This Star Wars article contains no major spoilers for The Mandalorian.
The launch of Disney+ has had its hiccups, but the rollout of Star Wars drama The Mandalorian isn’t one of them. Created by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, the western is a gorgeous exploration of the lawless corners of the Star Wars universe, set five years after Return of the Jedi in the pockets of the galaxy where the vestiges of the defeated Empire are taking their last, desperate breaths.
There’s a lot that works about The Mandalorian‘s first two episodes—from the stunning visuals and VFX to the lived-in nature of its settings—but one of the smartest decisions the creative team has made is to keep the episodes shorter than the traditional TV drama length.
How long is an episode of The Mandalorian? The pilot episode clocked in at 39 minutes, while the second episode is 31 minutes long—and those times include the very pretty credits. Thirty-one minutes is much shorter than the roughly 42-minute length of a “one-hour” broadcast episode of television, which must account for commercials, and much much shorter than the hour-long blocks that premium cable dramas tend to fit into.
In this age of streaming, content creators are no longer beholden to the duration rules of broadcast or premium cable television. For most dramas, this has meant longer episodes of television. On Netflix, episodes of Stranger Things tend to run anywhere between 42 minutes (more common in the first season) to a whopping 77 minutes. On Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale episodes can run anywhere from 45 to 64 minutes. On HBO, the average episode length of for the final season of Game of Thrones (not, strictly, a streamer) was 68 minutes, according to Time, with the longest episodes running for 80 minutes.
While you can’t judge an episode’s quality by its length, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an ideal length in which to tell a specific story. In 2017, Slash Film spoke to Netflix’s The OA co-creator Zal Batmanglij about the variation in their episode runtimes. The OA seemed to be the rare streaming drama that dipped well below the drama-as-at-least-42-minutes formula. Episodes of The OA have been as short as 31 minutes and as long as 71 minutes, depending on the demands of the story.
“We weren’t really trying to do anything too cool for school, we were just very fascinated by the novel, and how the novel could now be done in this format because of the technology,” said Batmanglij. “The idea that chapters in a novel would conform to 50 pages each is a ludicrous concept. I guess in television, there is a very clear-cut reason for that, and that is capitalism. … The beauty of Netflix is, there job is to put stories out there, and not stories that appeal to everybody, which is maybe NBC’s job? And if you’re a storyteller your job is to tell a story. We didn’t feel the traditional constraints of capitalism — we weren’t trying to sell a car and tell you a story.”
It also matters if you care about qualifying for the Emmys in a specific category, which most TV productions tend to. As Thrillist pointed out in 2017 as part of a very good article about the rigidity of episode lengths in the age of streaming, the Television Academy has specific rules about what kind of content qualifies as “Comedy” or “Drama”—according to the Emmys, comedies must be 30 minutes or shorter, while dramas are over 30 minutes.
Look, I get it. The Emmys is freaking out about how it even stays relevant and creates order in this chaotic era of #PeakContent, but the length of an episode seems so arbitrary to whether something is a “Comedy” or “Drama.” (If you were wondering, The Academy changed the qualification rules for the “Television Movie” category in 2018, specifying that entries have a minimum 75-minute running time to qualify.)
But I digress… The point is: the brisk pace of the Mandalorian episodes (which are, notably, over the 30-minute comedy/drama Emmy line) has made for a stronger, more confident storytelling experience. In the pilot episode, we never linger too long, but rather as long as it takes to a) add rich, organic texture to this world or protagonist, b) bring The Mandalorian one step closer to his bounty, or, preferably, c) both.
For a drama, The Mandalorian‘s episodes—of which there will only be eight—are short. More streamers should consider the power of brevity.