The Mandalorian: Now this is fan servicing!

The Mandalorian season opener “The Marshal” was like time traveling back to 1981

Watching The Mandalorian has always given me a vague sense of deja vu, as if I were watching exactly the Star Wars television series I would’ve wanted to see as a kid. According to the Wikipedias, Jon Favreau is five years older than me and grew up in New York City, but especially with the first episode of season 2, “The Marshal,” he’s somehow managed to translate the hopes of a 10-year-old living in the Atlanta suburbs in 1981 directly to the screen.

To be clear, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with any actual stories, or in fact anything specific apart from lots more of this, please. But The Empire Strikes Back left impressionable kids with near-infinite potential: not only could the movies’ story go in any direction, but there were so many possibilities for new planets and new characters and new stories.

When it became clear that this episode was quickly heading back to Tatooine, I worried that they had already run out of ideas. It was the same deflated feeling I had watching Return of the Jedi the first time: all that potential energy from Empire tossed out in favor of a second Death Star and another trip back to Tatooine.1For a planet that’s supposedly the farthest point away from a bright center of the galaxy, Tatooine does seem to have an awful lot going on. Every time they go back to the same well, it just makes the galaxy feel smaller and less imaginative.

The last time The Mandalorian went back to Tatooine, in an episode called “The Gunslinger,” I thought it walked precariously on the narrow line between “expanding the universe” and “fan service,” just managing to land on the right side. It didn’t seem to be adding as much to the universe as it was simply calling back to stuff we just wanted to see again. The thing that saved it was giving viewers their first chance to see what had happened to the familiar locations after Return of the Jedi and the fall of the Empire.

“The Marshal” had more of a feeling of digging deeper and expanding on stuff we’ve seen before, instead of just repeating it. The callbacks and nerd rewards are left in the details — sound design, costuming, bits of text or graffiti — instead of being made the primary focus. The focus is on the story; like many of the stories in The Mandalorian, it’s one that would be perfectly suited to a 60s TV Western, with the residents of a small town being forced to work with the natives to fight against a common enemy. The depth in this one comes from seeing more of the Tusken Raiders, acknowledging that they have a society, and aren’t just an anonymous threat to the civilized main characters.

One thing I love that seems to be common among Jon Favreau’s movies and television that I’ve seen: they manage to work within the increasingly byzantine demands and constraints of a franchise, but still manage to feel like they were made by a fan. It seems apparent that this episode was made in close conjunction with the Lucasfilm story group; there are too many connections to books and comics and video games scattered throughout the details. But it’s also apparent that this was made by somebody who loves Star Wars and has wanted to tell new stories in this setting ever since they saw the movies.

Last year, we were in a game store in Florida and started talking to the resident Star Wars nerds about The Mandalorian, and they were very critical of the show, concluding that Star Wars: Rebels was so much better. The concept was — and still is — so alien to me that they might as well have been talking in hand signals and grunting sounds. It’s inexcusably cheesy for me to write, but I’m shamelessly a fan of this show: if you want to know how to do episodic Star Wars, this is the way.