A review of this week’s The Mandalorian, “Sanctuary,” coming up just as soon as I chase off some raiders for lunch money…
In many ways, the most interesting thing in “Sanctuary” is something we don’t quite see: Mando’s face, when he takes off his helmet in privacy to enjoy some soup without breaking the code of his tribe. He has already explained to Omera (Julia Jones) — the kind and pretty widow who is playing host to him, Baby Yoda, and their new friend Cara Dune (Gina Carano) — that he actually takes the helmet off every day, but hasn’t revealed his face to anyone since the Mandalorians took him in following the massacre that killed his parents. In this case, though, he takes it off, but with his back to us. Even his bare head is out of frame, denying us so much as a glimpse of his hair (assuming he has any).
Though Mando and Cara help Omera and her neighbors chase off the bandits who have been plaguing their remote farming village, “Sanctuary” is a relatively peaceful and chatty episode. Mando probably speaks more here than he did in the three previous chapters combined, because he’s so at ease with these nice people, with a fellow rootless soldier like Cara, and even with Baby Yoda. (Heck, he practically says more to Baby Yoda about why he’s chosen this planet as their hideout than he did in the entirety of the series premiere.)
And more often than not, what people want to talk to our hero about this week is that helmet. It’s an implied subject, if not an explicit one, when the waitress tries to get Mando to try some of the broth she’s bringing Baby Yoda. Omera asks him about it later, and Cara brings it up near the end of the episode, wondering whether the other Mandalorians would come to kill him if he ever took it off. “No,” he responds. “You just can’t ever put it back on again.”
It’s a strange dance Jon Favreau has opted for with this helmet. We never saw Boba Fett’s face because he barely appeared in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and was on the job throughout both films. Jango Fett appears without the helmet at certain parts of Attack of the Clones. It’s since been made canon that the Fetts weren’t Mandalorians, but just had some Mandalorian armor. Either way, though, this show consciously chose not only to make the helmet omnipresent, but to couch it as part of the tribe’s long-held code of conduct: It is the way, and that’s it. It’s less clunky than when George Lucas felt he had to explain how the Force worked by introducing midi-chlorians, but it’s not strictly necessary.
That Pedro Pascal looks cool in the helmet is without question. That the show has robbed its leading man of his most useful tool as an actor, though, is also without question. No one who works on the series is blind to that; when I interviewed Deborah Chow last week, she talked at length about the choices that she and the show’s other directors (including Bryce Dallas Howard, who this week gets to follow in her dad’s Solo footsteps) have to make to cover for all the expressiveness Pascal has been denied. So the payoff to this — the moment when circumstances force Mando to take the thing off, or remove it from him against his will — has to be really great to compensate for how the show has hobbled itself in this area. But the two discussions of the helmet this time, followed by the moment where Mando comes thiiiis close to letting Omera pull the thing off so they can kiss(*), suggests that it is not only top of mind for Favreau, Dave Filoni, and the rest of the creative team, but that we’re not too far away from that handsome mug from appearing in frame.
(*) Are all the Mandalorians rescued orphans like Mando? The children are referred to as “foundlings.” And while it’s not impossible for some Mandalorians to have romantic — or just sexual — relationships without ever showing their faces to their partners, it also seems difficult enough that I imagine it’s a rarity. The tribe is small, but it would cease to exist if it had to depend on biological reproduction from within.
And if I’ve spent this much time talking about the helmet this week, it’s because “Sanctuary” is perhaps the show’s most straightforward and familiar episode to date. The script is not only heavily indebted to The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, but could probably be sent back in time to the Fifties and made into an episode of a dozen different TV Westerns without that many changes. (Just swap out Baby Yoda for the main gunslinger’s adorable son, who could even try to eat a frog.) This isn’t inherently a bad thing — clichés become clichés because they’re effective enough to be used over and over — and the execution by Favreau, Howard, and company keeps things lively and fun. Gina Carano also fits seamlessly into this eclectic cast, and Cara offers us a more ground-level view of the rebellion than the original trilogy tended to offer.
The relative simplicity of the stories each week in a way feels like the most radical thing Favreau and friends have opted to do here. It would be so easy to slather on a few coats of 10-Hour Movie to this endeavor, along with many shades of antihero gray. But The Mandalorian is distributed the old-fashioned way, one week at a time, and it’s structured not too far off from how even a show from the Sixties like The Fugitive might work. It’s just all executed on a high level — even the parts where the series seems to be giving itself extra work, like hiding its title character’s face from view.
Then again, it took until halfway through Empire before we even saw the back of Darth Vader’s head, and we understood him pretty well by that point. He wasn’t the protagonist of the original trilogy, but at least it’s one more tradition The Mandalorian is following.