Part of the genius of the original Star Wars trilogy came from George Lucas’s decision to offer glimpses of a larger world and suggestions of who might live in it without providing much detail. Bizarre aliens and strange technology get only a few moments of screen time but have fueled the imaginations of viewers for decades. The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, features a gathering of bounty hunters, all of whom look like they’ve accumulated a lifetime of stories living hard in some of the nastiest parts of the galaxy, stories the film leaves tantalizingly untold. Successful franchises abhor a vacuum, however, and that same quality has helped inspire a whole industry of spin-off novels, comics, games, and animated series to fill in all those intriguing blanks. There’s something lost in that process, but when the spin-offs work, there’s also something to be gained.
The Mandalorian is Star Wars’ first live-action TV series after years of false starts and stalled projects. The first challenge, of course, comes in making a TV series that can match the production values of the feature films. Disney+, the new streaming service that’s treating The Mandalorian as one of its anchors, has seemingly tried to answer that challenge by pouring money into the project. A lot of money. From the opening images of the thus-far-unnamed protagonist walking across a windswept ice planet, the series looks like it takes place in the same universe as the films, and the effects, a combination of practical and digital imagery, can stand next to the features as well. (Familiar sound effects and some Easter eggs also help create a sense of unity. Apparently, Kowakian monkey-lizards are a delicacy in some quarters.)
The next challenge: making it feel like Star Wars. Based on its first episode, The Mandalorian rises to that one, too, digging into the seedy underbelly glimpsed in Episode IV’s cantina scene and throughout Rogue One. It’s a place where our hero (Pedro Pascal, who doesn’t take off his mask in the first episode) seems at home. Part of a group of imperiled refugee warriors trying to keep their tribe together under calamitous circumstances, the Mandalorian makes his living as a bounty hunter. And though he belongs to a guild, it’s not a great living, nor is it one that obliges him to be nice to anyone he meets, particularly those he’s been assigned to chase down.
The opening scene doesn’t waste any time establishing the Mandalorian’s character. After entering a not-so-reputable-looking bar, the Mandalorian rescues a talkative, finned blue patron (Horatio Sanz, playing either a character named Mythrol or a member of the Mythrol race, it’s not clear) on the verge of being killed for his musk by a pair of shady characters. The Mandalorian’s not subtle in his methods, either, letting one get chewed in half by a closing port. Then, taking out a bounty puck, which projects a hologram of the creature he has just rescued, he makes it clear that his new acquaintance will be leaving the planet with him. “I can bring you in warm,” the Mandalorian warns, while touching the gun on his holster, “or I can bring you in cold.”
Later, we’ll learn that cold has several meanings and that carbonite-freezing technology has apparently become more portable in the years since Han Solo ended up slabbed and frozen at the end of Empire. But then, a lot seems to have changed since then. Set seven years after the end of Return of the Jedi, The Mandalorian takes place in a universe still figuring out what happens next. The Empire has fallen and, in the corners of the universe we see in this episode, only chaos has taken its place. Creator Jon Favreau, who wrote this episode, has frequently cited spaghetti Westerns as one of the primary inspirations behind the show, and that’s evident in both the series’ look — which borrows images from classic Westerns and throws in a pretty obvious nod to The Wild Bunch in its climactic scene — and its tone. The Mandalorian may have a moral code, one driven by his work to keep his band of fellow Mandalorians intact, but that code has a lot of flexibility built into it. Desperate times and economic strife make rigid morality a luxury few can afford.
That flexibility extends to the jobs he accepts. After earning a disappointing payday from his guild contact, Greef Carga (Carl Weathers), the Mandalorian takes an under-the-table assignment working for a man referred to only as “the Client” (Werner Herzog, having a lot of fun wrapping his tongue around words like parsec and tracker fob.) We don’t know much about the Client, but we do know he keeps shady company. The nervous Dr. Pershing (Omid Abtahi) looks pretty suspicious, but the real tell comes from the stormtroopers flanking him. The Empire may have fallen, but dead-enders with blasters remain a threat. As for the Client’s motivations, this line seems significant: “It is good to restore the natural order of things after a period of such disarray, don’t you agree?”
The Mandalorian leaves the question unanswered, but he and his refugee people have no reason to be fans of the Empire or to support any attempt to restore it. The planet of Mandalore has been kicking around in Star Wars lore since its appearance in a 1983 comic book published by Marvel, and it has played a major canonical role in some of the animated Star Wars series. (Dave Filoni, a veteran of those series, directed this first episode and is one of the show’s producers.) The Mandalorian looks like it will tell stories untouched by the animated spin-offs. When the Mandalorian visits a character known only as the Armorer (Emily Swallow), she takes the ultrarare Beskar steel given to him as a down payment by the Client, forms from it a new piece of armor, tells him his contribution will help foundlings, asks if his signet has been revealed (“not yet”), and makes reference to the Great Purge. Meanwhile, we get flashes of the Mandalorian’s past and the parents who sent him away in the midst of some kind of crisis, presumably the Great Purge itself. The scene raises a lot of questions that subsequent installments will have to answer.
Post-flashback, it’s time to get down to business. Landing on a desert planet, the Mandalorian makes the acquaintance of a grumpy Ugnaught named Kuiil (Nick Nolte); learns to ride a two-legged, uncooperative horse-lizard called a blurrg; and then makes his way to a heavily guarded compound where his target awaits. Nolte’s delightful as Kuiil, a loner set in his ways who wants to help the Mandalorian not for money or because he believes he serves a righteous cause but because he’s tired of all these damned bounty hunters showing up and getting killed.
Once he zeroes in on his target, the Mandalorian finds he’s not alone. A droid bounty hunter named IG-11 (the same model as the droid bounty hunter glimpsed in Empire) has designs on the quarry as well. Voiced by Taika Waititi, he’s a being of great killing abilities but little nuance — and he’s a little too quick to reach for the self-destruct button when he encounters adversity. IG-11 and the Mandalorian briefly make for a great team. When they lay eyes on the 50-year-old target they’ve been charged with returning — or in IG-11’s case, killing — only one is shaken by the sight of an infant who is apparently of the same race as the Jedi Master Yoda. IG-11 finds himself on the receiving end of the Mandalorian’s gun, and the Mandalorian discovers he may have limits after all.
• I’m not even going to try to round up all the Easter eggs, in no small part because others versed in the deepest corners of Star Wars lore will doubtlessly do a better job. But the ones I caught were quite fun, particularly the image of one of Salacious Crumb’s cousins waiting for his time on the spit.
• Will the series address the Mandalorian’s confusing relationship with Boba and Jango Fett? It might be simplest just to leave Boba in the heart of the Sarlacc pit. He wasn’t that great at his job anyway.
• Hey, it’s Brian Posehn as a landspeeder driver! Oh. RIP, Brian Posehn’s landspeeder driver.
• It seems likely we’ll learn more about the roots of the Mandalorian’s distaste for droids. It also seems likely we’ll see more of IG-11. He’s a first-episode highlight, and droids aren’t that easy to kill.
• One smart choice this episode makes: surrounding a grim protagonist with humorous supporting characters. So far, the Mandalorian himself is nothing but dour, but there’s a lot of color around him. Sergio Leone used Clint Eastwood in a similar fashion, letting his Man With No Name serve as the still center who moved through violent, chaotic surroundings. Unsurprisingly, Favreau has cited those films as inspiration, as has Pascal.