The Mandalorian gets the look of Star Wars right but is desperately missing the humanity.
A quarter of the way through The Mandalorian's eight-episode run, I find I know nothing about anything that's happening--and I'm wondering why I should care.
The first live-action TV show outing in the Disney Star Wars era certainly nails a cool aesthetic about the galaxy far, far away. It follows a Mandalorian bounty hunter (who is not Boba Fett), taking jobs in the post-Return of the Jedi era. It gets the ships and the aliens right, as well as the zings of blaster bolts, the dangers of massive creatures and uncooperative humanoids, and the general bad-assery of anybody sporting that particular iconic helmet and the gear that goes with it. The Mandalorian sets out to shed some light on a different corner of the Star Wars universe, and anything that opens up the franchise is good for a story that's been largely centered on one particularly influential family for the last 40 years.
But The Mandalorian is two short-ish episodes in, and it's remarkable how little we know about, uh, anything. We've seen the titular Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) do some bounty hunting, fight a variety of blaster-wielding jerks, rebuild his dismantled ship, and tame an alien beast to ride it. But we've learned almost nothing about him as a person, even as we've watched him do a whole bunch of action hero-type stuff.
We do know a little about the Mandalorian. He's a no-nonsense man of few words. He's willing to take help where he can get it, even offering to split a bounty with a rival hunter in order to get the job done. And he's got a soft spot for Baby Yoda, the target of his bounty, which saved from termination. This seems to be the result of some kinship the Mandalorian feels with the baby on account of them both being orphans, a fact we learned from a very fast, very choppy flashback in the first episode.
And that's pretty much it. We haven't even seen the Mandalorian's face, on account of he never takes his helmet off (which the show sug an affectation of being a member of the Mandalorian warrior tribe). We know he sometimes forms bonds with animals, thanks to that horse-training montage with the alien Blurg in Episode 1. And we know he has some pretty gray morals, I guess, given that he's willing to take jobs from shady Imperial characters who definitely are up to no good. But maybe inside he might have a soft spot for orphans, in part because he has not yet murdered a child.
Not knowing anything about the main character--most chiefly, his motivations and drives--makes it really tough to care about The Mandalorian. The first two episodes have certainly shown him doing a lot of stuff, but none of it feels especially consequential; it's just a series of tasks he has to complete or events that happen to him, without any discernible effect on who he is as a person. The closest we've come to actually learning anything about him through his actions came at the end of Episode 1 when he killed an ally, rather than let that ally shoot a baby as part of a bounty contract. He's down for murder, but not baby murder--although you could just as easily argue that this is just him following the rules of his contract with those obviously evil Imperial dudes. He gets more money if he returns the baby alive, so maybe he was planning to ruthlessly murder IG-11 all along to keep the payout for himself.
The point is, we don't know. We don't know anything about anyone. There are other Mandalorians, apparently, and they're excited to make new Mandalorian armor out of the special Baskar steel our Mandalorian is earning from his contract. But as to who they are, what else they want, or what else they do, we know nothing. We spend a huge amount of the first two episodes with Kuiil (Nick Nolte), and find out about as much about him as we do the protagonist of the show, even though he has much more dialogue. Why help a scary murder warrior kill a bunch of folks? "To bring peace to my valley," he says, and then ends the discussion with "I have spoken." Very compelling.
It's not that The Mandalorian shouldn't channel Westerns with its Man With No Name approach to its protagonist, or that we need heaps of dialogue explaining every single thing about our man Mando. Mystery can work, especially in these kinds of stories. But The Mandalorian has gone too far in the other direction; it's not providing us with a slow-burn mystery, it's giving out almost no information at all. The thing that makes a mystery interesting is piecing together the tidbits of information that can slowly start to form a complete picture, and we've gotten almost none of that in The Mandalorian. If your protagonist is going to be faceless, nameless, and mostly silent, there should be other characters around to pick up the slack.
You can reveal a character subtly through his actions and his efforts, but The Mandalorian barely does either. The first two episodes are almost purely just a string of events leading from one action setpiece to another. They're fun setpieces, sure--but there's little to glean from watching a bounty hunter kill Jawas or put his ship back together. Watching The Mandalorian is like watching someone else play a video game: There's a lot of cool stuff happening, but little to take it beyond spectacle.
The Star Wars universe is full of nooks and crannies worth exploring, not the least of which is the storied history and mystery surrounding the Mandalorians (and then there are bounty hunters in general, the galaxy's crime-ridden underworld, and whatever's up with the surviving officers of the Empire, known in the Expanded Universe as the Imperial Remnant). But in order to explore those things, you need to have characters; people with personalities who want things, who take action to reach those goals, and who face conflicts along the way. So far, The Mandalorian has done a great job capturing the aesthetic of the Star Wars universe without including any of its humanity. I'm still waiting for the show to give me a reason to keep watching. If I wanted to watch a nameless mask-wearing character zap a bunch of people with blasters for a half-hour, I'd fire up Star Wars: Battlefront.