Last year, Disney dropped The Mandalorian, a Disney+ exclusive Star Wars TV series, into one of its most crowded entertainment years of all time. Avengers Endgame un-snapped the world. Leia and Kylo died. Heck, the company released three live-action remakes of cartoon classics last year.
This year, a new season of The Mandalorian no longer has the benefit of being a behind-the-Rise surprise, nor part of a massive Disney entertainment barrage. It arrives with expectations, interest, and—in a pandemic-stricken world—little else in the way of competition.
But you wouldn’t know that watching Mando and “The Child” return to TV screens early this morning. Series creator Jon Favreau once again writes and directs the new season’s first episode, and in doing so, he places a firm first step into a comfortable foothold. In Mandalorian terms, that means viewers will find another entertaining interpretation of the “space cowboy” motif that last year’s season delivered so well.
Catching up on S1
When we last left our armor-clad anti-hero, he and his makeshift posse had successfully pushed back one more attempt by Empire-affiliated heavies to kidnap his tiny, green homeboy. This standoff-and-escape had all the trappings of a season finale.
At the time, we bid farewell to bounty-hunting friends Cara and Greef, who teamed up for their own potential quest. We tearfully considered the sacrifices of fellow Mandalorians (particularly the Armorer, who went off-screen to presumably, but probably not, die) and helpful, season-long droid IG-11 (who self-destructed, but it’s Star Wars, so who knows if he’s really dead). And we see Moff Gideon get shot down in explosive fashion, only to pull himself out of his ship’s wreckage and wield that lightsaber.
The second season’s first episode opens with a title card that reads “Chapter 9,” and it’s the first good hint of what’s to come: a continuation, as if 11 long months haven’t passed between episodes.
In other words, just as the first season was careful to let its accordion squeeze back and forth between a character departing and returning, so too does “The Marshal” assume that those freshly departed characters won’t be back for a minute. That’s worth spoiling in my opinion, because the 50-minute episode still has plenty worth sinking your teeth into. Taking away a false pretense of “who’s coming back?!” throughout the episode just makes it a less tense viewing.
Guess we’re going back
Instead, we land in familiar territory—though I’m careful not to use “formulaic,” since that word has negative connotations, and The Mandalorian‘s first season was at its best when it shamelessly played out like Gunsmoke: Galaxy Edition.
With this season opener, anyone familiar with the series can guess where things are going pretty quickly. In a by-the-numbers opening sequence, Favreau shakes some ingredients in a blender: Mando needs intel; he has to go somewhere sketchy to retrieve it; Baby Yoda squirms and makes faces in the background; and butts get kicked before Mando gets the deets.
The intel in question picks up where last season left off. As the Armorer said in her farewell, other Mandalorians likely hold the best clues for where to find The Child’s hidden Jedi brethren, so our hero’s looking for other members of his Order across the galaxy. One clue hinges on a wild allegation, but it’s true according to a hog-tied source in duress, promise-and-swear: There’s a Mandalorian hidden somewhere on Tatooine. Guess we’re going back.
The act of following this intel to familiar sights is the episode’s slowest moment, though it organically reaffirms Mando’s change in tone. Where he once recoiled at getting help from droids on the series’ classic desert planet, Mando now shrugs his shoulders. This change in tune bleeds through the rest of the episode, since it sees him scouring Tatooine in search of the Mandalorian in question.
What he finds instead is the episode’s titular marshal, a man named Cobb Vanth (Timothy Olyphant), who has repurposed familiar-looking Mandalorian armor. Early in Season One, Mando would’ve rendered immediate justice on such a heretical act. This time, he pauses for long enough to discover an even bigger foe.
ORP ORP BLEEUTH
This is where The Mandalorian‘s serial TV nature works to its benefit. Most of the episode revolves around Mando brokering a truce between Vanth’s mildly populated ghost town and the nearby Tusken raiders, and it’s almost as unbelievable an accomplishment as Mando himself skipping his primary mission to help people with a non-Yoda side quest.
But this is “Chapter 9” of a longer story arc, and this many chapters in, we’re seeing Mando’s code adapt. When people work together to survive and find something that resembles peace, Mando has a resolute mission to punch, shoot, or kill anyone—or anything—who might antagonize them. After benefiting from so many altruistic sacrifices on The Child’s behalf, Mando seems predisposed to paying that spirit forward from here on out.
Hence, his no-nonsense, “we have a common foe” philosophy trickles down to Vanth, who is played perfectly by Olyphant. Hearing him say things like, “I guess every once in a while, both suns shine on a womp rat’s tail,” reminds me that he’s already spent much of his acting career auditioning for “down-on-his-luck space sheriff,” so his casting is a meaty payoff. His delightful performance is met by an endlessly comedic bond forged with Tusken raiders. Every time we’re supposed to fear or respect this race of desert-combing bandits, we’re met by a machine-gun spray of their noises: ORP ORP BLEEUTH GH-GH-GH-GHAAA NYYYARRRGHH, usually combined with exuberant arm-pumping. It’s Star Wars as hell, and I’m here for it.
Their common foe is a massive, satisfying beast, and the episode’s VFX budget seems to have been spent entirely on making sure its sprays of desert sand and hulking, terrifying nature didn’t fall apart under nerdy “graphics” examinations. The same cannot be said for the ho-hum CGI effects applied to droids, lizards, and speeder bikes, which all play out with a weird lack of ambient occlusion or shadow adjustment. That being said, Vanth’s speeder bike is a treat to behold for anybody fluent in Tattooine lore, and Favreau made the right call emphasizing the episode’s digital Big Bad at the cost of other effects.
Not Star Wars: Helms Deep
As a season opener, however, the 50-minute episode suffers for having little in the way of stakes. Picking up where we last left off means watching Mando roll into a new saloon with the expectation that he’ll kick butt and leave unscathed, and the episode’s lack of consequences makes me question its stretched length compared to other 25-35 minute episodes. Don’t look at the 50-minute runtime and expect Star Wars: Helms Deep. While the action in this episode has some great moments, it’s ultimately modest.
That being said, you know Star Wars isn’t blowing smoke when it makes any of its characters pilot their way back to Tatooine. In that respect, the episode delivers with an expectation-setting moment for the season. It isn’t quite as whoa-worthy as a tiny, bug-eyed Yoda appearing out of nowhere, but it’s a perfect counter to watching Good Mando spend an entire episode redefining his personal creed. How will a somewhat reformed, peace-at-any-cost Mando grapple with the episode’s final-moment ramifications?
That, really, is the joy of a week-by-week serial, and the first season proved that when given a chance, the Star Wars powers-that-be still understand the original trilogy’s style, pace, and weirdness. A by-the-numbers season premiere is fine by me, if it means we’ll continue being gripped by humor-tinged action, uneasy alliances, and flickers of what-the-heck-will-they-do-next.