledge of Star Wars lore to appreciate. The Mandalorian also includes a longer-term serial exposition of the permanent escort mission the Mando is assigned to protect and teach his small green stepson.
Production values are great, acting ranges from good to Werner Herzog (which is excellent).
This review covers The Mandalorian season 1, episodes 1-8, and was updated after the release of Star Wars Episode IX The Rise of Skywalker.
Review updated December 29, 2019, to cover full first season.
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