This review is spoiler-free, but I included a clearly labeled spoiler section at the bottom so that I could dive into specifics for those who have finished the season. Enjoy!
I was really hoping that I could report some good news and herald Season 2 of The Mandalorian as the future of Star Wars that so many are proclaiming it to be. Perhaps in an ideal world this show would be the future of Star Wars, using its potential as a blue-collar, straightforward narrative largely unconcerned with the Skywalker saga to tell an engaging story while expanding the Star Wars universe along the way. The show certainly fulfills some aspects of this promise, but that ideal world still remains an ideal one. While certainly doing so in a more slick and entertaining fashion than its first season, The Mandalorian still exists primarily as a shiny piece of Star Wars worldbuilding that leaves me sporadically entertained, but ultimately empty.
It sure is shiny, though. Whether it be the sounds of creatures and droids, the locales of planets, or the embrace of the Western genre that Star Wars was based upon, this is a show that truly feels like Star Wars if nothing else. One of my main complaints with the first season was that it was too confined to Tatooine — a planet we have seen 1,000 times — yet here the new environments vary from a desolate ice planet to a murky and ominous forest, and they’re all satisfying in their own ways. These locations each provide a different perspective on what the galaxy looks like after Return of the Jedi, opening Mando’s eyes to the not-so-obvious moral ambiguity of the galaxy that he initially thought was black and white.
It’s also refreshing to see Star Wars content on this small of a scale. After the convoluted mess of The Rise of Skywalker, watching a show about a character traveling around the galaxy doing favors for people is charming in its simplicity. Even the action benefits from this stripped-down approach, featuring set-pieces that could be as simple as Mando running away from spiders or trying to kill a space worm, yet most of these smaller moments are far more impactful than any massive CGI-filled battle full of faceless soldiers could be. Much like the planets featured on the show, these action scenes are another major improvement from Season 1, relying on more creative scenarios with better visual storytelling and a budget that directors could flaunt as opposed to work around.
Strip away all of these Star Wars elements, though, and what you’re left with is a show that is pretty subpar. I am totally fine with The Mandalorian embracing an episodic structure where each episode largely stands on its own as an individual story, but that doesn’t give you the excuse to tell unsatisfying stories on an episode-to-episode basis without any memorable characters to guide you along the way. Mando and Baby Yoda are the only consistently recurring characters on the show, and their relationship is nowhere near fleshed-out enough to put the weight of the show on their backs, as Baby Yoda still exists primarily to be memed on social media while Mando is almost a literal action figure himself, fulfilling various quests while rarely having to make any choices that help him develop as a character (I’ll dive into this more in the spoiler section). The show could pull off a Red Wedding type massacre in any given episode and I would be totally unfazed; how am I supposed to grow attached to characters that exist mostly to say “This is the way” and have their own spinoff shows set up?
The show tries to use preexisting characters in the Star Wars universe to mask how uninteresting its own characters are, but I found some of these attempts at fan service to be wildly out of left-field and unearned. It’s a bummer because these moments would be great in a vacuum, but within the show they’re dealt the unfair burden of having to save the rest of the show while also lacking any context that makes them emotionally satisfying. I’m honestly shocked at the overlap between people who eat up The Mandalorian‘s fan service and people who hate The Force Awakens for being an unimaginative rehash, as I think the latter is a much better example of catering to fans’ love for the original trilogy in a way that’s not only exhilarating, but also supportive to the new characters being introduced. Who from The Mandalorian is going to show up in a Star Wars property 20 years from now that is beloved as the preexisting characters The Mandalorian is relying on?
Characters aside, I’m still not entirely sold on the story this show is telling. In terms of overarching narrative, there isn’t a whole lot there, but further expansions to the mythology of Mandalore that make Mando question his beliefs remain far more interesting to me than transporting Baby Yoda, so I really hope that this is the direction the show takes going forward. The formula of Mando doing favors for other people has also worn a bit thin at this point, ultimately being varying degrees of entertaining depending on the specific episode, but the season finale presents a major opportunity for the show to redefine its structure that I hope it utilizes.
Despite all my criticisms, I still think The Mandalorian is pretty good and offers lots of untapped potential, but as of now most of it remains just that: potential. As a pure piece of Star Wars content, it’s solid, but why should our bar for watching something be reduced to an elaborate Wookiepedia entry with a “enter reference to known Star Wars thing” thrown in there every now and then? With a seemingly endless number of Star Wars shows about to come out on Disney+, this is a formula that is going to get stale very quickly if it doesn’t evolve, but maybe I’m the crazy one if this has people praising Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni as the divine gatekeepers of future Star Wars content.
Spoiler-y Specifics (You’ve Been Warned)
- Unpopular opinion: Episode 2 was one of the season’s best. Frog Lady was a unique creature that gave the episode a premise with personal stakes in transporting her fragile eggs, and all the spider stuff was creepy and exciting in a way that felt very Star Wars-y. Also, Grogu (I guess I can say his name now) eating the eggs was equal parts funny and disturbing, and finishing the episode with Mando’s good deeds coming back to bail him out of trouble was a nice touch. Cool ice planet, too.
- I alluded to my issues with Mando’s character arc (or lack thereof), and I want to go a bit more on-depth. He gradually devotes himself to Grogu instead of the Mandalorian code after learning about his cult-ish upbringing and hearing Bill Burr hilariously explain the inconsistencies of helmet-wearing and the moral relativism of the galaxy, but Mando has essentially been all-in on helping Grogu since the beginning of Season 1 so it didn’t seem like that much of a change to me. I would have loved to see Mando forced to make uncomfortable decisions while taking care of Grogu or see a much more gradual process of him becoming Grogu’s father figure, but it all felt too one-note for me for that final goodbye finale to really hit me emotionally at all. Him questioning Mandalorian values, though? More of that, please.
- Let’s discuss Luke Skywalker. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think his entrance was super cool and unexpected, even if that CGI was questionable to say the least. Is destroying a bunch of droids anywhere near as heroic or touching as what he does at the end of The Last Jedi? Not at all, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this is a largely harmless piece of fan service. It still bugs me a bit that a show whose self-contained nature is its greatest quality has to rely on literally the most iconic figure in Star Wars to close out its season, but I digress.
- More importantly, Mando giving Grogu away to Luke has pretty massive ramifications. Part of me has a hard time believing Disney is going to stop the Baby Yoda cash cow dead in its tracks, but there truly did seem like a sense of finality when Mando handed Grogu over. I would love if this is the show ending the Grogu storyline entirely to instead focus on potential power struggles with Bo-Katan and/or Mando ruling Mandalore, which are far more interesting premises.
- So…did Boba Fett and Ashoka literally get introduced for the sole purpose of their spinoff shows? The Ashoka show is already announced, and that post-credits scene seems to all-but-confirm a Boba Fett show. At least Boba Fett played a role in the final episodes, but it just feels so bizarre to nonchalantly introduce these two major characters only to kick them off to their own show. It really bugs me how in a universe as vast as Star Wars, we keep getting shows and movies based on characters we already know within time-periods we’re already familiar with, but that’s a conversation for another day.