One of the marquee shows adorning the bright and shiny new Disney + streaming platform – quite where the “plus” comes in isn’t clear since the expansive roster of TV shows and movies is either directly Disney or from companies such as Marvel and Lucasfilm which are owned by the company – The Mandalorian is a big budget, cinematically resplendent piece of storytelling that fits neatly, and with Rogue One edginess, into the rapidly re-expanding official Star Wars universe.
“Re-expanding”is used deliberately since what was called the Expanded Universe, which included a slew of books, TV shows and comics, in addition to the officially-released movies, shrank quite dramatically in 2014, part of a deliberate by Lucasfilm’s new owner Disney to clear out the clutter and get Star Wars storytelling back to basics.
Whether it was a wise move depends on who you are – voices for, against and simply factual were raised in the ensuing Force-like disturbance – but it certainly had one significant upside, clearing out a myriad of characters and setting and restoring the simplicity of a universe which from A New Hope (1977) had always thrived on elegantly-stripped back storytelling.
It is into this smaller but cleverly re-expanding universe that The Mandalorian steps, set between the Empire-ending events of Return of the Jedi (1983) when the galaxy has been plunged into a chaotic post-Soviet Union type break-up and the New Republic, though in charge, is struggling to keep things firmly ship shape across the entire area it technically governs.
In many ways, the setting is a stroke of genius, offering up all kinds of storytelling possibilities free from the emergence of the First Order who have yet to raise their neo-Imperialistic heads.
Much like the fall of the USSR, the galaxy is a place where people are free but the grip of law and order is tenuous, where old pieces of Imperial tech have fallen into the hands of brigands and wannabe warlords and where everyone is angling for their piece of a suddenly anything-goes pie.
It might seem like a gloriously free and opportunistic landscape, and in many ways it is, but only if you have the means and the power to simultaneously defend yourself and advance yourself, which The Mandalorian, part of a race of people known for their fierce warrior prowess (they were the inspiration behind Boba Fett to put it far too simply), manifestly does.
A bounty hunter who is part of a guild of individuals who compete more often than not for scraps of the supra-law and disorder table created by the lack of New Republic reach, he has a face and a name (Dyn Jarren) but under the strict Mandalorian code of conduct (“It is the way”) he is forbidden from removing it in front of anyone.
Anyone at all.
To do so, is to forfeit his position as a warrior of distinction, his membership of a race of people who after the mysteriously-referred to “The Purge” – think Imperial invasion of Mandalore, the genocide of its people and scattering of the the survivors – live in the shadows of society, scraping together a living in a galaxy that knows of them but in which they feel they have no place.
Given his consummate military skills, Mando (played by Pedro Pascal), as he is often rather pejoratively known, is pretty much at the top of the bounty hunting heap, accruing stocks of the all-important Beskar steel from which his armour is made, using the excess to fund the care and education of Mandalorian youngsters known as “Foundlings” ( of which he was once one) and which saves his life on a regular basis.
With the Mandalorians’ feared reputation as warriors of almost invincible skill and startlingly successful good judgement still firmly in place, despite their shadowy existence at society’s margins, Mando has no trouble getting work, taking gig after successfully-executed gig from Greef Karga (Carl Weathers) who oversees the guild and effectively holds the fate of bounty hunters like Mando is his seemingly caring but clearly self-interested hands.
Given the nature of the work, and the distinctively rough edges around the galaxy, The Mandalorian has the feel of a lawless Western, infused with an almost meditatively pensive quality which is punctuated by violent battles between all kinds of competing interests but which overall mirrors the quiet authority and determination of its protagonist a man known for singlemindedly carrying out his jobs with forensic care and steely determination.
Until one day his humanity reasserts itself, and on the outpost of Navarro, where the guild is based, he decides to take back a small child he had acquired for obviously Imperial interests overseen by the Client (Werner Herzog) – they are guarded by stormtroopers, all looking a bit worse for wear – who has become known as Baby Yoda and clearly has abilities in the Force which are of interest to his new owners.
While he tries to tell himself it’s just another job, his conscience eventually gets the better of him, and he takes back the kid, setting in motion a series of events which sees his life upended but his integrity and sense of individual self restored.
In many ways he is the orginal taciturn heart-of-gold loner gunfighter that we see quite often in Westerns, the kind of person who, after a lifetime of shutting down their emotions, comes alive in circumstances that remind him of the sort of person he once was or his long buried painful origins.
In this instance, it is a traumatic childhood – his past is told in fragmented flashbacks that vividly recreate the struggle he is facing as the memories surface again – that spurs him to action and as his previous life explodes, quite literally, in a hail of gunfire and frenzied battle with onetime bounty hunting colleagues, he finds himself ecnountering people who challenge who he thinks he is and what he knows of himself.
What makes Mando such a compelling character is that for all his emotional repression and near-silent interactions with others (he is not a man who wastes words), he is at heart a decent, kind man bound to a strict code of honour and with integrity to burn.
All his interactions with a range of people from Cara Dune (Gina Carano), a former rebel shock trooper he encounters on the planet Sorgan, and Omera (Julia Jones), one of the villagers he and Cara save from raiding bandits to repair person Peli Motto (Amy Sedaris) on Tattoine to Kuiil (Nick Nolte), an Ugnaught moisture farmer on the desert planet where he finds Baby Yoda, are covered by a honour and a sense of doing the right thing always.
He is, in every non-cheesy way, a Good Guy, the kind of person who the New Republic fought for and who, in the vacuum created by their absence in too many places, is keeping the peace and upholding what is right and good while they cannot.
It’s not, of course, his original intention when he takes Baby Yoda back, but it is what he becomes, and in a series that touches nicely on a host on Star Wars constants such as the Mos Eisley cantina, the floor-hugging droids and cracks at the poor sharpshooting of stormtroopers among others, it augurs well for a man perfectly placed in the messy tumult that follows regime change to become an agent for the very change of which he was once a simple user and is now an architect and sustainer.
With episodes 7 and 8 still in the offing – they release December 18 and 27 respectively – The Mandalorian, complete with stunning visuals and gripping music, is a richly complex, layered series with a decent, honourable protagonist who is conflicted and lost, despite his code of conduct and clear cut profession, and who finds real purpose beyond his reputation and persona in shepherding another life, and in the process changing for the better many lives around him.
It is in many ways an archetypal Star Wars story that explores how greatly one lone person can change the world, or in this case, the galaxy around them, simply by doing the right thing when everyone else around him in heading in quite the opposite direction, and how they themselves are changed for the better as a Westerns-inspired morality play unfolds and proves that real honour and love are not flaky concepts but things of real muscular solidity and life-changing power.
The Mandalorian is streaming on Disney +