Saving the Universe, by Bob Connally

6 Jan

Three episodes into the new Disney+ series The Mandalorian, I wrote, “Given how divisive the films have become, Star Wars needs something that unites the fans in a positive way. Right now it looks like The Mandalorian could end up being just that.” Now that the first season of the series is complete and The Rise of Skywalker has been released, it appears that The Mandalorian is indeed the thing that has united the Star Wars fanbase more than anything else in this Disney era. There have been a few bumps here and there, but overall series creator Jon Favreau’s dive into the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars universe has focused on character while telling relatively small scale stories well. Compare that to the noisy, busy, and unfocused The Rise of Skywalker and it’s practically night and day. As much as J.J. Abrams’ film is an attempt to appeal to fans of the original trilogy, it’s Favreau who has made something that actually feels like those films in the ways that truly matter, which is in regards to character development, tone, and pacing.

The third episode of this first season ended with Mando (Pedro Pascal) choosing to go on the run to protect Baby Yoda. Yes, pedantic Star Wars fanatics of the internet, I am aware The Child as he is officially called is not in fact Yoda as a baby. But we don’t know this character’s actual name and somehow Yoda’s species has no name either. (Considering how many insignificant details of the Star Wars universe have been filled out and explained within an inch of their lives it’s strange to think this particular one has been overlooked for 40 years.) So I’m going with Baby Yoda because besides just being more fun to say than The Child, it’s a lot more clear to people who I mean. I have spoken.

Episodes 4, 5, and 6 operate as kind of stand alone adventures as Mando meets and helps new characters along the way. Details are learned about Mando through these episodes, most notably he reveals why he may never remove his helmet in the presence of others. Easily the best of these episodes is number 6, titled The Prisoner, in which Mando is hired to help a crew with a prison break. There’s a moment early in this episode when Ranzar (Mark Boone Junior), the man hiring Mando, tells him he’s only working with him for the use of Mando’s ship. Silently, Mando turns his covered face squarely in Ranzar’s direction. “What’s the look?” Ranzar asks before adding with a chuckle, “Is that gratitude? I think it is.” Subtly over the course of the first season, the inability to see Mando’s facial expressions has become less and less of an issue and it’s at this point that it solidifies that it really is not a problem at all.

The Prisoner works as an entertaining characters in a confined space story. Guest stars Bill Burr, Clancy Brown, and Richard Ayoade (as the voice of a droid) are great fun in an episode reminiscent of Firefly, which of course heavily borrowed from the original Star Wars trilogy. There’s a terrific blend of tension, action, and humor leading to a highly satisfying conclusion.

The final two episodes of the season, The Reckoning and Redemption function as a two-part finale which focuses on the main storyline, Mando protecting Baby Yoda. Cara (Gina Carano), Kuill (voice of Nick Nolte), Greef (Carl Weathers), and a re-programmed for good IG-11 (voice of Taika Waititi) all return to help Mando and the baby. Mando must finally deal with the Client (Werner Herzog) and ultimately he, Cara, and Greef find themselves in a desperate situation controlled by ruthless territorial marshal Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito).

These episodes are well-plotted and pay off character and story elements that were set up earlier in the season in once again, a highly satisfying way. Unlike this most recent Star Wars trilogy, story and character arcs are properly planned out and it makes all the difference in the world. Also, unlike the bulk of The Rise of Skywalker, there is room for genuinely effective emotional moments. Ultimately we feel more for supporting characters we have spent only a short amount of time with than for the leads of the sequel trilogy.

Perhaps my favorite scene of the entire season is the opening of Redemption in which two speeder bike troopers sit around bored, waiting for orders. They miss every shot they take during their downtime target practice and just bicker with each other hilariously. It’s the first time since the original film that stormtroopers have been treated like real people just doing a job. In this one scene these two characters display more personality than anybody in Rogue One other than the droid. The entire episode (directed by Waititi) is excellent and has me legitimately excited for season 2 next fall.

As someone who grew up loving Star Wars but hated the prequel trilogy and was ultimately disappointed with the sequel trilogy, The Mandalorian is turning out to be the best addition to the series since Return of the Jedi. Becoming stronger as it’s gone along, particularly over its final three episodes of this first season, it’s set itself up incredibly well for the future. What it means for the Star Wars brand as a whole remains to be seen. It seems the proposed Rian Johnson trilogy is either on or off from week to week, and I can’t say I’m terribly excited for the Obi-Wan series, but Jon Favreau and company are giving us consistently good Star Wars for the first time in decades. That can’t be a bad thing.

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