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‘The Mandalorian’ Is Now the Star of ‘Star Wars’

Last year, the Disney+ show played second fiddle to ‘The Rise of Skywalker.’ This year, it’s the undisputed ‘Star Wars’ king—and the franchise may be better off for it.

Disney/Ringer illustration

A Mythrol, a Mandalorian, and a Quarren walk into a bar. I’ll skip straight to the punch line: The Quarren gets cut in half. That cantina encounter wasn’t the preamble to a joke; it was the setup for the first season of The Mandalorian, which debuted on Disney+ last November. Undeterred by mid-pandemic production hurdles, the start of Season 2 will follow this Friday.

With an election looming next week that may determine whether the last remnants of the old Republic are swept away, the hype for more Mandalorian may be muted for some even as others grow desperate for distraction and non-pandemic-delayed entertainment. For Disney, though, the return of Mando makes this streaming sweeps week. Thanks to the first season’s success and the uncertainty surrounding the future of Star Wars films, The Mandalorian has become the brightest star in the Lucasfilm firmament. Last year, The Rise of Skywalker played the main stage at the figurative festival of Star Wars scripted releases. This year, The Mandalorian is the headliner, which may expand and reshape the show.

From the start, The Mandalorian occupied a high-pressure role. This time last year, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and her overlords at Disney were no doubt watching its career with great interest: As the first Star Wars live-action TV show and the flagship series launching alongside Disney’s new streaming service, The Mandalorian was the proof of multiple potentially profitable concepts. But Season 1 still took a back seat to the Skywalker saga’s last act. With The Rise of Skywalker slated to premiere on Friday, December 20, The Mandalorian shifted the release of its seventh episode to Wednesday from its normal Friday slot to accommodate the franchise’s biggest fish. The Mandalorian may have cost $100 million to make, but that was a pittance compared to the Calamari Flan Disney dropped on making and marketing Episode IX. In Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, an eight-part Disney+ documentary about the making of the first season, creator, writer, and showrunner Jon Favreau made the hierarchy clear, noting, “In the spirit of television, we’re using resources from the features.”

The past year has reoriented the power structure of Star Wars toward the small screen. The Rise of Skywalker was, by Star Wars standards, both a critical flop and a box office disappointment, a derivative work that warred with its predecessor, divided fans, and continues to plague me personally. The Mandalorian, by contrast, was a critical darling, earning 15 Emmy nominations (including the prestigious “Outstanding Drama” category) and seven award wins. The show was also a crowd-pleaser: Breakout character Baby Yoda and breakout catchphrase “This is the Way” caused a great disturbance when a million members repurposed the little green guy and the Mandalorians’ signature line. Disney doesn’t divulge viewership totals, but from what we can tell, the series soon took over as one of the most-watched shows on a streaming service and helped drive Disney+ subscriptions.

The next Star Wars movie isn’t scheduled to debut until December 22, 2023, and no details about the project have been publicly confirmed. With at least four series seemingly slated to launch on Disney+ before then—including spin-offs starring Obi-Wan Kenobi and Cassian Andor—the future of the franchise is firmly tied to TV, where The Mandalorian is still leading, um, the Way. And with theaters and theme parks shuttered and the MCU skipping 2020, Disney+ has taken on an essential position in the corporate portfolio, which has effectively promoted The Mandalorian to bombad general of the company’s campaign to stay on screens.

The series’ first step into a larger world won’t be seen until 12:01 a.m. PT on Friday; just like last year, Disney is declining to send screeners to critics, citing “even more secrets, surprises, and spoilers in store this season.” (Baby Yaddle or GTFO.) But the series’ new status as the Beskar-clad backbone of Star Wars is already apparent. Last year, the secrecy surrounding the premiere reveal prevented Disney from meeting the public’s powerful demand for Baby Yoda items immediately—a Funko Pop/plushy shortfall that manufacturers have more than rectified in the many months since. This time around, Disney has already debuted “Mando Mondays,” a sort of Star Wars QVC in which Mandalorian cast members personally plug all manner of Mandalorian merch.

This year, nothing will move The Mandalorian from its Friday slot. And according to a Reddit leak this week, the Season 2 premiere will run for 52 minutes, making it the longest episode of the series so far. That tracks with executive producer, director, and writer Dave Filoni’s promise in Entertainment Weekly’s September season preview that “everything gets bigger” and “the stakes get higher” in Season 2, as well as new second-unit director Sam Hargrave’s hint that the action sequences will level up too.

More Mandalorian shouldn’t be a bad thing, but bringing “a lot more scope to the show”—a tidbit from Favreau’s comments to EW—may compel its creators to realign their relationship to the rest of the Star Wars canon. Season 1 was so refreshing in part because it told a mostly self-contained story that focused on the seedy side of Star Wars and lingered in the tantalizing locales that the Skywalker saga’s prophecy-fulfilling protagonists passed through on their way to dates with destiny. Mando wasn’t trying to liberate or rule the galaxy. He was just trying to survive—and keep his Force-powered pal alive—from week to week, often via stand-alone episodes that seemed only loosely connected to the larger conflict between the faraway forces searching for the Child.

Season 2, Favreau has said, “is about introducing a larger story in the world,” and thus “the stories become less isolated.” That sounds more movie-esque than Season 1. In Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, Favreau and Filoni repeatedly draw distinctions between the missions of the movies and The Mandalorian. In the fifth episode, Favreau reflects, “Part of what gives us freedom is that there’s a certain amount of fun you’re allowed to have on the margins of Star Wars, back to the Holiday Special and the Ewok TV shows. So there’s always been room in Star Wars to mess around. And then there’s the big movies. The big movies are the main attraction. But we’re happy to pull it together and do the stuff that’s fun.”

Two episodes later, Favreau notes that tasking Ludwig Göransson with creating a score that honored the work of John Williams but also carved out its own musical corner “was also our way of saying, ‘Hey, we’re not competing with Star Wars.’ Like, Star Wars is Star Wars and we love Star Wars, and we’re not pretending we’re Star Wars. We’re our own thing that is an offshoot of that.” In the last episode of the docuseries, Filoni describes The Mandalorian as the little brother of the Skywalker saga, joking, “Our older brother took all the cool toys, and we got left with Ugnaughts and Jawas and other peg-warmers.”

After the reception to Season 1 and the retrenchment of the movies, though, The Mandalorian is no longer an offshoot of a more established branch of the franchise. It’s the new Star Wars standard-bearer. That means there may be more pressure on the show to fill in for the films and prop up the lattice of lore that supports the sprawling saga—and, at times, threatens to topple it beneath the weight of tradition and self-reference.

In Season 1, The Mandalorian referenced virtually every preexisting Star Wars property, mostly in moderation (with some excessive exceptions). In Season 2, it may double down on that tendency while also paying the favor forward by seeding the next wave of scripted series, just as it’s already pollinating new books, comics, and video games and constructing a feeder system of directorial talents like Taika Waititi and Deborah Chow, who are already attached to a forthcoming movie and the Obi-Wan series, respectively. Season 1 recurring characters Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Greef Karga (Carl Weathers), and Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) will be back, but they’ll probably be joined by other familiar figures. In February, Disney bigwig Bob Iger teased “the possibility of infusing [Season 2] with more characters and the possibility of taking those characters in their own direction in terms of series.” In other words, expect Season 2 to incorporate characters who could carry their own shows.

That prospect seems consistent with rumors that have swirled around the second season. As I wrote in September when the Season 2 trailer dropped:

Still-unsubstantiated reports have linked Rosario Dawson, Temuera Morrison, and Katee Sackhoff to the second season. Dawson is supposedly playing Clone Wars and Rebels fan favorite Ahsoka Tano, while Morrison and Sackhoff will likely be reprising roles they’ve inhabited before. Sackhoff played Mandalorian warrior Bo-Katan Kryze in The Clone Wars and Rebels. Morrison, meanwhile, could be bringing back Boba Fett, Commander Cody, Captain Rex, or some assortment of multiple characters cloned from Jango Fett, whom he portrayed in Attack of the Clones.

Supposed guest stars such as Timothy Olyphant and Michael Biehn also remain in the rumor realm. (Lucasfilm, like the Armorer, operates as if its secrecy is its survival.) And although the trailer gave fans a glimpse of another new guest star, Sasha Banks, it didn’t reveal whether Banks will be playing RebelsSabine Wren, another existing character, or a new creation.

The appearance of the Darksaber in the Season 1 finale was a clear link to Filoni’s animated series Rebels and The Clone Wars. And Mando’s mission in Season 2—to deliver the Child to what’s left of the Jedi—would seem to jell well with a role for Ahsoka, who was once Anakin Skywalker’s padawan. Sabine, the Mandalorian who teamed up with Ahsoka in the Rebels finale to search for the series’ missing Jedi protagonist, Ezra Bridger, would make a natural intermediary between the Jedi and Din Djarin. And while one can Google almost any combination of “[Star Wars character]” + “spin-off” and find some tenuously sourced speculation—Lando? Grand Admiral Thrawn? Bo-Katan and Cara? Darth Maul and Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra from Solo?—an Ahsoka-centric series is among the most credible possibilities.

That’s exciting for fans of Filoni’s animated work. (Count me among them.) Might The Mandalorian become the new nexus of the Filoni-verse and serve as a springboard for the George Lucas protégé’s next show? Will it help lay the groundwork for Waititi’s Star Wars movie? Could Gideon’s still-unexplained interest in Baby Yoda pertain to the cloning project that enabled Palpatine to pop up in The Rise of Skywalker? Is there a role for a recast Luke Skywalker, who happens to be both the best-known Jedi of the post-original trilogy era and the one with experience toting around a possible progenitor of the Child? The future is always in motion, but there’s one conceivable future for The Mandalorian in which the series that stood somewhat apart from the franchise at large ends up binding its galaxy together.

There’s also a conceivable future in which the strain of the second season’s more ambitious scope takes a toll on the qualities that made the first season so appealing. “As we introduce other characters, there are opportunities to follow different story lines,” Favreau told EW. “The world was really captivated by Game of Thrones and how that evolved as the characters followed different story lines—that’s very appealing to me as an audience member.” But Thrones was always presented from multiple perspectives. The Mandalorian earned fans’ affection as a two-hander, and turning it into a spin-off factory could detract from the focus on Din’s developing morality or the bond between the baby and the former foundling, who’ve become a clan of two.

Inserting more-than-tangential ties to other series would also seem to run contrary to Iger’s desire for the future of the franchise “to be more accessible to common moviegoers unburdened by decades of Star Wars memories.” Although fans of Rebels and The Clone Wars would squee about live-action Ahsoka and be grateful for any insight into the whereabouts of Bridger and Thrawn, many Mandalorian viewers have no connections to those characters. Can The Mandalorian keep telling its own story without being burdened by others? Will it retain its occasionally light-hearted, off-kilter tone and semi-serialized structure if the fate of the galaxy is suddenly at stake? And could the second season—or the third, which is already in the works—illuminate new aspects of the sweeping saga, hemmed in as it is by the events of three trilogies whose canon can’t be crossed?

In the docuseries, Filoni acknowledges the downside of acting as the steward of Star Wars. While the franchise is a rich text to draw from, he says, “It can also hurt us, because people almost put too much grandiose importance on things that should be fun, or it should be light, or it should just be allowed to play. Yes, it’s Star Wars, but if we lose focus on it being this exciting adventure that is mainly directed at kids—as George always held to that—then we’re changing it into something it’s not meant to be because we’re trying to cherish it so much, we’re holding it too tight.” Filoni continued, “if we just stuck to what was always done and didn’t take a chance to do something different and yet honor what was there, it’s a very fine line.”

Making series set within the framework of a 43-year-old franchise is a complicated profession. Having found a near-perfect formula in Season 1 and—after a period of such disarray—after giving Disney a Star Wars success story devoid of fan flame wars or public creative tension, it would have been easy for Favreau and Filoni to stop touching things. But instead of making more of the same, they seem intent on tinkering, much as Mando does with his blaster-proof second skin. Favreau and Filoni seem well aware of the potential pitfalls for the franchise, and nothing about their history with Star Wars suggests that they can’t steer clear again. In Season 1, The Mandalorian broke the mold, with welcome results. In Season 2, it will try to meld what worked so well last year with the long legacy no Star Wars story can escape.