At Star Wars Celebration in May, several minutes of footage from the first episode of The Mandalorian were screened for the faithful in attendance. In a leaked video shot by a fan and later posted on YouTube before being removed via copyright claim, an uproar was audible every time a Star Wars signifier appeared on the screen. In the darkened theater, the throng cheered the Lucasfilm logo. They greeted the Gonk droid like a long-lost friend. They laughed at the roasted Kowakian monkey-lizard and at the gatekeeper droid, and gasped at the Stormtroopers. This was the sound of a congregation of rabid believers being blown away that the strawberries tasted like strawberries and the snozzberries tasted like snozzberries, amplified by each fan’s desire to signal to everyone within earshot that they were hip to every reference.
Chapter 5 of The Mandalorian, “The Gunslinger,” somewhat sweatily catered to that crowd. This week’s installment brought our bounty-hunting hero to Tatooine, the planet farthest from the bright center to the universe but closest to the center of the Star Wars mythos. The half-hour that followed was a laundry list of Star Wars hallmarks that might have made serial recycler J.J. Abrams blush. There was a wisecracking, blaster-toting, vest-wearing Corellian (maybe, based on the character’s “This isn’t Corellia” comment) sitting at the same Mos Eisley cantina table Han Solo sat at, in almost the same pose Solo struck when he was or wasn’t preparing to shoot first at Greedo. (It’s getting harder and harder to keep track.) There were dewbacks, banthas, and Tusken Raiders, a faded, dusty-looking R5-D4, another Gonk droid, podracing pit droids, a docking bay, the Dune Sea, the series’ second womp rat reference, Baby Yoda channeling Obi-Wan’s Krayt dragon impression, and shout-outs to Mos Espa and Beggar’s Canyon. There were even allusions to the high ground and two bounty hunters’ quarry being no good to them dead. This was on-screen Star Wars Mad Libs.
Look, I’ve whistled at the Lucasfilm logo in a packed opening-night theater. I’m not saying my inner 8-year-old didn’t momentarily think it was wizard when a voice (belonging to Star Wars Rebels’ Steve Blum) crackled across the Razor Crest’s cockpit speakers and said, “This is Mos Eisley tower.” At some extreme saturation point, though, fan service does a disservice, and “The Gunslinger” was one nudge nudge and knowing wink away from Obi-Wan asking Anakin, “Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?” This week, we didn’t learn much about Mando, his mysterious Client, or his precious, pint-sized companion. Instead, we took a pointless Star Tour of the franchise’s most familiar landmarks, and for the first time, a needless nostalgia trip led the series astray.
“The Gunslinger” was written and directed by Dave Filoni, a protégé of George Lucas who’s assumed a central role among Disney’s post-Lucas crew of creators. Filoni’s labor on Rebels and The Clone Wars delivered some of the freshest Star Wars storytelling since the original trilogy, even as it resurrected relics of a discontinued canon, but “The Gunslinger” was more of an homage than a new voice putting its own stamp on Star Wars. Gifted for the first time with the tools and the budget to make something that looked like a genuine Star Wars movie, Filoni punted on charting a new path for the franchise, handed the controls to his own inner 8-year-old, and started spinning, because that’s a good trick. The Mandalorian’s first four chapters forged an identity for the series that stood apart from the Skywalker saga. Chapter 5 threw away that world-building for the chance to say, “Fuck it, we’re going to Tatooine.”
Granted, it’s not as though the series has avoided tie-ins to other Star Wars works: Baby Yoda wouldn’t be as all-consuming a phenomenon if not for our built-in affection for 900-year-old Yoda. The Mandalorian may have teased us by placing a possible Boba Fett in the background, but it didn’t make the sighting explicit. Most of the earlier Easter eggs were well-hidden, invoking characters as obscure as Ice Cream Guy and drawing on sources as unseen as Ewoks: The Battle for Endor and the Star Wars Holiday Special. Sure, Kuiil’s mercenary-swarmed getaway was reminiscent of Tatooine, from the terrain to the Jawas and sandcrawler, but visiting the actual Tatooine is too obtrusive. None of this episode’s events had to happen on Tatooine; if you are going to go there, at least provide a reason more compelling than wish fulfillment for Jon Favreau and Filoni. If a frivolous Tatooine cameo had happened in Season 5, fine. In Episode 5, when the series is still finding its footing and laying narrative track, it smacks of insecurity. The Mandalorian didn’t need to retrace the steps of the trilogies; the show has found favor with fans as an entity that mostly stands on its own.
But the most disappointing aspect of “The Gunslinger” wasn’t the frequency of its callbacks or its absence of subtlety. It was the ways in which the episode betrayed the tone of the series and the motivations of its main character. This is a show that had taken place entirely on unknown and at least temporarily unidentified planets: The ice world on which the Mythrol was hiding in Chapter 1 is still a cipher, Arvala-7 hasn’t been mentioned, and the home of Greef Karga, the Client, and the Mandalorian enclave, Nevarro, wasn’t named until this week. It was jarring, then, to see the series pivot to the most famous setting in science fiction. Likewise, it was strange to see its increasingly iconic leading duo separated for a flimsy reason.
The episode starts with Mando mid-dogfight, pursued by yet another bounty hunter who’s homed in on the Child. We don’t know how much time has passed since the Razor Crest left Sorgan, or how this latest hunter picked up the trail, but Mando can’t shake him: His ship’s shields are down, and he appears to be moments from meeting the same fate as (Tatooine native!) Biggs Darklighter. The pursuer, who has a tracking fob for a hood ornament, borrows the Mandalorian’s line from the first chapter, “I can bring you in warm, or I can bring you in cold,” but Mando doesn’t take him up on either option. Instead, he takes a page out of the playbooks of pilots from countless chase scenes by throttling down and dropping directly behind his pursuer. He then quickly locks on to his target and fires a fatal blast, eliciting the longest “Noooo” since Darth Vader heard what happened to Padmé. It seems somewhat unjust that Mando one-shotted his assailant after surviving so many hits himself, but that’s the power of plot armor. It wouldn’t be the last time in “The Gunslinger” that some sort of armor absorbed blaster bolts and let Mando live to tell the tale.
Fortunately for Mando and the Child, some combination of navicomputer quirk, the Force, and Filoni leave their limping ship within range of Tatooine. They land in Docking Bay 35, presumably 59 over from the former berth of the Millennium Falcon. There they meet mechanic Peli Motto (Amy Sedaris, who’s had practice playing a frazzled caretaker of a troublesome baby on Bojack). Motto has a hard day ahead of her: Because the super battle droid that gunned down Mando’s parents put him off droids of all makes and models, she has to repair the Razor Crest the old-fashioned way. She also has to Baby Yoda-sit while Mando makes money to pay for the repairs, and later, she’ll find herself held hostage.
Mando’s armor may be worth a fortune, but he’s not very liquid, and he knows only one way to make money: hunting targets. It makes sense, then, that he’d start sniffing around for a bounty, even though he burned his bridges at the Guild. It makes much less sense that he leaves without Baby Yoda. Up to this point, he’s been unable or unwilling to leave the Child unattended for long; he brought him along when he went to fight the mudhorn, and when he tried to leave him on board the Razor Crest on Sorgan, Baby Yoda had other ideas. Yet now—after incurring the wrath of seemingly limitless bounty hunters, realizing that the hunters will follow their target wherever he hides, and narrowly thwarting two more attempts on his life—he ditches him in a docking bay in a wretched hive of scum and villainy, where one wouldn’t be shocked to find a fob or two trained on his location. Not only does that deprive the viewer of priceless time with Baby Yoda, but it’s also a character-confounding decision, especially considering that traveling solo doesn’t make the Beskar-covered Mandalorian any less conspicuous. He’s definitely not dressed for the desert, although the armor works well as twin suns-screen.
Unencumbered by the baby who saved his life on Arvala-7, Mando makes his way to the cantina, where he’s hailed by Toro Calican (played by Jake Cannavale, whose eyebrows instantly reveal him to be Bobby’s son; the seed is strong). Calican, who seems like a rich kid who’s rebelling by bounty-hunting—a more violent version of Bash Howard from GLOW—is a noob who needs to capture a target to earn entrance to the Guild. Rather than set his sights on a wayward Mythrol or a nobleman’s son who skipped bail, he’s apparently picked the most challenging assignment, an assassin named Fennec Shand (played by Mulan’s Ming-Na Wen, whose casting doubles as Disney synergy).
Calican, who speaks with the self-assured cadence of Hayden Christensen, hires Mando to help him, but he repeatedly telegraphs his willingness to double-cross his “partner,” smashing the tracking fob, taking aim at Mando while he’s resting, and, after they capture Shand, refusing to leave Mando alone with her. It comes as no surprise when he lets his quarry talk him into turning on Mando, whose maneuver on Nevarro has made him notorious even on Tatooine. Calican kills Shand—couldn’t he have stunned her?—and returns to the Razor Crest to ambush his bounty-hunting mentor. But Mando uses a leftover flash charge to escape gunpoint for the third time and kill the would-be bounty hunter, no thanks to Baby Yoda, who used the Force to freeze the mudhorn but doesn’t use it to disarm Calican. (Maybe he’s miffed about the abandonment.) Mando plunders Calican’s corpse to pay Motto for fixing up the Razor Crest, and he and Baby Yoda depart for destinations unknown.
The highlight of the episode is the tactical attack on Shand under cover of darkness (and sporadic bursts of light). It’s a visually striking, well-choreographed scene leavened by levity: Calican earns Mando another blaster bolt to the Beskar by flubbing one of the flash charges, then gets creamed in close-quarters combat before Mando catches up. It’s a shame that Shand doesn’t have more time to shine. One of the strengths of the series is that some of the supporting characters—Kuiil, Cara Dune, Shand—hint at backstories that could be the basis of future episodes or spinoff stories. Cara will be back, but Shand went one-and-done. It’s also a treat to see so many characters who lead unspectacular lives; live-action Star Wars hasn’t traditionally made much time for people who don’t affect the fate of the galaxy.
The Mandalorian may make more time for them than it has to. One of the curious features of the series so far is that Mando doesn’t seem to wonder why everyone wants to capture or kill his sidekick, even though the answer to that question could help him stay safe. As a bounty hunter, he’s conditioned not to be nosy, but the audience is conditioned to keep asking questions. In episodes such as this one, those inclinations come into conflict. One wonders whether detective work will play a bigger part in upcoming episodes, but if Favreau keeps dispensing plot at this pace, most of the mysteries will linger into Season 2. That’s not a problem if the scenic route is riveting, but unlike its predecessors, Chapter 5 felt less like an entertaining detour than an uninspired stall.
The only development linked to the larger arc of the season was reserved for the final few seconds, when a booted, cape-wearing figure finds Fennec’s body. (Do tracking fobs work with dead targets, too?) This may be our first glimpse of Giancarlo Esposito’s ex-Imperial bigwig Moff Gideon, the Client’s superior, who was wearing a cape in footage from the teaser. Like everyone else, Gideon is presumably trying to track down Mando, but the Big Bad probably won’t be properly unveiled until Chapter 7. In the interim, it sounds as if we’re in for another sidequest-of-the-week, perhaps in a less well-worn setting: The Chapter 6 synopsis says, “The Mandalorian joins a crew of mercenaries on a dangerous mission.” Let’s hope that mission isn’t a daring raid on Toshi station to pick up some power converters.
Fan Service of the Week
In an episode dominated by superfluous fan service, one new wrinkle partially redeemed the trip to Tatooine. The establishment formerly known as Chalmun’s Cantina must be under new management, because it looks like a less lively place, in more ways than one. The Stormtrooper helmets that once bobbed through the crowd now have spikes sticking through them, and Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes seem to have taken their talents and Kloo horns elsewhere. Most notably, though, the cantina that once refused to serve droids now has droids doing the serving, much to Mando’s dismay (and Wuher’s, wherever he is). Because everything in “The Gunslinger” has to echo something we’ve seen before, the bartender droids belong to the EV series that spawned EV-9D9, the twisted torturer from Jabba’s palace.
Whatever the reason for the cantina’s makeover—maybe it was designated as a historical site and turned into a tourist trap—the changes don’t seem to be good for business:
Maybe it was an off-peak period.
Expanded Universe Spotlight
Assuming that was R5-D4 in the cantina, and not just a lookalike, we should take a moment to salute the droid who enabled the Empire’s downfall. You may remember R5 as the astromech unit in Episode IV whose motivator malfunctions at an opportune time for the Rebellion; although Luke had planned to purchase the droid he dubbed “Red” instead of R2-D2, the breakdown changes his mind, allowing R2 to stay with C-3PO, flee the Lars farm, and deliver his vital message to Obi-Wan. It seemed like a case of fortune (or the Force) favoring Luke, but according to canon, R5’s apparent failure was neither an accident nor the will of a million midi-chlorians.
Although the homeless R5 had waited years to be spruced up and sold, he sacrificed his own chance of finding a home for the good of the galaxy. After R2 told him he was on an important mission for the Rebellion, R5 loosened his head plate and purposely popped it off to make it look like he had a bad motivator. As a result, the Death Star plans reached General Dodonna, and the rest is history. R5 survived the Stormtrooper attack on the sandcrawler and eventually joined the Rebellion himself, but his shining moment was his Obi-Wan-esque act of striking himself down to become more powerful than his Jawa captives could have possibly imagined. Evidently, he retired to Tatooine, where he probably picked up other eligible astromechs by bragging about how he indirectly destroyed the Death Star.
Previously Unseen in Star Wars
The Mandalorian has given us looks at a lot of currencies, and this week, we were introduced to one more: the New Republic credit. It looks like you’d expect.
Beyond that, Chapter 5 was too busy with old business to break new ground.
Despite the planet’s contributions to the galaxy, it’s probably time to declare a temporary moratorium on Tatooine. It’s a nice place to visit, but even Star Wars diehards wouldn’t want to live there.