In the late first century AD, the historian Tacitus contrasted the freedom of the uncivilized Britons with the corruption of Rome, saying of his own people, “They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.” Tacitus’ words are often evoked to describe the sins of superpowers, and in recent cinematic history, they are aptly applied to the political conglomeration ruled by Palpatine and Darth Vader in the three original Star Wars movies. The Empire’s orderliness is built on black magic, and when it falls apart at the end of Return of the Jedi, we rejoice. But we might also say that the recent Star Wars films themselves represent an orderly but spiritually lacking cinematic empire whose time has come for a quiet revolution. Disney+’s The Mandalorian picks up shortly after the destruction of the second Death Star, and it offers a much smaller cosmos for effective storytelling than the recent films. It feels like freedom.
The Mandalorian speaks more directly and deeply to the soul than the heavily nostalgic J.J. Abrams films. Indeed, The Mandalorian demonstrates that Star Wars belongs for the foreseeable future on the small screen. Written by independent-film legend turned Marvel mogul Jon Favreau, The Mandalorian combines the aesthetic of A New Hope with old-school, episodic adventure television like Have Gun Will Travel, Kung Fu, and The Incredible Hulk. In an homage to both the Western and Samurai traditions, the man at the center of the stories initially has no name, no face, and no past. It’s a wild galaxy, and “Mando,” so dubbed by Greef Karga, played by Carl Weathers, is an iron-clad bounty hunter with a heart of gold. He lives by a code of honor that forbids his taking off his helmet, and he is bound both by celibacy and poverty. The spoils of his bounty hunts go towards adding pieces to his suit of armor, with the leftover profits given to orphan children. We learn in time that Mando himself was a foundling—a war orphan adopted into a new community on a new planet. In an inversion of Christian baptism, he becomes nameless, and yet like initiation in the Church, Mando is given a new identity within an interdependent body. He then progresses in “the way,” and his role turns out to be a muscular hireling who asks no moral questions about his tasks . . . until circumstances transform him.
The change comes in the form of “the Child,” an adorable fifty-year-old creature commonly referred to by fans of the show as “Baby Yoda.” Mando’s various adventures always connect back to an inescapable vocation to guard this vulnerable (but powerful) young life. What could be more Catholic? Eventually we learn Mando’s birth name and briefly see his face, but he never betrays his code. As the episodes progress, he makes greater and greater sacrifices for those around him. We eventually learn that Mando’s parents died to protect him, and he discovers that he is willing to do the same for others. Season One of The Mandalorian is a portrait of growth in charity. The brusque but kindly Kuiil, played by Nick Nolte, embodies this sacrificial love as well. “This is the way.”
The Mandalorian keeps things simple. It is a far cry from a busy screen full of CG spaceships and warmed-over supernatural family dramas. The moral universe is not the full-blown Manichean dichotomy of the Force. Rather, it is the everyday struggle for righteousness that we can all relate to, albeit set in an alien realm. In a post-imperial wasteland, there is a lot of danger, but plenty of hope. The mystical element, embodied by the Yoda-like creature, is neither named nor understood. There is an acknowledgement of power beyond brute strength, but the Mandalorian’s characters just have to get on with life. In the fourth episode, Mando, hiding out from imperial pursuers and fellow bounty hunters, lands on a remote planet with people untouched by technological innovations. The natives need help to preserve their way of life, and Mando is able to provide it, with a little unexpected help. It is a universal tale that happens to take place within the Star Wars brand. Like the best of Star Trek or Doctor Who, the outer space settings and extra-terrestrial make-up somehow draw more attention, not less, to what is most precious about life right here on earth.
The Mandalorian isn’t perfect. There is some pretty bad acting from guest stars for a production with such a large budget; but we remember that camp is part of the sci-fi genre, especially on television. There is also some insipid fan service (highlighting storm troopers’ poor aim . . . yawn). But on the whole, Jon Favreau has opened a window to let in much-needed fresh air for the Star Wars franchise. Favreau told the Hollywood Reporter that he is trying to focus on “the darker, freakier side of Star Wars,” but the show is nonetheless a wholesome and fun offering for the whole family to enjoy together. The music by Ludwig Göransson is excellent, capturing both a gritty Western and ethereal, otherworldy mood. The visual effects, with a couple of glaring exceptions, are seamlessly integrated with the work of actors and puppeteers. Despite seeing his face as the title character only once in eight episodes, Pedro Pascal’s voice and screen presence create both warmth and mystery.
In a refreshing departure from an anxious TV culture of binge-watching, Disney+ dropped the new episodes of The Mandalorian once a week. It was a joy to greet my kids on Friday mornings and hear them express their excitement about sitting down to watch the latest installment together that night. Favreau told ABC news, “The pressure I feel is more to the audience that I want to make sure that I’m throwing a good party for them.” To me and my Catholic family, it’s mission accomplished. Season Two is due to come out later this year.
“This is the way,” Mando says. So far, I agree.