When I’m watching The Mandalorian, the thought that keeps jumping to my mind is “I can’t believe this is on television.” The part of my psyche that made me start tearing up at the sight of X-Wings flying over water in The Force Awakens, is now being triggered multiple times per episode.
They’re riding speeder bikes on Tatooine! That’s an AT-ST that’s been Mad-Maxed out by bandits! There’s a Dewback dragging a dead body! There’s a whole squad of Boba Fetts with jetpacks having a shootout with bounty hunters! This episode of television is starting out with a dogfight in space! Without a doubt, this series brings back memories of taking all of my Star Wars toys and smashing them together in different combinations and different settings.
For about as long as I can remember loving Star Wars — which is about as long as I can remember loving any piece of popular culture — I’ve been wanting a Star Wars TV series. It implies a galaxy full of new planets, new aliens, new droids, new spaceships, and most of all, new stories. An ongoing TV series has always seemed like the perfect way to take some of the characters, locations, or references that are only glimpsed in the movies, and then spend a long time exploring each in detail.
Except that’s essentially what we’ve been seeing for years, ever since the first Marvel comics: an author or a creative team will choose some corner of the Star Wars galaxy and then start world-building. And the results have been all over the place. Many have been horrible, some have been very good, but at least in my opinion, none have hit exactly the right tone and weight. They’re either just a mash-up of familiar elements that don’t seem to add anything, or they go in the opposite direction and seem so preoccupied with world-building and adding to the lore that they no longer feel like Star Wars.
I remember as a kid being annoyed at a comics storyline that had multiple characters being frozen in Carbonite. It just seemed to be an uninspired rehash of a strong image from the movies, and treating it so casually robbed one of the most dramatic moments in The Empire Strikes Back of its weight. In the years since then, it’s been used even more casually in side stories. In fact, one of my only nerdy gripes about The Mandalorian is how the ship has its own portable carbon freezer, and it’s used as a comic beat. It just retroactively makes a key emotional moment in Empire seem like everyone was getting upset over nothing.
At the other extreme are all the absurd “epic” stories that seem to want to turn Star Wars into pure science fiction or pure fantasy (or in the obvious case of the prequels, all space politics), instead of the balance of fantastic melodramatic space western that the original trilogy got so perfectly right. So we’ve had clones, and creatures that evolved to generate force bubbles, and aliens with hypnotic sexy pheromones, and space vampires, and no doubt countless other examples of nonsense that feels tone deaf.
What’s becoming clear with The Mandalorian isn’t that it expands on the Star Wars universe so much as it pares all of it down to the basics. It’s not at all afraid to let its influences show: it went back to the genres that influenced the original movies — westerns, samurai movies, old Flash Gordon serials — and chose to tell simple stories that call back to those formats.
I think it’s a wise reaction to the prequels, since one of the main problems with those movies is that they were overstuffed with characters and political machinations and galactic conflict and side plots, so that it all became noise that drowned out the story that was supposed to be at its core: the corruption and fall of Anakin Skywalker. There’s so much noise that the characters who became the most memorable (in a positive way, so not Jar-Jar) are the ones with the least back story: for me, it’s Mace Windu and General Grievous. Like Boba Fett in the build-up to The Empire Strikes Back, they “read” instantly.
As far as I can recall, The Mandalorian hasn’t introduced any new species, has only one core conflict (Mando vs the bounty hunting guild), and is only concerned with telling one bit of the galactic back story (the purge of the Mandalorians). I can only think of two new creatures — the mount and the Mudhorn from the second episode — and they’re both used matter-of-factly as utility and obstacle, instead of introduced as “Star Wars lore.”
And crucially, the stories are as familiar as their simple titles suggest. There’s the one where uneasy allies attack a heavily-fortified compound, the one with the truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Seven Samurai one, the one about a young hotshot gunslinger, and the one that’s a heist plus Alien. But calling them familiar isn’t a criticism; I think it’s what makes the show work as well as it does. The episodes feel like they simply belong in Star Wars lore without having to justify their existence.
And the pared-down storytelling keeps the noise to a minimum so that the key moments have all the impact they should. Episode 6 was full of fight scenes and dramatic take-downs, but each managed to have weight and feel like a climactic moment. Hell, this is a series that has used the “gun shot rings out, and the target is not who you think” three times already, and I believe it’s landed every time.
I’m reminded yet again of all the complaints about The Force Awakens just being a rehash of the original trilogy, and why I think that’s a complaint that completely misses the point. By this point, we’ve all seen enough Star Wars that most people can recognize that it’s not really science fiction, but a different type of fantasy western that has many of the same trappings as science fiction. But I think a lot of people — including myself, and maybe even including George Lucas — still think of Star Wars as being all about plot.
What The Mandalorian gets so right is the recognition that it’s not about plot and probably never has been. Just like sci-fi technology is used as a vehicle to tell stories about magic, plot is just a vehicle to deliver those moments in which the magic amazes us. When a shot lands in exactly the right place to blow up the space station, or the unstoppable walker is destroyed with some cable or a grenade, or the light saber is pulled from the ground and flies into the hand of the woman who’s destined to wield it.
As new people build on the Star Wars “mythos,” I think the ones who recognize that the appeal isn’t necessarily expanding out the uncharted corners of the galaxy, so much as opening up a galaxy full of beloved toys and smashing them together in ways that we never would’ve imagined.