The Empire is dead, and chaos reigns as outlaws take advantage of the temporary state of lawlessness to line their own pockets. This is the world of “The Mandalorian,” the latest Star Wars outing that takes place in the aftermath of “Return of the Jedi.” There’s such a lack of order that an entire guild of bounty hunters is flourishing and a man like the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) is in high demand.
When it comes to “The Mandalorian,” Disney is leaning especially hard into the Star Wars franchise’s deep roots in the western genre. We are introduced to our hero, the Mandalorian, and he’s essentially a space cowboy. A faceless, amoral bounty hunter who enters a tavern on the far reaches of civilization and immediately asserts his dominance over the entire room. He works alone, has his own personal code of ethics that he rarely betrays, and operates to impose some sort of order on a society that has none.
Although it’s obvious what type of stoic, mysterious figure the creators were aiming for, they didn’t fully appreciate the impact that having him be entirely masked would have on developing an emotional connection with a character. His obvious inability to use facial expressions combined with a lack of any real personality beyond being “cool” is a problem, at least in the pilot episode anyway. As our protagonist, he’s meant to draw people in, but is unable to accomplish that. The result is a stylistic choice that actively inhibits our ability to become attached to him.
Yes, “Star Wars” is filled with masked characters, and one could argue that people liked Boba Fett and Darth Vader just fine. But neither of these were our protagonists, and they operated in a cinematic space where there were other characters to function as audience surrogates. Here the Mandalorian is the only character given more than a few minutes of screen time, and our ability to relate to him is vital. This admittedly is likely to be resolved as the series goes on, but the pilot’s heavy use of a protagonist that is so closed off both emotionally and visually may not be enough to hook audiences.
That said, anyone who has bought into Disney+ is probably doing so because they’re already a fan, which mitigates potential damage; the viewers “The Mandalorian” attracts aren’t likely to throw in the towel after one episode. But it does feel like a crime to cast Pedro Pascal as the Mandalorian and give him so little personality.
Visually, “The Mandalorian” feels much more in line with the original trilogy than any of the other content we’ve gotten since the prequels. Everything looks dirty and broken and lived-in — a reflection of a society that is barely scraping by. It’s wonderful to see a return to an alien world that is brought to life largely using practical effects. The prosthetics and extensive makeup used to develop unique alien characters ground “The Mandalorian” in a reality that is miles away from the sterile CGI that has been dominant more recently.
With so much of “The Mandalorian” still shrouded in secrecy, it’s difficult to get a read from just one episode on where the show will ultimately go. But what we have so far is a stylish continuation of the original films, revisiting the chaotic world that “Return of the Jedi” left off in, one that features the formerly all-powerful Empire in tatters and opportunistic outlaws fighting over the scraps.
In the episodes to come, we have a string of incredibly talented directors at its helm that will hopefully maintain the narrative quality of “The Mandalorian.” Although the pilot is almost entirely comprised of exposition, it’s clear that the cast is brimming with potential. But if it’s going to succeed, it needs to foster some kind of emotional development that will make us care about the characters, and do it quick. Right now, there’s a danger that audiences are intrigued but not invested, and nostalgia will only go so far in keeping their attention.
“The Mandalorian” is now available on Disney+. One episode was screened for review.