The Star Wars spinoff series hides an obsession with spectacle in its stripped-down storytelling.
For most of the second season of The Mandalorian, Disney+’s hugely popular Star Wars series about a bounty hunter and the Baby Yoda who loves him, I caught up with episodes a few days after they dropped each week. By the time I got around to watching, I typically knew almost everything that happened in the episode, thanks to my perpetual Twitter scrolling.
I rarely found my enjoyment of the episodes affected by this. For me, The Mandalorian is all about escaping into a very specific presentation of a famous fictional world; I’m not particularly excited to watch the plot unfold. But I always found it interesting how quickly each episode’s one or two biggest moments would filter out into the pop culture consciousness writ large. Spoilers for the show’s second season follow from here.
Often, I would find, the episode really was its one or two biggest moments, with most other elements taking a back seat to a major action sequence or a guest star appearance from a well-known Star Wars character. The Mandalorian is more concerned with creating a sense of atmosphere than finely tuning its plot or character arcs, so it uses its standout sequences and guest stars to keep from becoming an endless download of Star Wars lore. It’s easier to remember an episode where Boba Fett is at the center of an amazing fight sequence than if it were just an episode of the Mandalorian wandering around, hearing people talk about Star Wars stuff.
Structurally, “big moments” storytelling also befits the genres The Mandalorian tends to operate within. The show is most similar to the six-film samurai epic Lone Wolf and Cub, which is also about an expert warrior who fights his battles alongside an adorable child. And like many samurai films (and Westerns, an American genre with a lot in common with the samurai film), The Mandalorian builds itself around those battles. There’s typically one per episode, to give the series a sense of momentum.
The Mandalorian also bears a number of similarities with American animated shows aimed at slightly older kids. Think of, say, Batman: The Animated Series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, or Star Wars: The Clone Wars — where Dave Filoni, one of the two masterminds of everything Mandalorian, first overlapped with the Star Wars universe. These series tend to run 22 minutes per episode, and as such, have to be incredibly economical with their storytelling, making every beat count. Characters reveal who they are not just through their own actions but through action itself — fighting styles, strategic decisions in battle, etc. — and the storytelling follows those reveals.
The Mandalorian’s episodes run a bit longer than an average Clone Wars episode — most are in the 35- to 40-minute range before the (extremely long) credits roll. But Filoni and creator Jon Favreau haven’t really chosen to use that extra space to add more plot. Instead, they’ve added more arresting glimpses at forgotten corners of the Star Wars universe and weird little grace notes that fill in the world of the show. (My favorite of these was a long, amusing argument between two Stormtroopers that opened the first season finale.)
These choices are what make The Mandalorian so compulsive a watch. Each episode features a single mission the characters have to complete (similar to the aforementioned animated shows), and the storytelling is never overcomplicated. It proceeds from point A to point B to point C in more or less the manner you’d expect. When the end of the episode approaches, a new problem presents itself (the Mandalorian’s ship is in disrepair!) that leads immediately to the mission for the next episode (he has to get it fixed!). It’s solid, meat-and-potatoes TV serialization.
The Mandalorian’s narrative sparseness and emphasis on luxuriating in the world it has built sets it apart from many other TV shows, ones that are frantic and over-plotted in the hope you won’t turn them off if they keep throwing new things at you. But relying on a single exciting event per episode ties into a TV storytelling trend I’m increasingly wary of when I see it start to pop up, over and over again, on the shows I enjoy. And in a series set in a popular, well-known fictional universe, as The Mandalorian is, that storytelling trend seems particularly hard to resist.
I first started trying to define this trend as it related to HBO’s Game of Thrones, a series I had greatly enjoyed until the second half of its run. At that point, Game of Thrones’ storytelling became so entwined with its biggest, most brutal twists that it eventually abandoned the things that made it so good in the early going in an effort to chase after the next surprise. By its end, it was working so hard to make everything so spectacular that it largely avoided coming up with connective tissue to make sense of its spectacle, to its detriment.
The 2010s were littered with shows caught up in a search for the spectacular, from American Horror Story to Stranger Things. When it’s harder than ever to stand out from a massive glut of TV series to choose from, having some water-cooler-ready moments to lean on creates instant audience engagement. These moments even offer free promotional opportunities thanks to all the excited tweets and social media posts that are sure to result.
And increasingly, we tend to treat all TV shows as products of this kind of storytelling, even when they aren’t that. The Queen’s Gambit, for instance, has been reduced to “that show about chess” with lots of Anya Taylor-Joy gifs popping up on Twitter, when it’s just about the opposite of a big, moment-based spectacle. (It’s a show about a young woman playing chess, for goodness sake!)
So far, The Mandalorian hasn’t fallen into the worst tendencies of this sort of storytelling, the ones that felled Game of Thrones. It doesn’t try to hide its characters’ motivations in the name of a big twist, nor does it sacrifice logic in favor of getting to a big moment. Its stripped-down style gives it plenty of room to build to its big moments properly.
But across season two’s second half, I found myself increasingly disconcerted by the series’ reliance on Star Wars favorites, culminating in a cameo by Luke Skywalker himself (played by a badly digitally de-aged Mark Hamill) in the season finale. What does our investment in the relationship between the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda (who is technically named Grogu, but c’mon) matter if the show gets almost even more audience excitement from having Boba Fett pop up for a few episodes?
To be clear, I’m talking about a saturation problem that hasn’t yet overwhelmed The Mandalorian, just one that seems inevitable to me, as someone who has seen lots of series chase their biggest, most promotable moments over a cliff. It’s really not hard to imagine the series gradually becoming taken over by these servicing impulses, instead of using them to offer a sprinkling of cool cameos for the fans. I’d even argue that the second half of season two already succumbed to these desires.
Even if The Mandalorian ultimately makes it work, prioritizing moments over the big picture also diminishes some of what made the show so arresting in the first place. Where once it seemed to take place in a backwater, under-explored corner of the Star Wars universe, by the end of season two, the show has featured some of the franchise’s most familiar characters, right up to Luke Skywalker himself. It only enhances the sense that the entire Star Wars franchise has become a closed ecosystem, with little room for new growth.
It’s becoming a lot harder to watch The Mandalorian as its own thing instead of a central hub for much of the Star Wars television universe, especially since Disney has already revealed plans for spinoff series for several fan-favorite heroes, like Boba Fett and Ahsoka Tano. If the second half of season two felt like a collection of backdoor pilots — an episode of a show that introduces new characters in the hope of spinning them off into their own show — that’s because it basically was. Indeed, upcoming spinoff The Book of Boba Fett will take The Mandalorian’s place in the Disney+ schedule in December 2021, though Mandalorian season three will likely follow sometime in 2022; the season two finale even ended up with a teaser for the Boba Fett show likely designed to get fans chattering.
There are plenty of good reasons to keep watching this show. Pedro Pascal has managed to use only his voice to make the Mandalorian a compelling protagonist, Baby Yoda is still the cutest, Ludwig Göransson’s score is among TV’s best, and the atmosphere remains impeccable. If you just want to hang out in Star Wars land for a few weeks every year, this show is really, really good at giving you that experience.
But its increasing reliance on cameos from all your favs is a reminder that the gigantic, franchise-based cinematic universes that have come to define too much of big-budget filmmaking are increasingly taking over TV as well. We haven’t even gotten to Disney+’s Marvel TV series yet, which will begin debuting in 2021 and will surely feature many, many cameos of their own. The Mandalorian — like most shows — is at its best when it charts its own course. Unfortunately, it’s so much harder to take the backroads when you could just get on familiar highways and go all of the places you’ve already been.
Author: Emily VanDerWerff