Story isn’t always about plot. Sometimes it’s about character, or genre, or setting, or technical achievement. So when people criticize “The Mandalorian” for being slow in the middle, it makes me sad that they missed the point. The show is about a lot of things, and not all of them are plot.
It takes place in the Star Wars universe. Simply putting Star Wars over the title card is already a setting, and the show honors that in its first scene. Seedy taverns and weird creatures have been a part of Star Wars from the very beginning, and the first episode’s opening is a nod to that. A blue alien fears for his life but is saved by the arrival of a masked, silent stranger. The stranger saves him, only for it to turn out that he is a bounty hunter who has come for the alien, and the show’s protagonist. This feels like how we all envision Star Wars — a way that many people felt the more recent movies were missing.
You also begin to see parallels between the show and westerns. A rough, gunslinging antihero wandering with his young ward (more on that later) could happen just as easily on the American frontier as in a galaxy far, far away.
Episodes 4, 5, and 6 are often those criticized for being slow. Each has the self-contained plot of a classic western, and they build the characters of the Mandalorian and the Child out significantly. The Child (called Baby Yoda by the internet) is instantly presented as curious but powerful. We learn over these episodes that some people are good and will want to help the Child, while others will want to control it. We also see it wander, learn, and explore on its own. The Child is ripped away from a peaceful life due to these pursuers in episode 4, and then learns about the cruelness of the world through classic western plots like a manhunt in the desert with a shifty, unknown partner, and a prison break where no one can trust anyone.
These episodes are an homage to the western genre, and they help develop the relationship between the Mandalorian and the Child. They don’t tell us that much about the plot, but that isn’t the point.
We see this father-son dynamic play out as the Mandalorian gradually learns how to care for the Child, and learns how his actions can affect it. We see growth in his character without ever seeing his face. This is another western-influenced element. The grim-faced cowboy wanders into town, and gradually is softened by someone he saw as a burden. This show simply replaces a sour visage with a metal bucket.
The action of the show is also fantastic. We see a live-action Star Wars that feels much more personal, and smaller than other live-action entrants into the series. Punches and kicks aren’t Force enhanced, and brawls happen in the street rather than a high tower. Stealth means actually sneaking around and staying out of sight, and combat is brutal. There’s much less flipping about with laser swords. The fact that so much of the series involves small fights means that the occasional major set piece (which only appears every other episode or so) feels truly special. Demonstrations of jetpacks, the Force, and TIE fighters feel incredibly powerful when juxtaposed with the more traditional action scenes.
There’s a lot to love in “The Mandalorian.” Don’t assume it doesn’t have depth or creativity just because it’s Star Wars. It was created by Jon Favreau, who directed the first “Iron Man,” “Chef” (2014), and “Elf” (2003). Its writer, Dave Filoni, wrote “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” and worked on “Avatar the Last Airbender.” These guys know how to make something with action that is about more than action.
The show certainly has action, and it is Star Wars, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a show about identity and fatherhood, and it recognizes the history of filmmaking and Star Wars.
You don’t have to like it, but there’s more to it than “pew pew lasers.”