The Magnificent Two Plus Pillboy

I just need to talk about how much I love The Mandalorian

I just finished watching Episode 4 of The Mandalorian, “Sanctuary,” and I don’t have much to say apart from damn I am loving this television show.

Just when you think they’re going to go full-on Lone Wolf and Cub, they dive right into the Seven Samurai, and fair enough. It’s TV law that every episodic series needs to have a Christmas Carol episode, with an exemption for Westerns as long as they do a version of Seven Samurai.

There’s also a little bit of Shane in there, too; or was it Hud? I haven’t actually seen either, but only know enough about them to make vague references to them and hope they work. One of the things that’s so brilliant about The Mandalorian is how well it incorporates all of those references without feeling derivative.

I was being dismissive about the series doing another take on The Magnificent Seven, but there are two things about The Mandalorian that make it work: first, it tells the story so matter-of-factly and un-self-consciously that it doesn’t feel like derivative pastiche or even respectful homage. Instead, it feels like it’s just a part of this heritage of storytelling that effortlessly jumps across genres and cultures: Western, Samurai, “space opera,” Japan to the US to Italy and back to Japan again. It still feels like a series from the late 1970s that couldn’t possibly have existed until the 2010s.

The second thing that makes it work is a seriously bad-ass take on the AT-ST. Yes, it was jarring to see super-tough heroes immediately freak out at the suggestion of an AT-ST, considering everyone in the audience saw a montage of dozens of the things being taken out by tiny, marketable bears with twine and tree trunks. But if you ignore that, it was a great way to bring in the Star Wars nostalgia by turning it into a fantasy element. It had been turned into a monster with glowing red eyes, changing the story into a classic one of noble villagers fighting off a giant bear, or a dragon.

One remarkable thing about The Mandalorian is that every episode has gotten an audible reaction out of me at least once. Usually I watch television and movies with as much detachment as I can manage; even things that make me cry still engage my brain at the “hey, that’s clever” level instead of making me genuinely emotionally invested. But in this episode, I audibly gasped at two points: once when the baby spit out a frog after all the village kids laughed at him, and again at the end when an assassination attempt failed.

The latter of those scenes is a familiar fake-out, and in fact is one that the series has already done in the first episode, and it’s filmed and edited in an extremely predictable and even cliched way. (A shot rings out, birds fly panicked from the trees). But because of the confident, straightforward storytelling that this series excels at, I thought of it as “old-fashioned” instead of “cliched.” It evokes old TV westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke not just with style or premise, but with overall sensibility: earnest stories with no sense of irony or self-awareness. And then The Mandalorian adds laser blasts and jet packs and aliens and Werner Herzog — and clever twists on the western like the gambler with a life-saving playing card in his breast pocket, or stubborn droids replacing spooked horses — which all dance across the surface of it to make it feel alien and fantastic.

The Mandalorian continues to be everything I could’ve wanted from a Star Wars TV series. It fills out the universe and shows us elements that have been hinted at but never realized. And best of all it’s so well written. Completely accessible to everyone who’s going to want to watch a show like this, but it never panders or stops to explain every detail. It’s wonderful to see a Star Wars story told with some trust that the audience will be able to keep up. I hope they keep up this caliber of skillful storytelling, but even if they somehow whiff the ending, what we’ve seen so far has been some of the best Star Wars since the early 80s.

And in case I’m reading this years from now and fail to understand the title: this episode had Eugene Cordero playing one of the villagers, and he also played Pillboy on The Good Place.