In Defense of The Mandalorian and The Last of Us' "Filler" Episodes

We're only a few months into 2023, but the television landscape has started an unexpected, buzzed-about trend. Two of the year's biggest TV hits, the first season of HBO's The Last of Us and the current third season of Disney+'s Star Wars: The Mandalorian, have experimented with their respective formats in a single episode or two — and started a mountain of discourse as a result. The third and seventh episodes of The Last of Us, "Long, Long Time" and "Left Behind", both diverged from the series' central story, and were quickly met with complaints. The newly-released third episode of The Mandalorian, "Chapter Nineteen: The Convert", took on a similar trend, and has almost been seen as even more divisive. Amid the often-incorrect labeling of these installments as "bottle episodes" or "filler", there's been the question of why The Last of Us and The Mandalorian are wasting precious time on these detours — but honestly, doing so works wonders for both shows. Spoilers for the first season of The Last of Us, and the first three episodes of Season 3 of Star Wars: The Mandalorian, below! Only look if you want to know!

Despite being criticized as "filler" by some of the show's naysayers, I won't include "Left Behind" in this argument — it adapts a canonical part of The Last of Us' original text, it adds a pivotal context to Ellie's (Bella Ramsey) fight to keep Joel (Pedro Pascal) alive, and it arguably is the ideal place for that story to fit into a seasons-long adaptation. So, let's address the two remaining episodes. "Long, Long Time" diverges almost entirely from the canon of The Last of Us' games, expanding on the story of Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), two men who accidentally meet and quietly form a beautiful long-term relationship in the post-apocalypse. Years into the pandemic, when Frank is about to die from old age and various illnesses, he and Bill get married and have one last day together, before ending their lives side by side. "The Convert", meanwhile, follows Dr. Penn Pershing (Omid Abtahi) and Elia Kane (Katy O'Brian), two former Imperial workers who have been inducted into the New Republic's Amnesty program on Corusant. When Pershing wants to privately continue the cloning experiments he led under the Empire, Kane takes him on an adventure to gain the necessary tools — and then ultimately betrays him, ratting him out to the New Republic and causing his mind to possibly be destroyed by a repurposed Mind Flayer machine. 

Sure, both of these episodes tell stories that fans were not expecting to see, and barely include the show's central protagonists, with The Last of Us' Joel and Ellie and The Mandalorian's Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal), Grogu, and Bo-Katan Kryse (Katee Sackhoff) only bookending the respective episodes. While that narrative decision might be shocking, it's certainly not an unprecedented way to tell a long ongoing story. Compare that, if you will, to the "Annual" issues of ongoing comics — once-a-year standalone stories that often sidestep (or, at times, directly contradict) the canon being established in the rest of the year's issues. Even if an annual does follow that storytelling formula, that doesn't stop it from being well-executed or entertaining. More often than not, the plot of an annual will reverberate into future issues, even if that isn't immediately apparent at the time.

"Long, Long Time" has a similar sort of impact, as going to Bill and Frank's house equips Joel and Ellie with necessary new gear on their westward adventure (it's gear that largely gets lost in the very next fight they get into in Kansas City, but nevertheless). Beyond that, the episode resonates on an emotional level — Bill's letter to Joel about finding "one person worth saving" feels like a thesis statement for the controversial events of The Last of Us' Season 1 finale. While we obviously have yet to see how the events of "The Convert" impact the rest of The Mandalorian's third season, we do know how they impact the larger history of the Star Wars universe: in the Sequel Trilogy films, villains like Snoke and Palpatine will be able to return through cloning, fulfilling Pershing's goal in the worst possible roundabout way. Even on a narrative level, there's a chance that Pershing and Kane's relationship with their New Republic overlords will mirror how Din and Bo-Katan feel about the cult of Mandalorians they're inducted into by the episode's end.

But what "Long, Long Time" and "The Convert" bring to their respective series is a sense of world-building, showcasing how these massive genre stories impact the people beyond our main protagonists. "Long, Long Time" trades violent fights against zombies (to the chagrin of some critics) for the more intimate tale of an unlikely decades-long story between Bill and Frank, and their mutual decision to die in each other's arms. Not only is the story brilliantly written and performed, but it's a story that only works within the world of The Last of Us — Bill and Frank would never have met if the world hadn't collapsed around them, but they were able to create their own world filled with beauty and passion, and to live in it together until the very end. While Bill and Frank are far from the only supporting characters to die in The Last of Us' story, their lives and deaths show how much love is able to exist in the franchise's dire, Cordyceps-infected world.

"The Convert", on the flip side, adds a sinister layer to the largely-family-friendly merchandise machine that has become the Star Wars franchise. The entire saga, to an extent, is built around Luke, Leia, and Han's efforts in the rebellion in the Original Trilogy — only for this episode to reveal that the New Republic birthed out of the rebellion is still inherently flawed. Despite its altruistic exterior, the New Republic is still utilizing the same torture machines as its predecessor, and not making enough of an impact to affect the uber-wealthy on Corusant. Sure, the Sequel Trilogy movies showed the flaws of the New Republic a generation later, but now we have a better idea of how the rift between the New Republic and the First Order began to manifest. Hell, even as "The Convert" has drawn countless comparisons to the street-level political intrigue of last year's Star Wars: Andor, the events of the episode prove that Cassian Andor's best efforts to eradicate fascism haven't exactly stuck less than twenty years later. Whether or not "The Convert" executes those themes perfectly is a whole separate debate, but it can be argued that those themes would not be explored the same in another episode of Din and Grogu adventuring through the galaxy.

That's because, honestly, both "Long, Long Time" and "The Convert" succeed because they follow previously-disregarded supporting characters. As much as fans of major franchise have campaigned for even the most impossible breakout character to get their own spinoff, or for an anthology concerning the random civilians in an abnormal world, not every story needs to be spun off into its own separate series or title. (The hype and subsequent letdown of The Book of Boba Fett might prove this.) Not every character needs to be a lead protagonist — but there's a beauty in turning those characters into the main protagonist, if only for a moment. Sure, in the current landscape of television still being seen (often incorrectly, depending on the show) as a bingeable experience or a "long movie", it might seem frustrating or befuddling to take these detours. But it does a disservice to call these episodes "unnecessary" — they might not propel the larger plot forward, but they're making you laugh, cry, and maybe even reevaluate your world and the fictional world you're watching. To put it simply, they're well-made entertainment — maybe not exactly the kind that you wanted, but they're still entertainment nonetheless.

The first season of The Last of Us is now streaming exclusively on HBO Max, with Season 2 arriving at a later date. New episodes of Star Wars: The Mandalorian premiere on Wednesdays exclusively on Disney+. If you haven't signed up for Disney+ yet, you can try it out here.

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