This Star Wars: The Mandalorian review contains spoilers.
Star Wars: The Mandalorian Episode 5
Throughout The Mandalorian, I’ve been wrestling with the idea of what a Star Wars TV show should do. The show is well-made, competent in its storytelling—the dialogue energetic, the side characters entertaining. It also, particularly in episode 5, seems to veer away from deeper interpretation. In Star Wars tie-in fashion, this is an adventure story and no more. Ming-Na Wen arrives as a masked bounty hunter who, like Pedro Pascal, does some of her best work through her body language, but director and writer Dave Filoni doesn’t have the ability the show’s other directors do to draw emotion out of a scene, to linger. Instead, “The Gunslinger” is a twisty, turning adventure with some memorable side characters—exactly what one might want out of Star Wars, but not with a lot to say.
After visiting a long stretch of planets which look like Tatooine, we’re truly back on the iconic desert world now. It’s an old joke or adage or complaint that, for all the talk that Tatooine is supposed to be a backwater planet, everyone important ends up there sooner or later. This Tatooine looks thinner than its big screen counterpart, Mos Eisley noticeably much emptier than in A New Hope. Filoni is not nearly as interested in convincing desert landscapes or color palettes as the rest of the filmmakers have been, either. Some night scenes are remarkable for being mostly understandable, not muddled but lit in convincing and clarifying blues.
While other episodes teased it, this one is chock full of direct references to A New Hope, with the classic cantina intact and nearly empty. While there, Mando meets Toro Calican (Jake Cannavale), a rogue without a heart of gold. He’s trying to join the Bounty Hunters’ Guild, and will give the money from the capture of an infamous assassin to Mando if he helps him do it.
Mando leaves the Child with spaceport keeper and mechanic Peli Motto (Amy Sedaris), a shouty, grimy character who brings a lot of energy to reacting to Baby Yoda while standing right on the edge of cliche mom territory. This is exactly the sort of character who tends not to be written for women in Star Wars; funny but not slapstick, a salt-of-the-earth person who has wrinkles and frizzy hair and gets to yell “carbon scoring!” like she’s been doing it her whole life. She’s delightful. Separating Baby Yoda from the Mando is, at least, different: it would have been hard to understand why the Mando would bring the Child with him to dangerous places now, even if the show didn’t suffer from that lapse in logic before.
The wanted assassin is Wen, who exudes an incredible sense of alertness, not nervous watchfulness but a careful, all-eyes competence. She evokes magical 360 degree vision even though she is wearing a helmet with what looks like very restrictive effects on her peripheral vision. She has a sniper rifle which can only be evaded using blinding light. Here, too, is a true rogue; her dialogue allows her to be cold and warm in turn, and, although there isn’t much depth to this character, she does keep me guessing as to what she’ll do next.
The lack of backstory surprised me; every other element of the show has been so tightly connected to Mando’s personal journey that to include a young mentee and a heartless assassin seems to demand the episode say something about Mando’s increasing loyalty to the Child, or his violent past, or his ideas about child-rearing. It doesn’t, and instead we’re treated to forgettable dialogue and low-budget but snappy hand-to-hand combat. From the space fight in the opening scene, I felt like the episode was bloodless, and that continues throughout.
So if we’re measuring by the rubric of meaning, episode 5 doesn’t hit the highs of “The Sin” or last week’s “Sanctuary.” But I did like it: the masked assassin Fennec Shand has powerful screen presence for such a brief appearances; Mando’s interactions with the locals all feature a surprising amount of humor. (This is especially true when he notices Baby Yoda missing, a low-stakes version of all the near-losses that have come before. Peli Motto cooing over the baby and playing with its ears is the entire internet.)
The music is, as always, good. Imagery of Mando and Toro speeding across the Dune Sea is accompanied by deep strings with a heroic rhythm, then shifts to a very classic Star Wars melody.
I also enjoyed Mando’s brief encounter with Tusken Raiders, with a nice but extremely brief acknowledgement of the way the species has been often portrayed without sympathy in the past: “Tuskens think they’re the locals. Everyone else is just trespassing,” Mando says. Again, it’s a nice sentiment, but doesn’t connect to the themes of the episode as a whole.
Another evocation of classic Star Wars didn’t work for me at all: a fade-in transition doesn’t have the charm of the classic films, it just looks like a messy, meme-able Photoshop in the year 2019. (Of course, we wouldn’t have Photoshop without Star Wars in the first place.) The last full scene of the episode fizzles rather than delighting, yet another twist or two piling on in very The Clone Wars fashion.
If what The Mandalorian is aiming to do is show new characters with a classic feel, make audiences laugh with delight at Baby Yoda, and provide a half hour of escapism, “The Gunslinger” succeeds. But the show is at its best when it has a core of emotional continuity, something this episode lacks. Toro Calican is remarkably disconnected from the Mandalorian he’s supposed to be working with, neither charming nor sinister enough to elevate their interactions. If we measure The Mandalorian against itself, “The Gunslinger” falls somewhere in the middle.
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