How do I explain my complicated feelings for The Mandalorian? How can this review capture the dual nature of my response? What analogy evokes the interplay of glee and contempt that this show engenders?
Is it like the way I feel about beef jerky? Does this Disney+ Star Wars exclusive have all the delicious salt and umami of strips of desiccated mammal flesh? Is it the answer to my base cravings, while simultaneously presenting the cloying repetitiveness of chawing through strings of sinew and large chunks of black pepper? Does this communicate the resemblance of The Mandalorian to several shows from the 1980s/‘90s featuring a problem-solving badass-on-the-run?
In many ways—ways that I will permit the reader to navigate and interpret—The Mandalorian is beef jerky. With real Badass-Problem Solver flavor.
The Mandalorian is, however, not like most of Star Wars, which I either completely love or loathe. Mostly loathe over the last three decades, if we are talking about the movies, and mostly love if we are talking about comics or animation.
I do not love The Mandalorian. Nor do I loathe it. Certainly not in the way that one loathes, say, Stars Wars Episodes I, II, III, VIII, IX, and Ewok Adventure. Not in the way that one loathes oneself for liking Episode VII or for referring to those movies as “Episodes,” even though it’s understandable because the actual titles are loathesome.
Do I like The Mandalorian, then? Maybe, if that means that my dumb brain gushes serotonin every time the Mandalorian obliterates someone with his blaster. The helpless smile that splits my face every time pixels form a Baby Yoda suggests it. Or perhaps it’s the ten-year-old (or twenty- or fifty-year-old) living in my head that wants to put on a helmet of Beskar steel and never take it off, for This Is The Way.
The answer is no, for all that. No: I do not even like The Mandalorian. I think that I condone it. I brook its existence. I countenance it. Perhaps I sanction The Mandalorian, in all the fullness of that word’s meaning. Thus, the title to this review is a lie, and I am still screaming and not loving it.
Baby Yoda-ling in the Mandalorian
We’ll get this out of the way now. Baby Yoda—the Child, the Package, the Asset, the Greenie Beanie, the Force with No Source—is legit. Perfect in every respect. Without flaw. It eats one-eyed frogs and shits social media reactions and Funko Pops. I like the little bastard even more because I choose to believe that its massive popularity was a genuine surprise to Disney. I imagine it being built and tweaked by a hundred of artists and modelers and shaders. This incremental emergence was casually approved via email by a hundred, glaze-eyed Disney demi-executives. It slouches toward sentience like a broth-guzzling Skynet, until it wipes us all from the primary timeline and dances on our bare bones.
The question here is whether the Tiny Lizard Wizard is sufficient sustain The Mandalorian as a watchable television series and not leave it merely as a fertile vat of memestock. And I think that at some level, Baby Yoda is damn near enough to carry this. For casual fans, it’ll be enough to get through the first season, but I am fairly certain that viewership will show modest to flat growth for season 2.
Is This All, Mando?
One reason for that is The Mandalorian’s home service: Disney+. The show appears to be the main reason that many—or even most—people subscribed to the service early on. And I suspect that they’ve captured the vast majority of that potential audience already.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that I buy claims of mass cancellations of Disney+ post-Mandalorian. Most of the articles I encountered use the same selection of tweets to illustrate the purported exodus. It may true, but I have yet to see any real data on it, and Disney probably isn’t going to help with that. Personally, I’ve kept Disney+, but that’s mostly because I went in with the Hulu/ESPN+ package, and I don’t want to bother with untangling it. No doubt that this is the intended effect of the package, but it’s just one of my glorious menagerie of half-birthed streaming services.
That said, how many first-time subscribers is Disney going to gain when the second season is imminent? I cannot imagine that it is going to be significant. And this reasoning extends to any new Star Wars series; those people—of whom I am clearly one—are already in. In fact, I suspect that they are in because they are counting on additional series, like the Obi-Wan series that is now on hold.
Of course, that is all groundless speculation, which is normally our favorite kind of speculation. But it has nothing to do with the beef-jerkiness of The Mandalorian. That is due to one thing: the absence of even a moderately competent story.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand back to Tatooine
In its eight-episode initial run, The Mandalorian has about four to four-and-a-half episodes’ worth of story. The first two chapters, while hardly flawless, are solid-to-outstanding–Werner Herzog and his ragged squad of stormtroopers-cum-mercenary muscle, the homi/sui-cidal bounty droid IG-11, disintegrating Jawas, Baby damn Yoda. Gritty, violent, intriguing. INTERESTING.
But this strong start is immediately undercut by bad choices, starting with Chapter 3. The Badass with the Great Gun transforms into Badass Problem Solver on the Run, which would be just fine if it had been confined to one-eighth of the season. Alas, this foreshadows a broad narrative strategy, and several episodes do nothing to carry forward either the mystery of the Child or a character arc for the Mandalorian. Nearly HALF of the first season is blatant filler, including an agonizingly long flashback in which Kuiil the Ugnaught (voiced by Nick Nolte) puts the re-booted IG-11 through an occupational rehab program.
Add to this the ongoing stupidity of fan service, a shitty term that I tend to avoid, but it’s manifestation in this show is servicing fans of Star Wars without even adjourning to a private room. Exhibit A: Tatooine. Fucking Tatooine. One spaceport, one cantina, two fucking suns. Why are we here? AGAIN. It’s like Star Wars is Cheers, and there are only four places we can go to: the bar, a table, the office, and Tatooine. THERE IS A WHOLE GALAXY–THEY MENTION IT A LOT, ACTUALLY.
The Green Guy. No, the Big One
And then there’s the Hulk-ishness of the whole thing. Or The A-Team. Or Airwolf. Or Quantum Leap. On the run, solvin’ problems that are, at best, loosely connected to the main conflict, such as it is. The Mandalorian (and, thus, The Mandalorian) is a negligent guardian of Baby Yoda, and he mostly seems to have no clue what he doing. This includes the destruction and dispersal of his own Mandalorian enclave on Nevarro, a planet indistinguishable from Tatooine or Jakku. There doesn’t appear to be, until Chapter 7, any larger story than terrible space parenting combined with (admittedly) stylish violence.
This structural framework makes the majority of characters insignificant beyond their mechanical function in the mechanical plots of these episodes. Who matters? Who is even interesting that isn’t dead by the end of the season?
This fan trailer nails it (it probably wasn’t made to be sarcastic, but it certainly works that way). And this article in Forbes tries to spin Space A-Team as a welcome break from the hard labor of weaving multiple episodes into a complex and satisfying narrative. If you just want to hear B.A. Baracus call someone a sucker while he beats them with a crowbar, then you will find this all very satisfying.
But the television landscape is different now. Rich and complicated stories, deeply imagined characters, deft direction, and deferred gratification are normal to the point of being taken for granted in modern serial entertainment. The Star Wars galaxy–it’s not a universe; it’s a single fucking galaxy, which is more than enough–offers us these possibilities. Star Wars comics, animation, and even novels have proven that. Why should we be satisfied with less?
I won’t be. And I’m a Star Wars fan, not a principled person, so I’ll watch Season 2 of The Mandalorian, and I will enjoy that which is worthy to be enjoyed. Which is much, and Jon Favreau and others deserve credit for doing many things better than other Star Wars productions. But The Mandalorian is beef jerky.
I close with a quote from the quite detailed Wikipedia entry on The A-Team:
The A-Team is a naturally episodic show, with few overarching stories, except the characters’ continuing motivation to clear their names, with few references to events in past episodes and a recognizable and steady episode structure. In describing the ratings drop that occurred during the show’s fourth season, reviewer Gold Burt points to this structure as being a leading cause for the decreased popularity “because the same basic plot had been used over and over again for the past four seasons with the same predictable outcome”. Similarly, reporter Adrian Lee called the plots “stunningly simple”
I like a lot of things about The Mandalorian. I really do. But imagine for a moment that Disney somehow stripped away the long pop-cultural shadows of Boba Fett and Yoda. It feels largely like a wasted season–what was accomplished in eight episodes might have taken four, and what depth and complexity might have grown from the good that this series and its creators do?
Here’s to Season 2 being better. It doesn’t have to be Game of Thrones–it shouldn’t be Game of Thrones. But it has to tell us a story worthy of those long pop-cultural shadows.