Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Star Wars Subjectivities: The Mandalorian

Lone Wolf and Cub

It's fair to say that The Mandalorian changed how we think of Star Wars. Sure, the franchise long ago branched out from films to other media (novels, comics, games, etc.) but for whatever reason it never really stuck as a television franchise. The Mandalorian showed us that you could take the HBO "prestige television" model and repurpose it to tell stories within a popular cinematic universe. And do it well. 

Shifting from film to the television format allows storytellers to do two things simultaneously: (1) narrow the scope of conflict to tell "smaller" stories; and (2) lengthen the narrative timeline for telling those stories. Turns out we like seeing what the (more) regular folks are up to and really like getting to know the characters in more depth. 

Mando succeeds for a few reasons. First, the setting. Star Wars is many things: space opera, galactic fantasy, sci-fi romance and so forth. Mando leans into another element: Star Wars as space spaghetti Western. The films create a clear delineation between the metropole (Core Worlds) and periphery (Outer Rim). The Outer Rim is an institutionally weak place, with many planets run by gangsters who have cut deals with the Empire. The Empire, for that matter, is present but not ever-present. 

After the destruction of the second Death Star, authority falls to the New Republic - which is less violent and oppressive than its predecessor, but isn't more present. And, as it happens, Imperial remnants have largely decamped to the Outer Rim to reorganize as an insurgency. It is here that we meet the eponymous Mandalorian, a bounty hunter named Din Djarin who is part of a zealot cult within the Mandalorian diaspora. 

Din Djarin is hired by Imperial agents to retrieve an asset, which he discovers is a Force-sensitive child from the same species as Yoda. During the retrieval, the Child saves Din Darin's life. Once he gets a sense of why the Empire wants him, given this debt and a growing bond with the Child, Din Djarin reneges on his contract and becomes himself a wanted man. 

Over the course of three seasons, The Mandalorian tells the story of Din Darin's fight to protect the Child and, ultimately, to raise him as his own. His war against the Empire is not one fought for the Greater Good or The Cause, but rather one fought to save his adopted child and fulfill his obligations, first as a life debt holder and then as a father. This is fundamentally at odds with the Star Wars cinematic framework, where all is subordinated to a zero-sum war between light and darkness. 


It's fair to say that The Mandalorian is the only Disney franchise that has really resonated with me on a human level. It's not the only one I like: I appreciate the hardboiled political narrative in Andor, the grim military drama of Rogue One and the elegant visuality of Ahsoka. All are very good, and good precisely because they tell different stories, in different ways, from the central narrative of the installment films. But The Mandalorian is special to me for a few distinct reasons:

A "Lived In" World

Space opera films typically portray the future in gleaming whites and chromes. When attempts are made to depict "normal" living conditions, it either ends up looking sterile or just super fake and low budget, a la Star Trek: TNG. The exception is Star Wars: A New Hope. Tatooine is a junk pile of a planet, where life is tough and most things are jerry-rigged from multiple pieces of scrap. The Mandalorian puts us right back in this part of the Star Wars world - even the stormtroopers look worse for wear. 

It also does a good job of capturing the moment in time when these events take place. The Empire is gone and, for many, it's good riddance - one early episode even shows stormtrooper heads on pikes. But remnants of the Empire remain active and malign. We get the sense that the Outer Rim isn't much changed from the Imperial days; if anything, institutional power is more thin than it was before. 

A Focus on (Non-Romantic) Relationships

We are collectively obsessed with "shipping" characters, which in turn is a reflection of how films and television programs collectively center romantic relationships. But most meaningful relationships in any given person's life are not romantic in nature: familial ties, friendship ties, neighborly ties, collegial ties, etc. 

The Mandalorian is ultimately about the relationship between a father and his adopted child, about the father's relationship to the community he is a part of and the various bonds of friendship they forge along their adventures. As with the Original Trilogy, a central theme of The Mandalorian is the importance of loyalty and dedication to the people who love you, that you can do no better than to do right by them and that, ultimately, the "winners" will be those who show the greatest capacity to love (platonically). 

What's more is this never feels corny or overwrought. Nothing, after all, is more cringe than stories about the power of friendship that don't first establish why we should give a shit about these particular friends.   

The Right Kind of Anti-Hero

Anti-Hero stories are common these days, so common in fact that many iterations are now as cliche as the rote heroism they purport to deconstruct. The Mandalorian, on the other hand, presents the right kind of anti-hero, at least for me. Din Djarin is a reluctant hero who doesn't really want to be involved in any Galactic entanglements - but is drawn in against his will and better judgement. This happens because he has a strong code of ethics and even stronger bonds of loyalty. He is fundamentally likable, but he is not a "white knight" like Luke Skywalker. 

But let me tell you something - do not piss this guy off. Many of the most satisfying scenes in The Mandalorian involve Din Djarin exacting revenge on various malign forces. It's almost better when you know going in that the antagonists stand no chance. And it's doing it 100% because these fools will not stop messing with his kid. 

Superb Guest Appearances

There are so many memorable characters, from villains like Werner Herzog's Client and Giancarlo Esposito's Moff Gideon to companions and allies like Taika Waititi's IG-11, Katee Sackhof's Bo-Katan Kryze and Bill Burr's ex-Imperial Migs Mayfeld. Burr in particular shines, giving what may be the performance of the entire series for Season 2's denouement

General Vibes

As I've now argued in several reviews and roundtables, Star Wars is at its best when it projects a certain aesthetic and mood - less about what is happening and more about how it looks and feels when things are happening. The Force Awakens showed us that vibes can only take you so far, but the Prequels taught us that Star Wars with the wrong vibes is just fundamentally not good. The Mandalorian nails the Star Wars vibes perfectly. 

At the end of the day, The Mandalorian is exactly what I want from a new Star Wars story. It nails the mood and vibes while telling a different kind of story in a different way. It is the complete opposite of the amateurish Prequels or the tired, unimaginative Sequel films. It is, in a word, superb. 

POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.