Obi-Wan once told Luke “You’ve just taken your first step into a larger world.” One of the (many) problems with the prequel trilogies wasn’t the acting, or the green screen, or the dialogue. Although all of those things were, quite often, deeply problematic. No, what made the prequels stumble was that Lucas took the Star Wars universe, an ocean of possibilities, planets sprayed across the night sky like countless infinities, untold life forms having adventures in far flung places… and boiled it all down to a handful of planets and a clutch of families.
By making the entire universe all about the Skywalkers (look! Anakin grew up on Tatooine too! How cool is that?) or the Fetts (Look! All of the clones are Boba Fett’s dad!), Lucas made the vastness feel much, much smaller.
Filoni created several seasons of what is ostensibly incredible kids TV. But – and I realise I’m going to get shot Greedo-style for this – Filoni took that tendency of Lucas’s and ran with it.
Behind the tiresome animation style and midi synth soundtrack, behind the often deeply cheesy voice acting, lay legitimately incredible concepts… but because Filoni threads everything back to cameos, to those links, he, too, makes Star Wars feel smaller. Cooler, for sure, at least in the moment… but smaller.
The Mandalorian – The Jedi Review
What made season one of The Mandalorian hit like a truck was that it felt largely untethered from the rest of Star Wars. It felt like what it was: a space western, spiralling out of control far off in the literal outer rim. The only real links – Baby Yoda (I’m not using that terrible name, and you can’t make me) and his species, or the Moff’s use of the Darksaber – felt like nods. Except, of course, for Filoni’s comically clumsy episode set on Tatooine, which felt like fan fiction. Beautifully shot fan faction, sure… but fan fiction.
What sets fan fiction apart from real fiction, at least when it’s bad fan fiction, is an inability to rein that shit in. To keep the urge to paint with every colour at once; the urge to throw in cameos with all the coolest characters, planets or ships. Fans don’t have restraint, generally speaking. And why should they? Being a fan is great! But that’s why I often bounce off Clone Wars and Rebels steadfast canonicity: it means that now, The Mandalorian, with it’s now inescapable links to the rest of the Star Wars universe, is getting smaller, too.
This week on The Mandalorian, Mando finally finds Ahsoka Tano, played by the frankly incandescent Rosario Dawson. Ahsoka is basically the hero of Filoni’s Clone Wars, and also played a central role in Rebels. I wasn’t particularly invested in her arc in either show, but here, she’s fantastic. She’s flitting through a gutted, fog-laden forest, trying to infiltrate a fortified village run by a sinister Magistrate, and her growling gun-for-hire offsider, played by Michael Biehn. God, it’s good to see Hicks back on screen.
But Ahsoka can’t take the magistrate down, or she’ll kill the villagers. A stalemate, then. Good thing that Mando shows up to find her, heading to the village and swiftly being sent by the Magistrate to hunt a certain troublesome Jedi. Before long, both heroes are sitting in the woods, fleshing out a deal to have The Child instructed in the ways of the Jedi.
…Only, he’s NOT The Child anymore, is he? And he’s certainly not Baby Yoda.
First off, good luck getting that to stick (although watching THE CHILD react to his name over and over was utterly magical). Secondly, the name comes out around the same time that Ahsoka reveals THE CHILD’S backstory, conveniently conveyed in a psychic tet-a-tet, and with each beat, the universe of The Mandalorian shrinks just a little. He was trained by the Jedi on Coruscant, during the Clone Wars, and hid his force powers away to avoid detection. Which is all well and good, but now he’s part of the prequels.
Not just temporally – his birth date is obviously going to set him sometime before now – but he’s from the prequel era of Star Wars. Is he Yoda’s secret kid? I hope not. I hope we never hear mention of his origins again. As cool as it might feel in the moment to link everything back together, the strength of THE CHILD is the miracle of his anonymity. I don’t need to know who Boba Fett is. A mystery only works if it’s mysterious. Reveals are precious, delicate, subtle things. And because Filoni’s playground is Saturday morning cartoons, he’s… not subtle.
The fortress is stormed by Ahsoka and Mando in a frankly exhilarating sequence; Mando gets a showdown with Biehn’s grizzled merc, and Ahsoka faces off against The Magistrate, who wields a spear of pure Beskar and duels with her Kill Bill style. But at the height of the duel, Ahsoka leans in and growls “Where is he? Where… IS GRAND ADMIRAL THRAWN?”.
Thrawn is famous for appearing in Timothy Zahn’s now non-canonical Heir to the Empire trilogy, amongst others, and is a genuinely thrilling Star Wars baddie. But his mention here, delivered by Dawson and almost humming with the unsubtle glee of Filoni’s dialogue, links The Mandalorian to Rebels, which featured Thrawn as the main antagonist. Again, another link to the existing canon. Another moment to draw the focus in. To make everything less… big.
I’m aware that this recap might feel like a Filoni-bashing session. The thing is… this was a great episode of The Mandalorian. It really was. It had adventure, pathos, a terrific score. It had Jedi! A Jedi who was mentored by Anakin before he turned into Darth Vader! I love all of that stuff! But I’m also not in charge of mapping out the overarching story of The Mandalorian. And you know what? Thank god. Because If I was, I’d be cramming in Kyle Katarn, and making him canon.
I’d have Moff Gideon carrying around a force-nullifying Ysalamiri in a vat. And I’d hope, and pray, that Favreau would turn to me in the writers’ room and say “Paul, I love you. And I’m really glad I brought you over to Hollywood to inexplicably work on Mando. But you can’t just throw all the cool shit you like into the show. You’ll make it feel too fan-fiction-y. You’ll make it feel a little…”
“Small?”, I’ll venture.
And then Jon Favreau, who I totally get along really well with and have lunch with at least once a week, will smile. “That’s right, Paul. It’ll make this totally dope Space Western feel small. Now let’s go get lunch, which he have together at least once a week!”
…And whilst it was fun to exercise rampant wish fulfilment just now using my writing, I would never attempt to make that canon. Because whilst fun, it would risk making a cool thing a little less… cool. And I hope that Filoni, and this season of The Mandalorian, feels like it’s gotten its need to namedrop out of its system with this week’s fun, frantic episode.
The Mandalorian is streaming on Disney+.