‘The Mandalorian’ is compelling in its minimalism

Wednesday, November 20, 2019 - 5:58pm

NOSELL

Disney

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the very conception of morality was a defined line. There was good and evil. The long lost Jedis and the Galactic Empire. Luke Skywalker and Emperor Palpatine. Mixed into this was a rich mythology, deepening with each installment. The saga filled itself with imaginative creatures and species — with more and more heroes. But “The Mandalorian” is not about heroes.

A space-western, “The Mandalorian” follows a masked bounty hunter who wanders the far reaches of the galaxy. The unnamed protagonist belongs to the Mandalorians — a mercenary warrior people who describe themselves as a “tribe.” The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal, “Game of Thrones”) takes an under-the-table bounty, which leads him to a suspicious solicitor with ties to the now-defunct authoritarian military regime, the Galactic Empire. He’s looking for a dangerous creature, fifty years old and unnamed. All the Mandalorian is given is a tracking device. The bounty is to be brought back alive. The tracker takes the Mandalorian to Arvala-7, where he’s rescued from Blurggs by a vapor farmer named Kuiil (Nick Nolte, “Angel Has Fallen”). But this bounty proves dangerous indeed. More than that, though, it’s not what he thought it was at all.

The Mandalorian clearly exists on the vast moral spectrum of the ever-expanding Star Wars universe. He is willing to kill a number of people in a bar in the very opening scene and is disposed to eradicating an entire town of people, if it happens to be the case that they’re also shooting at him. The Mandalorian has an uncompromising sense of objective. But his complicated bounty makes him question his complicated principles. He has little personality and can’t take off his helmet, due in part to his religion as a Mandalorian. Still, he’s given voice and agency through actions, be them subtle or violent.

There were moments where I was certain “The Mandalorian” would suffer from its reliance on its own mythology, yet it manages to maintain the delicate balance of engaging its audiences in a world both foreign and familiar. The show — taking place five years after the events of “Return of the Jedi” and before “The Force Awakens” — nods to a universally beloved trilogy to orient itself while also successfully embracing the hidden details of that trilogy in order to explore bolder, more ambiguous themes.

However, it is the western plot that propels “The Mandalorian” forward. The show is very minimalist, relying more on atmosphere and arid landscapes — both frigid and blazing — as backdrops. The technology is there, but it takes a backseat, allowing character, environment and creature to forge the ambience. Aided by twangy, distant guitars and beating drums, the lonelier scenes are gripping and intense.

The most compelling element of “The Mandalorian” is the bounty itself. Perhaps it’s already been spoiled, but I refuse to wreck the twists and turns. I will say that the bounty is both puzzling and wonderful, almost demanding to see its arc carried through. The fact is that “The Mandalorian” is bold and confident. For having slim, fast-paced episodes (that are almost too short), the show is very willing to take its time, to ponder its setting and consequences. In the first two episodes, viewers are given hints of a grim past, of questions of ancestry, integrity and principle. In the absence of Jedis and Darth Vaders, all that remains are people, all with questionable morals, struggling to make it through the economic ruin of a collapsed government in a galaxy far, far away. “The Mandalorian” is less about science fiction. It’s about who we think we are and what we might do if that’s called into question.