Disney's 'Mandalorian' finale offers Star Wars a path forward — Baby Yoda is just a bonus

The structure of “The Mandalorian” may play it safe, but the philosophy behind it is a step forward for Lucasfilm now that the Skywalker Saga is finally (hopefully) over.
Image: The Mandalorian
Nick Nolte, Pedro Pascal and Gina Carano in "The Mandalorian".Disney+
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By Ani Bundel

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” premiered just before the holidays to big box office numbers and mediocre reviews. But it’s not the only story set in a galaxy far, far away. Over on Disney+, “The Mandalorian” has been telling its own very different “Star Wars” tale for the past eight weeks. Instead of a world where Skywalkers and Palpatines fight for control of interplanetary governance, this is a story of a single bounty hunter, a mostly anonymous hero who really is no one from nowhere.

With the finale on Friday, “The Mandalorian” has already proven to be Disney+’s best show, one that reflects the entire service’s philosophy while also embodying Lucasfilm’s best hope for the franchise’s future.

With the finale on Friday, “The Mandalorian” has already proven to be Disney+’s best show.

As one of Disney+’s flagship shows, “The Mandalorian” has played it extremely safe — a common criticism of “The Rise of Skywalker.” The plot, for instance, is essentially “The Odd Couple” in space. A tough-as-nails bounty hunter, known as Mando, first captures, then sells and finally rescues an unlikely victim from an ex-Imperial client (Werner Herzog). This character is only referred to as “The Child” by the series, but everyone knows him as “Baby Yoda,” the scene-stealing, Force-wielding, meme-generating toddler with the large green ears. Technically 50 years old, the character became an internet icon in the final months of 2019, an adorable merchandise generator (Hasbro has Baby Yoda merch coming in time for May the Fourth), who is somehow both too young to be left alone in a cockpit but also self-sufficient enough to leave Mando’s hands free for his regular weaponry.

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But this unlikely duo aren’t having the kind of adventures one might expect from a show that reportedly cost $15 million an episode. Instead, “The Mandalorian” harkens back to the very roots of Star Wars’ inspiration, with “Buck Rogers”-type stories. Most episodes, which run between 30 and 40 minutes, involve Mando and Child trying to survive while traveling from planet to planet on the run. Guest stars, from Ming-Na Wen to Clancy Brown, show up for single episodes before having their character arcs terminated.

On the one hand, this decision to stick to a very old-fashioned science fiction format is genuinely surprising. If there’s one thing TV has taught viewers in the last decade, it’s to expect far more from their small-screen entertainment. This sort of “planet of the week” stuff was “Star Trek’s” bread-and-butter in the 1960s; For Lucasfilm to bring it back now, when it is beyond passe, is an interesting and potentially risky choice.

But it’s also a choice that’s in line with decades of successful television The fact is, prestige TV is a crap shoot. For every successful “Watchmen,” there’s an underperforming and forgotten “His Dark Materials.” For every swing-for-the-fences show that hits with audiences like “The Witcher,” there’s an unintentional campfest like “See.” Lucasfilm delivered what Disney wanted, a solid performer with a major marketing angle that became the talk of social media. It also has little in the way of sustained drama.

But that lack of drama actually matches the philosophy of Disney+ nicely. The entire brand is family-friendly content that pleasantly entertains. This is a company that's not here for the controversy, especially when it comes to a product it spent billions to launch.

And “The Mandalorian’s” low-stakes story is, ultimately, still fun to watch. That’s in part because it took a page from Lucasfilm’s most daring (and controversial) project to date, “The Last Jedi.” Instead of focusing on the emperors, princesses and generals — the galaxy’s one percent, as it were, of Jedi and Sith — it asked, what about everyone else?

“The Mandalorian’s” low-stakes story is, ultimately, still fun to watch. That’s in part because it took a page from Lucasfilm’s most daring project to date, “The Last Jedi.”

“The Last Jedi” was remarkable because it gave human faces to the unnamed extras in the battleships. It made stars of the grunts in the trenches, like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who had only ever been seen as a blur behind the heroes in the X-wings. The fact that “The Rise of Skywalker” mostly cut these characters was one of its most criticized choices.

But “The Mandalorian” believes the nobodies in the galaxy are important. The cast is made up of extras: the faceless bounty hunter in the background, the repair engineer in the dock with her droids, the shock trooper who grew disillusioned with the rebellion when she realized those in power will always abuse it and the former slave of the empire, looking for a peaceful retirement with his pet blurrgs.

The season finale spends the first five minutes with a pair of lazy scout troopers stuck at a checkpoint, gossiping about their superiors. It’s a lived-in universe, where people look forward to the yearly Life Day holiday with their families, go to their 9-to-5 jobs at gene farms and pray their harvest isn’t interrupted by a motley squad of marauding ex-Imperial troopers.

The structure of “The Mandalorian” may play it safe, as Mando and Baby Yoda ride off into the sunset on their way to an already-filming season two. But the philosophy behind it is a step forward for Lucasfilm, suggesting a path for the franchise now that the Skywalker Saga is finally (hopefully) over. As Mando says: “This is The Way.”