In the last week and a half, two Star Wars sagas have come to a close. First The Rise of Skywalker wrapped up the sequel trilogy, followed this past Friday by season one finale of the first live-action Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian.
Only one of these stories managed to unite and delight the bulk of the franchise’s divisive fandom, and it wasn’t in theatres. But this isn’t about the newest movie’s flaws or merits, it’s about how The Mandalorian revealed the Star Wars franchise has needed a TV show for a very long time—and, it turns out, so did I.
[Note: Spoilers ahead for both The Mandalorian and The Rise of Skywalker.]
I don’t mean that Star Wars needed to conquer another media format because it clearly didn’t. I mean that the format of television has allowed The Mandalorian to explore a fascinating area of the Star Wars galaxy we’ve only seen in flashes. I also mean that the limitations of television forced the Disney+ series to give audiences a new type of Star Wars story—one that the mega-blockbuster movies can’t give us, even though it enriches the franchise immensely. There’s a reason practically all fans can agree the low-budget, low-profile, low-stakes Disney+ show is fantastic.
Admittedly, calling The Mandalorian “low” in any regard is a bit disingenuous because the show had a massive $US15 ($21) million budget per episode (twice as much as a typical Game of Thrones episode), was the face of the mega-promoted Disney+ streaming service, and, as such, the House of Mouse placed a heavy burden of expectations on a simple bounty hunter’s beskar pauldrons.
But compared to the gargantuan amount of money and resources used to make and promote (and profit from) a Star Wars movie, a TV series is definitely low stakes. Let me put it another way: Disney never needed the show to earn $US2 ($3) billion to meet the company’s quarterly profit projections.
How could it? That “massive” budget had to be used to authentically recreate an entire galaxy, largely defined by its ceaseless special effects—and not just for the equivalent of a 2.5-hour movie, but eight 30-minute-or-so episodes. There’s a reason The Mandalorian’s practical sets look so small, and why the action set-pieces are so simple (one of the show’s best sequences was just the title character fighting a handful of Jawas on a Sandcrawler).
Plus, with eight episodes of airtime to fill, the TV series had to stretch out its resources even further. There’s a reason the title character has to return and reuse so many of the show’s sets, and why so much of the footage feels so sedate, like the Mandalorian—a.k.a. Mando, a.k.a. Din Djarin—sitting silently in his ship’s cockpit, moving quietly through its hold, or staring at various characters all across the galaxy, for very long, uncomfortable amounts of time.
In reality, these problems are also the show’s greatest strengths. The Mandalorian doesn’t have the money to make a show based on the ever-increasing spectacles required by the movies (and their audiences). Remember not that long ago, when fans complained about how Star Wars movies were always about the Jedi and the Sith, and that they never got to see the “normal” people in the galaxy? Technically, Rogue One and Solo did just that, but Rogue One was still about a small band of heroes saving the entire galaxy.
Meanwhile, Han Solo fought a five-mile tall (seriously) Space Jellyfish in an asteroid-filled Space Storm that is 40 light-years long (also seriously) in his movie. Jyn Erso and Han weren’t Jedi, but they were still capital-h Heroes going on epic, big-budget Hero’s Journeys.
The Mandalorian is not epic at all, and it’s wonderful. It’s not about a fight for the soul and future of the galaxy, it’s not about ancient wizards with laser swords and their millennia-long feuds, and it’s not even about cool space heists. It’s a story about a bounty hunter who becomes a foster dad to and fierce protector of Baby Yoda, the cutest creature ever designed by man or god.
The Mandalorian is no hero; he’s a warrior, sure, but he’s not some invincible badass. We know this because the Mandalorian gets the shit kicked out of him regularly. Baby Yoda has to save his life on multiple occasions. He was defeated by a dozen Jawas, for goodness’ sake. And although Baby Yoda might play a huge, important role somewhere in the future of the franchise, right now no one on the show has even the faintest clue who or what he is. There’s no destiny here. They’re just two insignificant beings in a giant universe.
Compared to any of the movies (and a great deal of Star Wars’ tie-in books, comics, and other media) this is a shockingly small-scale premise, and again, one necessitated by the limits of TV. But this also works in The Mandalorian’s favour. The makers of the Star Wars movies—well, all action-adventure movie franchises, I should say—feel they have to consistently up the spectacle to keep viewers’ interest and attention.
Without getting into the weeds on Rise of Skywalker’s pros and cons, the Star Wars movies have kept introducing increasingly efficient planet-killers until RoS’s grand fleet of Death Star cannon-armed Star Destroyers is so excessive it becomes meaningless and absurd, or at the very least too exhausting to be excited by. (Before you think only the sequels are guilty of this, allow me to remind you of Return of the Jedi’s Death Star 2: Deadlier Boogaloo.)
You know Rey, Finn, and Poe will be fine taking on the most gargantuan legion of Evil in existence because they’re Heroes, and Heroes vanquish Evil. But Din Djarin is a very fallible man, and while Baby Yoda has some Force powers, he is still a baby, almost completely unable to take care of himself. They are vulnerable in a way Star Wars protagonists in the movies aren’t. I’ve been genuinely stressed watching characters with questionable morals simply pick up Baby Yoda than any of the movies have ever made me. (In watching the season one finale, I discovered that I find Baby Yoda so adorable I would rather murder a living man than watch the fictional alien puppet merely appear to get hurt on-screen.) Because the duo’s attempt to navigate through a dangerous galaxy is so high stakes for them, it becomes high stakes for the audience as well.
To get people so invested in such relatively minor characters in the grand scheme of Star Wars is a wonderful accomplishment, and I don’t think it would have happened if showrunner Jon Favreau had been given $US300 ($428) million and tried to do it as a movie. Spreading the story over eight individual episodes doesn’t thin it out, it gives The Mandalorian space to explore the Star Wars galaxy in a way the movies just don’t have time for, augmenting Mando and Baby’s Yoda’s story with other small, but equally novel adventures. The first season of the show explored a treasure trope of Western tropes, as well with some very specific homages.
There was a jailbreak episode that didn’t require people to dress up as stormtroopers. And we finally got that Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai/Star Wars mash-up people have been talking about for years.
While The Mandalorian had to tell these stories sedately, the show never felt boring. Instead, the plots and pacing felt steady and implacable, like the titular character himself. Watching a live-action Star Wars that takes its sweet time isn’t just refreshing, it’s practically luxurious.
It also has the benefit of giving audiences a lot of time to spend with Din Djarin, not just seeing his adventures, but simply hanging out with him. It’s an important distinction because while seeing Mando help protect a tiny village from raiders with an AT-ST is certainly entertaining, it’s all those quiet moments where the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda cruise silently through space together, the latter inevitably and adorably trying to mess with the controls while Din Djarin gently prevents his foster kid from wrecking the ship, that helps make the duo so compelling and empathetic.
Obviously, budget constraints and weekly episodes were never guarantees of a perfect TV series. Favreau and the writers had to figure out the right stories to tell, the directors and crew had to maximise the show’s resources to feel as authentically Star Wars, and I honestly don’t know what The Mandalorian would be without Game of Thrones and Wonder Woman 1984’s Pedro Pascal, who manages to convey so much emotion and information in a smattering of monotone dialogue while never taking off his mask. (I swear I can tell a difference when Mando is merely staring at people or glaring at them.) The show is an absolute accomplishment.
But The Mandalorian is also an antithesis to the last five, fat-packed years of live-action Star Wars entertainment—small, simple, not flashy, and highly character-driven. Whether you loved the sequel movies or hated them, this TV series was a breath of fresh air, something truly new, and compelling specifically because it was everything the modern films haven’t been.
I needed that, and I think a lot of other people did as well. If nothing else, after Rise of Skywalker unleashed yet another giant, acrimonious uncivil war among the fans, it’s nice to know there’s peace somewhere in the Star Wars galaxy.