Why is the Disney+ Star Wars show spending so much of its time on things that don't seem to matter?
The Mandalorian's eight-episode run on Disney+ is now four episodes down. For some reason, half that time has been spent on stories that feel more like digressions from the main plot than essential parts of the season's arc. It raises a question: Where is the show's first season headed, anyway?
With Episode 4, "Sanctuary," The Mandalorian further confuses exactly what kind of show it is. Sometimes it's about the big story of a morally ambiguous bounty hunter forming a bond with a child he was sent to kidnap, turning on his former employers and ne'er-do-well colleagues to do the right thing. Other times, it's a series of space Western adventures that seem to designed to eat up the show's already short runtime. While Episode 4 carries some weight in terms of character development--something the show desperately needed--it also seems like another episode that doesn't add much to the overall tale being told. That makes two of the four Mandalorian episodes so far that feel like side quests and exist mostly for the sake of a cute puppet and cool action scenes.
"Sanctuary" is, itself, not a bad episode. It sees the unnamed Mandalorian bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal), who some characters call "Mando" for the sake of convenience, escaping from fellow mercenaries after rescuing Baby Yoda (officially "the child") from his Imperial captors. Now on the lam, the pair fly off to a random out-of-the-way planet to hide out, for some reason forgetting that every bounty hunter who was formerly on the Baby Yoda job, including Mando himself, is carrying a thing that allows them to track said child. Mando and Yoda hang out in a small village for a bit, where they engage themselves in helping the locals fend off some raiders in a very familiar Western story lifted from the likes of "Seven Samurai" and "The Magnificent Seven." In the end, though, just when Mando has decided this new place might be the perfect place for the child to grow up in peace, he discovers that it's not so safe after all when another bounty hunter arrives to collect the Baby Yoda bounty.
And so Mando and BY head out again, after making a few friends and establishing that Mando is maybe not the scoundrel he first appeared to be. The episode (finally) does a great job of humanizing the protagonist as he talks about the safety and belonging he's gained from the Mandalorian tribe, and he even forms a friendship with the village's coolest person, Omera (Julia Jones), and a kinship with fellow exiled badass Cara Dune (Gina Carano). But after just 41 minutes, the entire story of "Sanctuary" turns out to be a pit stop, another brief adventure for Mando and BY as they struggle to stay alive.
While the character work in "Sanctuary" was sorely needed, the whole episode feels out of place following Episode 3, "The Sin," which firmly established the story of The Mandalorian being about a guy resolving to go against his mercenary ways and rescue a child from the forces of evil, despite all it will cost him. This isn't the first time The Mandalorian has digressed in this way, either. Episode 2, "The Child," sees Mando and Baby Yoda trapped on the planet where Mando first finds his future ward. When Mando returns to his ship to head home, he finds it has been picked clean by scavenger Jawas.
What follows is 30 minutes of shooting Jawas, negotiating with Jawas, and doing errands for Jawas, before a montage of rebuilding the ship and Mando finally getting the hell off that dust ball. You might say there are some scenes of Mando and Baby Yoda building their relationship, though that's debatable, since those scenes are scarce and not especially deep or meaningful. But the big addition to the plot is just that Baby Yoda is a powerful Force user, which builds toward Mando eventually rescuing him from death or experimentation by his Imperial Remnant employers. The rest is mostly filler.
In another show, these episodes would feel less jarring. If The Mandalorian had a longer season run, these one-off adventure-of-the-week episodes could be welcome digressions. Most genre TV shows of the past functioned that way--episodes would drop the main characters into a brief story that would usually conclude with a return to the status quo, maybe with some character development or a few small items building toward a greater overall season arc. Given how The Mandalorian constantly channels the Western genre, it actually makes some thematic and aesthetic sense to have episodes like that.
But The Mandalorian has a mere eight episodes to tell its story, all of which clock in at around 30 to 40 minutes. So far only two of those episodes have really driven the overarching plot forward. So where is the show ultimately headed? Does it just intend to be a compendium of space-ified Western tropes? We've already seen a gunfight down a rickety town's main street, a montage of Mando taming a steed, a battle with a big and deadly animal, and a by-the-numbers retread of The Magnificent Seven. Will next week include a train robbery? Are we getting ready for a high-noon duel? Will Mando become the sheriff of some backwater, the only man to stand against a(nother) local band of outlaws?
A lack of character development in the first two episodes of the show made it tough to identify with The Mandalorian, but four episodes in, it's now becoming difficult to understand its identity. With half of the first season now in the books, The Mandalorian can't afford to spin its wheels on one-off stories. If the show means to engage viewers in a fresh corner of the Star Wars galaxy, it needs to be willing to go all-in on that corner. Right now, The Mandalorian feels like a series of rest stops on a road trip, with no real destination in sight.