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Monday, July 15, 2024

The Mandalorian: Season 2 Review

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In a year full of pop culture delays and disappointments, The Mandalorian Season 2 accomplished several impressive feats: It improved on what came before with an exhilarating, action-packed eight-episode arc; it gave us a weekly distraction from the hellscape of 2020; it provided set-ups for no less than three spinoffs without detracting from the main narrative, and it pulled off a jaw-dropping cameo that surpassed even the initial Baby Yoda reveal in the series premiere.

Considering that every other major piece of casting leaked online before the season premiered, it's particularly impressive that executive producers Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni managed to preserve that particular surprise. The only downside of The Mandalorian being a TV show is that you can imagine how certain moments might've played on a big screen with a packed audience (the rapturous ending of Rogue One springs to mind); but there's also something magical about being able to experience the scope and scale of Star Wars in the comfort of your own home in ways we could never have imagined as kids. As a lifelong Star Wars fan, it's thrilling to see this universe expanding week to week, offering insight into corners of the galaxy that have been mentioned in passing but never explored on-screen with this kind of depth before.

There were some narrative detours that may have frustrated viewers looking for a fully serialized format, but even the most self-contained installment (episode 2, "The Passenger") offered some necessary character development for our titular hero, forcing him to confront the idea that looking after a child isn't simply about physical safety, but also what you teach them about personal responsibility and empathy.Despite juggling a slew of new characters like Boba Fett and Ahsoka Tano, who were being primed for their own spinoff shows, Season 2 never lost sight of the relationship at its heart, meticulously developing Mando and Baby Yoda's bond and allowing Pedro Pascal to excavate new layers in Din Djarin's personality. The season did a masterful job of challenging Din's worldview and pushing him out of his comfort zone so that every small step forward he took felt like a monumental leap, culminating in a triumphant and emotionally resonant season finale that was completely earned in terms of his character growth. How our hero will navigate Season 3 in light of everything that happened this season is a lingering question, and it's pretty exciting from a narrative perspective that there's no predictable path for the show to take from here.

The season also doubled down on one of the most impressive aspects of Season 1: the action. In the hands of directors like Robert Rodriguez (who will be helming the Boba Fett spinoff show), Peyton Reed, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rick Famuyiwa, Carl Weathers, and Filoni and Favreau themselves, The Mandalorian Season 2 deployed a dizzying array of stunning set-pieces throughout the season, matching the ambition of anything the franchise has done on the big screen, even if there were fewer dogfights and trench runs than we typically see in the movies. It was especially satisfying to get more insight into Mandalorian culture and the different factions and belief systems at play, something that seems set to be further explored in Season 3.

Whatever nitpicks you may have had with the season — and I had plenty, from the clunky dialogue (which, let's face it, has always been a Star Wars staple but feels particularly distracting in The Mandalorian – take a shot every time someone says "womp rat" in the Season 2 premiere, I dare you) and sometimes hammy guest stars to the over-reliance on nostalgia (Tatooine again?) over actual plot — it's undeniable that Favreau and Filoni learned from the mistakes of Season 1 to create something far more focused, with a palpable sense of momentum and escalating danger.Every Upcoming Star Wars Movie and TV ShowBut let's return to the subject of nostalgia, and the ongoing debates about "fan service," since it's clear that The Mandalorian in particular, and the entire Star Wars franchise under Disney in general, has a complicated relationship with both. Now that we have two seasons to look back on, I find myself feeling more forgiving towards Season 1 in hindsight despite its rougher middle episodes, because, for as much as it relied heavily on the tropes and iconography of the Western genre, it also felt like it was at least trying something new for the franchise (there's a reason why the most nostalgia-heavy episode of Season 1, "The Gunslinger," is the weakest).

There weren't any splashy cameos from legacy characters like Ahsoka Tano and Boba Fett in Season 1, and it truly did feel, early on, like the show would be exploring – to coin a familiar phrase – Unknown Regions. Our focus was on Mando as a character and the unlikely Lone Wolf and Cub relationship this gruff bounty hunter was forming with his little green child, and while Din was inadvertently getting swept up in a grand galactic conflict he didn't understand, there was still a simplicity to his mission and the broken band of allies he collected along the way.

You can argue that Favreau and Filoni were always building towards the revelations and character cameos we got in Season 2 and that the show's trajectory has always been intended to tie into the wider Star Wars universe, but there is something a little frustrating (if not at all surprising) about Disney attempting to apply the MCU strategy of "it's all connected" to The Mandalorian.

Following all the announcements in the 2020 Disney Investor Call, we now have an interconnected web of stories that will require completists to watch at least four different Star Wars TV shows in order to get the full picture — culminating in what Kathleen Kennedy called "a climactic story event," i.e. a crossover in the vein of the DC TV universe's Crisis on Infinite Earths or Netflix's Defenders miniseries. It's a savvy business strategy, especially for a company that's trying to grow its streaming service audience and stop people from cancelling their Disney Plus subscriptions after their favorite show stops airing, but there's the unmistakable hand of a corporate overlord in all of this that detracts from the scrappy swagger The Mandalorian had in its first season, back when Jon Favreau insisted that Disney wait to produce Baby Yoda toys until after the show aired to preserve the surprise, despite it likely costing them millions in lost merchandise revenue over the holidays.

We previously explored Disney's penchant for using companion products like books, comics, and games to fill in the storytelling blanks from their Star Wars sequel movies – check out how much you'd have to pay to get the full story of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in the video below:This criticism might seem a little hypocritical coming from me since I gave the episodes featuring legacy characters the highest review scores this season, but that's exactly what makes Disney's strategy so canny. For me and doubtless many other fans, revisiting beloved characters and learning more about events like the downfall of Mandalore is catnip — folks who obsessed over The Clone Wars never would've dreamed we might see Ahsoka Tano igniting her white lightsabers in live-action, and Boba Fett fans who were disappointed by his anticlimactic death in Return of the Jedi have likely been itching to see the bounty hunter's fearsome reputation redeemed somehow.

Anyone in the audience who's as nerdy as Dave Filoni about this universe likely can't help but be stoked to see these characters so lovingly rendered in a new context, filling in the history we've speculated about in our own personal headcanon for years — to the point where I'm willing to forgive most of the annoyance I feel about the show's repetitive dialogue or painfully short episode run times just for the rush of pure Star Wars joy every episode provides. It's just so much fun to bask in the nostalgic familiarity of this universe and recapture that feeling of watching the Original Trilogy for the first time — something that Disney is no doubt counting on every time they dip into the well of a returning character or iconic ship.

"Fan service" is one of those flawed terms that has lost all meaning and nuance in recent years thanks to the "online discourse," but the concept has arguably been embedded in the DNA of Star Wars since the beginning ("I have a bad feeling about this" was already a running joke in the OT) and most assuredly since Disney acquired the IP. The franchise has become a feedback loop of catchphrases, easter eggs, and knowing winks to the audience, and at this point, you're either willing to forgive that and go along for the ride, or the blatant pandering has turned you off entirely. Both opinions are entirely valid and very much depend on what you want from your Star Wars projects; but after all the uncertainty of 2020 in particular, there's something comforting about the lure of nostalgia, and it's no surprise we've seen increasing interest in other retro throwbacks like Cobra Kai and the Saved By the Bell remake this year.Every Actor and Character in The MandalorianThat's where the fan in me wrestles with the critic because I want to have my cake and eat it too when it comes to these characters. On the one hand, I'm thrilled to see the Star Wars universe expanding, and to think that these epic characters inhabit the same space and even cross paths from time to time — that's always been the joy of comic books as a medium, so it makes sense for the company behind Marvel to want to replicate that success with what is arguably the biggest entertainment brand in the world.

On the other, there's a corporate cynicism and greed to it that makes me wonder what a Mandalorian series might've been if it was really just a self-contained, standalone story of a bounty hunter and his kid, rolling into town and solving locals' problems on unfamiliar planets across the Outer Rim, scuffling with local warlords and other bounty hunters, but mostly just minding their own business and staying out of the Empire's political machinations. Maybe that was never what the show aspired to be, and Season 1 was just a misdirect for all the larger Star Wars tie-ins that the creators had in store in Season 2, but it's interesting to imagine what could have been, without the weight of Disney's franchise machinery behind it all. (Or if Disney would just order 13 episodes per season instead of eight, which would allow for more of a balance between the ongoing serialized plotting and the standalone missions of the week without it feeling like one is detracting from the other.)

The plus side of all this is that I'm equally interested in both versions of the story, and if it seems like we're destined to get the one that explores the political drama of Mandalore, the burgeoning establishment of the New Republic, the continuing adventures of Boba Fett, the mysterious schemes of the Imperial Remnant as they stumble towards the formation of the First Order, and a sneaky live-action sequel series to Star Wars Rebels that picks up the stories of Ahsoka, Sabine, Ezra, and Thrawn, that's pretty darn exciting to me as a Star Wars fan, all cynicism aside.Regardless of the corporate strategy behind it all, it's clear that everyone involved in The Mandalorian loves this franchise, and that reverence is obvious in every frame (even if it's sometimes loyal to the point of slavishness). For as much as people dismissed "The Passenger" as filler, I did appreciate it for giving us something that was tonally closer to horror than most live-action Star Wars projects dare to venture. This galaxy is so wide, and the storytelling possibilities so vast, it does seem like a bit of a waste to continually return to the characters and conflicts we've seen before, or rely on the narrative shorthand of nostalgia to elicit an emotional reaction when Mando and the Child's relationship has been developed carefully and lovingly enough to have the same effect with arguably more narrative impact, as demonstrated by one key scene in the finale.

I also wonder how effective this approach will be for more casual fans of the franchise — those who haven't watched The Clone Wars and Rebels or played Knights of the Old Republic or sought out every tie-in novel (my parents certainly have no attachment to Ahsoka and remain confused about where the series falls in the larger Star Wars timeline). And there comes a point where keeping up with such twisting, interconnected narratives can begin to feel like homework, especially in an episodic format as opposed to a cinematic universe (something I've felt with the CW's Arrowverse over the past couple of years, which I feel like I have to keep up with just to understand the annual crossovers).The Mandalorian Season 2But when taken as a complete story, leaving aside any corporate puppeteering going on behind the scenes, Season 2 of The Mandalorian is a remarkable feat of both art and commerce. It keeps the focus on the characters and relationships that matter most to advance the overarching plot, while also devoting enough narrative real estate to establish other characters and motivations, laying the groundwork for a sprawling interconnected universe that will give us our Star Wars fix for many years to come. It's a tricky needle to thread, but Filoni and Favreau accomplish it with confidence.

Despite my quibbles, after reflecting on Season 2 and the series as a whole for the past week, the dizzying highs of the season far outweigh my frustrations, which are easier to focus on when a show is being assessed on an episode-by-episode basis. Compared to the heavy-handed writing that bogged down episodes 4-6 of Season 1, there's truly not a dud in the bunch in Season 2; each episode helps flesh out the state of the galaxy in the early days of the New Republic, using established characters like Cara Dune and Migs Mayfeld as well as series newcomers to contextualize the many conflicts and political agendas still simmering even after the Empire has fallen. It's that kind of thoughtful world-building that intrigues me most for Season 3, especially since it seems far more likely that the Ahsoka and Boba Fett spinoffs will connect more directly to previous projects, hopefully leaving room for Mando to go back to blazing his own trail. After the plot twists of this season, your mileage may vary on whether this is the version of Star Wars you want to invest any more time in, but there's no denying that Season 2 was a blast to watch – channeling the very best of the franchise in both new and familiar ways.


Season 2 of The Mandalorian proved to be one of the most ambitious seasons of television in recent memory, impressively advancing the ongoing story of Mando and Baby Yoda while simultaneously laying the groundwork for three spinoff shows and the seismic shift in storytelling focus that will no doubt come in Season 3. After a few subtle easter eggs in Season 1, the show dove headfirst into the nostalgia well in Season 2, enlisting a cavalcade of recognizable characters to inextricably tie the show into the wider Star Wars universe moving forward. How you feel about The Mandalorian’s place in that universe will probably dictate how you felt about Season 2 as a whole, and while I did struggle with how frequently the show relied on nostalgia over exploring new territory, there was also no show that gave me more excitement or joy this year — largely because of that same emphasis on the franchise’s nostalgic past and its so-called “fan service.” We may be waiting a while for Season 3, which will reportedly debut after The Book of Boba Fett finishes airing in December 2021, but after that jaw-dropping Season 2 finale, the possibilities for what’s ahead are endless, and it feels like there’s never been a better time to be a Star Wars fan.

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