The Mandalorian Pacing

One of the most common refrains among the men and women who work on high-caliber television shows — specifically television dramas — is that their programs are really just 10-hour movies. (Or 8-hour movies, or however many episodes are in a given season.) TV, at least when you hear how the people who make it discuss it, wants very badly to be seen not as the red-headed stepchild to cinema, but to be cinema itself. 

Often, the comment that the latest buzzy TV show isn’t really a show, but an extremely long movie, ends up being a ridiculous defense against a story that doesn’t get told well in a small-screen medium. If you’re really making a 10-hour movie, that might mean the resulting 10 installments feel incomplete on their own, and thus become a distinct form of poorly conceived TV. With the marquee new Disney+ show, The Mandalorian, however, you genuinely can suggest that its first season feels like a movie. So far, though, it feels like The Mandalorian really ought to have been a movie to begin with.

This post contains spoilers for the first two episodes of The Mandalorian.

There Is No Try

Before it arrived on Disney+ on November 12, The Mandalorian was shrouded in secrecy, even more so than other Star Wars films. None of the episodes were made available to critics in advance of the pilot’s premiere date (though the second and third installments were shown at a special event to journalists in Los Angeles later on that week). What was known about the show was based on vague teasers that featured the respected foreign filmmaker Werner Herzog talking about and to the eponymous bounty hunter played by Pedro Pascal. It was all very mysterious, and much of the mystery still remains.

Two episodes in, there is a basic hook for The Mandalorian, emphasis on “basic”: the antiheroic protagonist is shown early on to be a tough-as-nails type, comfortable in both hand-to-hand combat and using a blaster. After an initial bounty (played by Saturday Night Live alum Horatio Sanz, one of a number of delightfully odd casting choices) is delivered thanks to carbonite freezing, the Mandalorian is invited to meet an enigmatic client (Herzog), who asks him to track and return a 50-year old being to him, ideally alive. At the end of the first episode, the Mandalorian approaches his quarry and realizes that while it may be 50 years old, it sure looks like an infant. And anyone watching knows that the infant looks an awful lot like the venerated Jedi Master Yoda. If there’s any serious plot movement in the second episode, it’s that the Child (as it’s named in the episode title) is as gifted with the Force as Yoda was.

If the pilot is where The Mandalorian reveals itself as a somewhat stripped-down story evoking both Japanese manga like Lone Wolf and Cub as well as the Man With No Name trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns, the second episode is where the story is stripped down to the nub of the bone. In it, the Mandalorian discovers that his ship has been stripped for parts by a group of Jawas, and the only way to get them back — because he’s unwilling to trade his armor or anything else of possible value, including the Child — is to retrieve an egg from a mudhorn (AKA a very large rhinoceros-type creature). At the episode’s conclusion, the Mandalorian has gotten the egg, the parts to his ship back, and repaired his ship. And he’s off to return the Child (presumably), even though he’s very baffled after having seen the Child’s Force powers on full display.

The Path to the Dark Side

When a TV showrunner says their program is like a movie, it’s typically meant to help the show stand out. Certainly, programs like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have a level of action and violence not often seen on the small screen, but even those shows are often structured like episodes of television. Sometimes, though, they attempt to replicate movies thanks to their runtime — episodes of The Walking Dead can sometimes be as long as an hour without commercials, and the final four episodes of Game of Thrones were each around 80 minutes long.

The Mandalorian, so far, is bucking this trend in some ways. Leaving aside how this show looks, the premiere episode surprised some critics and audiences based on its length, or lack thereof. Including its end credits, the pilot was just 38 minutes long. The second episode, “The Child”, is just 32 minutes long, and that’s if you count the fairly lengthy end credits as well as the “Previously on” recap. On one hand, it’s absolutely good news that a big, buzzy new show is less interested in padding out its runtime than it is on telling a specific, streamlined story.

However, this show’s low-stakes focus, after two episodes of eight have aired, is a bit surprising considering…well, this is a Star Wars show. This is not to say that The Mandalorian would be better if the same story was being told, but it was actually about Boba Fett (or, since the show takes place after Return of the Jedi, Boba Fett’s cousin or something). The Mandalorian has an intensely streamlined focus, with a title character who’s our only true lead in spite of the fact that we’ve yet to see his face, and he’s prone to long bouts of not talking at all. It’s a daring choice, to be sure, but potentially alienating in the long run. 

For Knowledge and Defense

What The Mandalorian has in its favor so far is its production design, its cinematography, its editing and other visual elements. It’s been reported that the show’s eight-episode first season cost roughly $120 million, and the installments so far make clear that the money is on the screen. Both episodes feature action setpieces in which the Mandalorian either has to take down fellow bounty hunters or fend off strange and terrifying monsters. And even outside of those scenes, episode directors Dave Filoni and Rick Famuyiwa bring the Western-inspired world of the show to life with widescreen vistas of strange alien worlds. 

That point about the show being widescreen (with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1), though, speaks to something that’s becoming harder to shake after the first two episodes: Maybe The Mandalorian looks so much like a movie, and is so stripped-down, that…it should have been a movie. Only two actors have appeared in both episodes: Pascal and Nick Nolte, providing the voice for the gruff Kuiil, an Ugnaught farmer who helps the Mandalorian out in capturing his quarry primarily so his homeland can be peaceful again. But the second episode ends with Mando (for short) offering Kuiil a place on his ship, and the farmer turning him down; as Mando departs into outer space, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which we won’t see or hear from Kuiil again.

That, of course, would mean that this is the rare TV show with just a plot, and no subplots. So far, there’s been no time spent away from the Mandalorian, either physically or metaphorically. (If, say, Kuiil is shown interacting with Jawas, it’s only because he’s waiting for the bounty hunter to return.)  A number of the well-known actors who were announced as part of the show’s ensemble have both yet to be introduced (such as Gina Carano, Giancarlo Esposito, and Ming-Na Wen) and haven’t even been hinted at. If you knew nothing about this show’s cast from its marketing campaign, you might almost be shocked that there are six episodes left, because the journey the Mandalorian is going on so far seems almost maddeningly straightforward.

Luminous Beings Are We

Ostensibly, this should be a good thing. There’s too much TV in general, and any show striving not to feel like bloated homework ought to be applauded. And The Mandalorian is still the most successful of the new streaming shows that have premiered this month from either Disney+ or Apple TV+ so far, precisely because of how coherent its story is and how slick its visuals are. The story’s coherency, though, can be boiled down so briefly that it’s hard to justify eight episodes: a bounty hunter brings a baby who looks like Yoda to a mysterious client. 

Considering an oblique flashback scene in the pilot episode, where we see the non-helmeted child who becomes the helmeted Mandalorian, and the character’s seeming tenderness in approaching the baby Yoda (he destroys a fellow bounty-hunting robot who is unwilling to bring the bounty back alive), he’ll no doubt rescue the child and try to save him from other ne’er-do-wells. And we’re likely going to learn a lot more about how that terrified little kid became the taciturn Mandalorian played by Pascal. Presuming, of course, that Pascal really is wearing the suit and helmet in every scene so far, which really can only be a guess at this point.

If that is indeed where The Mandalorian goes, it might be fun and it may have a mix of pathos and thrills. But there’s less clarification on why this story would need to be a show as opposed to a movie. Disney+, of course, is not wanting for new content, having released two new feature films on its opening day, the remake of Lady and the Tramp and the holiday comedy Noelle. But both of those movies, I would wager, have a combined budget that’s vastly less than that of The Mandalorian. There’s no need to clarify why Disney would want new Star Wars content on its streaming service — the Lucasfilm property is one of their biggest money-makers. But why not make this one of those opening-day movies?

Failing that, the other choice that Disney+ could have made and clearly won’t is to make the show more immediately binge-able. The era of streaming services dropping every episode of a show’s given season is subsiding — even Netflix is doing weekly releases for well-liked programs such as The Great British Baking Show. And Disney+ is doing weekly releases for all of its new shows, even documentaries such as The Imagineering Story. While that keeps these shows in the social-media conversation, The Mandalorian isn’t automatically going to benefit from having week-to-week lulls with installments as short as 25 minutes.

All of this is separate of the fact that The Mandalorian is still a compelling new show. There presumably will be unexpected storytelling byways and alleys down which showrunner and executive producer Jon Favreau will travel. But this show’s single-minded focus is both its greatest asset and a possible flaw. The Mandalorian looks the part of an entry in the burgeoning Star Wars universe, and it has an intriguing twist in the bounty hunter’s quarry having a possible connection to one of the franchise’s most beloved yet mysterious characters. Yet this is the rare show that not only feels like a 4- to 5-hour movie; it might have been better off as one.

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