When the pandemic forced major Hollywood studios to (mostly) push their blockbusters to 2021 or beyond, Lucasfilm didn’t have to deal with any major adjustments. The Disney-owned company responsible for all things Star Wars was already planning a hiatus for its theatrical releases, a sensible decision considering the sour taste that The Rise of Skywalker, the final entry of the nine-part Skywalker Saga, left for the majority of fans at the end of last year. But despite The Rise of Skywalker sapping a lot of goodwill for Disney’s latest Star Wars trilogy, the franchise was injected with new life from an unlikely source: a live-action TV series on a nascent streaming service following the adventures of a bounty hunter and a 50-year-old baby.
To be fair, that streaming service was Disney+, which has quickly developed a stronghold in the Streaming Wars, the bounty hunter in question was in the mold of Star Wars icon Boba Fett, and the baby was a Force-wielding meme-maker from Yoda’s enigmatic species. (He is technically known as “the Child,” though let’s face it, the name “Baby Yoda” is practically canon at this point even if he’s not literally Baby Yoda.) But it’s still somewhat disorienting that the first season of The Mandalorian wasn’t just good, Emmy-winning television, but a potential window into what the future of Star Wars could look like, especially now that Disney’s biggest priority as a company is streaming.
The Mandalorian is by no means a small-scale show—Season 1 reportedly cost $100 million to make—but by Star Wars standards, it’s a relatively low-key experience. Most episodes come in at a half hour and change. The stakes are comparatively minor and can usually be summed up in a single sentence; in the second episode, Mando (played by Pedro Pascal, or more accurately, the double behind the helmet) retrieves an egg so he can pay off a group of Jawas that tore apart his ship while he was retrieving Baby Yoda. A detour to Tatooine notwithstanding, the series doesn’t rely much on fan service, either.
So far, it’s been a winning formula. Luke Skywalker himself has extolled the virtues of The Mandalorian’s “economic storytelling” and explained why it’s been such a refreshing change of pace for the franchise. “They don’t have the burden of delivering a gigantic special effects extravaganza like the films had to do,” Mark Hamill told Entertainment Weekly in May. “It sort of gets back to the basics of George [Lucas] envisioning it as a Western in space. It has that tone of a Sergio Leone Western.” Indeed, we millennials at The Ringer have favorably compared the series to a more modern Western, Justified. (Sorry, boomers.)
But while The Mandalorian has excelled in large part because of its restraint—Jedis are more commonly referred to as “sorcerers” and not a word has been mentioned of the Force—it’s worth considering just how long the show can thrive on these little adventures. Because the series takes place after the events of Return of the Jedi and before The Force Awakens, the specter of the rest of Star Wars looms large over The Mandalorian. If this was simply a show about a bounty hunter with a cool helmet taking assignments and traversing the cosmos, that would be one thing, but Baby Yoda is both The Mandalorian’s memeable savior and, possibly, its biggest dilemma.
Introducing Baby Yoda was always going to be a big deal—we know so little about the species; justice for Yaddle—and it’s already clear he’s a capable Force user, even if he doesn’t totally understand how to control it between soup breaks. Within the show, he’s on the radar of the scattered Galactic Empire, and will likely draw more unwanted attention in the second season, which premieres on Friday. But we also know that, whatever Mando and Baby Yoda get up to, it should have little to no bearing on the looming conflict between the First Order and the Resistance—unless the series can find a way to retroactively impact the overarching story in a meaningful way. (Given how poorly Rise of Skywalker handled reviving Palpatine, this is not the way.)
These built-in limitations for the show’s storytelling leave The Mandalorian in a weird place. They position Baby Yoda as someone of serious import—and with good reason: a fully matured version of the character would arguably be one of the strongest players in the galaxy—while probably not allowing him to do anything particularly important. One potential workaround could be that, by the time the new trilogy syncs up with Baby Yoda’s adventures, the character would be in his mid-70s; for Yoda’s species, maybe the seventh decade of life is more akin to the terrible twos. But the issue persists: As much as The Mandalorian works as an understated Western, it remains, to some extent, beholden to the Skywalker-led special effects extravaganzas that inform the rest of Star Wars, even if we wish it weren’t.
[Extreme Palpy voice] It’s ironic. The Mandalorian has breathed new life into Star Wars after the last movie trilogy ended up shitting the bed, yet the Skywalker Saga might be the thing that prevents the show from having a greater sense of purpose. Thankfully, this shouldn’t be a problem in the short term. The Mandalorian’s bare-bones approach has whipped ass so far, and with a third season already in the works, there’s still plenty of time for Mando and his viridescent sidekick to explore the parts of the galaxy that fall more off the beaten path.
But the longer the series goes on, and the closer Baby Yoda gets to whatever his version of an angsty teen phase turns out to be, the more the rest of Star Wars threatens to get in the way. (Sure enough, the second season looks poised to reintroduce Clone Wars breakout star Ahsoka Tano, most likely played by Rosario Dawson.) The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda are trapped somewhere between adorable memes and the larger galactic implications looming on the horizon. Like its breakout star, the show will have no choice but to keep growing.