Even though there are those who were quite content with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (including us), it's not really an exaggeration to say that the last few Star Wars movies have been a somewhat mixed bag. Again - some were pleased with The Force Awakens, and others even found Rogue One to be a breath of fresh but grimy air, but viewing them collectively is a disappointing affair. It would appear that Disney simply has yet to understand what makes Star Wars, well, Star Wars to a sizeable chunk of the global fan base, and at the same time, it would seem that they've not changed enough to morph the license into something new and refreshing either.
And even though we found The Rise of Skywalker a flawed yet satisfying conclusion, the experience was not helped by the fact that weeks beforehand, Disney's perhaps most interesting take on George Lucas' expansive science fiction universe was shown, albeit not in theatres, but on the small screen. Yes, Jon Favreau's The Mandalorian surprised us all, and not only is it a strong series all on its own, but it should also pave the way forward for Disney's Star Wars strategy.
The Mandalorian is an epic and complete tale on its own, but more than that, it shows an intent from Disney, an intent to experiment with the format, the very lens through which we perceive Star Wars, and by tuning in to witness this experiment week after week since its debut, the darkness left in the wake of Star Wars: The Last Jedi suddenly becomes a tunnel, and at the end of that, small rays of light can now be seen flickering through the dark.
The Mandalorian started out rather mysteriously, where we, as viewers, weren't told much more than the story was about an enigmatic bounty hunter living at the edges of the galaxy, and who obeyed the Mandalorian warrior race's oath by never removing his helmet. Naturally, things evolved quite a bit from there, and we were quickly introduced to what we can only call "Baby Yoda", who seems to hail from the same reaches as the iconic Jedi Master. The cute non-speaking character quickly became an Internet sensation, proving that Star Wars still holds the power to get people talking. Over the course of the first season, we met a pretty expansive cast of characters, such as the droid IG, the shock trooper Carasynthias Dune, and boss Greef Carga. At the same time, ever-so-small ties to the larger Star Wars universe began to form.
But the surprising thing about all of this is that even now, after the end of the first season, The Mandalorian is a thoroughly detached piece of storytelling with only a few characters, events and dialogue connecting it to the larger universe. It's an incredibly brave move by creator and writer Jon Favreau to be so committed to its separateness, and even though we are dealing with The Force, the now crumbling Empire, as well as a few previously known planets, the ties to the Star Wars that we know is rarely fleshed out, but rather left intentionally in the narrative background - and rightly so. Additionally, The Mandalorian is an incredibly focused piece of storytelling in general, and it rarely, if ever, leaves our protagonist's shoulders, and even rarer is it to come across needless exposition. That's something else that separates it from the Star Wars mythos, which frequently relies on depth, on advanced plotting and deep storytelling structures to gain the viewer's attention. Not so in The Mandalorian.
That, however, doesn't mean that it doesn't have inherent issues with pacing and especially structure, issues that became more apparent as the season proceeded through to its conclusion. First off, The Mandalorian seems to struggle with selecting either an episodic or arc-based storytelling structure, opting to switch between the two, seemingly at will. Whereas some are very dedicated to advancing the overall narrative arc, some instead chose to take on a "story of the week" style set-up, which did result in some uneven pacing. In particular, there was one episode where our protagonist has to assist a ragged band of bounty hunters in a prison breakout, which seemed incredibly out of place, and literally leaves Mando (that's what the other characters call him) in exactly the same place as he started. Also, The Mandalorian struggled to find a consistent tone, as is the case with so many big-budget series these days, throwing in quippy dialogue every now and again, which really, really does not fit with the overall vibe the shows seems to strive for.
This unwanted reliance on "bathos", where the writer's lack of the faith in the emotional stakes of the character or world sees them constantly undercutting seemingly serious events with comical undertones, has become too much. When all of that's said, however, it's not too bad in The Mandalorian, which seems to settle on its grimy, dirty and more grounded tone later on in the season. Actually, it's quite refreshing to find a Star Wars story where the fate of the galaxy isn't at stake. There's no misplaced heroism, no all-or-nothing vibe. It's just people struggling to get by - he's just a Mandalorian trying to make his way in A Galaxy Far, Far Away.
This central strength is helped by sound performances from the entire main cast, where Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano and Carl Weathers all deliver nuanced and believable performances. It's simply a pleasure to follow these characters from start to finish, and it's also pleasing to see a character gallery expand, but not to the point where characters are actively being forgotten. Everyone gets their moment, even the IG droid brought to life by Taika Waititi.
Also, The Mandalorian is, as a piece of cinematic art, very, very, very pretty to look at, with a spartan but wise use of colour in all the right places, fantastic broad establishing shots, and a handful of well-designed set-pieces. The primary colour palette seems to have taken inspiration from movies like Rogue One, which you also must compliment for its sense of place.
Lastly, we must not forget to sing the praises of composer Ludwig Göransson, who has ditched a larger symphonic setup in favour of something far more intimate. He did exactly the same with Black Panther, which also used more rhythmic sounds, rather than bombastic soundscapes, and it works excellently.
It would seem that The Mandalorian has come to stay, and we're very happy about this, especially if Favreau is successful in maintaining the simple but grimy focus, and continues to keep a safe distance from the wider established universe. If he does this, there are so many exciting stories to be told through this deep and relatable main character, and despite a few pacing and tone related issues, The Mandalorian simply soars.