It’s pretty dangerous work, making something new in the Star Wars universe. Rian Johnson remains maligned to this day for his subversive take in The Last Jedi, and it looks like a similar fate will befall J.J. Abrams for The Rise of Skywalker. As it turns out, dangerous work calls for a dangerous man, and few men are more dangerous than a bounty hunter. Leaning into the Samurai/Western tropes that influenced George Lucas in the first place, THE MANDALORIAN puts just about every Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi to shame, delivering an engaging, if slightly rough, serial adventure that opens up new corners of that familiar galaxy far, far away.
In the Outer Rim of the galaxy, far away from the squabbles between the rebels and the Empire, life is a thing hard won, and problems are more often than not resolved at the end of a blaster. Making his living in this hive of scum and villainy, a strong, sorta silent bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal), named only as “Mando” for most of the series, is hired by a mysterious ex-Empire client (Werner Herzog) to retrieve a bounty, dead or alive. When said target turns out to be an impossibly adorable child with a sensitivity to the force, Mando has second thoughts about collecting his payment, and the unlikely pair go on the run. Pursued across the galaxy by nefarious forces who seek to do them harm, Mando and The Child are helped and/or hindered by a colourful collection of characters from all walks of life, each with their own story and agenda.
Much like the 1930s matinée serials that inspired Indiana Jones (whose DNA is also all over this series), THE MANDALORIAN is split into chapters, with each one seeing Mando embark on a new, self-contained adventure, that serves as part of a larger overall story. For the most part, the strong writing and confident characterisations give each of these episodes a unique identity, tying into the wandering rōnin/lone gunslinger archetypes that so greatly inform Mando’s personality. The only downside to this structure is that the few episodes that don’t contribute to the overarching narrative end up feeling like filler. There’s a noticeable sense of treading water in the middle of the series especially, where the lack of connection to something larger exposes some tonal inconsistencies and predictable plot points that otherwise may have gone unnoticed.
The parental dynamic between Mando and Baby Yoda is a surprising and endearing counter to the breakneck bounty hunting action.
For a guy who (almost) never shows his face, Mando is a surprisingly charismatic leading man, with Pedro Pascal building a personality for the bounty hunter out of grunts, head tilts, and wry one-liners. Though he wears similar armour to Boba Fett’s, Mando couldn’t be more of a different character: there’s a warmth to him, buried away beneath the shiny beskar, and an impulse to protect the weak, no matter how inconvenient it is to him. This is never more overtly shown than through his relationship with The Child. Colloquially known the internet over as “Baby Yoda”, this little green delight (who indeed resembles a baby version of Yoda) is not only the cutest thing ever to exist, but more importantly, the parental dynamic between Mando and he is a surprising and endearing counter to the breakneck bounty hunting action, imbuing the series with a real sense of heart.
Alongside just about the weirdest father/son combo thinkable, THE MANDALORIAN also boasts a fantastic series of extremely well-written, mostly likeable, ancillary characters, played to perfection by deftly cast guest stars. The Ugnaught, Kuill, voiced with signature gruffness by Nick Nolte, is a pacifist moisture farmer with a fondness for Blurrgs, and the best catchphrase in the galaxy, “I have spoken”. Ex-rebel shock trooper, Cara Dune (Gina Carano), is not only a total badass who challenges Mando in all the right ways, but her history as a rebel trooper offers interesting insights into the soldier’s life after the war is won. And voiced by Taika Waititi, it was obvious that bounty hunter droid IG-11 would be a hilarious inclusion in the series, but it was a real surprise how much of a character arc the droid sees, and what an emotional impact he makes by the end of the season.
Though starting out as a friend/mentor to Mando, Bounty Hunter’s Guild agent Greef Karga (Carl Weathers) is too fickle and self-serving to be counted among the good guys, but Weathers’ genial charm makes it hard to consider him anything worse than a Han Solo-esque scoundrel. More overtly antagonistic is The Client, played by documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose unique accent and tempered gravitas prove a good match for such an enigmatic figure. Finally, appearing late in the game, Moff Gideon is instantly an imposing presence, with veteran baddie Giancarlo Esposito slipping into his villainous boots with ease, making a strong first impression and offering a tantalising tease for a more substantial role in season 2.
THE MANDALORIAN captures the soul of Star Wars, while also establishing itself as a brand new, and incredibly stylish, corner of the galaxy.
Anything Star Wars worth its salt will build upon the incredibly rich lore and mythology, and THE MANDALORIAN doesn’t scrimp on this opportunity to make its mark. Most notably, the religion of the Mandalorians feature heavily throughout, with the tribe of fellow Mandos offering some interesting insights into the previously (in live action at least) mysterious culture. Given that the series takes place after Jedi, the Empire’s fall is also explored, with The Client and Moff Gideon being remnants of the old regime, and Cara recounting her work cleaning up remaining imperials. Alongside hopefully building on these two fascinating elements, the already announced season 2 is also likely to follow Mando trying to find Baby Yoda’s home planet. This is exciting for a number of reasons (more Baby Yoda is, of course, never a bad thing), but most of all it implies that Yoda’s species, never so much as even named before, may finally be explored.
A big reason why THE MANDALORIAN scratches that forty-year-old Star Wars itch is the look and the feel of the thing. Parsecs away from the sheen and CGI of the prequels, this world feels lived in, with its impressive practical effects and the thick layer of trail dust harking all the way back to the original trilogy. Not that this is just a straight rip-off – the swashbuckling action set pieces feel closer in style to Indiana Jones, and that’s the least noticeable influence. Building the tone and atmosphere of the world, the samurai and western movie aesthetics are absolutely everywhere in this series, more so even than in A New Hope. From the gorgeous, sweeping cinematography that highlights the lonely life of a bounty hunter, to Ludwig Göransson’s delicately layered, utterly engrossing theme, everything in this series at once captures the soul of Star Wars, while also establishing itself as a brand new, and incredibly stylish, corner of the galaxy.
After the fan-base dividing muddle that has been the sequel trilogy, there is something pretty comforting about just how easy to love THE MANDALORIAN is. Part of this comes from it stepping away from the Skywalker saga, and part from its total lack of interest in subverting or challenging expectations, a la The Last Jedi. Mostly though, the success is down to the talent behind the series, and their dedication to doing this thing properly. Showrunner Jon Favreau has proven himself to understand what makes Star Wars so special, better perhaps than anybody else, and that understanding and attention shines through in every scene. It may be rough around the edges, but THE MANDALORIAN is an instantly enthralling series, and a promises a bold new direction for the franchise, far, far away from the Skywalkers and all of their problems.
Verdict: 4.5/5 Paddles