As far as conspiracy theories go, you can call me pretty skeptical. The earth is round, fluoride is good for your teeth, and Mark Zuckerberg is unfortunately not a lizard-person. But there’s one conspiracy theory I hold near and dear, no matter what my smarter, cooler, and overall superior peers say. I am, according to Rotten Tomatoes, one of the only 6% of people who believe that Disney’s new show, The Mandalorian, is bad.
It’s not like I want to hate on The Mandalorian. The production value of the show is off the charts, and Boba Fett was by far and away my favorite character in the original trilogy. But eight episodes have come and gone, and I can’t help but ask all the show’s legions of fans one simple question: “Why?” And like my tinfoil hat-wearing brethren, this one seemingly innocuous question forces me to live in varying states of occasional smugness and perpetual confusion. Is this some elaborate trick pulled by Disney? Is there some kind of subliminal messaging in Baby Yoda’s babbling? I’m not categorically against “fun.” I’m not a monster. So here, in earnest, is my case. And you better believe I’m going to spoil some things below.
Space Cowboys Don’t Make a Western
The Mandalorian really wants you to believe it’s a Western set in space — so much so that our Mandalorian himself, Pedro Pascal, has described the show as a Western “infused… with steroids”. And let me be totally upfront here: I love that concept. On one level, it works well with the show’s DNA. George Lucas modeled the first Mandalorian, Boba Fett, after Clint Eastwood’s character in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. On a deeper level, the genre suffuses the show with a haunting loneliness and ruin, one that feels appropriate whether you’re in Badlands or in the deepest reaches of space. But more than anything, the show’s penchant for Western motifs allows for some pretty amazing scenes. The show’s opening, for example, could’ve been plucked right out of a classic spaghetti western: A bounty hunter comes to town, makes short work of local hooligans at the saloon, and rides off into the desert with his bounty in hand. And in case The Mandalorian hasn’t made its genre abundantly clear, the episode ends with a desert complex shootout eerily reminiscent of The Wild Bunch, even to the gatling gun Mando mows down the baddies with. When it works, it works, and we get some pretty cheesy but still memorable lines in the process. Mando outnumbered at gunpoint four to one? “I like those odds.”
But for all its Western trappings, it feels like The Mandalorian never commits properly to the genre. According to Peter French, the foundational core of the Western genre and its heroes is the march to death. The Western hero, according to French, is the last remnant of a dying age. His past — along with his values and insistence on honor — has put him on a collision course with death. In his book, Cowboy Metaphysics, French writes:
“The Western is about… a dead man’s walk, or run or gallop. It is not accidental that so many of the heroes and villains of Westerns are portrayed as having a previous history in the American Civil War on the losing Confederate side. They have been defeated and lived with death and gore in a cause they, we are led to believe, saw either as their inescapable duty or as romantic.”
But this idea of a troubled past and an almost preordained, bloody death needs to be grounded in our character’s backstory and his choices. The problem is that Mando has almost no lore behind his character; all we learn in second-long flashbacks is that Mando was a Foundling when the planet of Mandalore was destroyed. And while the show likes to play up the Mandalorian Creed, it sometimes feels tacked on because we don’t fully understand the relationship between Mando’s past and his belief in honor. To prove the point, think of what nearly kills Mando at the end. After an explosive shootout in the final episode, Mando is dying with a head wound. After dramatically shouting at everyone to go on without him, Mando is told by our favorite nanny-droid that he’s going to die — unless he removes his helmet. This obviously goes against the Mandalorian Creed, and in refusing to do so, Mando chooses honor over his own life. But without his past being fleshed out, Mando doesn’t have a compelling emotional reason to die for the creed, and without it, the show fails to crescendo to that sense of inevitability French talked about. And, maybe more troubling, the work around just feels… well, cheap. In what can only be described as very Spielberg, Mando is saved by the thing he hates most in the galaxy: droids.
Leveling Up Isn’t Character Development
When I play RPGs, I religiously hoard loot. But while armor and weapon upgrades provide you with a sense of progression in video games, the same can’t be said about television. In television, progression comes from your characters changing. It’s pretty much a paired down version of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”: Your character goes on a journey, changes, and returns having accomplished whatever they set out to do. In the words of Dan Harmon, it’s a “ritual of descent and return” — one “that all life, including the human mind and the communities we create, marches to.” In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker must learn to grow up and master the Force before he can save Leia and blow up the Death Star. But in The Mandalorian, Mando must learn — well, nothing. And that’s the problem. It’s kind of like playing Skyrim. Instead of progressing through change, Mando just gets some sick Beskar plate armor, some tiny arm-rockets, and a jetpack.
That’s not to say there isn’t action in The Mandalorian. Sure, things happen, but these actions never really force Mando to change. Think about the episode where Mando reconnects with his old team, only to be double-crossed and left for dead in an Imperial cell. The show isn’t exactly subtle about whose fault it is; Mando forced the team to abandon one of their fellow members when a job got rough — and that callousness has come back to bite him in the Beskar. But instead of Mando learning the error of his ways, he gets by on the exact same ruthless efficiency that led him to make that choice in the first place. He escapes, imprisons all of the original team minus the guy they were sent to rescue, and gets his bounty. If you think Mando hasn’t learned his lesson — or doesn’t need to — you’re probably right. When he’s double-crossed again at the end, Mando is shown to be one step ahead, placing an Imperial tracker on his remaining comrades and dooming them to fiery death. Unfortunately for Mando, the loot drop for these guys was only Imperial Credits.
How You Like Your Eggs: Episodic or Serialized
In a lot of ways, The Mandalorian is a true love letter to the aesthetics of the original trilogy. The scene cuts smack of that late ‘70s charm, the soundtrack is equally epic and cheesy, and little inside jokes — like ex-storm troopers failing at target practice — are strewn about. But The Mandalorian seems to take another cue from ‘70s television: episodic structure. Unlike a serialized drama, episodic dramas have each episode exist more or less in a vat. According to Dan Harmon, the endings of episodic TV are less about change and more about returning to the status quo. After all, “television’s job is to keep you glued to the television for your entire life” — and how can you do that if your characters complete their series long quest? It’s artificial, but honestly, SpongeBob is still going strong almost 20 years later, and I’m not complaining.
The thing about The Mandalorian, though, is that by adhering to an episodic structure, it feels like nothing really happens. For one, Mando doesn’t have an actual goal for most of the series. After he saves Baby Yoda and pisses off the fallen Empire, he essentially hops from planet to planet and job to job. Case in point, you can scramble any of the episodes in the middle season, and it won’t make a lick of difference. Mando arrives on planet, problem arises, Mando solves problem and leaves. It makes the show feel a little aimless. Maybe the best example of this is how late an actual goal is introduced: in the final episode. When escaping through the sewers, the group runs into the Armorer, who tasks Mando with raising Baby Yoda as a Foundling, while finding his home planet and returning him to his people. The frustrating thing is that all of this is pretty much common sense. Mando himself could have come up with this goal in episode three, and the next five episodes could have moved us incrementally closer while largely sticking to its episodic structure.
Instead of existing as its own entity, season one felt like training wheels for season two, which has a proper goal and a cool posse to chase after it. But we shouldn’t think that this is a problem that plagues all episodic television. Most series — from Star Trek to M*A*S*H — manage to introduce their main characters and their larger goals in the first episode. Kirk, Spock, McCoy — the original pilot sets out their wants and weaknesses as they sought to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Even less well-received shows like How I Met Your Mother set out characters and a series’ goal from the get go — in this case, obviously to get Ted hitched. If everyone from the very good to the very bad can hit this mark, it seems The Mandalorian is just missing something.
In the end, it’s fun TV, but it’s hard to say it’s good.