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What If ‘The Mandalorian’ Were Just a Procedural?

Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni have promised to expand the story into the larger ‘Star Wars’ universe, but do they really need to?

Disney/Ringer illustration

One year ago, The Mandalorian arrived on the scene with a true game changer. The first Star Wars live-action series and flagship offering from new streaming service Disney+, The Mandalorian’s premiere would mark a momentous occasion no matter what. But series creator, writer, occasional director, and showrunner Jon Favreau went above and beyond with a reveal kept tightly under wraps on the advice of Young Lando Donald Glover: Baby Yoda, the ultra-cute creature technically known as the Child but instantly embraced by the internet under a more straightforward name. Few outside of Disney HQ knew he existed before the episode went live; hours later, the whole world did. Memes, novelty songs, and general mania ensued.

The second season of The Mandalorian kicked off last Friday with an hour that contained no such surprises. (And at 54 minutes—The Mandalorian’s longest run time yet, if only by a couple minutes—it really was a full hour.) In fact, “Chapter 9” is comforting in its familiarity. After a first-season finale that delivered a volume’s worth of character development in itself, this latest outing was a return to form: Mando (we now know he was born Din Djarin, but to us he’ll always be Mando) embarks on an outing that will nominally advance the larger plot. In practice, it turns out to be a stand-alone adventure that doesn’t much affect the larger story, but allows for a beloved guest star and a well-executed action scene. The particulars are different—in this case, the guest star was Timothy Olyphant as “Marshal” Cobb Vanth and the action was a showdown with a sandy Krayt dragon, assisted by some Tusken raiders—even as the vibe stays the same.

This isn’t quite what we were promised. Favreau and primary collaborator Dave Filoni spent much of the season’s advance press hyping “more scope,” “a larger story,” and “less isolated” plot lines. The details remained unspecific, as any media-trained Disney ambassador’s would, but the implication was clear. To reflect The Mandalorian’s newly prominent place in the Star Wars universe, no longer playing second fiddle to a main trilogy and effectively replacing one for the entertainment-at-home era, the show would meet the moment and expand its horizons. That could include flesh-and-blood versions of animated characters like Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson, we think) and Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff, who voiced her in multiple animated series), or more spectacular showpieces, or other tie-ins to the vast expanded universe of Star Wars lore. Mostly, it would mean acknowledging that “Star Wars TV show” is no longer synonymous with a trifling bit of ephemera—not in the streaming era, and certainly not under Disney management.

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan especially knowledgeable about, let alone invested in, Star Wars as a comprehensive mythology. (For that angle on The Mandalorian, look to my colleague Ben Lindbergh and his essential weekly recaps.) I like the franchise best as a collection of Campbellian hero myths—the broad appeal that made even pre-acquisition Star Wars a work of true mass entertainment, not just a niche piece of sci-fi. So while Favreau and Filoni’s larger plans will likely kick in soon enough, I can honestly say I was somewhat relieved when the Season 2 premiere of The Mandalorian stuck to the small scale.

“Chapter 9” feels less like a premiere than a midseason episode of a show that’s comfortably settled into its rhythm. The major internal conflict of Season 1—whether Mando would commit to protecting the Child, and accept his own capacity for change in the process—has been conclusively resolved. That frees Favreau to use Baby Yoda as more of a 3D reaction GIF than an actual plot device. The floating green infant doesn’t even use the Force in “Chapter 9” to affect the main action; he’s mostly there for brief cutaways that serve as mood-lightening interstitials, climbing in and out of baskets on his quest to achieve Peak Adorability.

Nor does the primary story feel that much more weighty. As a work of special effects, a category in which The Mandalorian took home the Emmy in its offseason, the Krayt dragon is stunning, but the plot it’s inserted into, as other critics have pointed out, is a standard-issue Western trope: frontier settlers, a role played here by the remaining residents of the deserted mining outpost Mos Pelgo, teaming up with the region’s native inhabitants, the Tusken raiders. Throw in a massive medieval monster and you’ve got a mashup of Western and high fantasy—the old Star Wars myth blender, back at it with a vengeance.

None of this is a criticism. In fact, it’s a compliment. The Mandalorian is predictable, accessible, and on a week-to-week basis, usually self-contained. In other words, it has all the elements of a procedural, a format as out-of-step with the serialized sprawl of streaming as it is with the interconnected offshoots of an IP omnibus like Star Wars. It’s true that enterprises like the MCU have become more like TV over time, complete with writers rooms and “phases” that sound an awful lot like seasons. But the pressure to stretch beyond your given format works both ways, and it’s nice to see The Mandalorian resist it, or the very least try to have the best of both worlds: the luxe production values of a Star Wars product and the small-scale scrappiness of a deliberately marginal story. (Though there are also hints of old-school prestige if you know where to look. “Chapter 9” once again toys with the idea that the fall of the Empire maybe didn’t do much for anyone, a bleak idea Star Wars constantly floats and then backs away from without poking too hard.) The Mandalorian is temporally sandwiched between the original trilogy and the 2010s revival. Nothing that happens within it can substantially alter the status quo, making the show feel something like a sitcom with the look and sweep of a blockbuster.

Going forward, The Mandalorian’s challenge will be balancing its endearingly low stakes with its increasing importance to the Star Wars master plan. “Chapter 9” is basically a chance for Timothy Olyphant to do his Raylan Givens thing, and that’s all it needs to be—especially now that Mando finally feels fleshed out enough as a character to carry his own show. (It was touch and go for a while after we figured out Pedro Pascal wasn’t taking off that helmet anytime soon.) Favreau and Filoni have positioned The Mandalorian’s increased ambitions as a plus—a draw for fans who may have sweeping-epic withdrawal after the disappointment of The Rise of Skywalker. Yet The Mandalorian is mostly fun because it’s less ambitious than a full-on battle for the soul of the universe. The show is certainly primed to shift gears, but so far it’s proved it still works on its own.