IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE LAST EPISODE OF MANDALORIAN SEASON 2, TURN BACK NOW. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
What Mandalorian Has done well
Before I point out the frustrating blunders that the last episode hit us with, let me begin with some praise.
Mandalorian is perhaps the best new thing that has happened for Star Wars and perhaps even Disney. I am not sure I am not the only individual who will claim that I became a subscriber to Disney+ solely for the Mandalorian–but having infinite access to Marvel and Star Wars in my free time certainly helps as well.
But why has this show been such a hit? I have some theories.
The Faceless hero
Mandalorian accepted an outright challenge writing in that our protagonist follows a creed that prohibits him from showing his face. This was not a rule that any of us were really expecting given our prior exposure to Mandalorians like Jango and Bo Katan who had no qualms of showing their face. This felt like a new but welcome piece of added universe building. Why was it welcome though?
Because the challenge merited it.
There’s no shortage of heroes and villains who have had to communicate their emotions through little medium, such as eyes or body language. I remember being quite impressed with Tom Hardy’s performance of Bane, who communicated a seething and pretentious villain with little more than his eyebrows and posture. This challenge is not a unique one, but it’s exciting to see how actors, directors, and writers seek to communicate character depth and emotion without usage of facial expressions.
Our protagonist, Mandalorian, is albeit a rather stoic character who would otherwise without a helmet still come across as rather cold–and I think that’s why we love him too. Still, I vividly remember the scene of him flying off from dropping off Grogu (Baby Yoda) and the feeling of hesitation that was communicated without any words and without any expression.
Lastly, the path taken in this show of having the anonymity of the Mandalorian being so sacred brings some big payoffs when our hero DOES show his face. We see vulnerability against his prejudice for droids, seeing the higher path of accepting help from our Good Samaritan Nurse Droid in order to fulfill his duty to protect others. Even more astounding was seeing him break his code in front of someone who mocks his code (Bill Burr’s character) when he lifts his helmet out of love and concern for rescuing Grogu.
All the characters
But all credit should not be given to just our protagonist. Each and every character feels…full. There’s no proper way to describe it, but with each character we have a succinct feeling for them, a sense of what they are about, what they are like, and what we can expect from them. While there might be a temptation to say such archetypal characters could present as predictable or one-dimensional, I’ll argue that the predictability makes their deviation from their predictability all the more rewarding and the succing nature of each character memorable.
Quil and Cara are examples of simple but fun additions. Both are salty veterans, both offering aid to the galaxy’s finest warrior: the Mandalorian. Yet their talents and view of the war are opposed and rather simple; Quil pragmatically served the Empire with his intellect for his freedom, Cara is a freedom fighter and a brawler who is motivated by hatred for what the Empire had done to her planet. When they meet, we are rewarded with incredible foils: two salty veterans, on different sides, with different talents, but with a similar cause.
To close on this note, we see the IG droid. A friend once told me IG droids were supposed to be formidable and intimidating death machines, yet what we see from Episode 5 is kind of a stock bounty hunter that cosmetically doesn’t even appear all that terrifying. But when the IG droid goes gunslinging, we are wowed and giddy with what he is capable of doing. What makes this character even more affable is his simplicity: he has simple programming, to kill, to get the job done, and to never be taken hostage. This cold killer is lacks a great deal of depth because it is so simple, and yet when we see it reprogrammed, retaught by Quil, and sacrifice itself roundabout to its programming, it feels absolutely complete, without having need for any deep backstory or deeper motives.
A Celebration of fatherhood
I recently became a father, so this one is a bit personal.
I know there’s been a bit of a complaint of our male figures not being sensitive enough, but I think Mandalorian does not roll over to this complaint. Instead, it addresses a deeper need we all have: to witness a loving father.
The Mandalorian throughout is stoic, laconic, and an archetypal male in his flat voice and cowboy demeanor, so the concern we have for the male figure keeps its form. While keeping its form, it slowly introduces the sensitive, but not by highlighting a feature, but by highlighting a role: father.
The Mandalorian changes his materialistic worldview of getting paid and having the best armor for the sake of rescuing and caring for this affable child who is fatherless. Instead of cloistering him in some compartment at the bottom of his ship and ignoring his peevish, childish quirks, he learns to embrace them, handing Grogu the metal ball from his ship, and letting him sit in his lap.
What’s interesting about the resurrection of this figure of the father is that it is hallmark to Star Wars. Fatherhood was a them in every trilogy of Star Wars. In the original series we see an estranged father through Vader and Luke. From the prequels we see an absent father in Anakin’s history supplanted by adopted fathers such as Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and even Sidious. In the most recent trilogy, we explore an adopted fatherhood with the fatherless Rey and a twisted fatherhood with Sidious and Rey. Mandalorian, as a kind of sci-fi western, didn’t need to explore this theme and could have perhaps been just as successful without the theme of fatherhood. And yet it boldly attempts to resurrect and harken back to this theme, and grants us our typical masculine figure who addresses our desire for seeing sensitivity through his role of father.
It’s been said before, but it deserves repeating: Mandalorian deepens the sea of the Star Wars Universe rather than just branching off into a shallow stream loosely connected to the franchise. We see similar alien races, similar planets, technology, and hallmarks to each of the trilogies that grants us that blessed feeling of nostalgia; for me, it came in spades as it reintroduced Bobba Fett. Comparitively, the last trilogy of Star Wars movies felt like the latter, a kind of river flowing out from the great sea of Star Wars, going in whatever direction was the path of least resistance until it pooled and puddled into a dirty lake. Sure, the last trilogy tried to echo, like George Lucas’ “poem”, the original trilogy, but the execution of this still felt forced and alien (pardon the puns).
Further, the original Star Wars followed a format that knew worked: the Hero’s Journey. Star Wars, when it came out, felt like it belonged, like it was the natural sci-fi movie to the adventure stories we crave and for the heroes we so love. Mandalorian didn’t necessarily follow Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but it borrows off of the hallmarks and motifs of a genre we already know and love: Spaghetti Western. Although many hardcore sci-fi fans might argue that Firefly carved out for itself the title as the first sci-fi western, Mandalorian does it in a way that doesn’t feel as though it copies from an already successful franchise, but seeks to be its own entity while still being unabashedly part of this genre.
These are just a shortlist of Mandalorian’s successes that I can personally see, and I’m sure there are many more talking points as to why this series has attracted such great attention. As much as I’d like to continue to highlight what is successful about this story, I feel as though the last episode of this show lends itself to some important pitfalls that we writers need to look out for.
Why Episode Chapter 16 of Mandalorian didn’t deliver
The First underlying problem – No New hope
I will begin my critique by confessing that I, and perhaps many others, are making some assumptions about the end of Mandalorian Season 2. It seems as though the chapter of Mando and Grogu is finished, and we have every reason to believe a new book unfolds as we literally see Bobba take Jabba’s throne with the cryptic “The Book of Bobba Fett” opening. This is problematic, but I should begin by praising one thing this series seems to intend to do well on: don’t milk a series.
We have every reason to believe that Mando and Grogu are going their seperate ways in such a heart-breaking finalle. Mando has taken his helmet off, and Grogu goes off with Luke as the completion of Mando’s quest to reunite him with his kind. We knew this was the goal from Season 1, and it is mission accomplished. As hard as it was to see that parting, it reassures me that Disney is not going to unabashedly limp a series along until it gets old or sickly, but will seek to constantly infuse new life with new creative material.
That being said, seeing Grogu leave with Luke is perhaps my first problem. There was nothing spectacular about Luke’s arrival in the last episode, as the first sign of the X-Wing and the green saber were clear tells of who our rescuer was…but I digress, and this is not my first complaint. My real complaint comes from foreknowledge of episode 8, knowing of Kylo Ren’s execution of Luke’s padawans. I confess I am inferring that all Luke’s disciples are killed by Kylo and that we could all just as easily assume Grogu makes it out alive just as miraculously as Bobba makes it out alive of the sarlac pit. That being said, it’s a grim foreshadowing, so that departure with Luke didn’t make that parting silver lined at all or brighter…it made it only more hollow and despondent. For such a bitter good-bye, please Disney, give us some hope.
This was perhaps the most problematic phenomena in the last episode of Season 2. As mentioned above, we don’t have a lot to go off of that Mando’s plot arch will go anywhere else. He has his armor, he delivered the child, and the very last scene features Bobba, not Mando; I’m not complaining about such a grim and delicious scene of Bobba reclaiming Jabba’s palace, but it gives absolutely no closure to the plot arch we had been following. I have every reason to believe that Mando will become a cameo to whatever spin offs we see come down the pipe, that the new “Mandalorian” will in fact be Bobba, and that everything we began with Mando will fall into the background.
And there’s a lot that has fallen into the background…
To begin, Mando’s history. We see flashes of his family being attacked by the seperatist droids–an incredibly well filmed flashback that makes the droids seem so much more haunting than their comical previous installments. These flashbacks made me want to know Mando more, to see his progression into the Mandalorian creed. So what promise do we have of going back into his past if he is not the center of attention? And if Grogu is not his infant side-kick who affords him moments of vulnerability, how will we access that rich past? Perhaps it is doable still if somehow Mando returns for a Season 3 without Grogu, but knowing this was dropped in Season 2 felt like a hollow tease.
Perhaps more important of a plot hole was the darksaber. There was a lot of hype for this since the end of season 1, and perhaps the height of Chapter 16 was that tension between Mando and Bo Katan. I was convinced to see a content between the two warriors right then and there, and instead we are given absolutely no closure as to the possession of the darksaber by the end of the episode. Perhaps it would have been too much to wrap all up in the last episode, but lets face it, season 2 had its share of “fill in” episodes such as frog lady which could have extended the finale instead of throwing in a wayword quest.
On top of the darksaber is the status of Gideon. Is it problematic to the Mandalorians that he is left alive as we are given the impression when he is taken in? Is he arrested by Cara or just executed? The final clash of Gideon and Mando was lackluster at best, and his futile stunt with the blaster in the end only made him seem even more feeble than the warlord we were delivered in season 1. So what of him? Not even a word from Cara of his arrest, or of execution orders from Bo Katan? Again, a dissonant thread left unwoven into the greater plot.
And then there’s the clones. Now, perhaps the clones that Gideon attempted to make via Grogu will show up in one of the new spin-offs, though I think I felt most excited by this plot arch in season 2 and hoped that our heroes’ journey would revolve around the investigation and destruction of this project. And yet all we hear are allusions to the project from Gideon, that he has Grogu’s blood and that the process has begun. But then the subject is dropped, and then we are left to consider the most frustrating question: what’s most important? Is it the clones? Is it the darkblade? Is it Grogu?
And then there’s the potential of the dark side within Grogu. Ahsoka opened up for us another possibility for an interesting plot arch, involving Grogu’s exploration of his powers and his potentiality of having the dark side within him. I believe the scene featuring Grogu tossing around the stormtroopers like rag dolls and then also seeing him force choke Cara from season 1 were teases of this possible plot arch. This tension easily could have made all of season 2, and would have had an incredible unfolding given Grogu follows a morally ambiguous character whose only moral compass is in an archaic creed that he finds himself wavering in. Again, great potential for plot wasted or left empty by the end, leaving us feeling unsatisfied and perhaps even fatigued to wait for whatever comes out by 2021.
The God machine
There’s a device in literature often used when the plot kind of backs itself into the corner: Deus ex machina.
I think the first time I was bothered by its occurrence was in the frog lady episode, wherein the Rebel fighters find Mando and help him kill the spiders attacking their ship. Now, the rebels in that particular episode weren’t as frustrating of a ploy of “the god machine” because at least we know the rebels exist in this galaxy and we were already introduced to them in the beginning of this episode. However, their opportune arrival and then casual leaving doesn’t leave us with a sense that Mando or the Rebels have grown in their relationship or learned anything, but rather feels like a kind of slight reminder that the Rebels are the good guys. Combine this frustration with their short appearance with Cara later on which, again, culminates into nothing.
But the “god machine” really felt as it took place in this episode in two different ways: the darktroopers, and Luke.
The darktroopers, albeit not too nuanced and actually appearing as quite sinister, lose their luster after they are expelled from the imperial cruiser and then come back when we all remember: they are droids, with jetbacks, and need not breathe. Their return to the cruiser to create some tension for our heroes feels like a vain ploy, a panicked invention of the writers saying, “oh wait, we need one more big setback, especially to reintroduce an old hero!” Perhaps instead Mando could have detonated said dark troopers and then we could give some space for Gideon to pull one more over all our heads through his tactical genius so that perhaps we could fear and despise him properly again. Instead, the darktroopers return for the sake of Luke’s arrival.
The clashing of these two “god machines” is self-defeating. Luke’s arrival needed to be grand, and so the dark troopers return to make us all feel that the battle isn’t really won, and then this problem we see is solved by this deified force that slaughters the droids without any issue. It’s a wholly unimpressive scene which I believe comes from one writing themselves into a corner. Despite not feeling any hope seeing Luke recruit Grogu, we needed Grogu to be reunited with his kind, and so Luke had to arrive. But his arrival needed to coincide with all the other plot points that have been ongoing throughout the series: the darksaber, the clones, Gideon, Bo Katan, etc.
Perhaps the intention was to evoke a kind of nostalgia of seeing our old hero return, after the galactic civil war had ended. Still, the feeling of nostalgia was not captured in this episode as I found Luke’s arrival as not only overly simplified, but also upstaging of our true heroes: Mando, Grogu, Cara, and even Bo Katan.
Give us the child
An unfortunate part of Season 2 was having Grogu absent for much of the second half. I realize that the plot perhaps had to go this route and that season 2 might have felt like “nothing can go wrong” without his capture, but there was a definite risk and loss in having his capture take place in Chapter 14. Just when we see Mando and Grogu’s relationship really blossom in Chapter 13, then we are given an episode of Grogu meditating for most of it–albeit, we are reintroduced to Bobba in a fantastic way–have almost no exposure to him in Chapter 15, and then really only a good heaping of it in Chapter 16.
First off, this is precious time to develop emotional build and pay-off for Mando and Grogu’s final parting. Keeping the two characters away and showing very little of Grogu in the process doesn’t reinforce the endearing feelings that we received in Chapter 13 when we see Mando inspire Grogu to use his powers. Instead, I felt atrophe for their connection, and then a kind of unfairness knowing the two would not see each other again–and not so much an emotional unfairness that serves to make the audience feel a certain way, but more so a literary mistake that didn’t follow through on what it attempted to deliver.
Lastly, Grogu is part of the reason why we love Mandolorian. Sure, the series is a fun spaghetti western in space with an awesome cast, but Grogu was the center of our memes for such a time. Season 1 did something incredible in not only being bold enough to return to an epoch of puppet use in cinema, but to perfect it, creating a character that feels so real and that could steal all our hearts so easily. It’s a mystery how Grogu became so beloved so quickly, so then when we see so little of him for the final episodes of Season 2 it feels like we’ve missed half the show, the other protagonist we know, love, and care about.
There are plenty of other series that deserve perhaps this amount of heat or more. But because Mandalorian has been such a genius, well-intentioned, and heart-capturing piece of art, I believe that the conclusion of this series/season deserves some criticism.
I am willing to accept that some of my critique is perhaps off-base or inaccurate, but what might be useful for every author reading is to consider the emotional reactions we seek from our audience.
Mandalorian created incredible characters that we cared about, rooted for, cried for. We ought to take a page from their book as we look to create/forge our own characters.
Mandalorian evokes feelings with subtle details, and we too should explore how some of these details and movements can be exploited in our own work.
And finally, we should keep a leery eye out for a quick and easy finish that is tempting to use for the sake of closing our own stories, and keep mining for avenues to take in our literature so that what we write/create feels whole, contained, and not empty or incomplete by the ending.
And with that…”I have spoken”.