TV Review: The Mandalorian Season 1 – Mega Review

By Matthew Moorcroft

Solid Recommendation

  • Directed by Dave Filoni, Rick Famuyiwa, Deborah Chow, Bryce Dallas Howard, Taika Waititi
  • Starring Pedro Pascal, Carl Weathers, Gina Carano, Nick Nolte
  • TV-14

It has been over 3 years since the first season of The Mandalorian first aired back in late 2019 as the first real “killer app” for Disney+. In fact, Disney was so confident in The Mandalorian as their big show that they launched the service with the program premiering on the same day, which of course led to the show becoming an instant hit over night as people flocked to the service to get their taste of live action Star Wars on the small screen.

It also came out at a very different time for Star Wars, one that was still in the midst of normal theatrical releases and a split fandom that was only getting worse as time went on. The show’s seemingly breath of fresh air, one that was less concerned with the grand Skywalker Saga or the expectations of massive box office results, meant that The Mandalorian was the first time Star Wars since The Force Awakens had truly felt like a cultural event. Again, this was partly cause Disney willed it to be so, but to his credit showrunner Jon Favreau knew his audience and what they were looking for in the franchise.

Mandalorian takes it’s serial roots extremely seriously. While most shows nowadays demand multi episode arcs and storylines, Mandalorian revels in the day-to-day minutiae. While there are indeed character arcs and an ongoing story that slowly unfolds over the course of the season (and likewise the show), it’s episodic nature and “monster of the week” style storytelling take center stage. The weekly format, helped immensely by Disney’s decision to release the show weekly as opposed to all at once as was the norm for most streaming shows at the time, made Mandalorian into the kind of show where you had no idea what you were going to expect every week. New planets? New adventures? New characters? All very likely, and it was exciting.

But it is three years later. Star Wars is now permanently stuck to the TV, a theatrical release seemingly far away at this point, and each new series announced seems more and more indicative about a stagnant franchise that refuses to move on from it’s roots. And in the wake of Andor, maybe the strongest Star Wars project in years pushing the franchise forward in new, unique directions, The Mandalorian seems almost quaint in comparison. If Andor is the franchise’s 5-star restaurant, The Mandalorian is the franchise’s comfort food. It’s not as ambitious or thoughtful, but it’s content being an easy, entertaining watch asking very little of the viewer.

In fact, most of the ambition, from this first season at least, comes from the visuals and how it was even made. Star Wars in live action is always an expensive endeavor, and The Mandalorian‘s invention of StageCraft technology (also known as The Volume) allowed for the expansive look of the movies without stretching the budget of each episode into oblivion. And while the technology has yielded mixed results (The Batman in the positive, The Book of Boba Fett in the negative), The Mandalorian is some of the better usages of said technology thanks to cinematographer Grieg Frasier’s influence. It’s a beautiful looking show for the most part outside of a couple of small looking sets and a couple of moments where the cracks show, but as the first usage of said tech it’s a genuinely impressive achievement.

This beauty extends to the directors of the show as well, and similarly it’s rough around the edges but solid overall. The weakest director of the bunch of is probably newcomer to live action Dave Filoni, who isn’t bad but clearly hasn’t gotten the handle on how properly pace live action moments so some shots feel like they could have been trimmed by a couple of seconds to maximize their impact. It doesn’t help that he’s also been saddled with the weakest episode of the show (The Gunslinger) so his early impressions aren’t exactly positive. Bryce Dallas Howard’s directorial debut is here and it’s very good, though her contributions to further episodes would be far superior and showcase a growing knack for interesting framing and one-takes. Taika Waititi’s finale is predictably strong, even if he’s mostly playing it safe in order to work within the framework of television (that opening scene with the Stormtroopers is peak Waititi, however). But the real standouts this season are Famuyiwa and Chow, who both absolutely kill it in the visuals department. Famuyiwa’s second episode in particular is saved by his direction, which is otherwise a standard prison break episode. He ends up turning it into a full on slasher movie by the end of it, which allows it to kick high gear, using deep reds and quick flash cutting to great effect. And then Chow? Well, Chow got the Obi-Wan Kenobi job due to her work here, and while some have found her work on that show to be lackluster (I wholeheartedly disagree, I found her direction to be quite fantastic in spite of clear budgetary restrictions) and you can see her strengths here. Close ups! Great action beats! Tension! A great sense of geography. She knows her stuff and the decision to put Chow on two of the more story relevant episodes does wonders for this season as a whole.

Despite never lifting off his helmet until the last minutes, Pedro Pascal does incredible work both voicing the titular character as well as performing him. While he has a multitude of stunt actors who are helping him and all of whom deserve the credit equally, Pedro’s physicality during the non-action segments is worth bringing up. He says a lot with very little, and that’s important when there are multiple episodes where he is essentially acting alone. It’s a genuinely fantastic performance, so good in fact many of the supporting players are struggling to keep up with him. The wonky, almost perfunctory dialogue does them no favours, but some like Carl Weathers, Nick Nolte, and Werner Herzog manage, particularly Herzog who is memorable in his brief appearances as a client who desires our now famous “Child” who unknown reasons.

Said mystery about “The Child” is the main thrust of the narrative… for about three episodes, which to then it turns into a chase story that hones in on themes of nature vs. nuture and fatherhood. Din Djarin, as we later learn in the final episode of the show in a manner so casual that it’s unintentionally hilarious, is an orphan of The Clone Wars. He is not true Mandalorian, but a foundling, adopted by the culture and slowly groomed into their ways. It’s an interesting angle to explore within the culture of the Mandalorians, especially as the animated shows already showed some of the variety of clans and characters found in the culture. It’s also important as it ties into his relationship with the Child, who is also an orphan from The Clone Wars, and we get to see that relationship unfold in a natural manner that feels real and earned. Little things like The Child picking up tendencies from Din or Din going out of his way to do things for the kid over time, it all feels earned.

It’s a shame then that the actual stories around that strong narrative theme and emotional connection are so hit or miss. Some, like Sanctuary, which is a Seven Samurai-esqe story that has a moment of “what if” for our lead, are great and give our leads some interesting new realities to explore. Other, like the aforementioned The Gunslinger, are exceptionally weak and mostly feel like lazy action vehicles without much in the way of depth. In fact, the lack of depth is the main thing that prevents The Mandalorian from sticking around longer then about a week (conveniently until the next episode). There isn’t really a lot here underneath the surface – instead the show is simply ok with just delivering a good time with some emotional connections to make sure you tune in next week.

And sometimes that’s all you really need for a solid show. And while later installments of the Mando-verse as it’s begun to be called would highlight it’s strengths and positives more obviously, it’s this first season that I think highlights what it’s actually aiming to be – popcorn entertainment. And as popcorn entertainment, I certainly find a ton of enjoyment in it, and you can do a lot worse then it in the long run.

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