It’s hard to fathom that an over 40-year-old franchise could still have the capacity to surprise, but somehow Disney and the creators behind ‘The Mandalorian’ were able to do it for eight straight weeks in 2020. Maybe it’s the unfathomable year that was, which resulted in an audience primed for the wonder and spectacle provided by this truly miraculous show. More likely it’s because it’s creators, Jon Favreau (who also wrote all but two episodes this season) and Dave Filoni (with his encyclopedic knowledge of this universe), are talented enough and care enough about this stuff to make something truly great.
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The first season of ‘The Mandalorian’ was a real treat for Star Wars fans. It may have been the initial launchpad for Disney’s streaming service, but with Episode IX looming large at the time, it was hardly regarded as the center of the franchise. Cut to one year and a quarantine later, not only did it outperform the underwhelming ‘Rise of Skywalker’ amongst critics and fans alike, Season Two was THE most anticipated anything in 2020 pop-culture. For it to not only deliver, but surpass all expectations of those first eight chapters is a small miracle. It’s hard to tell if the creators knew exactly what they had, but the end reveal of Chapter One, the emergence of Baby Yoda, now known as Grogu, had a seismic effect on the zeitgeist. Even those without the context to know the difference between a Wookie and an Ewok could not deny the unparalleled adorability of this master puppet. The travails of the miniature version of whatever species Master Yoda was, and his loner bounty-hunter guardian decked out in an even cooler version of the captivating armor of one Boba Fett, was enough to grasp the imagination of all, leading into their continued adventures starting this past October.
Chapter Nine and it’s consequent installments this season followed the lead of the first in that most episodes were “mission or adventure of the week”, sprinkled with nuggets regarding the overarching mythology. These teases would then coalesce into an end of season action extravaganza. The chapters leading up to Chapter 16 didn’t lack for riveting action themselves, from the wonders of the Krayt dragon to the spectacular introductions of live action Bo Katan and Ahsoka Tano, played by genre faves Katee Sackhoff (‘Battlestar Galactica’) and Rosario Dawson (Marvel Netflix shows) respectively. One of the greatest feats of the season was the reintroduction to Boba Fett (Temeura Morrison) and his development into an actual character, something that hasn’t been done in the main series to this point. Never mind the fact that the narrative has yet to explain how he escaped the clutches of the Sarlacc from which he was unceremoniously dumped in 1983’s ‘Return of the Jedi’. It’s a testament to the show’s power that the audience doesn’t care, instead straight reveling in a truly brutal and exciting battle scene when he was reintroduced in Chapter 14.
‘The Mandalorian’ is that unique series that delivers on both the journey and the destination. While it may initially seem confounding when Pedro Pascal’s Din and his little green buddy get sidetracked on their quest to find Grogu’s Jedi brethren, the denizens and locales they encounter are always interesting. Whether it’s Timothy Olyphant’s Tatooine Marshall needing help with the local terror (that aforementioned dragon) or the internet named ‘Frog Lady’s desperate attempt to reunite herself (and her unfertilized eggs) with her husband, each new exposure provides character and narrative building fodder for the main duo. This is perhaps best represented in the fifth episode, Chapter 13, the mini-masterpiece simply entitled, ‘The Jedi’.
While each installment was its own marvel, the introduction of Ashoka was perhaps the greatest example of the show’s brilliance. Mixing tones and the look of a classic samurai film, themselves the inspiration for the western genre, for which the show evokes overall, the episode follows the basic structure of a typical chapter while also introducing a major element from the Star Wars extended material. The episode works from every possible angle – it contains deep cut information for the die-hard fans, yet is completely accessible for the casual viewer, while driving forward the overall story by providing critical backstory and intel regarding Grogu (Ahsoka reveals his name through a Force-fueled mindmeld). Rosario Dawson is perfectly cast and designed, a triumph in make-up and attitude. Her wizened ex-Jedi gets the job of relaying the mystical aspects of the Force, an element of the Star Wars mythos only alluded to thus far on the show. That the episode was shot in muted tones and reflects a ravaged forest environment heretofore unseen in previous content, heightens the foreign aspects, all leading to a perfectly choreographed dual stand-off that rivals anything in the genre. The icing on the cake is the end crediting for writing and directing by Dave Filoni, the creator of the character and MVP when it comes to tying the various threads of the franchise, a fitting space Lucasfilm has placed him firmly in the center of, to the satisfaction of fans.
Filoni and Favreau may be the beating heart, soul, and overarching driving force behind ‘The Mandalorian’, but the series also continues to showcase many diverse creatives who each bring their own sensibilities and leave their mark. From Deborah Chow and Taika Waititi (‘Thor: Ragnarok’) in the first season to retuning directors Bryce Dallas-Howard and Rick Famuyiwa in the second, every player gets their shot in new and interesting ways. Showing up for the new season are directors Robert Rodriguez (‘El Mariachi’ trilogy, ‘Sin City’) and Peyton Reed (‘Ant-Man’ movies) for key episodes, including the Reed-directed, Favreau written finale. And what a finale it was. From the all-female siege on Moff Gideon’s (Giancarlo Esposito just chewing scenery and loving it) light cruiser and the Dark Trooper menace featuring some of Ludwig Goranson’s best musical scoring, to Din’s Beskar staff/Dark Saber sword fight with the Moff to rescue his Foster child, it’s an action extravaganza with unbelievable emotional beats. By the last ten minutes where a certain Jedi Master answers the call Grogu sent out two episodes prior, it’s at once the most obvious and most surprising moment in modern Star Wars history. This Star Wars fan isn’t embarrassed to admit to tears streaming down my face as the duo share a wordless, tender goodbye to the strains of The Force Theme – miraculous indeed . . .