Is this a bounty hunter worth tracking down, or should you drop this cargo at the first sign of trouble?
When Disney+ launched, the undisputed “killer app” to sell the service was a brand new, live-action series set in the Star Wars universe. A weekly series, Disney’s show cashes in on the cultural cachet of Boba Fett by exploring the mysterious group of bounty hunters known as Mandalorians. It also turns on the proven talents of writer/producer Jon Favreau, a key architect of the Marvel renaissance.
Now that three episodes are out, we felt comfortable giving our recommendation on the series. The Mandalorian is filled with intriguing ideas, but opts to keep much hidden behind its impenetrable mask.
The Mandalorian (2019)
A nameless bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal), clad in the iconic armor of the Mandalorians, pursues his targets across the galaxy. Looking for a score big enough to earn him promotion within the ranks of his order, he convinces his handler (Carl Weathers) to give him a risky bounty. Powerful former members of the Galactic Empire are searching for a special target. When the Mandalorian finally catches up with the mark, his usual cold-blooded approach to his work is put to the ultimate test.
Episode 1: Chapter 1.
Our silent and stoic hunter pulls a fast-talking alien out of a deadly bar fight, only to reveal that he’s taking him in. The alien attempts to smooth talk his way into escape, only to discover a cargo bay brimming with Carbonite-frozen bounties. This Mandalorian rarely misses and never relents.
Unable to afford to upgrade his apprentice level armor, the Mandalorian looks for a bigger mark. He is sent to a remote desert planet at the behest of a cartel of rich (and deadly) former imperials. There, he discovers that his target is not some vile criminal: it is a child…a child that his employers want dead.
I avoided giving into FOMO-OC (fear of missing out on clicks) and writing this up at launch because this first episode is such an enigma. In fact, its stock in trade is piling up riddle boxes in hopes of hooking you into coming back. The hero is a cypher, the mission is mysterious, the place in the Star Wars timeline is vague, and the settings are riffs on already established locales.
Instead of boldly staking out new territory, Favreau is dropping hints and allusions to familiar Star Wars images and themes. The charm here comes from the explicit recasting of the SW space opera as a space Spaghetti Western. It takes all of the callbacks it deploys and deftly turns them to the tropes of the wild west.
Episode 2: The Child.
The Mandalorian opts to keep the child alive, thwarting several rival hunters from completing their assassination attempts. When he returns to the ship with the little alien in tow, he discovers that Jawas have ransacked his ship. Now he has to track them down and find a way to get the parts back, or else remain stranded on the desert planet for good.
One thing that got my wind up in the first episode was how uneven the action was. It’s the same here. The combat is really clunky and clumsy, nothing like the ballet of violence we see in other modern Star Wars offerings. The gun-fighting is better, but not giving Sergio Leone or John Ford a run for their money. The big spectacle set-pieces (each episode ends on one) are pretty good, but that appears to be where all the CG budget goes each time out.
I’m still up in the air by the end of the second episode. The Western elements are a nice touch, but need their own identity. As just a Western, The Mandalorian is fairly pedestrian. The whole “…but in space!” angle wears off pretty quickly. The characters need to develop, fast. Nick Nolte’s prospector alien – who helps the Mandalorian – is so far the deepest character…and we just left him planet-side.
Episode 3: The Sin.
The Mandalorian reluctantly opts to stick to his code as a bounty hunter and give the kid to his employers. His sense of guilt develops when nobody will answer his questions about what the kid is wanted for.
His guilty conscience is further inflamed when the rest of his tribe see the shiny new armor his ill-gotten gains have bought him, and accuse him of betraying their principles. The Empire had a hand in destroying Mandalor, so his choice is doubly damning. Needing to make amends, he sets off in search of the kid.
The third episode is the strongest so far. We get telling details about the bounty hunters, the Mandalorians, the imperial remnant, and our hero. Both the Western bits and Star Wars bits are all pulling in the same direction here. The big set piece, a roving gunfight down the main street, a la Tombstone, really gets all of the voltage of the classic Old West shoot-out.
Structurally, it feels like the first and third episodes are meant to flow together as a natural pilot episode. That makes it frustrating that they are chopped up and parceled out over three weeks. The second episode mostly acts as filler. All three point to a troubling, repeated formula: slow-burn revelation of a problem, our hero failing, introspection, a big redemptive action piece, then an iconic Star Wars image used as a tantalizing reveal. Hopefully the series opens up in structure now that the intro is over.
Binge or Purge?: The Mandalorian.
The Mandalorian is a tough call. I like the Western motifs, they’re just a bit bald. As a concept, the Mandalorian is intriguing, but he’s too vague right now. I like the arc of the plot, but it’s not ground breaking. The novelty comes from a) the Western tint to standard Star Wars stuff, and b) the Star Wars Easter eggs used to punch up each episode. I feel like before I get an emotional investment in the characters, I’m going to get tired of the formula.
The Mandalorian is by no means bad. It’s just not emphatically good. Not yet. With so many options out there, and this show needing to be proof of concept that Disney+ is worth the asking price, that’s not good enough. The Mandalorian is all hat and hardly any cattle. Purge.