“The Mandalorian” has a lot to prove. It is the first “Star Wars” adaptation to be a live action TV show, as well as Disney’s first new “Star Wars” content exclusive to Disney+, the recently-launched streaming service. Ultimately, “The Mandalorian” holds up to fans’ expectations, redefining the beloved franchise in exciting ways while also setting a high standard for a new wave of high budget shows that are exclusive to streaming platforms like Disney+.
It is clear at first glance that “The Mandalorian” returns to the familiar world of “Star Wars” while also being something entirely new. The show is visually stunning. Set between “The Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens,” a time period previously unexplored onscreen, the show details the nitty-gritty corners and expansive vistas of a lawless world. Partially because of nostalgia (but not entirely), every moment feels immersive but also exploratory. None of the locations nor characters have appeared in any of the previous movies, save for certain evocative images: the titular Mandalorian warrior’s mask and a little spoiler from the end of the first episode (if you don’t know about it, good job staying off the internet). It’s all entirely new but entirely familiar.
While the show’s huge, movie-sized budget is readily apparent, it’s also clear that “The Mandalorian” is a TV show, not a movie. Nothing feels overly extravagant or breathtaking. There are also no space fights (as of yet), which are a staple in the franchise. However, I found that this sense of modesty and restriction works well to ground the show in reality, sticking with the limited perspectives of the characters.
The main character of “The Mandalorian” highlights the greatest differences between the show and the “Star Wars” franchise. The show follows a famed Mandalorian warrior called Mando (Pedro Pascal) who works as an unequaled bounty hunter. His unquestioning and occasionally graphic fighting style — he beheads a goon with an automatic door in the first episode — puts the clean-cut, aesthetically pleasing fights in the movies into perspective. Mando gets thrown around, beaten up, shot, chewed up, but he still manages to come out on top. While admittedly these scenes are still a little too clean and bloodless to register as reality, they feel refreshing from what “Star Wars” has trained us to expect.
The violence of “The Mandalorian” is juxtaposed with Mando’s internal struggle with morality and honor, a conflict that is both compelling yet underdeveloped. In the third episode, he is forced to choose between saving an innocent life and collecting all of the Beskar Steel needed to complete his Mandalorian suit of armor. Yet this choice feels pointless, as he is able to achieve both and escape unharmed. Additionally, this dilemma does not force Mando to question the secret order of Mandalorians who raised him after his parents’ death. Rather than making him reject his Mandalorian code, the events lead him to reject his role as a bounty hunter; it isn’t a challenging decision. Hopefully, Mando’s upbringing will be explored further in the remaining half of the series. I found that the first two episodes (before he made this choice) were the most interesting, examining a grey morality that is rare on most TV shows today. At the opening of the series, a prisoner appeals to Mando’s human qualities, trying to get to know the mysterious warrior, an attempt that we as the audience can relate to.
Without sharing too many spoilers, the prisoner is unpleasantly disappointed. Just like the fresh violence of the show, this plot point felt risky and exciting. The tension between honor and violence dissipates after the choice, however. Mando’s choices to kill are agreeable, for the most part, with innocent lives on the line (again, no spoilers). Another source of the uniqueness of “The Mandalorian” is its cast. Mando is pretty much the only recurring character, with his face and entire body obscured. He only communicating through a few curt lines here and there. The show works around this lack of expression and dialogue in creative ways, pushing the camera to make connections that facial expressions cannot.
The entire cast of guest characters who make appearances are worth noting, like forthright veteran-turned-mercenary Care Dune (Gina Carano) and the absurdly pragmatic bounty hunter droid IG-11 (Taika Waititi). The charismatic cast plays off of Mando’s silence in unique ways. It’s also refreshing that none are guaranteed to appear in more than one episode. As in life, they come and go but still leave an impact.
“The Mandalorian” puts Disney+ into a strong leading position compared to other new streaming services. The visuals are impressive, the writing is strong and the characters are nuanced and interesting. Yet, I find that adherence to convention holds back the show, especially given that “The Mandalorian” shines when doing the opposite. Over the course of the remaining four episodes (which will be released weekly through December), we can hope that the show develops its originality and complexity, pushing its main character to question his preconceptions about morality.