Never forget that George Lucas was ripping off a lot of stuff when he made Star Wars. This is vital, and it’s a part of Star Wars’ DNA. It is also, I believe, why the first episode of The Mandalorian works so damn well.
See, modern Star Wars seems to be interested in aping old Star Wars as opposed to taking a page from the Lucas playbook and ripping off other movies. Star Wars, to borrow a phrase, is a place, and that means you can take other films and genres and easily drop them into a Star Wars milieu, which is exactly what The Mandalorian does. In this case it’s a Spaghetti/revisionist era Western plopped right into a world of blasters and Gonk droids, and it’s the chemical reaction between Star Wars and the genre that creates the beautiful fizz that makes the episode so damned enjoyable.
Of course Westerns are part of Star Wars’ DNA – Han Solo is dressed like a cowboy, for the love of God – but The Mandalorian really makes it explicit. The pilot’s big action climax takes place at a compound that looks like it could have been lifted directly from the finale of The Wild Bunch… and that’s before a Gatling gun gets introduced to the scene. There’s a sequence where the titular Mandalorian has to bust a monster in order to ride him to collect his bounty. His theme song is quite clearly quoting the main theme from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. It’s all quite wonderful.
At least some of that must be attributed to Dave Filoni, the unsung genius who has kept Star Wars moving forward for the past decade and change. Filoni worked with George Lucas on The Clone Wars movie and TV show, and more than anyone else who is public-facing at Lucasfilm these days, he seems to truly get what Lucas was all about. I say that not because he just replicates what Lucas has done, as JJ Abrams did, but rather because he does new things that automatically and instantly feel of a piece with the universe that Lucas opened up to us.
There are stretches of the first episode of The Mandalorian, written by Jon Favreau but directed by Filonin in his live action debut, that capture the feel of The Clone Wars cartoon, which in turn captured the feeling of not-quite the Star Wars films but rather what was happening in between the wipes. You know when, in The Empire Strikes Back, Han mentions “that bounty hunter we ran into in Ord Mantell,” and your imagination fired up? That’s the space in which Filoni specializes, filling in those gaps without reducing the mystery and openness of the universe. It’s a tough balancing act that, in the wrong hands, makes the universe feel small. But in Filoni’s hands it makes everything feel bigger and more vast than ever before.
Usually I think it’s bad form to review a TV show episode-by-episode, especially in this post-episodic world. After all, the complaints and questions you have about this week’s episode may be answered in next week’s, and the things you loved this week may be undermined by awful resolutions next week. But the first episode of The Mandalorian, while clearly setting up the events of the series to come, feels just as much like a statement of purpose as it does a TV episode. As Lucasfilm fumbles around with how to deal with Star Wars on the big screen, The Mandalorian feels like an example of how to bring it to the small screen.
And honestly, maybe this is where Star Wars belongs? At least when it comes to non-main Saga stuff. After all, Star Wars is inherently episodic, being inspired by old movie serials. The classic movies are all about careening from one moment of excitement to the next, all strung together on an often bare-bones plot (quick, what’s the actual story of The Empire Strikes Back?), which lends itself to a TV series. That said, The Mandalorian is way more measured and slower paced than your standard Star Wars film, taking time to luxuriate in stuff like a lengthy sequence at a blacksmith.
But that’s part of the ‘between the wipes’ feel of what Filoni does; on The Clone Wars he could turn every battle in the Clone Wars into a three-part, feature-length story. The kind of stuff that would be a final setpiece in a Prequel film became the standard bread and butter of that show, and what Filoni did there was fill in the gaps of the Clone Wars in a way that actually makes the Prequels suck less. Well, a little bit less.
Even in the first episode of The Mandalorian, at just 38 or so minutes, you get the ability to be in Star Wars as a place longer. It’s delightful, and it’s fulfilling. And that’s just the context; the story and the main character are delightful and fulfilling in their own ways, and so you end up with an episode of a show that gives extraordinary world building while also offering a main character who – despite us never seeing his face – is already fascinating. The slow build of the story itself is fun, but the reveal at the end – it’s the sort of thing that as a longtime Star Wars person blew my hair back – promises that what’s to come will not only be interesting, it’ll be full of exciting canon and lore for the dorks.
Pedro Pascal is pretty incredible as the titular Mandalorian. Never showing his eyes or his face he manages to essay a character with a lot of body language and the occasional line of filtered dialogue. He’s almost a classic antihero, but there’s something in the way that Pascal holds himself that makes you realize he’s actually just a hero under all that armor. He’s also not as stoic as you might expect from a character like this; I especially enjoyed watching him lose his patience and his cool when trying to break the blurrg. But that scene does more than establish that there’s a person under the helmet – when Nick Nolte’s Ugnaught Kuiil reminds the Mandalorian of his people’s past, how they rode the mythosaur, he finds the place in himself to ride the blurrg.
(By the way, look at the soup of nonsense that are the proper nouns in that paragraph. That, baby, is Star Wars)
He’s aided wonderfully by Taika Waititi as IG-11, a bounty droid whose signature move is trying to blow himself up. Waititi is great as the voice of the droid, but most of the praise has to be heaped on the VFX team who brought him to life. I don’t know how much of IG-11 is CGI, how much is a prop, how much is a puppet whose puppeteer has been painted out of scenes, but however he was accomplished he is incredible. The droid moves with a herky-jerky quality that is fun and unique, and it feels like how the IG-88 character in Empire would have moved if he wasn’t bolted to the floor.
But the real standout in the episode is, of course, Werner Herzog. Playing some kind of Imperial bigwig hiding out in the Outer Rim – which has become to the post-Return of the Jedi Empire what South America was to post-WWII Nazis – Herzog gives us a menacing character who is full of a weird charm and a strange philosophy. He doesn’t feel like any Imperial we’ve ever seen before, and that’s exciting. It promises us something different, not just cookie-cutter bad guys. We’ve had a lot of rank-and-file Nazi types in Star Wars, but between Herzog and Omid Abtahi’s Pershing give us a look at some kind of evil-ass Mengele side of things. Herzog’s character feels like the kind of guy who doesn’t quite fit into the Empire, but whose expertise gives him certainly behavioral leeway.
The show could shit the bed in many ways in the weeks to come; casting Gina Carano, for instance, is a bad sign (Soderbergh had to dub all her lines in Haywire, but maybe she’s improved over the decade). But the first episode fills me with so much hope; first episodes set the tone and structure of what follows, and Filoni has given us the right starting point in terms of visuals, characters and emotion. Best of all, it’s coming out weekly – while I would have torn through ten hours of The Mandalorian happily, I really love the experience of coming back week after week and having the time between episodes to think and theorize.
Speaking of theorizing, here come some spoilers for the episode, so if you haven’t watched yet, quit reading now!
The reveal of the baby Yoda-being is truly exciting. Besides promising some kind of Three Godfathers riff in the episodes to come, it promises to fill in some very big areas of Star Wars lore. We don’t even know the name of Yoda’s species! We’ve only ever seen one other member of it, Yaddle on the Jedi Council. That the Imperial doctor – who has a patch on his shoulder that recalls the logo of the cloning facilities on Kamino – is deeply interested in this baby helps hammer home that this species is rare, and probably special. Do they have a unique connection to the Force?
It wasn’t clear how The Mandalorian would link into the larger continuity of Star Wars, or if it even would, but I kind of assumed it would be something more martial. This Yoda baby – who I am, until further notice, calling Yiddle – hints at a story that, while it clearly will have military angles to it, could be more spiritual in nature. This also is what makes a Star Wars story Star Wars. Anybody can tell space war tales, but George Lucas was telling space war tales through a lens of spiritual meaning and conflict. The battle of good and evil in his movies isn’t just a physical one. And while the Mandalorian is an antihero, we see at the end how his own experiences as a foundling are impacting his response to this lone, helpless 50 year old baby.
That’s exciting, and again hints at what’s to come. I like a gritty Star Wars story, but I don’t want one that’s too dark. Give me that Han Solo arc any day – the guy who learns to care about others, who grows into the good guy he always should have been.