▶︎ The Mandalorian (two seasons, eight episodes each) is streaming on Disney +.
If there’s one thing Star Wars has always been good at, it’s melodrama. The saga hinges on familial relationships and big emotions, exploring Luke Skywalker’s fears about turning into his father in the original trilogy, and adopted family narratives in the more recent sequels.
The Mandalorian, the first TV spin-off in the franchise, has inherited these traits and focuses on the unexpected parent-child relationship between bounty hunter Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) and his former bounty, the Yoda-like Grogu (known to fans as ‘Baby Yoda’). Desperate to save Grogu from the fading forces of the Empire, who are equally determined to capture the child, Djarin spent Season 1 fighting to keep his charge safe.
Season 2 dumps viewers unceremoniously in a galaxy on the brink of industrial decline. Ludwig Göransson’s squealing, haunting score pulses and scrapes like chains dragged across rusting iron; droids pound against blast doors and the chime of a staff reverberates through the ground. From armour and helmets to scrap-yard penal colonies, from Mandalorian weapons to post-Imperial ships, there’s a metallic tang that you can almost taste when you look at the screen. It’s as if The Mandalorian is set during the intergalactic equivalent of the collapsing steel industry, among mining and manufacturing communities ravaged by the last vestiges of Imperial rule. It makes for a bleak aesthetic that distances the show from the bright-coloured blockbuster extravaganza of the sequel trilogy films.
The dilapidated lived-in look of Star Wars is legendary, but there’s a child-playing-in-the-mud quality to the movies. By comparison this show is far grimier, like returning from the pub bruised and battered with someone else’s blood on your shirt. Prisoners are electrocuted in public displays of torture, and the infant Grogu is kidnapped and shackled. Where The Last Jedi gave us ‘crystal critters’ in the form of ice foxes, The Mandalorian has swarms of crystal spiders that had me burying my face under cushions. And as Djarin and Grogu try to locate the Jedi, the scorched earth and gaunt remains of worlds colonised by both Imperial and Rebel fighters add shade to the Light/Dark binary that the franchise has promoted in the past.
For thanks to the show’s episodic storytelling there’s space to complicate narratives about good versus evil (an episode featuring Grogu eating another species’ eggs is a case in point) and dive into ethical debates. Imperial prisoner Mayfeld (Bill Burr), for instance, draws attention to the New Republic’s prison-industrial complex and simultaneously exposes dissent within the Empire’s ranks. While the show doesn’t go so far as to say both sides are the same, it opens up new perspectives that feel authentic in the post-conflict setting.
If there’s a downside to The Mandalorian it’s the repetitive nature of the storytelling, whereby Djarin embarks on a quest, asks favours of people he meets along the way, faces danger and moves closer to his goal. Where Season 1 sometimes struggled to maintain a coherent arc, though, Season 2 has a higher-stakes narrative thrust that builds momentum more effectively. And with its use of projection (LED screens project the various environments on set so that the performers are virtually on location) and slow pace, it feels like an old Sunday afternoon serial – which is no bad thing.
The relationship between Djarin and Grogu is compelling, too, with the strength of their bond playing out in a subtle interplay of nods, masked glances and the child’s emotionally expressive ears. It’s testament to Pedro Pascal’s skill that he communicates so much with so little: as Djarin inadvertently journeys further through the terrain of self-discovery, we hear his dogmatic belief in the Mandalore’s creed (“This is the way”) give way to resignation. It’s as revealing as his ultimate sacrifice for Grogu: removing his mask.
There are excellent turns, too, from Temuera Morrison as Boba Fett and Giancarlo Esposito as Moff Gideon, with the latter’s quiet command creating a blood-chilling foe. The series has continued to bring women into more active roles in the saga, too, with some of its most memorable set pieces involving Rosario Dawson’s Ashoka Tano in combat with Diana Lee Inosanto’s Magistrate, and Gina Carano’s Cara Dune forming a hit squad against Gideon. It’s been a sad irony then that some of those female actors have been embroiled in off-screen controversy, from accusations of transphobia levelled at Dawson to Carano’s increasingly Trumpist tilts on social media; it does sour your investment in their roles.
On-screen, though, Season 2 comes out fighting, and while the galaxy might be far away, there are plenty of moments that bring the show closer to home. Watching Grogu staring at a monitor in the final episode, reaching out to place his hand on the glass to make a connection with the image beyond the screen, is surely relatable to many of us as we approach the end of 2020. It’s a moment that is, quite literally, touching.
And in the end, though the mastery of suspense and well-timed reveals are exciting, it’s the bond that survives between Djarin and Grogu against the odds that makes Season 2 so appealing. Amid justified criticism about the ongoing saturation of the Star Wars franchise in popular culture, the relationship between an alien creature and a man hidden behind a mask might mean more to the future of the saga than Disney could ever have known.
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