I’ve dedicated a lot of time and space to talking about Disney’s the Mandalorian in the last few weeks. I suppose it’s in part because it’s one of the biggest shows on television (*streaming) today and it happens to be science fiction. Not just science fiction, but Star Wars, and everything that comes along with that. What I’ve enjoyed about the Mandalorian is that while it’s most definitely Star Wars it has never felt cheap or pandering in an extremely overt way. It’s still Star Wars and still Disney so everything has been focus- and stress-tested to ensure that everything can become a perfect fit for a toy line, but that’s Star Wars.
This week’s episode blew the lid off of that whole thing and instead went full-on “HEY, I HEARD YOU LIKE STAR WARS” and I’m not sure why it did that. The previous four episodes have all served a purpose for pushing the narrative further, establishing characters, setting and conflict. This episode didn’t feel like it was doing any of that. Were there some new characters introduced, some of which may play a role later one? Maybe, but once again I turn to IMDB to find out that no, none of these characters carry over. Ming-Na Wen’s Fennec Shand was an interesting character that took a blaster bolt to the gut and left for dead, with fans already wondering if she appears again, yet on IMDB she’s credited with appearing in one episode.
Much like Taika Waititi’s IG-11 felt like there could be room for more exploration further on in the series, only to appear in the first episode with no further credits for the actor/writer/director outside of directorial credits later on in the season. This is all fine, by the way, because of the nature of the show and the story they’re trying to tell about this lone wolf (cough) and cub (once again, cough) traversing a hostile outer rim staying one step ahead of bounty hunters and the remnants of the Empire while our titular character continues to bond with his newfound ward along the way.
It’s just that this episode felt so completely worthless.
This episode was frustrating in a lot of ways because it Dave Filoni, of Star Wars television fame (or perhaps not?), who was responsible for the Clone Wars, Rebels and some of the other well-received animated Star Wars series, was at the helm. Filoni also directed the first episode of the Mandalorian, although he didn’t write that one. Jon Favreau is credited as the writer for each episode up to this one, which was Filoni. This was an all-Filoni affair then and, well, it had some really great parts and some really weak points.
In a format like this, where there are eight episodes in the season and the narrative is confined to those eight episodes, each clocking in under 40 minutes, that means there’s a lot of legwork to be done. Thus far the sparse, almost Spartan storytelling has worked. You know what Star Wars is; you know the universe and they don’t bother filling in the blanks for those that don’t because their audience will know Star Wars to some extent. Having the heft of ten feature films and a lifetime of books, video games and animated series behind it there’s a good chance that anyone tuning in at least has a cursory understanding of Star Wars. What we don’t know is the main character, the Baby Yoda that has warmed the hearts of memesters everywhere or really anyone else involved with this struggle. Not that we need that much more, just that at this point in the show there should be some rise in tension and action other than just establishing “his past is following him and bounty hunters are everywhere.”
The plot of this episode is like this: The Mandalorian is in a tense dogfight with a rival bounty hunter looking to bring our hero in alive, this drive ultimately dooms him as the Mandalorian stops short and blasts him into space bits. With his ship damaged, he lands on the nearest planet, Tatooine. Yes, that Tatooine. Yes, Mos Eisley. Amy Sedaris plays an eccentric mechanic wearing a Sigourney Weaver wig and has a few comedic relief droids in her employ, but agrees to fix our hero’s ship. He, once again, leaves Baby Yoda behind to go search for a job, and Amy Sedaris discovers the baby and awww, how cute, right? He heads to the local watering hole, yes, that one, which feels sorta empty and lifeless, which, I guess makes sense considering things went to shit. There, a rakishly handsome wannabe bounty hunter hears he’s looking for work and enlists our hero to help him catch a deadly assassin as his in to the guild. There’s a pause, obviously, but this kid has no idea what he’s doing or who he’s just employed.
Said kid picks up our pal at his hangar bay where he sees the weird old lady and the weird baby, then they’re off! Tusken Raiders get in the way momentarily and they fall right into a trap, pinned down by sniper fire. They devise a plot, take their target into captivity and then the Mandalorian has to backtrack to pick up a ride for the three of them, where our target and the kid talk shop and how our hero is the REAL bounty. The kid kills her, rushes back, takes hostages and our hero comes, plays a cunning ruse and dispatches the rube with little fanfare.
There’s a LOT of fan service in here. Depending on where you’re at with this, it’ll either be exciting and have you shouting out in glee at each reference (and there are a lot!), or you’ll be rolling your eyes at it. I mean, she even had the high ground! Yes, the high ground!
We learn a few sparse details about the Mandalorian, like he can communicate with Sand People, he’s smart but still flawed and his armor can take a sniper shot or two from a distance without failing. He’s trusting, perhaps too much so, and a bit reckless. He’s no Boba Fett, essentially. And no, I have no idea if the boots of whatever bounty hunter we only see the bottom half of that checked on the fallen assassin in the mountains belonged to. Probably not Boba Fett.
I’m sure it feels like I’m ragging on this episode. As you can tell, raw nostalgia doesn’t really do it for me. A part of the problem for me is that Navarro, the planet we hear muttered a few times in this episode, where the beginning of the show took place, feels almost exactly like Tatooine. There’s Jawas, giant sand dunes, speeders, the same architecture, the works! If someone said that it was Tatooine that would shock no one. Never mentioning the name of the planet left it ambiguous, tantalizing and left some wonder to the imagination. It’s not like we haven’t seen desert planets in Star Wars, right? The Force Awakens focuses heavily on Jakku, a desert planet that looks a lot like Tatooine.
Honestly, I just assumed it was Batuu in an attempt to product tie-in with the theme park attractions.
A lot of the subtlety that the show has used felt tossed out the window for this episode. I can’t stress enough how it felt like “spot the reference” in almost every shot. None of this would vex me, either, if the episode’s plot felt substantial. Last week’s episode did such a great job of exploring how people live in a post-Empire world, we met a new character in Cara Dune that is a kindred spirit of the Mandalorian who we know will pop up again later, only to be missing from this episode completely. We’ve already gotten a feel for the conflict, too. We know that he’s being hunted by bounty hunters, we know that nowhere is safe and we know that he’s unsure of how to care for a child. None of that was explored further, instead, it was all reiterated. This may as well of been a clip show.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t good things in this episode, because there were.
As a writer, there are a lot of small things that are easy to recognize and love. A lot of writers have a natural instinct to really want to set the mood and tension for a scene. Explore, explore, explore. Show the conflict from beginning to end. The problem with that is that not all viewers are down for that. I may like watching Paul Thomas Anderson explore Daniel Plainview prospecting for oil and not speak a damned word for twenty minutes, but for a 30-something minute action show that’s not an option. You want to immediately grab the attention of the viewers and not let go, disorienting them before letting them adjust. The opening shot was a perfect example of this.
I can’t remember where I heard this, or from who, but there’s this idea that you start a scene a few pages later than your instincts tell you to and you finish it earlier than you want to. This to to say, at least when you’re getting a feel for your craft. So, the opening scene is of the Mandalorian being pursued and shot at, there was some banter over the comms between the two men and we aren’t privy to how the conflict started. Our minds fill in the blanks, though. We know he’s being pursued and can imagine a ship getting the drop on him and cockily asking him to surrender. Really, this was a great scene and the best example of this technique that I’ve seen in a while.
Really, that’s sort of the problem with this episode. There’s some really great stuff in here but it’s all lost in the Dune Sea. We didn’t learn enough about how Tatooine has changed to make this detour feel worthwhile and none of the characters seem to be coming back for an encore. While there is absolutely room for the character to get shot with a healthy dose of nihilism that nothing he does matters and his flight from the Bounty Guild is all-consuming, I’m not sure that this episode was that. Tatooine was a poor place on the fringes of the Empire before and now it’s a poor place on the fringes of the post-Empire world now, just with stormtrooper heads on pikes.
The Mandalorian’s connection with the lesser folk in the Star Wars galaxy–the Jawas and the Sand People–leaves us with interesting questions about his own background, knowledge and why he knows how to communicate with them. The same can be said for his predilection for desert planets, maybe?
I guess I’m just looking at this from a storyteller’s perspective right now and I imagine that if you’d want to produce a lower key episode of the season, there could be a lot more to explore in the little things. It’s probably telling that when you search for Mandalorian episode five almost every result is some clickbait about “every Easter Egg you may have missed!” There’s definitely something to be said that in past weeks we were excitedly talking about broader film and literary references within the series and this week felt more about exploring the Kenner toy line from the 80s.
Perhaps that makes this the most Star Wars episode of them all.