I wasn’t sure what to make of The Mandalorian — either the show or the masked protagonist — in the first episode of Disney Plus’ new Star Wars series. Was he a hypercompetent badass? Or was he a scrapper in damaged armor befuddled by the appearance of a bounty droid? What kind of hero was the show trying to show me?
But only a few minutes into “Chapter 2: The Child,” a frame of reference snapped into place. The Mandalorian is Samurai Jack, but Star Wars.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for episode 2 of The Mandalorian.]
I enjoyed The Mandalorian “Chapter 1” in spite of some messy tone and characterization. The way the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) could touch down on a new planet and immediately befriend a small hairy man who knew exactly what was going on seemed contrived. And while the Client (Werner Herzog) says the Mando is expensive and an expert — and it sure seemed that way as he picked up that blue fish guy — he’s totally flummoxed by a two-legged potato head creature. Well, until he “gets it.” Orchestral chords swell as he and Kuiil go on a not-so-majestic journey of little hops.
But in “Chapter 2,” after The Mandalorian climbs up a sandcrawler, Jawas pelt him with garbage, and he’s electrocuted into a pratfall; after he’s forced to trudge back up to old man Kuiil with his floating baby bounty in tow, a frame of reference fell into place: Genndy Tartakovsky’s 2001 animated series, Samurai Jack.
Textually, Samurai Jack was about another eponymous-yet-unnamed character, a samurai warrior in the far future who was trying to get back to the past. Structurally, every new episode was an excuse for a new environment, a new hurdle, a new weird monster or tribe of creatures to parlay with.
Jack was a skilled fighter, but by no means infallible. Like the Mandalorian, he was a highly competent individual with limited resources for whom things constantly went against his expectation. There were weird monsters, strange environments, mysterious guides, and innocents that needed his help. You could tell that the team behind the show wasn’t asking themselves “How can Jack get closer to his goal this episode,” but “What bizarre situation can we throw Jack in the middle of this episode?”
Samurai Jack is not the first or only example to bring together this particular combination of ideas; both shows have roots in the Western, and its twin-in-many-ways, the samurai epic. But while Tartakovsky deals in iconic images — the lone hero walking across the horizon, the low angle shot of a sheathed weapon — he also entrenches the whole thing in the surreal and weird, chipping away at the self-seriousness of those genres without making an out-and-out parody of them. It’s the kind of story where the hero would absolutely take the advice of a pigman he I just met, because this sort of thing happens to him all of the time.
There’s also a link from Samurai Jack to Star Wars, though not directly to The Mandalorian. After the success of Jack, Tartakovsky went to work on Clone Wars, a series of 2D animated shorts that, among other things, introduced General Grievous to the canon. The series remains beloved for pushing the iconography to new action territory, something The Mandalorian is already doing in episode 2.
The third episode of the new Star Wars show — which debuts next Friday, but I caught it at a press and fan event earlier this week — only further reinforced my Mandalorian/Jack feelings. The moment I realized that we were supposed to see the Mandalorian as a highly competent but emotionally-stunted idiot who nothing ever goes right for, the entire show clicked. Now, I can do more than just enjoy the display of his skills. I can root for him, worry about him, yell at him to make better decisions.
The Mandalorian is my idiot son who can’t take care of a baby who is older than he is, and I love him.