Updated: Dec 11, 2020
The following article contains spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of The Mandalorian.
When The Mandalorian released last year, it felt like a breath of fresh air for the Star Wars franchise. The Sequel Trilogy, as it is now known, was and continues to be thoroughly divisive. Most people felt frustrated or let down by at least one of the two films released (the disastrous Rise of Skywalker had yet to arrive). The general consensus seemed to be that Disney had squandered their opportunity to create films that recaptured the magic of Lucas’ originals. When Mando stepped into our lives in 2019, the adorable Baby Yoda (AKA The Child) in tow, it felt as if there was a ceasefire amidst the fans. Here was a simple, light story everyone could get behind. It harkened back to the series’ Spaghetti Western/samurai movie roots with its “lone warrior” protagonist, and combined this with a low-stakes episodic structure that could explore the nooks and crannies of the Star Wars universe in a laid-back fashion. It was, in many ways, a “chill” Star Wars show — akin to a serialized Western like Gunsmoke. This relaxed tone was backed up by a murderer’s row of talented directors, from Deborah Chow to Dave Filoni, as well as a high budget. In retrospect, we should have known it was too good to last. With the Sequel Trilogy coming to a much-maligned end, Lucasfilm needed more. More content, more characters to spin off, more ideas. Suddenly, The Mandalorian was the only piece of live-action Star Wars content left standing, and this pressure has made a mark on the series already. The Mandalorian’s second season, released this year, isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. It’s stunningly directed, convincingly acted, with moments of levity and grandeur. But something is missing. The lightness, the low stakes, the slice-of-life brilliance that made Mando’s first outing feel so fresh is fading away, slowly being replaced with the same fetishistic devotion to “classic Star Wars” that doomed the Sequel Trilogy in so many eyes. It won’t be long, I think, before the series falls to the Dark Side.
In the most brilliant moment of Mando’s first season, the titular armored bounty hunter is accosted by Tusken Raiders in the Tatooine desert. We know how this goes. A fight will undoubtedly break out, right? Instead, Mando begins motioning with his hands, in a language not unlike ASL. The Raiders respond in kind. These people had a language, a culture, the whole time. We just hadn’t seen it. This was The Mandalorian Season one’s relationship to the Star Wars mythos. Slow, idiosyncratic exploration that revealed new things instead of reveling in the old. Mando’s visit to a droid-infested Mos Eiseley and his quest for a group of Jawas’ sacred egg reflected this as well. The Mandalorian’s creator and showrunner Jon Favreau took full advantage of this down-to-earth angle on the Star Wars universe, where no one knows what a Jedi is, and one AT-AT is akin to a nigh-unbeatable foe. At the season’s end, Mando and a rag-tag team of scum and not-quite-villainy did battle with the cold, calculating, and vicious ex-Imperial Moff Gideon. It was the first time the series had featured Star Wars’ iconic Stormtroopers and TIE Fighters. The finale managed to remain grounded in character, with Mando getting over his hatred of droids, and once-and-for-all choosing to give up his bounty hunting to protect his young Force-sensitive charge. Nevertheless, I felt uneasy. Stormtroopers, again? It felt like a step in the wrong direction. Back to Star Wars business as usual.
Season Two begins promisingly. Mando makes a deal with a Marshall in a remote Tatooine town, and unites a group of Tusken Raiders and distrustful citizens to take down a giant monster. He is tasked with delivering a mother, carrying a sack of eggs (the last of her species) through an icy hell-world crawling with spider-like creatures. Simple, pulpy stuff, brought to life with signature Star Wars charm. But even here, cracks are showing. Why is Mando agreeing to The Marshall's terms? So that he can retrieve a precious prize. The Mandalorian armor of fan-favorite bounty hunter Boba Fett. In-universe, he believes it’s his duty to recover the armor, an artifact of his people. But we know why it’s really there, as the camera hovers over it like an awestruck fanboy. It’s there because we recognize it, because it’s cool, classic Star Wars. Because it hints that Boba will be back.
This new no-relic-left-unturned philosophy, unfortunately, is just beginning. The next episode yields a cameo from Bo-Katan, the tough-as-nails Mandalorian from the Clone Wars series. As an avid Clone Wars fan, I was excited to see her, but all she does is battle Stormtroopers, and hint at a far-off struggle for the world of Mandalore. Afterwards, she tells Mando that if he seeks a Jedi to whom he will give The Child, he should find Ashoka Tano. Ashoka, an ex-pupil of Anakin Skywalker who left the Jedi order before his turn to the Dark Side, was featured in the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series. Personally, I believe she may be the best character in the Star Wars mythos. But her inclusion in The Mandalorian felt altogether unnecessary. It reinforced the looming feeling that Mando was a secondary player in his own story, being shepherded from cameo to cameo. In-between this episode and the season’s fifth, the episode which I believe confirmed my worst fears about the series, was a breezy return to the volcanic world of Navarro. There, Mando and some old allies infiltrated and destroyed a Stormtrooper base. Directly after infiltrating and destroying a Stormtrooper ship last episode. Things felt a long way from monster-hunts and egg smuggling, much closer to the bland corridor shootouts and Imperial infiltrations of the Sequel Trilogy.
The next episode was supposed to be the exciting one — Clone Wars creator Dave Filoni was taking the director’s chair once again, as Mando and Ashoka teamed up to take down a vicious warlord. Overall, the episode is solid. Visually stunning, with a Western-style shootout at its end, cross-cut with a samurai-style duel in a zen garden between Ashoka and the aforementioned warlord. Star Wars at its idiosyncratic best. In the midst of the duel, however, the spell is broken. Ashoka asks the evil woman: “Where is Grand Admiral Thrawn?” I groaned out-loud. Thrawn, a fan-favorite creation from pre-Disney Star Wars, was canonized in the animated Rebels series. He’s a cold, calculating and ambitious ex-Imperial villain. If those words sound familiar, it’s because I used the same exact adjectives to describe Moff Gideon just a few paragraphs ago. There’s no reason for The Mandalorian to feature two villains of this archetype, so why bring it up? To lay the groundwork that Moff Gideon has a superior — or to set up an Ashoka vs. Thrawn spin-off series. I can’t tell which one feels more depressing: the idea that The Mandalorian is being used as a sampling platter so Disney can offer content ideas to their shareholders, or the possibility that a series original villain played by the wonderful Giancarlo Esposito will be removed from the equation in favor of a “safe bet,” a fan-favorite character from the old days. The fact that this comes in the midst of the episode’s wonderful climactic set-piece, featuring a mix of Western and Eastern mythologies at the core of what makes Star Wars special, feels like an extra nail in the coffin.
This isn’t the only problem with Season 2’s fifth episode. Mando proves to Ashoka that The Child is force-sensitive, and asks her to train him. She refuses. When pressed, she states that The Child’s attachment to Mando could prove unhealthy, that this could drive him to the Dark Side if his abilities are refined further. She’s seen it before, after all, with her old master Anakin Skywalker. It makes sense, if you don’t think about it too hard. Under further scrutiny, it’s pure nonsense. At this point, Ashoka has turned her back on the Jedi order, has done battle with her old master and seen the evil inside of him. The idea that she would still be carrying the Jedi’s emotionally suppressive anti-attachment teachings feels simply preposterous. She is also too smart to believe that attachment was what truly brought Anakin to the Dark Side. Surely she should know by now that it was just as much Anakin’s selfishness, his refusal to make compromises or allow fate to run its course without his meddling that led to his downfall. She was, for a time, the closest person to Anakin in the world besides Padme. When he confessed to her that sometimes, he considered leaving the Order, she shocked him by stating: “I know.” More than that, she should realise that The Child is not Anakin. He’s a baby! He is incapable of speech, eats whatever is around him, constantly plays with what he finds interesting, and uses the Force mostly as a toy. Of course a literal child would be attached to the person who cares for them, who feeds them, who keeps them safe from harm! Ashoka is too smart not to realize this, I think. It’s a misguided plot point, and a symptom of a larger problem. The friction between the simple, down-to-earth story The Mandalorian is trying to tell, and the inclusion of larger-than-life figures from the rest of the Star Wars saga.
In the very next episode, as Mando brings The Child to an ancient Jedi “seeing stone” in order for him to make contact with another force-sensitive individual to train him, they are set upon by Boba Fett. The fan-favorite bounty hunter, now an aged and scarred man, wants his armor back. As they haggle, the two are attacked by Stormtroopers. The whole thing, in succession, feels exhausting. From cameo to cameo, potential spin-off to potential spin-off, the series feels worlds away from where it started. When Moff Gideon ignites the Darksaber in The Child’s face at the end of the episode, it’s tough to be intimidated or excited. While the Saber, a Clone Wars relic, was a fun post-credits treat at the end of the first season, now it’s just the next in a long line of references, throwbacks, and fanservice. Was it not this slavish devotion to the ways of old which resulted in the laughably random fetishization of Han Solo’s dice in Solo, the inclusion of a ridiculous CGI Tarkin in Rogue One, the return of Palpatine in Rise of Skywalker, or the much-maligned fact that The Force Awakens follows, beat for beat, the plot of A New Hope?
Unlike the aforementioned instances, however, nobody seems to mind. Twitter, Reddit, the usual hives of complaints about how Disney has ruined Star Wars, have nothing but love for the series. To an extent, I get it. The Mandalorian is a good show, at-times a great one. Even the exhausting episodes, weighed down by references to items and characters past, pack a punch. Watching Mando become more and more of a father to The Child is well-paced and lovely, the action continues to astound, and the veteran actors put in work to sell the humor and pathos of the series. These creators know and love Star Wars, perhaps a bit too much, but their love certainly pays off in many places. I’m not immune to the fanservice, either. I probably got as excited as anyone when Boba Fett’s iconic ship soared across the sky, or when Ashoka ignited her pure-white lightsabers for the first time in live-action. But with that excitement, there was always a little bit of tiredness. I don’t know how The Mandalorian is going to end this year. It could be great. It probably will be. However, this uneven season has a villain looming in the background, more insidious than Moff Gideon or even Admiral Thrawn. The yawning maw of shareholders, spin-off potential and the Expanded UniverseTM opens wide like a Sarlacc pit beneath it. I can only hope that this show, which began as a pure distillation of what makes Star Wars so much fun, doesn’t fall in.