One of the great strengths of Star Wars has always been its ability to encompass a wide variety of styles and tones. It’s a universe that is as likely to have a philosophical journey about the meaning of life as it is a madcap space adventure or political intrigue. This stylistic adaptability has served it well over the years, allowing there to be at least one little corner of the universe for everyone. That was part of what made Disney’s promise of a glut of Star Wars content intriguing, since there are so many different things you could do with the property. Other than the darker war movie vibes of Rogue One, though, Disney hasn’t necessarily delivered on that promise.
In strides The Mandalorian, confidently approaching the bar and daring anyone to mess with it. This series is every promise made by the cantina scene in A New Hope and the slimy underworld of Jabba’s palace. A grimy space western set against the strange mix of high-tech, low-tech, and unfamiliar creatures Star Wars is known for, The Mandalorian revels in the series’ origin as a throwback to old genre serials. From the opening scene, a classic barroom (or cantina) entrance and brawl, the show lets you know what to expect and spends 40 minutes delivering.
Indeed, the show is at its best when it fully embraces its western roots. The taciturn, helmeted Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) is a natural stand-in for the type of gruff anti-hero popularized by Clint Eastwood, every close-up of that iconic T-visor as inscrutable as Eastwood’s craggy face. When the Mandalorian walks down an alley full of shady characters and Muppet aliens or rides a reptilian creature called a Blurrg across a desert landscape, the series soars. The action is surprisingly excellent for a TV series as well. The opening cantina brawl is short but brutal in entertaining fashion, and the massive shootout that ends the episode deftly ratchets and releases its tension at just the right moments.
Any attempt to add much emotion or purpose beyond stylistic touches is clunky at best though, and faintly ridiculous at worst. A scene where the Mandalorian returns to his tribe to deliver his earnings is emblematic of these failures. While the decision to keep the Mandalorians helmeted at all times is certainly in keeping with canon, it makes the attempt to mine emotion from his awarding of a new piece of armor for his successes very difficult. Combined with a poorly executed flashback to some vague tramautic past and some fairly excruciating dialogue, the scene is impossible to take seriously. Nothing else is quite so bad, but the fact remains that none of the attempts to add real character to the Mandalorian really work.
Still, for those who love a good western, and especially those who find Star Wars‘ particular combination of space frontier and criminal underworld endlessly compelling, The Mandalorian is exactly what you hoped it would be. When you see a busted up old speeder racing across an icy plain, or the Mandalorian in a tense stand-off with a bunch of old Stormtroopers in beaten-up armor, it’s easy to forget the flaws. It’s unlikely to enter the canon of truly amazing Star Wars works, but sometimes you want that pure genre fun. To anyone who’s ever dreamed about cutting a deal with an unscrupulous alien in a dingy booth of a backwater cantina, The Mandalorian has just the thrills you’re looking for.