The Mandalorian (Disney, 2019)
I'll come back to Ernest Haycox stories and the movies made from them (I'm reading Trail Town at the mo) but today I'm going to mosey off that trail a bit - or quite a long way, actually.
There was always more than a little Western about Star Wars, and the notion of the ‘space Western’, while it may offend purists who think Westerns can only be set west of the Mississippi in the second half of the nineteenth century, is for me irrefutable. We reviewed another such space Western, the TV show Firefly and its big-screen incarnation Serenity, back in February (click the link for that).
There have of course been many prequels, sequels and spin-offs of Star Wars since the late 70s; it’s become a big business. The Mandalorian is one of them, a (so far) two-season TV show divided into ‘chapters’, which remind me of the old movie serials I watched as a boy long, long ago in another galaxy. At the end of the last episode, I mean chapter, we are given a teaser for what appears to be a future spin-off of the spin-off, and I may end up watching that too. For the moment, though, having watched the Westerny The Mandalorian, I can now cancel my subscription to the Disney channel. Don’t want to contribute to the Disneyfication of the planet, do we?
Perhaps that was a tad uncharitable.
But in case you’re going to watch it, here is a Western-lover’s guide to The Mandalorian.
The first thing to say is that the Mandolorian is a bounty hunter, but a goody one. What more Western hero can there be? Western movies and TV shows have always favored this more-than-slightly mythical character. We probably think first of Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958 – 61). He gave away his bounty to worthy widows so often you were amazed he made a living at all. Or think of Henry Fonda, riding into town with a body draped over the saddle of his pack horse to claim the reward from the young sheriff, Anthony Perkins, in the Anthony Mann-directed The Tin Star (1957). He is looked at askance by the townsfolk as doing a maybe necessary but dirty job but of course he turns into the hero of the piece. Even out greatest hero, Randolph Scott, no less, was The Bounty Hunter in Warner’s 1954 oater of that name. Yes, decidedly, there are fewer more Western types that followers of that profession, especially if they are really goodies at heart.
This Western impression is heightened by the voice coming from below the Mandalorian’s helmet. It’s Clint. Sometimes you would swear it was Clint Eastwood voicing it. It isn’t, but Pedro Pascal (the actor who plays the Mandalorian) has def used Clint’s intonation as a model. Mr Pascal was Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones, the cop Javier Peña in Narcos and starred in The Great Wall alongside Matt Damon. As he hardly ever takes his helmet off, though (it’s against the Mandalorian code of honor apparently; I was reminded more of the Lone Ranger) you don’t get to recognize him from those. You just think it’s Clint. So it’s even more Western. Because you can't see his face they could use stand-ins a fair bit and voice it in later, and one of those doubles was Brendan Wayne, Duke's gandson.
True, Mando (those familiar with him call him that, and I feel I can now) is also very like a knight in shining armor and distinctly crusader/medieval, in a future-worlds way, especially when he gets his magic lance, and he also, with his little cape and remarkable powers, resembles a Marvel superhero of sorts (the show’s padrone, Jon Favreau, is evidently a big wheel at Marvel).
But really, Mando is a Western tough-guy. In Chapter 1 (S1E1), he tells a quarry, “I can bring you in warm or I can bring you in cold.” Grrr.
Even the town he arrives in looks like a dusty spaghetti one. Naturally he heads first for the saloon, and saloons figure in many chapters. When outa town, there are orangey canyons. There are horrid monsters everyone is afraid of, Ravinaks they are called, who are distinctly like Comancheros. Really, after Chapter 1 you are in no doubt you are watching a Western.
In Chapter 2 (S1E2), The Child, Mando gets to semi-adopt a baby Yoda, and be they hard as flint, Western heroes always love children. It’s how you tell a Westerner is not a baddy, when he is nice to a child or an animal in the first reel.
In following chapters he moves from planet to planet, with his trusty steed Razor Crest (not the sleekest or most up-to-date of rides but it gets him about). His quest to deliver the child to safety is often diverted, as he has to save this or that party from threats. In Chapter 4 (S1E4) villagers offer him “everything we have” to defend them, and he trains them to use firearms and gets them to build barricades, so someone had seen The Magnificent Seven. Calvera’s bandidos are called Klatoonians. Actually, though, given the strength and number of the Japanese influences, maybe it’s more Seven Samurai than Magnificent Seven.
Chapter 5 (S1E5) bears the title The Gunslinger, so the show isn’t leaving much doubt about its origins - although actually I was more reminded of Easy Rider in this one. Still, Easy Rider was pretty Westerny too.
In Chapter 6 (S1E6) The Prisoner, Mando joins up with some very iffy mercenaries to spring a captive from a prison ship. You can see a double-cross coming a parsec off. There are five of them, though I felt there really needed to be seven. We meet Ranzar (Mark Boone from Sons of Anarchy) who under a cheery (and not slim) exterior is rather cynical and deadly, and the tough-guy Mayfeld (Bill Burr) – we’ll meet him again later, and he may turn out to be not quite such a bad guy after all.
In Chapter 7 (S1E7), The Reckoning, we finally meet the main bad guy. He’s Moff Gideon, a Darth Vader-like sinister all-powerful type in black, and it’s Giancarlo Esposito from Breaking Bad. He now becomes Mando’s principal foe. He will stop at naught – naught, I say – to get his evil hands on the poor child. There’s a fight a bit like The Long Riders and there’s a slightly Karate Kiddy old man.
The final chapter of the season, Redemption, contains a big showdown, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid vs. the Bolivian Army, 1908. Mando tells us that Mandalorian isn’t a race, it’s a creed, and we are put in mind of Assassins and such. We get flashbacks to his early days, to give us a bit of backstory. Butch Cassidy becomes The Wild Bunch. There’s an order to “saddle up.” So Season 1 ends very satisfactorily in a Western way. But just wait till S2E1…
The opening of Season 2 was my favorite of the whole show – because the most Western. Chapter 9’s title was The Marshal, so you see. Mando rides into town (he’s mounted up on a speeder-bike), watched suspiciously by the locals (think A Fistful of Dollars, High Plains Drifter, and other Clintisms) and in the saloon he asks the bartender if he has ever seen anyone like him – a Mandalorian. You mean the Marshal? asks the barman. The lawman duly appears, in armor, with a low-slung holster holding his blaster, and, oh joy, it’s Raylan Givens. Looking a bit longer in the tooth, maybe, but it’s Raylan alright.
The town is being terrorized by a huge monster, a Krayt dragon, no less, and all the locals, even though enemies, ally, with Mando, to defeat the fearsome beast. It ain’t easy but of course with Mando’s help they succeed. Then Mando rides off into the suns-set. I mean, Western or what?
Chapter 10 (S2E2) opens with an ambush, so that’s good. In Chapter 11 we meet some fake Mandalorians and the Imperial Nazis are commanded by Bosch (Titus Welliver). The stormtroopers in their white plastic armor are cannon-fodder – Indians, basically. There’s a good chase in Chapter 12. Light sabers make their first appearance in Chapter 13. Not too Western, but we put up with that.
The plot develops. Mando gets the lance made out of beskar – I should have said, beskar is the invincible metal his armor is made from. It’s even proof against a light saber. There’s a fast-draw. And a fight in the rocks like a million oaters before it, with the obligatory toppled bolder rolling down on the bad guys and wreaking havoc. There’s even a space-Gatling. And another Magnificent Seven reference as a brilliant long-distance shot berings down one enemy spacecraft which then crashes into the other one, causing that too to crash. “Nice shot.” Comes the inevitable James Coburn reply: “I was aiming at the other one.”
Mando’s ally Cara (Gina Carano) gets a US Marshal’s badge, or whatever the space equivalent of US Marshal is. The evil Moff Gideon gets his evil hands on the Yoda kid.
Mayfeld comes back in Chapter 15 (S2E7) and there are pirates. Mando threatens Moff. The last chapter looms. That’s The Rescue (S2E8) with a big climax. There’s a special light saber, a Dark Saber. It’s Excalibur-like. I cannot reveal the outcome, for of spoilers shall there be none.
But all in all, it’s a good show, and worth a watch, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Brian Tallerico on RogerEbert.com said, “There’s a bit too much whiz-bang editing and overdone production value (they should pull back on the overheated score a bit) but it’s clearly designed to keep young people watching.” And some oldies, Brian.