Discussion: The Mandalorian – What Worked

This is the way . . .

Overview: Disney’s first foray into the small screen and series format was well-received by fans of Star Wars, and indeed seemed to be enjoyed by those who are delving for the first time into that special place, existing a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . . Sci-fi Pulse takes a look at what went well for the first season and why that was. Turns out its a combination of factors, that were all well-thought-out and collectively resulted in a memorable first season and promises much for the second season and beyond. So, let’s drill down a bit on the details and look at certain factors and aspects of the show, and how they combined to make great viewing.

 

Setting and Story

Choosing when to set a show, or indeed any film within an established universe is always important to get right. Not only will it have a huge impact on the show, but also on the wider world(s) of the show. Deciding to set The Mandalorian around five years after Return of The Jedi (1983) was inspired. In that way, the show did and didn’t break away from Star Wars lore. This appealed to fans who are old enough to remember the first three films but managed to do something very different. That’s where the evidence of there being much consideration becomes abundant.

Star Wars has always had a running theme of there being choices you make along the path of your life, and these impacting in a positive or negative way. It’s always there, in some way. This worked on a simplistic scale in the original trilogy, but not so much in the “prequel” trilogies or indeed the more recent sequels (plenty has been written about how woeful some elements of them are, so no need to add to that here). What The Mandalorian does is make that idea more complex, and answer the question of how easy or hard it is to decide who you’ll be, in an original way. You learn that The Mandalorian didn’t get mentored in the way that Jedis do, and had to largely find his own way. The show puts a different spin on morality and shows that for some they simply weren’t afforded the luxury of being able to choose. You have to do what you can to survive in the aftermath of the Empire’s destruction; for The Mandalorian (watch the show to find out his actual name) that means collecting a Bounty. A lonely life, largely one of survival and trundling from this place to the next. Whilst the events of Return of the Jedi mean victory for the rebels, what this show does is prove that even a win for the good guys leaves a political earthquake and constant scrabble for power in its wake. That’s a stroke of genius and a genuinely clever way of exploration.

Visually so much is wonderful. Some shows easily go wrong before they even start to tell a story, by not giving due consideration to where in the timeline they fit. Specifically, they either get lazy in adapting visual style to that, or worse, have people running things who either don’t know what was happening at that point in the shared Universe or don’t care (think far too advanced tech in Star Trek: Discovery, considering it’s set ten years before the original series). Here, things look like they should. There is plenty of use of established tech from the first three films and other references spoken, too. More than that though, things look and feel bleak, like they should. Often, there’s a bareness to the set and a stark aspect that gives a real emotional impact. It’s clear that Jon Favreau’s passion for the original movies has fuelled him to make sure that things look how they are, a world dealing with the aftermath of a long and bitter feud, that has left carnage and destruction in its wake. A perfect environment for him to tell the story of The Mandalorian.

 

Format

Each episode varies in length but is exactly the right amount of time it needs to be to tell the story of it. The choice to make a series meant that there must be a balance between what is happening “week to week”. This was managed early on by the choice of The Mandalorian to go back and get “Baby Yoda”. It meant he had to be on the move, giving the show very much a feel of a modern western (stranger moseys into town), but allowed him just enough time to stay in one place. From a storytelling perspective, this is gold. The perfect balance between stillness and movement.

Something else that works well due to this format is the cat and mouse element. That is also a trope of Star Wars. The bad guys pursue the good guys. Relentlessly. There has to be a motive for all characters. For, The Mandalorian its mostly survival, but at the same time, there’s more of a journey being made in the larger sense, by the connective threads in the series. This can mean that the thrills, fights, and explosions suffer as a result. Not the case here, as viewers really get to see that exciting experience, as the pacing of the episodes is well matched to the format. Each episode is essentially a mission, which is a series of problems with aims, in each installment. These keep the traditional excitement and escapism adventure that made so many fall in love with the high fantasy that is Star Wars.

Looking back at Star Wars (1977) the story ran at a rapid pace and had the bigger, overall aspects (Darth Vader’s arc) interspersed. There was storytelling within the world, by characters telling one another what had happened in their lives, where they’d come from, and where they were going and why. It was fun and snappy. Enough detail, but not too much. That’s what this show emulates. In the short space of one episode, we can learn enough about what we need to, with just a snippet of information. The Mandalorian uses this basis to tell us a little, but promise us more. It keeps people watching and builds things well. Of course, what we really want to know is who The Mandalorian is, what lies beneath the helmet?

Characters

 

Centering a show around the main character often means surrounding them with others, to play off against. A crew or gang is the usual way. This isn’t the case, perse, with The Mandalorian. He gets assistance when he needs it, sometimes seeking out help (and the story requires others), but mostly he is a lone gun. That’s the real crux of why he works. He is lonely and has to stay that way. The fact that he chooses to protect “Baby Yoda” is everything. It goes against his choosing to be solitary. A tension of opposites is what makes everything tick, marrying the character to the tale so well. What having him go against his established arc does is start to ask who he really is (notice that familiar Star Wars self-discovery trope mentioned earlier?) and then reveal that, as viewers see him find that out. On the surface, The Mandalorian is the traditional Spartan, the solitary monk, the loner, like Wolverine, like James Bond and so many other male characters who live apart from things, deny themselves a family or close friends; only he decides not to be that stereotype, being forced into that by a quick life and death decision. Something within him tells him that he had to help the little green creature. Talking of which . . .

Yoda. If any character sums up the Star Wars franchise its the little green chap. For a start, he’s an alien, and that matters. Furthermore, he talks of the wisdom of the Star Wars narrative. Choices. Decisions. And now, he doesn’t speak at all. He can’t as he’s only fifty-years-old! The inclusion of this character is another element of why the show works well. When viewers see what they have come to know as Yoda they can’t help but go to the place in their mind that they did when they were first introduced to him. This creature is highly unlikely to be the Yoda of the original trilogy (as he passed into a force ghost in Return of The Jedi (1983), after training Luke). So, we also have an element of mystery to the show, and a way to potentially further establish things about Yoda’s species. Another smart move.

Supporting and recurring characters are also important, as they help to tell the story. Carl Weathers, Gina Carano, Nick Nolte  and Werner Herzog do this wonderfully, with each bringing something unique to the proceedings. All are connected to The Mandalorian in their way and influence where he is heading and what will happen in his life. His allies do a good job of chipping in when things are tough, showing that side of those we root for in Star Wars we’ve come to love: unity. You need friends; in Star Wars you can’t be a hero without them. In this way, there’s more challenge to the traditional loner type that the main character is, and the possibility for him to have a hero’s journey of his own. More evidence of considered writing and developments at even this early stage, as well as explorations of themes central to Star Wars. But for this to happen, for a hero to emerge, there needs to be a genuine threat. Enter Giancarlo Esposito’s Moff Gideon, the mysterious driving force behind the pursuit of The Mandalorian. The cast is complete. There’s not a great deal to be said about him, as we don’t know how his story will play a part (but the fact he possesses the dark saber is very interesting, going forward) in things yet, but it does seem to provide a real threat that will test the mettle (and Beskar metal armor) of The Mandalorian.

Overall and Looking Forward

The above-mentioned components were combined to create a smart, snappy space-western that really took things back to basics, within the Star Wars universe. As well as creating fun and thrills, the show also managed to make a potential hero of what we’ve come to think of as a villain, within this world. So much of this was done by simply focusing on what is, and the realities of a life that you’re born into. The special values of a Jedi are exchanged by a very different brethren, one with its own code of morality. The show really did impress, with the groundwork done to go forward and expand the story. A new “man behind the mask” has been born and in the same vein as Rogue One (2016) and Solo (2018), it is great to see what else is going on in the world of Star Wars. The history of the original films is added to, and certainly not negatively affected. This helps to further build the world post-Galactic Empire and make survival and hardship the backdrop for the series, going forward. Some questions definitely arose about the world of the original trilogy, but subtle enough to suggest, not tell outright, and risk damage.

Han Solo so feared Boba Fett when you go back and watch the original movies, and you weren’t quite sure why; maybe now we know why he shot first . . . The show gave us a glimpse into these warriors being a force to be reckoned with and not an enemy you want to take lightly. As Boba Fett is confirmed to appear in season two, then maybe his survival from the Sarlac pit won’t feel too far fetched, given the scrapes we’ve seen The Mandalorian survive in season one. Whilst the explanation is uncertain, something that seems to have been answered is the question of whether Star Wars’ animated shows were canonical. The upcoming live-action debut of Ahsoka Tano (and others) all but confirms that (and perhaps too the dark saber, that had an arc of its own in the Clone Wars and Rebels animated show’s), giving a long-awaited vindication to fans who have waited for their favorites to get the nod to get live-action screen time, as well as introducing those not initiated with the wider universe to new and diverse characters. With this in mind, excitement, adventure, and discovery await. Let’s hope the same is true for the many new shows promised by Disney. One thing guaranteed is this: if you want a lesson on how to write a great show, pay homage to what’s established and tell a fresh story from a new perspective, then well and truly, this is the way.

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