'The Mandalorian' Keeps On Taking One Step Forward And Two Steps Back

This post contains spoilers for The Mandalorian.

The third episode of The Mandalorian moves the plot in a definite direction, but the show remains frustratingly shackled. Upon turning in his target — the yet unnamed Baby Yoda — the Mandalorian (also unnamed) collects his reward, has a change of heart and eventually makes off with the infant, as one would expect. The episode ends on an interesting cliffhanger, wherein the Mandalorian and his young companion jet off without a home base or destination in mind. But en route to this conclusion, "Chapter 3: The Sin" offers little by way of internal conflict, or internal resolve. If one must accept the narrative decision to keep the Mandalorian masked — for reasons of "It is the way!" proclaimed within the fiction — then the onus falls on everything else, from the actor's body-language to the sound design, to replace the most powerful tool in filmmaking: the human face. Without it, and without much else to go by, we're left to draw logistical conclusions, and intellectualize what the Mandalorian's emotional arc might be. He has a change of heart, one can assume, because he goes from point A (dropping the baby off to the remnants of the Empire) to point B (retrieving the baby), and in between, he looks at piece of equipment the baby was playing with on his ship.However, nothing in the character's stilted, restrained body language hints at any internal turmoil that might make this decision difficult, and little in the movement of the camera, or in the notes of the score, feels like the turning of emotional or intellectual wheels. Even if they did, I wonder if any one or two of them would be enough to fill all the dramatic gaps. The show merely moves from one aesthetic state to the next — from a thrilling tight-corridor heist, to an action shootout at dusk — sans emotional connective tissue. As usual, these aesthetic states are individually alluring. The action, helmed by director Deborah Chow (the first woman to ever helm Star Wars in live-action), is tightly wound and staged with clarity, while cinematographers Greig Fraser and Barry Idoine do a tremendous job balancing the Mandalorian's grey outfit with the muddy surroundings, especially after the sun sets. When he attempts to escape the planet which he and the Mandalorians now call home, the tension between leaving and staying is reflected on his very armour; its muted hues blend in with the backdrop, but the light reflecting on his chest and helmet, during his standoffs and shootouts with other bounty hunters, adds flickers of excitement and possibility. However, what little tension is introduced to the idea of "Mando" leaving this base doesn't extend to his conflict with the other Mandalorians. After another scene where the melting of Beskar steel — which has some unexplained importance to his culture — is intercut with his childhood flashbacks, our main Mando argues with several other Mandos over the Imperial origin of his bounty, and the Empire's hand in driving the Mandalorians underground. This scene, however, falls victim to all the show's aesthetic problems at once. While a slightly bigger, clunkier Mandalorian is differentiated from our protagonist, these masked characters only ever express themselves through broad movements (if they move at all), none of which are given enough room to feel individualized. There's no opportunity for them to feel complex or nuanced, more than likely a byproduct of their costume design (it's hard not to see their armour as a hindrance) and the score by Ludwig Göransson, while tantalizing elsewhere, becomes a booming mess here, scoring the mere idea that this Mandalorian culture ought to some have bombastic meaning. It doesn't — not to the audience, anyway. By the time the other Mandalorians come around and help out protagonist out of a tough spot, there's little reason for them to do so, other than an implied cultural background. "It is the way," they say once more, as if to excuse the absence of second thoughts, or doubts, or internal strife, depicted just moments ago. The story, thus far, all comes down to Baby Yoda being an object of our affections. He is undeniably adorable, and compared to last week, he's now animated enough to feel like a real living being in need of protection. Anyone, masked Mandalorian or not, would jump at the opportunity to save him — but that assumption is also the problem. Nothing defines the Mandalorian as a person, nearly two hours into the story.The goodness one might gleam from the Mandalorian's actions is simply revealed when he performs said actions, rather than being earned or struggled with, as we see him decide whether to perform them. His childhood flashback this week adds no new information, nor is it made to factor in to his Baby Yoda-centric decisions. Where it ought to fuel conflict, it feels tonally confused. The idea that a fearful memory might be linked to some misplaced cultural pride, as his armour is forged in flame, has tremendous dramatic potential. But in these moments, there's no sense of what the Mandalorian actually feels about either this childhood trauma, or about these symbols of his heritage. The closeups of welding sparks reflecting off his visor are pretty to look at, but they tell us nothing about his relationship to what's being welded, or to the memories it triggers, let alone their relationship to each other. It would be one thing if the Mandalorian was chasing a mystery, and the character was revealed to us bit by bit, as he discovered new information or battled new dramatic scenarios. But thus far, the Mandalorian is the mystery. The curiosity of what the Empire wants with Baby Yoda is, admittedly, enough of a hook to keep watching, but it's no different than reading the synopsis on Wikipedia instead. Granted, one might then miss out on musicality of Carl Weathers as the boisterous Greef Carga, or the sinister whispers of Werner Herzong as the Imperial client — two of the show's most expressive highlights — but absent, in the Mandalorian's story, is the "opera" in space opera, when it can be found so readily in those around him. And if withheld emotions are the point, there's no opportunity to see or feel or hear them bubbling beneath the surface. It's a shame, that such a pretty and expensive show should so misuse is aesthetics.