A “Mandalorian” Hot Take

I can’t be the only one feeling underwhelmed by The Mandalorian now that we’re four episodes in, can I? All I see everywhere online is how great it is, but honestly I’ve been disappointed, frustrated, and outright bored by parts of this series so far.

Part of the problem is that when a show (or any entertainment product for that matter) disappoints or seems to have problems, other smaller problems become more apparent because I start looking at it with a more critical eye. This is the “snowball” or “piling on” phenomenon, and you see it frequently across media criticism, especially when something under-performs. It’s easy for further criticism to creep out of the woodwork, including of comparatively minor points that would not – on their own or in a better product – be worth noticing. Such is the point I have reached with The Mandalorian.

First, I’d like to step back to my biggest and most fundamental issue. The Mandalorian was advertised as “the story of a gunslinger far from the reaches of the New Republic”. To me, that setting sounded amazing. And it still does, because it suggests a strong break from everything we’ve seen before in the Star Wars galaxy. I was attracted to this series not because I wanted to see a Mandalorian/Boba Fett copycat, but because I was genuinely interested to see what the Star Wars galaxy looks like away from the Jedi, the Sith and the Force, and without the galaxy-ending threats of the Empire and Death Stars and Starkiller Base. And while we’ve got some glimpses of that, what happens two episodes in? We get the Force back in play.

Clearly the producers behind Star Wars don’t trust the franchise to survive without it, but that’s just so disappointing to me and I feel like it strays away from what the series promised. It takes the show away from being a Firefly-esque “space western”, and dumps it firmly back in the already-trodden ground of previous iterations of Star Wars.

The Mandalorian.

So that, for me at least, is the biggest problem with The Mandalorian and the fault upon which all others are built. But while a disappointing premise can undermine a series, it’s not the show’s only problem. I mentioned in the intro that at times I find the show to be boring. Any show lacking in dialogue can fall victim to this, but The Mandalorian faces a somewhat unique challenge in that its protagonist is in full armour and wearing a full face helmet at all times. Pedro Pascal is a great actor, but thus far he hasn’t been able to show that. With a combination of his face being concealed, the minimal dialogue, and the unemotional, monotone delivery of the scant lines he’s had, his character thus far is a complete bag of nothing. He could be literally anyone, his motivations are not understandable, and because of these things he’s become a protagonist in name only, a protagonist I can’t get behind and get invested in. Right now I’m honestly not bothered if he succeeds or fails, lives or dies. And four episodes into a ten-episode series, I need that as a viewer. We’ve elapsed almost half of the show’s runtime, and I don’t give a damn about the main man. In a show so centred around one character, this is a serious failing.

Not being able to see or hear the protagonist – heck, he doesn’t even have a name (and no it isn’t “Mando”) – is holding the show back narratively, too. Aside from the brief scene in the spacecraft (itself unnamed until episode four) there was no bonding between the protagonist and the child. He may have felt he owed the child a debt of sorts for aiding him against the CGI monster, but again, how are we supposed to tell that with no dialogue and no facial expressions? So when we get to episode three and the protagonist makes the monumental decision to turn on his client, there’s no buildup to that, no emotional investment; it’s like he makes the decision from nowhere and for no reason other than the writers deemed that that’s what he was going to do.

The best characters in fiction are the ones who feel like real people, and a big part of that is ensuring that a character’s core values, personality, and motivations are communicated to the audience. The Mandalorian has failed comprehensively in this regard. And that failure makes important story points and character decisions seem to come from nowhere – the decision to turn on his guild by helping the child being the most notable. Star Wars has a great variety of characters just in the eight Saga films and two spin-offs. Jyn Erso makes an amazing protagonist in Rogue One, and Luke, Han, and Leia also all feel like real people with real motivations and depth to them. So Star Wars can do great characters – its what the franchise was built upon. But here, there’s no characterisation, no depth, no exploration, no emotion, no nothing. Just actions and decisions dictated entirely by a writers’ room, and it shows.

Recent Star Wars projects have been beset by an overuse of nostalgia. Darth Vader’s appearance in Rogue One, while an exciting sequence, was pure fanservice and really didn’t do much to further the film or improve upon its story. The story could have – and I would argue should have – stood on its own without bringing him and his lightsaber into it. Much of The Force Awakens was, as has been pointed out so many times before by others, an homage to the original 1977 Star Wars to such an extent that it came very close to being a copy in places. And of course Solo was 100% a nostalgia play – an otherwise decent film that was hampered by being a prequel involving Original Trilogy characters. I get it though, nostalgia sells and after all, nostalgia is what convinced Disney to buy Lucasfilm and bring back Star Wars in the first place. And it’s far from the only franchise to be reborn in the 2010s as a safer bet for audiences. But there is a line somewhere, a line which divides an “easter egg” or reference for returning fans from a lack of original ideas. The Mandalorian has, on occasions, crossed that line for me. The Jawas and the Sandcrawler are one example, as is the freezing (presumably in carbonite) of the protagonist’s bounties. Little things like OT Stormtrooper armour are great, the protagonist being kitted out like a shinier Boba Fett is less so. Little winks here and there, like the eyeball droid when the protagonist visits the home of the warlord are nice, subtle nods to what came before but leaving room for the series to carve its own path. But too many pieces from the OT have made their way into the first two hours, and while I can’t exactly pinpoint where this metaphorical line is, some of these nostalgia plays definitely stray onto the wrong side.

“Baby Yoda.”

Since I mentioned the runtime there, let’s talk about that. Half-hour episodes for such a heavily-marketed flagship series? There are kids’ cartoons with longer runtimes than that. One of the great advantages of streaming over “traditional” television channels is that you don’t have a time constraint. Need an extra episode or two? No problem, chuck them in there! Star Trek: Discovery did that for both of its first two seasons. Need an extra ten or fifteen minutes this episode? No problem, we have all the time in the world. There’s no need to cut down an episode to fit an arbitrary time-slot any more, and yet The Mandalorian has the shortest episode runtime of any flagship, “prime time” television series that I think I’ve ever seen. And it’s not the better for it. The most recent episode at time of writing (episode four) would’ve benefited greatly from some extra scenes and sequences. The training montage where the villagers are taught to fight lasted barely a minute, and there was just no indication of the passage of time save for one line of exposition which was clumsily dumped in toward the end of the episode. From the way it was shot, it looked like the protagonist and child arrived, then travelled overnight to the village where in one day they met everyone, trained the villagers, came up with a plan, and drove away the raiders by that same evening. A few extra scenes, totalling no more than a couple of minutes, would have gone a long way to alleviating this problem. So why the unnecessarily short runtime? With the budget Disney has, there’s no sensible explanation for it. And it certainly hasn’t improved the story or made things clearer. Streaming shows can adapt their episodes to be as long or short as needed to advance the story. I just don’t understand why The Mandalorian needed to be so cut-down.

No critique of The Mandalorian would be complete without discussing Disney+. The release in November 2019 just shows how little value Disney places on its overseas (i.e. non-American) customers. In the UK, Disney+ won’t launch until the end of March 2020 – four-and-a-half months after its United States premiere. And I gather in other countries and territories it’s set to be even later still. For a massive release on this scale – the first ever live-action television series in the Star Wars franchise – fans deserved better than a release that’s split up by geography. In decades past, it wouldn’t have mattered. But in the age of the internet, fan communities are a big deal, and spoilers are everywhere. “Baby Yoda” has literally been all over the internet to such an extent that friends and family who have no interest in Star Wars have seen the pictures and the memes. Any Star Wars fan has had The Mandalorian spoiled for them if they don’t live in the United States, and that’s unfair to them. The even more stupid thing is that here in the UK, Disney already has a streaming service called Disney Life. I have a subscription to it. With a minimum of effort it would’ve been possible to add a parental controls setting to Disney Life, gating off The Mandalorian so kids couldn’t access it inadvertently, and allowing fans over here (and in any other territories with a similar service) access to the show. It could even have been delayed to ensure that as many fans as possible around the world would’ve been able to watch at the same time, either by delaying the launch of the app or just the launch of the series. It’s just disappointing to see how little value Disney places on people like me. Game of Thrones did this right – releasing new episodes simultaneously with their US release even though it was the middle of the night here. And Star Trek releases its new episodes within hours of their US premiere on Netflix (and soon to be on Amazon Prime), so why couldn’t Disney have gone down that route? As it stands, the only way to watch The Mandalorian outside of the US is to pirate it. And that’s a massive own goal from Disney.

What I think has been valuable about The Mandalorian is that it has brought back into the fold a lot of fans of the franchise who felt let down by the most recent films, especially The Last Jedi. Introducing some positivity into those fan communities, which had descended into anti-Disney hate groups for the most part, is a good thing. And I respect that a lot of those fans are excited for The Mandalorian and have genuinely enjoyed it thus far.

For me, the two biggest failures are the decision to bring in Force powers in a series that should’ve tried to move away from that side of Star Wars storytelling, and the fact that the main character is, thus far, a blank slate about whom the audience knows and understands very little. The other points where I’ve felt disappointed or underwhelmed would have scarcely been noticed if I’d been more invested in the story and protagonist.

It’s hard to say what I’d like to see going forward that would improve the show, aside from more development of the protagonist. The less we see of the Force the better, that’s for sure, and I hope to God that there isn’t going to be some convoluted time travel or cloning storyline to say the child is actually Yoda from the Original Trilogy. That would be the nail in the coffin and probably the moment I’d stop watching. The old Expanded Universe of Star Wars novels, comics, games, etc. never really appealed to me because, aside from being massively complicated, much of it was essentially low-quality fan fiction made “canon” by Lucasfilm’s bizarre policy of seemingly allowing anyone to write anything. That’s how the EU ended up with fifty clones of Emperor Palpatine, and Darth Maul surviving being literally chopped in half. A time travelling Yoda or a clone of Yoda would really be too much, dragging what should’ve been a standalone series too far backwards, and as I said earlier, not letting it stand on its own two feet carving its own niche within the greater Star Wars galaxy. I really hope that doesn’t end up being the case.

As things stand right now, I’ll keep tuning in to see whether the story picks up. But there are definitely issues that should be addressed going forward to make the show more interesting and draw the audience in. I can tolerate the nostalgic throwbacks, the copying, the unorigiality of too much of the aesthetic, but I can’t really take a whole lot of a boring main character with no personality who just seems to drift from episode to episode at the whim of the plot. Nor can I really be all that bothered to tune into yet another look at how the Force works in Star Wars or how Force users can use their magical powers to show off and save the day. We’ve seen so much of that side of the galaxy already in the “Skywalker Saga”. I really hoped that The Mandalorian would be something genuinely different and original. But instead we’ve got a less interesting, shinier version of Boba Fett who’s inexplicably teamed up with a baby version of Yoda. Some originality, please. Until then, I daresay The Mandalorian will remain a show which is, at best, underwhelming.

The Mandalorian is available for streaming on Disney+ in the United States. The Mandalorian is the copyright of Lucasfilm and Disney. Edited 15.12.20 for formatting. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.