The debut season of The Mandalorian had the tough task of setting the standard for what audiences could expect from a live-action Star Wars TV show, an endeavor that brought with it the unintended baggage of divisive reactions to the most recent live-action efforts, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Creator Jon Favreau not only rose to that challenge, but largely exceeded expectations, with the series becoming a hit with fans and critics alike, even going on to earn itself a handful of Emmy Awards for its efforts. Now that the new season has unveiled its debut episode, it's clear that the series is happy to continue its blend of thrills, adventure, and playfulness for more lighthearted adventures.
Picking up shortly after the first season concluded, Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) and his unlikely partner-in-crime "The Child," a.k.a. Baby Yoda, are pursuing a lead about other Mandalorians, which takes the titular hero to Tatooine. Din follows rumors that lead him to a small mining community on the outskirts of the desert planet, and while he does encounter another figure who sports Mandalorian armor, not everything is at it seems, forcing the two to take on an unexpected and massive adventure.
Ever since Disney purchased Lucasfilm back in 2012 and new content has been released, the studio and fans themselves have been tasked with wondering, "What is Star Wars?" Up until this purchase, the answer largely centered around the narrative of the Skywalkers, with 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story giving more context to this world and what stories deserve to unfold in this galaxy, as it was the first film that unfolded outside of the world of the Jedi and the Sith. Favreau and his team of directors and writers clearly know that, while the franchise comes with certain undefinable components, Star Wars needs to deliver action, excitement, and moral lessons about following a path of hope and avoiding a path of darkness, which the Season Two premiere fully embraces.
From a genre perspective, the franchise also has to embrace themes from sci-fi, fantasy, and Westerns, with this premiere leaning most heavily into stories about outlaws and outcasts living on the fringes of society, largely because they have no place where they fit in. Timothy Olyphant's Cobb Vanth initially appears as a foil to Din, only for his backstory to let us know he's faced some troubles but aims to bring peace to his community. The rest of the episode's narrative sees an unlikely partnership with figures who have largely been considered villains for the saga, with this adventure shedding a new perspective on them and reminding us that "villainy" is merely based on a point of view. The overall message of banding together to topple insurmountable odds for the greater good fully adheres to George Lucas' original vision for these stories, while also exemplifying the spirit of Westerns and how not all heroes are cut from the same cloth and often come with a number of rough edges.
Despite any apprehension audiences might have felt about how the scope and scale of Star Wars would translate to the small screen, the first season proved just how much could be accomplished and how it rivaled the output from even the biggest studios. Season Two continues this trend of pushing production to its limits, pulling off impressive set pieces and depicting sprawling landscapes, while also offering intimate glimpses at often under-seen corners of the galaxy. What makes the look of the show so much more impressive is that audiences witnessed in Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian exactly what it took to pull off the first season, much of which was accomplished with a nearly 360-degree digital background that immediately immersed performers in the most alien of landscapes. With that inside information, some viewers might subconsciously attempt to discern which scenes were shot with such technology, though that never detracts from the enjoyment of the explosive action or the otherworldly encounters. Rather, a number of sequences will leave audiences scratching their heads wondering how such impressive effects were pulled off, knowing how confined the production really was.
One of the biggest hurdles that all Star Wars stories released under Disney have had to overcome is finding the balance between pushing the world in new directions while also offering audiences references to beloved corners of the saga. Offer too much fan-service and audiences aren't happy, try to take the world in too different a direction and audiences aren't happy. Arguably some of the best stories in the galaxy from Disney have been The Mandalorian and the animated Star Wars Rebels, as the timeline of these projects allow the embrace of familiar thematic and visual touchstones from the original trilogy, yet we're allowed to see all-new adventures unfolding in this recognizable terrain. Audiences connected with Din because he looks like Boba Fett and The Child quickly earned the "Baby Yoda" nickname, confirming that by taking something familiar and slightly tweaking it, you can excite viewers while also allowing for invention.
If the season premiere has any shortcomings, it would be the implication that the upcoming episodes will lean much more heavily into all-too-familiar characters for the sake of fan excitement as opposed to organic inclusion. Given that this is only the first episode, these worries might be for naught, but there are multiple references, nods, and glimpses at an original trilogy character that would imply their return, potentially compromising the amount of things that will be included in this season merely for the sake of delighting fans. As proven by Giancarlo Esposito's Moff Giden or Ming-Na Wen's Fennec Shand, completely unique villains can be just as compelling as familiar ones, with fans hopefully seeing a lot more invention than revivals as more Season Two episodes debut.
The premiere episode is just as compelling and creative as any entry from the debut season, with The Mandalorian fully realizing the episodic and serialized storytelling intentions that Lucas has had since the franchise's inception and accomplished things that Lucas never could. We're reminded that, once we back off from the Skywalkers, there are countless compelling stories that can be told in this galaxy, and if it knows what's good for it, The Mandalorian will unearth even more colorful corners of this world instead of reviving people and places we've already spent time with and can always revisit.
Rating: 4 out of 5
New episodes of The Mandalorian debut on Disney+ on Fridays.