A review of this week’s The Mandalorian, “The Gunslinger,” coming up just as soon as I play cards with my droids…
“The Gunslinger” takes place around and then on the most famous planet in Star Wars lore, Tatooine, and includes familiar landmarks like the Mos Eisley Spaceport (which is festooned with blood-soaked Stormtrooper helmets — if not severed heads?) and the Dune Sea, where Mando and his latest sidekick, Toro, inevitably run into some Tusken Raiders. At the start of their short-lived friendship, Mando and Toro meet at a seedy Mos Eisley bar where Toro has his feet up on the table, Han Solo-style. And after he loses a duel with Mando, Toro’s body is on the way to Beggar’s Canyon, which Luke once compared to the trench in the first Death Star.
So in terms of geography and Easter eggs, “The Gunfighter” is perhaps the most Star Wars-y episode of the series yet. But in giving us another completely self-contained adventure for Mando(*), the episode also hearkens back to its other influences — not just classic Westerns (including one with Gregory Peck that shared this title), but Eighties and Nineties TV action-dramas.
(*) Baby Yoda spends the third episode in a row largely sidelined while Mando tends to business. It’s clear the creative team — with Dave Filoni not only directing again this week, but writing the series’ first non-Favreau script — doesn’t want to overuse The Most Adorable Character in the History of Filmed Entertainment.
Last week’s episode, “Sanctuary,” prompted some viewers (and other critics) to lament that it felt like a glorified episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. Which it did, because Xena and Hercules and hundreds of other TV shows and movies have told variations on that type of Seven Samurai story before. And the thing that so many of those complaints seemed to miss was that Xena and shows like it were… fun. It’s OK to be fun! It’s OK to operate on a relatively basic narrative level, especially for a show built for kids to watch(*).
(*) This doesn’t mean children’s TV has to be simplistic, as my best shows of the decade list included several super-ambitious series designed for younger viewers. But it’s also OK to show kids the elementary moves for a while before you take them to the advanced stuff built on that foundation.
But even if you take young viewers out of the equation, we’ve reached a moment in television where complexity is looked at as a virtue unto itself. Yes, many great shows are great because of their complexity, but being intensely serialized and/or stuffing each episode with characters and subplots is no signpost of quality. Being busy isn’t the same as being deep, or good. There’s enormous value in keeping things simple, telling a clear story, and focusing on the strengths of your actors and your production. And The Mandalorian, like its title character, pretty consistently hits its targets.
“The Gunslinger” continues this straightforward streak. Mando wins a dogfight with a rival bounty hunter — and, in a moment where the show embraces its inherent cheesiness, he quips that the other guy tried stealing his “I can bring you in warm, or I can bring you in cold” catchphrase — but winds up with a crippled ship that needs repairs on the Skywalker family’s home planet. A wary mechanic (played by Amy Sedaris, who deftly blends into the tone of this thing) requires money to fix the vehicle (and to care for Baby Yoda, who gets left behind on the ship because Mando is an untrained surrogate father). One trip to a cantina (the cantina, in fact) later, and Mando and aspiring Bounty Guild member Toro (played by Jake Cannavale) are riding a pair of speeder bikes (Return of the Jedi shout-out) across the Dune Sea in search of the lucrative bounty associated with assassin Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen).
It mostly goes how you’d expect. The one relatively surprising development isn’t that Toro betrays Mando once he finds out Mando is on the outs with the Guild; it’s that Toro finds this out and immediately guns down their target. It’s something of a waste of Ming-Na Wen, who’s a natural in this milieu — and whose big fight scene plays out under deliberately low lighting conditions. But the mission itself offers a clear and entertaining contrast between veteran bounty hunter Mando — who knows how to use sign language to negotiate with the Tuskens, and who has a clear and effective plan to take out Shand despite her having a sniper rifle and higher ground — and his rookie colleague. Process, particularly when it involves characters who are good at what they do, can be all you need for an entertaining story. Toro gets the drop on Mando back at the hangar, but Mando makes like John McClane, pretending to surrender when he’s actually holding a flash grenade behind his head, which he uses to distract and defeat his inexperienced opponent.
So, no, The Mandalorian at the moment isn’t interested in trying to present the Star Wars equivalent of The Wire, or even of Ozark. But that’s OK. “Xena with a big production budget (plus Baby Yoda and Werner Herzog)” is a perfectly entertaining goal to aim for (and surely superior to an actual attempt to do Star Wars: Attack of the Ozarks). Simple’s just swell if you do it right. Which this show is.
Previously: Hang Onto Your Hat