In the ruins of a recently vanquished Galactic Empire, a Mandalorian bounty hunter named Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) is going about his usual business when a mysterious client (Werner Herzog) sends him on a mission to retrieve a mysterious target. The Mando knows only two things: the mark is fifty years old, and many bounty hunters before him have tried – and failed – to bring them in. And so begins the eponymous first chapter of The Mandalorian, the first live-action TV series in Star Wars forty year history….
The series fulfils many fans’ long held wish to explore the Star Wars universe, as though in some free roam video game, divorced from the Skywalker saga. And why shouldn’t they? One of the strengths of the original trilogy was how it managed to imply a vast and complex universe without overexplaining it, leaving that to the tie-in novels, prequels, video games, and animated series that it spawned around it. Even so, this expanded universe never strayed too far from the main conflict of the franchise: the age-old rivalry between the Sith and the Jedi, the Empire and the Rebellion. By positioning the plot of this new spin-off between the events of the original and sequel trilogies, writer John Favreau does away with these things entirely, giving us a day-in-the-life glimpse into our favorite samurai-space-western galaxy.
The Mandalorian boasts many of the same strengths as early Star Wars fare, both tonally and visually. In the vein of the original and sequel trilogies, the combination of practical and digital effects keeps the worlds of tangible but still awe-inspiring. Andrew L. Jones’ grimy production design feels more reminiscent of A New Hope than Return of the Jedi, but this is to his credit. The universe feels dirty, lived in; liberated – but not yet fully recovered – from the clutches of the Empire’s regime.
Where The Mandalorian stands out from the crowd, however, is in its more humorous tone, particularly in its establishing sequences. The original trilogy had the sexy back-and-forth between Han and Leia; the prequels pandered to the kids in the front row with lots of toilet humour and groan-inducing puns; the sequels were broad, quippy, and Marvel-esque. The Mandalorian is drier than that, more deadpan (which is all you can really ask for from a show where the main character never removes his helmet). There’s a specific type of gallows humour that goes with the for-me-it-was-Tuesday lifestyle of a bounty hunter, which gives the programme a more grownup edge without having to fall into the trappings of grimdark.
For a pilot episode, there is very little in the way of exposition. Without the main character’s facial expressions to fall back on, the brunt of the storytelling falls to Ludwig Göransson’s score, who, although no John Williams, employs some very clever tricks to keep us up to speed. A particular example occurs in a flashback sequence, where the Mandalorian’s theme is repeated an octave higher up, to let us know that the terrified child we are watching is a young, squeakier version of our hero. While usually I’d applaud these moments of non-verbal storytelling, they do make the story itself somewhat hard to follow at times, especially for a premise so simple: no, I don’t want to hear any lengthy exposition dumps explaining who every character is, what planet they’re from, and why I should care – but equally I don’t want to sit through three different middle men before the ball starts rolling, especially without understanding why. Perhaps this is intentional, written to make us lean in that little bit closer, to make sure we keep bingeing until we fully understand what’s going on. However, when the episode ends with such an already iconic cliffhanger, it’s hard to imagine anyone clicking away too quickly.
In summary, the debut episode of The Mandalorian is a by-the-numbers fetch quest that nevertheless manages to adequately ease us back into the Star Wars universe. For the most part, “Chapter 1: The Mandalorian” breezes through its fifty minute run time as you explore this post-Vader Star Wars, but there are still moments where you’ll find yourself wishing it could pick up the pace.
The Mandalorian: Season One is available exclusively in the UK on Disney+. Chapter 1 and 2 are available now, with subsequent episodes released every Friday.