What does Baby Yoda want from us? And is it a little weird that he has not yet demanded it?
A month has passed since we met the gloriously cuddly entity Disney+ stubbornly insists on referring to as “The Child,” the late-pilot-episode revelation and de facto star of The Mandalorian, the nascent blockbuster streaming service’s flagship show set in the Star Wars universe in the mysterious, fertile era between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Baby Yoda is 50 years old. He is the cutest li’l MacGuffin that ever MacGuffin’d. He is a nigh-unprecedented internet sensation. And five episodes deep into The Mandalorian’s increasingly abrupt-feeling first season (only three episodes left!), our tiny adult son is just … chilling. Basking in the adoration, sure, but rarely lifting even a finger to weaponize it. He barely uses The Force and has yet to assert full command of The Discourse. What won’t we do for Baby Yoda? And when is he gonna get around to making us do it?
Let’s start by recapping both The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda’s activities therein, which should take about eight seconds. This show is relaxed. Pedro Pascal, an exceedingly handsome and well-regarded actor who has not, more than halfway through Season 1, removed his helmet or otherwise shown any part of his face, is the titular Mandalorian, a Boba Fett–evoking bounty hunter tasked by a mysterious, virile figure known as The Client (Werner Herzog) with abducting and/or annihilating an even more mysterious 50-year-old “asset.” Yep. (A foundational piece of Baby Yoda lore is that Herzog, whose pronunciation of such words as parsec and complicated is the second-best part of this series, very possibly cried upon first encountering the puppet on the set.)
The Mandalorian heroically declines to kill Baby Yoda or otherwise sanction his death, as Disney+ is far too wholesome to countenance such butchery; instead, the unlikely pair go on the lam and embark on a series of planet-hopping adventures. A new episode typically introduces a new planet; a few totally new characters portrayed by a charmingly random fleet of charming people (Gina Carano, Amy Sedaris); a few canonized Star Wars entities (Jawas, an AT-ST, a Han Solo–esque young ruffian); and a few super-chill activities in which Baby Yoda might indulge (charming children, fucking with the Mandalorian’s ship, slurping frogs, snuggling with Amy Sedaris). Then that ship flies triumphantly away. Roll credits. That’s it. A vague Episode 5 stinger implying the presence of some formidable villain who might not get his/her/its ass kicked immediately qualifies as a huge revelation.
It has been observed that The Mandalorian thus far is operating in a relentlessly episodic Vibe of the Week mode reminiscent of early Justified or Xena: Warrior Princess or (this one’s mine) Murder, She Wrote. The show is lavish, beautiful, surprisingly funny, and unsurprisingly overflowing with fan service, and replete with rad gunfights and impeccably crafted from series creator and living Disney icon Jon Favreau on down. (The score, from Black Panther/Childish Gambino guru Ludwig Göransson, rules.) But The Mandalorian is also ... not boring, exactly, but suspiciously static, disinclined to commit fully to its own Star Wars world-building arc or connect with any of the others.
This modesty is strategic of course, given the (relative) rockiness of recent attempts to expand Star Wars beyond the comfort of its various Skywalker trilogies. It’s a proud and outlandishly lucrative lineage you want to quietly draft behind, not flamboyantly wrap your arms around. It’s the difference between sneaking a quick, electrifying scene of Darth Vader smoking some fools into Rogue One and flat-out naming a whole movie Solo and then handling the titular role to some jamoke named Alden Ehrenreich. The Mandalorian is weighing its legacy lightly: Everything from its episode length (generally a half hour and change) to its gently binge-averse weekly release schedule seems designed to avoid overtaxing you or drawing too many unflattering comparisons. Something concrete and significant has to happen before we can even start arguing about whether or not it’s canon.
Where is this going? Is nowhere in particular a totally acceptable answer? In the midst of all this jovial inaction stands Baby Yoda, stupendously adorable and galactically at his leisure. In Episode 2, he uses (one presumes) The Force to levitate and subdue (one Googles, because one already forgot) a mudhorn before it can stomp the Mandalorian into space-cowboy sauce. Intriguing! Otherwise, The Child is content to dutifully strike his charming Meme of the Week pose and be done with it.
Every Mom on Christmas morning watching you open presents: pic.twitter.com/m7hI1qYoVz— Julie Benson (@TheJulieBenson) November 29, 2019
From the moment our little buddy first appeared on screen, skeptics justifiably feared a nauseating and overpowering charm offensive, a hypercapitalist Force Choke nonpareil. (The Outline’s “Love Baby Yoda, I Cannot” ought to be shortlisted for 2019’s Headline of the Year.) But what’s truly shocking about Baby Yoda—and The Mandalorian, and to some extent Disney+ as a whole—is how laid-back he has proved to be, the billions of delightful memes generated in his honor far outstripping his actual onscreen antics. This is a soft sell within a soft sell within (relatively, as billion-dollar streaming services go) a soft sell, as perpetrated by quite possibly the hardest-knuckled and most dominant entertainment conglomerate in world history. Does that also make it, necessarily, a long con?
You’ve done this already, obviously, but boot up good ol’ Disney+ real quick and just look at it. Look at it. Look at all of that shit. The spoils are absurd to the point of offensive: Marvel! Pixar! Star Wars! Decades of tastefully curated Disney blockbusters and weird, oft-gambling-based arcana! Jeff Goldblum! The monolithic-all-on-its-own Disney Channel! At $6.99 a month, this embarrassment of child-mollifying riches costs just $2 a month more than Apple TV+ (whose wan early offerings only the Golden Globes will even pretend to give a hoot about) and a full $5 a month less than Netflix’s perpetual C-plus-content machine, which all feels like a cruel joke. It is literally a Mousetrap. A year from now, Disney+ will cost $35 a week, and your kids will disown you if you don’t pay it, and the wider Cultural Conversation will disown the childless and nonchildless alike for not breathlessly keeping abreast of it. Baby Yoda is a Trojan horse who makes up in instant internet royalty what he lacks in size or horseness.
you've heard of Elf on the Shelf, now get ready for pic.twitter.com/f1xhFowxsM— the thicc husband & father (@lukeisamazing) December 5, 2019
A fun early tidbit about Disney+ was that its imminent slate of extremely weird Marvel spinoff TV shows would offer crucial plot points for future extremely dominant theatrical Marvel movies. It’s a cultural hostage situation in which one will be forced to ingest all of, say, WandaVision so that one might subsequently grasp the finer points of, say, Black Panther 2. It’s a dick move, and you have no right to expect anything less from an epochal media giant whose stranglehold on the movie-theater experience—and possibly, eventually, the streaming wars—is fearsome and absolute. (A perfectly average-looking animated kids film called Playmobil: The Movie opened on Friday with around two weeks of Frozen 2 dominance already burned off, and promptly made less than $1 million nationwide and will go down as a world-historical bomb.) Disney does not, at this point, play fair; on a long enough timeline, nobody else will even be allowed to play at all.
There was therefore nothing at all preventing The Mandalorian from declaring itself required viewing in advance of December 20’s coming juggernaut The Rise of Skywalker: a Rey cameo, a young-ruffian Poe Dameron origin story, an artless data dump of midichlorian-level lore crucial to understanding what Kylo Ren’s about to be moping about. Every pre-release dispatch about The Mandalorian (mine included) was obligated to include Favreau’s quote about exploring “the darker, freakier side of Star Wars,” and the resulting show’s near-total lack of dark freakiness (Herzog’s accent excepted) is nonetheless no surprise. What is unexpected is the show’s relative lack of calculated synergy, its extra-tentative connection with both Star Wars’ storied past and the franchise’s theoretical future. It’s the difference between setting a whole episode on Tatooine (which just happened) and blathering on about why that, or anything else about The Mandalorian, is especially historically significant. (Which hasn’t happened yet.)
Meanwhile, Disney is not selling official Baby Yoda merchandise in time for Christmas, and this qualifies as the biggest spoiler and most outlandish plot twist of them all. Favreau explained recently that getting a toy line going in time for the holidays would have required months of prep and definitely spoiled the surprise of The Mandalorian’s pilot episode. “By holding back on that one product, we knew that we may have had the disadvantage of not having toys available day and date,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “But what we got in exchange was an excitement surrounding the character, because everybody felt like they discovered him together. That emulated more what my experience growing up was like.”
That’s a cute historical nod all on its own: Star Wars toys were not on shelves in time for Christmas 1977, either. Here in 2019, it falls to Etsy to shadily fill the Baby Yoda void, part of a larger black market of goons busy erasing the wrinkles and scraggly hairs from original Yoda toys and hoping you don’t notice. One Amazon-diaspora business site estimated that Disney was leaving $2.7 million on the table by not offering a full Baby Yoda line this year, a figure that is (a) totally made-up and yet (b) feels low.
The fear, of course, is that this is all a slow play. Black Friday 2020 might very well be rife with cellphone video of Walmart brawls over Baby Yoda bobbleheads. The Mandalorian’s last three episodes might be dense with overreach both forward and backward in time. And Disney+, which in its first month has otherwise kept quiet on the original-content front unless you’re big into High School Musical or Kristen Bell or Forky Asks a Question (love it), will undoubtedly start dropping 100-ton dutiful-content bombs in time. Dismay is a totally valid emotion to feel, as the Disney Industrial Complex lays waste to ever-larger swaths of the planet. The total-saturation rollout of Disney+ was plenty gross. Brands are not your friends; the future of American popular art may very well be a yellow Mickey Mouse shoe stamping on a human face, forever. But it’s still hard to resist the winsome aimlessness of The Mandalorian, its determination to be a quick, fun, nostalgic hang and very little else. Baby Yoda just wants to sip his cute li’l bowl of broth, man. There is no great harm, for the moment, in watching him.