During the last twenty minutes of this episode I had to remind myself I was watching television.
Not the fact that I was literally watching it on a TV screen, rather how this wasn’t a tentpole cinema release but an episode of a web series. The Mandalorian is cinematic in a way that even the heights of something like Game of Thrones never achieved, while still telling – when it comes down to it – a fairly simple story about parenthood. This show feels like the only venture in the massive Star Wars brand that can truly be its own thing – JJ Abrams brought the franchise back to life with a wonderful but derivative Episode VI, and Rian Johnson’s open-ended conclusion The Last Jedi (which, to get on the record early, is a masterpiece) was boldly original yet still actively pushing against the confines of what a Star Wars joint is, or should be. Comparatively, Mando is free from that ridiculously accumulated pressure, allowing it to be much looser in its narrative – and often much better.
This is all proudly on display in ‘The Marshal’, the oh-so-great starting gun to the second season of the adventures of Baby Yoda and his minder (to be fair the little guy doesn’t feature heavily at all in this episode, but all it takes is a cutaway to his adorable little face to remind me why we’re all really watching). It picks up more of less where we left them, with Pedro Pascal’s Mando fully committed to reuniting the Child with his own kind – and that starts by finding another of his. In trying to locate another living Mandalorian after the carnage of last season’s events, he arrives on a rather familiar desert planet, in a town featuring a protector with some rather familiar armour.
It’s not who you think it is, but a classic Western gunslinger by the name of Cobb Vanth played by Timothy Olyphant (who almost certainly by now has stipulated in his contract that he can only play sheriffs). It’s a surprise to be sure, but a joyously welcome one to see him here as absurdly charming as ever, as a laid-back yet committed marshal of a small Tatooine village with a lot of problems, not least a giant fuck-off sand dragon resembling one of the hideous worms from Dune. Said dragon is the most pressing matter affecting the town, so Mando strikes a deal with Vanth – I’ll help kill the dragon if you gimme the armour back afterwards – and they set off together to save the day, with Olyphant shining as always as a worthy ally and a witty foil to Pedro Pascal’s finely-tuned soulfulness. He’d better be back.
The Mandalorian has primarily staked its claim as a pseudowestern, but one of it’s strengths is in how it manages to gently genre-bend to suit every episode without breaking the back of the story It’s Hitman one week, Jaws the other – and while it remains to be seen whether the planet-of-the-week style can hold up to the overarching narrative without faltering slightly like some of the Season 1 chapters, the episodic content is still insanely gratifying. Our main man constantly stopping by to help out whoever he happens to be near at the moment, also solidifies the main thesis of the story – time and time again this show has chipped away at the idea that you can (or should) go things alone; the power of companionship and community is the heart of The Mandalorian and the true reason why it’s special beyond the fact that it’s a world you know and love. (And Baby Yoda. Never forget Baby Yoda.)
And this is a theme repeated through this episode, with the townsfolk having to form an uneasy alliance with the equally beset-upon Tusken Raiders; their prejudice towards one another is something that has to die when up against the existential threat – they don’t have time for it anymore. Or, is prejudice like this something that can only go away in incredible, abnormal circumstances? It’s ultimately hopeful, but the murky imagery on display might suggest otherwise – whether it’s red eyes in the dark or the mysterious beast causing tremors below ground, the threat here is in the unseen, the hidden paranoia that plagues everyone in this unstable galaxy, not least Mando and the Child since the whole universe seems to be after the two of them.
But if the characters are dealing with a certain instability, the filmmaking is anything but. This is showrunner and primary writer Jon Favreau’s first episode as a director, and he brings it, continuing the visual success of the show with stunning wide shots, confidently paced action and an aspect ratio-raising finale of sometimes breathtaking proportions. He’s also doing something very clever with the callbacks here that all seem to evoke Return of the Jedi in some way; whether it’s the Gamorreans fighting at the beginning, the location of the climactic smackdown against the dragon, or an act of mercy that was a finishing move for another character in Episode VII… what seems like fun but meaningless fanservice turns out to be subtle foreshadowing for the mother of all plot reveals that will have consequences for the show in ways that our main players cannot possibly imagine.
So yeah, this is a pretty fab start for the series. It doesn’t really move the plot along that much, but in opting for a crackling spectacle of an opening episode it only raises the game for where this story is going to take us over the next seven weeks. It’s still interesting in exploring the ideas of home, community and honour without being slavishly focused on a dense plot. Vanth especially is an interesting ideological through-point for the episode – what makes a Mandalorian? Is it the armour, the code, or something more? Again it’s up in the air, but I know for a fact what makes The Mandalorian as a show, and it’s all on display here. I really hope they keep it up.
Season two of The Mandalorian is streaming every Friday from Disney+