At the end of last year Netflix and Disney launched two big TV shows: the Mandalorian, and the Witcher. Both feature gruff heroes having exciting adventures in a fantasy world. Today, let’s look at the first.
The Mandalorian in a nutshell
The Mandalorian is a bounty hunter with a bucket on his head that he refuses to take off in public.
During the first season, we see him bounty hunt, right some wrongs, and do some other stuff, but basically that’s it. A bounty hunter with a bucket on his head.
If you were completely quarantined because of the Corona virus, sorry Covid-19, for the last three months, you might have missed Baby Yoda. He’s a baby. And a Yoda. In episode one, the Mandalorian takes a bounty to hunt down a quarry, which turns out to be… a baby of Yoda’s race. The baby is cute, and very marketable. And that’s about it.
Shows like Breaking Bad and Stranger Things feature a longer story spread out through a season, with individual episodes hard to follow if you missed previous ones.
The Mandalorian — and the Witcher to a lesser extent — feature episodes that you can watch without having seen the rest of a season — in other words, stand-alone. This is how most TV shows were made in the eighties and nineties, and how shows like Supernatural started, and it has its advantages.
The disadvantage of basing an entire season on one story, is that it’s hard to make the story not drag. You have to have characters conflicts and arcs that can carry an entire season. A show like Agents of Shield had stand-alone episodes in season one, then went for the larger story arc in season two, which — in my opinion — broke the show for this very reason.
Shows that do have stand-alone episodes run a different risk. They can lack emotional engagement and becoming repetitive. That engagement has to come from the recurring characters, because that is the only constant.
The Mandalorian features stand-alone episodes, which is fine, but can the recurring characters carry the show?
Let’s start with the Mandalorian himself. Earlier, I wrote he is a bounty hunter with a bucket on his head. There is a little more to him, of course. In flashbacks we see he was in an imperial attack and his parents hid him in a shack. You can guess the revelation coming in the last episode, which explains why he became a Mandalorian.
At this point, you might be wondering what a Mandalorian is. Well, sorry, the story doesn’t really answer that question. Mandalorians are people who hide themselves and wear helmets all the time. ‘It is the way’. Apparently. And that’s where the show fails at every turn. People act a certain way, but their motivation remains unclear.
It takes a whole season to explain why the main character is a Mandalorian, but it remains a mystery why he’s a bounty hunter, why he saves Baby Yoda, or why he hates droids. Contrast that to the Witcher, which uses the episodic stories to explain motivations of characters. That show plays with chronology to show us the sometimes inexplicable actions of characters, but then shows us exactly why those actions were taken.
The Mandalorian fails in this. And it’s not just the main character. The character Kuiil has a code of honor, but we learn very little about why. Cara Dune is an ex-rebel who’s on the run, but we learn little of why she is a rebel, or what she’s running from, and what that even means.
I couldn’t care about any of the characters, because I don’t who they are. It is a mystery to me why an episode introducing Kuiil doesn’t actually tie into his motivations, or why Cara Dune was introduced in an episode about some backwards village with zero connection to her or the Mandalorian. It’s like the writers deliberately chose to make the characters shallow.
Assholes and idiots
The next problem stems from the plots of the individual episodes. The characters act roughly like my D&D party. They do things that are pretty stupid, and keep sprouting lines of bravado while they act like morons.
I tried to suspend my disbelief, but these characters are so f*cking stupid. Why would you expect to defend a village from attack by laying a trap on one specific side? And why does this work when because the bad guys indeed forget the option to flank? Has any real battle in history by an outnumbered force been won by the attackers leaving cover and fighting the superior force out in the open?
Then there’s the rudeness. I suppose the Mandalorian is supposed to be ‘hard’, like the Witcher. Gravelly voice, nerves of steel, stuff like that. Of course, the Witcher is actually very polite, while everybody is rude to him, and he manages to survive hairy situations against all odds. The Mandalorian does exactly the opposite. He’s rude to everybody even though they’re pretty polite to him. He’s an a-hole, and the only reason he wins is because his enemies are even more stupid than he is and their aim with guns is that of a blind bat.
So, is anything good about the show? Yes, the special effects are great. It all looks awesome. That, and the show has a real Star-Wars-y feel to it. That actually masks some of the problems. With bad special effects it would have been a bad eighties action-movie rip-off. Now it’s a good-looking eighties action-movie rip-off.
The Mandalorian looks great, and it’s very Star Wars. It’s also terribly written and I couldn’t care less about any of the characters.
If you like a guy with a bucket on his head being rude to everybody against a pretty backdrop, then you’ll like this. Otherwise, I suggest you go watch the Witcher, which I’ll discuss next week.