I’ve often written about how the best results for geek franchises is when you put a true believer in charge. I’ve also mentioned with a bit of a sneer how I am not a supporter of fan service in search of a plot. The entire movie “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is an example of the worst of those impulses. I hadn’t considered what could happen if you allowed true believers the chance to apply their sense of fan service. The Mandalorian Season 2 is what happens.
One bit of warning. I usually stay away from spoilers and major plot twists when I write about these things. This time I will be breaking that rule. Much of what I want to talk about requires me to reveal some of the best parts of the season. After the end of the next paragraph there will be spoilers.
The Mandalorian picks up where we ended the first season. A lone exiled Mandalorian bounty hunter has been tasked with returning a child to its own kind. Because that child looks like Yoda, we as an audience know where this should lead. A lot of the fun of the first season was writers Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni enjoying translating classic movie Western tropes into a Star Wars setting. There was also a kind of lone samurai or ronin feel to the title character as well. As the season begins The Mandalorian is looking for how he can return the child to where he should be. Spoilers From Here, Last Warning.
Jon Favreau (l.) and Dave Filoni
Right from the start we end up on Tatooine meeting a lawman wearing very familiar armor to any Star Wars fan. As this Mandalorian sees it he practices his code of only one of his race can wear it. In a saloon standoff an alternate option is offered. This is what I mean by fan service that assists the story. Only the audience knows the wider history of the armor belonging to Boba Fett. The characters are only interested in it for what it is not who owned it. In lesser hands the actors would have been saying “Boba Fett’s armor” twenty times in five minutes. It isn’t necessary to do that. Favreau and Filoni just let it be armor which one man wants and the other doesn’t want to give up.
This leads into a season of the return of many characters previously seen in the Star Wars saga. Yes, Boba Fett does show up because he wants his armor back. The ex-Jedi Ahsoka Tano is given an entire episode in which The Mandalorian believes she is a person he can leave the child with. By the time we are done Baby Yoda/ The Child has a name, Grogu. The other Mandalorian sect we know from the animated series comes to life as Bo-Katan and our Mandalorian work together. Every bit of this is fan service. Every bit of it works because they are characters given story.
The reason is Favreau and Filoni care about Star Wars. This isn’t corporate storytelling. It is creative people who grew up with this in their DNA. And it shows. They don’t want to see these characters devalued through hackneyed plots designed to get people to point at the screen. They do something much more difficult they get us to point at the screen in joy because these characters are being shown in the most relevant way.
Which leads to the very end of the season and the appearance of Luke Skywalker. Because these guys get it his return is fantastic. It has wonderful echoes to his father as Darth Vader in the way he moves towards rescuing Grogu. But here is where Favreau and Filoni get the gold star. The most iconic Star Wars character shows up and yet the emotional weight of the scene is on The Mandalorian and Grogu. This is the way.
The best part of it all at the end is we now know this is the beginning of wider exploration of this time and place in the Star Wars timeline. Because Masters Favreau and Filoni are here it looks like a new saga has begun.
I’ll be spending the next week going into all the good smelling reasons 2020 didn’t entirely stink. But for the readers of this column I also like doing a list of my favorite non-perfume things of the year. This year the list is heavy on that which helped me deal with my quarantine more enjoyably.
Favorite Book: Long Bright River by Liz Moore– I read a lot this year but this was the first new book I finished in 2020. It still resonates with me emotionally. The story of two sisters whose paths have diverged and the Philadelphia neighborhood they grew up in is amazing. It isn’t an easy read, but it is an honest one with a mystery which drives the narrative.
Favorite Comic Book: Swords of X– I used to spend too many summers tied up in a months-long story across all the X-Men titles thirty years ago. I didn’t realize how much I missed that until Jonathan Hickman followed up his reboot of the franchise last year with Swords of X. An old-fashioned throw down as the mutants must battle for the fate of the earth with their own special swords. Great escapist fun.
Favorite Album: Women in Music Part III by Haim– The sisters gave me an album I’ve listened to a lot. They are continually evolving their sound and subject. This album seemed more personal than the previous ones. That’s from a band that didn’t shy away from that in the past. Here it felt like we reached the soul of the matter.
Favorite Single: Rain on Me by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande– When I needed to dance it out this year it was this track I queued up. When pop divas are confident enough to give each other the room to do what they do best you get a single like this.
Co-Favorite TV Show of the Year: The Queen’s Gambit– I didn’t sit in a movie theatre this entire year. What it meant was the streaming networks gave me the main source of my visual entertainment. The Queen’s Gambit followed the trend of unlikeable protagonists who seek redemption. Actor Anya Taylor-Joy sells the story of a chess prodigy’s climb up the ladder in the 1960’s. This has incredible acting, authentic chess, and the best fashion of any show on television.
Co-Favorite TV Show of the Year: The Mandalorian– I already wrote about what a perfect piece of Star Wars the first season was. Inexplicably Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni oversaw an even more meaningful and better second season. Each episode fed into the next one with no slow teases or slow fuses to what we knew had to happen. They knew a better story was to be had when you just go to the punchlines quickly. This series is becoming the hub which unites every Star Wars fan across generations. I can’t overstate what a gift that is.
I’m going to touch on this when I get down to the perfume things of 2020. This blog and the readers of it also kept me going this year. Especially the small group of readers I think only visit to read this specific column. I just like to write about the things I enjoy. That there is an audience who also enjoys it makes it satisfying. Thank you for reading.
Star Wars holds a special place to me. If you’ve read this column you know that. I have enjoyed the recent movies a lot. To me Star Wars is about good people trying to do the right thing. At its best it is when a couple of plucky outsiders find a way to take down a large target. I’ve always felt the subtext of George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away is that one good person can make a difference.
Which was why as I watched the promotional trailers in advance of the new streaming series “The Mandalorian” I thought this might not be for me. Everyone associated with it had fanned out to conventions and tv interviews to talk about how this was a “grittier” Star Wars. I read, or heard, that as more violent, less white-hat-black hat, with lots of shades of gray.
For almost the entirety of the first episode that seemed like the show we were getting. We were introduced to The Mandalorian as he captures one of his marks for the bounty hunter guild, he is part of. When he comes back to the headquarters of the guild in time-tested fashion, he is given the bounty too difficult for others. He heads out to find his quarry. When he gets to the final scene where he finds what he is looking for; he and the audience share the surprise. Waiting for him is a baby version of the race Yoda belonged to. If you’ve seen memes on your social media with “baby Yoda” this is where it came from. As far as the series is concerned the youngster is called “The Child.
Right there the gritty edgy version of Star Wars snapped back to the good guys versus the bad guys. Over the next seven episodes The Mandalorian protects The Child. The series is classic genre storytelling out of spaghetti westerns. The two men responsible for it are Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni.
There are many callbacks to the westerns of yesterday set in space. The first episode features a futuristic hacienda designed just like the one Clint Eastwood infiltrated in “A Fistful of Dollars”. Episode 2 lifts a piece out of one of the first Star Wars video games. One episode is the old gunslinger versus the new kid. Another is a jailbreak. All of it surrounded by the growing bond between the bounty hunter and the child.
That relationship adds an emotional tug I wasn’t expecting. It has similarities to a graphic novel called “Lone Wolf and Cub” by Frank Miller. In both stories the tough warrior learns there is more to life than just conflict through parenthood.
By the end The Mandalorian has accepted the responsibility for The Child setting the stage for season 2. I am so happy that even a Star Wars with a bounty hunter at its center is still a Star Wars where the good guys win.
In the final weeks of 2019 the Star Wars franchise ended and began. The end came with the release of Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. The beginning came with the release of the Disney+ streaming series The Mandalorian. Unlike last week’s overview of the Watchmen series I liked both for different reasons.
When The Rise of Skywalker hit movie screens I was where I have been for the last forty-two years; seeing the first showing on the first night of release. There is a segment of Star Wars fans who are unsatisfied with this closing trilogy. I am not among them. I realized one reason this is so is I participated in a survey leading up to the release and I was asked to name my three favorite Star Wars characters. I typed Obi-Wan Kenobi, Rey, and Han Solo. I really like the story of Rey through these three movies. It comes to a satisfying ending where it all began. One reason I think I am less critical of the saga as a whole is because I came to them as an adult right from the beginning. I never viewed them through a child’s eyes. So when people criticize with words like it isn’t as magical it is because when you first encountered Star Wars, as a child, you probably believed in magic. It is much harder to keep that positivity when you become older. JJ Abrams brought Star Wars back from the dead I will always be thankful to him for allowing the magic I see in the movies to be there for the rest of my life.
What that means is I want them to stop making theatrical movies. It is a fraught enterprise with conflicting ideas of what it should be. The future of Star Wars is someplace else. On out flatscreen tvs at home on streaming service Disney +.
Another writer/director who understands genre material is Jon Favreau. He is responsible for creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man. The Star Wars series, The Mandalorian, is creating something new for this galaxy far, far away.
Mr. Favreau teamed up with Dave Filoni to oversee The Mandalorian. Mr. Filoni has been the creative mind behind the animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels. Together they brought their passion for Star Wars and found a new place for it to grow.
The Mandalorian tells the story of the titular bounty hunter. Always hidden behind his armor his code never allows him to take it off while anyone is around. Prior to the premiere it was advertised as a grittier Star Wars out on the fringes. For almost the entire first episode that is what we get. Heavily inspired by the classic Sergio Leone/ Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns the first episode carries that promised quality. Only to have it given a fabulous twist right at the end. That twist is totally Star Wars. It was kept completely secret while also letting us know this was not going to be that gritty Star Wars. It was going to be Star Wars full of A New Hope. It is so much fun to see the callbacks to Star Wars lore and classic western movie tropes. It ends, in the final episode, with a shot which brings the live action and animated series closer together.
What that means is I want more Star Wars on Disney+ not at the theatre. The Mandalorian could never have succeeded as a movie. I am excited for the new season of the animated The Clone Wars coming soon. I am even more excited for the next live-action streaming series based on Obi-Wan.
I think the movies time to carry the Star Wars torch has ended. They have provided the contours of a wide canvas with plenty of blank space to be filled in by creative authors who want to. If I never saw another new Star Wars movie in a theatre again, I would be fine with that. I am happy to spend some time relaxing on the sofa with the series opportunities from Disney+.