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ig-11 and the mandolorian enter a sealed room with the sun at their backs

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The Mandalorian makes a promise it should keep

The Western TV series is all about simple pleasures

Disney Plus

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Disney Plus’ original series The Mandalorian is the first live-action series set in Star Wars’ galaxy far, far away. It ain’t your grandpappy’s Star Wars.

Except it kind of is.

Created by Jon Favreau (Iron Man 2, The Lion King), The Mandalorian walks, talks, and shoots ’em up like a Hollywood Western. The central anti-hero, a bounty hunter banking gas money during post-Empire economic turbulence, is The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal), who mumbles commands from behind a impenetrable mask. He carries himself like a classic gun-for-hire. He’s a killer, but a softy, pledging allegiance to his Mandalore roots (we see him chilling at a Mandalorian clubhouse at one point) and proving he’s willing to axe a co-worker over the lives of innocents. We know nothing about this guy, but his archetype tells us everything about him.

There’s a clear inspiration for The Mandalorian character: Clint Eastwood’s iconic cowboy, The Man with No Name, from Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy. But the show’s small-screen storytelling doesn’t accommodate such mythic proportions. Pascal’s armored hunter is more like Clint Eastwood during his TV days on the 1950s Western Rawhide — not as iconic, but channeling the spirit of the legends before him.

[Ed. note: the following contains only mild spoilers for The Mandalorian episode 1.]

The Mandalorian walking down from his ship Photo: Disney Plus

Alongside the cinematic golden age of John Ford, Samuel Fuller, Delmer Daves, and other cow-pokin’ directors, the 1950s and ’60s saw a Western boom on American television. Shows like Rawhide, Bonanza, The Rifleman, and Maverick rode the problem-of-the-week premise through decade-long runs. Today, the genre is nearly extinct, apart from the occasional notable revisionist outing: Deadwood bucked every familiar Western trope with Shakespearean grit, while Justified and Longmire filled the void with modern takes. Favreau’s series caters to Star Wars fans by resuscitating George Lucas’ original-film-trilogy aesthetic, but the throwback goes even deeper, to a time when television wasn’t about heavy, prestige-driven arcs, it was digestible, aimed at audiences that wanted something bite-sized after a long day at work.

The Mandalorian could be that breed of Western for a generation that barely remembers Rick Dalton’s heyday. “Chapter 1” finds The Mandalorian on the job, wrangling a wanted Mythrol (played under layers of blue latex by SNL alum Horatio Sanz) from a cantina full of bruisers. There are one-liners, head slams, shots from around the back, and a frozen-space-worm encounter before the target is frozen in carbonite and the cowboy is on his way. The scenes aren’t as spectacular as an X-Wing battle or the train heist in Solo, but the peril befits the small screen. There wouldn’t be time to see this day-in-the-life corner of the universe in a movie about defeating the Empire.

As a fan of old Western reruns (and, no shame, a diehard Murder, She Wrote viewer), I see plug-and-play potential to The Mandalorian. As long as Favreau and cohort Dave Filoni — making his live-action directing debut with the pilot, after years of overseeing Star Wars Rebels and The Clone Wars — keep the Mandalorian busy with “pucks” (slang for his bounties), there’s room for innovative set pieces, gleeful Star Wars jargon, and guest stars.

Oh, the guest stars. Give me all the guest stars. Joy is Carl Weathers as Greef Karga, sliding squishy Calamari bucks across a dank cantina table. Joy is Taika Waititi’s droid IG-11, babbling about his self-destruct directive. Joy is every second of Werner Herzog playing a mysterious bossman with Empire connections who enlists The Mandalorian to hunt down a 50-year-old target, off the books. “Beskar belongs in the hands of Mandalore, after a period of disarray,” Herzog says in his warbling German whisper. The Force is strong with The Mandalorian’s casting directors.

werner herzog as an unnamed boss character on the mandalorian Disney Plus

Star Wars fans will come for the action, and The Mandalorian premiere checks the boxes. Favreau and Filoni once again honor their predecessors in the episode’s final shootout, which ends with a rip-roaring gatling-gun sequence straight out of The Wild Bunch. (You can go full Peckinpah and maul a wave of attackers on Disney Plus when your ammo is just red light streaks and spark squibs.) Assuming Pascal is actually under the mask during any of this, his performance breathes life into the stock Boba Fett image, swinging from spaghetti Western stoicism to bumbling Han Soloisms when he and IG-11 come under fire.

The show isn’t epic in scale, but Ludwig Göransson’s score wraps it in an epic quality. The Black Panther composer departs from the franchise’s John Williams-penned themes with a grinding, electronic riff on Ennio Morricone. For film fans, the music ties The Mandalorian to a legacy of sunbaked gunslingers walking across the desert. For fans of Star Wars, Göransson upends expectations of what the world can and can’t be.

The Mandalorian ends with a twist, a sign that the series might follow Filoni’s past animated work and excavate Star Wars lore. I hope that’s not the case; as giddy as I feel watching a Kubaz hail a landspeeder taxi with a flute, or a Kowakian monkey-lizard roast over an open fire, the Star Wars universe doesn’t need more connective tissue. Nothing about classic Western TV stuck in American culture except the archetypes and the window dressing: heroes show up in town, defeat the bad guy, and go on to the next town, without building up a complicated mythos in the process. Favreau and Filoni seem very aware of one specific part of Star Wars that has yet to be explained, and I’m not sure it’s where viewers actually want to go. Everything before the reveal promises a lean Western series carried by a hero who’ll always save the day. As history proves, that’s the basis for pure entertainment, and it’s a promise the show should keep.

Just as the advent of TV reaped the theatrical Westerns 70 years ago, The Mandalorian found its own bank robbers, six-shooters, and men on horseback in the iconography of Star Wars. Despite the polish, the show decidedly isn’t “prestige TV,” by the standards of cable Emmy winners. Whether the show’s drama can remain that simple in an era of twisty, turny sagas is the great mystery at the end of episode 1.

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