Is “Star Wars” fantasy or science fiction? It’s an old debate, presenting evidence like spaceships and alien species versus the Force and lightsaber duels. That’s all a red herring that distracts from the only correct answer: western. At least Disney+’s “The Mandalorian” reaches that conclusion across multiple episodes and now two seasons.
The first live-action series in the “Star Wars” universe chronicles the hunts, heists and heroics of a bounty hunter simply called the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal), one of the remaining members of the ethnic group famous throughout the galaxy for its warrior prowess.
His journey differs from others in his and other clans when he encounters a creature of unknown origin simply dubbed “the child,” or baby Yoda everywhere else. Cue that western aesthetic, especially all those westerns that poached from samurai cinema, like “Lone Wolf and Cub.”
The Mandalorians are not new to “Star Wars,” dating back to Boba Fett’s animated debut in the infamously wretched holiday special in 1978. The character returned in “Empire” and “Return,” where he seemed to endure an anticlimactic end. Then another Mandalorian appeared in “Attack of the Clones,” Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), whose DNA helped create the Empire’s army of cloned troopers.
That’s all rather sci-fi stuff, but “The Mandalorian” returns to George Lucas’ love for classic stories of good and evil on the frontier. The adventures of Mando, as Greef Karga (Carl Weathers) nicknames him, leaving behind the technotopian metropolises and politics on display in the prequel trilogy. This is the old west, beyond law and order.
In lieu of riding horseback across the open range, the galaxy’s most notorious bounty hunter (that’s a western throwback by itself) rocks a hovering land speeder across sand dunes. Let’s call his spaceship an old west wagon.
And the season two premiere doubles down on the western trope as Mando happens upon a deserted mining town and immediately has a standoff, probably around high noon, with the sheriff (Timothy Olyphant recycling the same western twang from FX’s “Justified”) in the local saloon.
The second season premiere even portrays townsfolk and Sand People – the Tusken Raiders once framed for killing Luke’s parents in “A New Hope” – working together. It’s hard not to compare that to various cowboys and American Indian stories, especially since episode director Jon Favreau (also executive producer) previously helmed the feature film “Cowboys and Aliens.”
The task of “Chapter 9,” the first episode of season two, only works because of Mando’s unique ability to unify those with substantial differences; as someone without a permanent home, he’s become good at it.
That wasn’t always the case for Mandalorians, at least before the Empire’s fall. The great war between the Galactic Empire and a ragtag group of rebel scum fractured the once proud peoples of Mandalore. They rivaled the Jedi in strength (rocket packs sure help) and controlled several planets.
Now, warrior clans hide on worlds bordering the New Republic’s reach. Their devotion to the cause now requires complete submission, meaning Mandalorians never remove their armor.
Mando also confront isolated sects of the Empire, dramatically diminished but not powerless. They’re like Confederate troops on the run, still as evil as ever.
Come season two, the Mandalorian has a new mission: reunite the child with its people, wherever they might be in the galaxy. And the premiere certainly promises an explosive second season.
A slew of preseason news presents the possibility of a much bigger universe and more “Star Wars” interconnection along the way: the casting of Rosario Dawson as former Anakin Skywalker trainee Ahsoka Tano, Katee Sackhoff bringing her animated character Bo-Katan Kryze to live action and the return of Boba Fett, played by Morrison (Boba is a clone of Jenga, after all, per “Attack”).
The latest “Star Wars” film trilogy invited various debates about the longevity of Lucasfilm’s future on the big screen, especially “Rise of Skywalker’s” misfire concluding the third trilogy. At least for now, the small screen knows how to continue one of the best franchises in history.
All it takes is featuring an elusive protagonist who never shows his face (OK, just once thus far), an incredible TV series score, incredible visual and practical effects and classic stories.
Sure, some episodes prove more forgettable than others, but enough memorable moments make “The Mandalorian” a worthy successor to all the films and series leading to this satisfying moment.
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