An embrace of genre filmmaking has allowed The Mandalorian to grow into its bigger profile in Season 2 ’s Episodes 1-4.
In the year without blockbusters, it sure is nice to have Din Djarin, the titular Mandalorian, to pick up the slack. As our biggest movies have disappeared into seemingly endless COVID delays, Disney’s not-so-little series that could is here to give us epic summer movie style entertainment on a weekly basis. Through the first half of season 2, we have seen The Mandalorian’s take on kaiju movies, Alien-style creature horror, squad war, and even 80s-style burly action. It’s a smart evolution of the Western heavy formula of season 1 to shift Episodes 1-4 subtly into other classic genres for inspiration. Before we dig in, I should note here there will be some spoilers for Episodes 1-4 of The Mandalorian’s second season ahead…
The season’s first episode sees series creator Jon Favreau (Iron Man) make his Mandalorian directorial review in an episode that appears to have benefitted from some significantly increased budgets. Tasked with finding other Mandalorians to help his quest to find a home for The Child (aka Baby Yoda), Mando is drawn to the Star Wars Universe’s lowkey nexus: Tatooine. Upon his arrival, he’s quickly thrown into a quest to destroy a Krayt dragon with the assistance of guest star Timothy Olyphant (Justified). The dragon itself, something like a sandworm from Dune lore, is one of the more impressive Kaiju of recent lore. Favreau manages to create a beast every bit as harrowing as the big budget monstrosities in theatrical films like Godzilla: King of the Monsters by focusing on the human scale of the conflict. A handful of moisture farmers, a band of tusken raiders, and two dudes in slightly impractical armor taking on an enormous sand dragon establishes the epic scale essential for the Kaiju genre.
Next up in Episodes 1-4 is Peyton Reed’s (Ant-Man) genre thriller. Transporting a frog lady and her sparkly (and tasty) eggs to a new world sees our hero’s ship crash land in a cave on an ice planet. Baby Yoda’s curiosity draws him towards some awfully familiar seeming eggs. It’s clear Peyton Reed has a loving respect for Ridley Scott’s genre classic Alien and it shines through here. Given the chance to cut loose a bit, Reed pushes the Star Wars saga to the scariest place it has ever been as dozens of spindly spider monsters that look like the dark side version of deep sea crustaceans attempt to consume our heroes. Reed has a great sense of piling on the horrors here, as small spiders are replaced by large spiders and large spiders by a giant Shelob-inspired monstrosity the size of Mando’s ship. It’s excellent, joyous genre filmmaking.
The third and fourth episodes occupy a similar place – one focuses primarily on a squad of elite Mandalorians attempting to takeover an Imperial transport while the other showcases 80s style team-up action and sees the returns of Carl Weathers and Gina Carano to the show. At the end of the day, both are Mando and friends teaming up to take out some bad guys. They’re both stirringly well-made action adventures with bursts of welcome humor and genuinely excellent action sequences. Returning director Bryce Dallas Howard (Dads] and first time director Carl Weathers – who I should note has a wonderfully lurid history of directing TV projects like Silk Stalkings with little fanfare – are both up to the level of their more famous colleagues.
What both episodes do that’s a bit new for the show is really lean into the broader mythology of Star Wars, which was my biggest concern about the series after the first season. And, much to my surprise, they’ve actually done a pretty good job so far. I was scared that the integration of Jedi and more Mandalorians and an almost overwhelming array of tortured franchise lore would derail the simple joy of The Mandalorian. Episodes 1-4 have integrated an almost astonishing amount of broader Star Wars stuff with nary a missed step. Just four episodes have seen fan favorite Boba Fett introduced, Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels character Bo-Katan transported to live action, and almost countless bits of lore about Mandalorian culture, but it never feels too overwhelming (or like needing Wookiepedia would be necessary to understand the show). My hesitation remains, as the show seems to be approaching the introduction of Jedi and some sort of war for the fate of the Mandalorian home world, but they’ve handled it all smoothly thus far.
Another trepidation I had was how Baby Yoda would be used in season 2. Would he be a force wielding deus ex machina? Would he be a cuddly maguffin? To the show’s credit, they’ve leaned into some black humor (and The Child’s carnivorous tendencies) to help make him feel like an actual character and not just a plot device. His relationship with Din Djarin has actually managed to take on some emotional components which remain a tribute to the greatest puppet ever made and its CGI augmentations.
One thing The Mandalorian has cribbed from old TV this year is the emphasis on reasonably famous guest stars who show up, much as a surprisingly famous out-of-towners might enter town on a weekly Western. I always think of Peter Lorre showing up in Climax! Mystery Theater’s James Bond adaptation “Casino Royale” as a one-off villain as a great example of how TV casting worked in the 50s. A man who’d been in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is villain of the week. The casting always had a meta-quality where the audience’s relationship to the actor would be used as a shortcut for how the audience should react to them. Episodes 1-4 have seen Timothy Olyphant cast as… a space sheriff, a role that seems directly in line with his work in Deadwood and Justified. He slips ably into the witty lawman role and serves as an excellent partner for our hero. Katee Sackhoff who played the badass pilot Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica shows up as a badass warrior Mandalorian. As he did in season one, Carl Weathers returns to play a burly charmer as he did in Predator and the Rocky series. With actors like Michael Biehn due to appear later in the season, I suspect The Mandalorian will continue to rely on effective casting shortcuts.
As I said before and I’m sure I’ll say again, The Mandalorian is not looking to compete with A Teacher in your headspace. It’s big, broad, crowd pleasing popcorn entertainment geared towards making an awful lot of people very happy. Episodes 1-4 have shown The Mandalorian able to keep its momentum and I can’t wait to see what the second half of the season has in store for us. I have spoken.