'The Mandalorian' Remixes Familiar 'Star Wars' Iconography, But Is That Enough For A Compelling TV Series?

It feels strange to review The Mandalorian at this point in time. The next big chapter of Star Wars — an in-between-quel bridging Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Force Awakens (2015) — has technically begun, but it's unavailable to 95% of the world. Then again, I'm sure fans outside the U.S. won't have trouble dusting off their digital eye-patches; the other option is waiting until Disney+ arrives locally, anywhere between next week and 2021 depending on where you live. The Mandalorian, like all Star Wars under Disney, trades on nostalgia. I imagine anyone allured by a helmet evoking Boba Fett already knows he isn't part of the series, so the imagery alone appears to be a selling-point. In its brief forty-minute premiere (directed by Dave Fliloni of The Clone Wars fame), the show introduces us to a "Mandalorian," a phrase that holds little meaning to those not already immersed in Star Wars books and comics. This nameless, faceless bounty hunter is meant to be the story's emotional core. Pedro Pascal plays him with reserve (as he ought to; this Mandalorian keeps to himself), but what we learn about him comes from what little body language he's allowed to express. A Mandalorian, as the show goes on to reveal, never removes his mask. Spoilers for the first episode begin here.

Shades of Grey

From beneath his clunky armour, one might gleam the occasional hesitance or urgency, albeit only within close quarters (and usually in the context of money). How quickly does the Mandalorian accept his next bounty? What compromises does he make when presented with different currencies? In an early scene with Carl Weathers, as the leader of a bounty hunter guild, the show's economics come to light. Some currencies are worthless after the Empire's decline, and the bounty hunter gig economy is choked with bounty hunting freelancers. Relatable content. Though what little we know about the Mandalorian — that he needs money — isn't enough to augment what we don't. He occupies the same space as Han Solo in the original Star Wars, a rogue gunman after Republic Credits who looks out only for himself. But where Han's character was revealed through posture and tone of voice (whatever the armchair pundits tell you, Solo failed largely because it lacked Harrison Ford), the Mandalorian is revealed to us through neither of these things. He barely speaks, and his enormous helmet hides even the withheld micro-reactions that might otherwise help us gauge him. In the show's initial scenes, in which he captures and carbon-freezes a distinctly likeable blue alien, the Mandalorian comes off more like an emotionless Terminator than a man under a mask. What good are moral greys, when their grey-ness isn't tied to conflicting emotions?The show sounds incredible, mind you. Composer Ludwig Göransson (Creed, Black Panther) creates a magnetic soundscape that feels like a classic Western filtered through something dark and seedy, like a spy thriller. Visually, the show attempts to replicate this aesthetic motif — not unlike muddled war spin-off Rogue One (2016) — though whether it succeeds is almost irrelevant. Grandiose space opera feels like the wrong venue for this sort of approach, a story in which a character cocoons themselves and traverses a linear path to violence, from which he is eventually shaken. Here, the cocoon is literal, and only literal; we're never made privy to what lies beneath the hardened steel. Bits and pieces toward the beginning of the episode feel like connective tissue ripped from a Scandinavian crime mystery. As the Mandalorian walks from place to place, the blue hues of the ice planets, and the casually distant camera which shakes with uncertainty, feel isolating. The key difference, however, is that someone like Tomas Alfredson or Thomas Vinterberg tends to have a human face at their disposal once they push in to close-ups. The lack of a recognizable face is by no means a death-knell, but no emotional beat in The Mandalorian complements its detached visual texture (an admittedly gorgeous feat by D.P. Greg Fraser). From what, or from whom, is the Mandalorian detached? And what attachments keep him human? Beyond vague references to his culture, all we're given is one frantic flashback of him as young boy, escaping... something. Some mayhem or violence he seems to carry with him, but nothing given enough breathing room so as to clarify who he is, or what he feels.That same frantic-ness is applied to most of the episode. Even in its quiet, removed moments where the Mandalorian reacts silently, or when someone comments on the weight of his legacy, the show never slows down enough to let the impact land. It's a pristine-looking plot-delivery machine. Nothing exemplifies this better than a key decision towards the end of the episode — perhaps the moment that defines the character altogether — which unfolds not only in fast forward, but largely off-screen. 

Metal Faces

When confronted with the prospect of killing a baby Yoda alongside IG-11... Sorry, let me back up a bit. The Mandalorian's big mission involves retrieving a baby of Yoda's species, during which he's joined by a bounty hunting droid of the same model as IG-88 (a minor character in The Empire Strikes Back). None of these things are particularly meaningful on their own; the baby is not Yoda, and the Mandalorian and IG-11 are not the bounty hunters from Empire. They merely evoke their iconography. Boba Fett and IG-88 remain in the fandom's collective consciousness precisely because of their design; there's nothing more to them than what they look like. And so, the episode's climax mashes up mere photocopies of Star Wars memories.Not only does the show use iconography that is, in and of itself, meaningless, it also does little to subvert these images or imbue them with meaning. After a particularly awkward shootout, where each character's quips and comedy moments are met with the other's reaction shots — in both cases, emotionless metal — the Mandalorian comes face to face with his target. IG-11 is tasked with killing the green infant, and so the Mandalorian puts a bullet in the droid's head (a decision he makes out of frame — though given his expressionless T-visor, I wonder if it matters).Nothing in this climax challenges the Mandalorian, or challenges expectation. The droid, voiced by a monotone Taika Waititi, is not a living being, nor does he behave like one, so making scrap metal out of him is an emotionally easy task. The Mandalorian's decision to keep the baby alive isn't difficult either, since it doesn't conflict with his mission; earlier in the episode, it's established that he'll be paid more, not less, if the target is retrieved alive. What use, then, are those flashbacks of the Mandalorian as a helpless child, if they have no bearing on his present decisions?

The Mandalorian: Impressions

In Star Wars, moral lines are clearly drawn; characters like Han and the Mandalorian are plopped neatly between them and made to choose between one or the other. The series has always been Western-inspired, but for it to have the depth or reflection of Unforgiven (1992), its keepers need to let it be mournful. They need to let their characters walk down difficult moral paths, enveloped in fog. The closest the series has come to this under Disney was Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi (2017), but that film had the advantage of using a character we already knew, one we'd seen rise and fall, and be tempted by darkness. The Mandalorian may eventually give us another, but its foundation thus far doesn't inspire confidence. If you've ever wanted to know what a toilet looks like in the Star Wars universe, The Mandalorian is for you. The creature and character designs are admittedly interesting — Nick Nolte shows up as a Planet of the Apes-inspired alien who rides giant terrestrial piranhas — but rather than telling a story, the show's first episode merely presents a series of premises, each connected to the next by their resemblance to Star Wars. Werner Herzog is a joy to watch, as the man who sends the Mandalorian on his mission, but half the excitement comes from his specific intonations and enunciations being applied to space-gibberish. Little of what he or anyone says is given much weight; people speak of the lost glory of the Mandalorian culture, but what this actually means for the main character is never depicted or dramatized. As a story, The Mandalorian is yet to feel worthwhile. It breaks no new ground, but more importantly, it doesn't root its familiar elements in discernible emotions. Who the Mandalorian is, and how he conflicts with his circumstances, are key to this first chapter — or at least, they should be. You can tell the series has these questions on its lips, but it zips past them at every turn. As a concept, The Mandalorian feels like a financial inevitability under Disney. It has the appearance of breaking new ground and introducing never-before-seen characters, but it falls into the same trap The Force Awakens did when re-launching the franchise. It's Star Wars remixing Star Wars — and watering it down in the process — rather than remixing anything more interesting.