Disney Plus, which launched in November 2019, has been delivering on its promise to provide viewers with a number of new, high-budget shows: WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and, most recently, Loki and Star Wars’ The Bad Batch. But when it comes to original and imaginative world-building, The Mandalorian is a world apart.
The first live-action Star Wars television series, The Mandalorian returned for its second season on Disney Plus last October. With the first season, the creators, Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, had the tricky task of capturing the attention of a disenchanted fanbase. Yet, amid the Star Wars fatigue, Favreau and Filoni stuck the landing. The show, with its back-to-basics approach, privileging strong storytelling, playfulness, and original characters, comes across as a real labor of love rather than a by-the-numbers franchise cash-in. However, its most surprising feature is how creatively and faithfully it depicts a tradition-based culture.
The second season continues with Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal), the eponymous “Mandalorian” (nicknamed “Mando”), on a quest to return his force-sensitive adopted child to its own kind, the Jedi. An acolyte of a religious order who rescued him as a war orphan, he is sworn to live by “the Way of the Mandalore.” From the outset, the show incorporates two major religions and various combative traditions into its universe. Its interesting treatment of tradition does not stop there: In genre entertainment, races, traditions, and religions are often monolithic and top-down—something that bears little resemblance to how actual tradition-based societies work. But in The Mandalorian, this is not the case. Din cannot remove his helmet in the presence of others and show his face, a requirement of living according to “the Way.” As far as he knows, this is the mark of a real Mandalorian. During his search for the Jedi, Din comes across Mandalorian warriors who openly remove their helmets. He accuses them of being imposters, but they profess themselves to be true Mandalorians; one of them is even Mandalorian royalty. From Din’s reaction, they determine that he is part of a strict sect among their kind, known as “The Watch,” and Din learns that his own rite isn’t the only “way” to be a Mandalorian.
The experience is recognizable to anyone grounded in traditional religion. “The Children of the Watch,” to which Din belongs, is analogous to a particularly austere Sufi order, imposing strict discipline among its disciples for spiritual purification. His encounter with other Mandalorians, who have legitimate succession but completely different practice, is rather like the real-life confusion of praying with a new rite or liturgy for the first time.
This accurate portrayal of religious culture adds more depth to the Star Wars universe than ever before. Nods to other Star Wars shows, such as the Clone Wars, which Filoni co-created with George Lucas, also add to the show’s sense of depth. They come across as the organic markers of a shared setting rather than forced callbacks, and don’t overshadow the show’s own unique narrative.
Not long after this encounter, Mando is forced to confront his particular approach to “the Way of the Mandalore.” Caught in a situation where he has to reveal his face or lose the means to find his kidnapped ward, Mando removes his helmet in front of others for the first time; when he does so, it is not some triumphant abandoning of “the Way” to follow his own ego. He only makes this decision in a situation of real necessity, and it notably comes after he has learned that this is acceptable in another rite of his own religion. It is a dispensation, then, rather than a dismissal of faith. After all, his commitment to “the Way” drove him to rescue the child in the first place.
A staple of Star Wars since the mysterious Jedi Knights were introduced in the original film, The Mandalorian explores combat through showing, rather than telling. Akira Kurosawa, whose influence is felt throughout the series, brought in Yoshio Sugino, an instructor of a combative tradition (koryu) from feudal Japan, to ensure the combat in his films was authentic. The filmmakers here follow his lead, by drafting real-life experts. Military veteran Cara Dune is played by mixed-martial arts champion Gina Carano, who brings a rough-and-tumble style with strong judo throws like the tomoe nage, fitting an infantry commando. Temeura Morrison, playing George Lucas’s original “Mandalorian,” Boba Fett, incorporates movements from the Maori warrior dance, the Haka, which is intimately linked with the traditional Maori martial art Mau Rakau. The show does not stop to explain these differences, but a viewer can tell at a glance that the characters are coming from different places and cultures. Like the creators’ variegated treatment of religion, the physicality of the show makes its world feel grounded, rather than some useless bit of trivia for fans to argue about.
From the beginning, The Mandalorian has straddled that middle-space of Western and Samurai film so formative to Star Wars. This season takes the playfulness of the original movies further by exploring other genres, such as horror (Chapter 10) and martial arts (Chapter 13). Yet this doesn’t make the show incoherent, as each “chapter” tells a story by itself, a conscious step away from what has become the new norm in serialized entertainment. A welcome antidote to binge-watching culture, the serialization has revived the almost-forgotten fevered discussion and speculation that the best genre entertainment feeds off of. Who would have thought that Disney would lead this charge, let alone double down in their newest streamed shows as well?
As director Deborah Chow put it in The Art of the Mandalorian, “In everything I’ve ever worked on, it doesn’t matter how many robots or zombies there are, it doesn’t matter how great the visual effects are, it always comes down to story and character.” The Mandalorian would have burnt out if it were just a clip show of expensive effects and famous characters. Instead, it takes its storytelling and world-building—and a sense of adventure—seriously, exactly as Star Wars ought to.
Jibran Khan is a former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at National Review Institute.
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