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The Mandalorian brings Western sweep and Werner Herzog to the Star Wars universe

Photo: Disney+
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The plot of The Mandalorian’s premiere episode is very simple. A bounty hunter catches an escaped criminal and returns him to his boss. Dissatisfied with the middling jobs on offer, he agrees to take a mysterious commission from an enigmatic figure. He dons his armor and mounts his horse—or bluurg (blerg? blurgh?), as the case may be—and takes off across the desert. After a gunfight, he locates his target. Even the title of the episode is straightforward: It’s simply called “Chapter One.”

Star Wars has always had an elemental quality to its storytelling, drawing as it does from Joseph Campbell and his hero’s journey. That folkloric quality contrasts with George Lucas’ (and all subsequent Star Wars creatives’) specific and intriguing world-building, which has inspired such monumentally detailed achievements in nerdery as Wookieepedia, The Star Wars Wiki. Part of that can be attributed to the fundamental nature of nerds, but there’s also something about the way Star Wars gives you just enough that allows imaginations to go wild.

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The Mandalorian is the product of that same imagination, an entire series spun off from a character who only delivers four lines in Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back. That would be Boba Fett, who belongs to a nomadic tribe of mercenaries and bounty hunters from the planet Mandalor—thus, The Mandalorian. Boba Fett is dead—or, technically, in the early stages of the agonizing thousand-year digestive process of the sarlacc—when this new series opens, in the lawless outer reaches of the galaxy during the reconstruction period after the events of Return Of The Jedi. We don’t yet know the name of the mysterious bounty hunter played by Pedro Pascal who stars in the series, nor is it likely that we ever will. We also probably won’t see his face, as Mandalorians, as several characters point out in “Chapter One,” never take off their masks.

And that’s appropriate, as the character from film history that the Mandalorian resembles most is Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. (In what cannot be a coincidence, Boba Fett actor Jeremy Bulloch says his portrayal of Fett was also inspired by Eastwood.) Leone was also a key influence on Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy, and The Mandalorian showrunner Jon Favreau leans into the Spaghetti Western aesthetic even before we get to the shot of the Mandalorian peering over a rocky cliff under harsh desert sunlight at the dusty outpost crawling with gunslingers below. The sets for the show, on which no expense was reportedly spared, have a wonderfully textured, dusty, lived-in quality to them, calling back to the original Star Wars and the period before Lucas became obsessed with tinkering his creations into incoherence.

Photo: Disney+
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The epic sweep and casual nihilism of Spaghetti Westerns are evident from the opening scenes of “Chapter One”: both the windswept ice plains and the indifferent reactions of the cantina patrons to the Mandalorian chopping a dude in half are straight out of one of an Italian B-Western. But the comparisons really resonate in the hail of blaster fire that leads up to the reveal of Disney’s big secret Star Wars reveal—which I honestly didn’t mind, especially compared to a similar revelation at the end of Solo—at the end of the episode. It’s really not much of a leap from that laser cannon to the machine gun Django drags around the desert in Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 original.

But while I expected a strong Western influence based on what Favreau had to say about the show at Star Wars Celebration earlier this year, what I wasn’t expecting was for the debut episode to be so playful. Much was made of Taika Waititi’s voice role as bounty droid IG-11 on The Mandalorian, but honestly, aside from the occasional kiwi-accented word, I could barely tell it was him. The Mandalorian was funnier with the Han Solo-esque timing of his quips in the climactic action scenes, and—as much as I love Taika—I felt that both Nick Nolte and Saturday Night Live’s Horatio Sanz brought more personality to their bit parts in “Chapter One.” Sanz in particular was very entertaining, as the hapless Mythrol the Mandalorian captures and freezes in carbonite at the beginning of the episode.

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But my personal MVP of “Chapter One” was, unsurprisingly for anyone who knows me, was Werner Herzog, who simply loves playing a villain and will seemingly take any bad-guy role he can get. It is truly surreal to hear the director of Fitzcarraldo pronounce words like “blaster,” “fob,” and “beskar” (that’s the metal the Mandalorian takes to the smith played by a masked Gina Carano, if you’re not steeped in Star Wars lore) in that iconic German accent. But Herzog’s role isn’t just a novelty. His character, The Client, seems to be some sort of exiled Imperial officer, or at least an Imperial sympathizer. And given the parallels between the Empire and the Nazis, that lends The Mandalorian an intriguing Boys From Brazil kind of vibe, particularly this chilling line: “It is good to restore the natural order of things after a period of such disarray, don’t you agree?”

For the time being, the Mandalorian is on the side of the Empire-in-exile. He’s working for them, at the very least. But that may change soon, based on the bounty hunter’s reaction to seeing his target for the first time. There isn’t much for us to go on in terms of the character’s personality and where he’ll go from here, except for how bounty hunters and other such scum (I’m thinking of a certain handsome smuggler here) have behaved when given the opportunity for heroism in other Star Wars movies. And honestly, with Star Wars, oftentimes that’s enough. So while The Mandalorian’s debut is pretty thin, it’s also got a lot of wide open spaces to expand into.

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Stray Observations

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  • Congratulations to Brian Posehn, whose King Nerd sash and tiara are in the mail. (He plays the chatty speeder driver at the beginning of the episode, in case you didn’t recognize him.)
  • A Life Day reference means you have to take a shot. That’s a rule I just made up.
  • In case you didn’t realize this was the gritty side of the galaxy, two cantina scenes in one episode should set you straight.
  • Shoutout to Dr. Pershing’s (Omid Abtahi) ‘70s-style wardrobe, which, along with the beat-up Stormtrooper armor, gave that scene great visual continuity from the original trilogy.
  • You may already be aware of this, but Herzog’s doing interviews about The Mandalorian and they are as glorious as you’d expect.
  • Kowakian monkey-lizards are usually kept as pets, so you know times must be hard if they’re roasting them on spits.
  • “You’re a Mandalorian. Your ancestors rode the great Mythosaur.” Look out for the new limited series Mythosaur, coming in 2023 to Disney+.
  • So, do Mandalorians have sex with their masks on? (I already regret asking this question, and have no doubt it’s already been answered.)
  • Also, now that we’ve gotten to the end of the recap and can discuss such things, how do Yodas reproduce? Or is that Yoda himself, reincarnated in a smaller version of the same green body? And why, out of all the alien races in the galaxy, does Yoda’s not have a name? True mysteries, indeed.
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