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In ‘The Mandalorian,’ the Known and Unknown Coexist in a Delicate Balance

For Disney+’s first foray into the world of ‘Star Wars,’ the company chose their subject and setting wisely, creating a series that feels both familiar and new, grand and quaint, likely and unlikely

Disney/Ringer illustration

The allure of a universe like Star Wars, for audience and storyteller alike, is its scale. Every casual reference to an unseen planet or offscreen conflict widens our sense of possibility and deepens our sense of immersion in the vast, richly detailed world George Lucas incepted more than 40 years ago. To Disney, Lucasfilm’s corporate steward since 2012, this is an opportunity: practically unlimited real estate from which to develop full-fledged properties, paying dividends for years to come. But picking one’s spots is an art, and one Lucas himself proved less than adept at. Darth Vader’s origin story was an obvious subject for the prequel trilogy, but did we really need more information about pre-Imperial trade policy and parliamentary process? (Only my colleague Justin Charity thinks so.) Some exposition is better left implied.

Disney’s own track record is more mixed. On the one hand, its new trilogy, set to conclude this December with The Rise of Skywalker, has been a phenomenal success; on the other hand, Solo, a stand-alone prequel with a troubled production, infamously underperformed. More recently, Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss abandoned plans to develop a new trilogy of their own, compounding the impression that while Lucas may have left plenty of gaps to fill, he and successors like J.J. Abrams also set an impossibly high bar for future installments. With Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy’s 2014 decision to wipe decades’ worth of expanded universe from the continuity slate, there’s nearly unlimited potential to add to Star Wars’ master narrative. But what reality could measure up?

Fortunately, the demands of Disney’s larger business answered the question of where to take Star Wars next before these hiccups had a chance to reach a crisis point. In launching Disney+—streaming wars entrant, Netflix killer, vault cracker—Star Wars was the obvious choice for a centerpiece. The franchise has acquired a reputation for quality over quantity, with CEO Bob Iger all but apologizing for rushing out Solo mere months after The Last Jedi. So while the Marvel Cinematic Universe will soon populate Disney+ with everything from WandaVision to Hawkeye, Star Wars will kick things off with just one series: The Mandalorian, starring Pedro Pascal as the eponymous bounty hunter. As of Tuesday, the 40-minute premiere is online, along with the rest of Disney+.

Intuitive as a Star Wars series may be, it poses many of the same risks as a new feature. What corner of the Star Wars universe is still dark enough to be worth exploring but well-known enough to spark interest? Will there be room for individual expression, or must the final product bend to an inescapable house style? Can a show sustain the intensity and production value of a trilogy-style epic over eight episodes? The stakes may be lower on the small screen, but they can’t be that much lower without diluting the magic.

The Mandalorian’s answer is to spend $120 million, recruit a competent manager like Jon Favreau from another wing of the IP palace to write three-quarters of the season, and surround him with directors like Rick Famuyiwa (of Dope and, briefly, The Flash) and Taika Waititi (who also has a first-episode cameo as a bounty droid), slightly more auteurist names who nonetheless know how to navigate a sprawling property. As for setting, The Mandalorian zeroes in on the interregnum between the fall of the Empire at the end of the original trilogy and the rise of the similarly fascistic First Order, which dominates the newer films. An ideal entry into this lawlessness is the life of a mercenary, someone squarely in the cross section between desperate violence and Hobbesian competition that tends to emerge in the absence of a state.

Much of The Mandalorian’s premiere, at least when it comes to plot, is pure table-setting. Pascal’s nameless Mandalorian is established as a ruthless, efficient predator; a similarly anonymous Client (Werner Herzog, phoning it in and having a blast) offers a lucrative, under-the-table deal to acquire a mysterious target for unknown ends; the target turns out to be a half-century-old infant with the same pointy ears and diminutive stature as one Jedi Master Yoda. (The baby seems to be nonverbal, but the jumbled syntax will presumably come later.) The Mandalorian reaches out a finger, suggesting he’s abandoned his mission and chosen to take the baby under his wing. In less than 40 minutes, the premise is set.

What little we see of the Mandalorian’s backstory is standard lone-warrior stuff, a jaded fighter whose new protégé puts him in touch with his own lost innocence, Lone Wolf and Cub–style. Where The Mandalorian excels is in world-building, fleshing out a Star Wars subculture until it has all the heft of Jedi lore. The Mandalorian quickly establishes itself as a PG-13, extraterrestrial answer to John Wick, a window into a “guild” with ancient traditions and all-important bylaws. We’re clued in to the rules with dialogue that’s swift and deft, never clumsy: Mandalorians are a tribe that replenishes itself with initiates known as “foundlings”; the iconic armor, best known as Boba Fett’s costume, appears to have an almost religious significance. The raw material is accepted as a down payment for a job, and it’s suggested—though not confirmed—that Mandalorians aren’t allowed to remove their helmets. (That’s pretty much the only excuse I’ll accept for hiding Pascal’s face. At least Rian Johnson did us the service of getting Kylo’s mask off!)

The Mandalorian also sketches out the contours of a fascinating political setup, though it remains to be seen how seriously it plans to take them. The overthrow of the Empire in Return of the Jedi is taken as an unambiguous triumph; in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, the First Order and its rapid ascent is given little explanation. The Mandalorian acknowledges that a world without authority is not necessarily an easier or more just one, and that the resulting vacuum can create a craving for stability, no matter the price. That’s what underlies the potentially boring spats about currency between the Mandalorian and guild chief Greef Carga (Carl Weathers). A social contract as essential as money is no longer agreed upon.

Star Wars has always had trace elements of the Western alongside the high fantasy and war tropes, part of the something-for-everyone smorgasbord that’s made the franchise such an enduring hit. Beyond themes, The Mandalorian’s post-Imperial premise shapes Pascal’s character into even more of a cowboy on the frontier, sparring in well-staged shootouts at Mos Eisley–style cantinas and dealing with alien farmers voiced by Nick Nolte. With so little of The Mandalorian to judge thus far, its influences take on an outsize importance in terms of what to expect later on. We’ll surely learn more about events like a mysterious “Great Purge,” but we’ll also hit the expected beats of an antihero discovering an unlikely moral center. Like the Force itself, unknown and known coexist in a delicate balance. With a streaming TV show set between trilogies, Star Wars—and its audience—is getting to have it both ways: technically entering new territory, but still sticking to familiar turf.