Andor let us imagine what Star Wars television can be, but The Mandalorian’s third season reminded us what it is.
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As I reflect on this season it’s easy to forget that we’re actually six years in to all this. When the credits rolled on Star Wars’ first episode of a live action serial (Season 1, Episode 1: The Mandalorian) I cautiously smirked and tilted my head with some measure of surprise and hope. Pedro Pascal played a mysterious wandering gunman, connected to once-great but now-sidelined culture, who was sent to collect on a target that he could not bring himself to put into harms way. There was intrigue there, and the promise of a broad appeal to invite some much needed new blood to the fandom. Both my father and father-in-law were filled with nostalgia by the Western TV show angle, a man who goes from town to town shooting bad guys and keeping it stoic, it was just like the shows they watched when they were kids. My mother and co-workers delighted at Baby Yoda, who overnight became a worldwide sensation of adorability. I of course was mostly just glad that the promise of “more Star Wars” was bearing fruit, and despite The Last Jedi’s occasional pitfalls and thoroughly annoying public discourse I had some (guarded) optimism about the future of the franchise. Keep in mind, this aired about a month before Rise of Skywalker, so there was arguably some reason to think we were still on the right path.
Though it stumbled a bit along the way I’d rate the first two seasons of the show as “mostly competent and entertaining popcorn with rough dialogue.” They each had a couple one-off clunkers here and there (the worst of which by far was Season 1, Episode 5: “The Gunslinger” which featured an actor who was under-qualified to play anything more than a dead guy in a background shot…which is what he became go figure!) but each had a singular, overall story to tell. In Season 1, Mando was protecting the kid from the Empire’s hungry eyes until he finally faced Moff GIdeon, the big bad, and barely escaped. In Season 2 he was…ok he was still doing that stuff, but he also was looking for a Jedi to drop him off with, which concluded with a mostly exciting meet-cute with one Luke Skywalker. Luke’s presence was controversial, especially in my own gaming group, but I was fine with it. Let them give some expensive fan service for Baby Yoda’s last ride right? And then…we had “the Book.”
Ok, I’ve re-written this paragraph several times because I was honestly taking too many lines to just blurt out with what must be written: Book of Boba Fett was nearly an unmitigated disaster, and I only say “nearly” because it was rescued by the Mandalorian appearing during last third of the show. Mando gave it some direction that was sorely needed, even if that direction was backwards…but with a new ship, cool! At first I was just happy to leave it behind, but in this reflection on my disappointment with Mandalorian‘s third season, it’s become clear to me that they share a particular pathophysiology…
I have no idea how I landed on this as a semi-tortured metaphor but here goes:
If we imagine that a season of television can be likened to a Dr. Frankenstein-type trying to make a walking reanimated human out of various parts, what we have here is:
- Body parts: Ideas, concepts, events, creatures, etc
- The way those parts are arranged: Storyboarding
- Stitches: Screenwriting
I’ll admit I’m an Andor super-fan, which to me ended up being a monster that maybe had one funky looking thing, like maybe one too many fingers (the sister storyline) but otherwise walked and even talked on its own. It was a complete, functional and creatively successful enterprise, because all the above parts were arranged in a way that worked. I want to be clear at this point because it’s easy to fall into this trap: I didn’t expect Mandalorian to be Andor. It’s a different show for a different audience, it’s always been a little more fan service-y, cheesier, and lighter, but that can be just fine. Star Wars should be bigger than just one genre, there’s room for plenty and no reason why its fiction should come from a singular approach. But…it does need to actually…work.
You know what ALWAYS works? Babu Frik, a damned galactic treasure and he deserves nothing but our respect (and squeezies)
The Mandalorian’s first couple seasons had weak, weak stitches (writing) but were generally built in the right shape with decent storyboarding of the season, so it basically worked even if it was often a wobbly mess. This season and Book of Boba however, have been a mix of parts that were of varying quality (this season DID have some good ideas, which I’ll get to in a second) but the storyboard was constructed as a gigantic misbegotten mess and the writing has never been worse. The result was an unholy arrangement of limbs and organs, amalgamated in such a way that the human it was meant to emulate is barely recognizable, and the stitches so weak that even this unholy shape begins to collapse under the weight of its own viscera.
The Ideas: Rangers of the Screwed Republic
I want to sprinkle some sugar on here before I really start pouring gasoline. Favreau and Filoni clearly have interesting ideas, much in the way the crew of the original movies and even the prequels had a lot of concepts that caught our attention and made us either laugh or think a little bit. For this season, they include:
- Mando cramming himself into a workshop that is appropriately scaled down to tiny Babu Frik people
- A swamp-thing pirate who goes down with his ship, who also ended up being the source of the best music in the season by the way. This was the best new character in the show and now he’s dead but his dorkus squad leader is alive, great
- Droids who serve no function except to keep a cape off the ground
- That cannibal creature who can transfer between droid suits
- Naboo loyalism to the Jedi Order, to the point that they’d die for it
- The Mon Cal – Quarren forbidden love
- Droids who are concerned they will be replaced by humans
- Ugnaughts who are too proud to tell the truth when they’re being talked down to
- That croquet game Jack Black plays with Grogu, which uses actual live giant insects as balls
- Grogu playing with his new toy (IG-11) in exactly the way that real children play with their toys
- The Imperial Remnant being stingy with resources
- Nonsensical but neat airborne cavalry charges
- That “trap” moment at the end of the Coruscant episode
This joke was corny but I’ll admit any day of the week that it was pretty hilarious
As the show crept on, I continued to see these neat things popping up every now and then, and at the very least it gave me a bit to look forward to with each new episode, little snacks to enjoy and maintain the basic level of “being entertained”.
More than previous seasons, however, a lot of ideas either challenged basic logic or were woefully incomplete. For example, many of the items I listed above would be considered “dumb” or “silly” by most people but all of them make a case for themselves within the framework of the show. That cannibal droid hopping creature bamboozled his opponents by hopping between mech to mech, it damn near worked! The cape carrying droids are exactly the sort of thing that a self-assured and perhaps slightly corrupt magistrate would buy to raise the perception of his status. But why oh why are we supposed to believe for example that anyone would use Greef Karga’s city for commerce when it has no anti-air guns and only occasionally one law enforcement officer on the ground? Why the hell did Christopher Lloyd stage a droid rebellion…because he…liked Count Dooku? What clone is dumb enough to fly a LAAT into oncoming traffic instead of just waiting at the other end? And for God’s sake why would a Republic parole officer walk out of a room during a potentially deadly procedure when the only other person in there is ostensibly a prisoner who is on probation, and how could she possibly have gotten away with doing it when there’s a clear chain of events?
This was supposed to be menacing but I was distracted at how many crumbs she’s getting in the control panel, very insensitive!
Speaking of our dear brazen criminal Elia Kane there is another pool of ideas that had potential but were doomed from the start, since they were never going to get the oxygen they needed to take their first breaths.
It’s fair to theorize that the announced and never produced spin-off series, Rangers of the New Republic, may have been a neat thing. My impression is that the concept was a mostly lighthearted cop serial with pilots and frontier guardsmen dealing with mischief in the Outer Rim while dark plots and the beginnings of what will eventually become the First Order slowly unfurled on Coruscant. Though we may not know the truth for some time, the suspicion that I and many others have was that these plans were sent to the recycling plant the second Gina Carano decided to become a walking version of Godwin’s law when it came to COVID discourse (I know she wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last sadly) and was summarily canned, leaving what was likely a major character out of this proposed series.
Do I think it would have been good? Not really, but what matters is that Favreau and Filoni didn’t want the whole thing to go to waste so they decided to take those “parts” and just kinda…”attach” them to Mando. To be fair, I did like some of these imported concepts as well:
- In the season’s only flirtation with anything close to our own reality (aside from the parenthood stuff with Grogu), the rehabilitation of Imperial officers is similar in concept to De-Nazification, although it would have rung more true if the New Republic was salivating at the chance to use Pershing’s research “for good” instead of ignoring it as they did in the show
- The ineffectuality of mental health counseling given by protocol droids
- The Republic ignoring threats that are far from home, allowing them to grow
- Tim Meadows’ passive-aggressive astromech
I think it’s safe to say that we’ll never know how these concepts would have played out in a larger show or series. It could have been alright in such a setting, but it was never going to work out as hastily-added appendages to an already-established storyline (the re-taking of Mandalore). Unfortunately, this was far from the only issue with the season’s plotlines…
An Un-Storied Board
You may have noticed that my list of good ideas above are mostly one-offs that defined a scene but had nothing to do with the major threads of the show. There’s a reason for that: nearly every major story that had potential to be interesting or entertaining was prematurely abandoned in favor of a new one, and the only item that felt remotely complete was the taking of Mandalore itself. And sure, that was the central plot point of the season, but consider all these other threads that went absolutely nowhere or simply were introduced and then summarily tossed before they even took their first breaths.
- The Mythosaur: Real? Hallucination? Huh? Is there some form of Mandalorian mysticism/magick at play? Good question, we’ll probably never know
- Who is Kid Viszla’s mom? Why did his dad not even mention the relation until the last possible minute?
- Why did we spend a whole episode getting to know Pershing if they were just gonna melt his brain anyway?
- Do Mandalorians spend a lot of time just kinda randomly shooting at the water or was that episode on their independence day or whatever?
- Are these abducted pterodactyl babies really going to be some huge payoff next season? I can’t wait to find out! (?)
- What is the point of reviving IG-11 right at the end when we don’t get to see him with his native personality for the whole season?
We should give the above items a credit or two, however, since none of them even remotely compare to the reprehensibly constructed Gideon clone story.
Good to know Star Wars science has advanced beyond,,,breathing, I guess
I had my doubts about how the Empire’s interest in Grogu was going to play out. Most of us figured that this would all amount to an explanation of how the Emperor was reincarnated prior to Episode IX, but the central question that has always bothered me was…who cares? Yes, it was a terrible, unearned decision that was executed in a way that made it all even worse, but this is a reason to move on from it not to try to paper over its inability to stand on its own two feet. Lucasfilm likely didn’t give them a choice but to hint at this in Season 1, and perhaps the desire to distance themselves from Rise of Skywalker motivated them to shift towards what was revealed to be the shocking(ly un-inspired) truth: that Gideon wanted to make an army of clones of himself that had the force…?
It’s fair to say that his character certainly has the level of self-absorption necessary to hatch such a scheme, but that’s it, that’s the only legitimate angle to this entire thing. Not only did this come out of nowhere, but the showrunners had the gall to show us these clones (which are already as old as him for some reason? Doesn’t seem ideal), then have Mando unceremoniously dump them all on the floor after a ridiculously ineffectual jump scare, and then, THEN, AFTER ALL THIS, for Gideon to reveal his intent. Grogu’s importance to the Empire was really the only subplot that lasted through all three seasons, and now it’s come and gone with all the ceremony of a wet towel getting dropped onto the floor. That my friends is enough to earn a spot on the Mount Rushmore of bad storytelling in Star Wars, right next to Palpatine’s resurrection, Anakin’s incredibly sudden and unearned reasoning for pushing in both the thumb-sticks to embrace the darkness in Ep. 3, and Admiral Holdo not telling Poe or the audience what the F was going on in The Last Jedi.
You know what though? Even a nebulous plot without a ton of ideas can be entertaining, just look at a movie like Clerks that is basically nothing but fun conversations between interesting actors. Aside from the fact that such things don’t tend to get $100 million budgets though, there’s just one tiny problem.
It’s the writing, stupid It’s the stupid writing
Which is that Jon Favreau should stick to directing and the occasional character-actor role…and stay out of the writer’s room.
I’m neither the first or last person to make the observation that the dialogue in this show is passable at its absolute best. Often, it sounds like everyone is at the Renaissance Faire, especially our lead character who uses words like “quested” and “ward” with abandon, alienating us even more than the lack of a face does. Here’s the part where I point out that one man, Jon Favreau, has basically taken all the writing credits for the entire show. Before I opened up Wikipedia to look right at the source however, I thought back and realized that the two best dialogue-heavy set-pieces were the standoff with the Republic prison guard in Season 1: Episode 6 “The Prisoner” (Christopher Yost and Rick Famuyiwa) and the mess hall conversation between Bill Burr and his former CO in Season 2: Episode 7 “The Believer” (Rick Famuyiwa). Filoni wrote two episodes on his own (the abominable “Gunslinger” and the quite-good Season 2: Episode 5 “The Jedi”) and the rest is all or at least mostly Favreau. Fans of Game of Thrones may remember a similar phenomenon, where the episodes that were written by people other than the charlatans known as “Benioff and Weiss” were usually the best ones, especially apparent in the final season which takes its biggest nosedive from the third episode on after they fully take over the series.
Perhaps I may sound a little harsh, but give it some thought: How many times have you nervously nodded at the screen, whilst also looking to your left and right, as if you should feel embarrassed by the line that was just uttered? Like this:
“I thought you had completed your mission but you’re still running around with the same little critter” “It’s complicated. I completed my quest. He returned to me. I removed my helmet, and now I’m an apostate.”Greef Karga and Mandalorian
Just about the most inelegant swipe at attempting to catch people up when they either forgot or ignored Book of Boba Fett…understandable motivation. But why not place enough faith in your audience for Mando to say something that even sounds remotely natural, like “I did bring Grogu to his kind, but he chose the way of the Mandalore over the way of the Force. (looks at Grogu) I suppose I’ll be his teacher after all.” That is enough to give the basic idea of what went down with the kid for the lucky audience members who did miss “The Book”. The helmet plotline can wait until later, Greef literally could give a crap about that part at least, he just wanted to know how Baby Yoda is doing!
Later in the season, Bo-Katan has now spent all of two episodes cosplaying as one of Mando’s know-nothing cultists and, after leading an attack against a single inept pirate crew and professing to have seen what is basically a Sasquatch, the Armorer is ready to go all in:
“Our people have strayed from the way, and it is not enough for a few to walk it. We must walk the way together. All Mandalorians”
“I understand”Armorer and Bo-Katan
What’s that Starbuck? You do? Maybe I’ve got too much Beskar in my own brain, but these water-shootin’ Mandalorians all seemed to think that those who didn’t follow their silly traditions were big fakers anyway. If the Armorer thinks that “The Way” can involve taking the helmet off then I think she owes some folks an apology. At the very least, Bo-Katan’s first response should have been “ok, by decree of me, the Mando Queen, please stop being weirdos and take your helmets off when you aren’t actively fighting dudes, IT CREEPS ME THE F OUT!”
“Oh…that’s the line? Alright…”
A brief aside on helmets
Ok, before I move on to the most singular example of cringe dialogue, I have to say this. The helmet thing was…weird, but fine enough I guess…for exactly two seasons. When Mando took it off to say goodbye to little Grogu after Luke’s hallway scene, I for one thought it was genuinely touching! I am not a parent myself, but I would think the mood is reminiscent of the kind of melancholic warmth someone feels when their clearly terrified child is headed to their first day of school. I know not everyone reacted to this the same way…but there’s a secret that I’m going to share with you, a secret about why I was able to feel these emotions during that scene.
Ok, shhh, here it is.
THAT I COULD SEE HIS F$#%ING FACE WHEN HE WAS TALKING.
This is not rocket science, faces convey feelings and through those expressions the audience can experience sympathy and maybe even (gasp) empathy! I remember seeing that moment for the first time very clearly, it was right after a night shift at the height of the pandemic, and I thought to myself “wow, this show actually might have a brighter future than I thought if we’re going to be able to see Pedro from now on. It’s good to see that his character has grown past his cult upbringing in order to share a moment with his pseudo-son, nice to see some real dynamism!”
Tragically, it was not to be. Ten minutes after he first appears in Book of Boba Fett the Mandalorian is already moping his way back to the Armorer and Paz, who for some reason were bumming it alone at the bottom of this space station (what were they even doing???) and his personal growth recedes in an instant. Since he looked into Grogu’s cute little eyes, we haven’t seen Pedro Pascal’s actual, quite handsome, face. It’s a ridiculous and completely avoidable “predicament.”
What’s worse is that they flubbed another opportunity for us to rid ourselves of this ridiculous plotline in the sequence between the armorer and Bo-Katan above. Imagine if Emily Swallow had removed her helmet during the conversation, then they walked out together to give everyone a shared excuse to put their silly, awkward tradition behind them. But nope, we had to sit through the manufactured drama of hats vs. skins leading up to a literal petty squabble because one guy thought the other was cheating at Holo-Legion (as it turns out, Axe Woves just hadn’t been keeping up with the rules forum). And so, here we are, doomed to at least another season where the lead will continue to be completely unrelatable.
“LEMME AT HIM, I SAW HIM TAKE A CLAIM ACTION WITH A MORTAR”
It’s the writing, stupid It’s still the stupid writing: “The Worst Order”
Luckily for Pedro Pascal and his prosopagnosic pals, the worst dialogue of the season didn’t involve them at all.
In a conversation that probably implicates Filoni just as much as Favreau, we see “The Shadow Council,” which is basically a more-mundane (but somehow cornier) Legion of Doom, meet up as a bunch of holograms…and, it’s something. If you want to follow along go to the 5 minute mark of Episode 7:
Pellaeon is bickering with a budget Harkonnen type about getting too much attention, then your fifth grade music teacher speaks up about how there’s a silent majority of people who are sick of all the “rules and regulations,” which is a complete non-sequitor. Another gentleman who hasn’t realized that you have to take the plastic wrapping off the beard trimmer for it to work properly says that they just need to show a little strength and then they’ll just start signing up to be stormtroopers or whatever. Pellaeon tries to get on topic by mentioning that Disney is shifting towards Thrawn starting with the next mini-series but Gideon is concerned about his screen-time prospects and starts big-dogging ol’ Pelly. The viewer is then briefly distracted by trying to figure out how they got a guy that reminds us so much of Domhnall Gleeson without actually being him (It’s his brother! Legit good choice Favs, that’s one point for you!) and then is thrust back into the stupidity with the mention of “Project Necromancer.”
How mysterious!…Said no one, but Gideon keeps up the pressure by suggesting that Thrawns aren’t real and says that he should be in charge! We’re then treated to sixty agonizing seconds of Gideon and Hux bickering about how many points can be spent on his army to defend against the Mandalorians, stretching every half sentence out into oblivion. For every unit Gideon adds, we get a new scoff from Hux or a harrumph from Pellaeon. Finally, as our collective fingers hover over the power button on our Disney Plus device of choice, we are treated to a forced and comical group performance of “Long Live the Empire.”
Imagine having to stand for an entire conference call!
Seriously, watch it again if you don’t believe me. It’s about as tense, enjoyable, and kind to the stomach as a macaroni salad that’s been left out in the sun for a day. There is obviously quite a lot of room for camp in Star Wars, but forgive me if I ask that we can aim higher than “Bulk and Skull” level villainy. Giancarlo Esposito is a skilled enough actor, and having enough fun, that he rescues all this from total depravity, but I shudder to think what’s next now that he’ll no longer buoy the show with his unique charisma.
A Tano Skepticism for the Future
Despite all the flaws above, I’d be foolish not to give credit where it’s due to the action scenes, which were generally very good and paired with really nice looking CGI. Lest we forget, the original Iron Man was an excellent movie whose success launched a multibillion dollar franchise, he’s very capable of being in charge of something great, he should maybe just let others sweat a few more of the details. I can only hope that Favreau can have the foresight to stick to being the director and ideas man, after all when Lucas agreed to do this we got The Empire Strikes Back. Until then, however, we’ve got another show to consider…
This shot was filmed at Newark Airport as a cost-saving measure, they didn’t need to change anything in the set
As we clean up the slop from this failed creation, I have my eye on Dave Filoni, wondering what schemes he has kept in his ten-gallon hat. He is reportedly the sole writing credit on the entire season (series, probably) of Ahsoka. This could be to the show’s advantage, since the title character’s dialogue will almost certainly mesh well with her characterization in the cartoons at the very least. We don’t know yet what “Filoni’s monster” will look like, but let’s face it: if it walks on its own two legs it will already be a massive improvement over this bag o’ bones.