While Disney+ debuts today with a healthy slew of classic films and new series, its biggest day-one draw has to be Star Wars’ first live-action TV series, The Mandalorian. Ahead of its launch, we wondered how well the show, about a bounty hunter living in the era between Episodes VI and VIII, might lean into the archetype of space westerns. Today, we now know that this is a full yee-haw and yippy-ki-yay of a gunslinging time with a new, faceless, grizzled anti-hero.
Even better, by the first episode’s end, the reveal of his surprising journey had me shouting a hearty “whaaaaat?!” It’s been a while since a TV series pilot has had me this excited.
This review of the series’ pilot episode contains mild plot spoilers—and errs on the side of vague descriptions.
The titular star of The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) first appears in this series in traditional western fashion: in the middle of an average day’s work. For this renowned bounty hunter, that means kicking butts and picking up wanted goons.
We meet the Mandalorian, who isn’t referred to by any other name, in mostly silent fashion. He has little to say to drunken bullies at a bar, nor to the patron he’s there to meet (and escort far, far away). This opening sequence comes with a nearly pitch-perfect comedic touch, thanks both to a blue-collar, blue-skinned criminal (played by SNL‘s Horatio Sanz) and a confused ferry handler (played by comedian and famed Star Wars super-geek Brian Posehn).
That comedic touch is crucial, because the Mandalorian opts for the silent-and-stoic approach when peppered with questions. “She’s classic!” Sanz’s alien character says about the Mandalorian’s crusty spaceship. “Pre-Empire?” The bounty hunter stares forward in response, his helmet shining with the slight glow of whatever nearby star is visible through the cockpit. That’s the point. We as viewers sit uncomfortably with this silence, taking in the fact that this series takes place after the events of Return of the Jedi. What life is there for a bounty hunter in such an era?
Sure enough, when the Mandalorian cashes in his latest bounties, he’s nearly paid by his handler (Greef Carga, played by Carl Weathers) in worthless Empire currency. The pesky roster of newly available jobs aren’t even worth the cost of gas, Mandalorian complains, to which Greef replies: Well, there is one job…
After an awkward meeting with a mysterious handler (Werner Herzog), who hides in a basement bunker with an army of Stormtroopers, the Mandalorian finds himself set up with a new gig, complete with unclear coordinates and a ludicrously high payment. This new “client’ doesn’t have much in the way of demands beyond one request: that his bounty be brought in “alive,” If possible.
“I’ve only heard the stories”
This 40-minute pilot episode is careful to surround the Mandalorian with chatty characters, though the opening emphasis on humor is notably dialed back after the first 10 minutes. This tactic pays off pretty handsomely, in part because we see the show’s “what’s going on” explanations come organically from characters like Greef and “the client.” After this, we get a pretty nifty point of contrast. The Mandalorian’s eventual landing on a new planet—massive, mostly deserted, covered in sand dunes, yep, it’s a Star Wars character origin story—begins with a crisis. The Mandalorian gets into some heat, and the person who saves him (a pig-nosed humanoid alien, played by Nick freakin’ Nolte) winds up being even more stoic and reserved.
Thus, we get to see our anti-hero poke out of his guarded shell, however briefly, in search of knowledge and context for why he’s being helped. Not only do we get a brief hint of his character’s humanity, we also see Nolte earn his paycheck as a ridiculous curmudgeon of a character—and one who drops some massive wisdom about our story’s hero, and his foretold reputation, in a powerful, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dollop.
At this point, we see the Mandalorian overcome some odds, curry Nolte’s favor, and make his way to a heavily guarded compound. Pardon the mini-spoiler here, but Taika Waititi shows up as the voice of a surprise-appearance droid who ruins the Mandalorian’s stakeout, and he has to contend with the fallout. This is the pilot episode’s purest western moment: a laser saloon shoutout, by golly, and it shines thanks to silly Mandalorian-and-droid chatter and a ramp-up of heavy-duty weaponry.
After that, well… I’m not saying a single specific thing, except that my Star Wars-loving self was caught off guard by the episode-clinching twist, which had me foaming at the mouth for what’s to come next.
Careful costumes, comedic CGI
Yet even if you take the moment in question and drop it into our comment section (please don’t, at least not without spoiler tags), that single statement wouldn’t do enough to sum up what makes me eager for next week’s episode to drop. (If you’re wondering: Disney+ is opting for a one-episode-per-week launch schedule at this point, with no confirmed episode schedule available just yet; sorry if you thought you had a full Mandalorian binge ahead of you.) Rather, the production crew, led by Iron Man and Swingers Director Jon Favreau, seems to really understand what makes a seedy Star Wars story worth following.
I loved the balance of practical effects, carefully molded alien costumes, and intentionally cheeseball CGI. You’ll see our hero ride a digital alien as a mount at one point, and the low-budget bounce of this creature over hills and valleys feels delightfully animated, not obnoxiously cheap. Those brief CGI moments are forgivable in light of gorgeous set design, a John Williams-caliber score of brand-new compositions, and a cast of actors who savor their pauses, beats, and moments to simmer in tension (both for action and comedy’s sake). Not only did I have fun, I was shocked to see the episode’s 40 minutes practically melt in a snap.
If the pilot is any indication, The Mandalorian is Star Wars for a generation of fans who remember the film series as an aesthetic, an ethos, and a promise of morally mixed discovery. And I’m already ready to hitch my space western wagon to this wild ride.
Listing image by Disney+ / Lucasfilm