Episode Score: 9.5
Season Score: 8.75
In the interest of brevity I have taken the decision to combine my review of The Mandalorian Season 1 with my review of the same season’s eighth and final episode, directed by Taika Waititi. This is all the more useful in that, with Season 2 due to be released in only 9 days as of the publication of this article, it will be helpful to sum up what worked; what didn’t; and what we can and should expect from The Mandalorian in the future. The article will accordingly address both aspects, in reverse order.
First, for its cumulative season review, the Mandalorian has earned a well beyond solid 8.75 (not sure the second decimal was necessary, but whatever). Where it has succeeded, it has done so exceptionally, and where it has floundered, those transgressions have been forgivable. Combining elements of Western, thriller, war drama, heist, and so forth, The Mandalorian has told an excellent story across 8 episodes, setting a standard of intelligence, originality, and craft for the franchise that was woefully lacking in the recent sequel trilogy.
Much of this can be ascribed to the diverse array of narrative style, direction, humor, and action sequencing its many directors have brought to the table, and that word “diversity” both in its identity-political and other usages, is a good lens through which to describe the strengths of the series. My personal and likely overzealous bugbear of episode 6 besides, the show has done a much better job of diversity in gender and race than basically any facet of the franchise I’ve ever encountered, the aforementioned sequel trilogy included. Okay, the sequel trilogy especially, which checked nearly every box on how not to incorporate either diversity of thought or diversity of identity effectively in film. From its bullshit “mystery box” bridges to nowhere to its idiotically Mary Sue’d heroine magically related to everyone to its flagrant tokenism in regards to cast members of color to its petty, amateurish, and insipid farce of two directors with widely discordant visions sabotaging a beloved multibillion dollar franchise simply to argue with one another’s authorial choises, the sequel trilogy’s “The Force is Female” slogan may have been worthy of being replaced by the more obscene and linguistically nonsensical aphorism “The Force is Fucked”. Pardon. I’ll now revert to my thin veneer of professionalism, such as it is.
The Mandalorian suffers from almost none of these problems. At its worst, the one-off snooze-cringe of episode 5, its still not as bad as the most tiresome moments of the Last Jedi. More often, when it comes up short, as it did (relatively speaking) in episodes 1 and 2, its still serviceable. Then there are the other five episodes of the season, respectively, 3,4,6,7,8, which are some of the best television I’ve seen in awhile, and unequivocally the best emanation from the Star Wars godhead I’ve encountered since finishing KOTOR 2: The Sith Lords as a ten year old. These are truly spectacular. Returning to the issue of diversity, Mando is a triumph in essentially every attribute grouped under this concept, from inclusivity in gender and race to the harmonious merging of various genres, styles of craft, and perspective.
The series was at its unequivocal best when showcasing the talents of show regulars Deborah Chow and Rick Famuyiwa and those of guest directors Bryce Dallas Howard and Taika Waititi. Chow in particular, whose explicit and unabashed enthusiasm for blowing shit up shone through in the behind the scenes commentary, set an excellent standard for multilayered action sequences in episode 3 from which the show never reverted, while Famuyiwa gave us the heist caper of episode six. The latter was the second best standalone episode of the season after Howard’s brilliant episode 4; paid heavy nods to KOTOR in its prison transport droid designs; and introduced the best running gag in the show so far with the immortal line “I wasn’t no stormtrooper!”. Waititi opens the season finale with a wonderfully zany expansion on this nod to the poor marksmanship of our favorite grunts, but more on that later. Each director has brought a unique brilliance and voice to their work without the show at any point straying too far from tonal consistency, and where the show has veered into discussion of contemporary social issues, it has done so with a refreshing read-between-the-lines obliqueness that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the viewer.
It has discussed racism; slavery; prejudice against indigenous peoples; the moral ambiguity of each individual; the struggle to maintain one’s religion and culture in the face of systemic violence and social pressure; the conflict between duty and desire; and even the trade-offs between the tyranny of authoritarianism and the inevitable corruption and disorder of democracy, all without pandering to the latest adolescent bout of Twitter outrage. It has not, like some other progressive media, assumed at the outset that its audience is inherently privileged, ignorant, and in need of education via battering ram. It has represented characters of color and women through a normalizing and 3 dimensional lens and, with one irritating exception, not wasted screen time making White men look stupid simply to prove a point. On that one occasion, the character was mercifully blasted in the head thirty minutes in, ridding us of his frat boyishness.
The show has also constituted something of a career renaissance for Carl Weathers, whose Greef Karga makes for a compellingly pompous and theatrical huckster. I am greatly interested to see how Weathers will perform when handed the directorial reins for an episode in season 2 (which he negotiated as a condition of joining the cast) and beyond. We’ve also witnessed the return of Giancarlo Esposito doing what he does best, i.e. play a calculating Big Bad who methodically spreads death and despair, including (in typical Star Wars fashion!) to his own troops. Failure will not be tolerated! Seriously, do stormtroopers get a good Imperial life insurance policy? because summary execution seems to be a very common managerial response to poor job performance in the 501st. Lastly, Pedro Pascal stars in this show, which since Game of Thrones Season 4 has equated to instantly raising by 1.5 my score for whatever the hell the thing he is in happens to be. Enough said.
As to the finale in question, its as strong as any episode this season, meriting an exemplary 9.5 in my estimation. In summary, this episode focused heavily on deepening the lore of the show on multiple levels; developing and resolving the redemption arc of IG-11; spectacularly resolving in what must have been an extremely expensive action sequence the murderous stand-off with Moff Gideon; and filling in important details on the origins of Mando himself. We learn Mando’s name (Din Djarin) and, for the first time ever, see his face when, gravely wounded, he reveals himself to IG in order to be treated for brain damage after being persuaded that, as IG is a droid, removing his helmet in an inorganic being’s presence is religiously permissible. We learn Karga is a disgraced former politician, we see Gideon wield a darksaber, suggesting force capability, and we see our heroes finally learn that The Child is in fact connected with a mysterious group of sorcerers known as “Jedi”. We’ll see where that goes. Waititi brings his typical blend of both tender sentiment and absurdist humor, the latter of which, as in Thor: Ragnarok, is skillfully commingled with the plot’s action beats on numerous occasions. The episode’s weakest bit is ironically its first and funniest, an absurd skit-like dialogue between the two scouts who killed Kuiil which segways into a beatdown by IG-11 and its guns blazing rescue of Mando’s trio. The scene is hilarious, but also so meta and ridiculous that it borders on 4th-wall-breaking, rendering it somewhat incongruous till Waititi’s IG steps in to both kick some ass and kick the plot back onto the rails. But for this misplaced brilliance, the episode may well have merited another perfect ten. All in all, a brilliant, if not quite flawless, season, soon to be followed upon. This is the Way.