Wednesday, February 17, 2021

"The Mandalorian," Seasons 1 and 2: review

I approach this review of Disney-Lucasfilm's "The Mandalorian" with very mixed feelings.  Right off the bat, I can affirm that the series is extremely entertaining, especially if you're an old-school Star Wars fan.  At the same time, Disney—the parent company—has enslaved itself to the "woke" agenda, and this has resulted in the firing of "Mandalorian" star Gina Carano, who plays former Rebel shock trooper Cara Dune on the show.  Carano had made a series of perfectly harmless tweets that were deemed extremely offensive by the perpetually oversensitive, perpetually outraged mob of wokeristas, and now she's gone.  The Mouse, ever mindful of its masters, knuckled under to the mob's pressure to "cancel" Carano, calling her opinions "abhorrent."  The result, though, has been a mass exodus from the Disney Plus streaming service as people supporting Carano—a strong feminist abandoned, ironically, by the feminist left—have elected to forsake Disney.  Now that I've binge-watched the first two (and so far only) seasons of "The Mandalorian," I've just joined the exodus myself.  I have mixed feelings because I'd love to watch a third season, but I'm not going to give my money to an organization—Disney—that stifles the free speech of its employees.

For the moment, though, we'll try to put aside the politics and concentrate on the show itself, judging "The Mandalorian" on its own merits and not worrying about the politics of the studio executives, the actors, and the filmmakers.

Created by Jon Favreau—the miracle-working actor/director who breathed life into what we all now call the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) thanks to his 2008 film "Iron Man"—2019's "The Mandalorian" is the story of a bounty hunter who was found by and adopted into Mandalorian culture.  Mandalorians are a warrior people who have subdivided into several sects, some of which are religiously fundamentalist; our protagonist, Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal), is a wanderer tracking quarry for money in a post-Empire era.  As both a Mandalorian and a bounty hunter, he follows two codes:  the Mandalorian Code and the Code of the Bounty Hunters' Guild.  The series takes place about five years after the destruction of the second Death Star (in "Return of the Jedi"); a New Republic has formed in the Core systems of the galaxy, taking the place of the corrupt Old Republic.  The Jedi Order has been shattered and scattered; only prominent Jedi like Luke Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano (a character introduced in the "Clone Wars" animated series; she's technically an ex-Jedi) remain.  The Empire, meanwhile, still exists in a patchwork manner, with various fleet admirals and other warlords still loyal to the idea of an Empire, and to its future restoration.  While the Core systems remain fairly developed and civilized, the planets of the Outer Rim are much more like the Wild West of legend—a haven for criminals and other outlaws.

The basic thrust of the first two seasons is that Din Djarin is given the mission of finding and capturing or killing a powerful little creature that is the same mysterious species as that of Jedi master Yoda.  The Mandalorian learns from an Imperial client (Werner Herzog!) that the creature is fifty years old, but the Imperial offers little else to go on.  When the Mandalorian finds the creature, he discovers that it's still a toddler despite being fifty—cooing and engaging in all the familiar forms of cute and naughty behavior that we associate with toddlers.  The one major difference is that this toddler, like Yoda, is extremely strong in the Force, which is why it's being hunted.  Din Djarin becomes concerned about what will befall the child once he hands it over; he is advised not to ask questions by the local head of the Bounty Hunters' Guild, Greef Karga (Carl Weathers):  concern for what happens after a bounty is caught and paid for is a violation of the Code.  Djarin goes against the Code, though, when he realizes the child is likely to come to harm, and he rescues it from Imperial clutches.  This move pits Djarin against his fellow bounty hunters as well as against the remnants of the Imperial forces, and from that moment on, the Mandalorian is on the run.

The series plays out as a combination of a long story arc and many episodic side-stories.  Some viewers and critics have complained that this makes the series formulaic:  the Mando (as he's nicknamed) gets stranded somewhere and must help some people with some problem before he can move on his way.  The series has a lot in common with 1970s TV series involving wandering do-gooders, such as "Kung Fu" or "The Incredible Hulk."  But the Mando's wanderings often lead him in circles:  there are repeat visits to planets like Nevarro and Tatooine, mainly because these are places where the Mando can get his battered ship, the Razor Crest, repaired.  While I think these criticisms are at least somewhat legitimate, the circular nature of the Mando's wanderings allows for some very interesting world-building—the sort of thing associated with the Star Wars novels of the so-called Expanded Universe.  We learn a lot more about Jawa and Sandpeople culture, for example; we finally get to see the fabled krayt dragon (spoken of in the novelized version of Star Wars, but never mentioned by name in the movies); we see what an IG-series assassin droid is capable of doing, and we learn that Imperial stormtroopers might be terrible shots, but they're human after all.

Some characters in the series are given interesting arcs.  Greef Karga comes immediately to mind:  he's an old but still frosty warrior who now heads up at least one chapter of the Bounty Hunters' Guild; he's seen it all, and his morals have eroded as a result.  But a moment of miraculous healing, courtesy of the Force-powerful alien child, changes his outlook entirely, and he finds his honor again.  Former Rebel shock trooper Cara Dune (Gina Carano) also evolves a bit over the course of the series:  she's a hard-bitten, battle-hardened soldier who lost everyone she loved when her home planet of Alderaan was destroyed by the Empire, but over time, she develops a friendship with the Mandalorian and a soft spot for the alien child.  That child, whose name we discover is Grogu, doesn't exactly change over time, but we learn more and more about him and his mystic powers, all of which line up with miracles we've seen other Jedi and Sith perform:  flinging objects and creatures around telekinetically, healing the injured, Force-choking certain victims, and engaging in mind-to-mind communication.

"The Mandalorian" scored some big-name actors to play crucial roles.  Werner Herzog, an acclaimed actor-director in his own right, plays the first Imperial officer who tries to get hold of Grogu.  Giancarlo Esposito (who played Gus Fring in "Breaking Bad") plays Moff Gideon, the calm, deadly Imperial commander who also wants Grogu for his high M-count (we all assume that "M" stands for "midichlorian," the tiny, living particles inside one's cells that allow communion with the Force).  Nick Nolte voices Kuiil, the wise old Ugnaught who helps the Mando on several occasions.  Taika Waititi, another talented actor-director (he helmed "Thor: Ragnarok"), humorously voices the assassin droid IG-11.  Ming-na Wen is the assassin Fennec Shand; comedian Bill Burr plays former Imperial sharpshooter Migs Mayfeld;  "Battlestar Galactica" veteran Katee Sackhoff is fellow Mandalorian Bo-Katan Kryze; Rosario Dawson is ex-Jedi Ahsoka Tano (student of the pre-Vader Anakin Skywalker, she left the Jedi Order after being falsely accused of wrongdoing); and amazingly, Temuera Morrison was convinced to play the role of universally feared bounty hunter Boba Fett—who turns out to be a much more complex and honorable man than the movies ever hinted at.  I'm particularly glad that Morrison got on board:  it was cringe-inducingly horrible to watch him play the roles of various clone troopers in the prequel trilogy, saying little more than, "Yes, sir!  Right away!"  I saw Morrison's groveling role in the prequels as an incredible, maybe even sinful, waste of acting talent, which is why I think Morrison must have been a very good sport to sign back on board any project with George Lucas's name attached to it.*  And it's all worked out for the best:  Boba Fett is now an amazing character; we get hints of him in early episodes, but when he makes a full-on appearance, he's a holy terror on the battlefield.  (Trivia:  Morrison has said, in interviews, that he helped develop Boba Fett's fighting style by incorporating elements of Maori haka—which includes plenty of martial postures—into Fett's moves.)

The people behind the camera were also quite impressive.  Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of "Apollo 13" director Ron) very perceptively directed two fine episodes:  "Sanctuary" and "The Heiress."  Carl Weathers proved he was capable of directing exciting action sequences when he helmed the episode "The Siege."  Dave Filoni, who was previously known for his excellent work on the "Clone Wars" animated series, directed "The Gunslinger" and "The Jedi" (in which fan favorite Ahsoka Tano makes her first live-action appearance thanks to actress Rosario Dawson).  Filoni is also a co-showrunner with Jon Favreau; they are the two biggest creative influences behind "The Mandalorian."  Favreau directed Season 2's opener, "The Marshal," which features the mighty krayt dragon, a tough creature that requires two enemy communities to band together to take it down.  Action-loving Robert Rodriguez directed "The Tragedy," which features the triumphal return of Boba Fett as well as the tragic loss of a much-beloved (albeit abiotic) character.

There are times when the Western-ish feel of "The Mandalorian" reminds the viewer of an old favorite:  the Joss Whedon TV series "Firefly," which also featured a galaxy in the throes of political conflict, with most of its action occurring out on the galactic periphery.  But while Nathan Fillion's Captain Mal might be a roguish Han Solo figure, Pedro Pascal's Din Djarin leans more toward the Clint Eastwood Nameless Gunfighter side of the heroic spectrum.  Djarin isn't quite as invulnerable as Nameless, however:  the show is at pains not to make him into some sort of unrealistically super-competent Gary Stu (the male equivalent of a Mary Sue), so we see him getting his ass handed to him on many occasions.  Djarin often needs help from those around him to complete his appointed tasks, and there are moments when other characters save him from death.  The Mandalorian is neither infallible nor invincible, and this is most obvious when he encounters two Jedi whose powers and skills so far outstrip his own as to leave him utterly humbled.

It may be for that reason that the Jedi are used very sparingly in this series.  A bit like how Darth Vader doesn't get to cut loose in full-on beast mode until the very end of "Rogue One," we don't meet our two Jedi until rather late in the game:  Ahsoka Tano in Episode 5 of Season 2, and Luke Skywalker (digitally de-aged) in Episode 8, which is the Season 2 finale.  "The Mandalorian" is more about the struggles of the regular people caught in the middle of much larger forces, and that too makes for an interesting parallel with "Firefly."  Over-powered characters like the Jedi yank the show's equilibrium too far to the side; when the Jedi dominate the storyline, a more humble protagonist like Din Djarin tends to get written out of his own show.  Luckily, Filoni and Favreau handled both Ahsoka Tano and Luke Skywalker very well, all while respecting the other, less-powerful characters.

Let's take a step back and talk about the show as a whole—its character development, its tone, its world-building, as well as the musical soundtrack, cinematography, and special effects.  Jon Favreau has written three-fourths of the episodes himself, and his love for the Star Wars franchise shines through.  Favreau actually cares about this universe, and while directors like JJ Abrams may claim to love Star Wars, it's not obvious that they understand Star Wars.  To that end, Favreau made sure to bring Dave Filoni on board, and that was a brilliant strategic move:  Filoni had full reign in the world of "Clone Wars," and he has shown time and again that he understands George Lucas's original vision far better than chumps like Rian Johnson (who directed the super-controversial, super-divisive "The Last Jedi").  Together, Favreau and Filoni have crafted fully developed characters with meaningful arcs and distinctive personalities that fit well with the environments in which we find them.  Even minor characters and creatures feel dimensional, like the raging ice-cave spiders seen in the episode "The Passenger."  Jawas and Sandpeople are built out into something more meaningful:  far from being flat characters, these beings have their own languages and cultures and worldviews.  Kuiil the Ugnaught shows us that Ugnaughts are more than just scurrying minions working in the carbon-freezing chamber of Bespin's Cloud City.  Even the evil characters like Werner Herzog's Imperial officer and Giancarlo Esposito's Moff Gideon are given clear motivations.  Herzog's character, in particular, gives a significant speech about how things along the Outer Rim have turned to chaos since the fall of the Empire.  It's an excellent moment that hints at the moral complexity of this fictional universe.

As for the show's tone:  Filoni and Favreau are obviously going for a space-Western kind of feel, and they're not too politically correct about it.  The show doesn't shrink from the notion that, when chaos abounds, death is everywhere.  I'm trying to think of a single episode that doesn't feature a battlefield littered with dozens of corpses.  This isn't a 1980s-era "The A-Team," where bullets are sprayed everywhere, and no one ever gets hurt.  In "The Mandalorian," people get shot in the head, ripped apart by explosions, and eaten by monsters.  Good guys die alongside bad guys.  Boba Fett proves he knows how to use the Sandpeople's gaffi stick; the result is smashed-in Imperial skulls.  Grogu, the alien toddler, gobbles down the eggs of a frog-like passenger, effectively killing off a chunk of her brood.  Grogu's appetite was played for laughs, but some angry fans saw nothing funny in Grogu's murderous gluttony, and they wrote in to complain.  As far as I know, those complaints have been ignored, and Grogu—whom all the fans were calling "Baby Yoda" until Ahsoka Tano revealed his real name—is still the show's most popular and adored character.  The unrepentantly un-PC tone of the show is one of its draws, which makes the firing of Gina Carano all the more painful.

World-building is a function of screenwriting, and the show does a fine job of fleshing out known worlds like Tatooine while introducing us to new worlds like Nevarro, Trask, and Sorgan.  The lengthy, episodic format of the show allows for this sort of detailed development.  In the spirit of the original Star Wars films, these worlds all feature one predominant climate:  a desert planet, a swamp planet, a sea planet, a lava-veined rocky planet, etc.  We get a taste of several local bar cultures; we visit one Asian-themed planet ruled by a cruel magistrate (played by Bruce Lee's goddaughter Diana Lee Inosanto) who hates her own citizens; we witness the many forms that trade and currency can take in the Outer Rim territories.  The Mando himself is shown to have his share of hangups:  he can't stand droids, and his Mandalorian code forbids him from removing his helmet and revealing his face in front of other living beings.  The series respects the fictional universe's cultural diversity, although English is the lingua franca.  That said, there are plenty of characters who refuse to speak English; sometimes, their dialogue is subtitled; sometimes, it isn't.  In terms of language, several choice lines are repeated often throughout the series:  "This is the Way," which is intoned by Mandalorians as an affirmation of their Creed; "I have spoken," which is often uttered by Kuiil the Ugnaught; and "Dank farrik!", which is this series's version of "Goddammit."  Other colorful expressions include "a skank in the scud pie," this universe's way of saying "a fly in the ointment" or "a monkey wrench in the works"; and "the Quacta calling the Stifling slimy," i.e., "the pot calling the kettle black."  There's the derisive term "Imps," which means "Imperials."  Lastly, there's the Mando's idiosyncratic use of the word "quest" as a passive-voice verb:  "I've been quested with bringing this child to its own kind."  To be quested with a task, then, is to be charged with a task that will require one to go on a quest.  Everywhere you look in this series, there's world-building afoot.  The writers have woven a rich tapestry for adventure.

The show's musical soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson, however, leaves me a bit befuddled.  A lot of people love it, but I'm not completely on board.  I can see that Göransson, like fellow movie composer Basil Poledouris ("Conan the Barbarian," "Starship Troopers"), doesn't do subtle, and he likes to keep the mood as upbeat as possible.  His tha-tha-thump soundtrack for "The Mandalorian" is meant to evoke the sound of a horse's gallop, reinforcing the plucky, spaghetti-Western vibe of the show.  I suppose my problem is that I'm attached to John Williams's stylings, but one could easily make the argument that Williams's music is more appropriate for the epic swords-and-sorcery adventures featured in the movies.  "The Mandalorian" is basically a TV show, so its themes ought to be scaled down, with only occasional attempts at the grandiose.  Suffice it to say that, even after two whole seasons, I'm still getting used to Göransson's musical aesthetic.

By contrast, the movie's lush cinematography and obviously expensive special effects generally blow me away.  The imagery (and the sound design!) most assuredly evokes the Star Wars of my youth, but it's also obvious that we've evolved far, far beyond the SFX that were cutting-edge in the late 1970s.  CGI blends fairly smoothly with practical effects; Grogu himself is evidence of that:  he's an animatronic muppet enhanced by CGI.  The planetary landscapes are filled with detail; the series is already famous for some very iconic imagery.  The episode "The Marshal," in which the Mandalorian must help a group of townspeople and a tribe of Sandpeople defeat a local krayt dragon, stands out in my mind as a special-effects achievement on the order of anything done by Peter Jackson and his Weta Workshop team of SFX wizards.  Each episode of "The Mandalorian"—and most of the episodes have a very short run time from about 25 to 47 minutes—costs about $15 million to make.  With 16 episodes under his belt, Favreau has already spent $120 million, which is the lower-end cost of a big-budget, effects-heavy movie these days.  Given the show's look, this is money well spent.

The action sequences and fight choreography featured in the series are generally well filmed—clear and coherent, with little to no annoying shaky-cam.  There are, in fact, moments when I've felt the fight choreography has been a little too stiff and rehearsed-looking, but this is a minor complaint.  The Star Wars universe generally tries to avoid having characters fight in ways that are immediately recognizable as this or that martial art (Darth Maul stands out as the only real exception; actor Ray Park is trained in various styles of kung fu), but you'll get your fair share of knees, elbows, side kicks, front kicks, and roundhouse kicks.  For my money, the show's best fight-related moment didn't involve any Jedi or Mandalorian flashiness:  it was Carl Weathers as Greef Karga doing an amazing whip-around 180 quick-draw to shoot two enemies behind him.  I think I actually sat up straighter when I saw that move:  it was that impressive, and it was possibly the best tribute to old-school Westerns in the whole series.

Does "The Mandalorian" deliver when viewed as a whole?  I'd say yes, and resoundingly so.  I found the series to be very binge-watchable; as others have noted, Filoni and Favreau have successfully recaptured the spirit of the old Star Wars universe from before it was taken away from George Lucas's direct control and placed into the clutches of people like Kathleen Kennedy—people who seem to think that preaching the "woke" agenda is more important than telling a great story.  It saddens me that I won't be following the further adventures of these colorful characters beyond Season 2 (unless Amazon Prime Video is somehow given the rights to sell the series on its own platform), but maybe this is the right place to leave the story.  While I hesitate to support Disney itself, I do recommend "The Mandalorian" as an excellent, entertaining bit of sci-fi adventure.  Figure out how to watch it on the sly if you can.

This is the Way.

__________

*You could argue that Morrison had the chance to sink his teeth into the prequel-trilogy role of Jango Fett, the genetic template for the clone troopers, but you'll also recall that poor Jango was easily defeated by Jedi Master Mace Windu in an embarrassingly one-sided fight in "Attack of the Clones."  Boba Fett was the "unaltered" (i.e., allowed to mature at a normal human rate) clone gifted to Jango Fett.  This was in honor of Jango's services to the alien Kaminoans whose cloning facility mass-produced a gigantic army of force-grown clones for use by the Old Republic as a means to fight the droid-loving Separatists.  Only much later was it discovered that both sides of the war were being orchestrated by Darth Sidious, a.k.a. Senator (and then Emperor) Palpatine.



2 comments:

  1. Outstanding review. I'm coming from the perspective of knowing next to nothing about the series and from not being a Star Wars fanatic. It's been in the news of late for all the wrong reasons, of course. I'm thinking I'll see if I can't find it on Pirate Bay. Thanks again for the inspiration!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Speaking of "all the wrong reasons," it appears that Pedro Pascal, the show's star, is likely to leave the show. I'll be blogging about this shortly.

    ReplyDelete

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