Review – The Mandalorian: Season 1 (2019) *Review In-Progress*

The last year as a Star Wars fan has been rough. Following the release of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi and Solo: A Star Wars Story, fan criticism of the franchise has intensified to the highest levels I’ve ever witnessed (yes, even above the prequels), and confidence in the direction of the brand has dwindled to levels where many have disavowed their interest in the direction of the series. Fingers can be pointed as to why, but with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker releasing in December, the long-running film series chronicling the Skywalker Family will come to a close (for now, at least). Still, Disney paid a lot of money for Lucasfilm, so all of that Star Wars IP has got to be used for something, right? Enter Disney+, the new streaming platform for all things Disney. Even with its impressive back-catalog of decades of Disney films and television, new content is king in this emerging streaming war, and at launch, we get The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars television series of all-time. Set during a largely unexplored time period following Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (post-canon reset by Disney), it gives us the ability to draw on the visuals of the films that are most loved, while offering a flexibility to take creative risks that aren’t beholden to the lore of Jedi codes and ancient histories. Here, we get a bounty hunter doing his job, eking out a living in a galaxy that is without centralized power. The Wild West template spread across the stars is the backdrop, and that alone is reason for fans to be excited. This review, I am going to do my best to keep things spoiler-free with a larger first impression of the first episode and how it sets up the series, while visiting back with edits to give thoughts as the first season reveals itself and give a final review score at the end when all has aired.

EPISODE 1.01: We start with a familiar setting: a cantina with trouble brewing, as ruffians pick a fight with the wrong man: a masked bounty hunter who throughout the first episode goes unnamed. He may as well be labeled, “The Man With No Name”, as everything immediately recalls Spaghetti Westerns. That classic tone is what we continue with, and while it has been evoked before even as early as Episode IV: A New Hope, this series is based on it. Helmets and blasters evoke the familiar, but everything sounds different. Anyone expecting some heroic John Williams score might be disappointed, as this new electronic score lets us know that this isn’t a show about traditional heroes and villains. The murky vibe of it all matches the muted hues of the visuals. We are focused on the gray areas of day-to-day morality; this isn’t a show that is centrally about any large-scale conflict (at least, not yet). This begins focused on an individual. I’m sure that it will pull away to a larger canvas by season’s end, but just watching the regular life of a bounty hunter played out is fascinating, because until now, it’s been confined to either the page or imaginations.

The cast beyond the first episode will grow (and likely shrink, due to the nature of bounty hunting), but it started off things in a great way. Pedro Pascal is great as the title character, giving us everything we need to go by, just from his physicality and the cadence of his voice. Carl Weathers brings a welcome presence in a role that will surely grow along the journey as Greef Carga, the leader of the bounty hunting guild. If his casting is based on any of his past characters in other films, he should be interesting down the line. Werner Herzog brings some great eccentricity, and I hope he pops up throughout. Moments of weirdness kept things interesting in this pilot, and hopefully, that is a trait that continues. Nick Nolte‘s character would have been a better surprise if various promos hadn’t spoiled him, but that one-of-a-kind voice is perfect for his role, regardless. The humor is a little hit or miss throughout, but it all works for Taika Waititi‘s character who I will leave for people to discover. He’s poised to direct an episode later this season, which should be great.

The action and pacing is the best thing I’ve seen in anything live-action Disney Star Wars since they acquired the rights. The cliffhanger ending of the first episode is sure to leave fans shook at potential repercussions. Playing through them in my mind fills me with anticipation not only for this season, but this series overall. My only misgivings with the first episode was some of the aforementioned humor and the quality of some of the makeup effects. Granted, this is the first live-action television series for Star Wars, so I’m pretty forgiving of that. Still, there are some surprise actors in the episode that took me out of it a bit, because I know them from other work. Basically, some characters didn’t fully disappear into their roles, which is a shame. Still, that effect was minor to the overall impact. To offset that, the show uses the top-of-the-line CGI to economically create the backdrops that appear photo-real. It’s amazing to witness, and while it is expensive, it is money well spent. The music, the action, the imagery, and the intrigue of it all made for one of the most effective first episodes I’ve ever seen, Star Wars or not. I have major respect for Dave Filoni for a successful transition from animation to directing live-action with such skill here.

EPISODE 1.02 “The Child”: After a cliffhanger of an ending, this one proves to be an incredible follow-up episode. There are quiet moments, accompanied by some of the best action so far. If the first episode made its distinction to the larger canvas of Star Wars, this episode has moments that remind us that yes, this has definite ties to what we’ve known and loved before. If this episode proves indicative of the remaining episodes, then we don’t know what to expect in terms of pacing and focus. That is a great thing, as it keeps us on our toes. Our title character is most enjoyable when his tenacity outweighs his circumstances. One could say not much happens this episode, but I became even more attached to him this time. While he doesn’t say much, he is easy to root for, and I can’t wait to see where this story takes him.

EPISODE 1.03 “The Sin”: Now, the plot is starting to move. If any could have found reason to criticize the second episode for a slower pace, they should be silenced by this one. Once it gets going, this is some of the best action we’ve seen in Star Wars. Fans of Mandalorian history and lore get some incredible moments in this episode. If the episode’s title gives any clue, the morality of the show really comes to the forefront here, and by the episode’s end, choices are made that will be foundational to everything that follows. Interestingly, there are characters that are prominent in promotions that haven’t appeared yet, but I figure that will soon change. Action and tension tends to build, so while this episode offers greatness, we’ve likely a great amount more in store for us by season’s end.

EPISODE 1.04 “Sanctuary”: Now that we’re all intrigued and the central plot is fully in motion, Bryce Dallas Howard gets to slow things back down and make a character focused episode. Interestingly, she is now the first child of a Star Wars director to direct a Star Wars project herself, after her father recently stepped in to complete director duties on SOLO: A Star Wars Story. The amazing thing about this show is that, at this point in the season, we are still being introduced to major characters with more to go, and each (so far) has slipped right in naturally. To this point, that is one of the biggest strengths of the series: it all feels natural, and this episode recontextualizes things in Star Wars past to their best effect yet. My favorite shots of this episode (and some of the best yet) come in the opening moments with a true calm before a storm that shows natural life amongst the regular denizens of this galaxy. That is what I love about this series, and it is what a “Star Wars” TV series can give that films don’t have the runtime for.

CONTENT: While there’s a darker edge to everything visually, violence (at least for now) is more implied than explicitly shown. Language and sexual content was non-existent in the pilot; we’ll see how that progresses. The series seems to be setting up a meditation on doing the morally right thing, whenever that may put oneself in a difficult position with regard to others. That may be a predictable journey for a bounty-hunter series, but it leaves much room for surprise along the way. The Mandalorian people have a storied past in Star Wars lore, and it seems as though that will be explored as well. I welcome that, and if they do so, it will be interesting to see lessons of duty and honor from one of the oldest Star Wars civilizations, especially in the larger context of a period of lawlessness.

Overall, I’m going to assign a score based on its premiere episode. In the end, I’ll give it a series score that may be less than that. As you may have inferred, I found the pilot to be near perfect, and honestly, I can’t see how any Star Wars fan could have a problem with it. It’s exactly what I’ve wanted since the reality of “more Star Wars” came to be with the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm: stories that show us what it is like to be a non-Force user. With the Skywalker Saga soon coming to a close on the big-screen, this series shows us what it all can be like on television, and it totally lives up to the precedent set by its animated series, The Clone Wars and Rebels. Everyone involved can be proud that they have reinvigorated fan interest in Star Wars, a statement that seems like it would never have been needed. However, it is, and this does it. Enjoy.

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